Second Annual 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 the armchair adventurer: The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. If you’ve wanted go to the Amazon, but couldn’t stand the thought of all the bloodthirsty mosquitoes, you and author David Grann are in the same dugout canoe. This book takes us to the deadly jungle with an unlikely adventurer—fast-food loving, allergic New Yorker staff writer Grann — as he goes in search of legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett. In 1925, Fawcett ventured into the Amazon looking for a fabled civilization. He never returned. Over the years countless perished trying to find evidence of his party and the lost city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold.”  Soon, like hundreds before him, Grann became obsessed with the legend of the colorful explorer and his baffling disappearance. Grann weaves the incredible stories of Fawcett’s quest for “Z” and his own journey into the Amazon, as he unravels one of the great exploration mysteries of the twentieth century.

For those who can’t get enough of the Amazon…State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. Oh my goodness. To be in the hands of such a confident author is a treat. Every word Ann Patchett uses is so carefully and lovingly chosen that you realize there could be no substitution.  The novel is about pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Marina Singh who sets off into the Amazon jungle to find the remains and effects of a colleague who recently died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. (Do you see a pattern here?) This adventure story is ultimately a character study of loyalty and ethics and one you won’t be able to put down.

For the dog lover…Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz. If you have spent time around dogs, whether in a home or at a shelter, you know that being able to communicate with them begins with understanding how dogs perceive the world. That means not imposing human perceptions on dogs and limiting our inclination to anthropomorphize. Alexandra Horowitz is a cognitive scientist. In plain language she introduces the reader to a dog’s perceptual abilities (see, smell, hear, etc.) and thought process in order to gain a better awareness of what it is like to be a dog. What is it like to be able to smell not just every crumb lying around the house but also to smell sadness in humans? How does a chihuahua manage to play successfully with a Great Dane? What is it like to hear the hum of a fluorescent light? What is it like to experience the passage of time through smell? The answers are surprising and fascinating and will make you see dogs in a different light.

For more on human cognitive abilities…My Stroke of Insight, by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. In 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven- year-old Harvard-trained neuroscientist studying mental illness, experienced a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Within the next four hours, she observed her mind deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. She alternated between the euphoria of the intuitive right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace, and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized she was having a stroke and enabled her to seek help before she was completely lost. It would take her eight years to fully recover. For Taylor, her stroke was a blessing and a revelation. It taught her that by “stepping to the right” of our left brains, we can uncover feelings of well-being that are often sidelined by “brain chatter.”

Here Dr. Bolte Taylor appeared at a TED talk in 2008.

For the art lover…Dear Theo, edited by Irving Stone. Okay, strictly speaking, this isn’t an art book, it’s a book about an artist (not just any artist – Vincent Van Gogh) and what it takes to make art.  It compiles many of Van Gogh’s letters to his beloved brother Theo. Van Gogh reveals his deepest feelings, as well as his views about the art world. In light of another book, Van Gogh: The Life, which gathers convincing evidence that Van Gogh may not have committed suicide and that he suffered from a recognized mental illness (one that is treatable today), it makes Van Gogh’s letters all the more poignant. “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart…Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.”

For those who want to renew their faith in humanity…Huck, by Janet Elder. After being treated for breast cancer, The New York Times editor Janet Elder and her husband decide to get a dog for their eleven-year-old son who had been campaigning for one since he was four. Huck, a red-haired poodle, enters their lives and brings lots of joy for the whole family. A few months later, they take a much-needed vacation and leave Huck with Janet’s sister. Not a day into their trip, they receive a heartbreaking phone call: Huck has escaped the backyard and is nowhere to be found. They rush back to begin a frantic search and are joined by the entire town – schoolchildren, shop owners, the police lieutenant. It’s more than a book about a lost puppy, Huck is a Frank Capra movie set in New Jersey. I felt renewed by the generosity of strangers and the power of hope. Read my Q&A with author Janet Elder.

