If you’re anything like me, cold weather equals reading weather. Nothing beats the winter blahs quite like curling up on the couch with your favorite novel and a cup of cocoa. Whether you’re looking for a little escapism after one too many holiday parties, or you’re prepping your goals for the 2017 reading challenge, this list will get you started with some new picks for your TBR pile.
1. If you liked Jane Eyre try The Madwoman Upstairs
I read Jane Eyre when I was in high school, and it was one of the first classics I ever loved. Mr. Rochester isn’t the perfect leading man, but there’s something about the gothic atmosphere that’s stayed with me for the past ten years. Because it’s such a favorite of mine, I’m hesitant to read anything resembling a sequel or a retelling.
Catherine’s Lowell’s 2016 novel is something different. Her protagonist, Samantha, is the last living relative of the Bronte sisters. After her father’s death, she enrolls at Oxford University where her literary-celebrity status precedes her. As if hiding from the school’s newspaper reporters isn’t hard enough, everyone seems to think she has inherited the mythical Bronte estate. However, the only thing her father ever left her was a will full of riddles that may or may not lead to anything she can use to pay her tuition.
The only person she considers a friend is her very young and very enigmatic literature professor, who is determined to make her read the classic novels she’s come to hate.
There’s romance, mystery, and a general gothic air, but there’s also an underlying humor that made me laugh out loud several times. Samantha is very aware of how cliché her whole life is in danger of becoming, and she’s not above poking fun of herself.
Favorite quote: “I realized that my life of late had consisted of far too much dialogue and not enough exposition. I imagined an angry, bespectacled English teacher slashing his pen through the transcript of my life, wondering how someone could possibly say so much and think so little.”
2. If you liked The Bell Jar try The Dollhouse
The Dollhouse is a nickname given to the Barbizon Hotel for women, the hotel that Esther Greenwood was residing in at the beginning of The Bell Jar. Of course, in The Bell Jar it’s referred to as “The Amazon.” However, the Barbizon was a real place that Sylvia Plath did live in during her early career. Neither Esther nor Sylvia are featured characters in this story though. Instead, the story focuses on modern-day journalist Rose Lewin who wants to write an article on the history of the building and its famous tenants. Her focus is on a woman named Darby who has lived in the building since the 1950’s. But Darby isn’t interested in sharing her story. As Rose begins to uncover more of Darby’s mysterious past, the story alternates between the ‘50’s and the present day.
This book is worth reading for the setting itself. From the streets of New York to underground jazz clubs to the balcony of a penthouse apartment, Fiona Davis has created a world that is both glittery and gritty. And even if the ’50’s is not your favorite time period, you’ll want to stick around for the fast-paced plot that leaves you guessing until the very end.
Favorite quote: “Courage is easy when the other choices are folding sheets and dealing with guests all day. When you want to get out of a situation fast, you get courage.”
3. If you liked Breakfast at Tiffany’s try The Swans of Fifth Avenue
Technically, if you like any of Truman Capote’s books or short stories, this is a must-read. Melanie Benjamin’s novel is all about Truman Capote and the raucous life he led, but Capote isn’t the main character. That distinction goes to Babe Paley, his best friend. Babe was a real New York socialite, who even today is remembered as one of the most famous fashion icons of the ’50’s.
To say that Truman and Babe had an unusual friendship would be the understatement of the century. Many would call Babe Truman’s muse, but despite much speculation, everyone knew Truman loved longtime partner Jack Dunphy. All friendships he had with women were strictly platonic. Still, Truman’s and Babe’s relationship was full of drama. If you thought the parties Holly Golightly threw were crazy, they were nothing compared with Babe’s lavish lifestyle.
There’s scandal and gossip and lots of backstabbing, but there’s also a poetry to Babe. She needs Truman and Truman needs her, and the bond they share is deeper than a champagne-fueled romance. Much like Tiffany’s, this book has a candy sweet exterior, but a somewhat bitter filling. However, if you have a taste for literary references, you’ll be addicted from the first bite.
Favorite quote: “The New York of the plays, the movies, the books; the New York of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair and Vogue. It was a beacon, a spire, a beacon on top of a spire. A light, always glowing from afar, visible even from the cornfields of Iowa, the foothills of the Dakotas, the deserts of California. The swamps of Louisiana. Beckoning, always beckoning. Summoning the discontented, seducing the dreamers.”
4. If you liked Moby Dick try The Whale: A Love Story
Anybody who read Moby Dick in school probably had to sit through lengthy lectures on the story’s symbolism. When I was a sophomore in college, I was privy to my first discussion on Herman Melville’s sexuality. At the time, I was skeptical that all the supposed phallic symbolism meant that he was gay. Whether you love or hate Moby Dick, we can all agree there are a million different ways to interpret it. I also thought it strange to be talking about the personal life of a man who had died over a century ago, especially one who left no definite clues about his love life or any extra-marital affairs he may (or may not) have had. Therefore, I went into this book with some doubts.
