Thursday, December 13, 2007

Buy the Book: A Holiday Gift Guide Part One

There's not a lot of time left to get all that holiday shopping done! Can you believe it? Here's a gift guide that will help you make some of those tough gift decisions. I've drawn from all of the books that I've talked about the last twelve months, read and inspected all of the books publishers have sent, scoured publisher catalogs, and turned my personal library upside down to find what this book junkie thinks are the best books to give as gifts this year. In order to make things easier I have linked each of the mentioned books to their page on Amazon, simply click and order! Your purchases help support this site.

Here are some of the books that are excellently written, have received critical praise, and have sold well. These are standout books that would be perfect for anyone on your gift list.

A Free Life by Ha Jin

This novel, written by the exceedingly talented Ha Jin - winner of the National Book Award and other prizes, centers around Nan Wu. Nan is a Chinese immigrant, having come to the US in order to study. Wu is a graduate student headed for a PhD in political sciences. But everything changes after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in which countless numbers of protesting students were killed. Nan, feeling distraught, about the blatant oppression of democracy in his native country drops out of school, no longer wanting anything to do with politics. A Free Life follows the events that take place in the life of Nan Wu, his wife Pingping and son Taotao as a result of Nan's decision to end his education and his subsequent struggles to support his family and follow his dreams. Wu discovers his love of the English language and finds himself flying through books of poetry. Wu's ultimate dream is to write a work of fiction in order to fully embrace the language of his native country and to regain the passions he finds that he has lost along the way.

The other aspect that makes this book so interesting and powerful is fact that Ha Jin himself is a Chinese immigrant to the United States, determined to study the English language and express himself. Only twelve years after Ha Jin begins studying English does he win the National Book Award. You can feel the passion and depth in the main character of this book, Nan Wu because of the fact that Jin understands the characters, can deeply identify with Wu's struggles. Ha Jin has become one of the most powerful voices in American literature in just a few short years. This book is a great gift for anyone interested in the struggles to overcome, those who have a similar love for the English language and writing, as well as those who have interest in the politics of China and the cultural revolution taking place there.

Other Titles: Waiting, War Trash, Under the Red Flag,
The Bridegroom: Stories
, Wreckage, Ocean of Words: Army Stories

I will be doing an interview with Ha Jin the coming weeks. If there are questions you'd like me to ask or ideas you'd like to share for the interview be sure to email me with Loaded Questions in the title or reply to this message.

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

This novel by Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill is both stunning and astonishing. The book spans the life of Aminata Diallo, born in Bayo, West Africa, in 1745. The novel opens in 1802, as Aminata is wooed in London to the cause of British abolitionists, and begins reflecting on her life. Kidnapped at the age of 11 by British slavers, Aminata survives the Middle Passage and is reunited in South Carolina with Chekura, a boy from a village near hers. Her story gets entwined with his, and with those of her owners. During her long life of struggle, she does what she can to free herself and others from slavery, including learning to read and teaching others to, and befriending anyone who can help her, black or white. Hill has just what it takes to write a novel with such tension and hardship and has done a great job of pacing to book so that the reader is never left waiting. I appreciate this book a lot because it provides readers with a positive literary figure who, while living through events and conditions no human should be subject to, survives, intelligent and ardent.

Other Titles: Any Known Blood

I will also be doing an interview with Lawrence Hill in the near future. If you have suggestions or questions you'd like me to ask be sure to email or reply to this message.

The Pirate's Daughter
by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

This is another one of the great books that has come out in the last year. The Pirate's Daughter centers around two women whose lives are permanently connected no matter where life takes them. We follow the lives of Ida and her
daughter May. Ida, growing up on a small island near Jamaica, experiences a very fantasical sequence of events at the age of thirteen.the wrong direction, Hollywood heartthrob, socialite, and all around eccentric, Errol Flynn lands on the shores of the small island where Ida lived. Flynn, who becomes a friend of Ida's father who takes her to visit Flynn on Navy Island, the nearby island the star had purchased. As a result of Flynn's arrival Ida's life changes drastically, the most prominent result his her daughter May, the bastard child of the Hollywood star.

