Books for the holiday book drive in Glen Arbor, Michigan
Elves at the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor, MI have been busy wrapping.

Books make great gifts because they’re easy to wrap.
Amy Sedaris

Two years ago, I wrote a post called 5 Books NOT to Give this Holiday Season. I listed the kinds of books that are most likely to be returned, and reminded shoppers not to inscribe books with heartfelt messages: “Dearest Lily, I hope you enjoy Little Women as much as I did when I was your age. Love, Aunt Ann.” Lily may want to exchange Little Women for #7  in the Zombie Vampires in Outer Space series, and that’s OK. You want her to have a book she’ll read rather than one she’ll use as a decorative object, right?

A friend was horrified last Christmas when her parents received a book about end-of-life issues. Books about death and dying don’t make the most cheerful holiday presents. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is one of my favorite books of 2015, but I’m not giving it to anyone as a gift. I don’t even like to give books that have the word “die” in them: 1000 Places to See Before You Die; 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die; 100 Things Iowa State Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (no, I didn’t make that one up!).

This year, I’m taking a positive approach. Instead of telling you which books are bad gifts, I’ll suggest a few that might be good gifts. I say “might” because, of course, you’re taking a chance. Matching a book with a reader is mysterious alchemy — which brings me to another point. If you’re thinking of giving a book to someone who’s not a reader, be very careful. Make sure it’s a useful book rather than a reading book. Your interior designer sister, who loves shelter magazines, would probably appreciate Sharon Santoni’s lovely book, My Stylish French Girlfriends. Your law student brother, who’s buried in textbooks but enjoys cooking, might like the new Jacques Pepin cookbook, Heart and Soul in the Kitchen.

Every major publication, print and digital, publishes a list of the “best” books of the year. The Wall Street Journal creates a master list by compiling books cited on 12 year-end lists: “Best Books of 2015: The Best of the Best-of Lists”. The New York Times publishes a list of 100 Notable Books, and then follows that a week later with The 10 Best Books of 2015. These lists are interesting to read, but not necessarily helpful as gift giving guides. I don’t know about you, but there’s no one on my list who would appreciate The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s Natural World (“Alexander von Humboldt may have been the pre-eminent scientist of his era, second in fame only to Napoleon, but outside his native Germany, his reputation has faded . . .). I’m sure that’s a worthy book, but my friends and family are more likely to receive Tim Federle’s new mixology book, Gone With the Gin: Cocktails With a Hollywood Twist. (We enjoyed Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails With a Literary Twist.)

Here are a few ideas for gift books . . . just in case you haven’t finished your shopping. (Or maybe you deserve to buy yourself a book.) Several of these recommendations appear on 2015 “best books” lists, but I’ve tried to include others that have been overlooked. They may not be the “best”, whatever that means, but maybe they’ll be perfect for someone on your list.

02dde0b11247a412ef5ab2d18f7ba165For art aficionados:

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann
One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read — it doesn’t seem fair that Sally Mann is a talented writer and photographer! She describes it as a “deeply personal explorations of the landscape of the American South, the nature of mortality (and the mortality of nature), intimate depictions of my husband and the indelible marks that slavery left on the world surrounding me.”

For Shakespeare lovers:

Still Time by Jean Hegland
A gorgeous novel about an aging professor, suffering from Alzheimer’s, whose extensive knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare helps him understand a world that is becoming more and more confusing. Like Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Still Time is about a professor suffering from dementia — but it’s an entirely different, and I’d argue, a more subtle and thought-provoking novel.

9780399173004Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas by Caroline Bicks and Michelle Ephraim

Two Shakespeare scholars obviously had a blast putting together this collection of recipes for cocktails and appetizers. Every page contains fun and interesting Shakespeare trivia; reading this short book is a bartending course and Shakespeare seminar combined.

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
First in the new Hogarth Shakespeare series, The Gap of Time is a modern retelling of The Winter’s Tale. Brilliant and entertaining!

For readers like me who can’t get enough of little-known World War II history:

9780544570405_hresWhen Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning
Between 1943 and 1947, the government distributed 120 million paperback books (called Armed Services Editions, or ASEs) to millions of United States servicemen. Manning’s stirring book illustrates the power these books had to combat Nazi propaganda, “soothe an aching heart, renew hope for the future, and provide a respite when there was no escape” and to “build a new literate middle class” after the war.

