Great Books to Give…and Get

Got a long list of people to buy for and no idea what to get them? Here are a few suggestions:

For those who like against-all-odds stories: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. From the author of Seabiscuit, this is more than just a war story. True, the bulk of it takes place in a POW camp during WWII and centers on the trials of one American airman. But this is a tale of triumph and redemption. Louis Zamperini competed in the 1936 Olympics (and set a record for the one-mile run). In 1938, he joined the air force; after he crashed into the ocean, he survived 47 days on a raft at sea before his horrific capture by the Japanese. Through astonishingly detailed research (Zamperini is still alive at 93), Hillenbrand tells the tale of yet another underestimated creature who tried hard, ran fast, and miraculously beat the odds.

For those who like quirky stories: An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin. How do you create a character that is unlikeable yet is so charming that the reader cares about what happens to her? It ain’t easy. Lacey Yeager is a pretentious 20-year-old art student who deserves to go down in flames, but you find yourself rooting for her. This novel shares the same time-out-of-time quality as Martin’s novella, Shopgirl.

For those who like a little “grrl” power: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. It’s 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a time when black women were trusted to raise white babies, but not use white bathrooms. Three women are about to blow the lid off the Jim Crow laws with an expose written by black maids who work for white women. Their book will be anonymous and identifying characteristics changed to protect them because this is dangerous work, this dirty laundry they’re airing to the world. The women could be ostracized, preyed upon or much, much worse. Check out my full book review about The Help here.

For those who can’t believe it’s been 100 years: The Autobiography of Mark Twain, by Mark Twain. Per Twain’s strict instructions, his autobiography was not to be published for 100 years after his death. Time’s finally up! In the first of three doorstopper volumes, the legendary author tells us his musings, pontifications and yarns in his own words. It’s not a chronology. That wouldn’t be Twain. His idea was to “talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment” which means he ranges freely from topic to topic. I’m happy to hear that UC Press published the works in their entirety and exactly as Twain left them.

For those who want to read about Russians without reading The Russians: The True Memoirs of Little K, by Adrienne Sharp. OK, the title is misleading. (Hello, James Frey!) This is not a memoir. It’s historical fiction, based on a true story. Mathilde Kschessinska, the narrator, was a real person: a famous dancer in the Imperial Ballet of Russia at the end of the 19th century. Beyond that, her “memoirs” are the creation of Sharp’s estimable imagination. Once the mistress of the last czar, Nicholas Romanov, she may well have also been the lover of several members of his family and court. But was her son really the czar’s heir, or did she just use the boy to manipulate the heartsick sovereign, whose only male child, a hemophiliac, was unlikely to live to succeed him? Conniving, social climbing, and largely insufferable, “I have always admired an opportunist, being one myself,” she says.

For those who want to be transformed: Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl about the seminal moral dilemma of our generation, one that you may not even realize exists: the worldwide abuse and exploitation of women, which the authors categorize as sex trafficking, maternal health, and  violence/honor killings. The statistics are astounding, the stories heartbreaking. It’s both an awakening about a subject so marginalized and a call to action. But it’s also an inspiring testament to these women’s courage and resilience.

For those who want to be transformed, part 2:
Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson. This is the book that makes you want to be a better person. Greg Mortenson’s failure to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, set him on an uphill battle of a different kind. When the villagers in Korphe, Pakistan, nurse him back to health after his abandoned trek, he promised to return and repay the generosity by helping to build them their first school. It took years – even selling everything he owned, living in his car and typing dozens of letters on a typewriter to fundraise. His story is captivating and suspenseful with accounts of hostility and friendship.

For the history buff:
The Gathering Storm, by Winston Churchill. This is probably the definitive collection about WWII, written by one of the people at the center of it all. Churchill uses actual correspondence and speeches to illustrate the decisions made in response to the world crisis. Then in his typical eloquence he offers a retrospective (from the standpoint of the 1950s when this was written) of the reasons behind those decisions given the information available to them at the time. There are six volumes in all – a gift that will give all year long.

For those who want to read a masterpiece by a master: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley. What? You haven’t heard of Walter Mosley? He’s truly one of the great unsung American writers. Ptolemy Grey is a 91-year-old man suffering from dementia, who’s been all-but-forgotten by his family and friends. He has to make what may be the most meaningful choice of his life: undergo an experimental treatment to restore his mind but which will hasten his death, or live his remaining years in a hazy fog. Mosley is able to render an unreliable main character (by virtue of his illness) while portraying his grace and decency. Ptolemy is a character you won’t soon forget.

For the philosopher: The Bell, by Iris Murdoch. To put a fine point on it, The Bell asks you to consider what it is that saves us. It’s something Murdoch, who was a professor of philosophy at Oxford, probably often pondered. Imber Court, a lay community  of religious folks, is right next to Imber Abbey, home of an order of sequestered nuns. Michael Meade is the leader of Imber Court and gay which complicates his desire to be an ordained priest. Even though the community isn’t sympathetic to Michael’s plight, Murdoch is. That and the fact that this was published in 1958 makes this a novel fairly ahead of its time. A new bell is being installed at the abbey when suddenly the old bell (Can anyone say, symbolism?) is rediscovered.  And everyone, or almost everyone, hopes to be saved, whatever that may mean.

For the comedian: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris. This is a departure from Sedaris’ usual comic romp through his life. It’s more a collection of fables, simultaneously horrifying and moralistic. If you’re looking for classic Sedaris, don’t miss Me Talk Pretty One Day or, for a holiday twist, Holidays on Ice, which includes a hilarious essay about his time spent as a Macy’s elf.

More for the comedian: How Did You Get This Number and/or I Was Told There’d Be Cake, by Sloane Crosley. A fresh voice on the essay scene, Crosley’s pieces are witty and self-effacing and a little bit irreverent. Who hasn’t gotten locked out of their apartment? On moving day? Twice? Truthfully, I enjoyed I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a little more, probably because it’s my life’s motto.

Happy Giving Everyone!


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