13 Books to Curl Up With This Winter

Our picks for the season's best new reads

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"Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding"

 

by Lynn Darling; Harper

 

After her only child leaves for college, Darling, more than 10 years a widow, moves alone from Manhattan to a small house in the Vermont woods and sets about trying to reorient herself. The themes of getting lost to find yourself and of fixing a house to repair your soul may not be new, but Darling’s memoir navigates the geography of loss with a fresh, lush beauty. Eventually her philosophical meditations on lostness give way to literal lessons in compass and map as Darling learns to negotiate the woods around “Castle Dismal” (as she semi-fondly nicknames her house) and steer a course through the crossroads of streambed and bridle path, of motherhood and whatever comes next. Other characters join her in this journey of middle age—among them a bounding puppy, an aging mother and an oncologist—but this is really a book about solitude, with Darling’s ironic wit (often directed at herself) cut- ting a sharp path through the wandering richness of melancholy. Direction does come, blazing a trail from empty nest into the fullness of an entire lost-and-found life. —Catherine Newman

 

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"A Prayer Journal"

by Flannery O’Connor, edited by W.A. Sessions

 

Destined for greatness, terrified of mediocrity, O’Connor was not quite 21 when she began this recently discovered journal. The entries, addressed to God, have a young lover’s urgency— rhapsodizing, wheedling, deal making. She craves artistic mastery and is desperate to get close to the divine, two congruent ambitions. Her perceptions often dazzle: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.” What we see in these pages is a writer on the cusp of creative achievement, a pilgrim with a fierce and hungry heart. —Cathleen Medwick

 

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"For the Benefit of those who see: Dispatches From the World of the Blind"

by Rosemary Mahoney; Little, Brown

 

Accidentally whacked with a racket during a college squash game, writer Rosemary Mahoney temporarily lost vision in one eye—and became terrified of blindness. More than two decades later, a magazine assignment takes her to Braille Without Borders, the first school for blind children in Tibet, where the condition is considered a curse. The guts and grace of the school’s founder, a blind German woman named Sabriye Tenberken, and the confidence and capability of the kids who’ve been liberated from bleak lives force Mahoney to confront her preconceptions. She’s inspired to study attitudes toward the blind and to teach English at Braille Without Borders’ school for adults in Kerala, India. The students, funny, touching and admirable, transform Mahoney and delight us. Her research is fascinating, her self-scrutiny refreshing and her prose just the right kind of gorgeous. In this wonderful book we discover along with the author that both sight and its absence come with burdens—and beauties. —Judith Stone

 

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"The Invention of Wings"

by Sue Monk Kidd; Viking

 

Two lives are entwined in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, a searing historical novel set in 19th-century Charleston, South Carolina, at the height of antebellum certainty that slaveholding is sanctioned by God. The remarkable Sarah Grimké, whose character is based in part on an eponymous 19th-century abolitionist and suffragette, and Hetty Grimké (nicknamed “Handful”), a high-spirited urban slave who is wrapped in a lavender ribbon and given to Sarah as her 11th-birthday present, are both imprisoned by the circumstances of their birth. As the decades roll by, these two women’s relationship with each other grows more complex while the culture shape-shifts around them. Their bold individual quests for independence (If you must err, do so on the side of audacity, Sarah instructs herself) are explored by Kidd in exquisitely nuanced language that makes this book a page turner in the most resonant and satisfying of ways. —Elaina Richardson

 

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"On Such a Full Sea"

 

by Chang-rae Lee; Riverhead

 

“A tale, like the universe . . . expands ceaselessly each time you examine it,” explains the sly first-person-plural narrator who tells the riveting story of Fan, a young woman who has an unlimited capacity for “understanding and trusting the improvisational nature of her will.” The setting is America, circa 2100. The Chinese are in the majority, having taken over the towns; environmental calamity has forced all food production indoors; and ever since the outlawing of domestic animals (to prevent disease), one member of the elite—a group that’s still largely Caucasian—makes another person sleep next to her bed like a dog. And yet, for all the apparent differences from life as we know it, there is no denying that Lee’s brilliantly rendered dystopia resembles our America: not the future we fear but the present we often deny. When Fan unceremoniously walks out of her work camp in search of her boyfriend/her brother/her limits/herself, she rattles the group-mind right to its shaky foundations, becoming, at least temporarily, a flash of hope, something that “lights our way through this ever-dimming world.” —Pam Houston

 

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"A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940"

 

by Victoria Wilson; Simon & Schuster

 

Frank Capra called her “a primitive emotional.” Indeed, Stanwyck possessed an Irish temper, two Boston bull terriers and an ardor for boxing. This first installment of a two-volume biography jumps off from the actress’s hardscrabble Brooklyn childhood, then tracks her metamorphosis from supper club hoofer to popcorn Venus in such red-hot ’30s hits as Stella Dallas and Baby Face. Wilson’s lavishly detailed book surges with hard-knocks stories and punchy Hollywood anecdotes about, among others, her frequent director Capra and her tippling first husband, vaudevillian Frank Fay. The trajectories of the couple’s careers—he tumbles while she rockets—read like something out of A Star Is Born, one weeper Stanwyck never made. Instead, she lived it. —Jan Stuart

 

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"The Married Kama Sutra: The World's Least Erotic Sex Manual"

 

by Simon Rich and Farley Katz; Little, Brown

 

What’s your position on sexual positions? The Kama Sutra, that ancient sourcebook, favored the intricate, offering such challenges as the lotus blossom, the crouching tiger and the sphinx. The long married, however, may find more satisfaction in this not-so-sexy but quite hilarious volume. Sample position: “When the man travels to a sporting event with other men, and the woman, in his absence, takes a long, hot bath and drinks wine out of a box, it is called ‘a moment’s peace.’” —Judith Coyne

 

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Mothers and Others

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (Harper) and Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother by Lauren Slater (Beacon Press)

 

 

These two writers, both born in 1963 and scarred by troubled childhoods, grew up to be women who use words to understand themselves and the world. Both also became “literary” writers who take commercial assignments from magazines, for pay. And now both have collected those pieces into freeform memoirs that are being released at virtually the same time. Both books focus closely on family, work and what it means to love. And both are deeply, captivatingly good.

 

The writers’ perspectives, however, are radically different. Even when her heart is breaking—for instance, as she describes the decline and death of her beloved grandmother—Patchett radiates pleasure in life and passionate engagement with the world. Slater, who battles mental illness and describes herself as “brooding and acerbic and self-consumed,” inhabits a darker place. Her writing is often breathtaking (“I was still stuck in the sliver-stone of my moon and marriage”), but you wouldn’t want to be her. Remarkably, both women find their way to happiness.

Compilations like these inevitably lack the driving narrative of a book intended as a full-length memoir, but that’s also their appeal. Short, very rich chapters invite slow savoring. They form, as Patchett says of the short story, “a handful of glorious pages that take you someplace you never knew you wanted to go.” —Carol Mithers

 

Click to buy This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

 

Click to buy Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother

"Andrew's Brain"

 

by E.L. Doctorow; Random House

 

Andrew, a professor of cognitive science who describes his soul as “an emotionless, calm cold pond of silence,” tells his story to a mysterious interlocutor (a shrink?) in this evocative, suspenseful novel about the deceptive nature of human consciousness. If Andrew is to be believed, he accidentally killed his child, lost his first wife in a tragic accident and, after an affair with an ill-fated student, joined a shadowy post-9/11 Washington think tank. As this contentious, paranoid (or frighteningly astute?) character suffers his way to clarity, he comes to mourn lost love, finding a semblance of sanity in an insane world. —Kristy Davis

 

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"What Nora Knew"

by Linda Yellin; Gallery Books

 

Can a reeling-toward-40 Web reporter find love by taking a cue from the leads in Sleepless in Seattle and other Nora Ephron romantic comedies? In What Nora Knew, a buoyant second novel by More contributor Linda Yellin, the resourceful heroine, Molly Hallberg, gives it a try. The author slips in scenes from some of her quirkier More assignments (learn to dance like a Rockette! Tour New York City with a concealed vibrator!). But what will really keep you smiling are such sly observations as “There’s nothing like spending a Saturday night in a laundry room to underline you’ve screwed up your love life.” —Susan Toepfer

 

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"Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture"

by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro; Simon & Schuster

 

America’s self-help culture, with its endlessly varied assertions that if we just try we can have and be everything we want, invites ridicule. In Promise Land Jessica Lamb-Shapiro gleefully (and cleverly) skewers the idiocy. Fortunately, she doesn’t stop there. The book is both cultural commentary and memoir, and Lamb-Shapiro reveals her own scars. Her mother died when she was not quite two, a tragedy her (psychologist!) father never addressed, and through childhood, “I was a hairbreadth shy of deranged.” Anxious and neurotic, she understands why self-help has appeal. If you’re in crisis and desperate, “How much would you pay for something that would right your life?...How much would you pay just to feel that this was possible?” Her sympathy makes a book that might have been merely snarky surprisingly tender. —Carol Mithers

 

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Next: 20 Best Books of 2013

 

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"To Vegas and Back"

by Suzanne R. Krauss; Changing Lives Press

 

Following an anxiety attack and a meeting with a therapist, Krauss sets out to tell the story of her mother Olivia, a one-time homemaker turned Vegas showgirl. As she recounts a tumultuous childhood marked by instability and abuse at the hands of one of her mother's many lovers, Krauss realizes with pride that as she emerged into adulthood and developed a close relationship with her mother, she also learned the meaning of unconditional love. 

 

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First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

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