Some choice books for the holiday shopper
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:31 PM
Like most of you, when I think of the holidays, I think of children, so that seems like a good place to start this month’s column. I’ll include some fiction and non-fiction suggestions for the youngsters in your life, and then move on to some titles for the adults on your list. But remember: nothing beats the slow browse through a bookstore at this time of year, so be sure to do some exploring on your own.
Books for Children
Though it’s not brand new, to my mind the most beautifully illustrated version of The Night Before Christmas remains that by Jan Brett. This book deserves to be brought out year after year, and is sure to evoke visions of sugarplums in young readers.
Hanukkah at Valley Forge, by Stephen Krensky, tells a fictional account of George Washington’s encounter with a soldier, a Polish immigrant, who is lighting a Hanukkah candle. The two discover the similarities between the Maccabees fighting the Greeks and the Americans fighting the British. This picture book, illustrated by Greg Harlin is for children in grades 2-4. The author provides a note that details the facts upon which the story is based.
Another seasonal pick for the picture book set is The Snow Globe Family, by Jane O’Connor. Two families, one big and one little (inside the globe) have parallel adventures.
Kids Cook 1-2-3 by Rozanne Gold and Sara Pinto has recipes for young chefs that use only three ingredients. How cool is that?
Children ages 9-12 will embrace Amazing Leonardo daVinci Inventions You Can Build Yourself by Maxine Anderson; The Amazing World of Sports, a sports photography book; and The Top Ten of Everything 2007, by Russell Ash. Other great finds for this age group are Secrets, Lies, Gizmos and Spies, a history of spies and espionage by Janet Coleman, and Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini by Sid Fleischman.
Books for Tweens
Patricia McCormick’s new novel, Sold, tells the story of a Lakshmi, a young Nepalese girl who is sold into prostitution in India. A grim story, based in fact, but with a hopeful ending.
The 15-year-old protagonist of Barry Lyga’s The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl is a computer nerd and comics artist who hates school and has a miserable homelife. He befriends Kyra, another outcast. The best part of the book is Fanboy’s authentic, sarcastic voice, which will resonate with teens.
Terry Pratchett’s Wintersmith is the third novel in the Discworld stories, and her heroine, Tiffany Aching, studying to be a witch, is now 13. Like most girls her age, Tiffany has attracted the attention of a boy; Wintersmith has a crush on her, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass. Jeremy, about to turn into a teenager, is on the cautious side, but his best friend, Lizzy, is intrepid. Together, they search for the keys to a package Jeremy receives which is supposed to hold the meaning of life.
New Moon by Stephenie Meyer is a sequel to Twilight. Heroine Bella Swan has a vampire boyfriend and all the angst of the standard teenager, and then some. For grades 8 and up.
To my mind, the best book out there this holiday season actually falls into a category academics call “blurred genre,” though it’s being labeled fiction. Alice Munro, the hugely talented Canadian short story writer, gives us The View From Castle Rock, a collection of stories that draws significantly from her personal family history.
Two historical novels set during World War II will appeal to grandparents, especially. Jeff Shaara’s The Rising Tide is the first volume of a planned trilogy. Shaara has written bestsellers on the American Revolution and World War I, so fans will welcome this new endeavor. Another novel, Suite Francaise, is set during the German occupation of France, and was written by Irene Memirovsky, who died at Auschwitz. Her manuscript, hidden during the war, has been published 64 years later. Memirovsky, an established and successful writer, only had time to pen two of five planned books; they’re both included in this volume.
A debut novel with an historical bent is Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth, about the flu epidemic of 1918. It takes place in a small logging town in Washington state. And if your interest was piqued by Sofia Coppola’s movie about Marie Antoinette, you can learn more from reading Abundance, a fictional memoir about the ill-fated queen by Sena Jeter Naslund.
Fans of Richard Ford and his recurring protagonist, Frank Bascombe, will welcome The Lay of the Land. For those who aren’t familiar with these books, start with The Sportswriter and Independence Day. You won’t be sorry.
Other familiar, favorite writers with new books out: Tony Hillerman (The Shape Shifter); Joseph Wambaugh (Hollywood Station); Stephen King (Lisey’s Story); and Michael Connelly (Echo Park).