For a simple, yet stirring tale…Bright’s Passage, by Josh Ritter. Henry Bright talks to his horse. That wouldn’t be so strange, except that his horse started the conversation. And what makes it even crazier is that the horse often gives Henry bad advice.  The prose in Bright’s Passage is charming, although a few too many adverbs for my taste, and the tale is engaging. The story weaves back and forth in time between Henry’s experience in the war trenches of France and his escape from a wildfire with his newborn son. If the name Josh Ritter sounds familiar, it is because this novel was penned by the singer/songwriter. Normally I would recoil from such a crossover, but Ritter has a way with storytelling. Here is an excerpt.

For those who like a little humor with their history…Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell. Sarah Vowell is a first-rate smart aleck, the nerdy version of Anthony Bourdain and David Sedaris. In this book she takes on the Americanization of the 50th state – Hawaii – with her trademark humor and stellar reporting.  From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathens, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, Vowell reports on “the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn.” Also check out Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, where she visits three sites of American presidential assassinations. Good times.

For those who want to be mindful…The Book of Awakening, by Mark Nepo. This collection of short entries, one for each day of the year, offers a dose of perspective and wisdom from Nepo who has learned something about love, loss, friendship and survival after two bouts with cancer. The book is a series of daily reflections woven from his own story, the stories of others’ struggles, and truths from the great wisdom traditions. It’s easy to dip into this book and gain a nugget of inspiration or a grounding reminder to live authentically.

For those who want to be mindful eaters….Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. This book chronicles one family’s attempt to live only on local foods for one year, most of which they would farm themselves and the rest would be purchased from sources within 100 miles from their homestead. What Kingsolver points out in her characteristic graceful style, is that most of us have become quite disconnected from our food. Not the eating of it, as is evidenced by the general obesity problem, but from its source. Kingsolver suggests that we spend more time analyzing what kind of vacuum cleaner to buy (guilty as charged!) than the food that keeps us alive and healthy. Read my full review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

For those who want to feel hopeful…An Elephant’s Life, by Caitlin O’Connell. Dr. Caitlin O’Connell is an expert on the lives of elephants. She has been researching them in their natural habitat for two decades in Namibia. She also happens to be an excellent photographer. This full-color book combines her research (in laymen’s terms) and amazing pictures while taking you on the daily lives of African elephants in their complex social hierarchies. The narrative is wonderful and makes you feel that you’re along on the journey.

For a new approach to business…
Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. In this very slim volume, the authors shake up the traditional view of entrepreneurs (whom they call starters) by proposing that the old way of conducting business isn’t necessarily the right way (or isn’t necessarily the right way any more). They debunk a lot of the notions that many believe are truisms like “progress” and “productivity.” I don’t read a lot of business books because they are usually dense texts rehashing the same old, same old by the stuffy elite. Rework is fresh and jargon-free. If you own a small business or are thinking about starting one, this book will keep you sane.

Here’s Jason Fried’s TED talk about why work doesn’t happen at work.

For those who want to see what all the fuss is about… The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. This was one highly anticipated debut novel of 2011. It got two separate reviews in The New York Times, Harbach was interviewed by nearly every media outlet that comes to mind, and the story is being optioned for an HBO movie. Could it possibly live up to the hype? It does. This is a baseball novel that’s less about baseball and more about how one moment can alter the course of many lives. At Westish College, Henry Skrimshander is a shortstop with plans for the big leagues. Then one of his routine throws goes off course, and the fates of five people are upended. They are at that “tipping point in their lives when their dreams, seemingly within reach, suddenly lurch out of their grasp.” If you’re not a sports fan, don’t be scared off by this book. It is a baseball story in the way that Rocky was a boxing story. I’m not sure it needed to be so long (500 pages), but it was worth the read.

For sisterly bonding…
Little Gale Gumbo, by Erika Marks. It’s true that I’m not unbiased when it comes to Little Gale Gumbo, but friend and fellow blogger Erika Marks has written a wonderful debut novel that I’d recommend wholeheartedly. For me the emotional heart of the story is the sisterly bond between Dahlia and Josephine – and all of the baggage that comes along with it. The story takes place in both New Orleans and Little Gale Island, off the coast of Maine. It is chock full of delicious dishes, romance and friendship, but no story about sisters is without its secrets and suspicions. The plot will keep you twisting and turning until the very end. Please read my new Q&A with Erika.

