Third Annual Great Books to Give…and Get

A wish list and a giveaway! 

Got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them? Here are a few suggestions. Then keep reading for more info on how to win one of these books.

For those who want to “step into the arena”: Daring Greatly, by Dr. Brené Brown. This book is first because I’m reading it right now. Vulnerability is not a weakness, says Brené Brown. It’s the underlying emotion to every other emotion we experience. The courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable can transform our lives. “Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience. We must walk into the arena, whatever it may be — a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation — with courage and the willingness to engage. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.” So go ahead, watch one of her riveting TED talks below and then pick up a copy for yourself and everyone you know.

For those who love stories that span generations: A Good American, by Alex George. What does home mean to you? That is the question A Good American explores beginning in 1904 when Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer must leave Germany and end up by happenstance in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri. Narrated by the couple’s grandson, James, we get an intimate portrait of what it means to be an outsider and then to assimilate. As the Meisenheimers set down roots in Beatrice, becoming American means something different to each subsequent generation. This story covers a lot of ground — more than 100 years of the Meisenheimer family. I connected with Frederick and Jette’s story most, but the progression of acculturation and entitlement as their progeny come to the forefront made for a very powerful storyline.

Read an “interview” with Jette and Frederick, the immigrant couple in A Good American, which is the November recommendation over at Great New Books.

For those who want to know how the country works: Hidden America, by Jeanne Marie Laskas. This book is Dirty Jobs meets Mythbusters. Written by a veteran non-fiction writer, it’s a collection of profiles of people who work behind the scenes. Laskas shadows air traffic controllers, landfill workers, long-haul truckers, coal miners and more to reveal the people we depend on most but know about the least. (Okay, the profile of the Cincinnati Bengals cheerleaders isn’t exactly a hidden job. I’m not sure how that made the cut, quite frankly.) The profile that resonated the most for me was about coal miners with whom she spent a few months in claustrophobic underground tunnels, listening to the earth settle around her. Riveting and eye-opening. She has a great knack for getting to the heart of a person without falling into sentimentality which allows the truth to shine.  She’s a terrific interviewer and an even better observer. Each profile is a separate chapter which makes the book easier to digest for folks who are start-and-stop readers.

For those who like to wonder “what if'”: The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. This story poses a very simple question with very complex (and disastrous) answers: What would happen if the earth’s rotation slowed so much that each day became more than 60 hours long? Narrated in first person by an 11-year-old girl, Julia must make sense of the ever-changing world order while also navigating everyday life: the disintegration of her parent’s marriage, her first crush, boys taunting her at school. The author said she’d gotten the kernel of the story idea from an article she read following the terrible 2004 tsunami which said that the inciting earthquake was so powerful, it altered the earth’s rotation ever so slightly, by just a millisecond or so. That was enough to get her mind wandering. What if that happened but in a major way? What if the earth slowed so much as to make our very existence uncertain? But then the reader realizes through the well-crafted subplots that, of course, life itself is uncertain. There are no guarantees, and that was the most haunting aspect of all.

For those who like their stories short but meaningful:  The News from Spain, by Joan Wickersham. All of the stories in this collection have the same title: “The News from Spain” because  that is what links them. At some point in each story, the characters receive news from Spain. That news can be metaphorical (one twosome receives theirs via the wind rushing through a seashell on a beach) or realistic (a young bride is informed of her husband’s death in Madrid). Arguably the best story is between a paralyzed ex-ballerina and her caretaker, Malcolm, while both of their partners are off on business in Europe and neither are sure they want to remain in those relationships. Sometimes constructs like this can feel gimmicky and forced, but here it is so subtle. The author takes us from eighteenth-century Prague to New York in the 1940s and feature a race-car driver, a teenaged girl, and a middle-aged bride, all the while pointing out that love — in all its forms — is flawed, uneven, and impossible to pin down.

The book that should be next on your TBR list: The Mermaid Collector, by Erika Marks. I so enjoyed Erika’s last book, Little Gale Gumbo, I can’t wait to dive into her latest novel. (Dive…mermaid…ha, ha.) This is the story summary from Amazon: More than a century ago, lighthouse keeper Linus Harris left his beloved wife and waded into the ocean with three other men to reunite with their mermaid lovers. The mysterious Mermaid Mutiny of 1888 has become legend for the residents of Cradle Harbor, Maine, honored by the town’s Mermaid Festival every August, when wind chimes are hung from seaside porches to drown out the alluring sound of mermaid song. For thirty-five-year-old Tess Patterson, the legend is more than folklore; it’s proof of life’s magic. A hopeless romantic who is profoundly connected to the ocean in which she lost her mother, Tess ekes out a living as a wood-carver and longs to find a love as mystical as the sea. But when she’s hired to carve the commemorative mermaid sculpture for the coming festival, a chance to win the town’s elusive acceptance might finally be in her grasp. For Tom Grace, life’s magic was lost at eighteen, when the death of his parents left him to care for his reckless brother, Dean. Now thirty-five and the new owner of Cradle Harbor’s prized lightkeeper’s house, Tom hopes the quiet town will calm Dean’s self-destructive ways. But when Tom discovers Tess working on her sculpture, an unlikely and passionate affair ignites between them that just might be the stuff of legend itself—even as it brings to the surface a long-buried secret that could tear everything apart.   

Sounds interesting, right? To read an interview with Erika Marks, check out Julia Monroe Martin’s blog.

For animal lovers: All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot. James Herriot was just beginning his career in the 1930s as a veterinarian in the rural areas near Yorkshire, England. As a country vet his patients ranged from dogs and cats to pigs and cows. Herriot (whose real name was Jim Wright) wove his animal tales (pun intended), while painting a beautiful portrait of the windswept moors and the hardy, hardworking farmers (and even wealthy socialite widows). It’s warm, but not sappy; insightful, but not preachy. From caring for his patients in the depths of winter on the remotest homesteads to dealing with uncooperative owners and critically ill animals, Herriot set a charming scene with humor and compassion.Pick it up if only so you can use the term “flop bott” at your next cocktail party.

For the best book by an author you’ve probably never heard of (but should): Independent People, by Halldor Laxness. Icelanders have a long, proud literary tradition, dating back 1,000 years to the time of the sagas. Halldor Laxness continues that tradition by recalling those medieval epics, but with a contemporary twist.  Bjartur of Summerhouses, the main character, is an ordinary sheep farmer who spent 18 years in servitude. Now, all he wants is to raise his flocks unbeholden to any man. After persevering through quite a few disappointments, he is “endowed with greater moral fortitude than that possessed by the other men.” Bjartur maintains his ferocious and self-destructive independence. There are some moments that are difficult to read, but somehow Laxness is able to impart a sense of humor and tenderness through Bjartur and the story. Laxness was the winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature.

For those who want to laugh out loud: My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse. The hapless, but incredibly wealthy and endearing Bertie Wooster constantly gets himself into crazy predicaments, but his personal valet, Jeeves, is always there to bail Wooster out of trouble. It’s one part misunderstanding, one part slapstick and one part outlandish. One reviewer on Goodreads called Jeeves a “Jedi knight with a keen fashion sense” and I think that is the perfect description. Not all of the escapades in My Man Jeeves contain the character of Jeeves, but it spawned a series of Jeeves books, all of which are terrific. Choose any one, and you won’t be disappointed. Note: if you’re looking for an audio book, this is a great choice. Sometimes the inflection on a certain word or a dramatic pause makes the exchanges between Wooster and Jeeves even funnier.

For armchair traveler: The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. Mark Twain is your guide through Europe and the Middle East as he travels for six months aboard a steamship with a group of fellow Americans. He lends his reporter’s eye to this travelogue as well as his trademark wit. It’s written more like a conversation that you and your good friend Mark Twain are having about his recent vacation. They visit all of the major ports of call and sites: cathedrals, museums, art galleries, landmarks.  Twain quickly becomes disenchanted with the local guides – a different one in each city – and renames them all “Ferguson”; they are that interchangeable.  Turns out that there are many similarities between American tourists in 1867 (when Twain took this trip) and now, and not in a good way. Don’t think for a moment Twain would let that pass without comment. In one memorable exchange, the group heads to a French restaurant. They are unable to be served because, even though they are speaking something that sounds like French, the locals “fail to understand their own language.” Though Twain is not so jaded that he isn’t able to find awe and wonder.  The clashing cultures provides a lot of comic fodder for Twain and moments of poignant commentary. It’s as relevant today as it was then.

