The Holiday Book List You Need Right Now

6 min read

In the midst of the holiday season most of you will (hopefully) be finding a little time to settle in to a good book, be it on a beach, on a plane, or with a cup of hot chocolate. If you’re struggling to wind down, here are a few tips to help you along.

The list below is careful selection of my top five books for 2019.

There is a mix of authors in there, and reading my list back to myself I realise that I have read a lot of female authors.

So, if you are casting around for something new to read during the break, here are my recommendations (in no particular order).

My top 5 books for vacation time

1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This is an immersive, descriptive novel that opened my eyes to Korea and Japan and each of their histories. Read it if, like me, you enjoy long chronicles of family life, spanning a few generations, with carefully etched characters and lives.

Pachinko starts in the early 20th century in Japanese occupied Korea, with a young family that travels to Japan in search of a better life. Lee draws you in with her descriptions of the food cooked by the family and life in the crowded ghettos where the Koreans were forced to live in Japan. She describes fresh tatami mats on neatly swept floors, stews made with vegetables and dried fish, kimchi, pickles and the sheer luxury of eating white rice on your wedding day.

The novel follows the Baek family through until the 1980s, describing life for ethnic Koreans in Japan primarily through the years of World War II and after. I was completely unaware of the discrimination against ethnic Koreans (known as kainichi) in Japan during these years. The book offers an insight into how endemic the bias against the kainichi was in Japan and, to an extent, still is today. The novel is named after the pinball-like arcade game called pachinko, which is played in parlours owned usually by Koreans.

Apart from the fact that this is a rich, well-researched story, it has also made me curious to read up on the region. This book comes recommended in all the major “books of 2017” lists and its place is well-deserved.

vacation books
Top 5 vacation books (496 pp. Grand Central Publishing)

2. The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power won the Bailey’s prize for women’s fiction for 2017. In this science fiction novel, Alderman, mentored by Margaret Atwood, has created a world where women have discovered that they have the ability to discharge electrical jolts through their hands.

Alderman describes it as a genetic mutation that has occurred in young girls and women over time. The novel goes on to describe how this newfound power in women causes panic and disarray in the world, unsurprisingly amongst men and governments. Eventually the new order is established and the question is – How are women going to use the power? How do men survive this new reality?

The novel made me pause to consider how we use physical power to treat those who are less powerful than us. How have men treated women over the centuries by dint of their sheer physical strength? It could, of course, also apply to how other privileges are exercised, like economic power.

The other very interesting question raised in this text is whether women now have a growing power through the #metoo movement? And how are they going to use this power?

In Alderman’s interview to the LA Times about the novel, she said:

“This book, the idea of it, is to start a conversation, not to end a conversation. I don’t have all the answers, but I think if we agree that this [new power] would make a radical difference in the lives of a lot of women, then I think we have discovered something interesting about the world that we all kind of knew but had been ignoring. Which is to say how much of women’s lives are described and circumscribed by the male potential for violence.” 

vacation books
Top 5 vacation books (352 pp. Penguin)

3. Ladder of Years Anne Tyler 

You can read anything by Anne Tyler on a holiday, but my favourite is Ladder of Years. It was published in 1995 and was her 13th novel. I read it a couple of years ago and then re-read bits of it this year.

Delia is a mother of three children, the youngest being a teenager. Her husband is a kindly Doctor. They live in Baltimore, where most of Tyler’s novels are set, and where Tyler herself actually lives.

One day, while on holiday at a beach with her family, Delia goes for a walk and keeps on walking. She starts a new life, in a new town, with a new identity, a new job, living in a small rented room in a boarding-house. How tempting it sounds… to just walk away from one life and into another.

Tyler’s writing is lyrical and appears simple. But her stories are layered, and the characters, men and women, are intelligent and complex. Baltimore always forms a peaceful background, with her stories told in old, comfortable family homes.

Tyler artfully describes middle-class American family life, but these are not simple lives or stories. Ladder of Years examines a woman’s mid-life desire to reinvent herself and start over. But is it really possible to do that? If we leave one set of relationships and obligations, isn’t it just a matter of time before we tie ourselves up with a set of new ones?

vacation books
Top 5 vacation books (326 pp. Alfred A. Knopf)

4. Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

As you might know, Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym and there has been widespread speculation over who Ferrante really is, although she is widely believed to have been unmasked by the New York Review of Books in 2016, a move which was heavily criticised by Ferrante’s readers as unnecessary and an invasion of her privacy.

Days of Abandonment, published in Italian in 2002, predates her more famous books, the Neapolitan Novels. However, for me, it was the book that woke me up to her writing and led me to notice Italian writing.

In Days of Abandonment, Mario tells his wife Olga that he is leaving her. She soon finds out that he is living with his new girlfriend, a much younger woman. The book describes the days that follow Mario’s departure. It starts with Olga’s inability to comprehend that her husband, the father of her children, has ceased to love her.

Through the course of the book, Ferrante brilliantly portrays the frantic churning of an ‘abandoned’ woman’s mind. In fact, I found her writing so furious and unsettling that 50 pages or so in, I had to put the book away for a few days to see if I still wanted to read it. I did pick it up again.

This is not a long book, so it is a good one for a flight or to read in a day or two. (188 pp. Europa Editions)

vacation books
Top 5 vacation books (188 pp. Europa Editions)

5. Ties by Domenico Starnone

If you like Ferrante (and even if you do not), I would recommend Ties, translated from Italian to English by Jhumpa Lahiri. The Italian title is Lacci, which literally means ‘laces’. This book features in The New York Times’ 100 notable books of 2017.

I have read a couple of Lahiri’s books, such as the Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. I was impressed to read that Lahiri, who is not a native Italian speaker or writer but has, impressively, learned enough Italian to actually translate a whole novel. In fact, she has even written a novel of her own in Italian.

Lahiri was approached by Starnone to translate his book. When I read up on Ties, I also discovered that Starnone is Anita Raja’s husband, the same Italian translator who is allegedly the author, Elena Ferrante (see book above).

The story in a nutshell

Ties tells the story of a husband, Aldo, and wife, Vanda, in Italy, aged in their seventies.

The book reveals early on that there had been a stretch of time in their marriage when the husband had left the wife and their two kids for another, much younger, woman. Did he leave because he felt smothered by the ties of marriage and family? He did come back to them eventually, but did he really?

Aldo finds himself examining his life after the couple find that thieves have broken into their apartment while they were at the seaside for the summer. As they try to clean up the mess left behind, their memories and secrets come to the surface. It feels a lot like this is the other half of Days of Abandonment and I am not alone in thinking so. Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation is impressive in how easily it flows. Starnone’s writing is sharp and rich like Ferrante’s, although the pace is less fevered, more reflective, perhaps to suit the passage of years from those days of abandonment.

vacation books
Top 5 vacation books (150 pp. Europa Editions)

Happy holiday reading!

Neeti x

What book are you currently recommending to your friends and what’s on your reading list for 2019? Do you prefer fiction (apparently it makes you smarter)? Share your top titles in the comments below.

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