How to Pick the Perfect Gift Book — And 24 Eclectic Recommendations

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s In a Name? 10 Favorite Book Titles

From Bookriot.com.

From Bookriot.com.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Does Juliet’s famous quotation hold true for the titles of books as well? It’s hard to imagine these famous books with the titles their authors first contemplated:

  • The Great Gatsby was originally going to be called Trimalchio in West Egg or Under the Red, White, and Blue.
  • The working titles of Gone With the Wind were Tote the Weary Load or Mules in Horses’ Harnesses.
  • The Sound and the Fury (“the best-titled book of all time”, according to Book Riot) started out as Twilight.

To-Kill-a-Mockingbird-First-Edition-CoverI’d vote for To Kill a Mockingbird as one of the best titles of all time. It’s a memorable and poetic title that hints at the central theme of the book without revealing too much. Harper Lee settled on the title after discarding two others, Atticus and Go Set a Watchman. I’m glad she didn’t name her masterpiece after the book’s hero. I confess to a bias against book titles that are the same as the main character’s name. Pride and Prejudice strikes me as a much better title than Emma, for example. Emma is so much more than a character study — why did Jane Austen decide to name the book after the protagonist? Books named after their protagonists seem to indicate a lack of originality on the part of their authors, but I know that’s not the case. Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre), Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), and Charles Dickens (David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby) certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of originality. Maybe I am overemphasizing the significance of titles?

People are often surprised to learn that book titles can’t be copyrighted. Many times, we’ve had customers ask for a particular book without knowing the author’s name, only to find out that there are many books with the same title. I don’t know why anyone would choose a title that’s been used over and over, but it happens all the time. For example, a customer recently came in asking if we had The Dressmaker. A book with that title by Kate Alcott came out last year, and I assumed that’s the one the customer wanted. But when I described the plot (the dressmaker is a personal maid on the Titanic and ends up in a lifeboat), the customer said that wasn’t the book she wanted. I found four other books called The Dressmaker, but none of those was the one the customer had in mind. (It turned out she wanted Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini . . . not to be confused with Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Lynda Jones.)

Authors today typically don’t have total control over their books’ titles. They may be attached to a certain title, only to be told after an editorial or marketing meeting that the title is deemed inappropriate for various reasons. In an interview on The Awl (a great website that covers publishing and “the issues of the day”), author Laurie Frankel (The Atlas of 9780307947727Love) describes her experience working with her publisher to choose a book title:

I can only explain how I learned to stop worrying and love the title. My agent, who knows much more about writing and selling books than I do, loved it. My publisher, who knows much more about writing and selling books than I do, loved it. My editor, who had been as attached to Naked Love and its titular moment as I was, loved the new title . . . Meanwhile, at work on novel number two, I have a working title I refuse to get emotionally attached to. And this niggling reminder I learned in kindergarten and have clung to ever since: it’s what’s inside that counts.

9780670026630HLaurie Frankel is absolutely right, but I still love an unforgettable title that perfectly captures the essence of the book.  Here are 10 of my favorites (including both classics and recent books) — what are yours?

  • The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
  • Wuthering Heights (Jane Bronte)
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home (Carol Rifka Brunt)
  • A Hologram for the King (Dave Eggers)
  • The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach)
  • A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki)
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Maria Semple)
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
  • Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner)
  • The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson)

And one more thing: I have to mention how much I hate it when the publisher adds a subtitle to the title of a novel, which they seem to do more and more frequently. Immediate turnoff. For example, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong is one of my favorite books. Below the title on the  current paperback cover, it says “A Novel of Love and War“. I think the reader can probably figure that out. What’s next? War and Peace: A Novel of War and Peace? The Scarlet Letter: A Novel of Infidelity?

 

Salvaged Pages — 10 Books I’d Save in a Fire (or a Flood)

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar . . . He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.  Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader (1925); one of the books I’d save in a fire.

IMG_0014Earlier this week, a pipe burst at Lake Forest Book Store and within minutes, the entire basement was flooded and thousands of books were ruined. Certainly this was a catastrophe, but the store has insurance and the books can be replaced. Right before this happened, my colleague and I were chuckling over “Planning for Natural Disasters”,  one of the seminars offered at the upcoming American Booksellers Association Winter Institute: Why would anyone go to that, we wondered, when there are fascinating alternatives like “Sad and Dark YA Literature”? Now we know.

