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With the list-making and gift-giving season in full swing, this would be a good time to show restraint. But the holidays, at least as we practice them in the U.S., are all about poor judgment and excess, and so I’ll add to the overkill by offering a list of suggestions for gift giving, choosing only from the books I’ve read and reviewed over the past 12 months.
For your hypochondriac friend
We all have one, a friend or family member who is always sick, about to be sick, or “just getting over something.” Often this person has a Woody Allen–like obsession with his or her mortality and has, since a tender age, felt the icy hand of death drawing nearer. The answer here is to fight fire with fire: in The Way of the Dog, aging author Sam Savage creates a character facing death with anger and regret. As your self-absorbed friend reads Savage’s koan-like prose, they’ll realize that time is precious—and it’s not too late to spend it wisely.
For your college-age niece
Let’s face it, most college-age kids are going to drink too much and make bad decisions. And, from a distance, the most we can do is wring our hands and remind them not to let the dirty laundry get out of control. In Drinking with Men, Rosie Schaap maps her path from adolescence to adulthood bar by bar while advocating “equal regularhood rights for women.” Neither a sordid tale of woe (though she does open with a scene where she craps her pants) nor a cloying tale of sisterhood, her hard-won insights will carry the authority of one who’s been there.
For your hipster cousin
You know, the one who wears skinny jeans that sag in the seat, who has earlobes you can see through, and whose chunky black glasses frame a smug expression of cultural superiority? Well, if there’s one thing hipsters can’t resist, it’s rescuing some forgotten objet d’art from obscurity, and what better than Maurice Dekobra’s The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, one of many gems from Melville House’s Neversink Library. An international best-seller in the 1920s, this fast-moving tale of international intrigue would be dismissed as popular trash by your cousin if it had been written by James Patterson or Harlan Coben—but, given its French origins and forgotten status, he will read it with pride while he sips his organically grown, free-trade espresso in his favorite coffee shop.
For your librarian
I’m just throwing this out there, but wouldn’t it be nice to get your favorite librarian a little year-end gift? I mean, we tip newspaper carriers, maintenance staff, and doormen, so why not someone who’s helped you find so many good and useful books? And what better gift for a book-loving person than Jasper Fforde’s wonderfully bibliomanic Thursday Next series, most recently represented by The Woman Who Died a Lot? Only your librarian has probably read this already. And, if she hasn’t, she will probably tell you to save your money; she’ll take it out on interlibrary loan. Oh, well, it was a nice thought, wasn’t it?
For your know-it-all uncle
There’s an uncle you just can’t stand, who has an opinion on everything, who makes up plausible-sounding “facts” to win arguments at holiday get-togethers, who says “read it” or “saw it” for every book or movie you mention. Well, chances are that even he won’t have heard of Tim Davys’ Mollisan Town quartet, so be perverse and give him the last one, Yok, first. He’ll probably go out and buy the first one, Amberville (2009), which is actually quite good—and the key to this stunning act of revenge. Each successive book is more pretentious and annoying than the last. But your uncle, being your uncle, will persist, and will have read all four by the time next year’s holidays roll around, when he will have a long-winded assessment at the ready—which you will immediately defuse by saying, “Those books? Never read ’em. Not my cup of tea.” Game, set, and match.
For your high-school daughter
. . . who may well be contemplating a career as a cheerleader. Give her Megan Abbott’s stunning Dare Me, which accessorizes the full range of human experience—from joy, love, and lust to greed, betrayal, and despair—with a pair of pom-poms. Capturing the fierce urgency of teens’ inner lives, and relegating most adults to the sidelines, this is cheerleading as blood sport, Bring It On meets Fight Club. It will speak to and enthrall your daughter and, more importantly, make her think twice before doing a toe-touch basket toss at half-court on a hardwood floor.
For your brother who thinks he’s a cook
Lots of guys think they can cook. Lots of guys say they can cook. Many of them will even go so far as to try to prove it by taking classes at culinary institutes, remodeling their kitchens to fit industrial-size stoves and fridges, and boring us to tears with the finer distinction between Le Creuset and Staub dutch ovens. Some of them will actually go so far as to cook something, which, if it is edible, forces us to forgive them for everything else. Daniel Duane is, or was, one of those guys, and in How to Cook like a Man: A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession, he offers a full confession for a wide range of culinary offenses. And making way too many dirty dishes is the least of them: after reading Duane’s tale of truffle poisoning—yes, truffle poisoning—your brother will clean up his act.
For your baby-boomer mother
Does your mom still think the 1960s were, like, the best time ever—even if she’s a little hazy on the details? Kurt Andersen’s True Believers tells the tale of a 1960s radical gone straight. Now, as she composes a memoir of her wild days, she insists that she’s a reliable narrator. But there’s one little problem: she’s having a hard time remembering things. An ambitious and wonderfully voiced novel set in both the past and the present, this is chock-full of the kind of cultural touchstones that make boomers go glassy-eyed with nostalgia—with enough ambiguity to induce a twinge of self-doubt when she hears you say, “Yeah, right, mom.”
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