Got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them? In no particular order, here are a few suggestions of books I’ve loved this year.
For those who want to be swept away into a story: TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann. Brilliant. One of the best books I’ve read this year, if not the best. The novel sweeps back and forth in time changing points of view, but always with the theme of crossing the Atlantic between North America and Ireland. At first these seem like individual short stories, but each point of view is related to another, usually in a small, chance encounter that impacts the character’s life in an important way. Colum McCann weaves the stories together so expertly that coming upon the connection was a delightful a-ha moment. I enjoyed Colum McCann’s style of writing — subtle and straight-forward, painting an honest picture of the characters.
For those who love a good love story: Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes. It’s no surprise that this book is on many “Best of…” lists this year, and I don’t think I’ve read a bad review. Nina Badzin writing for Great New Books summarized it perfectly:
Louisa “Lou” is a woman down on her luck. She has no money; she lives with her parents who also need money; and she’s been stuck in a going-nowhere relationship as well. Once she loses the food service job she should have left years earlier, she accepts a position as an aid to an extremely wealthy man who is a quadriplegic. Will and Lou instantly dislike each other, but over time their working relationship gets more complicated.
No, this isn’t a traditional love story. But neither was Casablanca or The Fault in Our Stars. Let me just say this: if you want a life-affirming, gut-checking story that will stay with you long after you close the cover (or turn off the e-reader, as the case may be) get this one.
For those who aren’t sure what they want to be when they grow up: One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success, by Marci Alboher. Too often we’re stuck in a single mindset about what a job is supposed to be. You’re an accountant. Or a real estate agent. Or a police officer. But what if you also want to be a cartoonist. Or a stand-up comedian. Or a Pilates instructor. The author interviewed hundreds of people pursuing multiple careers simultaneously—from a longshoreman/documentary filmmaker to a management consultant/cartoonist—and discovered how what she calls “slash careers” are becoming the new norm. Custom-blending a career used to be a disadvantage, but Alboher shows how it can be fulfilling and interesting, leading to unexpected opportunities.
For those who are tired of explaining that being introverted isn’t a bad thing: Quiet, by Susan Cain. I read this book at the very end of 2012, and so I missed last year’s round up. Cain is a self-described introvert herself, and she says that society places a high value on action over contemplation. But, “when it comes to creativity and leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best,” she says. With so much white noise out there, often the person who is most magnetic in a social situation is seen as a leader and innovator, even though the quiet person may have the same idea. In short, our society rewards extroversion, equating it with success and happiness. (The introverted person must be unhappy, right?) Cain also makes the distinction between shy and introversion: shy is about the fear of social judgment, while introversion is about how you respond to social stimulation. Extroverts crave large amounts of social stimulation. Introverts feel at their most alive and capable when they are in quieter, more low-key environments. But no one is all introvert or extrovert, we fall somewhere along the spectrum.
Also check out Susan Cain’s TED talk. If you or someone close to you is an introvert, you’re sure to have a few a-ha moments. (She says introverts and extroverts who work or live together often have to come to certain understandings to live harmoniously.)
For those who want to be transported to the Golden Age of Hollywood: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub. This is a story less about the glamorous side of the motion picture business and more about one woman’s life in it, exploring universal themes of career, motherhood and friendship against the backdrop of the fantasy world of Hollywood. We follow the story of Laura a.k.a Elsa from her girlhood in Door County, Wisconsin, to becoming a leading lady, then as her spotlight fades until she is an elderly grandmother. “After that afternoon, she was always two people at once, Elsa Emerson and Laura Lamont. They shared a body and a brain and a heart, conjoined twins linked in too many places to ever separate. Elsa wondered whether it would always be that way, or whether bits of Laura would eventually detach themselves, shaking off Elsa like a discarded husk.” To feel this duality between what others expect and what you want is not limited to movie stars. I’m looking forward to reading more from Emma Straub.
For those who just want to be transported: A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. A finalist for the Man Booker Prize, this novel feels like it has a pulse. It’s haunting and familiar and moves at its own pace. Nao is a sixteen-year-old girl in Tokyo who decides to document her great-grandmother’s rich life. Across the ocean, Ruth is a novelist who comes upon an unusual collection of items in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed ashore after the 2011 tsunami. As Ruth pieces together the items, the protagonist’s connection unfolds. It’s one of those novels that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
For those who are interested in community: Dinner with the Smileys, by Sarah Smiley. I thought the concept behind this book was so intriguing. When columnist Sarah Smiley’s navy husband is deployed overseas, she and her three sons decide to fill his seat at the dinner table with one new guest each week for a year. School teachers, artists, the University of Maine hockey team, a senator, the town mayor (as a journalist, I’m guessing she has access to higher profile people than I do!) all come to share a little bit of themselves during the weekly meal. There is joy, sacrifice, loneliness, grief and a whole host of universal emotions that will make you connect with the Smileys. Sarah’s narrative isn’t sugarcoated at all. In the end it has little to do with dinner or the military. It really centers on the community and connection.