The flood made me think about what books I would try to save if there were a fire or flood in my house. (I’m not speaking literally, you realize! If there’s REALLY an emergency, I will not be standing in front of my bookshelves wondering which books to take. This is an academic question, like “If you could only take one book to a desert island, which one would you choose?”) Which books would I miss the most? Which ones can’t be replaced? Not many, it turns out. Most of the books I own would be easy to replace. I’d be sad to lose my signed ARCs from author events and trade shows, but those wouldn’t be the ones I’d grab on the way out the door.

The books I would want to save are books that belonged to me as a child, or to my parents and grandparents.  Many are long out of print. Just looking at their covers takes me right back to my childhood. They are falling apart, with loose pages, broken spines, and missing dust jackets.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie This version (1910) belonged to my grandmother, who was born in 1904.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
This version (1910) belonged to my grandmother, who was born in 1904.

1 x 1 by e.e. cummings My grandmother was in the habit of writing to authors she admired, and a postcard thanking her for her fan letter is in the book.

1 x 1 by e.e. cummings
My grandmother was in the habit of writing to authors she admired, and a postcard thanking her for her fan letter is in the book. Think it’s worth anything?

 

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl My aunt was kind enough to give me a lovely inscribed book, and I took a marker and corrected her spelling of "niece".

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
My aunt was kind enough to give me a lovely inscribed book, and I took a marker and corrected her spelling of “niece”. Not very nice!

The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall I reread these 3 books (all in one volume) over and over again.

The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall
I reread these 3 books (all in one volume) over and over.

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf My grandmother (born in 1908) apparently received this book when she was 20, and years later added a bookplate with her new married name. I used this for research on my honors thesis when I was 20.

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
My grandmother (born in 1908) apparently received this book when she was 20, and years later added a bookplate with her new married name. I used this for research on my honors thesis when I was 20.

Little Plum by Rumer Godden A wonderful story about a lonely little girl and a Japanese dollhouse . . . so sad it's no longer in print.

Little Plum by Rumer Godden
A wonderful story about a lonely little girl and a Japanese dollhouse . . . so sad it’s no longer in print.

The Fabulous Flight by Robert Lawson I tracked this book down on Ebay -- it was a childhood favorite that I borrowed from the library again and again.

The Fabulous Flight by Robert Lawson
I tracked this book down on Ebay — it was a childhood favorite that I borrowed from the library again and again.

Mary Poppins Opens the Door by P.L. Travers Originally my mother's, I added my name and address. I don't know who colored the illustrations!

Mary Poppins Opens the Door by P.L. Travers
Originally my mother’s, I added my name and address. I don’t know who colored the illustrations!

Silver Pennies My mother gave me this lovely little book of poems when I was five, and I circled the poems I liked and crossed out the ones I didn't.

Silver Pennies
My mother gave me this lovely little book of poems when I was five, and I circled the poems I liked and crossed out the ones I didn’t.

The Lonely Doll Learns a Lesson by Dare Wright Apparently some people find the Lonely Doll books creepy; I would never give up my  collection.

The Lonely Doll Learns a Lesson by Dare Wright
Apparently some people find the Lonely Doll books creepy; I would never give up my collection.

IMG_0011I asked my friends and colleagues which books they treasure most, and received some interesting responses.

Sue chose her ARC of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which she remembers reading on her porch to her family while on vacation in Michigan . . . she recalls her husband asking her not to read any more unless he was there! She could tell it was a classic from the first page. Molly is still sad she lost her inscribed copies of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Littlephoto 1 House series, but still has a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, given to her by a beloved teacher and mentor 30 years ago. Ann is most attached to her copy of The Secret Garden, signed by Tasha Tudor, as well as “The Needlepoint Book: 303 Stitches, with Patterns and Projects by Jo Ippolito Christensen.  I purchased this one myself in the 80’s.  I threw the cover away a few years ago because it literally was torn to shreds.  I wish I could remember the cost.  Explanations and illustrations are wonderful in this book.  Of course, the projects are quite dated, but the stitches remain the same.  I saw the same version of the book on Etsy listed as “vintage” for $9.95.”

photo 1Most poignant was Kathy’s choice: Salvaged Pages,  a collection of diaries written by young people, ages 12 to  22, during the Holocaust, most of whom perished before their liberation. This is a book that should never go out of print.

What about you? Are there books in your library you would hate to lose?