For the young…and young at heart: Me…Jane, by Patrick McDonnell. Two of my favorite people together in one book! Patrick McDonnell, creator and illustrator of the Mutts comic strip, tells the story of the young Jane Goodall and her special childhood doll, a toy chimpanzee named Jubilee. As the young Jane observes the natural world around her with wonder, she dreams of “a life living with and helping all animals,” until one day she finds that her dream has come true. This book is a wonderful introduction to Dr. Goodall’s work as a primatologist, environmentalist and humanitarian, and Patrick McDonnell’s sweet, charming illustrations. Me…Jane was awarded the American Library Association’s 2012 Caldecott Honor for distinguished American picture books.

For those who think they hate poetry: The Trouble with Poetry, by Billy Collins. Known for his accessible, spare style, Billy Collins was a two-time U.S. poet laureate. He writes about everyday life in a way that even the least poetic among us can enjoy. In this collection, his subject matter ranges from boyhood to jazz to breakfast, among other common themes. What I love about his work is that I don’t have to spend a lot of time decoding his intention or wondering what I should be taking away from it, but that doesn’t mean his poems aren’t deep or meaningful.  He’s straightforward and I appreciate that.

By now, it should go without saying

that what the oven is to the baker

and the berry-stained blouse to the drycleaner

so the window is to the poet.

For as honest a love story as you’ll ever find: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. Where to begin?  This is quite simply one of the best books I’ve read  this year. At its core, it is a love story narrated by 16-year-old Hazel who has overcome stage IV thyroid cancer — for now. She is still tethered to an oxygen tank and receiving heavy doses of chemo. Augustus Waters, a fellow cancer patient at Hazel’s support group, falls for Hazel and together they embark on the journey of their lives. Hazel says, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” It’s about love and disappointment; showing up and daring greatly (Brene Brown, anyone?); heroism and bravery; legacy and truth. I’m afraid this description doesn’t do the story justice. Author John Green (his legions of fans call themselves Nerdfighters, BTW) outdid himself. It feels like this is the story he was meant to tell. When people tell me that literary fiction is pointless, I refer them to this book.

For the thirty-something guy: This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper. Poor Judd Foxman just found another man in bed with his wife (his boss), learned she is pregnant and got the news that his father died. Now he has to spend seven days in mourning with his irascible family, all under one roof for the first time in years. Of course things spin out of control as Judd attempts to make sense of the mess his personal and professional life has become and he finds himself “oscillating between a sea of self-pity and a snake pit of fury and resentment.” Tropper has written a story that is as true-to-life and as spot-on as you can get Despite the subject matter, the book has many hysterical moments. Be prepared to laugh out loud!

For those who’d rather be in Paris: Paris in Love, by Eloisa James. Eloisa James had an opportunity most people can only dream about. She took a sabbatical from her job and packed up her husband and two children to spend a year living in Paris. It reads like a journal of her days enjoying the museums, shops and cafes of the City of Light. (Oh, the cafes!) Her descriptions of the food alone made me want to jump on the next plane. But it’s not all languid pleasure. Her children have to navigate school in a different language and she still has writing deadlines to meet. There was a fun drama to her daughter’s school friends and the love life of her husband’s French conversation partner. Because the snippets are presented in diary-type entries, they have a lot of energy and momentum so the book moves at a fast clip, which was a bad thing because I didn’t want her year to end.

For those who’d rather be in Key West…in the 1930s…with Hemingway: Hemingway’s Girl, by Erika Robuck. I’m a big fan of all of the above, so the prospect of having these elements together in one book was exciting. The story centers around young Mariella Bennet whose father recently died, leaving her to care for her mother and younger sister. Mariella takes as many odd jobs as she can find, landing her in a bar where she bets on a boxing match and attracting the attention of two men: the writer Ernest Hemingway, and Gavin Murray, a worker building the Overseas Highway. It’s easy to romanticize Hemingway, he was such a force to be reckoned with, but Erika Robuck creates him on the page with all of his faults and foibles. She doesn’t fall into the trap of letting his larger-than-life persona overtake the story. Mariella dreams of owning her own boat where she can spend her days on the sea and when an epic hurricane threatens the Keys, she has to come to terms with her past.

