holiday gift ideas

Seventh 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 from books I enjoyed this year.

 

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik BlackmanFor the curmudgeon in your life: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Blackman. A charming book about a sourpuss who will win your heart! The author, Fredrik Blackman, has the ability to take serious subjects (death, suicide, OCD) and relate them in such a matter-of-fact way that they are not off-putting or used for shock value. Backman treats the issues and the characters with kindness. I was rooting for Ove from page one. A Man Called Ove redefines family and shows us the power of connection. I’m looking forward to reading other novels by Fredrik Blackman. Any suggestions on which one to pick up next?

 

The Gentleman, by Forrest LeoFor anyone who likes P.G. Wodehouse sprinkled with a little Noel Coward: The Gentleman, by Forrest Leo. Even if you’re not familiar with Wodehouse’s Jeeves books, just know that this one is a fun, hilarious farce. The basic premise: Lionel Savage, a poet and once-wealthy nobleman, finds himself short on cash and decides to marry Vivien Lancaster for her money. A few months into his marriage, he is disenchanted with Vivien and horrified to learn the poetry muse has left him…so he makes a deal with the devil. His ever-vigilant butler, Simmons, is there to help Lionel extricate himself from the steady stream of problems he creates.

 

 

Before the Fall, by Noah HawleyFor those who want a page-turner: Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.  A small plane crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard and only two survive: a down-on-his-luck painter and a boy, the son of a wealthy television network executive. Did the plane crash by chance? Or was there something more sinister at work? It’s difficult to say too much about the plot without giving away any surprises. The author did a solid job of dropping hints so that you are sure any number of characters could have been responsible for the plane crash. The story alternates between each character’s point of view so you can see how desperate each person is to hold onto the ideas he or she values most. Sometimes it was downright frustrating and agonizing to witness the lengths to which some characters were willing to twist a tragedy into their own personal gain. A great page-turner!

 

Lab Girl, by Hope JahrenFor those who love to dig in the dirt or read about people who do: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. After reading Lab Girl, I will never look at trees the same way again. Respected scientist Hope Jahren gave me a new appreciation of these silent but knowing inhabitants of our planet. She has dedicated her professional (and one could argue her personal) life to furthering our understanding of the flora that is crucial to life as we know it. But this book isn’t all about trees. It’s also about Jahren’s life as a scientist, which can be a difficult road for a woman leading her own lab. I liked the structure of this memoir—personal reflections interspersed with informative science. Jahren does a lovely job of putting words to her emotions as in this one memorable passage: “I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing it’s more than people want to see.” While this memoir is ostensibly about the path to becoming a scientist, it’s really about finding your tribe (even if that is only one other person), perseverance, and following your curiosity—universal desires to which many of us can relate.

 

Atlas ObscuraFor those who have wanderlust in the weird: Atlas Obscura, by Joshua Foer, Ella Morton, Dylan Thuras. “Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 600 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.” Yes, please! This book revels in the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the hidden, and the mysterious. From the dazzling glowworm caves in New Zealand to eccentric bone museums in Italy, every page expands your sense of how strange and marvelous the world really is.Just flipping through this book was a delight. The compelling descriptions! The illustrations! The photos! The charts! I’m using a lot of exclamation points because this book is that cool! I can’t think of a better gift for a creative person to be inspired.

 

Becoming Wise, by Krista TippettFor those who want a grounded and fiercely hopeful vision of humanity: Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett. Krista Tippett is an accomplished conversationalist. She has interviewed the most extraordinary voices examining the great questions of meaning for our time, but her gift is knowing how to listen and expand the dialogue. From conversations with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to poet Naomi Shihab Nye to Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek, she aims to meet the world where it really is, and then to make it better.I came away from this book with a feeling of resilience and redemption, two words that seem to define her perspective. The book, like her podcast, is a master class in living in the 21st century. And if you haven’t yet listened to Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being,” do yourself a favor and go through the archives now.

 

Stories of Your Life, by Ted ChiangFor those who like character-driven science fiction: Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Disclaimer: I’m not an avid science fiction reader, but I loved this collection of short stories for the way Ted Chiang is able to use science to explore deeper questions about human nature. He asks the question every good writer (and perhaps scientist) asks: what if… What if men built a tower from earth to heaven—and broke through to heaven’s other side? What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time? And as with any good story, the answers are never cut and dried. I was often left wondering about the phrase “perception is reality.”  One of the stories is the basis for the new movie “Arrival.”

