They’re getting closer: The holidays are almost here, final exams are upon us and everyone’s stressed to the max (okay, let’s call it “overly excited”). We at Brit + Co’s book club understand that you might not have time for a novel right now and that you might be in need of a few tiny, perfect pick-me-ups. Why not celebrate the season with an advent calendar of short fiction and essays to keep you going until the holidays hit for real? Unlock one tale a day for a moment of mental bliss.
1. Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson ($20): If you celebrate Christmas, the most obvious candidate for a short story advent calendar is the appropriately named short story collection by Jeanette Winterson, which not only features 12 timely tales of tinsel, but also a brief history of the holiday and relevant recipes (from friends such as Susie Orbach and Kathy Acker) to go along with each piece — and if you get it by Tuesday, it’ll take you right into Christmas Eve. The versatile pieces include both hearth-warming and chillingly supernatural detail, calling up comparisons from O. Henry to Stephen King.
Winterson will get your Dickens in a twist with her off-kilter rendition of a Victorian tale set at ”Mrs. Reckitt’s Academy for Orphans, Foundlings and Minors in Need of Temporary Office.” She takes on materialism in “Spirit of Christmas,” as a child stuck in the enormous department store BUYBUYBABY changes a couple’s philosophical outlook. “The Snowmama” gives us a living snowman who isn’t Frosty, while “The Silver Frog” defeats the evil owner of an orphanage, and “Dark Christmas” may give you a bit of a shiver in a tale worthy of Edgar Allan Poe — or should we say “Edgar Allan Ho-Ho-Ho”? (No, we probably shouldn’t.)
In Winterson’s wintry world, dogs can fly, trees have unfathomable power and trains vanish. The magic she relates gets to the heart of both the fundamental joy and sadness of the holiday season, which shows us everything we have, and reminds us of everything we want.
2. The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2016 ($17): Creativity is one of the seven founding principles of the Pan-African winter holiday Kwanzaa. You can celebrate Pan-African creativity this season by checking out this collection from The Caine Prize for African Writing, Africa’s leading literary award. The book features 17 stories, including five from the shortlist and twelve from the Caine Writers Workshop. Stories come from Kenya’s Abdul Adan, Nigeria’s Lesley Nneka Arimah and Tope Folarin, Zimbabwe’s Bongani Kona, South Africa’s Lidudumalingani (the winner) and more.
The title story is an engaging work that revolves around a credulous young boy who believes the assortment of things his transistor radio tells him, no matter how outlandish. Other stories include “At Your Requiem,” a meditation on an unsettling death and the unhappy memories it stirs: “I rewind time to conjure you back to life.” Arimah’s story, “When a Man Falls from the Sky,” gives us a subset of mathematicians who calculate grief.
The winner, “Memories We Lost,” takes on the turbulent topic of what happens when serious mental health issues are treated with traditional, rather than scientific techniques. A young woman winds up having to protect her sister from her rural community’s prescribed treatment for schizophrenia. “My mother preferred her numb. I preferred a sister. A laughing sister, a talking sister, and a sister who looked into my eyes and cried and laughed. Imagine the reflections that suddenly appear when one stares into water and beats it. That is what happens to my sister.” This is a solid collection, as varied and nuanced as the values that comprise the holiday.
3. A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women by Siri Hustvedt ($26): Hanukkah brings with it themes of memory, empathy, light and miracles, along with the nature of perception and a fierce challenge to the status quo by a beloved underdog. Shed a little intellectual light for far more than eight days by taking a look at Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, which promises short but deep forays into introspective and wide-ranging discussions on such varied topics as art, consciousness and psychoanalysis. Hustvedt, writer of The Blazing World (winner of the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize), asks us to ponder the self and just what is meant by the difference between mind and brain.
She critiques an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photos and the works of Louise Bourgeois, Susan Sontag and Pablo Picasso, but also looks at the potential inadequacy of the fMRI studies that have mapped the reactions of our brains to art. “What is knowledge and how should we think about it?…I believe that neurobiology can contribute to an understanding of aesthetics, but it cannot do so in a vacuum,” she writes. You might consider this a non-fictional picking up where she left off with 2003’s What I Loved’s main character, art historian Leo Hertzberg, who similarly explored themes of psychology and art. This time in a non-fiction universe, her dizzying list of academic sources, from Niels Bohr to William James to Mary Douglas and Margaret Cavendish, is used to refute the notion that nature always outperforms nurture, and that men are just biologically “better” than women at certain things, like math. (Fightin’ words!)
As well, Hustvedt seeks to “open [the] dialogue between scientists and artists, saying “we are all also creatures of ideas.” “What artists say about their own work is compelling because it tells us something about what they believe they are doing,” she writes, but “artists (of all kinds) are only partially aware of what they do.” It’s this marriage of intent and interpretation, art and science that drives the book, which has been called everything from “erudite” to “canonical,” and is one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2016. It’s worth reading a section when you want to burn that midnight oil.
What books help you celebrate? Tag us in your next holiday read @BritandCo.
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(Featured photo via Getty)