One year I tried to make Christmas perfect. I spent hours choosing the right gifts, but it is so easy to select the wrong gifts: an eco-friendly corn resin watch, which I learned from the recipient was not ec0-friendly, a sweater for my mom in the wrong size (and shouldn’t I have known her size?), and a cute literary board game that bombed. We simplified our Christmases after that, and now I have a foolproof one-stop last-minute shopping method: I consult my 10 Books, 10 Genres list.
BOOK ADAPTED FOR FX LIMITED SERIES
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. Godden’s debut novel, published in 1939, tells the story of five Anglican nuns who establish a convent in the Himalyas. Instead of praying and meditating in the palace-turned-convent, they become daydreamers, confused by the altitude, the extreme heat and cold, and the constant noise of construction/renovation in the convent. The mother superior, Sister Clodagh, tries to hold everything together. A great nun book, and you can also watch the TV series.
The Shadow of Vesuvius by Tasha Alexander. The latest charming mystery in Alexander’s Lady Emily series is beautifully-written and great fun. Set in the ruins of Pompeii, ir alternates stories in two timelines: Lady Emily’s investigation of a murder in Pompeii in 1902, and a woman poet’s experiences and frustrations in Pompeii in 79 A.D. I love Alexander’s slightly verbose, old-fashioned prose, and the distinctive voice of Lady Emily. It’s not so much the mystery that enthralls, as the characters.
Private Means by Cree Lefavour. This stunning, witty first novel should appeal to fans of Elizabeth Tallent and the recent novels of Jay McInerney. It is also a book for dog lovers. Devastated by the loss of her cute dog, Maybelle, who ran away from the dog walker, Alice searches the streets while her husband, Peter, a psychiatrist, becomes increasingly irritated. Since their daughters went to college, Alice has dropped all pretense of interest in him. What will happen to this unraveling marriage as the summer drags on? It depends on the dog!
A NEGLECTED LITERARY CLASSIC
The Leopard and the Cliff by Wallace Breem. This 1978 novel came up on a Best Books of the Year list, and was compared to Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. I had to read it! Set during the Third Afghan War (1919-1923,) this pitch-perfect book follows the fortunes of Sandeman, an insecure, middle-aged British officer who is in charge of a retreat from a fort under attack. This brilliant novel is both plot-oriented and psychological: Sandeman’s low estimation of his powers are as wry and and self-denigrating as Waugh’s character Guy Crouchback’s. I was hooked by the first sentence: “He was sitting on the veranda drinking lime juice when the message came through, and he was alone.”
The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson. In 1972, the award-winning novelist Diane Johnson reconstructed the story of George Meredith’s first wife, Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls Meredith. Mary Ellen was the brilliant daughter of the novelist Thomas Peacock, but left out of most of the biographies of George. An avid reader of French and English novels, a gourmet cook (but George was dyspeptic), a writer of essays and poems, and, briefly, the editor of a magazine, she was seven years older than George and left him for the artist Henry Wallis. This was reissued by NYRB this year.
A FANTASY NOVEL FOR FANS OF LINGUISTICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY
Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan. In this offbeat book, Brennan explores the difficulty of translation from an ancient language and the ethics of the sale of archaelogical relics. Set in a society that resembles 19th-century English society, it exposes the dark side of the biz: wealthy lords and ladies want to buy archaeological artifacts from the ancient Draconean civilization. When Lord Glenleigh, known to be prejudiced against Draconeans, acquires a set of ancient Draconean tablets, he hires Audrey Camherst to translate what turns out to be an ancient epic. But can she and her learned assistant prevent his dastardly plot? Though this is categorized as fantasy, it is really cross-genre.
SMALL PRESS FICTION
Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love by Anna Moschovakis. Since I never wrote any notes on this superb novel published by Coffee House Press, here is an excerpt from the book description: “A novel about a woman writing a novel about a woman who writes — The Rejection of the Progress of Love is a sexy, earthy, bracingly intelligent examination of the vicissitudes of grief, ambition, aging, information overload, compassion fatigue, and a data-centric understanding of self; the relative merits of giving up or giving in; the seductive myth of progress; and the condition of being a thinking and feeling (gendered, raced) inhabitant of an unthinkable, numbing world.’
It Is Wood, It Is Stone by Gabriela Burnham. In this haunting novel, the heroine, Linda, a former newspaper writer and artist, travels to Brazil with her professor husband. She does not know Portuguese, and while he is at work, she feels increasingly paranoid as she navigates the streets alone. And she has no housework to do, because the university has hired a maid for them. Burnham, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Brazil, lyrically and evocatively describes Brazil, and explores Linda’s complicated consciousness. Think Virginia Woolf crossed with Catherine Lacey!
A Burning by Megha Majunmda. Yes, this debut novel is as good as everyone says. Set in India, it hinges on the arrest of Jivan, a Muslim girl, for a terrorist bombing she did not commit. The police, wanting to arrest someone quickly, pin the crime on her because of a careless comment she left on Facebook. Terrifying, tense, ironic, and almost too believable to be fiction.
An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee. This elegant family saga follows four generations of an upper-class family. The focus is on Grammy, a,well-mannered, rigid woman who, it turns out, had many family secrets. Her granddaughter Isabella investigates Grammy’s past: Grammy, whose name used to be Tommy, stole her younger sister Katherine’s identity when she went to New York from Montana to reinvent herself as a nurse. Gorgeously written, fun to read, and based on McPhee’s own family.