The Lists

The Perfect Books to Read in the Month of November

So many books, so little time! Reading can be one of life’s sweetest luxuries. But how to quickly find the next great volume to dive into? To lend a hand, every month we’ll share our recommended reading list: the perfect books to read each month. These are books we’ve personally read and loved – some brand new, and some published long ago. Selected to suit the season, we think they deserve a place on your nightstand. Or your e-reader. In your backpack. Or your carry-on bag. You get the idea.

What makes for the perfect book to read in November?

In America, November is a month where we’re meant to tally up the things we’re grateful for. It’s a time for a big family meal – or perhaps a lovely feast with your best friends. A perfect opportunity to reflect on rituals, recipes, trust, traditions and emotional ties with the people closest to you.

It’s also the month of elections in America. Lest anyone forget that the stakes are extremely high when determining who should be elected to lead, November is also the month of remembering those lost in war. Armistice Day, the Day of Remembrance, or Veteran’s Day – the commemorations have different names in different countries, but in many places around the world, November is a time to reflect on the sacrifices, terror and lasting scars of violent conflict. To mark that occasion, we’ve created a list of the best novels to read for Veteran’s Day. To see that list, click here.

And of course November is also the start of the holiday season: a time for buying gifts, decorating and bringing out the chunky sweaters and the chic boots. It’s a complex month: a beginning and an ending – a celebration and a commemoration. Loss and hope. Hunger and fulfillment.

So what is the perfect November read?

We think your reading list this month should be a cornucopia: overflowing with ideas, laughter, stories, tears, provocations and surprises. Feeling like almost too much, and then turning out to be just enough. And leaving you feeling grateful. And generous. And neighborly.

What follows is a list of books (in no particular order) that we’ve read and loved – either very recently or long ago – that strike precisely the right November note. We think any of these would be a perfect match for curling up with after Thanksgiving dinner; for lazing on the sofa in front of the fire on a rainy afternoon; for tucking under your arm to read in line while you wait to vote; for recovering from your most recent holiday shopping trip; or maybe just for reading on your way home, whatever home means to you.

here’s our recommended reading list for november:

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. It’s a close call for the book that wins the prize for “most November of all” and this novel is definitely on our short list: elegiac, melancholy, wistful, perfectly crafted and deeply emotional – and oh yes, it features a family. And the holidays. Among other things. Over the course a year we see 30-year old Ruth deal with the challenges of a history-professor father with Alzheimer’s, a mother who blames herself for his illness, a brother estranged from the family, and her own broken engagement. Laugh-out-loud funny at times, and piercingly sharp in others, Khong is brilliant at penning memorable aphorisms and also at getting to the very heart of the matter with the lightest possible touch. This should come as no surprise, as she was the executive editor of the dearly departed Lucky Peach. It’s a fantastic read.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Set in suburban Shaker Heights, Ohio, this second novel is a mediation on the ties and epic struggles between mothers and children; between siblings; and between women who are peers. Ng artfully raises the questions of what parenting really means, and what the perfect community actually looks like. It all begins in flames, with the home of the protagonist, Elena Richardson, being destroyed by a deliberate act of arson – seemingly done by her youngest child. From there the story moves a year into the past to excavate the forces that led to the conflagration. If you think your family gathering for Thanksgiving might be fraught, this should help you put it in perspective.

There, There by Tommy Orange. This debut novel is the talk of the many book clubs and reading groups, and the month of Thanksgiving would be a perfect time for to read about the experience of Native Americans in the US. Twelve Urban Indians living in Oakland, California converge and collide on one fateful day. Each person is attending the Big Oakland Powwow for a different reason, with a different goal: some generous, some fearful, some joyful, some violent. As one reviewer noted: “This is a novel about what it means to inhabit a land both yours and stolen from you, to simultaneously contend with the weight of belonging and un-belonging.” 

Atonement by Ian McEwan. Written in 2001, this novel is utterly timeless and as relevant today as it was when it was published. Set in England during three different time periods – 1935; the Second World War; and the present day – it explores themes of desire, war, betrayal – and of course, atonement. The scenes set at the Battle of Dunkirk will remind you of the importance of Armistice Day – Veterans Day – and the need to remember the horrors of violent conflict and the souls lost in battle through the centuries. The scenes on the home front will lead you to think deeply about family, honor and truth. The prose is cerebral and crisp, so when the stunning moments come, they cut straight to the heart. Have tissues nearby.

Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. This fictional account of Mister Monkey, a screwball children’s musical about an orphan monkey adopted by a family, and a ragtag troupe of players performing it in a theater in Manhattan, is a great deal more serious and thought-provoking than its cover implies (proving, for the umpteenth time, that we should never judge a book by its cover). The make-shift family in the musical reflects the family ties – or lack thereof – amongst the actors. It’s an inventive way to explore themes of disappointment, growing up, growing old, and holding on.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett. On its surface, this brilliant debut appears to be about a surreptitious teenage love affair. It’s narrated by a Greek chorus of church ladies who gossip disapprovingly about the behavior of the young ones. But actually, mothers – their absence and presence – are the preoccupation of this affecting novel. Two black teenaged girls in Southern California are united by their shared loss – neither has a mother (one is lost to suicide, and the other to abandonment). What these two will make of their own lives – whether they will become mothers themselves, whether their friendship can fill the holes left by a lost parent, and whether trust and forgiveness are really possible after a shocking betrayal – these are urgent timeless questions, beautifully explored.

The Past by Tessa Hadley. Before sitting down with your own family for a holiday meal, read this evocative novel about a quartet of siblings – three sisters and a brother – who arrive at their grandparents’ ancient and crumbling estate in the British countryside for one last summer sojourn. The house will need to be sold, and when it goes, it will take secrets and memories with it. There are kids, a new wife and the son of an ex-boyfriend in tow, and the emotional currents run high during three hot weeks in August. The redemptive love of siblings is a powerful force, and probably a good one to remember right about now.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Sibling relationships are also the locus of this debut novel set in New York City. The four Plumb siblings – two sisters and two brothers – gather to discuss their joint inheritance – “the Nest” – which is in jeopardy thanks to the reckless actions of the oldest brother. The value of the funds has soared, thanks to the stock market, and has become a sum that each sibling is counting on to solve a pressing financial problem. How they navigate their obligations and learn how to live with their choices is a bittersweet tale, revealing which family bonds are truly unbreakable.

Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well by Sam Sifton. We love reading Sam Sifton’s columns for the New York Times, and eagerly look forward to his thrice-weekly Cooking newsletter (if you haven’t subscribed to it, you totally should). This book is a compilation of his thoughts about Thanksgiving, with recipes and advice for how to prepare a wonderful meal without making yourself crazy in the process. Written in his voice – knowledgeable, friendly, reassuring and encouraging – it’s the perfect read whether you’re cooking your first Thanksgiving dinner or your 35th. And if you’re going to be a guest at someone else’s table, reading this beforehand will help you appreciate just how thankful you should be for your host’s labors.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty. In this 2018 James Beard Foundation Book of the Year, culinary historian Twitty shares the story of his family—which has members who are both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom. One family’s story illuminates the ongoing conversation about Southern cuisine and food culture, and how what we cook and eat can define who we are as a nation.

There you have it: 10 books to feed the soul while you go about the business of November. Happy reading, all.

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