The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
The story of a hospice nurse, her terminally ill patient (a history professor specializing in World War II history), and her war veteran husband, The Hummingbird is beautiful, suspenseful, and inspiring.

For everyone who loved The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (plus, no one dies in this one):

a-window-opens-9781501105432_lgA Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
The clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture. Perfect for all those readers who don’t want to read “dark” or “depressing” books, the novel pays tribute to independent bookstores — and tells a heartwarming family story at the same time.

For parents who’ve just survived their high school senior’s college application process:

The Admissions by Meg Mitchell Moore
This insightful and delightfully witty novel is about much more than getting into college: the secrets the members of the upwardly mobile Hawthorne family are keeping from each other, and the admissions they must make.

962ab117cc4ac2dd9054af8b597fde98For everyone whose favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird:

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
The very first book I read in 2015 remains one of my favorites of the year.  Harper Lee meets Pat Conroy in this coming of age story set in Appalachia 30 years ago.

For all the readers who cheered for the University of Washington crew in The Boys in the Boat:

930cb8822e923066f1cfb42fa388117eThe Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway
Who can resist an underdog sports story? The “Three-Year Swim Club” was a group of poor Japanese-American children who started their swimming careers training in irrigation ditches in the 1930s and later became world champions. Checkoway focuses on the team’s innovative and inspirational coach, Soichi Sakomoto, an unsung hero whose accomplishments have gone relatively unnoticed.

Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder
A young female runner leaves her family farm and wins a gold medal at the 1928 Olympics. At the age of 104, wheelchair-bound and nearly blind and deaf, she returns to the farm with two young filmmakers. Actually . . . this is nothing like The Boys in the Boat; first of all, it’s fiction, and second, it’s achingly sad. But it is about the Olympics, and it is a great book!

For Ruth Reichl fans/literary foodies:

My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl
After Gourmet magazine folded, editor Ruth Reichl took comfort in the kitchen. Her new book chronicles her year of cooking and healing, with plenty of delicious recipes.

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books by Cara Nicoletti
I loved every page of this book, which is like nothing else I’ve ever read — part memoir, part cookbook, and part literary criticism. The author is a butcher (!) and book lover, and the book contains 50 recipe, each inspired by a book that’s meaningful to her.

Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family and Forgiveness by Sasha Martin
The author set out to cook a recipe from every country in the world and blog about it — along the way, she made peace with her past and connected with the world around her. Reminiscent of Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, it’s a heartfelt, plainspoken chronicle of how food and cooking can heal damaged souls.

For teenagers who want to read adult books:

Where They Found Her by Amanda McCreight
Plot twists and red herrings abound in this novel of psychological suspense that takes place in a seemingly peaceful college town.  YA readers will enjoy the fast pace, the 17-year-old narrator, and the campus setting.

The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw
The Half Brother covers familiar territory: growing up at a New England boarding school. What makes the novel fresh and original is that it focuses on the coming of age of a young teacher.

9781101873472-1How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner
I loved every page of this book, and what I enjoyed most was the voice of the 12.5-year-old (and yes, that’s how she refers to herself) narrator, Aristotle. While trying to write a book, following the instructions in a writing manual, Aristotle stumbles upon some family secrets. Perfect for fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? — another great YA crossover.

For adults who want to read YA books:

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Jam’s parents don’t know what to do with her when she can’t seem to recover from her grief, so they send her to the Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers”. In a very unusual English class, she and her classmates begin to heal. Wolitzer skillfully incorporates fantasy into a novel that at first seems like a straightforward prep school story.

515e3HFpceLI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Teenage twins Noah and Jude, both artists, are as close as two people can be, but they compete for the love of their parents and the attention of a new friend. Nelson, a poet and literary agent turned YA author, gives us each twin’s perspective in this thoughtful, but well-plotted exploration of art and love.

And . . . three favorite 2015 books that haven’t received enough recognition:

the-childrens-crusade-9781476710457_lgThe Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer
I savored every page of this beautiful novel, which explores the complicated relationships among four siblings raised by an attentive, loving father and a neglectful mother.

The Listener by Rachel Basch
A psychologist, the widowed father of two grown daughters, treats a college student who is confused about his gender identity. He becomes romantically involved with the mother of this student — without knowing she is the mother of his patient. Complications ensue, involving his daughters and their shared past.

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
Walsh’s debut is suspenseful, sometimes almost unbearably so, but it’s more than a crime novel; it’s the story of an immature, self-centered boy who manages to become an adult with integrity.

did-you-ever-have-a-family-9781476798172_lgTwo favorite 2015 books that have received plenty of accolades:

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
This book will keep you up late at night, and it will break your heart. The writing is gorgeous, and the tragic story is perfectly constructed.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
In case you haven’t been sufficiently traumatized by Clegg’s novel . . . read A Little Life. The 700-page “epic American tragedy” covering 30 years in the lives of four college friends is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. You’ll never forget it.

What books are you giving this year? And which ones are you hoping to receive?
















25 thoughts on “How to Pick the Perfect Gift Book — And 24 Eclectic Recommendations

  1. Great guide – and very entertaining! I added some books from here on to my own to-read list. I had to laugh, though, at the part about the book about von Humboldt – I actually want to read that book. 🙂
    I love receiving books, but I don’t often give them as gifts. I will only do it when I know the person is a voracious reader who loves to read anything (like my mother) – then I know I’m safe. I learned long ago not to try to turn anyone into a reader by buying them my favourite book. It just doesn’t work. Sometimes the nonfiction titles work well for non-readers, though, if they are like reference books.
    If I were to give away only one book this year to everyone, it would be Do You Think This Is Strange? by Aaron Cully Drake.

    1. You are so right about giving nonfiction books to nonreaders — I gave a book of personality quizzes to some of my not-so-avid reading friends, and they loved it. Happy New Year!

  2. Nice gift list. I’m giving a couple copies out of The Martian and The Revenant to nephews and such. And I’m still giving out Station Eleven, which I really liked. And I haven’t read Girl at War but I’m giving it too, and Lost Canyon. Not sure which ones I’ll receive; havent made requested any so far.

  3. Very well-done list! I also think the books by Amy Stewart make great gifts (Wicked Plants, Drunken Botanist, etc.) but mostly I am in favor of including a gift receipt in case the book just isn’t right or has already been read!

    1. I always tell the recipient I really, really don’t care if they return the book — to think of it as a slightly more personal version of a gift certificate. And I loved The Drunken Botanist! I haven’t read any of her other books though — I’ve been hearing good things about Girl With a Gun. Happy Holidays!


  4. Oh my gosh – I love this post! And will hop over to your “books not to give” post in a second. I agree with My Sunshine Away and it was on both my holiday gift guide and my Best Books of 2015 list – it actually joined Did You Ever Have A Family and A Little Life as my top 3 of the year. And – your description of Secret Wisdom of the EArth as Pat Conroy crossed with Harper Lee just moved that one WAY up my TBR list.

    1. Thanks! I’m not sure if I’m going to do a best books list — I feel like I keep talking about the same books over and over — and I can’t see how my best books list would be much different than my gift books list. Hmmm . . .

  5. Such a great list and so many options- including several I forgot I wanted to read, like Swim Club! And French Girlfriend looks like it would be a pretty one even if I don’t follow any of the advice. 😉

    It’s embarrassing to admit but the only book I’ve bought this holiday season is for me- Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Need to bring the creativity back into my life.

      1. I had to stop by again because your reply is so spot on! Parts Big Magic (so far) are helpful and encouraging and others have me thinking, “What?!”. Thank you!

  6. I need some of these to gift for sure! Good things I have some friends that I know would love more than one of these!! I have a great read that I recently finished that I have gifted, Linda L.T. Baer’s Red Blood, Yellow Skin. Since most of my friends are real fans of Non Fiction, this one is a great fit! It’s fantastic, I can supplement with a few of these and my friends will get nothing better!!

  7. I could have used this for inspiration but I’ve just done my last bit of book buying. You have solved a mystery that has been bugging me for months – i saw a reference on someone’s blog but they couldnt remember the name of the book about the professor with Alzheimer. Now I know!!! Thanks so much

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