An Alternative Christmas Reading List

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


Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

28 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Your thoughtful post struck a chord with me, as my Dad and I were the serious readers in the family (my mum reads, but not the stuff we would….) Although he’s still with us, he had a couple of strokes a few years back and lost much of his language. I still feel sad when I see books he would have read in the past. This can be a dark time of year too, so I hope you manage to have a peaceful and happy festive season. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. To be honest, I always tell people NOT to get me books for Xmas or any other type of present-giving event. First of all when they do, they always either give me books I already have, or books I have no interest in reading (I remember once an ex bf gave me a collection of ‘young-adult’ romance stories – you know the kind soppy 13 year olds read while dreaming of Mr Perfect… and I was OMG is THIS who he thinks I am?). Secondly for me, books are like lingerie – only I know my exact size and taste, and no matter how well-wishing a book/lingerie giver might be, he will never hit the spot as it should ;p

    Apart from that – very interesting list! 🙂


    • You’re so right with your books/lingerie comparison – no one wants red nylon cheap scratchy undies (I suspect only men buy red undies!) Anyway…yes, my dad and I are the readers in the family – my sister and mum, totally not. Last week I met him and my mum to give him his birthday present – the Times Atlas of the World and a Times History of the World book, as his old one’s from the 80s. My mum instantly exclaimed, “More books!” But she has kept every single one from our childhoods and my teenage years (my sister stopped reading, except for school, at around 8!) It makes mum sound like a hoarder, but they are neatly boxed and stored, as she is lucky enough to have the space…I might dig into them when I’m there, that could be an interesting blog entry! Lots of Blyton and Chalet School books!


  3. great post. and sad, too. i had a lump in my throat when i read “I’ve now spent four Christmases without him, but I still pick out the books that I would love to be buying for him.” Great list; thank you for including the Auster. I am not familair with the Durcan poem, but must now look for it (as you know, I am not a fan of his at all, but this one sounds like it might be worth it). All the best to you and yours for Christmas. Nxxx

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is my kind of Christmas reading! The happy stories always feel sappy and predictable. I love the dark, gritty, and often more real stories. Thanks for this list, and Happy Holidays to you and your family! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I lost my dad shortly after Christmas 2005, and I miss him terribly. The books he gave me over the years will always hold a treasured spot on my shelf, right next to the books that I gave him that found their way back to me. I imagine him in a place where he can read ALL the books… his paradise. 🙂
    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lovely post, Cathy. A little like you, I often find myself drawn to stories of loners, those on the fringes, tales with a melancholy tone. The loss of my own loved ones is a factor here, I’m sure. How fitting to remember your father through books, though.

    Funnily enough, I’m reading Truman Capote’s Complete Stories right now, and A Christmas Memory is beautiful, such a heart-rending story. Wishing you all the best for Christmas. x

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting selection of books. I love reading Christmas themed novels but I’ve never read the dark side of Christmas books. Maybe I’ll pick one up for next year. Merry Christmas


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