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10 surprising books for holiday reading

By Howard Mittelmark, Special to CNN
Think outside of the Christmas box when buying holiday book gifts this season.
Think outside of the Christmas box when buying holiday book gifts this season.
  • Instead of reading the standby holiday books, try 10 great nontraditional books
  • "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead" is by James Kirkwood, the man behind "A Chorus Line"
  • Find out the truth in "Santa Claus: A Biography" by Gerry Bowler
  • Enjoy a Southern gothic tale with Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood"

Editor's note: Howard Mittelmark is the co-author of "Read This Next: 500 of the Best Books You'll Ever Read", just published by HarperCollins.

(CNN) -- After all the celebrating, overeating and overdrinking with friends and family, sitting down quietly with a good book could be just the thing you need.

Sure, you could turn to the old holiday standbys, but if you want to think outside the Christmas box, here are 10 great nontraditional books for holiday-themed reading:

1. "Pat Hobby Stories"

F. Scott Fitzgerald spent his last years in Hollywood, working on an unfinished final novel and screenplays that didn't go anywhere. His "Pat Hobby Stories," wry and winning tales of a washed-up screenwriter who just never learns, suggest he never stopped learning or lost his sense of humor. The first, "Pat Hobby's Christmas Wish," has him attempting to blackmail a producer into a promotion on the day before Christmas.

2. "A Likely Story"

We find another writer with Christmas headaches in Donald Westlake's "A Likely Story." Westlake is best known for his crime novels; here he goes in a different direction, with a very funny story about families in the age of divorce. Tom Diskant is doing his best to sort out a complicated personal life while trying to keep his glossy publishing project, "The Christmas Book," on track. Both go wrong in unexpected ways.

3. "Last Night at the Lobster"

In "Last Night at the Lobster," Stewart O'Nan gives us all the small details that make up a day's work in a popular franchise restaurant. It's just before Christmas, and we share the regrets, hopes and best intentions of the beleaguered manager after corporate tells him to shut the place down.

4. "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead"

James Kirkwood won a Tony and a Pulitzer for "A Chorus Line," but his comic novel, "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead," has its own devoted following.

It's New Year's Eve when Jimmy, a just-dumped, out-of-work actor, catches Vito breaking into his apartment. It's his third break-in, and Jimmy's had enough. He decides to hold Vito responsible for everything that's gone wrong. The two hit it off, though, and over the course of a long night, things get stranger and gayer and better.

5. "I Remember"

You can find a more traditional holiday in Joe Brainard's "I Remember." The episodic memoir from the New York-school poet is filled with simple striking moments recalled from the sort of middle-American childhood that we all miss, whether we had one or not.

6. "Santa Claus: A Biography"

There's no bigger Christmas celebrity than Santa Claus. But like most celebrities, we only think we know him. Gerry Bowler's sprightly cultural history, "Santa Claus: A Biography, examines his origins and evolution. The book suggests there's still hope for Santa, despite the corporate spokesperson and entertainment icon he's been turned into today.

7. "Wise Blood"

Of course, there's one bigger name in Christmas, the one people say gets forgotten amidst all the parties and wrapping paper. In Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood," Hazel Motes wants to forget about Jesus and sin and salvation so badly that he takes to the streets, preaching the gospel of the Church Without Christ. The more he insists, though, the more we don't believe him. Southern gothic at its finest.

8. "An Atheist's Guide to Christmas"

Genuine atheists have to make it through the holidays too, and they aren't confused about what they really believe. They aren't necessarily as angry as you'd think from the current crop of Big Atheism books, either. The writers who contributed to "An Atheist's Guide to Christmas" are in a friendlier and funnier mood and remain consistently thoughtful and entertaining. Edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers.

9. "Doomsday Book"

The time-traveling historians in Connie Willis' award-winning science fiction novel, "Doomsday Book," don't have religion on their minds as the holidays come to Oxford University in 2054. Something's gone wrong, and a young grad student is stranded back in a dangerous, plague-ravaged 14th-century England. Willis makes the otherness of medieval society disconcertingly real.

10. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

Things weren't all plagues and suffering back then, though. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a tricky, playful 14th-century tale, one of the great stories of chivalry.

It starts when the mysterious Green Knight crashes a sumptuous holiday feast at King Arthur's court. He proposes a Christmas game to the best and the brightest of Camelot: "Any one of you can try to chop off my head," he says, "and if I survive, a year from now, you must let me chop off yours."

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