For those who like complex stories about small towns…A Good Hard Look, by Ann Napolitano. The author Flannery O’Connor and her infamous peacocks take the stage in the novel  A Good Hard Look. The book opens with the wedding of Cookie Himmel, a beautiful Southern debutante concerned with appearances, and Melvin Whiteson, a wealthy New Yorker. They are settling in Milledgeville, Georgia, for good, and when Melvin meets Flannery he begins to take a “good, hard look” at his life. Cookie hires seamstress Lona Waters to help decorate her new home. There Lona decides to become an active, if not misguided, participant in her own life. In the aftermath of one tragic afternoon, all of the characters’ lives unravel as their fates seem to rest in each other’s hands. Even if you’re not familiar with Flannery O’Connor and her work, you’ll still be able to connect with this story and find the universal truths of love, loss and grace under fire. Here is an interview with author Ann Napolitano in which she discussed her approach in writing the book, and how Flannery suddenly “appeared” in the manuscript.

For those who need a little reminder of the gifts of nature…Why I Wake Early, by Mary Oliver. I love Mary Oliver’s poems. For me, her work is a meditation on the beauty and elegance of the natural world. Her words mirror that simplicity. If you are new to poetry or have been turned off of it by dense stanzas that require a Ph.D. to understand, you’ll appreciate the sincerity of Oliver’s poems. She will reignite your joy in the world around you. “Watch now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.”

Check out last year’s list! 

Do you have any favorites you would recommend? 



  1. Love this list!! There are many books I treasure on this list, notably Mary Oliver, Nepo, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I may finally give the Art of Fielding a try on my upcoming long flights. Read and enjoyed State of Wonder this summer. Thank you for such wonderful and diverse suggestions!


    1. Thank you Lindsey! I’m so glad you liked the list. If you get a chance to read The Art of Fielding, please let me know if you enjoyed it as much as I did.


  2. Gosh, Jackie, what an amazing list! I love Mary Oliver and Barbara Kingsolver, especially, but I now realize I must read a number of others, as well–especially “My Stroke of Insight.” I love to look at how the mind works. Thanks for the recommendations–just in time for the holiday! This would make a great Freshly Pressed post for this time of year. Hope WordPress editors notice it!


    1. I think you would enjoy reading My Stroke of Insight. I was thinking about you when I was watching Dr. Bolte Taylor’s speech at the TED conference. Very interesting info about bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
      Thank you for sending good vibes to the WordPress folks. 🙂


    1. I’m so glad that you mentioned Dancing in Heaven. I’d not heard of it and can’t wait to check it out. I’m going to that link you sent right now.


  3. Would it be wrong to ask if any of these have lots-o-pictures?!
    Seriously, though, ‘Dear Theo’ sounds particularly fascinating
    (and I hadn’t heard of ‘The Life’, either… wouldn’t that be something)!


    1. I had a feeling you’d like Dear Theo!
      An Elephant’s Life has lots of pictures- real pictures of elephants! 🙂 But I bet you could turn those pictures into something spectacular!


  4. Wow, great suggestions, Jackie! I’ve only read one–My Stroke of Insight–and it was wonderful. She is a gifted speaker too. I saw The Art of Fielding in the airport and wondered if it was any good. Thanks for sharing. 🙂


    1. I hadn’t come across Literary Brooklyn before, but it sounds right up my alley. I’ll have to look into it. A rich tradition indeed starting with Walt Whitman. Thanks for mentioning that book!


  5. I haven’t read any on this list, Jackie. But many now have me intriqued. The video of Dr. Taylor is long…but worth every second to watch. Thanks so much for providing it! Her book must be amazing. Can’t wait to read it.
    Erika’s Little Gale Gumbo is next in my TBR stack. 🙂


    1. I’ve watched that video several times and always find it fascinating. She’s able to articulate her experience so well and really make it universal so that everyone can take something away from it.


    1. I really like giving books as gifts. It’s like a little secret that you’re passing along. I hope you get to pass along a few secrets to friends and family this season.


    1. I know- if you’re anything like me, you don’t need to add to your TBR pile! But if you do get to read any of these, drop me a line. Thanks so much for stopping by.


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