Forget the sweater. Buy the book. - Gift ideas for people who have everything -- or who just like to read
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:37 PM
By Breck Longstreth
This year, the heavens are aligned; Hanukkah and Christmas coincide on the calendar. Everyone is gearing up for seasonal shopping, all at the same time. And somehow I'm contemplating that particular endeavor with a bad case of bah, humbug.
My friends and relatives, fortunate all, have most of what they need and want in life. So what is the point in driving myself crazy with shopping in stores, or even online, for gifts that are going to be at best, superfluous? Do any of them really need another sweater? I think not.
So I've determined that this year I'm going to stick to my resolve and buy books for everyone. A book gives hours of enjoyment, improves the mind, and is easy and cheap to ship. And since I can accomplish all my shopping in one stop, I will be a nicer person, able to approach the buying of the tree, the decorating of the house, and the cooking of the food with a better attitude. Still not perfect, mind you, but better.
I've been haunting bookstores and reading reviews for a few weeks, and here, in no particular order, are some suggestions for books to give to the adults and children in your life this holiday. Happy browsing!
Rhyme and reason
Let's start with poetry. Garrison Keillor has assembled a new anthology of memorable and accessible poems -- 185 of them, by 61 poets. Good Poems for Hard Times is a sequel to his first anthology, Good Poems (2002), which was a huge success. The poems he's chosen have wide appeal and are about ordinary things in everyday life. You might have heard some of them on his radio show, ``Writer's Almanac,'' broadcast by National Public Radio.
Children will enjoy A Family of Poems compiled by Caroline Kennedy, a collection of children's poetry from five continents. There are more than 100 poems here, and they're complemented by watercolor illustrations by John Muth. There's an appendix with the text of each translated poem in its original language.
For road warriors
Do you have someone in your life who actually volunteers to navigate on a road trip? Or who spends hours happily checking out the topography on a map of Yellowstone Park? Consider giving them The Map Book by Peter Barber, who is head of map collections at the British Library. This collection contains 175 maps from 1500 to the present, and includes the earliest map of a town plan, a map of the Israelites' journey to Canaan, the Duke of Wellington's map of Waterloo, and modern satellite maps. There's a narrative about each map on its opposing page.
For stargazers interested in the heavens, Dava Sobel's The Planets is, according to the New York Times, a blend of science book, history, and memoir. Author of the extremely readable Longitude, and Galileo's Daughter, Sobel scores again with this book of essays on planetary astronomy.
If there's a woman on your list who likes to read in bits and snatches, there's a large volume entitled Women's Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present. Edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler, the book begins with a letter from Rachel Revere to Paul in 1775, and ends with an e-mail message from a reporter in Iraq. Both famous and ordinary women wrote these letters, and together they create a cultural and sociological history of our country.
I would guess that some guys in your life might be more interested in The Seventy Great Battles in History, edited by Jeremy Black. The book has 350 illustrations and writings from 25 military historians from around the world. They write about battles that have shaped history, from conflicts in the fifth century to the present, including the war in Iraq. Military history buffs will read about land, naval, and air battles, as well as sieges that have affected states and civilizations. Also covered are advances in military technology, strategy and battle tactics.
For a more literary take on war, and perhaps best suited for grandparents, is Paula Fox's The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe. In this small volume, Fox recounts her days as a reporter for a small British news service in postwar Europe. In 1946, Fox left New York at age 22 and spent time in London, Paris, Prague, Warsaw, and Spain. Her vignettes of coming upon a weepy Winston Churchill in a London park, and of visiting an orphanage for children born in concentration camps are particularly moving.
Nostalgia for a slightly younger crowd can be found in Bar Mitzvah Disco, subtitled ``The Music May Have Stopped, but the Party's Never Over.'' Roger Bennett, Nick Kroll, and Jules Shell have collected more than 300 photographs from bar and bat mitzvahs from the 1970s to the early 1990s. The book includes essays and is a fun and funny cultural and sociological history.
Graphic and disturbing
Graphic novels continue to make inroads into popular culture and literature. Adult fans of the genre will be pleased to learn that Black Hole, by Charles Burns, has finally been published. Burns has been releasing chapters of this tome for 10 years in serial comic books. The setting is Seattle in the early 1970s, and it follows the fates of two teens, Chris and Keith, their friends and the AIDS-like illness that only affects teenagers. This is definitely not a book for children, and is perhaps best suited for the Scrooges on your list.
