Holiday Books

We've convened a panel of book lovers to help you choose the best books to give -- and read -- this holiday season.


Al Gini's List

  • Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, Pantheon Books, 2009 My first graphic novel! Not a comic book, not just prose, both! A story of self absorption, vanity, art, love, and the pursuit of a twin the protagonist has never met. Wonderful, deep story – Grand Graphis!
  • That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo, Knopf, 2009 A beautiful book of prose and images of the Cape and a middle aged couple who have it all, forget that they have it, and find it again. Full of wonderful dialouge. One of America's leading wordsmiths.
  • Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly, Little, Brown and Company, 2009 My favorite Detective – Harry (Hierowomymus) Bosch. Dedicated, driven, dutiful and in pursuit of the bad guys. Nothing means more to him than his job, and then his daughter is kidnapped. And he'll stop at nothing to get her. Connelly – best writer in the genre of police procedures. His best book Blood Work.
  • A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr, G.P. Putnam and Sons, 2009 Not just a cop story – A German cop story during the rise of Nazism, who hates the Nazis and becomes a Private Eye whose main clients are Jews. During the war he's drafted and made a cop again. As a former SS cop he is forced to flee to Argentina after the war, where once again he becomes a P.I. – who now hunts old Nazis. Best book – Berlin Noir.
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into The Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford, Penguin Press, 2009 Manual labor is not a penalty, but necessity. And through it we grow in intelligence and morality. "Our hands make us rational animals" – Anaxagoras

    "You can't hammer a nail over the internet." – Crawford

  • Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik, Knopf, 2009 Feb. 12, 2009 – Two babies were born – C. Darwin, A. Lincoln. They changed the world. They were iconoclasts.


Gretchen Kalwinski's List:

  • Animals and Objects In and Out of Water: Posters by Jay Ryan 2005-2008 A collection of prints from a Jay Ryan, a Chicago artist perhaps best known for being THE postermaker for indie rock bands like Sleator Kinney, Built to Spill, Jeff Tweedy, and Modest Mouse. This collection of his lovely & strange posters includes other local luminaries--there's a surreal, moving essay by best-selling Chicago novelist Joe Meno and a forward by Chicago folk-rocker Andrew Bird. (Publisher: Akashic).
  • Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood Atwood only gets better as time goes by. Known for suggesting frightening scenarios, in this novel she posits a dystopian world, right after a natural disaster which alters life as we know it occurs and leaves few survivors. It's a testament to her greatness that Atwood can be write such about such a dark topic but still retain humor. For example, some of the post-disaster creatures like a lion/lamb blend, and a Frankenstein-esque "Mo'hair" sheep with human hair. Given that we live in an atmosphere of war and worry about environmental disasters, and the whole Mayan end of the world in 2012 thing, there's a lot of apocalyptic literature out there, but this dark, sometimes hilarious novel stands apart by being endlessly inventive and compelling. (I might mention Atwood's wonderful Twittering during the touring for this book). (Publisher: Doubleday)
  • Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith Most know Smith from her award-winning novel White Teeth, but with this archly funny and intelligent book of essays, divided into the sections Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling, and Remembering, Smith entertainingly writes about, for example, how Barack Obama is like Eliza Doolittle (from Pygmalion). My favorite portion is in the Seeing section where she discusses archetypes evoked by the bodies/faces/essences of Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. (Publisher: Penguin).
  • The Cradle by Patrick Somerville Somerville is a local author who was just given the 21st Century award by the Chicago Public library. The Cradle is a novel that manages to be simultaneously very literary and thrilling—no easy feat. It's a story of a young, first-time father- to-be whose wife sets him off on a strange quest to track down her stolen childhood cradle before their child is born. This leads to a series of mysteries, both internal and external that unfolds in a fascinating way. I read this book in two sittings, which for me, is saying a lot. (Publisher: Little, Brown).
  • A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore Moore is a literary fiction favorite and her writing is often called "edgy, brittily witty." Here, Moore zooms in on a paranoid post 9-11 world and one girl's experience coming of age at a Midwestern college, excited by ideas. To make extra money, Tassie—the daughter of a potato farmer—takes a nanny job and becomes more deeply ingrained in the family's lives while her own family becomes more distant. I love this odd novel because Moore's dialogue and themes are just so smart—she discusses Sufism, being biracial, war, and the disconnect between men and women. (Publisher: Knopf).
  • The Little General and the Giant Snowflake by Matthea Harvey (author) and Elizabeth Zechel (illustrator) Now here's a children's book that is charming and understated in a way that adults can appreciate. Written by a poet, this is a funny and gentle story about overactive imaginations. In it, a general leads an army called the Realists (ha!) and they practice marching exercises on it, while their rivals The Dreamers (ha!) use it to lollygag and play silly games. Then, a (possibly magic) snowflake hovers and taunts the general, turning out to be a lovely allegory about the imagination. The simple grayscale drawings by Zechel are whimsical and wonderful—especially the way she renders her characters' sly expressions. (Publisher: Tin House Books).
  • Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds edited by Billy Collins This makes a perfect gift for so many people on your list. Here's why: First, birds are a universal metaphor (remember the stir created by the film "Winged Migration"?). Second, Bright Wings is both a well-curated poetry collection by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins AND it's a gorgeous art object with bird-illustrations by David Allen Sibley, America's foremost bird illustrator. (He's the author of the Natl Audubon Society's Sibley Guide to Birds.) In short, this beautiful book is a very safe bet to be enjoyed by many your list. Stock up! (Poets include: Tennyson, Emily Dickenson, Charles Simic, James Tate, Thoreau, Kay Ryan). (Publisher: Columbia University Press).
  • Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon This is a series of linked essays by the author of my favorite novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Here Chabon, asks "what does it mean to be a man today?" In one essay about being in Grant Park the night Obama was elected president, he writes thoughtfully about the moment the Obama family stepped victoriously onto the stage and what that meant, not only for them as a loving, flawed, yet cohesive family who were about to become the first black First Family. Chabon zones in on his identification with Obama's father/husband roles—and the burden and joy of what that night meant for both men. Beautiful stuff. (Nonfiction). (Publisher: HarperCollins).

Don't read/Read in a library:

  • The Red Book by Carl Jung, Sonu Shamdasani (Editor, Translator) At $200, this incredible book is too expensive to recommend during a recession, but I'd advise looking for it in the psychology section of your local library. The Red Book was written by psychologist/philosopher Carl Jung during 1914-1930, during a period of his life that he called his "confrontation with the subconscious." He considered this to be his most important work but showed it to only a handful of people and it's been in a Zurich vault for decades. His family finally allowed its publication and enlisted Jungian scholars and translators, who used digital fusion to scan the images and methodically reproduce each page into a complete facsimile. It is a huge, deep red volume with cream colored paper and calligraphied pages filled with images Jung used to boil down his messages about dreams, archetypes, the collective unconscious and the human psyche. It's a gorgeous art object and gives wonderful visual insight into one of humankind's great minds.
  • Christmas Sweater: A Picture Book by Glenn Beck Beck—the uber-conservative Fox news-host—has written a sentimental, formulaic children's book about a boy who wants a bike until he discovers the "true meaning of Christmas" via a handknit sweater. Sadly, Beck only retreads water already tread very well by Charles Dickens and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. There are any number of picture book versions of A Christmas Carol available—choose any one of them for the kid on your list, instead of this non-nuanced tale. Whatever your political stripes, this is a "must-not-read."


Brigid Pasulka's List:

  • Between the Assassinations by Arvind Adiga A collection of stories set in India in the eighties and nineties. I liked the way Adiga swallowed all of India, rich and poor, traditional and contemporary, tragic and humorous. He does a great job of taking the romantic sheen off the country without leaving you in despair. Great gift for those who love to travel, but can't make it to everywhere on their lists.
  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann A "novel told in stories" connecting disparate lives of New Yorkers on one particular day in 1974. It's a grand novel and the best one I read all year. The characters seemed alive, the language was poetic but not trying to impress, and though the characters are not connected tightly by plot, they are bound by their experiences of human suffering and deep love.
  • Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut Unpublished stories. Interesting to see an author at play and to see what (in his mind) didn't quite make the cut. A good book for parents to read with their high-school-aged children over break. The humor and irony can appeal to any generation.
  • Hard Times by Studs Terkel An oral history of the Great Depression compiled in the late 60s. I resurrected this one in light of the current recession. I like this book for the way it makes me more grateful for the lives we live today and more admiring of that generation's resourcefulness. Also a fascinating glimpse of forgotten, daily details and a nice reminder of Studs. A good one to pick up and put down to fill those odd bits of free time over the holidays.
  • A Sunday Afternoon Hotdog Meal by 205 second to sixth grade students Published by 826 Chicago (a nonprofit writing center for kids) A guide to Chicago written from the perspective of kids. Eye-opening and hilarious, it illuminated some forgotten attractions, gave me a new perspective on the familiar places, and most importantly, reminded me how to think like a kid. Great all-purpose book to keep on hand when you need an unexpected gift.