There are seven days till the Materialistic Nightmare. I haven't bought a last-minute fixie bike, "Lazy Housekeepers Mop Slippers," or an iPhone.
My husband said he would spend the day in the garage if I got him an iPhone.
One book per person. That's what we're giving for gifts. Last year I was pushing a cart at Target in a daze, filling it with random items that nobody much wanted.
It was the worst Christmas ever.
So this year we are having a less materialistic Christmas. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir on the old stereo, the fiberoptic Christmas tree, and the afternoon viewing of Love Actually or Bullitt (we haven't decided yet).
I may not be able to compile a gift list as varied as that of Kelly and Michael Live!, but I do know how to shop for books. My list is divided into four categories: Books You Can Give Anyone, Contemporary Classics, Women's Novels (N.B., for anyone really, but I know from experience that my husband won't read these), and Nonfiction.
Category One: BOOKS YOU CAN GIVE ANYONE, OR ONE SIZE FITS MOST.
1. Anything by P. G. Wodehouse. Need a last-minute Christmas gift for a forgotten friend? Put a Wodehouse comedy in the Christmas stocking or the mail. The Bertie Wooster and Jeeves series (about foppish Bertie and Jeeves, the percipient, problem-solving valet) and the Blandings Castle books (about absent-minded Lord Emsworth and his prize-winning pig, the Empress) are the most popular, but he wrote nearly 100, and most are good. These classics are available in beautiful Overlook Press hardcovers or Norton paperbacks. And the early books are available free as e-books at manybooks.net
2. Are you short of money? You can always send a link in an email to a list of free e-books at manybooks.net
My manybooks.net Christmas book list includes:
Louisa May Alcott’s "The Abbott’s Ghost"
Booth Tarkington’s Beasley’s Christmas Party
Kate Douglas Wiggin’s The Bird’s Christmas Carol
William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Christmas Books of Mr. M. A. Titmarsh
and more you've never heard of.
Category Two: CONTEMPORARY CLASSICS
1. Will Self's Umbrella, a Man Booker Prize finalist. This dazzling labyrinthine Joycean classic deserves a closer reading than I was able to give it last fall, so I have a date to reread it in January. There should be an Umbrella chat somewhere. Is there one?
Here is the book description on the cover.
"Radical and uncompromising, Umbrella is a tour de force from one of England’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, and Self’s most ambitious novel to date. Moving between Edwardian London and a suburban mental hospital in 1971, Umbrella exposes the twentieth century’s technological searchlight as refracted through the dark glass of a long term mental institution. While making his first tours of the hospital at which he has just begun working, maverick psychiatrist Zachary Busner notices that many of the patients exhibit a strange physical tic: rapid, precise movements that they repeat over and over. One of these patients is Audrey Dearth, an elderly woman born in the slums of West London in 1890. Audrey’s memories of a bygone Edwardian London, her lovers, involvement with early feminist and socialist movements, and, in particular, her time working in an umbrella shop, alternate with Busner’s attempts to treat her condition and bring light to her clouded world. Busner’s investigations into Audrey’s illness lead to discoveries about her family that are shocking and tragic."
2. A Lovesong for India: Tales from East and West by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This exquisite collection of short stories by Jhabvala, who won the Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust and two Academy Awards for best adapted screenplay for Merchant-Ivory films, A Room with a View and Howards End, is one of the best books I have read this year. Some stories are set in India, where Jhabvala lived for many years, and others in the U.S., where she lives now, and the collection is divided into three parts, “India,” “Mostly Arts and Entertainment,” and “The Last Decades.”
3. The Watch by Joy Roy-Bhattacharya. This luminous retelling of Antigone, set during the ongoing war in Afghanistan, is about soldiers and civilians, brothers and sisters. One of the best books I read this year, and I cannot imagine why it is not on everybody's "best of" books.
Category Three: Women's Novels (Novels by and about Women)
1. In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes. Carson McCullers’ Frankie in Member of the Wedding meets Ginny Babcock in Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks meets Real Housewives of Saudi Arabia. The narrator, Gin, a fundamentalist minister’s granddaughter raised in poverty in Oklahoma, is one of those likable, smart, passionate characters we like to spend time with. But if you thought you’d like to grow up and be the wife of an oil man in Saudi Arabia in 1967, think again. Fascinating and well-researched.
2. The Red Chamber by Pauline A. Chen, an unputdownable retelling of the famous 18th-century Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber. I loved this story of three Chinese women of the 18th century who must angle for power, love, and money from the depths of the Women’s Quarters, where their lives are largely determined by choices of parents and husbands (and an evil grandmother), and the vicissitudes of imperial politics.
3. Sherry Jones's Four Sisters, All Queens, a lively historical novel about four sister queens in the 13th century, Queen Marguerite of France, Queen Eleonore of England, Queen Sanchia of Germany, and Queen Beatrice of Sicily. Fascinating, entertaining, and unputdownable for those of us who love historical novels. Jones is an excellent writer.
4. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty. A charming, enjoyable novel about Cora Carlisle, a 36-year-old Wichita housewife who chaperoned Louise Brooks one summer in New York. Louise, raised in Wichita, has, at age 15, won a place at a prestigious dance school, Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Cora, the respectable wife of an eminent lawyer, has an ulterior motive for wanting to go to New York, but learns a lot from Louise.
5. I love Bloomsbury Reader, an e-book series of reprints of women's books, mysteries, etc. This year I discovered Angela Huth, and loved her Invitation to the Married Life, which I somehow never got around to blogging about, about four married couples whose lives change unexpectedly at a party.
6. Jo-Ann Mapson's Solomon's Oak and the sequel, Finding Casey. I read and loved Solomon's Oak, in which three characters deal with grief: Glory, a 38-year-old widow, struggles to support the farm after her beloved husband’s death; Joseph Vigil, an ex-cop, was wounded in a drug bust and is looking for peace in photography; and Juniper, a 14-year-old girl, lost her sister, Casey, who was abducted, and then her parents: one abandons her, the other commits suicide.
I haven't read Finding Casey yet, but it's always nice to give a "set" of books.
Category Four: Nonfiction.
1. Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc., a splendid collection of brilliant autobiographical vignettes, essays, reviews, and criticism. There’s a rich texture, a reined-in meandering, and a strangely casual feel to the obviously careful architecture of his nonfiction–characterized by intellectualism, self-consciousness, self-mockery, humor, and self-apology. .
2. Alice Kessler-Harris's biography, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Lives and Times of Lillian Hellman. Hellman is a great American writer, whose books should surely be in the Library of America or Everyman Classics, but has been kicked out of the canon because she told lies. Kessler-Harris sympathetically explores the life of this free-thinking leftist.
3. Nick Hornby’s More Baths Less Talking, the fourth collection of his hilarious book columns from The Believer. At the beginning of each month he lists the "books bought" in one column, and the "books read" in another--and they rarely coincide. He always has intelligent things to say about books, but he also is very witty