Graphic, not disturbing
Much more upbeat is Spiral-Bound, by Aaron Renier, a graphic novel for all ages, and especially appealing to kids. Beautifully drawn, its characters include: Turnip, an insecure elephant; Stucky, a confident hound; Ana, an investigative reporter bunny; and Emily, a photographer bird. Themes include friendship, loyalty, ambition, morality, and self-discovery.
Never enough Calvin
The Complete Calvin & Hobbes is a giant, three-volume boxed set of Bill Watterson's beloved comic strip, drawn from 1985-1995. This is the ultimate (and pricey) gift for fans of 6-year-old Calvin and his sidekick Hobbes, a stuffed (from Calvin's parents' point of view), or real (from Calvin's point of view) tiger. Put it on your shelf next to another boxed set, last year's The Complete Far Side, by cartoonist Gary Larson.
Point, click, buy
My columnist colleagues, Frances Wood, Linda Stephens-Urbaniak, and Eileen Mintz have done a wonderful job of alerting you to books about birds, gardens, and cooking, so I won't go there. But if there's a photographer in your life, I have three suggestions. Two are books of portraits by the famous Richard Avedon, who died last year. Woman in the Mirror has 125 black and white images of famous actresses and models, with a few plain folk mixed in. The other is In the American West, which has been reissued after being out of print for a decade. In this volume, Avedon sticks to plain folk -- drifters, miners and the like. Finally, the publishers of the Lonely Planet guidebooks have compiled One People: many journeys, a large volume with color photographs from all over the world of people going about their daily routines, from birth to death. All three of these volumes are oversized, coffee table books.
No scissors in Brazil
If there's a traveler on your list who likes to do more than look at the world in a book, Michael Powell's Behave Yourself! is a must-have. The book provides invaluable advice on etiquette in 45 countries. Learn how to be a respectful tourist, whether you're visiting a country on business or for pleasure. In Hong Kong, for instance, don't wear blue and white to a social event, as those are colors reserved for death and mourning. And certainly don't give scissors as a gift in Brazil.
Do you know someone who is getting married in the months to come? There's a beautiful new book, To Have and to Hold - Magical Wedding Bouquets by New York event planners David Stark and Ari Adler. In addition to photographs of 150 bouquets, the authors provide information on what flowers are available in different seasons, budgets, and how to make, hold, and preserve bouquets.
An outside-the-box gift
Do you really want to give your child's teacher another mug with reindeer on it? Consider instead Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt. This author, made famous by Angela's Ashes, his memoir about growing up in poverty in Ireland, spent 30 years teaching English in New York City public schools. ``Teacher Man'' is his memoir of those years, when he taught outside the box, opening up his personal life to his students. It's a book filled with love and humor, and is as much about what McCourt received from his students as what he gave them.
Magical reads for kids
For the children in your life, check out a couple of different boxed sets of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, undoubtedly issued in anticipation of the long-awaited film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And young fans of Dragonology and Egyptology can now immerse themselves in Wizardology, the latest sumptuous volume from Candlewick Press. This reference book for would-be wizards in grades 5-8 includes a phoenix feather and a piece of a fairy flag.
A beautifully illustrated book for children is D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, by husband and wife team Edgar and Ingri d'Aulaire. Originally published in 1967, this book has just been reissued, and serves as a good companion to the authors' book on Greek myths.
News of the weird
Kids and adults alike will love Ripley's Believe It or Not Encyclopedia of the Bizarre, with 6,000 oddities, facts, and records. And trivia addicts will also get a kick out of The Top 10 of Everything 2006, with its lists on everything imaginable. Want to avoid the top ten places where you can be attacked by a shark? This is the book to read.
For history lovers
A book written 70 years ago by a German, E.H. Gombrich, A Little History of the World, was revised by the author, aged 92, before he died in 2001. Over the years, the book has been published in 18 countries, but the first English language edition is just out. Originally written for children, but appropriate for adults, too, it covers history from prehistoric man to the end of World War II.
A blatant solicitation
Finally, if anyone in my family is reading this (unlikely), I'd love to receive a copy of Mao, The Unknown Story by Jung Chang, written with her husband, Jon Halliday. I've been waiting for a long time for another book by this wonderful writer, author of Wild Swans. This unflattering biography of Mao Tse-tung took a decade to research and write, and has been banned in China.
Breck Longstreth is an Island resident. She can be reached at email@example.com.