Books make excellent holiday gifts. Box up a book with a pair of slippers and a bottle of wine and you’ve given a gift of sheer pleasure. Of the 35 books I reviewed this year, two-thirds were nonfiction and many were written by authors from New England, where Book Notes originates. If you are shopping for gifts and want to support your local, independent bookseller, here are a few books matched with reader types to help you present the perfect book to each loved one.
Books make excellent holiday gifts. Box up a book with a pair of slippers and a bottle of wine and you’ve given a gift of sheer pleasure.
Even with the loss of Borders and the rise of the e-book, bookstores are reporting a significant uptick in holiday sales compared with last year’s dismal showing, according to the New York Times. One factor booksellers note is this year’s especially rich field of nonfiction offerings. Guaranteed not to disappoint are a couple of current bestsellers — Diane Keaton’s critically acclaimed memoir “Then Again” and Walter Issacson’s biography “Steve Jobs.”
Of the 35 books I reviewed this year, two-thirds were nonfiction and many were written by authors from New England, where Book Notes originates. If you are shopping for gifts and want to support your local, independent bookseller, here are a few books matched with reader types to help you present the perfect book to each loved one.
Dead Calm: Best New England Crime Stories. Edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross and Leslie Wheeler. Level Best Books, Somerville MA, 2011. 288 pages. $15.95.
Ideal readers watch “Law & Order” obsessively. Read the local Police Notes. Get speeding tickets just to interface with cops.
This anthology of short crime fiction set in New England provides irrefutable evidence that great and entertaining writing is alive and well. There’s death by a shove down the basement stairs. Death by ingesting insecticide. Death by the rear tires of the farm truck. But there’s no lack of life in the writing.
The Forgotten Waltz. By Anne Enright. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2011. 288 pages. $25.95.
Ideal readers are ambivalent about their lovers, enjoy reading tortured Irish tales, and pride themselves on keeping up with current literature discussed in heady salons.
Gina Moynihan is a clever, observant narrator who wryly relays the course of her love affair with Seán Vallely. Author Anne Enright — winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2007 — is the real storyteller here. Gina lives outside Dublin in the deserted family home. Gina begins to spend the night there, ostensibly to aid in the selling of the house. This is also how she leaves her husband Conor — by default, it seems. And this is how everything happens — a bit unconsciously and a little at a time. Eventually her lover Seán and his 12-year-old daughter Evie come to stay. Gina relates the details of her relationship with Seán, sliding to and fro within the eight years from first meeting to present day. Enright captures life’s rhythms, yielding a fresh translation of a familiar world.
The Land of Later On. By Anthony Weller. Amazon Encore books, 2011. Available in paperback or digitally through Amazon.com. E-book: $7.99; paperback 201 pages, $8.97.
Ideal readers appreciate jazz. Perhaps they are musicians themselves. They are adventurous readers who choose suspending disbelief over convention any day. They may have a history with altered states.
It’s hard to say goodbye to “The Land of Later On,” an afterlife that’s “infinite in space and time” and yet fetchingly intimate and affecting. Gloucester author Anthony Weller’s short novel about a bewildering but amusing life after death is a feat of imagination and writing. Kip, the narrator, talks to us in the present tense. He doesn’t know any more than we do what’s going to happen next in this ultimate and extreme travelogue where a half-conscious thought can transport you to a war zone in New Guinea. This isn’t Weller’s first travel book, but it’s the first to concern itself with a place only Kip lives to describe to the Earth-bound.
Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food during Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents. Edited by Matt McAllester. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011. 226 pages. $27.50.
Ideal readers love a good meal, they swallow tripe without flinching and they never order the same thing twice in their favorite restaurant. They travel. They love gritty travel stories. They read the International pages of their newspapers.
War correspondents are among our greatest storytellers. Conflict — upon which a good story rides — is their reality. These writers and photojournalists are often sleep-deprived, endangered, isolated, hungry, hyper-alert and jammed up with the details of war exploding all around them. Food is this book’s organizing theme. Sometimes the journalists write about lack of food and/or what constitutes food in desperate situations. Sometimes it’s feasting with leaders or merely watching them feast or getting kidnapped in the midst of an especially fabulous feast.
Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine. By Lou Ureneck. Viking, New York, September 2011. 243 pages. $25.95.
Ideal readers parse family dynamics like other readers play Scrabble. They watch reruns of “This Old House.” They enjoy a bracing winter stroll through the woods. Maine is not necessarily synonymous with potatoes.
Readers observe the carefully thought-out construction of a somewhat remote cabin in the Maine woods. They come to understand the attributes and value of a good cabin, especially when it is built with the help of a beloved brother, nephews and a handful of skilled tradesmen.
State of Wonder. By Ann Patchett. Harper Publishers, June, 2011. 353 pages. $26.99
Ideal readers love to get lost in fiction. They don’t mind risking repetitive motion syndrome from all the frantic page turning. They are also writers themselves, fortifying their craft with examples of the best. Ideal readers love adventures stories set in the Amazon.
Pharmacologist Annick Swenson is absorbed by investigations that promise groundbreaking drugs and by the Amazonian jungle where she conducts her research. For two years she has refused to report to the U.S. pharmaceutical company she works for. They dispatch another scientist, who dies of fever. They send a second scientist who forms a bond with Swenson. Thus, the premise for a well-done page-turner.
When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans. By Paula J. Caplan. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2011. 282 pages. $27.95.
Ideal readers may aspire to OccupyAnything. They appreciate their country’s veterans and want to help because many veterans need their help.
A book intended to empower each of us to take a role in healing our veterans’ suffering as the wars wind down and more veterans come home. Caplan writes about the emotional trauma U.S. veterans experience due to their relatively long and horrific deployments. More than half of those who describe themselves as emotionally troubled have yet to receive assistance. Caplan takes the position that each of us, as Americans, has a personal responsibility to not just bear witness to war’s consequences but to take part in the healing process. She also shows us exactly what to do and how.
Down from Cascom Mountain. By Ann Joslin Williams. Bloomsbury, New York, 2011. 336 pages. $25.
Ideal readers love stories of peril set in the wilds of New England (think Hawthorne). Ideal readers go out of their way to discover fresh voices in fiction. They like sex with their similes.
An intriguing story, both literary fiction and edge-of-your-seat page-turner. Mary brings her new husband Michael to her family’s cabin at the foot of Cascom Mountain. Their first day on the mountain, Michael makes a small misstep and plunges to his death. Cascom Mountain takes on huge life in this story. It is a fully realized, beautifully articulated character — as arbitrary and as certain as nature always is. The mountain is a harsh proving ground. This is where Williams’ characters either come of age or perish.
Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex. By Joan Price. Seal Press, 2011, Berkeley, California. 388 pages. $16.95.
Ideal readers are aged 40+ and/or they are in long-term relationships. They want to reinvigorate their sexual lives or work around certain limitations. Ideal readers are baby boomers who refuse to give up. And seniors for whom the walker is a prop, not an obstacle.
Joan Price, along with many medical specialists, therapists and people struggling with sexual concerns, speaks frankly and compassionately about subjects many of us are too embarrassed to broach — much to our great disadvantage. Price’s approach: Problems are meant to be solved and should not be suffered in silence. To that end, Price consults many experts who apply their knowledge and experience to what are, in fact, normal issues for any of us lucky enough to find ourselves in a maturing body.
The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. By Deborah Baker. Graywolf Press, Minneapolis MN, May 2011. 256 pages. $23.
Ideal readers love biography and memoir. They take slow bike rides just so they can peek into people’s houses. They want to know more about burgeoning Islamic extremist thinking.
From opposite sides of the world and wildly divergent cultures, two people somehow find each other, bedevil each other and ultimately support each other’s influential, seminal ideas on Islamic extremism — cementing, as one scholar writes, the global cultural divide between Islam and the West. These two characters — at odds in “The Convert,” a true biography by Deborah Baker — are Margaret Marcus, a twentysomething young woman with a history of mental instability from Larchmont, N.Y., and Abul Ala Mawdudi, a mature Islamic scholar from Lahore, Pakistan. Author Deborah Baker had no idea what she was getting into when she discovered some of the books and papers belonging to Margaret in the New York Public Library’s archives. What must have begun as the seductive mystery of a young woman who repudiates Western culture in the early 1960s soon takes a dark twist, then another, then another.
Volt. By Alan Heathcock. Graywolf Press, Minneapolis MN, 2011. Paperback. 208 pages. $15.
Buy this one for everybody on your list. You can’t go wrong at $15. The stories are so good they provoke chills. Ideal readers will have lap rugs handy.
Krafton is a fictional small town in rural America. Here is where 39-year-old short story writer Alan Heathcock goes to work, showing us how confounding human struggles — love, violence, hard work, monotony — shape a life. He shows us, too, how it all folds together in a sometimes sad, sometimes desperately poignant thing called community. This superlative collection of short stories intrigues. Who is this talented writer, with his gift for storytelling? Who is the man wearing a fedora in his photograph who pulls from us the surprise of compassion for those who sin and suffer? Who makes these standout spare and gorgeous sentences?
Townie. By Andre Dubus III. W. W. Norton, 2011, New York. 387 pages. $25.95.
Ideal readers will have gone to see “The Town” and “The Fighter” multiple times. They will have endured the bullying tactics of their classmates. Or they may just covet that photo of handsome Dubus III on the back flap of the dust jacket.
Congratulations to Andre Dubus III and his brothers and sisters for surviving the perils of their early years — drugs, rage, depression, violence, hunger, neglect — in those mill towns in Massachusetts along the Merrimack River, where no adult seemed to be paying attention. Congratulations to Andre Dubus III, the second of the four children, for finding the writer within and letting that wise soul guide him the rest of the way home. And congratulations to that found writer for “Townie,” a near perfect memoir and arguably the best of the work by this maturing writer.
Decline of Fishes. By Peter Anastas. Back Shore books, Gloucester, 2010. 381 pages. $18.95.
Ideal readers will have lived through a community’s struggle to retain its essence while finding a way forward. They may indulge in a good fish chowder now and then, despite qualms about the depleted cod stock. And the ideal reader celebrates whenever Peter Anastas puts out another book.
Gloucester’s last empty waterfront parcel becomes the focus of a heated citywide debate between developers and the imperiled fishing enterprise in this fine novel. The parcel pits those who see a proposed new mall as a way to bolster the flagging tax base against those who want to hold on to Gloucester’s unique culture. It examines the difficulties of choosing between promising profitability and preservation of existing businesses subsisting on meager profits. Simply put, the book tracks the divided community’s preparations for the City Council debate up to and including their final vote on the mall’s future. Or is it Gloucester’s very identity as a fishing community they are deciding here? The focus is less on the immediate drama — neighbor vs. neighbor — and more on the far-reaching consequences having to do with community, values and economy.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or read her blog at www.freefallrae.blogspot.com.