For those who need a little extra strength and courage: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. It’s true that after reading Wild I went online looking for hiking boots. It’s the kind of story that makes you want to follow in the author’s footsteps, that makes you believe, if she can hike 1,100 miles alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, well goshdarnit, I can too.  (Under no circumstances should I do this. If I buy a tent, someone please intervene.) Cheryl is at a low point in her life when she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at age 26. Her mother passed away from an aggressive cancer, the rest of her family scatters and her marriage disintegrates from the stress. Looking back on the experience, she can see that “everything I am is borne from everything that I gathered back to myself on that trip.” The trail is the most powerful metaphor of all. There are always only two choices, Cheryl notes, you can either press ahead or go home. That makes decisions very easy when she, for example, loses one of her boots over the side of the mountain.  Or when she is traversing snow and ice in the high Sierras on hands and knees. Or when she stares into the face of a black bear. And always, she continues to put one foot in front of the other (sometimes sans boots). In that decision to move forward, she rewrites her fear story. I would understand if you’re wondering how a book about could hiking be remotely interesting. I mean, for days and days, the trail stretches ahead of her with no one to talk to. But trust me when I say there is not a dull moment in Wild. Perhaps because there is somewhat of a monotony of the trail, it allows Cheryl the space to show how she is changing with each footstep.

Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one.

For what it means to follow your calling: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. Brazilian author Paolo Coelho’s enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom points Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transformation power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.

For those who still can’t decide what to read: Book Lust, by Nancy Pearl. Librarian Nancy Pearl offers a wide-ranging guide to the best books new and old. She has devised reading lists that cater to every mood, occasion and personality. Interested in books set in Australia? Epistolary novels? Fathers and sons? Explorers? Three-hanky reads? Nancy Pearl knows just the book for you. This is an annotated list with Pearl’s enthusiasm shining through. Also check out her other compendium, Book Lust to Go, focusing on great travel books.

Check out the 2011 list and the 2010 list of Great Books to Give…and Get.

What are some of your favorite books to give and get?

If you’d like to win one of the books mentioned above, just leave a comment below. The winner can choose one copy of any of the books in this year’s list. Please enter your comment by Wednesday, November 28 at midnight Eastern time. The winner will be announced Friday, November 30. 



  1. You always come up with such an interesting list! I’ve been reading a lot of Nordic authors this past year but haven’t got around to Halldor Laxness yet. Plan to soon. And I definitely am putting “Me . . . Jane” on my TBR list.


    1. I read two of the sagas just before my trip to Iceland a few years ago. I thought they would be difficult to read, but I was pleasantly surprised — the sagas were easier than some Shakespeare!
      Do you have any Nordic authors you’d recommend?


      1. I have read mainly the Nordic crime fiction. Henning Mankell and Johan Theorin (from Sweden) and Arnaldur Indriðason (from Iceland) are my favourites. Their books read more like regular novels and have great descriptions of the landscapes, people and the society in general.

        Just been looking at your list again and “Wild” is another one to add to my TBR list.


  2. Bengals Cheerleaders?! Bengals?! As in… NOT… Vikings?! 😉
    I believe Twain’s birthday is coming up… on the 30th, isn’t it (according to Wikipedia, anyway – it might have come up in ‘researching’ what to post on the 29th 😉 )?!
    I have to excuse myself from your very generous giveaway, though, because (should I win) I’d feel very badly about the fact I haven’t been able to support everyone nearly as much as I’d like to of late… but did I mention very generous, Ms. C?! Awesomeness ! 🙂


    1. Ooh! I can’t wait to see what you come up with for Mark Twain’s birthday.That is going to be fun.
      If I may respectfully disagree, SIG. The blogosphere would be a lot duller without you around!


  3. Such great book suggestions (and I’m not just saying that because I’ve read six of them and almost all the rest are on my list…)! All Creatures Great and Small has been a favorite for many years and “flop bot” is an oft-used expression in our family 😉 Thanks for an entertaining and helpful post!


    1. Too funny, Julia! I only discovered All Creatures Great and Small this year when I came across the book someone had left on his stoop. It’s an old, tattered copy with yellowed pages and the cover falling off. How great is it to read such a well-loved book?