This story doesn't center around Flynn but focuses rather on the lives of Ida and May. Flynn purchases the island he landed on and uses it for posh Hollywood parties. The remainder of the story follows Ida who finds herself married and seperated from her daughter while May grows up without much parental support on Navy Island, the island owned by her father. The Pirate's Daughter is a multi-faceted story about two strong women who strive to survive despite the fact that they are colored women living in a male-dominated world. May, who appears at times to be out of control, ends up being a woman of compassion, is fierce, and entirely loyal. This book is a great gift for anyone drawn to the glamor and glitz of the sparkling Jamaican Islands, it deals with issues of identity and belonging, race and class, and the relationship between a mother and a daughter.

Other Titles: The True History of Paradise

Sometimes the best gift is a good laugh. Here I've selected some of the funnies books to have come out this year. You'll end up a hit with friends when you present to the a hilarious title. Plus -- you get to read, skim, and laugh before your wrap the book. Funny gifts will prove to friends that you have a sense of humor, even if you don't.

A Year of Living Biblically:
e Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
by A.J. Jacobs

I like AJ, I also really like this book. A.J. Jacobs isn't particularly religious. But he decides to find out what it would be like to live by all of the commandments of the Bible for one year. The result is a book that is hilarious, ironic, and inevitably insightful. Jacobs travels too, heading out to visit others who live strictly by the rules, visiting Samaritans in Israel, snake handlers in Appalachia, Amish in Lancaster County, Pa., and biblical creationists in Kentucky.

I turns out the the rules of the Bible are kind of hard, if not impossible to live by! There are restriction in clothing, mandatory cricket eating, and the practice of the ten-string harp. Did you just read crickets? Yes -- you did.

This is a great book for anyone with a sense of humor and maybe even those who don't! What I like is that Jacobs takes this serious, he does a great deal of research and studying -- learning about the different types of Bibles and ends up consulting dozens. Its a fun book and its what Christmas is all about, right?

Other Titles: The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

The Dog Says How by Kevin Kling

The author of this book, Kevin Kling, is fascinating guy. Kling is the kind of author who writes about the absurdity of the human experience. The Dog Says How is a small book full of a series of short stories from Kling's life. They range from dramatically funny, when the author writes about a motorcycle accident that nearly took his life to the light, funny and random, a story in which Kevin recounts the large number of men in his family that have been struck by lightening. Apparently its a rite of passage and, Kevin writes, some members of the family have experienced lightening strikes on more than one occasion. We chatted not long ago in an interview when he informed me that his mother had recently been shocked via the television. She was happy, he said, and called to tell him that she was officially a member of the family. Click here to view the entire interview with Kevin Kling. Kling is most certainly funny, he has spent the last couple of year working as a correspondent for "All Things Considered" on NPR. One of his fans writes that Kevin's quirk contributions to NPR are "pull over the car and listen" moments.

Kevin Kling's The Dog Says How is a perfect stocking stuffer gift or a perfect little gift for a friend who enjoys funny and quirky short stories that are perfect for reading while waiting in the lobby of the doctor's office, or on the bus, right before bed. This book is highly recommended.

On his website there’s this quote that I really like. When talking about his writing Kevin says: "I have a small command of the English language so I try to make each word a hero." I like that.

The Book of Vices:
ery Naughty Things (And How to Do Them)
By Peter Sagal

The moment I picked this book up I realized that it was ingenious and that I didn't want to put it down. Author, Peter Sagal, is the host of NPR's hilarious weekly radio game show, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! which discusses funny and sometimes absurd news from the week. I am an avid listener and so was familar with Peter Sagal when I heard him talking about his new book with Terry Gross, also of NPR. The very basis of Sagal's book is that we as Americans are obsessed what kind of secret fun those around us are having -- worried and sometimes jealous that someone else may be enjoying themselves a little bit more than we are. Sagal's book aims at scratching that itch and I must say from reading the book myself, scratching never felt so good or was this funny. Straight-laced Sagal marches earnestly into the playgrounds involved in some of America's seedy vices.