The story is all about the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter). According to history, the men met in the summer of 1850, a time before either of them had written their most iconic novels. The two formed an immediate bond, and Melville quickly uprooted his family to move onto the farm neighboring Hawthorne’s property.
Mark Beauregard fills in the gaps between these actions, and tells the story of the tumultuous love affair that prompted Melville to dedicate Moby Dick to Hawthorne. However, Beauregard’s novel isn’t all speculation. He uses excerpts from the real letters between Melville and Hawthorne, and the affection in their correspondence is more than evident. We’ll never really know what went on between the two authors, but if you approach the story with an open-mind, you might be surprised with a fresh take on literary figures you thought you knew all about.
Favorite quote: “In your stories, you seem to understand that the dramatic moments come not when a character must choose between right and wrong, but when he must choose between two wrongs.”
5. If you liked The Great Gatsby try Villa America
If you know me, you will know that I am OBSESSED with all things Gatsby. This has prompted an extensive quest to read any book I can find that so much as references F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, or their life in Paris during the 1920’s. Yet, before I read this book by Liza Klaussmann, I knew very little about two of Scott and Zelda’s best friends, Sarah and Gerald Murphy.
The Murphy’s were ex-pats, much like the Fitzgerald’s themselves. Their home on the French Riviera was affectionately dubbed Villa America, and they were famous for hosting lavish parties in honor of their American friends. These friends included the Fitzgeralds, Ernest Hemingway, and many other artists and writers of the time.
However, the Murphys were interesting people in their own right. Like most of the “lost generation,” the lives they led were glamorous, but fraught with tension underneath. Together Sarah and Gerald were at the center ‘20’s art and culture, but their marriage also involved secrets that few of their party guests ever could’ve dreamed up. Klaussmann’s book is part romance and part family drama, but it’s also the kind of historical novel that will inspire readers to search for biographies and nonfiction focused on its characters as well.
Favorite quote: “Everything is better when you share it, I think. That flow of ideas between different people, the chaos of it all, makes life so exciting. And when someone new comes in, the chemistry changes and you see things in people you hadn’t seen before.”
6. If you liked The Catcher in the Rye try My Salinger Year
Ok, this book isn’t a novel. But to be fair, when I first read the summary, I thought it was. Joanna Rakoff’s memoir definitely sounds like an English major’s fantasy world. After dropping out of grad school at 23-years-old, Rakoff moves to New York to find a job. She finds one as an assistant to an eccentric literary agent, a woman whose office is so old-fashioned that a good portion of Rakoff’s job is typing up transcripts recorded on a Dictaphone, even though most offices in the ‘90’s were already using computers.
When she starts the job it doesn’t occur to her to ask which authors her boss represents, mostly because she’s too busy trying to figure out her typewriter. Then the fan mail to J.D. Salinger starts showing up. Since Salinger is a notorious recluse, it’s Rakoff’s job to respond to the mail. Some of the letters are full of adoration, some are sad, some even express anger at Salinger for his controversial books.
As soon as Rakoff starts reading the letters, she knows she won’t be able to respond with the standard form letter she’s been given to copy. What follows is a poignant year-in-the-life that could probably be referred to as a “quarter-life crisis,” if that term had existed in the ‘90s. Regardless, any millennial struggling to navigate a new city, a dysfunctional romance, or general career-angst will find something to relate to in Rakoff’s memoir, even if it did take place a decade before most of us graduated college.
Favorite quote: “The worst being an artist could do to you would be that it would make you slightly unhappy constantly.”
7. If you liked The Diary of Anne Frank try A Country Road, A Tree
A book about Nazi-occupied France isn’t going to be an uplifting read, yet there’s a compelling humanity in books about people that survived this time period that is important for more than just historical reasons. The story centers on Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, not the iconic Anne Frank. However, both spent a good portion of the war in hiding, and it’s hard not to think of Anne and other famous holocaust stories when reading about Beckett.
In case you haven’t read any of his plays, Beckett was a real writer (he is probably most famous for Waiting for Godot or Endgame). He had a few publications before the outbreak of WWII, but during the war he put writing largely on hold to join the French resistance and smuggle information across enemy lines.
But this is more than just a war story. It’s also the story of Beckett’s relationship with his girlfriend Suzanne, who he moved from Ireland to Paris to be with. It’s the story of how time and tragedy changes people, and sometimes that tragedy can separate two people, even if they experienced it together. Subtle and lyrical, most of the story is not action, but observations about people and events told from Beckett’s perspective. And while the history is remarkable, it’s the philosophical moments that makes Jo Baker’s book stand out from other WWII novels.
Favorite quote: “But there is so much cooling space between them. There is so much wear and tear. No point pinning it with words, he thinks. Let it flutter by.”
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