Like most holidays, Valentine’s Day is a nationally recognized occasion to overdose on sugar and feel lonesome. I do not fight the momentum. Stocking up on seasonal drugstore junk — a fistful of strawberry-crème hearts, a bushel of “bakery fresh” Kupid Kakes — is one of the year’s highlights. Nothing makes me happier than assembling a pile of glucose and steadily working through it as I read, my eyes and jaw working in terrible harmony. I’m 99 percent certain that I owe this fondness for eating-while-reading to my habit of staring at cereal boxes as a kid, which trained me (and many others) to associate feeding with distraction. Healthy? No. American? Yes. Too late to undo? Haven’t tried.
Anyway, books contain all the qualities that I seek in a romantic partner: They are silent, portable, and lurk in libraries. (Just kidding! I think.) Here are some eligible love interests for your appraisal.
P.S. A full 100 percent of this issue’s recommendations come from the spreadsheet where readers like you enter suggestions. Please keep it up; I feel very cunning for having arranged a system where I receive weekly anonymous gifts in the form of book tips.
The Weight of Snow by Christian Guay-Poliquin
A reader recommended this as a “great wintertime page-turner from a Quebec novelist!,” and who am I to argue? I’m tempted to leave it at that, but I’ll add some color in case the reader’s endorsement doesn’t inveigle you the way it did me. A mechanic is maimed in a car wreck one summer and deposited at the door of an old man named Matthias, who has been squatting in the annex of a mansion a few kilometers from a dwindling village. Matthias has been surviving on a combination of his wits, stone soup, and occasional deliveries of firewood.
It becomes clear in the early pages of the book that a calamity has resulted in a nationwide power outage, turning back a couple of centuries of progress and leaving the fate of humanity uncertain. The suspense is in the world-building, which you, reader, have to accomplish by inference. Whose house is Matthias squatting in? What country is this? Why did the power outage occur? Why is everyone dying? Will the narrator survive this winter? Does evil lurk around the corner? What does pemmican taste like? There are 400 times more descriptions of snow than you’d find in the average novel, yet that is precisely the right amount.
RIYL: Cormac McCarthy, taking the path of maximum resistance, Wim Hof, unusual meats, avalanche preparedness, bottle episodes
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
What appears at first to be a clever domestic novel develops a second identity as an ethnology of 1930s English parenting practices. The combination of haute bourgeois atmosphere and anthropological incision is euphoric. The primary quirk, or pathology, of English child-rearing (specific to this class and era, I assume) is that parents treat their kids like infants from the ages of 0 to 14 and then like full adults starting at 15, with absolutely no intermediate stage. This seems to produce an emotional illiteracy that is ideal for storytelling: Grisly events unfold beneath a lacy mantle of decorum, character defects compound, and sexual problems erupt.
Midway through telling someone about this book, I realized I didn’t know whether it had been published in 1980 or 1945. Timelessness: a great quality in a novel. Plot twist: It was actually published in 1990! Double plot twist: The author was once married to Kingsley Amis.
P.S. I’ve never seen a novel that was so recklessly undermined by its own cover. Do not judge this one by it.
RIYL: Nancy Mitford, anything touched by the alabaster hand of Julian Fellowes, thriftiness as an extreme sport, pets with human names
True Grit by Charles Portis
Trying to get someone to read a book you’re certain they’ll love but encountering indifference or resistance is not only annoying but ego damaging. Why won’t you obey my orders? and Don’t you trust my opinion? are the two implicit questions in that situation. Both are things you should never ask a friend, obviously, but that doesn’t stop anyone (for example, me) from trying. On which note, I want to issue an apology to everyone who urged me to read True Grit over the past decade and got shut down because I’d “already seen the movie.” Look, you guys win because I flushed ten years down the toilet by existing without this text in my database, and that’s no small punishment.
The technical accomplishment of True Grit is its act of ventriloquism: a middle-aged male author writing in the voice of a grouchy spinster recalling from a distance her interior monologue as a girl tracking and capturing her father’s murderer in 1875. Got that? It doesn’t matter, really. “Cool technique” isn’t why this book has plunged into my personal canon like Michael Phelps into a tank of chlorine. It’s a salty-tongued tale of adventure — that’s why!
RIYL: Donna Tartt, A High Wind in Jamaica, pursuing vendettas, gravy, speeding on the highway, Sisyphean tasks
WHY DON’T YOU…
Ponder whether a 336-page book about FRACKING, will be riveting enough to get you through a five-hour flight when the poor man next to you is RETCHING UNCONTROLLABLY into his, and eventually your, barf bag? (Based on a sample size of Molly Young: Yes.)
Cauterize yourself on some proof that a real ASSHOLE can make art that will smack the reservations right out of you?
Test-drive an IRRESISTIBLE dissection that explains why America is the way it is?
Rue the fact that despite all your RAGE, you’re still just a RAT in a CAGE by identifying with the late-capitalist doom of this memoir?
Sway about in The Western Wind, which is like if Robert Bresson had gotten obsessed with MEDIEVAL STUFF and written a novel about it?
Giggle yourself sick with this classic NICKI MINAJ procedural?
Repair the self-befoulment you incurred watching Don’t F**k With Cats with a page-turning (seriously) book of historical cleaning tips.
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- Incidental Inventions and 7 More Books I Can’t Get Out of My Head