Books + Comics

Hibernation Supplies

It’s winter! Stay in bed and read stuff.

Holidays on Ice
David Sedaris
1997, Little, Brown and Company

This is the David Sedaris book you’d have to be a troll not to like. Seriously, you’d have to be dead. If you’ve never read him, start with the chapter called “SantaLand Diaries,” which is his true account of working as an elf at Macy’s department store on Christmas. (Spoiler alert: Santa’s not real. OK, glad we got that out of the way.) Sedaris was not a professional writer when he wrote this story (he cleaned apartments when he wasn’t working as an elf), and it’s such a perfect story—so funny, so soulful, and actually built from his actual real-life diaries—that it makes the whole idea of becoming a writer seem like something anyone could do and something desperately worth doing. Everyone knows Sedaris is one of the funniest writers alive, but what is noted less often is the strain of melancholy, this achy yearning, that threads through all his writing, and that mix of funny-with-a-twinge-of-sad is the secret sauce that makes him so satisfying to read. Is it OK here to put in a plug that we’re running “SantaLand Diaries” this weekend on my radio show and that it’s awesome to hear Sedaris read the story out loud over the radio or for free online? Hope so. Another fun fact about this book: it’s the perfect last-minute gift for any interesting adult or teen, though occasionally (e.g., a story called “Dinah the Christmas Whore”) not for the uptight. —Ira Glass

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Alison Bechdel
2006, Houghton Mifflin

Because of the Comic Book Guy level of pretention that I admittedly exhibit from time to time, I often find myself turning away from comics and graphic novels that are lauded by academics and critics from hoity-toity magazines. What do they know about this stuff, right? But Fun Home deserves all of the acclaim that it’s gotten since its 2006 release. This graphic memoir details Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her cold, aloof father, a closeted gay man, and her struggle to understand her own sexual identity. The artwork is meticulously detailed—some of the images are reproductions of actual letters, adolescent diary entries, and family photographs—and it’s without a doubt the most literary comic that I’ve ever read: there are allusions to Sisyphus, Ulysses, and The Picture of Dorian Gray; there’s even a quick Christopher Robin name check. If you’ve never read a comic before, this absorbing autobiography is a great place to start; and if you’re a comic-book-convention-attending nerd like me, then Fun Home will reaffirm your faith in the art form. —Amber

The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger
1951, Little, Brown and Company

Listen: it’s OK not to like The Catcher in the Rye. But it is also OK to love it. I do! Or else I wouldn’t be recommending it to you. What’s great about this book is that it always provokes a strong reaction, pos or neg, in readers. The main character, a teenage boy named Holden Caulfield, goes home for Christmas in New York City after being expelled from yet another boarding school. Frustrated with the world, with no place to direct his anger beyond the legions of “phonies” who surround him, Holden has become an icon for teenage rebellion and a certain kind of angry young dude. You’re never really sure if you want to hug him or grab him by the shoulders and give him a shake. You really need to read this book to figure out for yourself if you love or hate him (don’t worry, it’s short)—but do it soon, because it will never affect you more than it will when you’re in high school. —Anna

House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
2000, Pantheon

Everyone has that one life-changing book that consumes their soul. For me, it’s House of Leaves, which was presented to me as an innocuous Christmas gift when I was 16 and helped shape my personal aesthetic and love of highfalutin’ art. I was immediately engrossed in the story, and I spent years obsessively studying its multitude of layers. This book is filled with MYSTERIES and SECRETS! There are codes scattered throughout the book, colored text, symbols that mean nothing something?, and the deliberately haphazard layout of the text resembles the labyrinth of the house in the story. On some pages, the text is printed backwards and/or upside down. On others entire paragraphs are jumbled together, and in one section only a few words are printed on each page. I KNOW this sounds really gimmicky and pretentious, but I promise, it doesn’t detract from the story at all! The book is essentially about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, but there are a couple storylines taking place more or less simultaneously. This isn’t quite a Choose Your Own Adventure novel because there is a definitive plotline, but the ways in which you decipher the book are completely up to you. Does this sound a little ridiculous? Good, it’s supposed to! But do yourself a favor: get the full-color edition and listen to the companion CD, Haunted, by Danielewski’s sister, Poe, for the ultimate immersive experience. And if a 5 ½-Minute Hallway mysteriously appears in your house, DON’T GO INSIDE. —Meagan Fredette

Inside House of Leaves.

Rat Girl: A Memoir
Kristin Hersh
2010, Penguin

It’s easy to forget this book is nonfiction. It’s got all the makings of a great YA novel: the right cast of characters (a blue-haired teen protagonist who plays in a band, eclectic hippie parents, a best friend who’s an aging ex-Hollywood star); a cool setting (the mid-’80s alt-rock scene—Hersh was the front woman of the band Throwing Muses); and a dramatic narrative arc (it follows Hersh from her practically simultaneous diagnosis with bipolar disorder and unexpected pregnancy at 18, to her signing a record deal and becoming a single mom). It also follows the artist through her creative process, which is abstract and fascinating: as a result of a car accident she went through as a child, Hersh began to “see” chords as colors, which inspired her songwriting. This memoir is totally honest and never feels contrived, and if you’ve never listened to Throwing Muses, it’s an excellent introduction. —Anna

Cat’s Eye
Margaret Atwood
1988, McClelland and Stewart

I. Know. This. Story. Atwood has captured the quiet terror of a dysfunctional friendship within a group of young girls. She shines flashlights (a laser show, really) on the demented psychological and emotional abuse that comes with being best friends with a bully (a pretty girl named Cordelia). Our heroine is Elaine. Her story is told in flashbacks, starting with an unusual childhood traveling with an entomologist father and independent mother and bringing us to present day (1988), on the eve of her retrospective gallery show. The story also marks the makings of a feminist artist, for this is what Elaine becomes. There are many passages in Cat’s Eye that blew my mind because they were the exact, exact description/account of what I had gone through in my grossest, loneliest of alone times. It’s a beautifully written book by a brilliant writer and provides real carthasis—you know…the important kind. (Also great by Margaret Atwood is The Handmaid’s Tale, which was made into a totally important movie!) —Sonja

The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion
2005, Knopf

Oh gosh, this book is gut wrenching. Didion writes about the year following the sudden death of her husband, itself an event that overlapped with the hospitalization of their only daughter (that daughter’s subsequent death became the subject of this year’s Blue Nights). Didion chronicles her grief, avoiding self-help-y remedies and writing instead about psychological studies, and her own memories. She lets you into her most intimate thoughts, which are both heartbreaking and comforting. Didion has said that writing is how she makes sense of her experiences, and even though there’s no happy ending to this story, and it will make you cry so much, you’ll be glad you read it. —Anna

Don’t Breathe a Word
Holly Cupala
2012, HarperTeen

This is the story of Joy, a 17-year-old girl who is being suffocated—sometimes literally, by debilitating asthma attacks, and sometimes figuratively, because of overprotective parents and a controlling boyfriend named Asher. It opens with Joy cutting her freshly bleached hair, hoping to disappear among the many homeless teens on the streets of Seattle. She moves into a squat with some other kids, and the story of their survival on the streets wraps itself around each character’s history and their reasons for being homeless. You can physically feel the air being wrung out of your lungs as Joy’s relationship with Asher is shown through flashbacks. His abuse is of the subtlest kind, all cruel words and emotional threats. It’s something I actually went through as a 15-year-old, so I found myself crying a lot both because Cupala nailed the reality of emotional abuse and because I was so relieved that somebody finally wrote the kind of book I’d been so desperate to read back then. I’m not telling you to read this book because the subject matter of homelessness and abuse makes it “important.” Don’t Breathe a Word is not some melodramatic Lifetime movie. It’s a gorgeously written, unflinching story of finding strength and home. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. It doesn’t come out until January 3, but do yourself a favor and either preorder it or circle that date on the calendar as a reminder to go out and buy/borrow it. —Stephanie

Lost at Sea
Bryan Lee O’Malley
2003, Oni

This graphic novel by the author of the equally amazing Scott Pilgrim series, is about an 18-year-old girl without a soul. She believes she lost it when she was 14 and that it now belongs to a stray cat, which she sets out to capture. This is a book for anybody who’s felt totally alone even when they’re around other people—and for those who’ve eventually enjoyed other people’s company in spite of themselves. —Anna

Soup & Bread
Martha Bayne
2011, Agate

I like my food served with a story. Jewish apple cake and my grandma’s childhood. An icy cup of horchata and the time my friend’s parents moved here from Mexico. Food just tastes better when it comes with a background. Martha Bayne apparently feels the same way. Her book, which is loaded with recipes for (yes) soup and bread, tells a story about community bonding, generosity, and social justice through the lens of a popular Chicago event she runs, also called Soup & Bread, which brings people from all over the city together to eat hot food and raise money for various hunger-relief agencies. As the recipes, submitted mostly by professional chefs, take you from hungry to full, the narrative of Soup & Bread takes you across the city of Chicago, covering soup-centered stories in such far-flung places as a home for torture survivors, the kitchens of Chicago’s fanciest restaurants, and the social gospel movement of the early 1900s. —Jamie

Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy
1877, The Russian Messenger; published today by Simon & Brown, Crw, Penguin Classics, and others

I have this rule where I like to read Russian novels only in the winter. Something about their atmosphere feels just right, turning a dreary snowy day into the best time to snuggle up with a cup of tea and read about a royal ball. Of course, this gets tricky when the book in question is 900 pages long and you start reading it at the end of February—it took me almost a year to finish Anna Karenina because I refused to touch it when it was warm out. But please, don’t let its size intimidate you. Tolstoy was famous for his realism but also wove together dramas more intense than anything on the CW. —Anna

Anything and EVERYTHING by Alice Munro
1968-now

Munro writes my favorite kind of story, the short story (let’s get to the point), about my favorite topic, the human condition. She’s now in her 80s and writing her best work ever. I think my mouth goes slightly agape when I read her books. I would recommend ANYTHING by her. Start with Runaway (2004, Knopf) and go from there. Or maybe you want to try Lives of Girls and Women (1971, McGraw-Hill Ryerson) first. You really can’t go wrong. —Sonja
P.S. Munro is a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize and I want her to win it once and for all.

22 Comments

  • madpie December 22nd, 2011 11:41 PM

    Yes! House of Leaves!
    So much love for this ~~

  • regine December 22nd, 2011 11:49 PM

    I read Play It As It Lays and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and I wouldn’t regret the temporary insomnia I had to deal with for a week. Joan Didion is amazing.

  • Laia December 22nd, 2011 11:49 PM

    I think I need to print this out and bring it with me next time I go to the bookstore.

  • Laney December 22nd, 2011 11:54 PM

    YES i absolutely LOVE these posts about books!!! It’s comforting to know that although I am jobless as of next week, I will have books to read!! :D

  • marimba_girl December 22nd, 2011 11:56 PM

    I LOVE David Sedaris’ books! I usually don’t stray too beyond the realm of sci-fi/fantasy/horror but his writing is the exception. His books are soooo freaking hilarious, his book When You are Engulfed in Flames is also really awesome! Catcher in the Rye is also great, my Dad made me read it a few years ago and I’m glad that I did. If you were forced to read it for school then I’m sorry, English class basically kills this book (and all of the other books you’re forced to read) but it is much more enjoyable to read outside of school. I’ll have to read Cat’s Eye and House of Leaves, both sound really chill.

    P.S. I was starting to worry that their wouldn’t be a book post this month, glad to see I worried about nothing.

    P.P.S. At some point can their be a post about the censorship in literature (and just in general)? I’ll totally write it if you accept guest posts

  • Adrienne December 23rd, 2011 12:00 AM

    Aaaah thank you for this article! I was wondering what to read next. :) Now I’m really interested in reading Anna Karenina and Holidays on Ice.

    I read The Catcher in the Rye earlier this year in high school. Usually, high school reading assignments ruin the book because we are forced to read something, but this was not the case for The Catcher in the Rye! I loved Holden’s angsty teenage narration (he likes the word phony haha) and the theme of the novel!

  • cherrycola27 December 23rd, 2011 12:09 AM

    So many good books! I’m currently re-reading The Catcher in the Rye.
    I met David Sedaris last December. He’s an amazing writer, and obviously super hilarious. I have most of his books signed. My favorite might be the book I got him to sign for my brother (because he couldn’t be there). David signed: I so dig your sister.
    :) He’s amazing. And isn’t Holidays On Ice dedicated to Ira Glass? I think it is.

  • annagracie December 23rd, 2011 1:30 AM

    currently reading Catcher in the Rye

  • bohobambi December 23rd, 2011 2:08 AM

    The Catcher in the Rye is my favorite book. I read it in high school and I was like, “omg I’m so Holden Caulfield!!!” haha. If you love Catcher then you should watch the movie Taxi Driver.

  • noooodles December 23rd, 2011 2:17 AM

    ANNA KARENINA IS AMAZING. And reading Russian lit in the winter? best thing ever. yeah, it took me a year to finish it too. but it was worth it in the end!

  • Naomi December 23rd, 2011 6:37 AM

    I completely agree with Tolstoy=winter.

  • mangachic December 23rd, 2011 11:02 AM

    I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time and thought Holden was obnoxious and bratty, then I reread it half a year later when I was well into my teenagedom and was all OMG THIS IS PERFECT I CAN RELATE TO EVERYTHING

  • MissKnowItAll December 23rd, 2011 7:23 PM

    After I read Catcher in the Rye i sort of wanted to marry holden…

  • Anti-Hipster December 23rd, 2011 8:23 PM

    Kristin Hersh is awesome. I got my book personally autographed by her, got to meet her, and got to hear her play live. She is such a cool person and i highly suggest her book.

  • Minnah December 23rd, 2011 8:51 PM

    I have to throw in a recommendation for ‘Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls’ by Danielle Wood (http://www.amazon.com/Rosie-Littles-Cautionary-Tales-Girls/dp/1596922524), because, damn, it has got to be one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, and kind of fits in perfectly with the other books on this list.

    Try to read it, because the 12 short stories that make up the book are kind of life changing.

  • chantal December 23rd, 2011 11:05 PM

    The first time I read Catcher in the Rye I thought Holden was just the coolest guy. Only a few months later I reread it and started to think HE was the phony!

  • LittleMoon December 24th, 2011 4:37 AM

    If you can’t get through Anna Karenina, Family Happiness is great and is short.

  • MissKnowItAll December 24th, 2011 1:19 PM

    I would like to suggest the manga of Battle Royale. It’s not for the faint of heart and I couldnt sleep after reading it but it’s so damn good.

  • Kaetlebugg December 24th, 2011 3:44 PM

    OMG YES CAT’S EYE one of the most amazing and true novels I’ve ever read.

  • rhymeswithorange December 24th, 2011 5:17 PM

    @mangachic Me too! I read catcher in the rye first when I was in 7th grade because it’s on all those banned book lists and I totally hated it. Then I reread it last year as a 10th grader and did a 180, now Salinger is one of my favorite writers. As much as it kills my former 7th grade self to admit it I was too young to understand the book then. I think that’s part of what’s so great about books, they can resonate (or not) at different times in your life, and they’ll always be waiting for you :)

  • rubyhobbit December 27th, 2011 9:12 PM

    Rat Girl: A memoir and Lost at sea sound very appealing, gotta check them out.

  • Paper Moon January 7th, 2012 12:14 AM

    So many of Margaret Atwood’s novels deserve attention: Alias Grace, Oryx & Crake, Year of the Flood, The Penelopiad, Surfacing…

    Acid wit, engaging characters, laugh/cry-out-loud dialogue.

    She’s one of the best.