What To Read This Winter

29th November 2013

If summer is all about beach books, winter is about what to curl up with under a blanket, along with a hot chocolate or the Christmas leftovers. Whatever you’re looking for, there’ll be a book for you (or for someone else’s stocking) this winter. Jennifer Lipman makes some suggestions.

What to read if you’ve got a long haul flight (and possibly a Kindle)…

At more than 770 pages and currently only out as a hardback, Donna Tartt’s latest novel (the third from the acclaimed author of The Secret History) is slightly off-putting at first glance. But from the get-go it’s gripping, and the structure – several stories woven into one grand narrative – makes it easily digestible.

The book is about a painting and, more specifically, about a charismatic but damaged young man named Theo Decker, and the way in which his involuntary connection to this painting directs the course of his life. His childhood upset by a terrible catastrophe, he swaps the hustle and bustle of Manhattan for a drug-addled adolescence in desert wasteland, then, years later, finds himself embroiled in a seedy, crime-filled underworld, all the while struggling with what happened on one fateful day.

Tartt’s writing is acerbic, and often witty, and always acutely observed, so that the icy Manhattanites of one portion of the book are described as vividly as the Eastern European lowlifes later on.

You’ll need to devote a serious amount of time to this – a plane journey and the entire Christmas break, perhaps – but it’s worth it.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, Little Brown, out now

What to read if you want to be provoked...

As at any Christmas season, there are dozens of biographies hitting the shelves this year – Joanna Lumley’s, for example, and Duncan Bannatyne’s. But individual lives, especially celebrity ones, are often less interesting than the context in which they have been lived. For one that offers more, look to the final chunk of veteran politician Tony Benn's diaries. Benn, a left-wing firebrand with a bird’s eye view from Harold Wilson to the Blair years, is unapologetically opinionated, and does not hold back in his account of the failures of the Labour Government. ‘That man is such a menace,’ he writes in a fit of fury about Blair.

Benn flits from political gossip and ideological diatribes to discussing the status quo – “’there won’t be another Labour Government in my lifetime,” he sighs, ‘I feel bereaved’ – and offers scores of amusing observations, musing ‘something’s gone wrong’ on being named a National Treasure by the Daily Telegraph.

Chronicling the latter years of New Labour with obsessive interest in the minutiae of Westminster life, this will be a must read for anyone with a keen interest in politics. But it is also a personal story: Benn discusses the death of his wife, and contemplates his own mortality. He’s a polarising figure, prone to conspiracy theories, and certainly fixed in his views, so there’s plenty to disagree with. Still, this is a hefty addition to the political bookshelf.

A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, Tony Benn, Cornerstone, out now

What to read if you’ve only a few days off over Christmas...

I’d never read anything by the American novelist Cathleen Schine until I raced through Fin and Lady in a matter of days. It’s the engaging story of a half-brother and sister, thrown together when the boy is left an orphan at 11. Taken in by his vivacious older sister Lady – who has a cupboard full of secrets that he only gradually appreciates – Fin arrives in Greenwich Village against a heady, seductive backdrop of sexual liberation, flower children and the anti-war movement. Initially a fish out of water, he gradually finds his place (and starts attending a hysterically absurd hippy school), ever aware that Lady has still not found what she is looking for, even as an ever-present band of suitors flutter nearby.

A charming story, with something of a fairytale feel about it, made more so by an unexpected final twist, this is a light read, perfect for dipping in and out of over a busy festive season.

Fin and Lady, Cathleen Schine, Corsair, out now

What to read if you feel you ought to revisit the classics...

It probably wasn’t the greatest of educational experiences, but when I was studying 'Pride and Prejudice' at school my rather trendy English teacher advised us to read 'Bridget Jones’s Diary', to make a comparison between the Austen original and a modern reworking. We even watched the BBC adaptation, though I suspect that may have had more to do with Colin Firth than any linguistic or literary evaluation. But, as a contemporary twist, Bridget is only a loose tribute. Starting this year, a selection of authors are offering homages to Jane, giving her famous characters a dash of 21st century paint.

Contributors include Alexander McCall Smith ('Emma') and Curtis Sittenfeld ('Pride and Prejudice'). First up is Joanna Trollope’s reimagined 'Sense and Sensibility', with Elinor Dashwood as a feisty student of architecture, while her wilful sister Marianne plays guitar and dreams of other creative endeavours. Part of the fun – as with 'The Innocents', Francesca Segal’s recent take on Edith Wharton – lies in identifying how individual characters have been modernised, and harrumphing when they are pale imitations. Entertaining, if perhaps not quite as intellectual as Austen’s version, this is a comfortable read, and certainly more edifying than watching Clueless – which, as every true Austenite knows – is actually based on 'Emma'.

Sense & Sensibility, Joanna Trollope, Harper Collins, out now

What to read if you’re giving up drink for the New Year…

If you’re on the wagon for a while, why not use the time to discover the secret world of champagne culture, with this elegant coffee table book that features dazzling photographs and is just bubbling with intriguing information.

Learn, for example, how the coupe – invented in the 17th century by Venetian glass-makers in Greenwich – fell out of fashion, and why the flute is infinitely superior (to do with retaining the bubbles). And did you know that while champers legally only comes from one region in France, there are five districts producing it, each with a signature flavour?

The book is as pretentious as they come – the literary equivalent of the self-proclaimed wine connoisseur swilling his vino as the waiter stands expectantly by – but it’s glamorous, and will give you plenty of random insights with which to impress your friends. And it looks almost as good as an actual glass of bubbly on the coffee table.

Christie's Encyclopaedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine,
Tom Stevenson, Absolute Press, out now

What to read if you’re considering applying to next year's Great British Bake Off...

Although it’s the cake – the exotic flavour combinations, the impossibly ornate decorations – that tends to be what attracts the most attention amongst GBBO devotees, the series is also a celebration of the savoury. Winter Kitchen does feature some pudding recipes, but mainly concentrates on what comes before, with heaps of mouth-watering dishes such as spinach and goat’s cheese puff tart or Spanish cod stew.
There are simple enough suggestions for side dishes, like a delicious roast pumpkin with feta and oregano, and guides to far more innovative mains such as a spicy sausage and bean casserole or a Brussels sprout and almond gratin. As a vegetarian, I skipped over the section on weekend feasts, but there’s plenty of inspiration for a carnivore too.

The book covers Bake Off basics, from how to make the perfect pasta dough to the techniques behind different pastries (with the obligatory word of caution about soggy bottoms), and there are also sections on soups, breads and chutneys. A beautiful book with gorgeous photography, it will make a perfect addition to your kitchen whatever the season.

Great British Bake Off: Winter Kitchen:
Lizzie Kamenetzky, BBC Books, out now

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