15 best books for Christmas 2020
One of the positive aspects of this annus horriblis is the fact that we’ve all been reading more. Books helped us to get through the year. Here are some our favourites that will make the perfect gift to your nearest and dearest, or to yourself.
The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories – Danielle Evans – Riverhead Books, £12.99
If you love a great collection of short stories or if a short story is all that your time and attention can handle right now, then The Office of Historical Corrections is well worth the read. Danielle Evans has won much critical acclaim and her sharp voice, forensic depiction of relationships and intelligence are evident throughout the writing. In this collection, her characters are unexpected and you immediately want to know more about their history, their viewpoints and what makes them tick.
Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart – Grove Press, £14.99
From the first pages of this book, the cold, physical and emotional hunger jump out at you with a vividness of writing. They transport the reader directly into the novel’s world. It may be a surprise then, to learn that Douglas Stuart is a first-time author – left his native Scotland and became a fashion designer in New York. Even more impressive is that he won the 2020 Booker Prize. The story, does carry echoes of his own. Set mostly in 1980s Glasgow, the story centres around the younger Shuggie, and his mother Agnes. He is different from the other boys and dreams of being a hair stylist. The author’s own mother died of alcoholism when he was young and critics have described the book as, “a love story, a tribute to a life whose difficulty did not diminish its value nor its deep attachments.” Stuart set out to write a novel that he felt represented the people he grew up with. Disturbing and sobering, this is not a comfortable book, all the more reason to read it.
Summer – Ali Smith – Hamish Hamilton, £16.99
Summer is the final season in Ali Smith’s epic series and begins with the blossoming COVID pandemic and the catastrophic fires in Australia. Mere months later this already seems like ancient history. Especially, since developments in the news have been so rapid-fire and unrelenting, that they outpace the story about sixteen-year old Sasha Greenwell and her typically modern family. Asylum seekers, Brexit, the hero-worship of Teflon politicians and dysfunctional relationships are all in the mix. It is difficult to do this book justice in a paragraph. It is feat of literature that tries to help us make sense of a crazy, crazy world.
Hamnett – Maggie O’Farrell – Tinder Press, £20
As a teenager, studying the play Hamlet, Maggie O’Farrell’s teacher mentioned that Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet who had died aged 11. Having suffered her own life-threatening illness at age eight, this tidbit made O’Farrell see the playwright, ‘as a human-being for the first time’ – a father who loved his family and lost his boy, who then wrote a play in his honour. Hamnet is a fictionalised account of this event, which won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. The author tells the story from mother Agnes’ (Anne Hathaway’s) viewpoint. Virtually invisible in history, she is an incredibly strong character in this beautifully realised book about grief. As a friend who recommended this book says, “There will be tears but you won’t be able to put it down.’
Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi – Penguin, £14.99
Author Ann Patchett loves ‘everything about this book,’ and she is not alone. Yaa Gyasi is a promising writer in the ilk of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The follow-up to Homegoing, Gyasi’s award-winning debut novel, is this story of a Ghanaian family living in Alabama. Gifty is a post-grad student in neuroscience at Stanford University, trying to find a way to help her mother who has withdrawn from life since the death of Gifty’s brother, a talented athlete who becomes hooked on drugs after an ankle injury. She is looking for hope through science, faith and by drawing on life lessons learned from her high-school science teacher. Not everyone has the perfect family to take solace in these holidays, but this book offers hope for reconciliation. What better moral for the season?
MEMOIRS + ESSAYS + NON-FICTION
A Promised Land: The Presidential Memoirs Volume 1, Barack Obama – Viking, £35
We read about life in the White House from Michelle Obama in Becoming, but in her husband’s much anticipated memoir, we get the inside scoop on Barack’s experience. What is heartening to see is that this is not a bone-dry political memoir. It is balanced by the scenery of Obama’s role as father, husband and modern man juggling these duties with his day job running the USA. Of course there is plenty of background on the backroom negotiations for Obama Care and other political happenings during his first presidential term. But it’s the frank descriptions of his human-ness: puzzled humility at winning the Nobel Peace Prize; grappling with his smoking habit and guilt over not being at his mother’s deathbed due to work commitments, that make this a great read for even the non-politically-minded.
Songteller, My Life in Lyrics, Dolly Parton – Hodder & Stoughton, £35
Dolly Parton is having the moment of moments in her 60+ year career, thanks to: the wonderful podcast Dolly Parton’s America that ushered in 2020; her successful million dollar donation towards COVID-vaccine research; her standing up for Black Lives Matter when she has always been notoriously apolitical in her celebrity and the release of her latest album (her 47th) a Holly Dolly Christmas. One can only lie back and completely surrender to Dolly-fication by reading her latest book Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. It’s a treasure trove of the stories behind her songs, illustrated with photos from her personal albums, blingy costumes, beloved instruments and brand paraphernalia – like Mattel’s Backwoods Barbie. This is an up-close and personal look at the career of one of the world’s most beloved female icons. And it will help you nail the lyrics of Jolene during Christmas Karaoke.
The Best of Me, David Sedaris – Little Brown, £16.99
The Best of Me started out as an audio collection so, author David Sedaris chose the essays he most enjoyed reading out loud. Sadly, our personal Christmas favourite – The Santaland Diaries – about his time as Santa’s elf at Macy’s, is not included, instead there is the seasonally appropriate Christmas Means Giving. His ordeal in French language class – the popular Me Talk Pretty One Day is in there, plus pieces from his almost 30 year-old Shouts & Murmurs section of The New Yorker. As a reward for his loyal fans, he includes a new essay. Age is on his mind as he considers his decline, the role of family in his life and the discipline of writing about simple, unimportant things as he gets older. But like all ‘best of’ collections, you will discover something new in the re-reading and it is the perfect introduction for the uninitiated. Most importantly, it promises a good laugh.
