Great Books to Give…and Get, Part 2

Still wondering what to get your grandma or your boss’s boss? Here are some more great reads.

For the dog lover: Through a Dog’s Eyes, by Jennifer Arnold. Founder of Canine Assistants, a nonprofit that provides service dogs to people with disabilities, Jennifer Arnold has a lot of experience in assessing and training dogs to get them ready to be matched to their person. While this isn’t a how to book, she describes her choice-based, positive reinforcement techniques, discussing canine intelligence and sense abilities. Along the way, she dispells myths set forth by the pack theorists and talks about the science of the human-dog bond, suggesting ways to replicate that in your home. Throughout are examples of the heroic deeds by some of the hundreds of dogs she’s placed over the years, including one who saved a boy’s life by reseting his ventilator switch. This book is borne from the PBS documentary of the same name. Check out a quick video here.

For the child in you: The Complete Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson. Remember when you were a kid and had the wildest adventures with your best friend – even if he was a stuffed tiger? This collection is an homage to the joy of making your own rules, invincible friendships and the freedom to let your imagination carry you away.  Here is every comic strip from the 10 years Watterson penned Calvin & Hobbes. The strip is about the friendship of Calvin, a precocious six-year-old boy with the vocabulary of a Harvard graduate, and his kinder, gentler alter-ego Hobbes. Hobbes is seen by Calvin’s parents as a stuffed tiger, but he  comes to life when the two are alone. This edition has been on the market a few years now, but if you or someone you know has never been introduced to the magic of Calvin & Hobbes, you won’t regret picking up a copy.

For those who liked The Odd Couple: Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey. Two-time Booker Award winner Peter Carey gives you a lush story based on the life of French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, presenting the unique social experiment that was democracy in America’s early years. Well, that doesn’t really sound too exciting, you say. Wait. Two men on the opposite ends of the social spectrum: Olivier de Garmont (de Tocqueville), a coddled French aristocrat, is forced to travel to the New World with “Parrot” Larrit, the son of an itinerant English printer. After arriving in New York, they embark on journeys that have both personal and symbolic overtones. Ramshackle prisons. Convict ships. Broadway brawls. Land deals. Penal colonies. And more! Chapters alternate flawlessly between Parrot and Olivier (which is no small feat of writing genius). This novel may be labeled “historical fiction” but it’s really about the naked truth of human desire and failure.

For those who want to turn lemons into lemonade: 29 Gifts, by Cami Walker.. A woman who, at age 33, learns she has MS and becomes inconsolable. From the depths of despair, a friend offers some random advice: give away 29 things in 29 days. The theory is that Walker would focus on what she had to offer others, rather than drowning in her own sorrows. The gifts could be anything, but had to be authentic and mindful. Many of her gifts were simple—a phone call, spare change, even a Kleenex.  Okay, it’s a bit gimicky, but the acts of kindness were transformative. From a self described control freak who’d experienced an unplanned game changer, she’d discovered that things will fall into place if you get out of your own way.

For the writerly type: The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante. Whether you’re interested in writing fiction or creative nonfiction, this is the guide for you. I don’t often recommend or read these kinds of reference books because usually you end up reading about how to write more than you actually write, and on top of that they are usually fairly vague. (Author Francine Prose offers lively debates on whether or not one can actually teach / learn creative writing anyway, believing that it’s mostly an innate ability.) But this book is different. At 677 pages, it’s an MFA course in itself. LaPlante covers everything from plot to point of view to revision. She offers examples from master works and suggests exercises. This book is one that you can keep by your computer and refer to again and again for a quick refresher or in depth instruction.

For those who want to know why we do the things we do: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. My friends get tired of hearing me talk about Campbell. In this seminal work, Campbell compiles everything he’d learned studying social and religious myths from around the world. Why is it that different cultures developed similar stories? Because we are all connected by a basic need to understand ourselves and the world around us. From American Indians to Buddhists to the Incas, patterns emerge in these myths. Famous as the inspiration behind George Lucas’s creation of Star Wars, Campbell says that there is a journey all humans take and we can be the hero of that journey. Writers, especially, will find this book (or any by Campbell) inspiring as Campbell says that there are no new stories, only new ways to tell the same stories. They’re sure to have many writerly ‘ah-ha’ moments. Read if you’re ready to look at the world in a new way. Campbell doesn’t espouse any particular religious belief. His only endeavor is to reveal the myth behind the dogma and show that we really are more alike than different.

For those who like witty romantic comedies: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. An unexpected friendship between Major Pettigrew, a retired British army major in a Sussex, England, village, and Mrs. Ali, a widowed woman of Pakistani heritage who runs the village shop.  Major Pettigrew believes in honor and duty and tradition. That’s why he wants his father’s heirloom guns returned to him, but his son has other plans – he’s going to sell them for a tidy sum. Major Pettigrew finds an unlikely ally in Mrs. Ali and they discover they have quite a lot in common. The story builds to a page-turner (I won’t ruin it for you) as Simonson brings the fates of the guns and Pattigrew and Ali to a climax. Simonson says she wanted to explore characters who felt like outsiders because that is what makes them so interesting – the part that lies outside the norm.

For those who want to look on the bright side: Reason for Hope, by Jane Goodall. Y’all know I couldn’t leave you without a takeaway from Dr. Jane. This is part autobiography, part soothsaying. Instead of dwelling on all the problems in the world, and she faces many in her work at Gombe National Park and around the world: environmental destruction, genocide, and animal abuse to name a few, she hasn’t lost faith. There are a lot of great people doing great things, and they are making a difference. Goodall highlights them in a lovely chapter simply titled, “Hope.” That’s why I love Dr. Jane.

Click here to read Part 1 of Great Books to Give…and Get.


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