Here we are, comfortably situated between the end of Channukah and the Twelve Days of Christmas. Being with friends, eating, drinking and helping each other through the fact that the darkness comes over us at three in the afternoon this time of year means so much to me during the holidays—but this year, gatherings are once again being complicated by new COVID variants.
Of course, we can still keep in touch—and send offerings of love to those who mean so much to us. Gifts to me are good conversations, or See’s Chocolates. During this, the second year I’m not sure what the late days of December will mean, I thought I would offer my own recommendations—of books that have meant a great deal to me, and might imbue your own celebrations, virtual or not, with meaning.
New stories are always a worthy gift—because without them, we’re stuck with Moby Dick’s blubber being removed, the highly believable tale of the Virgin Birth, maybe a dabble into how Moses could turn a stick into a snake and back again. Or demeaning crap, like 50 Shades of Are You Fucking Kidding Me.
The common theme in any book I recommend will be that the women, people of color, and LGBTQ characters on the pages are treated with respect. Feminism is my word for that… but choose any you like.
And speaking of: Let me know what books YOU like to give as gifts, or what you think of my own choices, in the comments or on social media!
Two of my all time favorites come from de Beauvoir, and neither are the “Second Sex.” I don’t need to be told about inequality. But de Beauvoir wrote novels that make your teeth dance: she takes on the post WWII French intelligentsia, the Existentialists, pseudo-Marxists, and all-purpose phonies that were her famous circle.
THE MANDARINS tells the story of a group of elite thinkers from those circles. De Beauvoir’s brilliance (which I emulate so much) is her ability to describe very flawed people who don’t know how screwed up they are. She is clear in this book that a good chunk of the French post war intelligentsia was in fact piled high with Vichy (fascist) collaborators who tried to help the Germans during the war. Naming no names, what is most powerful is the intense hypocrisy of some of these Wise Ones. They are not all tarred with one feather, but sure wouldn’t want to be any of them she really blasts open.
A fascinating novel filled with cigarette smoke, brilliant conversation, way too much booze, ditto pills, and ultimately a very human story of trying to be better than you might be as a person.
This second de Beauvoir listing is my favorite book in the world. I don’t think it’s for everybody, but it sure curled my toes. I wrote a play based on the novel and even on stage I could capture some of her magic. The book is about an actress finishing up with a company of actors doing a rural tour of 12th Night. One of the actresses who is so filled with egotism she spends the final curtain call glaring at her co-star actress. She is enraged that the audience didn’t choose her splendid talent over this neophyte actress. But the story really starts when our protagonist is in her hotel room looking out on the patio of the hotel and sees a man. A stunning, very large man. (Spoiler alert: she comes to discover than this man is actually immortal, and she becomes obsessed with the idea that if he thinks she is the Best Actress of All Time, well, then she is.)
de Beauvoir brilliantly tells the story by telling the history of Europe. Sounds dull—but try it, and you’ll be stuffing down croissants for weeks!
An English mystery novelist of the mid 20th century, Tey is as canny as it gets. BRAT FARRAR is the story of an 18 boy who is turning legal age and will become the owner of his family’s huge estates. Yes. He has sisters. No they don’t get any inheritance and are forced to live off their brother’s largesse for life. Too bad he’s a killer. Enough said. No. On his birthday, his long dead twin brother shows up, and we spend 200 pages figuring out if he possibly could be alive, because that would divide the inheritance. How does this man who shows up at BRAT’s 18th investiture, know so much, and look so identical to BRAT.
Read it. Seriously. That’s the tweet.
DREAM SNAKE takes place in a post nuclear apocalypse. The world has very few places left that are not so radioactive they are unlivable, so medicines are brought to people by women on horseback who carry saddle bags of poisonous snakes that they use to cure peoples’ illnesses. (The medicine women are as good as any doctor at a fancy hospital—but you do have to endure getting bitten. A lot. But it is really awesome to watch the healing.)
There is only one MAJOR law on all the planet in this book: men must please their lovers during sex. Snakes who save lives, and lovers who must be able to give pleasure. Freud would agree with us: This is fascinating.
Christie is considered kind of a novelist lite, which is very wrong in my opinion. She wrote more books than any living being, and each of them is distinct. If you don’t want to spend time with the murderous but charming English bourgeoisie, read somebody else!
The ABC MYSTERIES is impossible to figure out in the most amazing way. Twists that you say “I knew that would happen” and then they twist again. Christie is a feminist, that is to say, the women and the men are equally human on the page: Equally murderous and equally fun to figure out. I put Christie at the end because it is Holiday Time, and she is less deep than the four writers above. Not dumb—less deep. But her books can be incredibly fun with enough chocolate (did I mention you can send me See’s Chocolates?) or a glass or wine, a joint, or just some time to disappear to jolly old England… without having to eat their food.
I wish you all a wonderful winter—free of fear of COVID, Proud Boys, and anti-vaxxers. Keep yourself safe… and read a book and if you feel like it. And hopefully I’ll run into you on The Road Not Taken this season, too.