Christmas and books go hand in hand for me. Not because I read a lot of Christmas themed books, but because my Dad and I would judge the success of our Christmas gift haul on the number of books we had been given. There was never any question that I wouldn’t buy him a book or be bought one in return. I’ve now spent four Christmases without him, but I still pick out the books that I would love to be buying for him.
Maybe it’s with this in mind that the books I’ve chosen here feature outsiders, loners and those with broken hearts. Happy Christmases get a lot of press, but I’m drawn to reading about those who don’t have it easy and whose lives are far from perfect.
Maybe this is an anti-Christmas book list, or maybe it just encapsulates my slightly melancholic reaction to the festive season, either way, these are books that capture the truth of Christmas and leave us with the only thing we can hold on to…..hope.
1. Christmas Day by Paul Durcan
Paul Durcan’s book length poem Christmas Day is top of my list because I reread it every year. It was my beloved Dad’s favourite and has become one of mine. With humour and tenderness, Durcan details spending Christmas with his friend Frank, both alone, both trying to make the best of it. He muses on his past, the poem twinkling with precious memories like Christmas lights shining in the dark. It’s funny, moving and melancholic and if you get a chance to hear the audio version read by Durcan himself, then you are in for a treat.
2. Mr Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos
Oscar Hijuelos is most well known for his loud, brash, vibrant novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, but Mr Ives Christmas sees him in quieter, more reflective form. Edward Ives is a good man, who sees the good in others and cherishes his faith. His good life is shattered when his son is shot on the way home from choir practice just before Christmas. Grief stricken, Mr Ives questions everything he thought he knew and this beautiful novel is a compassionate, tender tale of faith, familial love and, above all, forgiveness.
3. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
When we think of Christmas, we can get a bit Chris Rea about it, imagining families coming together for an harmonious, joy- filled holiday. The Lambert children driving home to their mother’s much wished for ‘last Christmas together’ don’t so much have hearts full of cheer as hearts full of dread as they have spent their adult lives getting as far away from home as possible. None of the Lamberts like each other, none are likeable, but this century spanning monster of a book has, at it’s heart, home truths.
4. The Seafarer by Conor McPherson
It is Christmas Eve in the Sharkin house in Dublin, and a group of men, all single, all lonely have come together to see in Christmas Day with whiskey and poker. But it’s not the Baby Jesus who is coming to see them this Christmas Eve, it is the Devil who has, quite literally, come for Sharkey’s soul. McPherson crafts plays with astonishing insight into male loneliness and isolation, the need for humans to tell their stories and for those stories to be heard. As always, McPherson uses the supernatural as a gateway to the spiritual and comedy to highlight the pain of the human condition.
5. Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
When you think of Bret Easton Ellis’s stunning debut (written at the age of 21 while still in college), you don’t really think Christmas. ’80s, drugs, beautiful young people, sunglasses and Los Angeles certainly, but the Festive Season? Not so much. But this is the coldest of books as we follow Clay, returning home after his first semester at college for Christmas, who becomes increasingly disillusioned with his rich, privileged, nihilistic friends. It might be set in the sun, but Less Than Zero has a heart of ice and is the antithesis of everything we believe Christmas to stand for.
6. Put Yourself in my Shoes by Raymond Carver
Raymond Carver’ short story may be set on Christmas Eve, but it has little to do with Christmas. A writer – Myers – and his wife visit their old landlord, who tells them stories in the hope of inspiring Myers to write a book about his tales, yet inadvertantly becomes the tale itself. This musing on storytelling and identity is part of Carver’s masterful collection Where I’m Calling From about which I am a little evangelical 😉
7. Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story by Paul Auster
Paul Auster’s self-referential meta-fiction can grate with some, but who could fail to be charmed by this beautiful illustrated story of a writer who, when asked to write a Christmas story for the New York Times (yes, Auster was), goes to his cigar-selling friend Auggie for advice on how to avoid sentimentalism. Featuring Auster’s traditional story within a story format and beautifully illustrated by Isol, Auggie Wren may not be about a traditional Christmas but it reminds us that the best gifts can come from the most unusual places. A modern classic.
8. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson
Set on New Year’s Eve, but looking back on Christmas, The Little Match Girl is devastating. And please bear in mind that I saw Up for the first time this week, so my threshold for devastating is pretty high. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of a poor girl whose happy memories literally light up her final hours is not for the faint hearted.
9. The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris
The essay that made Sedaris may or may not have really happened, but who cares when it is this damn funny? His story about working as Crumpet The Elf in Macy’s over Christmas, with tantruming children, flirtatious elves and singing Christmas Carols in the style of Billie Holliday, is just hilarious. Like the Paul Durcan, this is best enjoyed heard read by the author himself.
10. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
No one deals with memory, and the rose tint we can add to it, quite like Truman Capote. This short story, originally published in Mademoiselle magazine, focuses on a boy, Buddy and his cousin Sook and their last Christmas together. It may or may not be autobiographical, but it is undoubtedly heartbreaking and a classic I look forward to reading to my kids.
That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven.
Happy Christmas everyone, may your days be merry and bright x