Books make the best gifts. They are small and wrap easily. They are easy to store. They leave a lasting impression. Here are a few ideas to inspire you with your holiday shopping. The children's books are suggested with thanks to one of the sharpest consultants about serving young readers, Portland's own Barb Swanson Sanders.
For the preschooler: “Big Frog Can’t Fit In,” by Mo Willems. Pop-up books have been with us for a long time. But how about “pop out”? That’s what happens in this adorable picture book, where the frog can’t stay within his frame. In an age of visual stimulation, let’s hope this kind of “pop” will draw little kids toward reading.
For a young adult reader: “Heart of a Shepherd,” by Rosanne Parry. This Portland author gives us the story of a boy on an Eastern Oregon ranch who has to grow up fast when his father goes to Iraq. And this is just a hint of the tough themes that books for middle schoolers now deal with – anorexia, murder and suicide are no longer considered off-limits with this age group.
More for the young adult: “Lips Touch Three Times,” by Laini Taylor (with illustrations by Jim Di Bartolo). This Portland author was a National Book Award finalist this year with her beautifully illustrated story about three different girls who approach their first kiss with lots of baggage. It’s pure fantasy, in the mode of “Twilight” or the YA books by Portland’s own Ursula Le Guin.
For young families: Create an annual tradition by choosing one holiday picture book to share with your children and preserve the memories of each Christmas season. Some options this year: “The Christmas Magic,” which features a Scandinavian theme, by Lauren Thompson and Jon J. Muth, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” by Gail DeMarcken.
For the humanitarian or anyone who needs hope: “Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness,” by Tracy Kidder. This book from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author doesn’t have the flair of Dave Eggers’ “What Is the What,” but it addresses a similar topic -- an African immigrant who escaped violence to come to America and is lifted out of desperation by hard work and the kindness of others.
For the literary type: “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel. This historical novel set in the English court of Henry VIII is the hot property this season among the literati. Historical novels are usually snubbed wins the prestigious Man Booker Prize, but this prize winner shows how any book can jump its genre. Mantel builds her story around Thomas Cromwell, the man who helped the king defy the church so he could marry Ann Boleyn. It also captures a critical turning point in England’s history.
For someone who likes a good yarn: “Ford County,” by John Grisham. Since “The Firm,” Grisham’s novels have felt increasingly formulaic. But this group of short stories is anything but. They’re set in Grisham’s fictional landscape, a Southern corner of the U.S. not unlike Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha (you’d better believe I had to look that one up!), where people do stupid and criminal things -- but not without understandable motives. This is Grisham at his best!
For the dysfunction junction set: “Lit,” by Mary Karr. Karr set the standard for memoirs about troubled families with “The Liars’ Club.” Now she’s back with “Lit,” the story of her own grown-up self and a drinking problem she inherited. Karr delivers a scene and a punch line with such grace that you can identify with her struggles even if you don’t imbibe and never wanted to.
For those who get misty-eyed over “Little Women”: “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women,’ ” by Harriet Reisen. The co-producer of a documentary that will be shown Dec. 28 on PBS has written this companion book that reveals Jo March’s real-life alter-ego as never before. Alcott lived a rags-to-riches story. She didn’t like writing for children as much as she did writing about more perverse stuff – murders, transvestites and the like. She may have been manic-depressive. Straightforward writing, but I like the candor.
For readers who want to know the secrets of contemporary writers' lives: “Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life,” by Carol Sklenicka, or “The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith,” by Joan Schenkar. Carver, of course, is considered the most influential master of the short story in recent times, and this book is getting plenty of play (I appreciated how Stephen King, revieweing it in the NYTBR, objected to how Sklenicka gives Carver a pass for how poorly he treated his first wife). Being familiar with his life story, I was more intrigued to read about Highsmith, a lesbian writer of the late 20th century who’s best known for “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Margo and I included one of her hallmark novels, “The Price of Salt,” in “Between the Covers,” both because it’s an American classic that dealt with lesbianism long before other mainstream writers did, and also because the book is considered a precursor to Nabokov’s far more famous “Lolita.”
For the grown-up Harry Potter fan: “Shades of Grey,” by Jaspar Fforde. What would it be like to live in a world where cash and brains have nothing to do with your status in the pecking order? Instead, it’s your ability to see colors, and a whole caste system has developed around how and what you see. Call it Chromatacia – as Fforde does, in this satirical fantasy novel in which boy meets girl and discovers a subversive idea: Question authority. Another genre-jumper, in my view.