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. (BTW, I can’t believe this is the fifth installment!)
For those who want to sink their teeth into an epic: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. If you only know Elizabeth Gilbert from her runaway bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love, then I think you’ll be delightfully surprised by this expansive, lush novel that covers most of the 19th century through the eyes of the Whittakers. First, we follow Henry Whittaker as he travels the world making a fortune in the quinine trade. He settles in Philadelphia, where his daughter Alma is his protege of sorts. She becomes one of the world’s leading experts in mosses. Alma is a scientist (before that was even a term) during a fundamental shift in ideas about science, religion, trade, and gender. An unforgettable story.
For those who want to remember what it’s like to be young and in love: Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. Oh, did I enjoy this slender YA novel. On the surface, this seems to be a simple boy-meets-girl story, but often it’s the simplest stories that stay with us the longest. Eleanor and Park are social outcasts. They find comfort in each other, slowly developing a friendship and then a romance. The story alternates between the two, usually in small sections, covering most of their junior year of high school. I thought Rainbow Rowell’s writing style was honest without being sappy. And I especially loved the portrayal of the adults, particularly Eleanor’s and Park’s parents. Sometimes YA stories gloss over anyone above the age of 25 or treat them like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons. Not so in this story. And the ending? So well done!
For those who enjoyed The Interestings: Cutting Teeth, by Julia Fierro. This is a sharp, witty look inside the lives of a group of thirty-something couples with kids. They’ve all gathered at a Long Island beach house one summer weekend. We bear witness to the complexities of their relationships as old frustrations, secrets, and insecurities bubble to the surface. The desire to juggle career, children, spouse, and family, combined with the pressure to compromise yet have-it-all creates a kind of reckoning for the characters. Completely relatable! Sometimes I laughed out loud, and sometimes I felt deep anguish for their misguided activities. Side note: I’m proud to say that Julia was one of my favorite writing instructors and workshop leaders.
For those who know someone just starting out (or starting again): My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff. What if you’d just ditched grad school to be a poet and your day-job was to answer fan mail on behalf of author J.D. Salinger? Maybe you’d feel like an impostor. Or maybe you’d think it was a cushy gig. Joanna Rakoff, working for the author’s agent, is pulled into this literary netherworld by some of the gut-wrenching, soul-bearing missives from fans. She can’t bring herself to reply with the form letter, so she starts answering for him. (This is the mid-`90s.) But this book isn’t just about Salinger. It’s about a young woman, fresh out of college, trying to make her way in the world and find her own voice.
For those who want a character they “get”: Still Life with Breadcrumbs, by Anna Quindlen. Before I picked up this novel, it had been years since I’d read a book by Anna Quindlen, and I was quickly reminded how much I enjoy her writing style. It’s her clean prose that focuses on just the right details that made me feel enveloped in Rebecca Winter’s world. Rebecca is a sixty-something photographer, who had achieved great success in her youth, now unable to make her mortgage payments. She once thought the phenomena would continue without end, but “the coin of notoriety pays with less and less interest as time goes by.” As she settles, uncomfortably at first, into her small rented cabin in upstate New York, she is sure this is all a means to an end. She opens herself up to new possibilities, without ulterior motives, and makes a case for the importance of taking control of one’s life. While the outcome might be a bit predictable, it left me feeling happy, and I loved that.
For those who want to be swept away: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. I probably shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon until I actually finish this book (I’m near the end), but I can’t help myself. The story alternates between Marie-Laure, a blind girl who escaped to the coastal French town of Saint-Malo during the 1940 invasion of Paris, and Werner, an German-born orphan saved from a life in the mines because of his knack for building and repairing radio receivers. As the situation becomes more dire for each of them, Werner tells himself, “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” Don’t be put off by the length of the book; the chapters are very short, some only two pages (which could make this a poor audio book or e-book candidate). I hope you love it as much as I do.
