Thursday, December 15, 2016

Gifting the Voracious Reader

Readers are often happy to receive a bookstore gift certificate, but if you'd like to choose the genuine item as a Hanukkah or Christmas gift, these are some newer possibilities.
Die-hard Harry Potter fans are probably alone in continuing to read everything J.K. Rowlings publishes (two e-books of short stories about Hogwarts and a hardcover "rehearsal script" for the first Potter play, all during 2016). But if your older fan read the first seven, then number eight may be the right gift. Titled "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," this play takes readers into the grown-up world of Harry Potter, father of three. I haven't read it, and don't know what to expect, but hey—it's out there, and shouldn't be ignored.
Readers with a social change interest may want to delve into a book I've mentioned before, "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a memoir from former Marine and Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance about his impoverished upbringing in Appalachia, outlining the struggles of a white, working class family. An engaging history, this memoir has humor, but also a deeply researched portrayal of what it's like to be a member of the disappearing "hillbilly" community.
Jodi Picoult has a facility for choosing hot news issues and turning them into fiction. She's right on track this year with "Small Great Things," the story of an African American woman who is rejected as a hospital nurse for their baby by a white supremacist couple. But that, of course, becomes complicated during a medical crisis, leading to troubles for the nurse's whole family. Picoult is a strong writer, a born storyteller, and a dedicated researcher. Get it for book club members and people with an interest in Picoult's writing.
Millions of readers love Jane Austen. The Austen Project asked six authors to write a new take on one of her famous novels: "Sense and Sensibility," "Northanger Abbey," Pride and Prejudice," "Emma, "Persusasion" and "Mansfield Park." They are being published as finished—number four, released this year, promises to be a very enjoyable read. "Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice" by Curtis Sittenfeld, centers around the famous Bennet family and Mr. Darcy, transformed into a modern era.
Along the same "project" vein, a series of fictional retellings of Shakespeare this year featured "Shylock is My Name" by Howard Jacobson. His  version of "The Merchant of Venice" includes Nazi football players, in a dramatic reflection on the grasping power of anti-Semitism. Vital for the times we're in.
On my would-be Christmas list is Colson Whitehead's "Underground Railroad." Whitehead was keynote speaker at this year's Boston Book Festival. For this book alone, he's won more than a dozen top awards—an impressive accomplishment. In the book, a young couple attempts to escape slavery aboard the Underground Railroad—this time a real, functioning transportation system. But it's far from a fantasy, as readers will discover. There's adventure and high tension, with richly drawn characters.
Epic series fans are likely to enjoy a newly released, photo-infused book, "The Making of Outlander—a good gift for fans of the series. Though the lush Diane Garabaldon series has a ways to go in production segments, all the books are available, starting with "Outlander."
Those who have loved either version of the series "Poldark" may enjoy Robin Ellis's "Making Poldark," a newly released, updated version of his memoir about the original 1970s series (Author Winston Graham hated the slutty Demelza portrayal in the first). Gifts of an entire series are always fantastic to receive, if a little pricey to provide.
Thriller fans may enjoy a book that mesmerized Sue Grafton: Sheri Lapena's "The Couple Next Door." With a dozen unexpected plot twists and taut writing, Lapena's mystery—surrounding a couple who leave their baby at home while attending a party next door—is called riveting. Writers like Harlan Coben, Lee Child and Lisa Gardner are recommending it.
Finally, for lovers of symphonic music, comes "Absolutely on Music," released in November. It's a special book of conversations between author Haruki Mirakami and his friend, former Boston Symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa. From recorded conversations, their discussions of music and writing cover everything between the adored classicists to more contemporary greats, like Bernstein and Glenn Gould. Look to this for insights into the broader world of music.

Trying Timesin Literature, before Trumpian Politics

OK. There are lightning rods up our spines this month, in the wake of an election no one expected to turn out as it did. Some fear the future at this point, while others are sanguine about the result. But questions about race, poverty, immigration and human rights have been raised, and this is a good time to seek perspective through the experiences of other people, other places and times. It's also a good practice to keep up with what current historians and experts say. But in the meantime, book groups may find much to consider in this list of books.
There have been equally trying times, terrifying experiences, and countless books reflect them. I can only refer here to a few—some of it fiction but mostly nonfiction books spanning the world. This is a good time to understand others' struggles, and no time at all to live in a vacuum:
— "A Fine Balance" is Rohinton Mistry's novel about a woman cast out of her brother's home for refusing to buckle to family and societal expectations, during a time that Indira Gandhi is ruthlessly cleansing India of its own "deplorables," the untouchables. An amazing glimpse into a world of rules and losses, and unfathomable courage. Fiction.
— "First They Killed My Father" is a heartbreaking story, told a few decades later by Houng Ung, separated from her family in Cambodia during 1975. In Pol Pot's ruthless Khmer Rouge slaughter, Ung, a child of five, searches without success for her brothers and sisters, only to be placed in a work camp. She persists, she lives. And in the end, she finds life and family again. Memoir.
—"Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" is a surprise. Alexandra Fuller is the daughter of a white family in Rhodesia during the Civil War. She combines the winsome details of a child's life against harrowing changes to the world she inhabits, as they cling to their African home amid the terror of war. Memoir.
—"Lakota Woman," Mary Crow Dog (aka Brave Bird) married Leonard Crow Dog, a leader in the American Indian Movement. She died young—58. She wrote of the cruelly impoverished life she led on a Sioux reservation, and of her education in a school which forbade Sioux language and force-taught Christianity. She continues her story into the time of the second Wounded Knee conflict, in an autobiography made into a profound documentary on PBS. Memoir.
—"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou, one of our times' most striking voices. Her words feel more pertinent this month: "We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated. That in fact it may be necessary to encounter defeats so we can know who we are what can we overcome, what makes us stumble and fall and somehow miraculously rise, and go on." Memoir, poem.
—"Love Medicine" by Louise Erdrich is the first of her many novels about contemporary Native American life, in all of its aspects—humor, loss and violence, family. It was, for me, an open-eyed look into the soul of the Native experience in America and an entry into the work of an amazing American writer. Novel.
— "Men We Reaped" by Jessamyn Ward ("Salvage the Bones") is a stark recollection of growing up in Mississippi and watching five young men she knew and loved as they encounter violence, drugs, hopelessness and, ultimately, death. Not the easiest subject, but certainly an important one, and beautifully written. Memoir.