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Special books for special folks: Monitor readers’ holiday gift recommendations

Last modified: 12/14/2013 12:31:45 AM
We asked Monitor readers and writers to tell us about books that would make good gifts for friends and family this year. Here’s what we heard:

In Paris with Hemingway

Paris in the 1920s with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald. That’s the setting and cast of characters in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.

It’s historical fiction with a twist: McLain reconstructs Hemingway’s early years of writing and his first marriage, told from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, his first wife. Told through Hadley’s voice, it’s both a love story and a tragedy. The couple falls in love in Chicago and moves to Paris, where they later have a son and grow apart as their marriage deteriorates. Hadley watches Ernest fall in love with another woman – Pauline, his second wife – and become a successful writer.

The Paris Wife is as much about the Lost Generation of writers in Paris as it is about Hadley’s marriage to Ernest. McLain draws readers into that world of parties, cafes and writing.

Readers looking for writing like Hemingway’s will be disappointed. But accept the book for what it is – one writer’s fictional account of Hemingway’s first marriage – and it’s an enjoyable read.



‘Bringing Nature Home’

If you have gardeners, nature lovers, or families with children on your holiday gift list, then buy a stack of Douglas W. Tallamy’s classic Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber Press, $17.95) and give it to all of them. Now in its seventh printing, this sturdy paperback is small enough to take on a walkabout through the yard. It’s packed with color photos, and has two great appendices, one of native plants and insects by region, the second of butterflies and moths and their host plants.

Gardeners will love Tallamy’s research-based guidance on how to attract the myriad native pollinators, beneficial insects and birds that help keep flowers, fruits and vegetables productive and healthy. Nature lovers will find the book a comprehensive guide to native flora and fauna, and how to restore habitat and evict invasive species. And for families with children, Bringing Nature Home will provide a great excuse to explore their own backyards, hunting for amazing insects that are found only by those who know where to look. My favorite: the hag moth caterpillar, which likes to hang out on shagbark hickories, and whose protective stinging hairs make it look like a cross between a mustache and a tarantula.



‘They Were Soldiers’

This book is not for the fainthearted. They Were Soldiers explores the multiple harms done to American soldiers by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, the story has been inadequately told to the American public, but in her short book Ann Jones goes far to remedying that deficiency.

Put briefly, the harm is much worse than has been publicly acknowledged. The fallen aside, you have the post-deployment suicides, the catastrophic wounds, the traumatic brain injuries and all the PTSD. It is an endless amount of suffering that goes on for lifetimes.

You might think this an anti-war book, but I think it is more a book of witnessing. Jones embedded with our troops in a forward operating base and she follows the wounded soldiers through all stops as they come home.

The book is essential reading. Really we do not support the troops. If we did, we would never let them engage in these awful, endlessly destructive wars. Does anybody know the point now? Jones graphically shows the futility and extreme cost incurred.



‘The Orphan Master’s Son’

This engaging 2012 novel about North Korea, which earned its author, Adam Johnson, a Pulitzer, achieves what few if any before it have: conveying simultaneously a rich academic study on the Communist country, and a downright excellent piece of fiction. Each effort succeeds on its own right, but together they leave readers – me, at least – enriched on multiple levels. Seen through the eyes of his protagonist, Johnson tells the tale of a young North Korean soldier in the recent past who struggles to stay alive as he bumbles up the ladder of government bureaucracy. Romantics and readers with little affinity for world affairs need not be concerned: love and Texas are featured memorably.



But is he a bad guy?

Yunior, the protagonist of Junot Diaz’s latest book begins on the defensive: “I’m not a bad guy.” Sometimes, you’ll believe him. Sometimes, you’ll want to slap him across the face with the fury and frustration and heartbroken disbelief of one of his ex-girlfriends. Yunior is sometimes crude, sometimes profound, sometimes hiding guarded behind impenetrable walls, sometimes a most desperately honest voice. But through the entirety of This Is How You Lose Her, he is a character too tangible to resist.

On the surface, the book is a collection of love stories, linked by Yunior’s history of heartbreak. Four of the nine chapters are named for his former lovers. But it is also a collection of stories woven not only out of the trials of those romantic loves, but also another kind of heartbreak. As Yunior loves and loses Magda and Miss Lora, Alma and Flaca, he also tells a story about the way a family’s heart breaks from the inside out, the way a brother can break his brother’s heart, the way a mother’s heart breaks for her wayward sons.

So Diaz gives us Yunior’s stories and we follow them, falling in love with him just a little bit, laughing hysterically at his unconquerable hair and his dogged flirtations and his tumultuous sex life, feeling his craving for love in the pits of our stomachs, trying to decide if he’s a bad guy – or just a very real one.



Powerful, not preachy

Sometimes simple is best. One by Katheryn Otoshi is one of my favorite recent children’s books. It tackles the subject of bullying in a way that is easily accessible from a child’s perspective. One is a powerful story without being preachy.

Otoshi uses bright colors on a stark white background, to tell the story of Blue. Most of the time Blue is happy being Blue, but sometimes Red comes and makes Blue feel bad. Yellow, Green and Purple will tell Blue privately that Red is wrong and Blue is a great color, but none of them confront Red when Red is being mean. Then One shows up and shows the colors how to stand together to make Red stop. The story doesn’t end there. One shows the colors that everyone counts, even Red. They are simple lessons but they aren’t not told in a simplistic way.

When I found this book, my kids were on the end of picture books, but I bought it anyway and when I was asked to read to my son’s first-grade class, this the story I read. The kids and the teacher loved it. It sparked a conversation about days when they felt they were more like Blue and the times when they had acted like Red.

While researching this bit, I found out there is a follow-up book called Zero. It looks like another winner. I’m hoping Santa will bring me a copy!



The dark side of light

Prompted by recent discussion in Andover about taking down a number of streetlights, including the one across the street from our house which coincidentally just burned out, I was intrigued by the new book titled The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard.

It’s a fascinating read. Bogard, a teacher of creative nonfiction at James Madison University, writes feelingly of his own experiences with the beauty and wonder of darkness, as well as about kids who grow up never really seeing the Milky Way, the harm to wildlife from our over-lit environment, the fact that human eyes adapt quite well to darkness if we give them a chance, and the bottom line that every creature on the planet, including humans, has evolved with the everyday rhythms of light and dark and “none has had the evolutionary time to adapt to the blitzgrieg of artificial light” many of us live with. Unfortunately, Bogard writes, “some two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real night – that is, real darkness – and nearly all of us live in areas considered polluted by light.”

For Bogard, the American Southwest, particularly our national parks and monuments there, represents the best opportunity we have to experience and hopefully to restore darkness, although I’d also think we have a better chance at finding it here in New Hampshire than in much of the East.

I’m glad our streetlight is gone.



Seven must-reads

This may not be useful to you if Christmas presents are supposed to delight the recipient. My list reflects books that I think most people should read; it’s like a school assignment. Use it as you will.

1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. The worst aspects of this novel have not (yet) materialized, but the technology envisioned is all around us, as has become increasingly evident by recent disclosures of National Security Agency activities.

2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. A great depiction of life during an era of rampant laissez-faire capitalism and few legal or union protections for ordinary workers. Some would like us to go partway back to those days.

3. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. A very funny book about the absurdities of war and the military, but with some serious points, set in the Second World War. We don’t hear the term “Catch 22,” much, so it’s obvious this book isn’t being read by our youth.

4. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Perhaps not for everybody, but a great story about counterinsurgency and the fall of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa at the end of World War I.

5. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. A must-read for all parents, teachers and coaches of children. Will change the thinking of any thinking adult.

6. The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation by Drew Westen. Written with a definite Democratic slant, but in urging Democrats to action it gives lots of credit to Republicans for being more effective at influencing public opinion than Democrats.

7. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. A study of how a number of small, ancient societies that once flourished failed and disappeared largely due to their inability to adapt to changes, mostly of their own making. Many lessons for us as we face increasing challenges. Some banks may be too big to fail, but no nation is.



Rethinking education

Change isn’t easy. Think about moving from the country to the city, taking a different job, getting a new hairstyle. And change in education is one of the most difficult to achieve.

In The One World School House: Education Reimagined, Salman Khan reflects on past and current educational practices which are not effective and, based on what we know about learning theory, could be enhanced by modern technology and redesigning our educational patterns.

When a student gets a grade of 75 percent, it indicates that 25 percent of the material in the course has not been mastered. And yet that student goes on to the next level with a large gap in the foundation knowledge. Based on the belief that all can learn, Kahn advocates various methods to fill the holes. Instead of 100-plus students listening to a professor lecture for an hour with no discussion or feedback, the author suggests “flip” classes in which the lecture is available online, giving students an opportunity to review any parts found to be confusing. Then the class would come together to discuss the material.

Instead of our current egg carton classrooms isolating small groups of students and individual teachers, picture a class of 75-100 students in a large room working in small groups with learners helping other learners and three to four teachers serving as coaches, checking in with each group and then meeting together after the end of each school day to plan how to best meet the needs of the students.

See khanacademy.org for more information and for lessons designed to teach mathematics, computer programming, history, biology and more.



A World War II trilogy

For me, the great read of 2013 was The Guns at Last Light, Rick Atkinson’s concluding volume of a trilogy about the American Army in World War II.

The first installment covered North Africa, the second Sicily and Italy. The third book moves from D-Day (after a magnificent 40-page prologue that ends with a stunning allusion to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”) to a coda describing the work of Graves Registration units to identify and re-inter or ship home “more than 250,000 American dead in 450 cemeteries scattered across 86 countries.” The final five pages about this effort are my most moving reading experience this year. The Guns at Last Light surpasses An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle in every way, with sharp portraits of the major figures (especially Eisenhower, Patton and Montgomery) and concise scenes of battle that focus on people instead of just moving battalions and regiments around like chess pieces. It is historical writing of uncommon power and, yes, beauty.

My favorite fiction is Beautiful Ruins, a hoot of a novel by Jess Thomas that will undoubtedly make a lot of lists this year, and I consider Dave Barry’s Insane City more entertaining than Carl Hiassen’s Bad Monkey. The Friedkin Connection is filled with marvelous anecdotes about making The French Connection and The Exorcist. Among slightly older books, Thomas Mallon’s historical novel Watergate is a must for anyone who lived through those times.



‘Democracy in America’

What can a 19th-century French aristocrat teach us about town government in New Hampshire?

Quite a bit, if he’s Alexis de Tocqueville.

Democracy in America is a classic, and justifiably so for its insights into early American politics and society. But when I set out to read it this past summer, I was struck most by de Tocqueville’s descriptions of New England town government – and how much remains the same today.

The “sovereignty of the people” as expressed by town meeting, the pragmatism and public spirit embodied by the selectmen, and the duties of the township are all reviewed and celebrated in detail.

High offices, such as president of the United States, carry prestige and attract the ambitious, de Tocqueville wrote. “But the township, at the center of the ordinary relations of life, serves as a field for the desire of public esteem, the want of exciting interest, and the taste for authority and popularity; and the passions that commonly embroil society change their character when they find a vent so near the domestic hearth and the family circle.”

And if you find yourself needing a refresher on 21st-century town government, just wait a couple months. When the Monitor and other New Hampshire newspapers provide wall-to-wall coverage of annual town and school district meetings, they’ll prove de Tocqueville right all over again.

“The township institutions of New England form a complete and regular whole; they are old; they have the support of the laws and the still stronger support of the manners of the community, over which they exercise a prodigious influence,” he wrote. “For all these reasons they deserve our special attention.”



‘The Dressmaker’

I recently read The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott because I am a huge Titanic buff. At first, I was a little disappointed because only about the first 60 pages take place on the Titanic itself. Then it goes on to the survivors getting rescued by the Carpathia and eventually making it to New York. The rest of the book takes place between New York and Washington, D.C. This untold story really piqued my interest.

The main character, Tess, an aspiring dressmaker, finds passage on the Titanic because she wants to get away from her life as a maid who doesn’t get paid fairly. She convinces Lady Duff Gordon to take her on the Titanic. Lady Duff Gordon says that Tess will be her maid, but Tess slowly gains Lady Duff Gordon’s trust and gets to experience the world of fashion once in New York.

The main theme of the book is morality, and it focuses on the hearings that took place once the Titanic survivors reached New York. Survivors were made to testify as to their actions in the lifeboats. Crewmen were questioned about the circumstances that led to the sinking of an “unsinkable” ship.

The author lets us know in a note at the end that “the basic bones of the story are true,” but that the rest is fiction. She also mentions that much of the testimony in the book is taken directly from the transcripts of the U.S. Senate hearings, which I find fascinating.



‘Everything Belongs’

I’d like to recommend the book Everything Belongs, by Richard Rohr. The book is a spiritual work, neither liberal nor conservative, that describes how we must let go of our attachment to the strivings of our ego. The book encourages an inner journey to seek out core values and resist the impulse to sit in judgement of others.

It is particularly important at this moment in history when our world is so bitterly divided and polarized. It speaks to the toxic distrust we have of one another and asks us to approach the world with a beginner’s mind, free of preconceptions and prejudice.

It is a book with the power, not only to inform, but to transform its readers.



Scaredy Squirrel is a hit!

For those looking for a special gift for someone in the 4- to 7-year-old category, I would recommend one of the “Scaredy Squirrel” books by Melanie Watt. Scaredy Squirrel is a nervous little fellow who has all kinds of worries about leaving his home but always finds out that he had nothing to fret. For the past couple years I have been reading to kindergarten classes at the Penacook Community Center, and the children ask me over and over to bring a “Scaredy Squirrel” book for the next reading. There are a number of books available, including Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend, Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas, Scaredy Squirrel at Night, Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach, Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping, Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Halloween and Scaredy Squirrel Has a Birthday Party. I think children particularly like these books because Scaredy Squirrel has very silly solutions for the issue at hand.

Another suggestion is to shop for New Hampshire authors. There are many children’s books written by New Hampshire authors that are quite good. Gibson’s Bookstore on Main Street has a special area in the children’s section dedicated to local authors. You might even be able to acquire a signed copy. I like the idea because you can encourage your child, even at a young age, to become an author, using the New Hampshire author as a model.



Poets, and more

I stand by the advice I gave last year in this space: Visit your local independent bookstore and public library for expert book suggestions. A gift card from your indie bookstore and a stocking stuffer from the Friends of the Library sale shelf (plus a library card application, if your giftee doesn’t have one), with the promise that you’ll spend an afternoon together browsing and enjoying a café treat, is a return-proof gift sure to appeal.

That said, here are four widely appealing recent books that would be great gifts for teens through great-grandparents:

Richard Blanco’s For All of Us, One Today is a brief memoir of his experience as inaugural poet. He writes movingly of his life, his family, his writing, and why poetry is important to our national conversation as one people in a diverse country.

Billy Collins’s new collection, Aimless Love, is brimming with his trademark wit and quirky perception, and is especially appropriate for those who fear they don’t get poetry.

And The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence is a tremendously fun, sweet-not-syrupy, thought-provoking coming-of-age book. Told from a teenager’s perspective (but not a Young Adult book), this novel also addresses parenthood, aging, friendship, and end-of-life issues, as well as the power of books (and libraries!) to bring people together.

