Give Books: A Holiday Gift Guide

Give Books Brief Book Reviews Instagram Post

There were books I loved this year, books that were amazing and/or difficult reads, that didn’t make it onto this gift guide list because either the subject matter isn’t for everyone or those titles are on so many gift guide lists already (looking at you, Lincoln in the Bardo and Sing, Unburied, Sing). So I’ll be compiling my top books of the year in another post.

Happy gifting!

FOR YOUR MOM

1.) FOR MOM: Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass, $22.95
Hourglass is a stunner, a deftly braided memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. In it Shapiro excavates the girl she was, examines the woman – mother and wife and writer – she is now, and speculates about the woman she is constantly becoming as her life inches closer, ever closer, towards death. Shapiro has packed so much into this slim book, the fast abandon of youth, the intense love and weight of years of marriage, the anxiety and joys of parenthood, and the sweet sting of memory, of aging.

2.) FOR DAD: Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, $14.95
While Norwegian by Night is, at its core, a book of suspense, it also provides a fascinating look at Jewish identity, the frailty of memory, language and the ability to communicate without words, war and the effects of violence on the brain, parenting, aging, and death. It’s great.

3.) FOR YOUR BEST FRIEND: Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, $27
This is a fantastic read full of adventure, suspense, and heart. I just loved it, as did my book club, and most all my friends who’ve read it.

4.) FOR YOUR SPOUSE: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, $27
In Autumn, the first in The Seasons quartet, Knausgaard, already a father of three, writes to his unborn daughter about the mundanity of our world, about the place she’ll soon be entering into and some of what she’ll encounter. As only Knausgaard can do, he describes for his daughter: Apples, War, Infants, Autumn Leaves, Lice, Vomit, Pain, Flaubert, the Labia (holy shit, read it), Forgiveness, and more. In each description, there is knowledge to be imparted and a personal connection being made, to others and to the world. And at the core of it all, fleshed out and laid bare, a deep and gorgeous truth.

Gift Guide 5-8(1)

5.) FOR YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW: Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, $27
Little Fires Everywhere is a beautifully rendered novel about family, identity, art, friendship, and the fire-spark of love. Throughout, I was struck by Ng’s excellent ability to get inside her characters’ heads. All different, each character feels true and distinct, emotionally complex without being contrived. Ng’s characters grapple with issues of belonging and betrayal, with what makes a “good” or “bad” or “worthy” parent. We witness the desperate acts of parents attempting to hold onto their children, and family dynamics pulled taut by fear, expectations, and deep affection, and the evidence that sometimes family isn’t the one we’re born into but the one we choose.

6.) FOR YOUNG KIDS: Carson Ellis’ Du Iz Tak?, $16.99
A favorite picture book in my house, Du Iz Tak? is a beautifully illustrated story about the seasons, nature, and the cycle of life from the incredibly talented Carson Ellis, illustrator of the Wildwood Chronicles.

7.) FOR THE COOK: David Tanis’ Market Cooking, $40
Fresh, seasonal produce takes center stage in David Tanis’ gorgeous new cookbook. My sister-in-law, who knows I love to buy vegetables seasonally at our local farmers’ markets, gave me this cookbook for my birthday in November, and there are so many recipes I can’t wait to try, including: Yellow Beet Salad with Mustard Seeds, Celery Salad with Pistachios, Sake-Steamed Kabocha with Miso, Roasted Coconut Carrots, Tomato Chutney, and Fennel al Forno, to name just a few.

8.) FOR THE BOOK LOVER: Guinevere de la Mare’s I’d Rather Be Reading, $12.95
This little volume fits into a stocking and is perfect for lovers of book stacks, libraries and indie bookstores, reading nooks, and that amazing new book smell. Compiled by Silent Book Club founder (and personal friend) Guinevere de la Mare, I’d Rather be Reading is an ode to books and the reading life.

#89 Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

10846336Salvage the Bones, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2011, is the profoundly harrowing story of a young teenage girl, Esch, and her father and brothers, as they prepare to face a hurricane threatening to upend their lives in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. It is a story about what it means to be black and poor in the South today, about burgeoning sexuality, about family and community and secrets, about the destructive power of nature.

Jesmyn Ward is a master of language and narrative, with a sharp, uncanny ability to craft a world that glitters with realness and chafes with grit. Her characters seem to emerge from a deep well of human understanding, they are nuanced and determined, tender and fierce, each one a survivor, hardened by the painful difficulties of life. Salvage the Bones houses both brilliance and heavy sorrow, what an intense and necessary book.

#88 Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún

32920269Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections is a quick, dark, and calculated novel about family and politics. Set in Bolivia after WWII, and based on real historical figures, the narrative follows the German Ertl family, father Hans and two of his daughters, on an expedition into the Amazon, and beyond.

The Ertl family provides Hasbún with great fodder for his story. In Germany, Hans Ertl had worked with Leni Riefenstahl as a Nazi propaganda cinematographer. After WWII, he fled the country with his family, relocating in Bolivia where he made expedition documentaries, and eventually became a farmer. His daughter, Monika Ertl, became a guerrilla fighter after joining up with the remnants of Che Guevara’s army.

While there is a precise elegance to Hasbún’s writing, and the history of the Ertl family is intriguing, the novel, composed of vignettes told from various perspectives, felt limited and disjointed, and lacked an emotional nucleus.

#87 The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

Messud_final_front.inddMost girls, at some point in adolescence, survive a best friend breakup. Most women I know have been through multiple friend breakups: new friends are made, interests change. A certain rite of passage, it can be sad, heartbreaking even, yet inevitable. The Burning Girl is the story of a broken friendship between two young teenage girls, friends since preschool. The foundation of this friendship, however, felt stilted and false, totally ungrounded emotionally. It’s hard to mourn a broken friendship if that friendship doesn’t ring true and is just simply boring.

I’ve never been able to get into Messud’s writing (I hated the characters in The Emperor’s Children and couldn’t even make it half way through), though friends, whose opinions I trust, love her. In this, Messud’s astute adult voice underscores the thoughts and observations of her young teenage protagonist making her character’s inner dialogue too insightful for her age and completely unbelievable. Messud’s adult perspective in this teenage narrative, and the lack of real emotion evoked by the characters or the plot, made this one of my least favorite books of the year.

#86 The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

33253215The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a novel built on love and desire, heartbreak, and astounding coincidence (characters with unknown ties cross paths again and again and again). It’s the life story of Cyril Avery, born to a teenage girl pushed out of her close-knit community in rural Ireland for being pregnant. Cyril is adopted by wealthy and eccentric Mr. and Mrs. Avery and his youth is marked by loneliness and longing.

While Cyril is trying to establish his identity and purpose in life, he’s a pretty unlikable character. Once Cyril settles into his skin and becomes the person he’s meant to be, the novel picks up speed and I found I was more engaged and sympathetic to his story.  His story is very readable, and by the end I felt a genuine closeness to the quirky, flawed characters of Boyne’s imagination.

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#85 Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

34362982When thumbing through the book review section of The New York Times a few weeks ago I wasn’t surprised to read in Celeste Ng’s By the Book Q&A that she’s not a fan of Karl Ove Knausgaard: “I have never been able to get into Knausgaard, though many, many people whose opinions I trust adore his work. It’s just not for me.”

Knausgaard is a polarizing author. Based on conversations I’ve had with friends and fellow book lovers, it seems you either love him or you just really don’t. I’m solidly in the LOVE category. My husband, however, having never read a lick of Knausgaard’s writing, derides him with passion any chance he gets (most recently over dinner with friends at Leo’s Oyster Bar) because of an instant dislike of Knausgaard’s seriously earnest author photo and a general mistrust of anyone who pens a six-volume, many-paged autobiography. I’ve read the first two volumes of My Struggle, by the way, and they’re fantastic. I particularly loved volume 2.  Most of the people who dislike Knausgaard refer to his navel-gazing, a meticulous dissection of everyday life, calling his writing boring, misogynistic, banal.

