Books make great gifts. If you’ve got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them, here are a few suggestions from books I enjoyed this year.
For the curmudgeon in your life: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Blackman. A charming book about a sourpuss who will win your heart! The author, Fredrik Blackman, has the ability to take serious subjects (death, suicide, OCD) and relate them in such a matter-of-fact way that they are not off-putting or used for shock value. Backman treats the issues and the characters with kindness. I was rooting for Ove from page one. A Man Called Ove redefines family and shows us the power of connection. I’m looking forward to reading other novels by Fredrik Blackman. Any suggestions on which one to pick up next?
For anyone who likes P.G. Wodehouse sprinkled with a little Noel Coward: The Gentleman, by Forrest Leo. Even if you’re not familiar with Wodehouse’s Jeeves books, just know that this one is a fun, hilarious farce. The basic premise: Lionel Savage, a poet and once-wealthy nobleman, finds himself short on cash and decides to marry Vivien Lancaster for her money. A few months into his marriage, he is disenchanted with Vivien and horrified to learn the poetry muse has left him…so he makes a deal with the devil. His ever-vigilant butler, Simmons, is there to help Lionel extricate himself from the steady stream of problems he creates.
For those who want a page-turner: Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley. A small plane crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard and only two survive: a down-on-his-luck painter and a boy, the son of a wealthy television network executive. Did the plane crash by chance? Or was there something more sinister at work? It’s difficult to say too much about the plot without giving away any surprises. The author did a solid job of dropping hints so that you are sure any number of characters could have been responsible for the plane crash. The story alternates between each character’s point of view so you can see how desperate each person is to hold onto the ideas he or she values most. Sometimes it was downright frustrating and agonizing to witness the lengths to which some characters were willing to twist a tragedy into their own personal gain. A great page-turner!
For those who love to dig in the dirt or read about people who do: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. After reading Lab Girl, I will never look at trees the same way again. Respected scientist Hope Jahren gave me a new appreciation of these silent but knowing inhabitants of our planet. She has dedicated her professional (and one could argue her personal) life to furthering our understanding of the flora that is crucial to life as we know it. But this book isn’t all about trees. It’s also about Jahren’s life as a scientist, which can be a difficult road for a woman leading her own lab. I liked the structure of this memoir—personal reflections interspersed with informative science. Jahren does a lovely job of putting words to her emotions as in this one memorable passage: “I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing it’s more than people want to see.” While this memoir is ostensibly about the path to becoming a scientist, it’s really about finding your tribe (even if that is only one other person), perseverance, and following your curiosity—universal desires to which many of us can relate.
For those who have wanderlust in the weird: Atlas Obscura, by Joshua Foer, Ella Morton, Dylan Thuras. “Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 600 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.” Yes, please! This book revels in the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the hidden, and the mysterious. From the dazzling glowworm caves in New Zealand to eccentric bone museums in Italy, every page expands your sense of how strange and marvelous the world really is.Just flipping through this book was a delight. The compelling descriptions! The illustrations! The photos! The charts! I’m using a lot of exclamation points because this book is that cool! I can’t think of a better gift for a creative person to be inspired.
For those who want a grounded and fiercely hopeful vision of humanity: Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett. Krista Tippett is an accomplished conversationalist. She has interviewed the most extraordinary voices examining the great questions of meaning for our time, but her gift is knowing how to listen and expand the dialogue. From conversations with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to poet Naomi Shihab Nye to Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek, she aims to meet the world where it really is, and then to make it better.I came away from this book with a feeling of resilience and redemption, two words that seem to define her perspective. The book, like her podcast, is a master class in living in the 21st century. And if you haven’t yet listened to Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being,” do yourself a favor and go through the archives now.
For those who like character-driven science fiction: Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Disclaimer: I’m not an avid science fiction reader, but I loved this collection of short stories for the way Ted Chiang is able to use science to explore deeper questions about human nature. He asks the question every good writer (and perhaps scientist) asks: what if… What if men built a tower from earth to heaven—and broke through to heaven’s other side? What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time? And as with any good story, the answers are never cut and dried. I was often left wondering about the phrase “perception is reality.” One of the stories is the basis for the new movie “Arrival.”
For those who demand compelling, if not entirely likable characters: Siracusa, by Delia Ephron. Siracusa is the story of what happens to two couples on vacation in Italy. By the end of their short stay, events have occurred which will change their relationships forever—but maybe not in the way that you might expect. Delia Ephron does a marvelous job in drawing well-rounded and believable characters. The four main characters (with each chapter alternating in first person among them) are crafted with precision. Their flaws and blind spots are apparent immediately. I feel I know them better than they know themselves. Have you ever felt conflicted about a novel even months after finishing it? I found it difficult to root for any of the characters, mired as they were in their own shameless self-contemplation (and often self-congratulation). The very fact that I wanted to finish the book despite not finding any redeeming qualities in the characters is a testament to Delia Ephron’s skill as a writer. I’d be very interested to hear if you feel the same about Finn, Taylor, Lizzie, and Michael.
For the nature lover: The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. After reading this book, you’ll never use the term “bird brain” again—unless you’re using it as a compliment! There’s the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later, and the New Caledonian crow, the chimpanzee of the bird world, that makes its own tools. While some birds may not have traditional “book smarts,” they have “street smarts” in that they are able to negotiate complex social networks. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They share. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. All of these cool and interesting facts would have just floated by me if it were not for Jennifer Ackerman’s excellent storytelling abilities. She writes about avian intelligence in a clear, conversational style that kept me engaged to the last page.
What are some of your favorite books from 2016? Share in comments.