GIRL: Essays on Black Womanhood– Kenya Hunt – HQ, £16.99
Grazia’s Fashion Director Kenya Hunt is often one of the few black faces on the front row. Now this award-winning journalist has compiled a book of essays from her distinct point of view, with guest contributions by other accomplished black women. Among these are Candice Carty-Williams, author of Queenie; African Feminist Activist/multi-hyphenate Jessica Horn and Facebook Africa’s Head of Public Policy Ebele Okobi. All the essays reflect aspects impacting their lives today. Several of Hunt’s unpack nomenclature like the terms “woke” and “bad bitch” (a compliment fiercer than fierce), as well as the multi-tasking “girl”. But more than that, these essays are often heart-breaking and palpable in their weariness at having to explain oneself. Witty, celebratory, insightful and illuminating, Girl is required reading.
More Than a Woman, Caitlin Moran – Ebury Press, £20
The first three decades of any woman’s life can be hard, but when you hit the sandwich years, Caitlin Moran believes you need to be ‘more than a woman’ to handle all that is thrown at you, ‘Your previous problems were all problems with yourself. Young woman problems… you’ll know you’re middle-aged, because all your problems are… other people’s problems.’ More Than A Woman is a follow-up to 2011’s hit How to Be a Woman, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny as well as deeper in its ideas. Moran has reached middle age without relinquishing her signature in-your-face-bolshiness. We found ourselves nodding to the fact that it is a blessing if you have a good male boss whose wife also works. And we nearly hyperventilated at the description of her husband’s atomic sneeze. Give it to the women in your life who are already juggling too many balls – they will appreciate the empathy.
Humans – Brandon Stanton, Pan Macmillan, £25.00
Anyone who is a fan of Stanton’s Humans of New York blog, will love that he has taken the show on the road in his latest book Humans. The author travelled to over 40 countries around the world, including Akwamufie, Ghana and Tabriz, Iran. As in HONY, Stanton documents those he encountered with his signature ‘straight-up’ photography and his soul-touching interviews. This is not your conventional, National Geographic-style travel book, but you will feel as if you have truly been there. What really comes across is that love and suffering and relationship challenges are universal. Humans lets us into some pretty deep secrets, but also the little joys that make life worth living. Perfect for real travellers, armchair tourists, and those who just need a mini escape until their next real-life adventure.
Ottolenghi Flavor: A Cookbook – Yotam Ottolenghi, Ixta Belfrage and Tara Wigley – Ebury Press, £27.00
Ottolenghi Flavour is divided into three parts: process – cooking methods to help you get the best flavour from your veg; pairing – combinations of ingredients to heat up the flavour quotient; and produce – focusing on the fruits, veg, nuts and seeds that naturally pack the biggest flavour punch. What we also love about this book is that Ottolenghi is giving a leg-up to the young, self-taught, female chef Ixta Belfrage. Having soaked-up food knowledge from her life in Rio and Australia, she started a small catering business in the UK and sold tacos at a market stall as a side hustle. That’s when she landed a job at Ottolenghi’s NOPI restaurant, where her instincts were spotted and she was moved to his test kitchen. She has since contributed to his columns in The Guardian and The New York Times, and Flavour has her fingerprints all over it. Ottolenghi credits her with teaching him something new every day and this book will teach your favourite foodie a few new, mouth-watering tricks, too.
Patch Work: A Life Amongst Clothes Hardcover – Claire Wilcox – Bloomsbury, £16.99
Sometimes your favourite item of clothing finds you. Sometimes the most unassuming accessory holds your most important memories. Claire Wilcox, curator of fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum, has assembled multiple such memories into her latest book, Patch Work. Indeed, this is a patchwork of vignettes around various items such as a wedding dress, kid gloves, red shoes, that have shaped her life in this unusual biography, ‘We wore nightdresses as shirts and petticoats as skirts, girdled our waists with silver nurses’ belts, and felt very dashing…’ The memories weave in and out of time, and feel like a fevered sartorial dream. You will never look at your clothes the same way again.
Dearly – Margaret Atwood – Chatto and Windus, £14.99
Margaret Atwood was a poet before becoming a celebrated author. Dearly, her latest book of poetry, is her 18th. ‘I’m writing about death more than I used to,’ she said in a recent interview, ‘…people dying. Impending death. Losing people.’ One of those was her husband Graeme Gibson, who died last year and to whom this book is dedicated to ‘in absentia’. Yet these poems are not merely a creative outlet for grief, they are about the ephemeral quality of life and have been in the making for over ten years. Arranged in sections, they cover things that fade: memory, gender issues, supernatural creatures. Yet, Atwood’s dry humour is evident in the unexpected twist of a line, or when you come across a poem titled ‘Double-entry Slug Sex’. And they hold onto hope from the very first poem, entitled Late Poems which reads: ‘It’s late, it’s very late; Too late for dancing. Still, sing what you can. Turn up the light: sing on, sing: On.’ We say, read on.
I Would Leave Me if I Could – Halsey – Simon and Schuster UK, £16.99
Named one of Time magazine’s ‘Most Influential People of 2020’, singer-activist Halsey proves she is much more than a soulful voice. Ballsy yet sensitive, her poems cover: loss, sex, mental illness, dreams, and all are treated with a raw openness that lays her pain bare. She told Vogue, “Once you’ve put someone down on paper, you’ve reduced them to a character, and they no longer have the power that they do in real life.” A good one for music fans and the young(er) women in your life.
Alexia Economou is a design and culture journalist, and regular TNMA contributor @thedesignfeedTW