While a wide variety of good non-fiction books have been in short supply the last few years, that’s not the case this holiday season, according to Roger Page, owner of Island Books. At the top of his list of recommendations is This I Believe. In the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow hosted a radio program by that name, in which famous figures expressed their personal credos. Last year, National Public Radio revived “This I Believe,” and solicited the general public to submit essays. The book is a compilation of 80 of the best of these personal philosophies, both past and present. A wonderful book for almost any adult, and especially for the legions who attended Mercer Island High School and as seniors wrote credos as the final assignment for the humanities class.
History buffs with an interest in the American West will enjoy Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides. This epic tale of the conquest of the Southwest and the decimation of the Navajo focuses on Kit Carson, the legendary trapper, soldier and scout. The book is beautifully written, inviting comparisons with the works of David McCullough, and Sides does a good job of presenting all points of view, including those of the Mexicans and Native Americans.
Fans of Seattle author Erik Larson, author of Devil in the White City will gobble up his most recent offering, Thunderstruck. Larson weaves together two stories - that of Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless communication, and that of murderer Dr. Hawley Crippen. It’s non-fiction, but it reads like a novel.
More history is in store for those wanting to know about America in the 1930s. Seattle author Timothy Egan won the National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time: the Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, a book based on interviews the author conducted with survivors.
Have a drama queen or king in your life? In Character: Actors Acting is an intriguing look at how actors convey emotion through facial expression. Photographer Howard Schatz has given each actor a series of prompts — a woman scorned, a diagnosis of a disease, a kid being made fun of by a clique - and captured their faces and hands in close-up.
A gem for the photographer, A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005 is a beautiful collection of photographer Annie Leibovitz’s work. She mixes photographs of famous people with pictures of her own friends and family.
Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook is comprehensive and would be good choice for the compulsive cleaners on your list. Billed as "The Essential Guide for Caring or Everything in Your Home," this tome will tell you how to pack for long-term storage, how to install a staircase runner, and how to care for mops.
Equally comprehensive, but somehow infinitely more charming, is The Art of Rough Travel, by Sir Francis Galton. Subtitled “From the Peculiar to Practical, Advice From a 19th Century Explorer,” this small hardbound volume details building a boat, warming a tent, and a myriad other tips for surviving in the wild, including a section on "Revolting food that may save the lives of starving men.”
The entire family can benefit from the beautiful illustrations and wealth of information in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Animals by Philip Whitfield. The book is a good reminder of the amazing depth and breadth of the natural world, and all the creatures in it.
Last year’s big book was The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, and this year it’s out in paperback. It’s easier to heft, and its bright red color seems fitting for the season. New this year from the same folks is The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in the New Yorker.
And as long as we’re talking comics, those of you who have been collecting the beautiful reproductions of comics artist Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” comic strips can add to your library the latest volume, a deluxe, two-volume boxed set, The Complete Peanuts 1959-1962. Seattle publisher Fantagraphics obtained the rights to publish these books about three years ago, and they’ve been plugging away at it, releasing a new volume or two each year. The strip was published for 50 years, beginning in 1950.
Those interested in design, or who just like having a few books lying around that look great, will enjoy receiving the three volumes of Phaidon Design Classics. The bold, yellow-and-black books comprise a chronological record of great design starting in 1600, from airplanes to teakettles to corkscrews: 4,000 images of 999 industrially manufactured products.
A call from a friend alerted me to that rarest of books, a religious nonfiction page-turner: The Faith Club by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner. The three women — a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew — came together in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to write a children’s book about the commonalities of their respective traditions. The tensions that arise in their discussions with one another are chronicled in this fascinating book, and the understanding and respect they gain for one another’s point of view are all the more rewarding given the conflict.
Finally, a small book to help us, regardless of our culture or religion, give thanks for the many blessings of this holiday season. Saying Grace: Blessings for the Family Table, edited by Sarah McElwain, contains 120 blessings from all over the world. Some blessings are very old, others more recent; some are funny, others sacred. I’ll borrow one in gratitude for all the wonderful choices we, in this country, have to buy, give and read books: “May others all these blessings share, and hearts be grateful everywhere.”