What books would you give as holiday gifts?

I’ve had this conversation a lot lately. Someone asks, “Read any good books lately?” and I am at a loss.

I read constantly, almost all of it fiction. But strangely, I don’t end up with a lot of things to recommend.

Partly that’s because I read a lot of novels for “work.” They have a theme or structure similar to what I’m working on, so I want to check them out. Or they’re new and getting lots of publicity (e.g. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall). Most of the time I’m underwhelmed.

But I just finished a couple of books that I loved. Loved enough to want to give as holiday gifts. So I figured, why not make a list of some books that I could envision giving as gifts this year?

Here’s a short list of books that I enjoyed enough to want to share. They were either published/updated in 2010, or else I read them for the first time in 2010:

  • Someone Not Really Her Mother, by Harriet Scott Chessman. This is one of the books I just finished and loved. It’s a novel about how the Holocaust filters down through three generations of women – centering on the grandmother Hannah, sole survivor of a family of French Jews who is now living in a nursing facility in Connecticut with dementia that makes her past more real to her than her present. It is subtle, beautifully written, and wise. The bad news: It came out in 2005 and is now out of print. The good news: Of course you can still find copies on the web.
  • By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. Cunningham wrote The Hours, his novelistic homage to Virginia Woolf, and this new novel of his also reminds me of Woolf. If you don’t like interior monologue, stay away!  It’s an insightful look at the marriage and midlife self-doubt of an art gallery owner and his wife, who are thrust into crisis when her eternally-adolescent and gorgeous younger brother comes to stay with them.
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. A cancer doctor who is also a terrific, accessible writer, Mukherjee leads us through the history of the struggle to understand and cure this dreaded disease. I found it really interesting to see how my own experiences with cancer (for instance, my mom died of ovarian cancer in 1986) fit into the bigger picture of what was happening at that time in cancer study and treatments. It’s an illuminating look into the process and politics of medical research in general. And any non-fiction book that holds me for 470 pages has got to be well written.
  • My Lie: A True Story of False Memory by Meredith Maran. Imagine if one of the girls who made the Salem witch accusations later wrote a memoir admitting she had been making it all up. That’s what Maran has done, only her accusations were of incest rather than witchcraft. Maran, a progressive Berkeley writer, tore her family apart in the 1980s when she became convinced that her father had molested her. Over time, she realized that she had succumbed to the group-think of her feminist, abuse-conscious milieu and she tries to make amends. A fascinating inside look at how an otherwise smart, skeptical person can be sucked into mass hysteria.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I mentioned this book in my recent interview with Rabbi Mates-Muchin. Bryson’s scientific explanation of how life on Earth manages to exist is, to me, the definition of a spiritual book. There’s a new edition out which costs more but has lots of nifty diagrams and pictures – I just bought it for a friend’s 60th birthday.
  • The Devil’s Company by David Liss. This is Liss’ third novel about Benajmin Weaver, a Jewish boxer-turned-detective in early 18th century London. I absolutely love this character, a noir-style outsider to his society, and I love Liss’ crime/mystery plots centered on the machinations of early capitalism. Smart, gripping, fascinating! If you haven’t read them, start with his first one, A Conspiracy of Paper.
  • This is Where I Leave You (or anything else) by Jonathan Tropper. Tropper writes funny, clever novels about alienated young men who are forced by circumstances to reconcile with their dysfunctional suburban families. Having read three, I’m starting to feel like they are all a little too similar. But he makes me laugh out loud – which is not easy.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Stieg Larsson. Okay, no point giving these as gifts because everyone in America and Europe has read them already. And they’re not great literature. But I tore through them– great beach reads even without a beach.
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Earlier this year I blogged on this book about the post-Katrina tributions of a Syrian-American family in New Orleans. You can read that post here.
  • To the End of the Land by David Grossman. Okay, I just started it so I don’t have an opinion yet on this new novel by one of Israel’s top writers. But I really want to like it. Does that count?

Hmm. It seems like I must have read some other novels this year that knocked my socks off.  But nothing pops into mind right now.

How about you? What books did you read this year that you loved enough to want to share?

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13 Responses to “What books would you give as holiday gifts?”

  1. Tom Moore Says:

    this year I read a substantial amount of GK Chesterton – public domain works available via Project Gutenberg. I had his book on GB Shaw a few years ago. An opinionated writer, and with one of the most brilliant styles of anyone writing in English, including Shaw. Yes, I know he has some anti-semitic views, but if you can get past those, there is quite a lot to enjoy, especially if you are of a socialist bent.

  2. notdeaddinosaur Says:

    Engrossing non-fiction of late:

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Anyone with any biology background has heard of HeLa cells, an immortal cell line used in medical research for over 50 years. The story of the woman they came from and her family makes for a riveting tale and an un-put-down-able book.

    Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb. Reads like an adventure of Jason Bourne’s grandfather (if he were Jewish). Even more thrilling because it really happened.

    I agree with your assessment of the Larsson trilogy. Only time a great beach read didn’t leave me sunburned.

  3. Laura Castaneda Says:

    I agree — The Emperor of Maladies and Zeitoun were awesome. I also enjoyed Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Great House by Nicole Krauss and yes, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

  4. Harriet Chessman Says:

    Thank you so much for including SOMEONE NOT REALLY HER MOTHER in your list, Ilana!

    One book I loved this year is Edna O’Brien’s THE LIGHT OF EVENING. I read it twice in a row, actually, to see how she created the magic. It’s an intricate, subtle book, told in alternating chapters through the point of view of a now elderly woman (facing her last surgery) and her wayward but deeply beloved daughter.

  5. Michael Keiser Says:

    A few I’ve enjoyed this year:

    Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
    By Leslie T. Chang

    Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture
    By Shelley Fisher Fishkin

    Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party
    By Max Blumenthal

    Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory
    By Peter Hessler (Leslie Chang’s husband)

    Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century
    By Michael Hiltzik

  6. Kris Loberg Says:

    I’m glad you included the J. Tropper book. I really enjoyed that one. Here’s what I enjoyed and would recommend from the past year (or so): Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” was probably my favorite read and gave me yet another perspective of Ms. Smith. “The War Lovers” by Evan Thomas makes you realize that history DOES repeat itself and many Americans were just as stupid 100 years ago. I read two books by fellow Nebraskan Dan Chaon – “You Remind Me of Me” and “Await Your Reply” both well done. I also read lots of crap last year. I’m looking forward to the Michael Cunningham book. Thanks for the tip!

  7. Teresa Says:

    It’s always a treat to get your – and others’ — recommendations! I often give fellow bookworms Jane Gardam’s bookends, OLD FILTH and THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT – the story of a British couple from each perspective. Other books I loved and have given this year: IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS, by Daniyal Mueenedin; AMERICAN RUST, by Phillip Meyer and AWAIT YOUR REPLY, by Dan Chaon.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Teresa — might you be willing to add a few words about the Mueenedin, Meyer and Chaon books? (Like what they’re about or why you liked them?) I’d love to hear more.

  8. Joan Simon Says:

    For Francophiles and mystery lovers who are tired of Swedish gore try Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker and its followup Dark Vineyards . The only policeman in a small town in the Dordogne. Charming and it also keeps you guessing with unexpected endings.

    And for giving that book everyone no matter their age should own- A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen.

  9. Teresa Says:

    Well, sure, I can elaborate. I love to gab about books!

    OTHER ROOMS .. connected short stories about a prominent family and their servants, set in Pakistan. A lot of people talk about needing to “identify” with characters. Mueneedin proves a good writer gets you to understand people and situations you can’t relate to. The book left me thinking about the culture for a long time.

    AMERICAN RUST is similar in that respect. It’s about two young men in today’s Rust Belt, stuck with no real economic choices and trying to get out. Because I lived in Pittsburgh, PA during the decline of the steel mills, I felt particularly hit by the reality that was 50 miles up the road but invisible to me at the time. Most readers probably can’t relate to what the characters face, but Meyer gets you to, almost literally, walk in their shoes.

    AWAIT YOUR REPLY is a wildly creative and wonderfully written story/mystery about the outer limits of our information age. Like a lot of novels these days, it weaves together what seem like separate stories into a grand finale.

  10. Michael Keiser Says:

    I’d like to second Kris’ selection of Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”. It’s a wonderful book.

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