Fifth Annual Great Books to Give…and Get

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!)

 

Signature of All ThingsFor 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.

 

Eleanor & ParkFor 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!

 

Cutting TeethFor those who enjoyed The InterestingsCutting 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.

 

My Salinger YearFor 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.

 

 

Still Life with BreadcrumbsFor 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.

 

All the Light We Cannot SeeFor 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.

 

Mary SutterFor 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?

 

The Sugar SeasonFor 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.

 

9781624672477-PerfectFor 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.

 

 

Gifts of ImperfectionFor 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!

 

Claudia must dieFor those who like stories with twists and turnsClaudia 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?

 

The Rooms Are FilledFor 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!

 

Looking for more Great Books to Give…and Get? Check out the previous lists: 2013, 201220112010

What are some of your favorite books from 2014? Share in comments. 

 

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46 comments

  1. I thought of someone on my shopping list for every one of these that I was able to read (late for work). Maybe that someone was me. 🙂

    I’ve had My Name Is Mary Sutter on my shelf for a couple of years now, passed up to me from my daughter, who highly recommended it.

    Just last weekend, I organized my bookshelves because things had gotten out of hand and was able to weed out two whole boxes (gasp!). (The trick is to take them straight to Goodwill right away, drop them off, and run without hesitation, and without going into the store to buy two more boxes full).

    Thanks for this excellent and timely review. Now I’m really late for work . . .

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    1. If you need a late pass, let me know. 🙂

      I completely understand about donating the books and running. If I’m not careful I leave Goodwill with more than I brought. It’s a sickness.

      I hope you enjoy Mary Sutter. I really couldn’t put it down. Now I’d like to read Robin Oliveira’s latest book about the romance between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas.

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  2. Great list and more to add to my list! I, of course, have a plug coming up on the blog for Claudia Must Die coming up within the week! I loved it and it would make a great gift, you are right! Thanks for the other suggestions!

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  3. Thanks for the mention Jackie! I picked up the Gilbert book for a change of pace and to read on vacation, but I had to finish another series first. It’s next on my list.
    That other series was the Wool-Shift-Dust books by Hugh Howey. It’s sci-fi, about a bunch of people living in the future in underground silos. There are no aliens or monsters and it wasn’t global warming. It was really, really fascinating. (It was apparently also one of those things that started out as self-published and now he’s rolling in a pile of money. But he deserves it.)
    I was a big fan of Where’d You Go Bernadette, but I feel like that might have been a last-year book?
    The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell was pretty good (if you like David Mitchell), but probably his weirdest one yet since he mashed up genres. It did send me off on a re-read of Cloud Atlas and a read of all his other books.
    Under the Skin by Michael Faber was a short, weird read but scenes from that book — and one of its main premises — still stick with me (and disturb me). This is the book made into a Scarlett Johannsen movie, but I can’t imagine the movie is at all faithful to the book. Yes, she’s an alien who hunts humans but WHY she does so is … gah … blerch … barf.

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    1. I remember that you mentioned how much you enjoyed Where’d You Go Bernadette. I have that one on my list.

      I’m not usually a sci-fi fan, but the Hugh Howey books sound really interesting. Sounds a bit dystopian. Might give me nightmares. 🙂

      Do you have any Elmore Leonard left?

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  4. Hi Jackie,

    This is a great list! The first I’d love to add — that you will appreciate — is “For those who have lost a loved one and are trying to figure out how to live again”: Colm Toibin’s NORA WEBSTER. (Yes, I just finished it. Please, don’t put it off anymore either.) Okay, a couple more: “For those who love art in all its forms”: Another by your great choice of Robin Oliviera, I ALWAYS LOVED YOU. More on the art theme: MADAME PICASSO (Anne Girard), THE BEAUTIFUL AMERICAN (photography; Jeanne Mackin); and ASTONISH ME (ballet; Maggie Shipstead).

    Since I only met you in 2014, now to go back and enjoy four more years of your reading suggestions. Many thanks and happy holidays, Lorraine

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    1. Hi Lorraine, I’m so glad that Nora Webster has turned out to be as good as we were hoping. I think I’d left it on my bookshelf, worried that it wouldn’t meet my expectations.

      We are definitely thinking along the same lines regarding Robin Oliviera. I just mentioned her latest book about Cassatt / Degas in another comment. I am looking forward to reading it.

      Another book I have on my list is one that you recommended at BEA: Painted Horses. I haven’t forgotten your lovely descriptions of that novel.

      Happy reading! 🙂

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      1. Hi Jackie,

        I was so disappointed that Painted Horses didn’t hit the bestseller list. It’s a perfect gift for anyone who loves the West, cares about the environment, archaeology, Native Americans — and horses. Malcolm Brooks’ prose around horses is stunning. I read it right after ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE and felt nearly as powerful. But, maybe more niche appealing, WWII fiction is so popular, and Doerr’s story and prose is extraordinary. Goodreads voted it #1 in historical fiction. I had hoped to see PAINTED HORSES win more acclaim, remember raving about it to you, and will be very interested in what you think of it and why it didn’t get noticed more. (There’s an incredible civil war novel, KITCHEN HOUSE, that took 3 years to get off the ground through book club word-of-mouth.) We just learned BEA registration is open. Hope you’re there and you can tell me what you thought of PAINTED HORSES!