It is important to understand that, while adult sex clubs and swap parties may have been played out by the media and aren't really all that fun anymore, the real humor comes from Sagal's studious and genuine responses to the situations he finds himself in. I am thinking of the beginning of the book in which Sagal takes his wife to a swinger's club, entering that underground world with what feels like very little information about what will unfold. It is Sagal's keen eye and honest inquisitiveness that makes The Book of Vices so funny. Another instance, often quoted, occurs when Sagal has spent the day on the set of a pornography being filmed for Spice TV. "I began to appreciate," he writes, "how very well Evan and Kelly did their work."

This is a great gift idea but not for the easily offended. Sagal's responses, ability to jump right in, and respectful reserve not to point fingers or speak ill of those he encounters make this one of the funniest, most interesting books of the year.

Other Titles: Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! Audiobook

I am a history nerd. After having done Loaded Questions for two years I decided in the last six months that I ought to be featuring and interviewing some of the great authors out there writing quality fiction. There's always a history book or two on my reading table. Here are just a few of some of the really great titles that have come out this year. Stay tuned for more interviews with talented history authors.

Henry the VIII's Last Victim:
The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
by Jessie Childs

This book just came out in the United States a few days ago but has been available in the UK for the last year. I started chatting with Jessie a few months ago, she's a really great lady. Henry VIII's Last Victim was a proposal for the 2001 Biographer's Club/Daily Mail Prize. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey is known to history for a few honors, some dubious. Henry was first and foremost a poet, Childs writes that Henry's verse and poetry had a lasting impact on both Shakespeare and the English Renaissance. Some of the more dubious claims to fame? Well Henry Howard was the first cousin to two of of King Henry VIII's wives both of whom were beheaded for various crimes of treason. The other interesting thing to note about Henry Howard is that he was, quite literally, the last person to be executed by the order King Henry VIII. The book contends that king signed Henry Howard's death warrant while in the final throws of his own death. In a real bit of irony, Henry Howard's father the Duke of Norfolk, also intended to be executed by royal order, was spared only because Henry VIII died before he could sign the warrant.
As a Tudor historian myself I have to say that this is quite a good popular history biography. Childs shows no signs of bias, reporting about Henry Howard and his enemies with equal attentativeness, without taking sides. It is important to note that Childs hasn't just written a book about Henry Howard's scandalous demise, she delves into the academic background of Henry Howard looking at his writings and scholarly work. The author also looks at Howard's military service and his role as a noble aristocrat. This is a great gift for the history buff in your family, because there has been so little written about Henry Howard you can count on the fact that your history lover doesn't have a pile of books about him. This biography is also a great way to learn more about Henry VII, Anne Boleyn, and other giants of English history because Henry Howard crossed paths with them all. I very much recommend this book.

The Far Traveler: The Voyages of a Viking Woman
By Nancy Marie Brown

While most medieval women didn't stray far from home, the Viking Gudrid (985–1050) probably crossed the North Atlantic eight times, Nancy Marie Brown writes in The Far Traveler. Gudrid wasn't just along for the ride, Brown believes that Gudrid served as an explorer on two different expeditions to the North American continent. Gudrid, Brown writes may have gone on expeditions with two of her husbands, one of which was the brother of Leif Ericson, who discovered America 500 years before Columbus.

Brown searches for information about Gudred by looking at medieval Icelandic sagas which recount that her father, a chieftain with money problems, refused to wed Gudrid to a rich but slave-born merchant; instead he swapped their farm for a ship and a new life in Greenland. Specifics about her life are sparse, so Brown, following in Gudrid's footsteps, explores the archeology of her era, including the splendid burial ships of Viking queens; the remains of Gudrid's longhouse in a northern Icelandic hayfield; the economy of the farms where she lived; and the technology of her time, including shipbuilding, spinning wool and dairying. This is a great book for anyone interested in history, offering a very indepth look into the Icelandic medieval world and literature. Give The Far Traveler to the history buff on your list who has an interest in New World exploration, women's history, and sleuthing the past.


Marg said...

I haven't read any of these

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