      1. I should have known you were a fellow ACGAS fan, Julia! Jackie, it was a staple in our house growing up–and the PBS series was a must. I still smile to think about certain episodes:)


  4. Fabulous selection. Am part way through Paris in Love and I love it. All Creatures Great and Small was an early read to my children. I am going to reread your list but have put Hemingway’s Girl on my TBR list right away. Thanks Jacquelin. 🙂


    1. I have never been to Paris, but that book certainly made me imagine myself whiling away an afternoon at a sidewalk cafe. I found the escapades of the love lorn French conversation partner particularly enchanting. 🙂


  5. Fabulous list, Jackie! I currently have “Wild” beside my bed. Plan to start if as soon as I finish my current book. Have just added “The Age of Miracles” and “The Fault in our Stars” to my list. Thank you for these recommendations. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.


    1. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about Wild. It was one of those books that I found myself stealing every possible moment to read. I thought about it even when I wasn’t reading it.

      I am now detoxing from an O.D. of pecan pie! I hope you and Sara had a lovely Thanksgiving also. 🙂


  6. There are so many of my favorites on here! The Fault in Our Stars and The Age of Miracles are among the very best novels I’ve read in … well, maybe ever. And Billy Collins – oh, yes. And Wild! I could go on. Brilliant list. xoxox


    1. I’m so with you there, Lindsey. I think those two novels will be among my favorites for many years to come.
      I’m so glad that you like Billy Collins also. His poems show that straightforward can still be meaningful.
      Thanks for stopping by.


  7. Unfortunately, many of my folks that I guy gifts for prefer non-book gifts. I know–I don’t understand them either. However, I have added most of the books you’ve mentioned to my own shopping list. How selfish is that? I think one book that makes a good gift is The Little Prince–that’s such a classic for kids and for romantics.


    1. My family is the same way! Not one of them wants books, but I think that books make the very best gifts.
      The Little Prince is a terrific suggestion. In fact maybe I can sneak that one under the tree for my little nephew before he decides that he doesn’t want books either.


  8. I would love to read The Age of Miracles! The other books look very interesting as well.

    My son is currently into reading history books, biographies and nonfiction stories. Right now, he wants any of the Guinness book of world records books, so that’s what Santa will get him this year. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving, Jackie!


    1. I’m still detoxing from all the food I ate during Thanksgiving. You? I swear going back for thirds seemed like a good idea at the time.

      I’m so glad to hear that your son enjoys reading. Aside from the Guinness books does he have a favorite non fiction series or historical period?


  9. Great list, Jackie. I’m putting one together like it for the end of the year. It’s so interesting to see what books others have been reading over the course of a year. So often there are many I haven’t even heard of before. I’m part way through Erika’s Hemingway’s Girl, and enjoying it. Also reading Something Red, which was written by a poet, so it’s got loads of beautiful language. And The Twelve Rooms of the Nile – a fictional account of Florence Nightingale meeting Flaubert while in Egypt, and again, that one has amazing language and a very fun, surprising plot.


    1. I can’t wait to read your list Cynthia. I also love these end-of-year recaps because I enjoy being introduced to authors and novels that I might not have come across otherwise.

      Don’t you just love when poets decide to write prose? In fact I was at a writing seminar last summer and one of the agents said that she almost always requests manuscripts when she gets a query from a poet.


  10. Thankyou Jackie. On your recomendation I bought Wild a while ago and I LOVED it! The Alchemist is one of my favourite books of all time – as it is for a lot of people. Looking forward to browsing some of the lesser known ones on the list. You are a woman of impeccable tastes! 🙂


    1. I think you’ll get a kick out of PG Wodehouse. It’s just plain funny. Great when you’re in need of a lighthearted comedy.
      I’ll have to check out Caroline’s review of Independent People. She writes wonderful reviews. Thanks for mentioning it!


  11. Oh my goodness! I’ve been offline in NOLA for the holiday and trying to catch up and look what you go and do, you sweet lady. I am so flattered and honored to be a part of your list. It means so much to me.

    In other news, my mom just let me know that she has made donations to three of the four local shelters you sent me a list of–and every year she sends us kids a check to put toward a donation of our choice. In honor of Olive, I know where I’ll be sending mine this year.

    Would that I could reach through the screen and hug both you and Reggie.


    1. I only wish I’d had a chance to read The Mermaid Collector before creating this post! I’m very much looking forward to reading it. The plot is so intriguing!

      What a wonderful holiday tradition. I love that you put the “it’s better to give than receive” adage into practice. Thank you! Reggie sends you and your mom a big, wet kiss!

      Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving in NOLA!


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