Shopping for a voracious reader? I suggest (and hope to receive) the literary almanac A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year.



Adventure galore for preteen girls

National Book Award winner Jeanne Birdsall struck home with The Penderwicks in 2007, a perfect pick for preteen girls, those 9- to 11-year-olds who are in their prime as strong girls. Any of the Penderwick tales, three in all, would also make wonderful read-alouds for younger children, somewhere along the lines of Arthur Ransome’s The Swallows and the Amazons. Rosalind is in charge, Skye is full of beans, Jane is a dreamer, and Batty still misses her mother. Yes, in the best stories, one parent at least must be absent; how else can the children find adventure? With Jeffrey Tifton in tow, and the dog, Hound, an ungainly and occasionally carsick beast, the girls escape from beneath their kindly father’s wing and soar through summer. In The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette Birdsall deftly showcases family changes and emerging personalities. Buy all three and enjoy the journey.



Behind the scenes with Bush, Cheney

My old college friend Peter Baker spoke in Concord earlier this month about his new book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. It’s a big one and, try as I might, I didn’t quite finish it before Baker arrived.

Now, finally finished, I can report that this is a terrific read.

Baker’s premise is that the relationship between George W. Bush and Dick Cheney isn’t quite what we were led to believe. Especially in his second term as president, Bush sought the counsel of many other advisers and had gained confidence in his own judgment. For his part, Cheney felt comfortable saying no to the president. (Asked by Bush to lead a special team on rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurrican Katrina, for instance, Cheney declined.)

It’s fun to read history that you lived through, and not that long ago. On 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, the aborted Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, the discarded plan to reshape Social Security and more, Baker puts readers behind the scenes as decisions are made, for good and for bad.



Local writers, good stories

Feel like supporting some local authors this holiday season? Both New Hampshire and Vermont have newly minted authors in the contemporary romance genre. Lisa Olech is an artist and writer from New Hampshire, and her first book in the Stoddard Art School series Picture Me Naked is available now on Kindle. The paperback will release Jan. 21. Z Z Lambert is an artist on the verge of great things. She recently ended a soul-sucking relationship, and she’s vowed to focus on her art. That is until she meets Jagger Jones. Jagger is modern day vagabond taking odd jobs (including working as an art model) as he works his way across the world on an important personal mission. This is a humorous, satisfying story of two people trying to make their dreams come true.

Vermonter Maggie McGinnis burst on the contemporary romance scene earlier this fall with Accidental Cowgirl. In it, Boston native Kyla Bennett is exhausted mentally and physically. She’s trying to recover from the double whammy of being wronged by her con-man ex-fiancé and severely injured in a car accident. All she wants to do is find some peace and quiet. Her two best friends drag her away to a dude ranch in Montana for some fresh air and fun times. This is a sweet story filled with fun characters, and it’s fun to ride along as Kyla regains her footing in the world.



Laugh out loud!

L ove A Little Sideways by New Hampshire’s own New York Times bestselling author Shannon Stacey is the most recent in the series about the Kowalskis of New Hampshire and Maine. The whole series is laugh-out-loud funny.

The stories feature members of close-knit, hardworking New England families. Love A Little Sideways is the story of Liz, the only girl in the Maine branch of the Kowalskis. She has recently returned after spending more than a decade in New Mexico in a dead-end relationship. As she tries to get her life on track, she realizes that the chemistry she felt with her brother’s best friend Drew was more than a one-time thing. Real life and hilarity ensue as she and Drew work out their feelings for each other under the microscope of small-town life and the scrutiny of family on a week-long reunion/ATV vacation.

All seven books in the series are light, humorous reads (the perfect break during the craziness of the holidays, no?). The characters are real in their humor and their struggles. Book 1 is Exclusively Yours, but Book 6, All He Ever Dreamed, takes place in part over Christmas.

If people look at you funny as you guffaw uncontrollably while reading these books, don’t say I didn’t warn you.




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