 

Siracusa, by Delia EphronFor those who demand compelling, if not entirely likable characters: Siracusa, by Delia Ephron. Siracusa is the story of what happens to two couples on vacation in Italy. By the end of their short stay, events have occurred which will change their relationships forever—but maybe not in the way that you might expect.  Delia Ephron does a marvelous job in drawing well-rounded and believable characters. The four main characters (with each chapter alternating in first person among them) are crafted with precision. Their flaws and blind spots are apparent immediately. I feel I know them better than they know themselves. Have you ever felt conflicted about a novel even months after finishing it? I found it difficult to root for any of the  characters, mired as they were in their own shameless self-contemplation (and often self-congratulation). The very fact that I wanted to finish the book despite not finding any redeeming qualities in the characters is a testament to Delia Ephron’s skill as a writer. I’d be very interested to hear if you feel the same about Finn, Taylor, Lizzie, and Michael.

 

The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer AckermanFor the nature lover: The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. After reading this book, you’ll never use the term “bird brain” again—unless you’re using it as a compliment!  There’s the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later, and the New Caledonian crow, the chimpanzee of the bird world, that makes its own tools. While some birds may not have traditional “book smarts,” they have “street smarts” in that they are able to negotiate complex social networks. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They share. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. All of these cool and interesting facts would have just floated by me if it were not for Jennifer Ackerman’s excellent storytelling abilities. She writes about avian intelligence in a clear, conversational style that kept me engaged to the last page.

 

Looking for more Great Books to Give and Get? Check out the previous lists: 20152014, 2013201220112010

What are some of your favorite books from 2016? Share in comments. 

Friday Five (Or More)

Some happy links and cool clips for you this week!

Gifts with Meaning: Nicholas Kristof, who wrote Half the Sky, offers his annual holiday gift guide, “the chance to recommend presents more meaningful than a tie or sweater.”

How “treat yourself” became the marketing mantra of the 21st century. (Who can stop themselves from reading an article when Michel Foucault is mentioned in the first paragraph?)

68 Inspiring Writing Tips from 9 Great Writers. My fave? Have the guts to cut. Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut.

Still in need of book recommendations for holiday gifts? My suggestions are here, but check out Book Page’s Top 25 Books of 2015 for more ideas.

Former opinion columnist and food writer for The New York Times, Mark Bittman explains Why I Quit My Dream Job.

I finally saw Inside Out. Did you enjoy it as much as I did?

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

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. 

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. 

 

Fourth Annual Great Books to Give and Get

Got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them? In no particular order, here are a few suggestions of books I’ve loved this year.

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCannFor those who want to be swept away into a story: TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann. Brilliant. One of the best books I’ve read this year, if not the best. The novel sweeps back and forth in time changing points of view, but always with the theme of crossing the Atlantic between North America and Ireland. At first these seem like individual short stories, but each point of view is related to another, usually in a small, chance encounter that impacts the character’s life in an important way. Colum McCann weaves the stories together so expertly that coming upon the connection was a delightful a-ha moment. I enjoyed Colum McCann’s style of writing — subtle and straight-forward, painting an honest picture of the characters.

 

Me Before You by JoJo MoyesFor those who love a good love story: Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes. It’s no surprise that this book is on many “Best of…” lists this year, and I don’t think I’ve read a bad review. Nina Badzin writing for Great New Books summarized it perfectly:

Louisa “Lou” is a woman down on her luck. She has no money; she lives with her parents who also need money; and she’s been stuck in a going-nowhere relationship as well. Once she loses the food service job she should have left years earlier, she accepts a position as an aid to an extremely wealthy man who is a quadriplegic. Will and Lou instantly dislike each other, but over time their working relationship gets more complicated.  

No, this isn’t a traditional love story. But neither was Casablanca or The Fault in Our Stars. Let me just say this: if you want a life-affirming, gut-checking story that will stay with you long after you close the cover (or turn off the e-reader, as the case may be) get this one.

 

One Person Multiple Careers, by Marci AlboherFor those who aren’t sure what they want to be when they grow up: One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success, by Marci Alboher. Too often we’re stuck in a single mindset about what a job is supposed to be. You’re an accountant. Or a real estate agent. Or a police officer. But what if you also want to be a cartoonist. Or a stand-up comedian. Or a  Pilates instructor. The author interviewed hundreds of people pursuing multiple careers simultaneously—from a longshoreman/documentary filmmaker to a management consultant/cartoonist—and discovered how what she calls “slash careers” are becoming the new norm. Custom-blending a career used to be a disadvantage, but Alboher shows how it can be fulfilling and interesting, leading to unexpected opportunities.

 

Quiet, by Susan CainFor those who are tired of explaining that being introverted isn’t a bad thing: Quiet, by Susan Cain. I read this book at the very end of 2012, and so I missed last year’s round up. Cain is a self-described introvert herself, and she says that society places a high value on action over contemplation. But, “when it comes to creativity and leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best,” she says. With so much white noise out there, often the person who is most magnetic in a social situation is seen as a leader and innovator, even though the quiet person may have the same idea. In short, our society rewards extroversion, equating it with success and happiness. (The introverted person must be unhappy, right?) Cain also makes the distinction between shy and introversion: shy is about the fear of social judgment, while introversion is about how you respond to social stimulation. Extroverts crave large amounts of social stimulation. Introverts feel at their most alive and capable when they are in quieter, more low-key environments. But no one is all introvert or extrovert, we fall somewhere along the spectrum.

Also check out Susan Cain’s TED talk. If you or someone close to you is an introvert, you’re sure to have a few a-ha moments. (She says introverts and extroverts who work or live together often have to come to certain understandings to live harmoniously.)

 

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, by Emma StraubFor those who want to be transported to the Golden Age of Hollywood: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub. This is a story less about the glamorous side of the motion picture business and more about one woman’s life in it, exploring universal themes of career, motherhood and friendship against the backdrop of the fantasy world of Hollywood. We follow the story of Laura a.k.a Elsa from her girlhood in Door County, Wisconsin, to becoming a leading lady, then as her spotlight fades until she is an elderly grandmother. “After that afternoon, she was always two people at once, Elsa Emerson and Laura Lamont. They shared a body and a brain and a heart, conjoined twins linked in too many places to ever separate. Elsa wondered whether it would always be that way, or whether bits of Laura would eventually detach themselves, shaking off Elsa like a discarded husk.” To feel this duality between what others expect and what you want is not limited to movie stars. I’m looking forward to reading more from Emma Straub.

 

A Tale for the time being, by Ruth OzekiFor those who just want to be transported: A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. A finalist for the Man Booker Prize, this novel feels like it has a pulse.  It’s haunting and familiar and moves at its own pace. Nao is a sixteen-year-old girl in Tokyo who decides to document her great-grandmother’s rich life. Across the ocean, Ruth is a novelist who comes upon an unusual collection of items in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed ashore after the 2011 tsunami. As Ruth pieces together the items, the protagonist’s connection unfolds. It’s one of those novels that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Dinner with the smileys, by Sarah SmileyFor those who are interested in community: Dinner with the Smileys, by Sarah Smiley. I thought the concept behind this book was so intriguing. When columnist Sarah Smiley’s navy husband is deployed overseas, she and her three sons decide to fill his seat at the dinner table with one new guest each week for a year. School teachers, artists, the University of Maine hockey team, a senator, the town mayor (as a journalist, I’m guessing she has access to higher profile people than I do!) all come to share a little bit of themselves during the weekly meal. There is joy, sacrifice, loneliness, grief and a whole host of universal emotions that will make you connect with the Smileys. Sarah’s narrative isn’t sugarcoated at all. In the end it has little to do with dinner or the military. It really centers on the community and connection.

 

let's explore Diabetes with Owls, by David SedarisFor those who want to laugh out loud: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris. Really, what can I say about David Sedaris that hasn’t already been said? He’s hilarious, witty, charming, and a darn good writer. Some humor writers just want to get you to the punchline. They don’t necessarily care about the underlying point of the essay. That has never been true of David Sedaris, and this book is no exception. He weaves tales to take you from point A to B to C seamlessly. He doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinion on sensitive topics or his youthful indiscretions, but does it in a way that has you laughing. I find he’s at his best when discussing his family and past. If you can catch Sedaris on an author tour, there is nothing like seeing him live. I can attest to that — read about the time I scratched David Sedaris’s back!

