At a recent get-together, a (male) friend told me all about a great book he’d just read, prefacing his comments by saying, “I’m sure you haven’t read it.” The book? Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides, published about ten years ago. Obviously, he couldn’t imagine that Blood and Thunder would appeal to women, and he doesn’t know me well enough to know that I’ve loved books about the American West ever since I was a child, both fiction and nonfiction. (And yes, I have read Blood and Thunder. It’s great, as is anything by Hampton Sides; my favorite is In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette).
The same evening, I got involved in a nostalgic conversation about favorite childhood books. When I mentioned The Little House on the Prairie series, someone said wistfully that she’d loved those books as a child but couldn’t share them with her children because she has only boys. I told her that I’d read the whole series — not just Farmer Boy — to one of my boys, and he’d enjoyed them almost as much as I did. “But they’re about girls!” she said. Well, no. They’re about people, and the settling of the American West. We give boys books featuring animals, aliens, and wizards, but we balk at suggesting they read about girls?
Male and female reading tastes often differ, to be sure. It’s a safe bet that most readers of a new account of an obscure Civil War battle will be male, just as most readers of the latest novel about a young woman coming of age will be female. (It’s interesting to me that so many literary novelists are male, when their audience seems to be predominantly female.)
Several of my favorite books this year have been truly “unisex”. A Gentleman in Moscow, News of the World, When Breath Becomes Air, Salt to the Sea — all would appeal to almost any reader, male or female. Still, I need to oblige a friend who asked me to recommend books for men. I know she’s not alone in her quest to find books suitable for husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons — so here are some ideas for last-minute shoppers.
The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts
Fans of narrative nonfiction by Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand will love The Perfect Horse. The suspense is not whether the Lipizzaner stallions will be rescued, but how — and at what cost. The Christian Science Monitor calls the book a “perfect World War II rescue story”, and I agree.
Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
“Patient H.M.” was Henry Molaison, a young man who was lobotomized in the 1950s in attempt to cure his severe epilepsy. The twist in this book is that the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery was Dr. William Beecher Scoville, the author’s grandfather. Dittrich provides a fascinating and personal viewpoint about the medical ethics involved with his grandfather’s career, as well as the changing attitudes towards mental illness during the 20th century.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy has been receiving a lot of praise and publicity since it was published in June. It’s two books in one — a very personal story of growing up poor in southern Ohio (reminiscent of Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’) and an exploration of the economic and social problems facing “hillbilly culture”.
Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
The (male) Seinfeld fans in my family enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the creative partnership between Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.
Indestructible: One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII by John R. Bruning
When naval aviator Pappy Gunn’s wife and four children are taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines, he devotes the next three years to rescuing them — and developing new weapons that would have a major effect on the war in the Pacific. I think male readers would find this story as riveting as I did.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
Millard, author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, is one of my favorite authors of narrative nonfiction. The Wall Street Journal says that Millard “has developed a distinctive approach to writing about historical giants. She focuses tightly on a forgotten yet riveting episode in an extremely well-documented life . . . for her latest book, Ms. Millard tackles one of modern history’s most chronicled figures, Winston Churchill. By one count, there are more than 12,000 books written about Churchill. Ms. Millard’s Hero of the Empire recounts an episode in a near-forgotten conflict: young Winston Churchill’s capture and dramatic escape during the Boer War.” One of my most discriminating male readers says this is his top book of 2016.
The North Water by Ian McGuire
This adventure story probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I read it in two days. The North Water was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the year’s ten best books, so I can’t be the only person who willingly reads about violence aboard a 19th century whaling expedition — gruesome murders, polar bear attacks, animal slaughter, and violence galore. I think my friend who couldn’t believe I read Blood and Thunder would be even more shocked I enjoyed The North Water.
Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith
In the spring of 1788, seven years after the British surrendered at Yorktown, three desperate men, all fleeing unbearable situations, join forces for a few days in the thick woods of what is now southern Alabama. They rob and murder a group of white traders and their Indian guides. One of the guides escapes and reports the crime to his chief, Seloatka. Le Clerc, a French “gentleman adventurer” who is married to a Creek Indian woman, volunteers to hunt down the three murderers. Perfect for fans of literary historical fiction who liked The Good Lord Bird (James McBride) or The Known World (Edward P. Jones).
A few more manly suggestions:
For music fans, Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen), Testimony (Robbie Robertson); for golfers, A Life Well Played: My Stories (Arnold Palmer); for business guys, Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike (Phil Knight); for Civil War buffs, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (Ronald C. White); and for mystery readers, Manitou Canyon (William Kent Krueger).