Just in time for Black Friday — which falls on Thursday this year, I’m told? — I’m thinking about Christmas shopping. Naturally lots of my friends will be getting books. For some of them, I’ll pick presents from the latest crop of publications. For others, I’ll put together a few old favorites. I have not read all of the books below but the ones I listed seem like good bets, based entirely on hearsay. The links refer back to original blog entries or directly to Amazon (useful for those of us who never leave the house).
Apparently men like to read biographies. I haven’t read the new Keith Richards bio but the buzz is good, and I’ve also heard good things about the Mickey Mantle book, The Last Boy. I’m halfway through Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra and agape with admiration. Schiff peels away 2000 years of legend and misconception while rebuilding the historical context for the Egyptian queen in a gripping, vivid fashion.
The memoir craze is fading away, but there are still some excellent entries out there. I’m counting on Deborah Devonshire’s Wait for Me! turning up somewhere in my pile of gifts. (Yes, that’s a hint, and you know who you are.) Someone will certainly get Rosanne Cash’s Composed, along with her wonderful CD The List, which is a handful of country basics her father Johnny said were essential. Friends with artistic leanings or a fondness for European history will get The Hare with Amber Eyes, one of the best books I read this year. And I’m putting Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them in the memoir category because when it’s not lovely literary appreciation, it’s howlingly funny tales from academia. (Summer in Samarkand: not as glam as it sounds.)
Of course fiction is the meat and drink of my reading habit, so many of my loved ones will receive novels. Anyone who missed Wolf Hall in hardcover should be given the slightly more portable paperback. Among the contemporary literary novels I read this year, I especially liked The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The City of Tranquil Light. You could make a nice New York fiction package by wrapping up two or three of the following: Brooklyn, Netherland, and Let the Great World Spin.
I participated in a blogging challenge in November that prompted me to read three novels from the enticing catalog of New York Review Books. I struck gold with Summer Will Show, Great Granny Webster, and Indian Summer, all of which are beautiful volumes and not widely read. For lighter reading you could not do better than to select some of Elinor Lipman’s charming and moving contemporary novels which are published in a uniform edition. Just be sure to include her most recent, The Family Man.
One thing I can never, ever have enough of is literate escape reading, especially what I think of as “girl books.” This year I was given a copy of Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Wood which is sheer heaven. So is Eva Rice’s The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, and I’ll throw in, to make it a trio, Dodie Smith’s classic I Capture the Castle. All three are English inter-War upper-crust novels featuring comedy, romance, and attractive Young People.
Finally, regular readers here will know that about half of what I read is murder mysteries. This year I made a wonderful discovery: the novels of Fred Vargas. She (Frédérique) is French and the exotic settings, tricky plots, and quirky characters are intensely satisfying. Look for the Inspector Adamsberg mysteries, the first of which is The Chalk Circle Man. I was also thrilled by the publication of Tana French’s Faithful Place, which joins her two earlier books (In the Woods and The Likeness) as among the best mysteries ever.
Now you tell me — what am I missing?