 

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben FountainFor those who want to read an “of the moment” story: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. I’ll say right up front that this is not a book I thought I would love as much as I did, but I was mesmerized. I read it every chance I got. I even have pages dog-eared because I loved the prose that much. Billy Lynn and Bravo Squad have been fighting in Iraq. Because of deeds done during a harrowing battle that claims the life of one of them, 19-year-old Billy is pronounced a hero. He and Bravo are plucked off the battlefield and sent on a tour around the US to drum up support for the war. The forward motion of the storyline takes place in one day — Thanksgiving — during a Dallas Cowboys football game with the Bravo Squad scheduled to be honored at the halftime show. There are flashbacks to Billy’s family, previous stops on the media tour, and a few touches on the actual firefight that turned them into heroes. Those details are woven in sparingly, so if, like me, you don’t care for intense war scenes, you won’t be turned off. Billy, a young Rabbit Angstrom caught in a Catch-22, is a decent young man with the sudden urge to question the meaning of what is unfolding around him. He thinks about the possibility of leaving the stadium and his squad at his sister’s behest. Will he take her advice? It’s a story with big implications yet it feels very intimate.

 

One Summer, America 1927, by Bill BrysonFor the history or pop culture buff in your life: One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson. Full disclosure: I’m a Bill Bryson completist. I’ve read just about every book he’s had published. He has the wonderful ability to take dense topics and, not only simplify them, but make them interesting with a touch of his trademark humor. In this doorstopper of a book, Bryson delves into the many game-changing events that happened during the course of the summer of 1927. This was the time when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, when Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs (a record that would stand for thirty-four years), when Ruth Snyder and her lover murdered her husband resulting in a trial that captivated the nation (and was turned into a Hollywood film called Double Indemnity), when The Jazz Singer was filmed, when the world’s four most powerful bankers held a secret meeting on Long Island and made a fateful decision that would lead directly to the Great Depression. I mean, whew! And that’s just scratching the surface. Bryson delivers narrative nonfiction in an engaging way that helps the reader keep all of the people and events straight.  Absolutely informative, interesting, and most of all, enjoyable.

 

travels with my aunt, by Graham GreeneFor those who want to travel with a peculiar crowd: Travels with My Aunt, by Graham Greene. Here is the Graham Greene book that proves what a versatile writer he was. Travels with My Aunt is off Greene’s usual track. This novel is funny and farcical as Henry Pulling meets his eclectic Aunt Augusta for the first time at his mother’s funeral. Aunt Augusta is a force to be reckoned with. She’s led quite an exciting life and feels it’s time to shake things up again. Before long she persuades quiet and peckish Henry to give up his dull and regulated life and join her on a trip around the globe from Brighton to Paris to Istanbul to Paraguay where they live on the edge. An entertaining read by one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.

 

Wonder, by R.J. PalacioFor those who’ve ever had the desire to fit in: Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Auggie is a sweet ten-year-old boy who was born with distorted facial features due to an anomaly in his DNA. The book opens as he enters a mainstream school for the first time. He doesn’t describe his face because, “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Auggie wants to convince his new classmates that he’s an ordinary kid, just like them. Easy to say, much harder to do. If the grounding point of the story is Auggie’s parents, who are warm and loving, then the heart of the story is Auggie’s classmates, who are portrayed with such convincing realism, I figured the author must have a child that age at home. Bringing to life a bunch of fifth graders who have distinct personalities takes a lot of skill. (Also easy to say, much harder to do.)  Listen to an interview with the author and read an excerpt at NPR’s All Things Considered. 

 

brooklyn, by Colm ToibinFor those who like stories that just sneak up on them: Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín. This seems to be a simple story about a young Irish woman who, through no desire of her own, is shipped off to the US, Brooklyn specifically, to get a fresh start in the aftermath of WWII. But then something happens. You find yourself thinking about Eilis, her elegant sister Rose and their fragile mother, even when you’re not reading the book. You find yourself rooting for Eilis as she tries to adjust to her new life, something very relatable if you’ve ever moved to a new city. But adjust she eventually does with the help of a local boy named Tony and a reliable department store job. Her tiny village in Ireland is never far from her mind and when she must return she’s faced with a difficult decision: stay on for good or return to the new life she’s building for herself. I love the spareness of the prose. I also love the attention to detail without overwhelming the reader with description. A lesser writer might have harped on the comparisons between Eilis’s hometown and big city Brooklyn as she tries to take it all in, but of course he doesn’t and gives credit to the reader for knowing the difference. In that way, it’s a quiet book. If you’re looking for evil wizards or heart gripping car chases, this one isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a character-driven story where the author is in complete control, you should enjoy this story. (Also look for the movie based on this book coming in 2014.)  This was my first book by Colm Tóibín book, and I don’t think it will be my last.

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

Have a great weekend, everyone!