I think, at heart, I am Icelandic. Because in Iceland, on Christmas Eve, books are exchanged and everyone snuggles up to read and eat chocolates. Sounds like bliss, right? There is no gift that makes me happier than a book. To give books, to receive books. And shopping for books is pure pleasure; a book never makes your bum look big. Unless it’s a Nigella Lawson cookbook…
So here’s a list of some of the books I’d love to find in my stocking this Christmas. Some fiction, some memoir, some fun – hopefully something for everyone.
A Book Lover’s Gift List: Fiction
Amor Towles’ first book, Rules of Civility was a big hit with The Expat Book Club. His latest novel, set in 1920s Moscow, tells the story of a man who is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by the Bolsheviks, and ordered to spend the rest of his life under house arrest – at a luxury hotel opposite the Kremlin.
This book is a New York Times bestseller and Ann Patchett (author of the brilliant Commonwealth) said this of it: “The book is like a salve. I think the world feels disordered right now. The count’s refinement and genteel nature are exactly what we’re longing for.”
Doesn’t that just make you want to red it right now? Don’t we all need a salve, especially at Christmas time?
The winner of the 2017 Booker Prize, I can’t believe I haven’t yet read this. Interesting Booker fact…the prize was only open to Americans three years ago. And an American has won the past two years (if you haven’t yet read Paul Beatty’s The Sellout add it to your list – it’s a corker…a scathing, hilarious, brilliant satire about America).
From the publisher: ‘The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body. From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul’.
I have been waiting with anticipation for this novel – I loved A Visit From The Goon Squad. Manhattan Beach is set in New York during the Second World War but, interestingly, its focus is on the water (not what you really think of when you think of NYC..) and its heroine, Anna, works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She becomes the first female diver, repairing ships as part of the war effort.
That on its own makes me want to read it. But then there’s this, from the publisher:
‘With the atmosphere of a noir thriller, Egan’s first historical novel follows Anna and Styles into a world populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men. Manhattan Beach is a deft, dazzling, propulsive exploration of a transformative moment in the lives and identities of women and men, of America and the world.’ Not sure I can wait for my Christmas stocking for this one!
There is a lot of buzz about this book at the moment, and it was recently championed by Reese Witherspoon, who has a good knack for choosing books that make fabulous films (Big Little Lies anyone? Ok, I know it was a TV series and not a film but still…it was great viewing).
From the publisher: ‘Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster’.
I was a bit late to the party with My Name is Lucy Barton which I only read recently. I read it in (almost) a single sitting. The good thing about reading books ages after they come out is that it means you have to wait less time before you get to devour the next one…such is the case here and, even better, this latest novel features the main character of the previous one, Lucy Barton.
From the publisher: ‘Here are two sisters: One trades self-respect for a wealthy husband while the other finds in the pages of a book a kindred spirit who changes her life. The janitor at the local school has his faith tested in an encounter with an isolated man he has come to help; a grown daughter longs for mother love even as she comes to accept her mother’s happiness in a foreign country; and the adult Lucy Barton (the heroine of My Name Is Lucy Barton, the author’s celebrated New York Times bestseller) returns to visit her siblings after seventeen years of absence’.
We read Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist with my Bangkok book club. It’s one of the very few books I have read that is written entirely in the second person – and it is a brilliant, challenging and thought provoking read.
Exit West is a novel for our times – a visionary tale of what it takes for people to uproot and move away from their homes and into uncertainty.
From the publisher: ‘In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. . . .’
A Book Lover’s Gift List: Memoir
I am a big fan of Maggie O’ Farrell (I am, I am, I am!!) ever since I read her debut After You’d Gone – a book that stays with you long after you’ve read it. I’ve read everything of hers since, and am looking forward to reading this memoir which promises to be beautifully written and illuminating.
The fact that the title is from one of my all-time favourite books makes me want to read it all the more:
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
A lot of people have recommended this book on The Expat Book Club. Paul Kalanithi was 36 years old and on the brink of practicing as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Even just writing this up has made me get teary – but this, I think, sounds like a book we should all read. Perhaps with a box of kleenex nearby.
‘Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both’.
This is not a memoir, but a series of essays based on Morrison’s 2016 Norton lectures at Harvard. Morrison reflects on the themes that have dominated her writing. These themes – race, fear, borders, the mass movement of peoples, the desire for belonging – are also dominating world politics and are important for all of us.
A friend here in Germany is a big fan of Bené Brown and has just read this book. While she was reading she kept sending me little snippets which made me want to read it too. Bené Brown is a social scientist and author of several bestselling books. These aren’t memoirs, but not self-helps books either.
This book in particular, which is a about belonging, is surely worth a read for any expat?
This quote made me want to read more of this book: “True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are.”
A Book Lover’s Gift List: Beautiful Books
As Keats so perfectly put it, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’.
And yes I am swayed by the cover of books…and I do have a fantasy of a gorgeous bookcase lines with these beautiful editions of the classics. But I’d have to keep my old dog-eared copies too…
I think this edition of The Picture of Dorian Grey would make me want to redecorate an entire room. These beautiful clothbound editions are by Penguin. I spotted these in Waterstones in the UK but they are also stocked on Amazon.
A Book Lover’s Gift List: Perfect for the Expats in Your Life!
This book is such a joy! It’s beautiful collection of over 50 illustrations of words that don’t have direct English translations. Often these words provide insight into the cultures they come from, such as the Brazilian Portuguese word for running your fingers through a lover’s hair, the Italian word for being moved to tears by a story, or the Swedish word for a third cup of coffee.
Food and cooking is so integral to the feeling of ‘home’. Yes, cookbooks take up a lot of space, but I wouldn’t part with my Nigella collection which are as much about the pleasure of reading as the pleasure of cooking. And yes, I am that person that often has a stack of cookbooks on their bedside table…
This is a cute set for anyone on the move – a travel journal, a set of themed pencils and 8 ‘thank you for the adventure’ cards. EUR 15.95
Yes I prefer real books – the look of them, the feel of them, the smell of them. But it’s hard to have a huge book collection when you’re always on the move.
Buying a kindle can be confusing as there are lots of options, but the Paperwhite is the one I would go for every time. It’s lightweight, the resolution on the screen is excellent and it doesn’t glare in the sunlight – which means you can read it at the beach! The light from this means that reading at bedtime doesn’t keep me awake (unlike when I read on my phone) and the battery lasts for ages.
There is also the Kindle Voyage, which is more expensive but has an adaptive light and is thinner and lighter. And you just press the button to turn the page. Worth the extra 60 GBP? Well, I’d rather get the Paperwhite and spend that money on books…
Also, remember when you buy you can choose ‘with special offers’ or w’without’. Without costs more, but it means you won’t get adverts on your kindle when it’s in sleep mode.
Hope this list is helpful – happy shopping and happy reading!
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