“Do give books for Christmas. They’re never fattening, seldom sinful, and permanently personal.” ~ Lenore Hershey
So many books, so little time… If you are still floundering about for a good Christmas gift, here is a list that may help. Recently, Flavorwire complied a list of the most recommend books from fifteen respected magazines and newspapers and determined how many times works had been recommended to readers. You can read their full list of dozens of titles here, but here are the top ten of all those titles with the most mentions:
1. Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Nine recommendations)
The sequel to Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, Wolf Hall delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne BoleynThough he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice.At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle.
2. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Seven recommendations)
A finalist for the National Book Award! Three minutes and forty-three seconds of intense warfare with Iraqi insurgents has transformed the eight surviving men of Bravo Squad into America’s most sought-after heroes. Now they’re on a media-intensive nationwide tour to reinvigorate support for the war. On this rainy Thanksgiving, the Bravos are guests of the Dallas Cowboys, slated to be part of the halftime show alongside Destiny’s Child.Among the Bravos is Specialist Billy Lynn. Surrounded by patriots sporting flag pins on their lapels and Support Our Troops bumper stickers, he is thrust into the company of the Cowboys’ owner and his coterie of wealthy colleagues; a born-again Cowboys cheerleader; a veteran Hollywood producer; and supersized players eager for a vicarious taste of war. Over the course of this day, Billy will drink and brawl, yearn for home and mourn those missing, face a heart-wrenching decision, and discover pure love and a bitter wisdom far beyond his years.
3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (Seven recommendations)
While the distance between rich and poor is growing in the U.S., the gap between the haves and have-nots in India is staggering to behold. This first book by a New Yorker staff writer (and Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Washington Post) jolts the reader’s consciousness with the opposing realities of poverty and wealth in a searing visit to the Annawaldi settlement, a flimflam slum that has recently sprung up in the western suburbs of the gigantic city of Mumbai, perched tentatively along the modern highway leading to the airport and almost within a stone’s throw of new, luxurious hotels. We first meet Abdul, whose daily grind is to collect trash and sell it; in doing so, he has “lifted his large family above subsistence.” Boo takes us all around the community, introducing us to a slew of disadvantaged individuals who, nevertheless, draw on their inner strength to not only face the dreary day but also ponder a day to come that will, perhaps, be a little brighter. Sympathetic yet objective and eloquently rendered. –Brad Hooper, Booklist
4. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed (Seven recommendations)
5. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Seven recommendations)
A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again. At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.
“The war tried to kill us in the spring.” So begins this powerful account of friendship and loss. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. Bound together since basic training when Bartle makes a promise to bring Murphy safely home, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for.In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes actions he could never have imagined.
6. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Six recommendations)
On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife Amy disappears. There are signs of struggle in the house and Nick quickly becomes the prime suspect. It doesn’t help that Nick hasn’t been completely honest with the police and, as Amy’s case drags out for weeks, more and more vilifying evidence appears against him. Nick, however, maintains his innocence. Told from alternating points of view between Nick and Amy, Gillian Flynn creates an untrustworthy world that changes chapter-to-chapter. Calling Gone Girl a psychological thriller is an understatement. As revelation after revelation unfolds, it becomes clear that the truth does not exist in the middle of Nick and Amy’s points of view; in fact, the truth is far more dark, more twisted, and more creepy than you can imagine. Gone Girl is masterfully plotted from start to finish and the suspense doesn’t waver for one page. It’s one of those books you will feel the need to discuss immediately after finishing because the ending doesn’t just come; it punches you in the gut. –Caley Anderson
7. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum (Five Recommendations)
At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union to its surprise and delight found itself in control of a huge swath of territory in Eastern Europe. Stalin and his secret police set out to convert a dozen radically different countries to Communism, a completely new political and moral system. In Iron Curtain, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum describes how the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were created and what daily life was like once they were complete. She draws on newly opened East European archives, interviews, and personal accounts translated for the first time to portray in devastating detail the dilemmas faced by millions of individuals trying to adjust to a way of life that challenged their every belief and took away everything they had accumulated. Today the Soviet Bloc is a lost civilization, one whose cruelty, paranoia, bizarre morality, and strange aesthetics Applebaum captures in the electrifying pages of Iron Curtain.
8. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (Five recommendations)
On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness–and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own.
9. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro (Five recommendations)
The Passage of Power follows Lyndon Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career—1958 to1964. It is a time that would see him trade the extraordinary power he had created for himself as Senate Majority Leader for what became the wretched powerlessness of a Vice President in an administration that disdained and distrusted him. Yet it was, as well, the time in which the presidency, the goal he had always pursued, would be thrust upon him in the moment it took an assassin’s bullet to reach its mark.By 1958, as Johnson began to maneuver for the presidency, he was known as one of the most brilliant politicians of his time, the greatest Senate Leader in our history. But the 1960 nomination would go to the young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Caro gives us an unparalleled account of the machinations behind both the nomination and Kennedy’s decision to offer Johnson the vice presidency, revealing the extent of Robert Kennedy’s efforts to force Johnson off the ticket.
10. Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (Four recommendations)
Solomon’s startling proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal, as are the triumphs of love Solomon documents in every chapter.
All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves. Drawing on forty thousand pages of interview transcripts with more than three hundred families, Solomon mines the eloquence of ordinary people facing extreme challenges.
It was a good morning for author Louise Erdrich, as she was announced the recipient of 2012’s National Book Award for her novel The Round House. Like much of Erdrich’s other work (Love Medicine, The Red Convertible), The Round House concerns the life of a Native American family in crisis and a culture in jeopardy.
The Round House is the story of a crime. Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe woman living on a reservation, is attacked. Neither her husband, Bazil, nor her thirteen-year-old son, Joe, were present when she was assaulted. Geraldine will not tell them who did it or or why; nor will she tell the police. Although Joe desperately tries to get her to tell him, or anyone, what happened, Geraldine refuses. She will not even leave her bed. Essentially motherless, Joe is left to fend for himself, although he is far from ready for the weight of adult responsibilities.
Joe’s father, Bazil, is a tribal judge but justice moves too slowly for the teenager. He begins his own investigation which ultimately leads him to the “Round House,” a sacred place of worship where, eventually, secrets are revealed.
Speculation about who would win this year was a bit more contentious than in years past, as there were many strong contenders, both critically and popularly. One of those considered a good bet was Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. Nine stories intertwine, but at the center is Yunior,
a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness–and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own.
While Diaz is undoubtedly disappointed by his loss, he certainly has a lot to console him, as this year, the 44-year-old writer was given a MacArthur Fellowship. You can listen to an interview with Diaz about that prestigious appointment here.
A long shot, but a strong critical and popular favorite was not a novel but a memoir. The Boy Kings of Texas is about the experiences of Domingo Martinez as he grew up in the border town of Brownsville, Texas. The book is
Partly a reflection on the culture of machismo and partly an exploration of the author’s boyhood spent in his sister’s hand-me-down clothes, The Boy Kings of Texas delves into the enduring and complex bond between Martinez and his deeply flawed but fiercely protective older brother, Daniel, and features a cast of memorable characters. Charming, painful and enlightening, this book examines the traumas and pleasures of growing up in South Texas and the often terrible consequences when two very different cultures collide on the banks of a dying river.
One of the stories from the work was featured in a must-listen segment of last week’s episode of This American Life. You can listen to the full episode here, or queue it up to Act III to hear Martinez read “Mimis in the Middle.” In another episode of the autobiography, the 13-year-old Domingo is a helpless passenger in his mother’s car as she and Domingo follow his father, who is driving a truck full of marijuana, all of them hoping they do not get caught.
Christmas is coming up, you know. How about adding one of these, or all three, to your wish list?
One call, out of the blue, $500,000, and no strings attached. Wouldn’t that be nice? Unfortunately, this only happens to geniuses…
I’m talking about the MacArthur Foundation‘s ‘genius grant,’ which yesterday was awarded to 23 recipients. Among them were authors Junot Diaz, writer of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the more recent This is How You Lose Her, and Ethiopian born Dinaw Mengetsu, whose two published novels are The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air.
Both authors have had the chance to share their jubilation upon receiving the news, and what it means to them. Mengetsu was as far afield as Nairobi when he received his call:
It was obviously amazingly overwhelming and at the same time felt remarkably appropriate to be there and to be in a community that I felt I was desperately trying to reach out to… Part of what the MacArthur fellowship does is remind me that the work I’ve done is relevant – not necessarily what I write about, but the people who populate my work. That those people have a significance and meaning that sometimes might be overshadowed or lost in the larger narrative of the world, and it’s important to keep writing out of those experiences.
Interestingly, both writers are immigrants to the US, Mengetsu as a toddler and Diaz as a teen. That seems to have influenced their writing and style, and in turn caught the Foundation’s eye, which said of Diaz that he creates “nuanced and engaging characters struggling to succeed and often invisible in plain sight to the American mainstream.” Diaz reflected on the honor of the award in an interview with AP:
It left me thinking about my childhood … It would never have dawned on me to think such a thing was possible for me … struggling with poverty, struggling with English. … I came from a community that was about as hard-working as you can get and yet no one saw or recognized in any way our contributions or our genius. … I have to wonder, but for circumstances, how many other kids that I came up with are more worthy of this fellowship than me?
The Columbian author also said the grant would be “transformational” for him and his work. “It allows you to focus on your art with very little other concerns. It’s kind of like a big blast of privilege.”
For those who’ve never heard of the grant or its criteria, the Foundation’s website offers some information for aspiring geniuses:
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world… [It] awards five-year, unrestricted fellowships to individuals across all ages and fields who show exceptional merit and promise of continued creative work.
A full list of the recipients and their bios can be found at the MacArthur Foundation’s page for the fellows of 2012. Among them is the creator of “The Wire,” two filmmakers, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a certain mandolin player who incredibly thought this life-changing call was a robocall. You can read more on that, here.
eNotes Study Guides for Junot Diaz: