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Ask a Book Critic: Books to kick off the new year

Books that find joy in everyday life, to help you through the new year — or a bad breakup.

Ask a Book Critic Amanda Northrop/Vox

Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now or how you’d like to be feeling instead.

Let’s get started.

I’m looking for a book with a narrative that spans over a long time period. Some examples of previous works I’ve read are Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, and Harry Turtledove’s Timeline-191/Southern Victory series, and on the more extreme side, Olaf Stapledon’s The First and Last Men.

Try Fall by Neal Stephenson. It’s about a man whose consciousness is uploaded into a computerized afterlife that he has to build from scratch. It begins with a near-future section that runs a few decades, and then once we enter the afterlife, there’s a more mythological section that runs the equivalent of about 1,500 years.

The cessation of my normal life (as a university student) has me re-examining my future plans, and I feel at a bit of a loss. It just seems that many of the things I had formerly aspired to/that had diverted me are now without purpose or at least any real spark. Can you suggest a book in which a character finds a career/endeavor that they have a real passion for or discovers a delightful new hobby?

Try Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which the heroine quits her prestigious university fellowship to move to Nigeria. Also maybe Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply, about the experience of losing a spouse, child, and house all at once and having to reinvent oneself from the ground up.

I am — given quarantine — in search of books of the quotidian, of dailiness, and keep finding ones that have a kind of misanthropic dourness about them, as if having to live through all this — as if life — is somewhat of an affront. Which it can be. (I’m thinking of Kate Zambreno’s Drifts, for example.) But there are three books I can think of that I loved for the delight their narrators take in daily minutiae. One is Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. Another is Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. A third is Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing. I want more! What can you think of?

Katherine May’s memoir Wintering has some of this absorption in detail. You do have to wade through a bit of woo-woo stuff about how depression is an inflammation of the brain that should be iced, but there’s also a lot about embracing the everyday-ness of life during a hard winter, which we’re all about to live through. And of course, Knausgård is the canonical answer here, although personally I would go for one of the seasonal essay collections over the autofiction.

Finally — and this is a bit of a weird option — I find housekeeping manuals to be bizarrely good for appreciating daily minutiae. Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson is mostly about, like, laundry, but it has all these descriptions of lace-edged sheets folded with lavender that are incredibly evocative and grounding. The woman takes joy from her space, and she would like you to do the same.

I have a stack of unread books in my apartment but my attention span for reading during the pandemic has been almost nonexistent. I need a book to either shock my system to restart again or else I need a quintessential cozy comfort book to entice me to start reading again. I have been reading a few pages of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem for her astringent lucidity as well as a few pages of Willa Cather’s My Antonia for her sensual tactile prose every day. But I’m looking for a suggestion of a new book to get my mojo going again. You can tell that good writing is a must for me. Do you have any suggestions?

For something to shock your system, try My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, the most salt-and-vinegar of all the Brooklyn cool girl novels du jour. It’s about a woman who decides to take tranquilizers to sleep her way through most of a year, since she’s happiest while she’s sleeping, and what she gets up to while she’s out. If astringency is what you’re craving, this book has it.

For something cozy and sensual, try Colm Tóibín’s sweet and lovely Brooklyn. This novel was the basis of the 2015 film starring Saoirse Ronan, and it’s a beautifully observed human-scaled portrait about an ordinary girl living an ordinary life. It all works because of the details.

I’m going through a messy breakup-almost-makeup but it’s just about time for me to start moving on. I’m in my early 20s and this is my first visceral heartbreak. Could you recommend me a witty but gentle coming-of-age romance that also deals with the themes of letting go?

I’m so sorry to hear you’re dealing with that! Elif Batuman’s The Idiot deals beautifully with letting go of a messy college romance and finding yourself afterward. Sally Rooney also feels obligatory here — both Normal People and Conversations with Friends do a bit of what you’re looking for, although I think Normal People more so.

My favorite series of all time is called All for the Game by Nora Sakavic, but it’s depressingly niche and no one knows about it so can’t give me recommendations of what to read which is similar to it in vibes. It’s about a college sports team who only accept people who need second chances but also the mafia and [it possibly has] the most underrated character development of all time and a spattering of emo young adults who are all very serious. I can’t explain it well, there’s just so much. Any recommendations would be appreciated!

I think you should try The Bookburners series. It’s a serialized anthology (think book with the structure of a TV show) about a group of misfits who are recruited by the Vatican to hunt down various books possessed by demons, and it gives off similar “broken people create a found family” vibes to what you’re describing in All for the Game.

Can you recommend a good book that tells a story from the classics, mythology, or ancient history? So, not a translation or something in poetic form, but a more straightforward narrative retelling.

A classic of this genre is Till We Have Faces, which is C.S. Lewis’s take on Cupid and Psyche. No one’s ever going to accuse Lewis of being a feminist, but this book features probably his best stab at writing a woman, plus lots of beautiful writing and interesting ideas. More recently, Hanna Crispin’s The Dead Queens Club is an extremely fun YA novel about the six wives of Henry VIII forming a girl gang; Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a gorgeous Antigone; and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife does some very interesting things with Beowulf.

I’m looking for a book that embeds you in the protagonist’s mind, and I enjoy unreliable narrators. Bonus points if the lead is female, queer, and Irish or Hispanic.

Try Neil Jordan’s Shade! It’s a really beautifully written novel told by the ghost of an Irish film actress, often addressing her murderer, who was also her childhood friend. I sometimes get bits of her stream of consciousness stuck in my head like a song, even though it’s been a few years since my last rereading: “My Pip is my Estella and both are my Joe Gargery, and what Joe says to Pip I would say to George. What larks, Pip.”

What larks!

If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!