For those who like a character who defies the odds: My Name Is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliviera. Like The Signature of All Things, this is a work of historical fiction where a strong woman takes center stage. The tremendous research and period detail are impressive in this story, but they take a backseat to the characters. Set mainly during the American Civil War, Mary Sutter wants to be a surgeon. This is an outlandish idea. Modern surgery is in its infancy, and even having female nurses caring for male patients is considered improper. Not to be deterred, Mary leaves her comfortable home and volunteers at the front lines to learn as much as she can. I admired Mary’s fierce determination and her resolve. The central question here: how far will you go to follow your destiny?
For those who want to read about business moguls who wear plaid flannel: The Sugar Season, by Douglas Whynott. Syrup is just what you drizzle on your pancakes. How interesting could that be? Fascinating, actually. Like many crops, maple trees and their sap output used to be in the hands of small, local farmers. Now it’s big business, monitored by a cartel (really!) in Canada and regulated in much the same way as oil. In fact a barrel of syrup is worth more than a barrel of oil. The Sugar Season takes us through a year in the life of one of Vermont’s largest producers. I had no idea how much hard work it takes to get just one gallon of the liquid gold, and how susceptible it is to even the slightest variations in weather. Read it and understand why the $18 million maple syrup heist is being made into a Hollywood movie.
For those who want to know if you can go home again: Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears, by Ken Wheaton. A pretty sweet segue (get it?). I am fortunate to have had a sneak peak into this novel as it was coming together. Here is the gist: Fifty years old, lonely, and in danger of being laid off, Katherine has spent decades trying to ignore her Louisiana roots. Forced home by her sister’s accident, she remembers everything about the bayou that she wanted to escape: the heat, the mosquitoes, and the constant, crushing embrace of family. But when forced to confront the ghosts of her past, she discovers that escape might never have been necessary. Admittedly, I’m a bit biased here—Ken and I have been friends for *#%@ years, and we are in the same writing group. But I wouldn’t recommend his novel if I didn’t think it was terrific. I’m always impressed by Ken’s ability to weave an excellent, compelling story that is both touching and keeps me turning the pages.
For those who want to live wholeheartedly: The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown. I was introduced to Brene Brown via the TED Talk heard ’round the world, which led me to her book Daring Greatly. So I couldn’t help but pick up The Gifts of Imperfection. Brene shares what she’s learned (she’s a research professor at the University of Houston) about worthiness and shame, and how to engage with the world from a place of compassion. She offers ten guideposts on what she calls “wholehearted” living, all of which are geared toward helping us embrace imperfection. And you don’t have to consider yourself a perfectionist to be afraid of imperfection. She says that many of us want to “fit in” or “people-please,” but that trades authenticity for approval. “Choosing authenticity means…cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.” Many a-ha moments for me!
For those who like stories with twists and turns: Claudia Must Die, by T.B. Markinson. This book is next on my TBR list. T.B. is a friend and fellow blogger who writes novels (and great pub reviews). Here is the synopsis. Doesn’t this sound like a real page-turner? Claudia doesn’t feel like herself anymore—she feels like prey. Her husband’s hired goons have stalked her all the way to Boston and will only stop their pursuit once she is dead. Divorce is not an option. Instead, she has stolen a bunch of her man’s money to disappear into another life. In order for Claudia to live, someone else must die. A lookalike college student becomes the target capable of freeing her from an awful marriage. The plan goes horribly awry. Instead of murdering Claudia’s double, the assassins shoot the woman’s lover who is the cousin of a powerful Irish mobster. Claudia becomes hunted by all involved. Can she survive? Should she?
For those who enjoy a good coming-of-age story: The Rooms Are Filled, by Jessica Null Vealitzek. There is something so satisfying in the retelling of this common human experience, and Jessica gets it spot on. The two main characters are Michael, a boy who is uprooted to suburban Chicago from his farm after his father dies, and his teacher, who hasn’t yet come to terms with her sexuality. I was rooting for both characters, wanting the best for them and hoping they could find their way to acceptance. I love that these two outcasts find each other, providing comfort that only people who understand that feeling can provide. The prose is crisp and distinct. The plot is tightly focused with enough twists and turns to keep a reader turning the page. This is a wonderful debut!
What are some of your favorite books from 2014? Share in comments.