Friday, November 7, 2008

Books in Season: Some Ideas for What to Read When

Some books just seem to fit better with certain times of year than others. Much like how you don't even want to see that chenille sweater in July, or how your favorite pair of sandals looks alien and suspect in February, some books just have a better effect when they're "in season." Here are some of mine, starting with this time of year and working around the calendar.


This is the time of year when you're starting to turn your attention back inside. The temperature is dropping along with the leaves, and it's a good time for books about family and home. While Alice Munro is good any time of year, a lot of her stories are particularly wonderful in the fall.


My traditional Thanksgiving-week read has been Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo. The story is set between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve. With the economic downturn this year, it might resonate in particular with people who don't feel like they have a whole lot to be thankful for, since most of the characters in the story feel the same way. The main character is forced back to work on a bad knee at sixty, against the advice of everyone who knows him. His boss has his cheating ways catch up with him and winds up sleeping on Sully's couch. Sully's landlady continues to battle aging and loneliness and her concern both over her adult son and over the way she feels towards him. Sully's son has his marriage, his affair and his career blow up in the space of less than a month. You might read it and sympathize with the characters, or be thankful you're not as bad off as most of them.

For nonfiction, this is also a good time for some colonial history, with the pilgrims and all. I feel like a hypocrite suggesting A Little Commonwealth by John Demos, as it's been TBR for so long, but it is a classic in the genre. I started Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Good Wives and the new Tony Horowitz book, both about colonial America, and I'll let you know how they turn out. I can definitely vouch for The Island at the Center of The World, however.


Does anyone else watch the made-for-TV production of A Child's Christmas in Wales every year? It stars Denholm Elliot in this wonderful adaptation of the Dylan Thomas short story. My parents have it on VHS, and I'm not sure if it's ever been released on DVD or even if it's still shown on TV, but it's wonderful. It is a virtual word-for-word translation of this beautiful and simple short story. I reccommend the both the short story and the TV version, if you can find it.

Of course, if you want bloodier and more dramatic fare, people tend to forget and it's easy to miss, but Hamlet is technically a Christmas story.


In New York State, where winter is long, cold and dark, it's an excellent time of year for projects. If you've always wanted to read War and Peace, well, what else is there to do? It's not like you'll be going to the beach anytime soon. If there's a classic you've missed somewhere along the way, it's a good time to pick it up. I read Charles Dickens' Great Expectations a few winters ago and was surprised by its humor and accessibility. I liked it so much that I started David Copperfield but wound up abandoning it for some stupid reason. This winter, I think I'll pick it up again.

There are plenty of more modern projects out there, too. I just wrote about Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs. Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter and Jeffery Eugenides' Middlesex are two other good winter projects.

Winter is also a good time to pick up a series. It gives you something to look forward to other than a 3:00 sunset and the next day the temperature's projected to rise above freezing. Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series is one of the most inventive and funny things I've ever read. Don't be put off by the fact that it's in the "mysteries" department. Thursday Next is a detective who works with and inside of books. Her mentor is Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, who wears sneakers with her tattered wedding dress and likes to race cars in her spare time. One of the books has her spending time with Hamlet, who was quite excited to learn that Mel Gibson had played him in a movie version and wanted to know if Danny Glover played Horatio. It's perfect for lifting the spirits of a book lover during the winter.


I'm not terribly religious and never have been. To me, Easter means dyed eggs and ham and a new dress. But if you're seeking a spiritual dimension to this time of year, any of Anne Lamott's books on religion do it well. They're a fresh antidote to the smug, self-righteous brand of Christianity that's been on display everywhere in this country for the past few decades, the brand that tries to ban sex education and Harry Potter books from the schools. Anne Lamott presents herself as a deeply flawed person who found meaning and direction in faith. She lives the teachings of Christianity, volunteering at prisons and soup kitchens. But she swears, she loses her patience, she continues to struggle to stay sober, and she chronicles all of that too. She never tries to shove things down the reader's throat, or present religion as the cure to ills, she just says "This is what has helped me."


Epic fail. I've been sitting here for a while trying to think of a good spring book. It should be easy, given that this is the time of year associated with optimism and renewal. But dammit, I just can't think of a single book that seems to resonate more this time of year. If anyone has any, feel free to pipe up!


Ahhhhhh...back in easy territory. Warm weather, long nights, hands-down the favorite time of year for most. While the easy answer would be anything chick lit, I do have a couple of other portable reccomendations. Two classics, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Jack Kerouac's On The Road, are in season this time of year. The Great Gatsby also works for a Labor Day weekend read, as that's where the arc of the story ends. Less portable, but also in season, is Ross Lockridge Jr.'s epic novel Raintree County. It was his only book, as he killed himself shortly after it was published. At 1000+ pages, it would seem more of a winter read than a summer read, but the feel is off. This is decidedly a summer story, imbued with fireflies and lemonade and fireworks.

If you want to keep it light, anything by Jennifer Weiner is good. I'd also reccommend a good, trashy biography of someone famous. And none that I've read can hold a candle to Motley Crue's The Dirt. It doesn't matter if you don't even like their music. It's understandable, their music was never very good. But if you like reading about sex, drugs, alcohol and band drama, there's just no way to top this book. Warning: not for the easily offended. Having said that, if you find nothing about this book offensive, you should seek help immediately. But if you don't want to go the sex, drugs, and rock n roll route, Lillian Gish's A Life on Stage and Screen is fascinating for a different reason. Gish was the first famous screen actress and helped build the industry. If you're looking for sex, drugs and hissy fits, you won't find them here. Gish seemingly led as peaceful and happy a life as a celebrity can (and if she didn't, she wasn't telling). But it's an interesting story of the evolution of movies from the inside, and also a different take on the racist film The Birth of a Nation.


I've saved the best for last. Obviously, at this time of year you can't go wrong with a good Edgar Allen Poe short story. My recent read The Historian would work well as both a Halloween and a winter read. But there's one book that I'm convinced is actually haunted, that I probably shouldn't mention at this time of year.

The Devil in the White City was the "It" book a few years back. Written by Erik Larson, it told overlapping stories of the organization and presentation of the Chicago World's Fair, and the tale of the remarkably evil H.H. Holmes. Holmes is a killer straight out of a horror movie. In anticipation of the World's Fair, he built a large a lure for his victims. It was rife with secret passages and had vats of acid in the basement for easy disposal of the bodies afterwards.

A lot of strange little incidents happened to me while I was reading this book. I heard something in the attic over my office when no work was going on in the building, and I heard something trying to get into my apartment, but found no evidence of it upon investigating. And, one night, I felt something drawing the covers away from my face at night. I could also feel something standing over me. If you decide to read this book, read it with some kind of protection. And I'd reccomend staying away from it during Halloween. After all, why tempt fate?

No comments: