The holidays are creeping up on us yet again, as the malls turn into zoos, the relatives descend like locusts, and we despair of finding the perfect gift for Aunt Mabel or little cousin Mikey. But never fear! I've been reading diligently all year, and I've made my list and checked it twice. Here are 12 great reads that are guaranteed to appeal to somebody you owe a gift to. Don't forget that the first day of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Day, and Kwanzaa begins the day after, so this year should be extra celebratory for us all! And after that ... let the regifting begin!
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak
A favorite of girls everywhere since she was created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer in 1929, Nancy Drew's appeal has always been that she was a good character without being a goody-goody. Stratemeyer was the brains behind a slew of characters, including the Hardy Boys, and legend has often held that the ghost writers using the name F.W. Dixon, who wrote the Hardy books, were one and the same as Carolyn Keene, who wrote about Nancy. Not true, Rehak reveals. With Stratemeyer's death in 1930, his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and a tough journalist named Mildred Wirt Benson became Nancy's driving force, propelling her to superstardom, and encouraging generations of girls to dream beyond the kitchen.
Inkspell by Cornelia Funke
The Chicken House
This young adult novel, sequel to Funke's Inkheart, is destined to be a classic. Funke, the J.K. Rowling of Germany, is masterful at yarn-spinning, and her fairytales about the Inkworld are absorbing in a way that very few modern works manage. In Inkspell, Meggie and Farid, a boy from Arabian Nights, enter the Inkworld so Farid can find Dustfinger, his father figure who has had a disreputable "Reader" read him back into the story. But once there, terrible things happen, and Meggie's parents, distraught over her disappearance and hounded by the villain Basta, follow her into this dangerous land. A story uncomplicated by a lot of the emotional stuff that one encounters in many young adult tales, yet still impossible to put down.
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
OK, OK, so Gaiman makes the list nearly every year. But he keeps writing great books, so what's a reviewer to do? Anansi Boys is superbly entertaining, weaving in ancient stories about Anansi, the West-African trickster god, with modern day tales of Anansi's inept son, Fat Charlie, a Londoner who has a dead-end job, a fiancée who won't sleep with him and whose mother hates him, and no sense of fun. But when Fat Charlie's father dies and Fat Charlie goes to Florida for his funeral, he learns of a long-lost brother, Spider, and suddenly, all hell breaks loose. This is a wild, raucous tale of disastrous family dynamics and learning to let go.
Crusader's Cross by James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster
James Lee Burke is, hands down, the master at the atmospheric mystery. In yet another of his Dave Robicheaux novels, based in and around New Orleans, Burke explores the dark side of Louisiana life, both in the past and in the present. With a search for a long-lost hooker, a serial killer, and dealings with a creepy local family, Robicheaux's keeping busy in his older age.
Rats: Observations on the History and Habitats of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitantsby Robert Sullivan
Easily one of the most fascinating books I read this year. Sullivan spent the better part of a year camped out in a New York City alleyway, observing the rats that lived in it, watching them live off the refuse from the restaurants on either side. He also explores the history of wild rats, from their part in the spread of plague to the use of rats during rent strikes in order to get deadbeat landlords to improve conditions. He talked with exterminators and rat experts both in the city and all over the country. He never gets too scientific -- his tone is engaging and interesting, and you come away from his book with the same distaste for the city rat as you had going in, but a healthy dose of respect as well.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Didion is an American icon -- an incredibly gifted writer who shares her grief with her readers and gives us insight into what raw emotion feels like. As Didion's daughter, Quintana, lay in a hospital close to death with pneumonia and septic shock, Didion and her husband of more than 40 years, writer John Gregory Dunne, prepared to sit down to dinner. Dunne suddenly suffered a massive heart attack and died, prompting Didion to go through a period of stunned shock and despair. Didion had enormous trouble making sense of what had happened -- she couldn't part with Dunne's clothes or shoes, still expecting him to need them. A very meaningful memoir on life, death, and life after death.
No Country forOld Menby Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy writes prose like no other. It's beautiful in its stripped-down simplicity. His much acclaimed Border trilogy ended seven years ago, but McCarthy's sticking with the Westerns he does best. In No Country for Old Men, Texas is as harsh as ever. A young Vietnam vet stumbles upon the remains of a drug deal gone bad -- $2.4 million in cash, a number of dead bodies, and a suitcase full of heroin. He takes the money and runs, pursued by good guy Sheriff Bell, not-so-good guy cartel employee Wells, and downright evil sociopathic murderer Chigurh. Excellent pacing and musing on the changing nature of the world make for a compelling read.
The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd
Of course we love Sue Monk Kidd. But she doesn't make the list just because she's a fabulous local and we loved her last book. This book is, I dare say, even better. Thanks to her use of adult characters, it achieves a complexity not possible in The Secret Life of Bees. Jessie Sullivan flies to tiny Egret Island to look after her mother after her mother chops off her own finger in a fit of hysteria. While there, she's forced to deal with her many relationships, and question what really happened to her father more than 30 years before. And, despite being happily married, she finds herself madly attracted to a young monk at the island's Benedictine community. A must-read.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
A great gift for either the tree-hugging greenie or insatiable consumer on your list. Collapse explores how both ancient and modern cultures tear themselves apart by overpopulating, overfarming, deforesting, war waging, and other disastrous means, combined with natural ecological factors. Diamond uses real examples, such as Easter Island and farming communities in Montana, to demonstrate his point. He also uses positive examples of hope, such as Japan's forest protection laws. A geographer by trade, Diamond won the Pulitzer for his similarly themed 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel.
The Complete Calvin and Hobbesby Bill Watterson
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Granted, it's a bit pricey. But to see Calvin in all his glory -- NOT peeing on something (or praying!) on the back of a truck -- is so worth it. Watterson battled with syndicates and editors to keep Calvin true to his vision, and his characters became brilliant social critics as a result. It's been 20 years since Calvin and Hobbes debuted, and a depressing 10 since Watterson retired them. I haven't read the funnies since.
Time to Say "Please!"by Mo Willems
A whimsical children's book about manners from the author of the excellent Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. A certain three-year-old in my life loves to recite this book while I read it aloud, and cracks himself up saying "please" eight million times, like the mice in the story. It also comes with a fun, simple board game that's easy for small children to learn. The pictures are great -- very arty, and you won't get sick of reading it on a nightly basis.
Bar Mitzvah Disco: The Music May Have Stopped but the Party's Never Overby Roger Bennett, Nick Kroll, and Jules Shell
A pop culture treasure. An excellent addition to your coffee table, this book is chock-full o' hilarious pictures -- the authors had friends and friends' friends send in pictures of their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, from the late '60's to the early '90's. Some wrote snippets about their coming-of-age events, including famous folk, such as comedian Sarah Silverman. Pictures are chronological, from the sign-in board to the classic "waving good-bye" shot, and make for a ton of campy, goofy fun -- particularly the priceless dance scenes.