It’s easy in the holiday season to get swept up in materialism, consumerism, commercialism and all the other isms that result when commerce and media hack into what should be meaningful occasions with family and friends. What can be done? There are going to be crowds and credit cards, must-haves and must-buys and excesses of every sort. My wife and I try for our kids to strip the holidays down to their most meaningful moments—cooking together, helping others, walking the neighborhoods and reading lots of books. While the traffic and the spending and the family dramas may make you want to escape with a handle of gin into a Simpsons marathon, I suggest picking up a book instead, the more serious the better. This year, I decided to focus my holiday reading on the topic of East Germany. I started with Ana Funder’s Stasiland and am moving on to Gary Bruce’s The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi.
Last year, my holiday reading focused on the Rwandan Genocide. I started with Naomi Benaron’s powerful and beautiful novel Running the Rift, then moved on to nonfiction with Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and then confronted Jean Hatzfeld’s essential trilogy Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak and The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda after the Genocide.
Personally, I find reading on serious topics to be the best antidote to the frivolities of the season. On that note, here are a couple gifts you might consider giving yourself to keep centered and grounded and in mind of how fortunate we are.
1. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Though this bold and ambitious novel straddles a decade of war in Chechnya, don’t let the inherent darkness of the subject matter put you off—this novel is also filled with humor, heart and beauty, each amplified by the adversity the characters in this sweeping novel face. The various storylines move fluidly through time and space, creating an environment where Marra can warp the conventions of the novel and plumb the personal costs of war. Nominated for the National Book Award, this is a novel people will be talking about for some time.
2. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
This exhaustive work of journalism is a must-read. Demick’s reporting on North Korea for the LA Times has culminated in a most compelling and convincing portrait of everyday live in the DPRK. By following the lives of six North Koreans over the course of fifteen years, Demick has pieced together, through exhaustive interview and research, the most accurate nonfiction survey of the living conditions in that elusive country. By focusing on real people, rather than politics, she captures the hopes, dreams and fears that finally led her subjects to risk defection. Also nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
3. HHhH by Laurent Binet
This novel is ostensibly about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia during World War II and a daring Allied plot to murder German commander Reinhard Heydrich, the “Butcher of Prague.” The book is post-modern, self-aware and engages all the complexities, ambiguities and impossibilities inherent in historical fiction. The story is amazing, but so is the story of the story, which Binet includes alongside, inside, amongst and sometimes in place of a gripping, real-world tale of Nazi assassination. Winner of France’s Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman.
4. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
This powerful work of nonfiction reads like a novel as it illuminates an unexamined chapter in the American civil-rights struggle: Thurgood Marshall’s dedication to representing the accused in race-related criminal cases in the South. King focuses on four African-American defendants in Lake County, Florida, who came to be known as “The Groveland Boys,” after they were charged with and tried for the rape of a white woman. King’s research and writing are as powerful as the case’s raw criminality and abuse of power are shocking. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
5. Drifting House by Krys Lee
For fans of the short story, this debut collection examines the troubled inheritance of Korea’s recent century of occupation, war, division and stagnation. These nine stories flash upon all aspects of the contemporary Korean experience—emigration, being left behind, prosperity and poverty, crossings and the clash of the contemporary against the traditional. The stories can be subtle, like “At the Edge of the World,” in which a North Korean father tries to adjust to a new life and a new family in Los Angeles. Or they can knock you down, as does “Beautiful Women,” which is sweeping in its portraits of the fates of vulnerable women in Korea. Always in Lee’s vision are universal notions of alienation, dislocation and abandonment.
6. Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century by John Wood
And if you’re willing to go all the way, this is a haunting poetry collection written by one of our great contemporary poets to accompany a series of photographs depicting various dermatological diseases by medical researchers George Henry Fox and O. G. Mason. Wood manages to see the humanity, universality and even beauty in portraits of the afflicted as they bare their terrible maladies and afflictions in the interest of medical documentation. Wood is the author of six poetry collections and a dozen books on the history of photography, which positions him perfectly to collaborate with image and prose in directing the emotionality of your gaze. Contemplate one of these poem/portraits a day through the holiday season, and you’ll never complain again about the watery hip-hip holiday music blaring in Best Buy or that dang bell ringer outside Whole Foods. Winner of the Gold Deutscher Fotobuchpreis.
7. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Hwang Sun-mi
A dark and serious children’s book? All the better, if you ask me. Our three children—ages eleven, nine and seven—were gripped as I read a chapter a night of this unflinching, existential and ultimately affirming story of a chicken raised on an egg farm that yearns to live free. Sprout is a plucky hen whose modest dream to hatch a single egg will take her down a path that leads to her true place in the natural world. The passage is perilous, but each challenge reveals an inner strength, and in the end, not even death is to be feared. Hwang’s tale is expressed in simple, spare prose, and the narrative is uniquely poised at the nexus of fable, philosophy, children’s literature and nature writing.
Adam Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist and short story writer.