Sixth 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.

Salt to the SeaFor those who want to feel the full weight of the human spirit: Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys.  I devoured this novel in two days. As with Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys brings to light a little known event of WWII. This story covers the evacuation of refugees and soldiers as the Russians close in on Germany’s eastern front. Salt to the Sea alternates in very short chapters between four teens: a Polish refugee, a Lithuanian nurse, a Prussian soldier who deserted the German army, and a German sailor devoted to the Reich to the bitter end. Each one carries a secret of something that cannot be undone. They crowd onto the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship scheduled to take them to safety–or so they think. If you loved All the Light We Cannot See, you’ll love Salt to the Sea.This review is a bit sneaky because the book has not published yet. I was lucky enough to have an advance reader copy, so put this on your list for February 2016!

Big MagicFor those who have lost their their creative spark: Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people have this book on their “Best of…” lists this year. Elizabeth Gilbert asks you to trust and respect your creative self, to tend it as you would a garden. I loved her definition of creativity: living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. This isn’t a how to book. You won’t find exercises to reconnect with your creativity as in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, but you will find a manifesto on how to be brave in the face of your fear (by accepting it rather than trying to rid yourself of it). The title isn’t a metaphor, Gilbert believes that creative energy is indeed magic. Big Magic is a good reminder to explore innovation and live the magic.

Storied Life of AJ FikryFor those who want to read a book about…books:The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin.  I’m a sucker for novels about bookstores and bookstore owners, and A.J. Fikry is my favorite to date. A sign hanging above A.J.’s bookstore reads “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” I wanted to pack my bags and move to Alice Island. While I loved the bookstore and island setting, the characters are the most memorable part of the story. Even the minor characters, are endearing and charming, and they feel like people you might know. A marvelous read!

Better than beforeFor those who want to be…Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin. Good habits are the key to making positive changes in your life, says Rubin. But starting and keeping those habits can feel like a Sisyphean task. This book has a lot of solid, helpful suggestions for staying with your habits. The most important thing, she says, is to work within your personality. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. To that end, I loved her “four tendencies” framework. How you approach expectations sets the stage for how you will incorporate a new habit. We fall into one of the following categories: upholder, obliger, questioner, and rebel. It took me less than two minutes to figure out that I’m an upholder. (Didn’t even need to take the quiz!)

Station ElevenFor those who want to be afraid–very afraid: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. It was difficult reading this novel on the subway during my commutes. Emily St. John Mandel so realistically captured the spread of the Georgian flu and the resulting devastation, I found myself worried about being in such close proximity to other people.

The story weaves expertly back and forth in time from before the flu that wiped out 99 percent of human life to Year Twenty, after the world has changed so dramatically that the remaining people are thrown back to the Middle Ages — no electricity, no cars, no Internet, no industry of any kind. Cities have been reduced to settlements and bands of travelers. Aside from the intrigue of the familiar but “otherworldliness” of Station Eleven, I love that this story remains focused on the characters and their perseverance through it all.

Art of StillnessFor those who need to unplug: The Art of Stillness, by Pico Iyer. When I saw Pico Iyer at the Brooklyn Book Festival, he was asked if there was a common theme running through his work. He answered immediately that he tries to “reconcile hopefulness with realism.” That theme threads its way through this slim volume as well. Maybe it’s a bit counterintuitive for a travel writer like Pico Iyer to recommend staying put, but he believes we should give ourselves permission to be still, even for a few minutes. He explores the lives of people who have incorporated stillness and offers their examples to guide readers to put down the phone and turn off the TV. It’s a break we crave.

lafayetteFor those who are light-hearted history buffs:  Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell. Sarah Vowell is to American history what Bill Bryson is to thru-hiking. Wry, funny, and irreverent, her spot-on observations make what seems like a dry subject supremely interesting. “Here she dives into the tale of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who, as a glory-hungry teen, crossed an ocean to join a revolution in a land he’d never before visited.” Even Sarah Vowell’s digressions, which can be long, are fun.

The VacationersFor those who want to escape into a (different) family drama: The Vacationers, by Emma Straub. The Posts and their friends are off for two weeks in Mallorca. (I mean, yes please!) It should be the vacation of a lifetime — Franny and Jim are celebrating their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, Sylvia is off to Brown in the fall — except things are not going well for anyone. But when seven people stay in a cottage for fourteen days secrets and old hurts are going to bubble to the surface. Last year I recommended Emma Straub’s debut Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and this one doesn’t disappoint either. One caveat: The opening pages are a bit slow, and I found myself wanting the Posts to get on the plane and to Mallorca. But if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded!

