Ack. There’s less than two weeks remaining until Christmas and you haven’t even begun your shopping? What the hell’s wrong with you? Hop to it — the stores started stocking up the day after Halloween, and last week the neighbors determined that the icicle lights that have been hanging from their porch for the last three and a half years are still working.
But never fear, I’m pretty sure there’s a book for everyone on your list this year, from the political junkies to the atheists. How many Christmas lists can boast that?
The Letter Home [Buy Now]
By Timothy Decker
Front Street Books
32 pages, $16.95
Just how does one explain war to a child? In this gentle book with gorgeously detailed pen-and-ink drawings, a World War I medic writes a letter to his son, using terms a child can understand to paint a picture that is realistic but not frightening or judgmental. This one’s good not just for the kids, but will get a discussion going among the adults as well.
Novel with Local Flair
Sweet Home Carolina [Buy Now]
By T. Lynn Ocean
Thomas Dunne Books
272 pages, $23.95
In her second novel, Ocean ties together a dying town whose coastal access has dried up, a myriad of wacky local characters, a dirty low-down developer, pirate legend, and a nice touch of romance into a neat little package. Light reading, to be sure, but a lot of fun and a great reminder that even the smallest Lowcountry town has something to offer.
Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Eight [Buy Now]
Editor, Jon Weiner, Afterword by Tom Hayden, Illustrated by Jules Feiffer
304 pages, $16.95
If you’re not familiar with the trial of the Chicago Seven, you should be. (One defendant, Black Panther Bobby Seale, had charges dropped when he was indicted on other charges, though not before the judge had him bound to his seat and gagged because he insisted on continuing to ask for his own lawyer or the right to represent himself). A veritable who’s who of ’60s activists, including those from the Yippie movement (Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin) and the politically radical group the MOBE (Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, and Tom Hayden), John Froines and Lee Weiner, young Ph.D students, the trial, which accused members of various groups of conspiring and inciting riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The defendants lampooned the judge, the judge made a mockery of the justice system, and the entire spectacle was like a circus sideshow. This book, which mainly contains highlights from the 20,000 page trial testimony, is at once sobering and absurd, and it leads one to wonder why our own activists insist on being so very tame when we should all be outraged.
Wolf Boy [Buy Now]
By Evan Kuhlman
Shaye Arehart Books
320 pages, $23.00
I try to keep previously reviewed books off the list, but there’s just no way to keep this beautifully transcendent first novel by Kuhlman away. A tragi-comedy played out both within a family that’s falling apart and a friendship that’s cementing itself into a creative duo ready to take on everything from the emergence of adolescence to death itself, Kuhlman’s novel includes perfectly scripted and cleanly drawn comics to help the story open its wings and fly.
Nonfiction Hot Topic
Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness [Buy Now]
By Pete Earley
384 pages, $25.95
Veteran journalist Earley is thrown into the fray of one of America’s hot-button topics when his own extremely delusional son, Mike, breaks into a house because he wants to take a bubble bath, damaging the premises and terrifying the owner. Treated as a criminal rather than the severe manic-depressive that he is, Mike gets no help from authorities – only probation. His father decides to delve deeper into the issue of America’s mental health crisis, where those with mental health problems are far more likely to end up in prison than in treatment, and the result is a poignant mix of outrage for the broken system and love for his son.
Fiction, American Icon
The Road [Buy Now]
By Cormac McCarthy
256 pages, $24.00
Cormac McCarthy is probably the greatest American novelist of our time, yet he’s often overlooked by Gen X’ers who don’t think they can find meaning in a Western or in Appalachia. His unusual, staccato style of writing can, at first, be confusing but soon becomes engrossing and, like last year’s brilliant No Country for Old Men, The Road only shows the breadth of his talent. Set in post-apocalyptic America, where cannibals roam and darkness clings, a man and his son set out down a road to the sea, carrying blankets and a few supplies. The unnamed characters encounter other survivors, and the boy comes to realize that his father’s assurances that he and the boy are “good guys” doesn’t hold, for his father cares only for his son, and his son can only rely on his father.