        As for Cassatt/Degas, there was an interesting exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in DC on their relationship. It’s closed but you might find this interesting: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2014/degas-cassatt.html. Also, have you read THE PAINTED GIRLS (Cathy Buchanan)? It’s also Belle Epoque, focuses on Degas and his young ballerina, the little dancer. The National Gallery has expanded their exhibit on this, which is open: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2014/degas-little-dancer.html.
        It’s fascinating to see historical fiction come alive in this way. Lorraine

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    1. Your wonderful review of All the Light is what got me very excited to read it. I remember that you said it was one of your all-time favorite novels. I really enjoy your reviews so I knew to take your high praise seriously. 🙂

      I find I’m reading slower now because I don’t want it to end.

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  5. This list is very well timed Jackie. My best friend from college is an ardent reader. Every year for Christmas I get her a book, but I wasn’t sure what to get her this year. Several of these sound like books she’d like. Thanks!

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    1. I really love the idea of giving books as gifts. It’s like giving your friend a great experience and she’ll remember you in connection with it. I hope she enjoys whichever book you give her.

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  6. Jackie, where do you find the time to read all these books?? My Good Reads To Read list is over 300 titles long…And soon to be longer now that I’ve read this! =)

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    1. I have a very long TBR list on Goodreads also! Whenever I hear about a book that sounds interesting, i have to add it. I also have a similar list on my phone, you know, just in case the Goodreads list somehow disappears. 🙂

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  7. Love your list, Jackie! Thanks for sharing. You know, I’m in the minority on a few of your top picks (with which the world agreed with you)… I just couldn’t get through The Signature Of All Things (I think I made it to 30%), and I was not wowed by ALL THE LIGHT. In both cases, I think it was my reaction to style – NOT the stories themselves, which I found fascinating. I DID read and love The Rooms are Filled and have Cutting Teeth on my shelf. Mary Sutter is another that’s been on my TBR list as well. (So many books, so little time).

    My faves this year: The Son by Phillip Meyer; Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen; Wilderness by Lance Weller; The Wife, The Maid & The Mistress. I also enjoyed The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. And I keep going back to a read in 2013: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. So, so so good!

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    1. Format and style can have such an impact on the way the story is received. Sometimes it resonates and sometimes it doesn’t. I was reading a book last month with a section that switched to second person POV, which I really don’t like. It completely took me out of the story and made me “notice” the writing. It was all I could do to get to the end of the book.

      Did you write a review on Burial Rites? (I always love your Goodreads reviews!) That is the story that takes place in Iceland, correct? I remember how much you enjoyed that novel. I must get to read that one soon.

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      1. Yes, I did write a review about Burial Rites (and also one for All the Light, if – after you’re done reading- you are interested in the style issues that did to me exactly what 2nd person did to you). I clearly am in the minority on this one! 😉

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    1. Oh, thank you so much for sending the link to this interview, Carole. I love getting the behind-the-scenes details on the creation of All the Light We Cannot See. It’s so interesting that the idea had been germinating for years before all the pieces came together for him.

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  8. I need to add these books to my Goodreads. I have Gilbert’s book. I was lucky enough to win an early edition on GR. Haven’t read it yet. Love the variety of options. Thanks so much for mentioning Claudia. It’s an honour to be listed with these books. Have a lovely weekend.

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  9. Wow, some great books there. Think I’ll try Eleanor & Park next (even if the author is called Rainbow…) I just finished The Goldfinch – I loved parts of it, but it could have done with a bit more editing. Books for Christmas are just the best!

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    1. Despite all the buzz, I’d not gotten around to reading The Goldfinch. Then I read several comments along the same lines as you’d mentioned and it fell to the bottom of my list. I’ll get around to it someday. 🙂
      If you get to read Eleanor & Park, I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I think she nails the characters’ voices without the overindulgent sarcasm that characterizes a lot of YA stories these days.

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  10. I love this post, and every year look forward to it. I’ve read (and loved) some of the books on this list but some are new to me and I can’t wait to read them. xox

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  11. I am late to the discussion, but love this list and the way you categorize these books. I’ve read some and am excited to add more recommendations to my list. The snow graphic really puts one in the mood to snuggle under the covers and read a good book.

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  12. This looks like a great list! I’ve been curious to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest and of course I’ve heard tons about Anthony Doerr, but now I know what gifts to buy myself this holiday 🙂

    As a fellow book lover, and animal lover, I’m glad to have found your blog!
    -Dana

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    1. I’m so glad that I could give you some suggestions to treat yourself this holiday season. Let me know your thoughts when you get a chance to read these.
      Thank you for stopping by! I’m looking forward to visiting your blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I love giving (and getting) books as gifts. A list like yours is like a pile of colorful, still-wrapped presents. What greater gift than a richly told story?

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