So many books, so little time! Reading can be one of life’s sweetest luxuries. But how to quickly find the next great volume to dive into? To lend a hand, every month we’ll share our Dandelion Chandelier Recommended Reads: books that we’ve personally read and loved – some brand new, and some published long ago. Selected to suit the season, we think they deserve a place on your nightstand. Or your e-reader. In your backpack. Or your carry-on bag. You get the idea.
December is filled with festivals of light. All over the world, in many disparate cultures, people will gather to beat back the darkness with candles, fireworks, and lanterns released into the night sky. It’s also filled with music and dance – choirs and orchestras and rock bands; Sugar Plum Fairies and Rockettes and angels. There will be receiving and giving – gestures of gratitude, love, forgiveness and hope. There will be attempts at seductions of all kinds — some passionately overt and some as subtle as a discreet sprig of mistletoe. It’s the most popular month for people to get engaged. But it can also be a time of sadness, loneliness and disappointment. Of stress, fatigue and grief. Holidays can remind us of our regrets and failures as easily as they can help us recall the brightest moments of our lives. So what is the perfect reading list in December? We think it should encompass the world.
Here at Dandelion Chandelier, as the year draws to a close our wanderlust starts to rise, and we’re drawn to books set in foreign lands: India, Nigeria, the Amazon and Seattle. On a winter night, we like to read poetry. Toss in a sexy smart romance; a tale of family; and a hero’s journey (a real one, because we’re seeking inspiration and guidance for our own journey in the New Year; and BTW, let’s make it a heroine’s journey). Hidden treasures, happy surprises, heartbreak and the start of something new. That’s December: skiing and sand; intimate gatherings and solitary reflection; raucous and serene; candlelight and starlight; an end and a beginning.
Here are 10 books that pair perfectly with December: for reading under the tree, or by the fire, or apres-ski. Under an umbrella on the beach; on the plane; on the way to the concert or on the way home. It’s time for the accountants to close the books for the year, and for us to open one of these.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. This brilliant novel wins our prize for the “most December” book on our list. Zany, frantic, and eventful and filled with peer pressure, family angst, trust issues and a wild desire to escape. Plus snow and ice. What could be more December than that? It’s a guaranteed good time and this was the novel that launched Maria Semple’s deservedly stellar career as a novelist.
The Power by Naomi Alderman is an eerily prescient sci-fi novel that is directly relevant for recent headlines about powerful men and their treatment of women. Mysteriously, suddenly, inexplicably, teenage girls and women have immense physical power. With a flick of their fingers, they can cause great pain, and even death. And that enables them to flip the patriarchy upside down. It’s an alternate reality that raises profound questions: what would the world be like if women were the physically dominant gender? Would they wield their power any differently than men have? The book is being hailed as “this generation’s The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the great Margaret Atwood endorses it on the cover. Read it and then plan to discuss. For a long time.
Euphoria by Lily King. A cold month calls for a hot climate and a steamy love story. King delivers both, plus an erudite examination of the early days of anthropology and its techniques. This tale of two married social scientists and the man who encounters them in a remote Amazon village is a romantic triangle, a meditation on culture, and a deeply moving account of the ways in which love can wreck us, transform us, and set us on a new course.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. This lovely novel is both highly topical and timeless. It’s the tale of two young people – Saeed and Nadia – who are living in a city rocked by civil war. Nadia is spirited and tough – Saeed sensitive and devout. When they begin a love affair, they’re quickly forced to decide whether to stay or go – with each other, and with their homeland. They become refugees through a metaphorical door, and their journey becomes a way to intimately understand what it means to be a refugee. We have always loved Hamid’s work – his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is incredible. Short-listed for the Mann Booker Prize this year, this is a must-read for those seeking to understand the currents at work in the wider world, and who want to engage in thinking through what it means to be a neighbor.
Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga is also a wrenching tale set in a heated climate, both socially and meteorogically. In Mumbai, the residents of a dilapidated apartment building have been made an offer they cannot refuse by a shady real estate developer: sell out so that he can build a shiny new complex on the site. The catch? Every resident must agree to the deal, and grieving widower and retired schoolteacher Masterji, who has also lost his daughter, decides to hold out. The epic battle that transpires illuminates the deep social conflicts in a rapidly-developing society; the enduring weight of personal loss; and the surprising lengths to which one might go when everything important seems to be at stake. The Booker Prize–winning author of The White Tiger, as well as xx other novels, Adiga writes heart-breakingly gorgeous prose. If you want to be transported, this is your vehicle. Just pack tissues.
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi is also a tale of immigration, family and the irresistible lure of home. In this debut novel, renowned surgeon Kweku Sai and his family have moved from Africa to Baltimore to accommodate his job. When he suddenly disappears, leaving the family stranded, it falls to his wife Fola to raise their four children and come to terms with this profound abandonment. The story moves between Accra, Lagos, London, Baltimore and New York, and between what becomes of each of the family members. The lush prose and deeply-felt characterizations make for a truly lovely read.
Outline by Rachel Cusk is a more austere but equally penetrating novel that is the perfect travel companion (we read it on a trip to Greece, and it’s indelibly intertwined with our experiences there). It’s the story of an unnamed narrator – a British writer who travels to Athens to teach a writing course. She has just gone through a devastating divorce, and her two sons are in London with their father. She’s deeply mourning the loss of her family life, and while we don’t get a description of her, we begin to intuit who she is as we read of ten interactions with her students, friends, fellow travelers and the denizens of Athens. It’s a fantastic read, the winner of several notable awards and featured on many “best of” lists, including the New York Times and The New Yorker. It’s the first of three-part series of novels featuring the same protagonist.
Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer. We discovered this historical novel in a bookstore in Cambridge, Mass and were initially drawn to it by its lush cover (we’re suckers for sapphire blue and black, what can we say?) Happily, in this case, we accurately judged the book by its cover – it’s a fictionalized account of the young Florence Nightingale and her accidental encounters with the equally young novelist Gustave Flaubert as both are exploring the Nile River in 1850. In real life, the two were in the region at the same time. It’s not known if they actually met, but this smart and wildly romantic novel makes us wish and hope that they did.
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. A winter’s day or evening is the perfect time for poetry, and this novel about a poet with writer’s block is the perfect way to ease into reading an actual book of poetry. Paul Chowder is living in New England and trying to write the introduction to a new anthology of rhyming verse. He’s failing miserably, struggling with credit card debt and losing the love of his life, Roz, in the process. He elucidates the basic principles of poetry as he wrestles with these challenges (he’s also trying to clean up his desk, and we all know how impossibly difficult that is). It’s a gentle and cerebral companion for any adventure you may have planned this month. You’ll come away smarter and more optimistic when the journey is done.
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy is the Hidden Figures of this year. Written by a former reporter at the Washington Post who’s the author of three other books about the experiences of women, it’s the non-fiction account of the little-known teams of female code-crackers assembled during the Second World War. Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy from small towns and elite colleges, more than ten thousand women served as codebreakers during the conflict. Their work helped shorten the war, and saved thousands of lives by breaking the codes of the German and Japanese armed forces. In some cases, men were given credit for their work. Some remained in government service when the war ended, and one – English-major-cum-math-prodigy Ann Caracristi – became the first woman to serve as deputy director of the NSA. A strict vow of secrecy had kept average Americans unaware of their contributions until now. It’s a classic “hero’s journey” starring intrepid women that will inspire us all as we prepare to launch into a new year.
There you have it. Ten books that can travel with you, or be a key part of your stay-cation. They’re as complex and involving as the month of December itself. And if your desire is, as Virginia Woolf advised, to only connect – then one or more of these will fuel that quest.
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