For those who want to laugh out loud: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris. Really, what can I say about David Sedaris that hasn’t already been said? He’s hilarious, witty, charming, and a darn good writer. Some humor writers just want to get you to the punchline. They don’t necessarily care about the underlying point of the essay. That has never been true of David Sedaris, and this book is no exception. He weaves tales to take you from point A to B to C seamlessly. He doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinion on sensitive topics or his youthful indiscretions, but does it in a way that has you laughing. I find he’s at his best when discussing his family and past. If you can catch Sedaris on an author tour, there is nothing like seeing him live. I can attest to that — read about the time I scratched David Sedaris’s back!
For those who want to read an “of the moment” story: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. I’ll say right up front that this is not a book I thought I would love as much as I did, but I was mesmerized. I read it every chance I got. I even have pages dog-eared because I loved the prose that much. Billy Lynn and Bravo Squad have been fighting in Iraq. Because of deeds done during a harrowing battle that claims the life of one of them, 19-year-old Billy is pronounced a hero. He and Bravo are plucked off the battlefield and sent on a tour around the US to drum up support for the war. The forward motion of the storyline takes place in one day — Thanksgiving — during a Dallas Cowboys football game with the Bravo Squad scheduled to be honored at the halftime show. There are flashbacks to Billy’s family, previous stops on the media tour, and a few touches on the actual firefight that turned them into heroes. Those details are woven in sparingly, so if, like me, you don’t care for intense war scenes, you won’t be turned off. Billy, a young Rabbit Angstrom caught in a Catch-22, is a decent young man with the sudden urge to question the meaning of what is unfolding around him. He thinks about the possibility of leaving the stadium and his squad at his sister’s behest. Will he take her advice? It’s a story with big implications yet it feels very intimate.
For the history or pop culture buff in your life: One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson. Full disclosure: I’m a Bill Bryson completist. I’ve read just about every book he’s had published. He has the wonderful ability to take dense topics and, not only simplify them, but make them interesting with a touch of his trademark humor. In this doorstopper of a book, Bryson delves into the many game-changing events that happened during the course of the summer of 1927. This was the time when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, when Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs (a record that would stand for thirty-four years), when Ruth Snyder and her lover murdered her husband resulting in a trial that captivated the nation (and was turned into a Hollywood film called Double Indemnity), when The Jazz Singer was filmed, when the world’s four most powerful bankers held a secret meeting on Long Island and made a fateful decision that would lead directly to the Great Depression. I mean, whew! And that’s just scratching the surface. Bryson delivers narrative nonfiction in an engaging way that helps the reader keep all of the people and events straight. Absolutely informative, interesting, and most of all, enjoyable.
For those who want to travel with a peculiar crowd: Travels with My Aunt, by Graham Greene. Here is the Graham Greene book that proves what a versatile writer he was. Travels with My Aunt is off Greene’s usual track. This novel is funny and farcical as Henry Pulling meets his eclectic Aunt Augusta for the first time at his mother’s funeral. Aunt Augusta is a force to be reckoned with. She’s led quite an exciting life and feels it’s time to shake things up again. Before long she persuades quiet and peckish Henry to give up his dull and regulated life and join her on a trip around the globe from Brighton to Paris to Istanbul to Paraguay where they live on the edge. An entertaining read by one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.
For those who’ve ever had the desire to fit in: Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Auggie is a sweet ten-year-old boy who was born with distorted facial features due to an anomaly in his DNA. The book opens as he enters a mainstream school for the first time. He doesn’t describe his face because, “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Auggie wants to convince his new classmates that he’s an ordinary kid, just like them. Easy to say, much harder to do. If the grounding point of the story is Auggie’s parents, who are warm and loving, then the heart of the story is Auggie’s classmates, who are portrayed with such convincing realism, I figured the author must have a child that age at home. Bringing to life a bunch of fifth graders who have distinct personalities takes a lot of skill. (Also easy to say, much harder to do.) Listen to an interview with the author and read an excerpt at NPR’s All Things Considered.
For those who like stories that just sneak up on them: Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín. This seems to be a simple story about a young Irish woman who, through no desire of her own, is shipped off to the US, Brooklyn specifically, to get a fresh start in the aftermath of WWII. But then something happens. You find yourself thinking about Eilis, her elegant sister Rose and their fragile mother, even when you’re not reading the book. You find yourself rooting for Eilis as she tries to adjust to her new life, something very relatable if you’ve ever moved to a new city. But adjust she eventually does with the help of a local boy named Tony and a reliable department store job. Her tiny village in Ireland is never far from her mind and when she must return she’s faced with a difficult decision: stay on for good or return to the new life she’s building for herself. I love the spareness of the prose. I also love the attention to detail without overwhelming the reader with description. A lesser writer might have harped on the comparisons between Eilis’s hometown and big city Brooklyn as she tries to take it all in, but of course he doesn’t and gives credit to the reader for knowing the difference. In that way, it’s a quiet book. If you’re looking for evil wizards or heart gripping car chases, this one isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a character-driven story where the author is in complete control, you should enjoy this story. (Also look for the movie based on this book coming in 2014.) This was my first book by Colm Tóibín book, and I don’t think it will be my last.
What are some of your favorite books to give and get?
Have a great weekend, everyone!