Five books for your seasonal break

The winter holidays are the perfect time to discover a new novel – whether that’s to help you get into the holiday spirit, or perhaps to whisk you away from it! We asked five of our 2019 New Generation Thinkers to share their favourite holiday reads, and our Thinkers did not disappoint: with recommendations ranging from surreal to heart-warming, you’ll definitely find something to stimulate your imagination this Christmas.

‘…they would begin singing “O, Tannenbaum” as they moved in solemn procession through the columned hallway and into the dining room, where the wallpaper had white statues and the radiant, fragrant tree reached to the ceiling and was decorated with white lilies and flickering candles and the table, laden with gifts, reached from the windows to the door. Meanwhile Italians were playing barrel organs outside in the snow-covered streets and from far off you could hear the hubbub from the Christmas market in the town square…’

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, p 87-88

See our selection of books from five AHRC academics below and read more literary delights over this festive break.

Susan Greaney

Susan Greaney
AHRC-funded PhD candidate, Cardiff University

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (1977)

Christmas holiday reading should be able to transport you away from everything: television repeats, tetchy relatives and cold turkey. Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet does just that, pitching the reader into a fantastically surreal and surprising world.

This is the story of Marian, a funny, rickety 92-year-old who is committed to a bizarre retirement home, where, it turns out, sinister plots are afoot. It takes all her wit, and the help of her elderly compatriots, to lead a revolution, assisted by a historical abbess and an earthquake. If that isn’t enough, look up the author’s story; her colourful life reads like fiction itself.

Dr Christina J Faraday
Affiliated Lecturer in the History of Art, University of Cambridge

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (1967)

This Christmas why not join a secret, highly-exclusive world-wide group of Flann O’Brien fans by picking up The Third Policeman, a book which can be fairly described as ‘nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter’. The story follows an unnamed hero (whose talking soul, we at least discover, is called Joe) as he travels to a village where the people have been riding their bicycles so long that their atoms have started to mix: the villagers are becoming more bicycle-like, and, more disturbingly, the bicycles are becoming more person-like (and we won’t mention the incident with Gilhaney’s bicycle and the lady schoolteacher). If mad thought experiments, murderous scholars and a smattering of dubious philosophical footnotes appeal to you, don’t hesitate – but don’t skip to the end!

Dr Tom Smith
Lecturer in German, University of St Andrews

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann, translated by John E. Woods (1901)

Buddenbrooks was the first German novel I ever read, and was the reason I chose to study German at university. Thomas Mann’s debut novel follows a nineteenth-century merchant family from the height of its pomp and grandeur to its fall into decadence and decline. For music lovers, the young Mann’s passion for music echoes through the novel, from chorales and carols to strains of Wagner. As the generations pass and the family’s fortunes change, I defy you not to fall in love with Antoinette (Tony) and little Hanno. And to top it all off, it contains the most famous – and most fabulous – Christmas scenes ever written in German. Frohe Weihnachten!

Dr Jade Halbert
Lecturer in Fashion Business and Cultural Studies, University of Huddersfield

The Quincunx: The Inheritance of John Huffam by Charles Palliser (1989)

Many modern festive traditions have their roots in Victorian culture, and the holiday has (at least for me) always been synonymous with dark, spooky, Dickensian stories read in dim lamp-light while the weather rages outside. Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx is the perfect accompaniment to such a set up. A dense, plot-driven mystery set in early 19th-century England, it revolves around the story of young John Huffam as he navigates the complex laws of chancery and inheritance while fighting to uncover a terrible family secret. Palliser assembles a cast of colourful and finely-drawn characters, and deftly invokes every familiar trope of the 19th-century to immerse us totally in John’s world: from the law and equity, to asylums, slums, brothels, resurrectionists, and sewer hunters; you will be captivated, exhilarated, and gripped. It is a novel to take your time over and relish as long, winter days turn dark. 

Dr Emily Cock
Leverhulme Research Associate, School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

Evaristo shared the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood for this smart and beautifully written evocation of a dozen different characters—predominantly black women—across the United Kingdom. We meet them each individually while learning how they are interrelated, and the final movement of the novel sees them come together to enrich and undercut our assumptions about their characterisations, relationships, and community. It’s one of few books I’ve finished and wanted to start again, to re-meet the people in these final conversations, and may yet happen before the year is out.

What’s your favourite winter holidays novel? Let us know via @ahrcpress on Twitter!

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