AHHHH!!! It’s that time of year again when you are probably panicking over that one person who haven’t quite figured out yet. Figured out what gift to buy, I mean. Well, I’m here to the rescue, thanks to my brilliant friend Katie Freeman (she’s the one hugging the books. And she wrote the piece below). Because, there is no gift better than a good book. A book is a friend, a lover, a constant companion, an escape. It can be the gift of hope or laughter or tears at just the right time. And thanks to electronic delivery, books are the gift you can keep on giving — right up until Christmas day. So here’s Katie’s second-annual list of books that make great gifts, sorted by “target.” And if this list isn’t good enough, you can head to the Penguin Hotline for more suggestions.
For the sports fan
I saw Diana Nyad speak this year and she was so funny and inspiring, and her book FIND A WAY is the same. On September 2, 2013, at the age of 64, she arrived on the shore of Key West after swimming 111 miles from Cuba to Florida. Her memoir delves into how her epic journey came to be, as well as her swimming achievements decades earlier. A book for sports fans and for anyone looking for inspiration this holiday season.
Also on the swimming an inspiration front, Julie Chaeckoway’s THE THREE-YEAR SWIM CLUB: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory is exactly the kind of uplifting book that works perfectly for holiday gift giving — the book version of Cool Runnings of 2015. Set in 1937, a schoolteacher on Maui challenges a group of poor sugar plantation children to become Olympic swimmers. The forces against them are numerous, yet they begin to shatter records around the world – and then comes World War II.
This is the year of Cuba, and Brin-Jonathan Butler’s THE DOMINO DIARIES: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba is a fascinating exploration of Butler’s decade spent in Havana. A writer in the vein of the great John Jeremiah Sullivan, Butler’s work is immersive and idiosyncratic.
Moving on to baseball, Scott Ellsworth’s THE SECRET GAME: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph is for fans of The Boys in the Boat and anyone interested in the history of race relations, and how sports can be a catalyst for change. Set in 1943, the story follows a little-known North Carolina College for Negroes team and an all-white military team from Duke University medical school – and what happens when the two meet up.
(Basketball bonus: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is also a mystery writer! His new novel, with Anna Waterhouse, stars Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother: MYCROFT HOLMES)
Finally, William Finnegan’s long-awaited, hugely praised BARBARIAN DAYS: A Surfing Life finally arrived this year and has been on many best-of-the-year lists. The New York Times Book Review called it “extraordinary…cause for throwing your wet-suit hoods in the air.” It would be a great pick for getting through the long cold winter as well.
For the secret romance reader
NPR did a wonderful Summer of Love this June and July, with picks of the 100 best romance books and multiple interviews with romance readers and critics. I’d direct gift-givers to their lists. And also to Lauren Groff’s National Book Award finalist FATES AND FURIES, the story of a marriage from two sides, with lots of romance – and deceit, and lust. As Marie Claire says: “We can’t help but be fascinated by the possibility of what goes on behind closed doors—especially if there’s a glam, madly-in-love couple on the other side. Meet Mathilde and Lotto. Groff’s novel unfolds in a he said/she said gutting drama that you won’t be able to resist.” On a different front, Leslie Zemeckis’s biography of the famous burlesque striptease dance Lili St. Cyr is completely fascinating and, as Booklist says: “fascinating, lavishly (and racily) illustrated biography.”
For the history buff
This year has seen the publication of a plethora of deeply researched and vibrantly told history books in many different veins. To give a sampling of some of the best, you have Martha Hodes on MOURNING LINCOLN, the story of how the nation grieved and what our mourning meant after the assassination; Erika Lee’s important THE MAKING OF ASIAN AMERICA; brilliant writer Stacy Schiff’s THE WITCHES about Salem in 1692; Piu Marie Eatwell’s bizarre and intriguing THE DEAD DUKE, HIS SECRET WIFE, AND THE MISSING CORPSE: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue; and Sarah Vowell’s inimitable LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES, which would pair excellently with tickets to Hamilton, if you have a small house to sell to get them.
For someone who wants to understand the 2016 political silly season a little better
To understand the political season, you could read all the books by the candidates, or you could read books that actually say something (Bob’s note: Love it. To this I would add, read at least one book written by someone you (think you) vehemently disagree with. The world will be a better place). The Black Lives Matter movement this year was rightfully on Time’s shortlist of “Person of the Year,” and the movement is crucial to understanding our political landscape. I’d hugely suggest Ta-Nehisi Coates’s BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, as well as Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN, which came out last year and made an appearance at a Trump rally and went viral. In the criminal justice vein, I’d highlight one of Daniel Pink’s Top 10 Books of the Year, Adam Benforado’s UNFAIR: The New Science of Criminal Justice, and also one of my personal favorites, Ari Berman’s GIVE US THE BALLOT: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Another of Pink’s Top 10 is Barton Swaim’s memorable THE SPEECHWRITER: A Brief Education in Politics, and given Trump’s suggestion that the internment of Japanese-Americans might have been a good thing, I’d suggest Richard Reeve’s INFAMY, on that internment. Turning to the Supreme Court, a perfect gift is Shana Knizhnik and Irin Carmon’s NOTORIOUS RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Thomas Mallon’s historical novel FINALE, about Reagan, which offers an interesting historical look at a different kind of conservative president then our current candidates. Finally, Jon Ronson’s SO YOU”VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED isn’t about politics per se, but offers an interesting context of our contemporary time and how social media has changed the act of shaming.
For a science freak
Steven Johnson’s illuminating HOW WE GOT TO NOW came out in paperback this fall and makes for a gorgeous gift, as does Randall Munroe’s THING EXPLAINER: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, and Lauren Redniss’s THUNDER AND LIGHTENING: Weather Past, Present, Future, a graphic novel like look at weather that is simply stunning. As Elle says, “Redniss is inventing a new literary genre.” Also in the weather front (sorry, weather vein would also have been punny), Cynthia Barnett’s acclaimed RAIN: A Natural and Cultural History would be a good pairing for the Redniss. Three author standout science titles of the year are Sy Montgomery’s THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (also good for the Malcolm Gladwell fan); Andrea Wulf’s THE INVENTION OF NATURE: Alexander von Humbolt’s New World; and George Musser’s SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time—and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything. All have rightly been award finalists this year and are worth checking out.
For the Malcolm Gladwell fan
For the Gladwell fan, I’d suggest John Seabrook’s THE SONG MACHINE: Inside the Hit Factory, and Stephen Witt’s HOW MUSIC GOT FREE: The End of an Industry, The Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, which would be a great pick for the Michael Lewis fan as well (and you could also pick up a copy of The Big Short by Lewis, before you see the movie over the holidays). Two others in the big idea and business arena are FRIEND AND FOE: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, and Tom Rath’s ARE YOU FULLY CHARGED: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life.
Finally, something to help with a loong cold winter
There’s so much that you could delve into for the long winter – like a self-heating book – but here are some ideas for things to lift the spirits, stir your creativity, and bring thoughtfulness to the New Year: Brandon Stanton’s marvelous HUMANS OF NEW YORK: Stories; Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear; Oliver Sack’s posthumously published GRATITUDE; and Maris Kreizman’s wonderful SLAUGHTERHOUSE 90210. It’s also the season to dive into the big novels – I enthusiastically endorse Marlon James’s Man Booker Prize-winning A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS and the Neapolitan quartet by the extraordinary and mysterious Elena Ferrante, starting with MY BRILLIANT FRIEND.
As with last year’s list, if you purchase any of these books through a link on this page, I’ll probably get a few pennies from Amazon through its affiliate program. Feel free to purchase them anywhere, however.