Sure, we’ve got books on our minds this time of year but we also can’t stop thinking about the yummy holiday foods we get to enjoy. Like the juicy plot twist of an obsessive thriller, or the tantalizing backdrop of an engrossing historical novel, or the scrumptious love story at the center of your favorite feel good read—food has the ability keep us coming back for more. Here at Off the Shelf, our brains are working overtime coming up with books recommendations you’ll devour and dreaming about the treats we’ll devour at the holiday dinner table. So, here’s a list of our favorite holiday foods with a side of book recommendations.
It might seem odd timing, but my favorite holiday treat is ice cream! Peppermint ice cream, to be specific—growing up in New England this flavor used to be common, but these days it only pops up in December. Its pink-and-white cheer masks a cool bite, the perfect description for humorist David Sedaris’s iconic collection. His darkly funny observations have just a hint of bitterness to leaven the sticky-sweetness of the season—and his willingness to laugh at himself most of all keeps me coming back to his work again and again.
Who can forget this collection of raucous stories about Christmas traditions and mishaps? From "Christmas Means Giving," with its competitively generous neighbors, to "Front Row Center for Thaddeus Bristol," Sedaris' mock serious review of a grade school Christmas pageant. Holidays on Ice is a full bounty of entertaining stories about Christmas, Halloween, secret Santas, and the difficulties of explaining the Rabbit of Easter to the French. Read it for a laugh this holiday.
One of my favorite holiday dishes has always been my grandma’s Swedish meatballs, served as part of her Christmas smörgåsbord—a buffet of all kinds of delicious dishes. The perfect book to go with them is beloved Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s novel about seven-year-old Elsa, whose eccentric grandmother is her best friend. When her grandmother passes away and leaves her granddaughter with a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa’s greatest adventure begins.
This warmhearted love letter between a granddaughter and her grandmother explores big emotions with wisdom and charm.
I am Panamanian, and growing up our holiday table didn’t include roast turkey or stuffing, but rather brimmed with Latin staples of roast pork, rice and beans, tamales, and my ultimate favorite dish: arroz con pollo. Rice with chicken. It’s my comfort food, and when I need comfort reading I turn to Lorrie Moore. Her clever writing and unique perspective on life always puts a smile on my face, and her darkly funny short story collection BIRDS OF AMERICA never fails. The stories are a catalog of flawed and peculiar characters stuck in mundane situations. Reading them always reinforces to me how we think we are different, but in actuality are united by being painfully human.
Moore’s takes on marriage in her famous collection are sharp, funny, and full of the kinds of revealed truths that leave you shaking your head with surprise and recognition. -Scott O'Connor
My favorite part about the holidays is my dad’s cooking. Watching him commanding the kitchen for my mom’s Christmas Eve birthday feast or for the extended family gathering Christmas morning brings such a nostalgic feeling of childhood and tradition. I’d say my favorite is his pumpkin pie, though I also get a kick out of his insistence on making ambrosia, based on his mother’s recipe; its strange Jell-O-like consistency and muted orange color doesn’t make it the most appealing of holiday must-haves. What goes better with a unique family dish than a wacky family saga? THE FAMILY FANG by Kevin Wilson is an absurdist romp that tests both the limits of family bonds as well as the acceptable parameters of performance art, as two parents call on their children to perform public stunts and act out their artistic visions.
Owen King (We’re All in This Together) calls author Kevin Wilson, “the unholy child of George Saunders and Carson McCullers.” With his novel, The Family Fang, the Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth comes through in a BIG way, with a funny, poignant, laugh-and-cry-out-loud (sometimes at the same time) novel about the art of surviving a masterpiece of dysfunction. Meet The Family Fang, an unforgettable collection of demanding, brilliant, and absolutely endearing oddballs whose lives are risky and mischievous performance art. If the writing of Gary Shteyngart, Miranda July, Scarlett Thomas, and Charles Yu excites you, you’ll certainly want to invite this Family into your home.
In a Sicilian household, the most cherished and important meal is La Festa dei Sette Pesci (Feast of the Seven Fishes) on Christmas Eve. Basically every single dish—minus dessert, mercifully—includes some kind of underwater creature, from eel to shrimp to squid to flounder. It’s a meal steeped in both family and national traditions that always reminds me of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s classic novel THE LEOPARD, which tells the spellbinding story of decadent Sicilian aristocrats whose power comes under threat when ideas of democracy and revolution begin to spread across the country. It’s the perfect book to read as you emerge from your food coma!
One of my desert island books, THE LEOPARD is not so much a novel as a eulogy for a way of life and a Sicily that was already lost by the time Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was writing. Simply beautifully written (and translated), this is a book everyone should read.
The holiday season is the best time of year to pop the bubbly. And the best literary characters to join in on the bubbly festivities are definitely Nick and Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett’s sparkling, witty high society mystery THE THIN MAN. Taking place over the Christmas season in 1930s Manhattan, Nick and Nora trade sharp wisecracks (and lots of drinks) while solving the mystery of a missing eccentric scientist. Filled with clever one-liners and twists and turns, THE THIN MAN is a vibrant novel that you’ll want to revisit again and again.