Fiction, Best Comeback
Under Orders [Buy Now]
By Dick Francis
352 pages, $25.95
With the publication of his 38th book, 2000’s Shattered, and the death of his wife and longtime researcher, Mary, that same year, Dick Francis, the undisputed king of heart-pounding, earth-shattering, bone-crunching horse racing crime novels announced his retirement.
What a pleasure, then, to see the now 84-year-old Francis, once a jockey to the Queen Mother, emerging from the darkness, son Felix filling Mary’s old role, to write yet another fast-paced, tip-top novel. We’ve met the star, Sid Halley, champion jockey turned private eye after a racing accident destroyed his arm and some bad guys destroyed it some more. This novel juggles murder, race fixing, and DNA profiling, and Francis keeps all the balls in the air at once.
Fiction, Best Sequel to a Book You Probably Haven’t Read but Should
Bangkok Tattoo [Buy Now]
By John Burdett
320 pages, $24.00
Burdett’s debut novel, Bangkok Eight, hurled you into the steamy underbelly of Bangkok, as the only non-corrupt cop in town, Songchai Jittlecheep, pursued the murderer of both a U.S. Marine with bizarrely exotic tastes and of his own partner, Pichai, killed in the line of duty at the Marine’s murder scene.
Bangkok Tattoo takes readers even deeper into a world you think you know something about but never will unless you are reborn Thai. From a shocker of a beginning (a call girl in his mother and police boss’s bar comes in, admits to cutting off a customer’s penis, then shoots up with morphine) to delicate negotiations with the Muslim factions in Southern Thailand to a devil of a bad guy who “collects” tattoos, this story draws you in and makes you aware that Thailand through Songchai’s eyes is Thailand worth looking at.
The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream [Buy Now]
By Barack Obama
384 pages, $25.00
In his second book, Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama deals with topics he touched on in his now famous speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Obama speaks against divisive bipartisanship and calls for a return to more centrist politics. Against big government and tax cuts for the wealthy, Obama also speaks out against Social Security privatization. He addresses the abortion debate and religion’s involvement in politics. The Audacity of Hope is a comprehensive look at the views and visions of the man we may someday be calling Mr. President. Obama’s ability to write with clarity and be both objective and deeply personal make this a compelling read.
The Book Thief [Buy Now]
By Markus Zusak
Knopf Books for Young Readers
560 pages, $16.95
Narrated by Death himself, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, who is sent to live with a foster family during the Second World War. Meminger captures Death’s eye at the burial of her younger brother, when the nine-year-old becomes a sort of muse to him. Liesel, whose father has been taken away for being a Communist and whose mother disappears soon after, steals her first book at her brother’s funeral – The Grave Digger’s Manual. She does not know how to read, but her foster father teaches her using this not entirely appropriate book. Stolen books and Death’s dry sense of humor and way with words propel this book to the top of the list for the teenager on your list (particularly fantastic is the Jewish boxer who steals a copy of Mein Kampf, then whitewashes the pages to write a new book for Liesel.)
Nonfiction, Religion or Lack Thereof
The God Delusion [Buy Now]
By Richard Dawkins
416 pages, $27.00
Dawkins is a biologist at Oxford and one of the literary word’s most respected popularizers of science. An avowed atheist, he harshly criticizes religion for its intolerance – in about as intolerant a manner as possible. But it is this that lends credibility to his arguments, for his intolerance is couched in reason and rationale and credible science (he easily dismantles arguments for Intelligent Design with Darwinism). Although he is best stomached in chapters when he is less vitriolic, his criticisms of Evangelical Christianity and Fundamentalist Islamic movements certainly have merit. Dawkins puts theology to the same tests that he would science … and science comes out on top every time.
Coffee Table Book
A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005 [Buy Now]
By Annie Leibovitz
472 pages, $75.00
Arguably one of America’s greatest photographers, Leibovitz has created some of the most memorable ad campaigns in pop culture. But in this book, she ties together elements of her personal life with her professional life, juxtaposing family photos with pictures of such celebrities as Michael Jordan, Patti Smith, and Nelson Mandela. Leibovitz writes that there is no separation between her work and her life – that Annie behind the camera and Annie in front are the same entity. An interesting comment from a woman who has shaped the way we see celebrity – who, in the end, then, is more important?