I freely admit that I am a stereotypical librarian. I like to read. I like cats and “quiet” is my favorite volume. As a librarian, I’m also arrogant enough to presume I can gift books to friends and family. Every Christmas I buy each of my kids a children’s book that illustrates a challenge they have faced in recent times. I think they appreciate it. The one year I skipped, they complained.
I believe books are extremely personal items. Reading a book means inviting strangers into my life. These characters invade my personal time and space – late at night when I cannot sleep or on the treadmill while I walk in silence. They steal my attention away from family and prevent me from binge watching Wallander – again. They are my friends. Gifting books is a unique way of sharing your friends and their stories with those you cherish. Although it is indeed a slightly arrogant move, it is also one of love.
Gifting books is a unique way of sharing your friends and their stories with those you cherish.
Here are a few of my favorite friends that you might want to share this holiday season. I’ve indicated whether I read the book in print or listened to the audio version.
1. Educated by Tara Westover (Print)
Despite not being a fan of the genre, Educated was an engaging and intriguing memoir that I could not put down. It’s the perfect book club book because everyone will have an opinion about Tara’s unorthodox upbringing and the arc and veracity of her story. Educated questions collective memory while also serving as a tribute to the power of education to change one’s fate. It also illustrates the powerful draw of family and tradition, no matter the inherit dangers therein.
2. Dopesick by Beth Macy (Print)
A colleague opined that this book could have been a long Atlantic essay. I agree. Perhaps it is more like a group of essays that contain a common thread of characters and urgency. Macy is a journalist and the book reads like a newspaper article and because of that it is easy to break into digestible chunks to be consumed when time and appetite allows. The story is compelling and deeply relevant. As a mom, it’s frightening. Its depiction of corporate greed and medical malfeasance is maddening. The cast of characters will surprise you. For me, a lot of things suddenly made sense and I was incensed. It’s not a feel-good book – but it is an important one and a story that everyone should know. Everyone needs to read this.
3. Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Print)
Sometimes you read a book and as the final page nears you find ways to slow down so the story doesn’t end. You make another cup of tea. You take the dog for a walk. I felt this way about Less. I found it both funny and bitter-sweet in turns. I found it deep and philosophical without taking itself seriously even once. I could relate to the main character without having a single thing in common with him. It won the Pulitzer Prize and I know why. Anyone who has lived past 45 will appreciate this one.
4. The Final Six by Alexandra Monir (Print)
This YA (young adult) novel took me by surprise. I knew it was going to be a sci-fi romp about the demise of the planet, but I did not anticipate it hitting so close to home in terms of why humanity must now relocate to Europa – the smallest of Jupiter’s Galilean moons. As the result of un-arrested climate change, the earth is wracked with devastating floods, storms, earthquakes and fires. Six talented teenagers are chosen to lead the mission to colonize Europa by a partnership of NASA and the European Space Agency. Huntsville, Alabama even makes a cameo in the book as the home of the Space and Rocket Center. The tension in the book revolves around the selection of the final six teens and the intense training they must undergo and what they might face on Europa. Does life exist there already? It’s a thriller that even the most reluctant of readers would enjoy. And – with a cliffhanger ending - there are sure to be more in the series. Have I mentioned it’s already been optioned as a movie? A fun read for any age.
5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Audio)
Another book-to-movie, this YA book contains very mature themes, situations and language. It is one of the most impactful and important books I have listened to in a long time. Themes of race, violence, relationships, teen angst, class, family and love flow through the timely storyline. The book touches on deep social issues without sounding preachy. The teen narrator’s voice is authentic as she navigates the dissimilar worlds of her exclusive private school and her impoverished and marginalized home neighborhood. There are no easy answers to any of the issues the book addresses. As the only witness to a shooting, our protagonist must come to terms with who she is, how to find her voice, and how she fits into a world of her making. The audio version is excellent. Buy the audio version here.
6. The Louise Penny Series (Audio and Print)
Beginning with Still Life Louise Penny weaves the beautiful tapestry that is the world of Inspector Armand Gamache, his family, colleagues and friends. And what a world it is. Set in a picturesque village in Québec (Three Pines), murders often upset the tranquility. And yet, one never wants to leave, so cozy it is.
It was my colleagues in the Upper School who introduced me to Louise Penny’s mystery series. I was hooked from the beginning. I started with audio books and loved the rich Canadian French accent of the narrator. Then he died. After a nationwide search to replace him, a new performer was hired. But I cannot abide his voice and have started reading the books in print – allowing the original narrator’s voice to fill my head when the characters speak.
What makes this series such a treasure is the development of all the characters that inhabit the world of Three Pines and Inspector Gamache. The stories are rich and engaging. The characters are warm and witty. And I seldom guess “who done it”. With 14 books in the series already published, this will keep your mystery lover busy for quite a while.
7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (Print)
In the same way that Fredrik Backman introduces us to Ove and Britt-Marie and we learn to love them, we overcome our hesitation to embrace Eleanor while reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. (And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, go read A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie was Here by Backman!)
Honeyman differs a bit from Backman in just how far her story descends into the darkness, before we see the light. But don’t let that prevent you from accompanying Eleanor on her eventful journey. As maddening as Eleanor is, she is also a hoot. She’s also a reminder that it only takes a moment to make someone’s day and making someone’s day might make all the difference in your fate. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a powerful statement about loneliness, courage, and community. This book is also set to become a movie sometime in 2019.
8. To Capture What We Cannot Keep
True confession. I have not read this one but 99% of the people in a very unscientific study of readers of this title loved it. Therefore, I WANT to read it and feel confident recommending it to those who love Paris and historical romance. A love story set against the backdrop of the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the plot explores themes of gender equality, class and social standing, tradition and social experimentation. Fans of the Belle Époque will love it. Buy the book.
9. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (Audio)
With perfect audio narration by Derek Perkins, Harari lays out a history of mankind using a mixture of evolutionary biology and cultural shaping via social constructs unique to humans. His arguments are easy to understand and incredibly interesting. Despite its heft, the book flies by. From the get go, you need to know that not everyone believes Harari knows what he’s talking about. Although an academic, his field of study is the medieval military. Some have called his science flawed and some have questioned his understanding of the concept of religion. Regardless of criticism, his theory of “imagined realities” or “intersubjective reality” is fascinating.
Assuming his theories on the success of homo sapiens over all other human species is accurate, enter the concept of collective social constructs like religion, morality and race. What role did they play in the advancement of humankind?
What of concepts like capitalism, economies, banking systems, and finance? These exist less in reality and more in the imagination of many. How do they flourish and grow within that framework? Harari finishes the book by musing on how the role of technology has influenced humankind today and will further influence it in the future. Will the mapping of the genome bring about designer babies? He certainly was timely with that observation.
Peppered throughout the book are interesting examples from the world of evolutionary biology. The science is accessible and the writing clever and clear. I generally prefer fiction, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book and its success as a best seller proves many others did as well.
10. Great Joy
Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo; illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline (Print)
I first read this children’s book to a group of adults at a Christmas party. I’ve always thought of it as a children’s book for adults. I have often given it to just the right adult at Christmas time. This is simply a beautiful book. It is beautifully written and beautifully illustrated. It is about giving and experiencing spirit and love and warmth during the holidays. Although the original version is out of print, it is easily found *new* on ebay or at Thriftbooks. Amazon has a mini-version.I bet those who buy it for others will end up keeping a copy for themselves. It’s just that good.
Patricia Kuhn can be found in Randolph's Upper School School library, where she is the Dean of Student Research and Experiential Learning.
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