What amazes me, again and again, about Knausgaard’s writing is that there is a pedestrian everyday-ness about it. He catalogues and peels apart the world around him in seemingly ordinary prose. And then, in peeling back and exposing ugliness and the ritual of the mundane, he shows us such great beauty and insight. That beauty is, at times, simply breathtaking.

In Autumn, the first in The Seasons quartet, Knausgaard, already a father of three, writes to his unborn daughter about the mundanity of our world, about the place she’ll soon be entering into and some of what she’ll encounter. As only Knausgaard can do, he describes for his daughter: Apples, War, Infants, Autumn Leaves, Lice, Vomit, Pain, Flaubert, the Labia (holy shit, read it), Forgiveness, and more. In each description, there is knowledge to be imparted and a personal connection being made, to others and to the world. And at the core of it all, fleshed out and laid bare, a deep and gorgeous truth.

One of my favorite books of the year.

With beautiful illustrations by Vanessa Baird and translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey

#84 Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

32620302Mr. Smith, the protagonist of Francis Spufford’s historical novel Golden Hill, set in small-town 18th century New York City, is a mystery. Neither the characters around this aptly named any man, nor the reader for that matter knows what he’s about when he shows up in New York newly off the boat from England with a note for a large sum of money to be paid by a particular man at a well-known counting house. The money can’t be paid out immediately, so Mr. Smith goes about his mysterious business, making friends and enemies, getting into trouble with the locals, all the while staying mum on his identity and his mission.

Throughout this novel, the question lingers: who is this Mr. Smith? When Mr. Smith’s purpose is revealed, finally, I wished Spufford had spent more time on that story than building a complete narrative out of Mr. Smith’s mysterious circumstances. As a whole, Golden Hill, quickly paced, smartly written, and rich with historical touchstones, offers a glimpse of early life in America and the makings of a complicated nation.

#83 Sphinx by Anne Garréta

23129715 Imagine a story in which two lovers exist outside gendered norms, their identities not defined by sex or gender but rather given shape by the affection and desire they share.

That story is realized in Sphinx, a fascinating book written under Oulipian* constraint, in which French author Anne Garréta walks a linguistic tightrope, building an experimental love story narrative around two central, genderless characters.

As impressed as I was by Garréta’s ability to construct this narrative, I was equally impressed by Emma Ramadan’s translation of the text from French. Ramadan’s translator’s note at the end of Sphinx addresses the task of having to rewrite parts of Garréta’s text to stay true to the constraint in English and the nature of writing with a gendered language. From Ramadan’s note: “Garréta believed that equality could not exist within a language that puts the two genders in opposition to each other, and so created a language and a world in which amorous relationships are not determined by a binary of distinction.”

*”[t]he adjective Oulipian is retrofitted from the name OuLiPo which stands for ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature: a collective established in Paris in 1960 with the purpose of exploring and exploiting the generative literary potential of linguistic, mathematical, and scientific structures — which lots of the time, is a fancy way of saying the use of constraints as a writing aid.”  from the Introduction to Sphinx by Daniel Levin Becker

#82 Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

26530351Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun, called “a lithe, artfully-plotted debut” and the “ultimate antibeach novel” by Jennifer Senior in her review in The New York Times is a good, solid read.

Set in and around a Montego Bay resort in Jamaica, the plot revolves around two sisters: Margot who works long hours at the resort while also turning tricks for tourists and those in the hotel who can further her career, and academically promising high school student Thandi, whose education is being paid by her big sister Margot. Each of these young women hides an inner tumult – for Margot it’s her love for another woman, and for Thandi it’s a desire to be released from her academic path – from each other and from their community.

Rich and evocative, with threads of race and class, sex and sexuality, and family and identity layered throughout, Here Comes the Sun is as much about a complex Jamaica and her people as it is about the relationship between these two complicated sisters. I’m interested to read what Dennis-Benn writes next.