Eight Books to Read Over the Christmas Break

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Ana Kinsella shares some festive suggestions worth spending your precious reading hours on, from recent titles to old gems

Like everyone else, I look forward to the uninterrupted reading time provided by the festive period all year. It’s like the whole world turns into the most chaotic library, where everyone is trying frantically to finish the best books of 2019 in the midst of a whirlpool of distractions ranging from family and friends, to Netflix boxsets and a lot of brandy butter. If you’re planning on curling up in a quiet corner of your parents’ living room with a good book, then cheers to you and your good intentions. And if you’re in need of some festive suggestions worth spending your precious reading hours on, I’ve got your back. Here’s a mix of the best books of this year, plus some perennial gems to dive into when all the turkey and shouting get to be too much.


1. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Racking up an armful of awards, An American Marriage is centred on a miscarriage of justice that separates young couple Celestial and Roy with damning consequences. While the novel handles contemporary issues like race relations and the American justice system with precision and sensitivity, it is also a story that feels timeless and universal in a way that makes it a compelling read that lingers long in the mind.

2. Astro Poets: Your Guides to the Zodiac by Alex Dimitrov and Dorothea Lasky

Perhaps you, like me, have hit the wall with all things astrological – there are only so many major character flaws that can be blamed on being a Sagittarius. And yet something in me is still looking for answers, since midwinter is a time of self-reflection. You might find those answers in Astro Poets, the zodiac primer from New York poets Alex Dimitrov and Dorothea Lasky. Whether or not you believe in all of it, there’s much insight to be found in their velvety prose, packed with pop culture references that might help you to situate yourself in a bigger, more mystical picture.

3. How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

Picture this. You’re several days into the endless stretch between Christmas Day and New Year’s. You’ve run out of Quality Street and there’s nothing good on Netflix. You’re starting to feel... guilty? About not being productive? Bad vibe! To soothe these feelings, you find yourself scrolling through Instagram until there’s nothing left. Stop! You needn’t feel this way. Why not? Read the brilliant How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell’s manifesto for a new way of looking at our horrible world – it will explain everything.

4. Exhalation by Ted Chiang

What’s more of an escape than speculative fiction? This was my favourite short story collection of 2019, from the author whose previous tales include the basis for the Oscar-winning film Arrival. With an imagination like dynamite, Chiang draws dark visions of alternate worlds – some of which are a little too close for comfort.

5. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

Probably my book of the year, Ben Lerner’s third novel is a work of genius that delves into toxic masculinity, rap battles, parenting, US politics and the limits of language. But the author does it with a deftness that can dazzle, dragging you with him through the eye of the storm. Lerner can pull all this off because his novels merge together two separate things – individual subjective experience, and the universal – in a way that hasn’t been done so well since Virginia Woolf.

Older gems:

6. Capital by John Lanchester

There’s something Dickensian about John Lanchester’s sprawling epic that traces the movement of money around London through the residents of a single south London street. All of life is here, from the bankers to the Banksy-style artists and the teen footballers. It’s an absolute hoot, and long enough to really lose yourself in.

7. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Any time someone tells me they’re going on a long train journey, I try to press The Cazalet Chronicles on them. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s five fat volumes, telling the story of a posh English merchant family and the people around them during and after World War II, are books to disappear into. If you’re looking for a distraction from a household of Christmas chaos, sink into the relatively sedate dramas of the Cazalet household instead.

8. The Green Road by Anne Enright

Anne Enright, the doyenne of modern Irish literature, centres The Green Road around a family reunion at Christmas, which proves (obviously) trying for the extended Madigan clan. But rather than relying on the emotional drama and sibling dynamics, it’s the smallest things that she renders in stunning accuracy – the big Christmas food shop, the doctor’s waiting rooms, the airport pick-ups – that make this novel such a masterpiece of everyday family life.