Whether it’s putting up the tree or tucking into your first mince pie, December is full of traditions. And just like watching Love Actually for the 27th time, re-reading a special book is all part of the fun. Here, a host of Penguin authors share the stories behind the books they always turn back to at Christmas, from ghost stories to murder mysteries to Jane Eyre.
It’s clear that Wilkie Collins had the most enormous fun writing The Woman in White, and also clear that (although it touches on concerns that are as present today as they were in 1859: the way men can abuse their power, the way women are not believed when they tell inconvenient truths) this is in no way a book that is supposed to be sensible and good for you. It’s pure escapist joy, intricate enough to stand up to repeated re-reading but sharp enough for a reader to be able to blast through it in a few lazy post-Christmas days. It’s still one of my favourite classics, and a book that conjures up Christmas from just its title. If you pick it up this year, you won’t regret it.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, chosen by Amir Khan
Every December when the nights draw in and the street lights shine like haloes in the thick fog, there is one book I always reach to: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The novel is set in Spain, where a young boy searches for secrets left behind by his favourite author in the wonderfully named Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It has everything you could possibly want from a good read by an open fire: star crossed lovers, devastating secrets, espionage and murder.
Although it is set in Spain, which might make you think it is a summer read, it has a gothic feel that lends itself perfectly to those winter evenings, and its meticulous descriptions and beautiful use of language will have you hooked from the get-go. If you are like me and like nothing more than a twisted tale of deceit and forbidden love at Christmas time, this book is perfect.
Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, chosen by David Damrosch
A perfect book to read as the New Year approaches is Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, by China’s 2012 Nobel laureate Mo Yan. His satirical novel weaves an epic tale of China’s modern history, framed by New Year’s Days.
It begins on January 1, 1950, when an apolitical farmer, Ximen Nao, is shot when the Communists come to power in his town – then finds himself reborn as a donkey. Every decade he dies again, reborn as an ox, then as a pig, a dog, and a monkey, giving us an animal’s-eye view of the changes sweeping over China. Finally, he achieves rebirth as a human baby, born at midnight on January 1, 2000, as “fireworks lit up the sky of Gaomi County’s new century, the first of a new millennium.” As he says, “Being reborn over and over may wear a guy out, but it has its advantages.”
David Damrosch is the author of Around the World in 80 Books.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty, chosen by Caleb Azumah Nelson
I always return to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout around the festive period. It’s a book that reveals something new every time I return to it. Beatty’s acerbic and absurd novel is helmed by an unnamed narrator, who is equal parts sharp and comforting, despairing and hopeful, and outrageously humorous, dissecting contemporary society in a way that will always be relevant. The narrative moves at breakneck speed, never giving you a moment to settle, as you’re given a tour of a fictional L.A., a hyperreal world which still holds onto enough elements of our world for the book to resonate. It’s one of a few novels I hold dear, in which not only can I hear the writer's music and rhythm, but feel it too.
I heard Paul read from the novel, shortly before he won the Booker Prize in 2016, and the novel is as good on its feet as it is on the page.
I came across the Brontë juvenilia for the first time three years ago, and my reading of Jane Eyre changed yet again. Rochester was not the first of Charlotte’s glowering, Byronic devils. I discovered Zamorna, a man so wicked his attraction was frankly baffling, and yet possessed of "a basilisk's charm". But mostly I saw the creation of a world so vivid and real to its creators, that it eclipsed their reality.
Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr, chosen by Jim Al-Khalili
If you asked for a film that my family watches every year, the answer would be easy: Miracle on 34th Street (the 1994 remake) is a tradition, as is The Princess Bride. Although now that my two children are no longer children and have long since moved away, it’s hard to drag them back home and force them to sit through them. But when it comes to books, there is one that we used to get out every Christmas Eve. In fact, when my son, David, was a child he would insist on me or his mother reading it to him each year. This was Mog’s Christmas, by Judith Kerr.
David doesn’t yet have his own children, but we’ve stuck the book in the box full of his childhood toys, mementos and school reports. Now I’m thinking of taking it out again and putting it aside. There’s no reason why it can’t become a grandparents’ tradition.
The Box of Delights by John Masefield, chosen by Emma Smith
My Christmas read is John Masefield’s classic The Box of Delights. I first found it at my grandparents’ house on Dartmoor, and I always associate it with poking their recalcitrant coal fire, and the pink and white marshmallows that were such a Christmas fixture. It’s the story of young Kay Harker, who gets caught up in a struggle to possess a magical box, and it has everything: dastardly villains disguised as clerics, time travel to the Trojan war, steampunk robot dogs, and tying it all together, the ominous refrain: "the wolves are running". Part Golden Age detective novel, part magical children’s book, best of all is its strong sense of the winter landscape.
Now I see that the box of delights is a Hitchcockian McGuffin – what really matters is Christmas itself. Along the way there are wonderful moments: pugnacious young Maria, expelled from numerous schools, who wishes that Christmas had more pistols; a magical Punch and Judy show with tropical butterflies; and drunken rats singing their piratical songs while feasting on a ham bone are particular favourites.
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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin