Books make great gifts. If you’ve got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them, here are a few suggestions.
For those who want to feel the full weight of the human spirit: Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys. I devoured this novel in two days. As with Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys brings to light a little known event of WWII. This story covers the evacuation of refugees and soldiers as the Russians close in on Germany’s eastern front. Salt to the Sea alternates in very short chapters between four teens: a Polish refugee, a Lithuanian nurse, a Prussian soldier who deserted the German army, and a German sailor devoted to the Reich to the bitter end. Each one carries a secret of something that cannot be undone. They crowd onto the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship scheduled to take them to safety–or so they think. If you loved All the Light We Cannot See, you’ll love Salt to the Sea.This review is a bit sneaky because the book has not published yet. I was lucky enough to have an advance reader copy, so put this on your list for February 2016!
For those who have lost their their creative spark: Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people have this book on their “Best of…” lists this year. Elizabeth Gilbert asks you to trust and respect your creative self, to tend it as you would a garden. I loved her definition of creativity: living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. This isn’t a how to book. You won’t find exercises to reconnect with your creativity as in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, but you will find a manifesto on how to be brave in the face of your fear (by accepting it rather than trying to rid yourself of it). The title isn’t a metaphor, Gilbert believes that creative energy is indeed magic. Big Magic is a good reminder to explore innovation and live the magic.
For those who want to read a book about…books:The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. I’m a sucker for novels about bookstores and bookstore owners, and A.J. Fikry is my favorite to date. A sign hanging above A.J.’s bookstore reads “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” I wanted to pack my bags and move to Alice Island. While I loved the bookstore and island setting, the characters are the most memorable part of the story. Even the minor characters, are endearing and charming, and they feel like people you might know. A marvelous read!
For those who want to be…Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin. Good habits are the key to making positive changes in your life, says Rubin. But starting and keeping those habits can feel like a Sisyphean task. This book has a lot of solid, helpful suggestions for staying with your habits. The most important thing, she says, is to work within your personality. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. To that end, I loved her “four tendencies” framework. How you approach expectations sets the stage for how you will incorporate a new habit. We fall into one of the following categories: upholder, obliger, questioner, and rebel. It took me less than two minutes to figure out that I’m an upholder. (Didn’t even need to take the quiz!)
For those who want to be afraid–very afraid: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. It was difficult reading this novel on the subway during my commutes. Emily St. John Mandel so realistically captured the spread of the Georgian flu and the resulting devastation, I found myself worried about being in such close proximity to other people.
The story weaves expertly back and forth in time from before the flu that wiped out 99 percent of human life to Year Twenty, after the world has changed so dramatically that the remaining people are thrown back to the Middle Ages — no electricity, no cars, no Internet, no industry of any kind. Cities have been reduced to settlements and bands of travelers. Aside from the intrigue of the familiar but “otherworldliness” of Station Eleven, I love that this story remains focused on the characters and their perseverance through it all.
For those who need to unplug: The Art of Stillness, by Pico Iyer. When I saw Pico Iyer at the Brooklyn Book Festival, he was asked if there was a common theme running through his work. He answered immediately that he tries to “reconcile hopefulness with realism.” That theme threads its way through this slim volume as well. Maybe it’s a bit counterintuitive for a travel writer like Pico Iyer to recommend staying put, but he believes we should give ourselves permission to be still, even for a few minutes. He explores the lives of people who have incorporated stillness and offers their examples to guide readers to put down the phone and turn off the TV. It’s a break we crave.
For those who are light-hearted history buffs: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell. Sarah Vowell is to American history what Bill Bryson is to thru-hiking. Wry, funny, and irreverent, her spot-on observations make what seems like a dry subject supremely interesting. “Here she dives into the tale of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who, as a glory-hungry teen, crossed an ocean to join a revolution in a land he’d never before visited.” Even Sarah Vowell’s digressions, which can be long, are fun.
For those who want to escape into a (different) family drama: The Vacationers, by Emma Straub. The Posts and their friends are off for two weeks in Mallorca. (I mean, yes please!) It should be the vacation of a lifetime — Franny and Jim are celebrating their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, Sylvia is off to Brown in the fall — except things are not going well for anyone. But when seven people stay in a cottage for fourteen days secrets and old hurts are going to bubble to the surface. Last year I recommended Emma Straub’s debut Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and this one doesn’t disappoint either. One caveat: The opening pages are a bit slow, and I found myself wanting the Posts to get on the plane and to Mallorca. But if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded!
For those who want a thriller with a female protagonist: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Let’s just get it out there. This book has been compared, favorably and unfavorably, to that other psychological thriller Gone Girl. In The Girl on the Train, we are treated to a little more introspection and character growth than I think is typical of suspense novels, which made the story even richer for me. I imagine, though, for suspense genre junkies, this might have been annoying — we are in the main character’s head a lot while she’s processing what has happened and what her next move will be. For me, it all worked. And, yes, this one is being made into a movie with Emily Blunt and Mr. Jennifer Aniston.
For those who love film or Italy or Richard Burton… Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. This book is so…delicious! The story spans decades and winds through a marvelous cast of characters. We move from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to the Ligurian coast to Hollywood to the Donner Party (really!) and get fantastic descriptions like the one of past-his-prime film producer Michael Deane, who has had so much plastic surgery he looks like a “lacquered elf.” It’s inventive and interesting, and if you listen to it as an audiobook, as I did, you’ll be treated to a wonderful narrator who expertly tackles the voices for all of these characters and their accents.
Looking for more Great Books to Give and Get? Check out the previous lists: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010
What are some of your favorite books from 2015? Share in comments.