Girl on the TrainFor those who want a thriller with a female protagonist: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Let’s just get it out there. This book has been compared, favorably and unfavorably, to that other psychological thriller Gone Girl. In The Girl on the Train, we are treated to a little more introspection and character growth than I think is typical of suspense novels, which made the story even richer for me. I imagine, though, for suspense genre junkies, this might have been annoying — we are in the main character’s head a lot while she’s processing what has happened and what her next move will be. For me, it all worked. And, yes, this one is being made into a movie with Emily Blunt and Mr. Jennifer Aniston.

Beautiful ruinsFor those who love film or Italy or Richard Burton… Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. This book is so…delicious! The story spans decades and winds through a marvelous cast of characters. We move from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to the Ligurian coast to Hollywood to the Donner Party (really!) and get fantastic descriptions like the one of past-his-prime film producer Michael Deane, who has had so much plastic surgery he looks like a “lacquered elf.” It’s inventive and interesting, and if you listen to it as an audiobook, as I did, you’ll be treated to a wonderful narrator who expertly tackles the voices for all of these characters and their accents.

Looking for more Great Books to Give and Get? Check out the previous lists: 2014, 2013201220112010

What are some of your favorite books from 2015? Share in comments. 

Advertisements

33 comments

      1. Jackie: The journal is a companion to the book. I am not certain if it focuses on the 4 tendencies, but if it is like most of Rubin’s work, it is probably helpful. Yes, it is a invigorating read.

        Like

    1. I know several people who were disappointed with the ending of The Girl on the Train. I didn’t mind so much, but I not an experienced suspense/thriller reader. Will you see the movie?

      I just saw The Martian and thought the movie was better than the book — a rarity!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Very rare! I think the last time that happened for me was with Chocolat – the movie was so beautiful! Don’t know if I’ll bother seeing the movie… Still haven’t seen Gone Girl haha! Going through more of a reading phase right now – and trying to read in German which is taking a lot of time!!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oof! That’s tough. It would take me an hour to read a page in Italian. So I got the books with Italian on the left side and English on the right. Made my “translation” go much faster. 😉

        Like

  1. What a great list! I’ve seen a couple of those here in the blogging world, maybe it was you on your site 🙂 but I am so ready to get on with some great reads. I have Big Magic!!! I actually got it in person and had it signed, although things didn’t go as I planned at the event, I still love Gilbert and it’s the next on my list. A.J. Fikry and Girl on The Train will definitely follow! We had a conversation about The Vacationers so I’m on that as well. Thanks so much for the suggestions, and your opinion summaries dude! I love how I’m part of your book club 🙂 with you I feel I can discover such great stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. AJ Fikry was one of my favorite books this year. I’m such a sucker for books about books, so it could be just me.

      I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about Big Magic. I hope it inspires you to be super in all your Guat-ness! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. AAAAAHHHHHHH, Jackie!!! As always, I want to read all the books you suggest! These all sound so great! But WHEN will I find time, and HOW do you manage to read this much? I am in envious awe.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a great list and resource. I’ve probably read a 1/3 of these at least so I know we have related tastes. I was a Station Eleven evangelist last year! I’ve read some good books this year, but nothing that made me as willing to nonstop promote like that one. We still have 6 weeks left. Maybe I will find my Station Eleven of 2015.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was definitely late to the Station Eleven bandwagon, but I’m still spreading the word! 🙂
      I can’t wait to read your 2015 list. You always have some great recommendations.

      BTW — I just got the Mindy Kaling book. Looking forward to cracking the cover on that one.

      Like

  4. The Lafayette book looks interesting! I enjoy lists like this. Thanks for sharing.

    I’ve read a lot of books this year but only a few new releases. I just finished Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and found it compelling. It reads like a memoir and a crime novel. Fascinating stories of his work representing people on death row. Not the kind of thing I’d normally read but it was loaned to me by a friend and I greatly enjoyed it, while learning a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, when I was writing that blurb about the Lafayette book, I thought of you! I figured it would be of interest. I enjoy how the author was able to bring this history to life in an exciting way.

      Like

What's on your mind?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s