Christmas is tomorrow, retail stores are tanking, and things are looking grim.

But still, there’s good cheer to be had!

Immerse yourself in another world by getting literary. Even better, give someone else a chance to.

I give you the eighth year of the Twelve Books of Christmas.


1. Best Book by
a First-Time Author

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

By David Wroblewski

HarperCollins, 576 page, $26

The haunting tale of young Edgar Sawtelle, born mute but getting by on his family’s farm where “Sawtelle Dogs” are born, raised, and trained. Bottom line: It’s a masterpiece. Reminiscent of Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River in its gentle telling, it grips you without spectacle from page one and keeps your attention through good times, tragedy, murder, and revenge. Especially beautiful are the scenes where Edgar goes to live in the woods with a lively young pack of dogs. A perfect reminder of how man’s best friend can be the most comforting thing when you’ve lost everything.


2. Best Book for
the Champagne Lover

The Widow Cliquot

By Tilar J. Mazzeo

CollinsBusiness, 265 pages, $26

A fascinating story of one of the world’s best champagnes. Widowed at 27, the Grand Dame Barbe-Nicole Cliquot was forced into a decision — close her family’s business or take it over. In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, and in a male-dominated business and society, Cliquot took the hard road and built an empire that continues to produce some of the world’s finest bubbly. Cheers!


3. Best Book to Make You Take a Hard Look at Yourself

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

By Andrew Bacevich

Metropolitan Books, 224 pages, $24

Finally, an attack on the citizens of this country! Bacevich examines the ways in which We the People have been complicit in the breakdown of American ideals, the war, political chicanery, and our desire to have it all. Citing numerous sources and piecing together a fascinating historical analysis, Bacevich hits the nail on the head.


4. Best Book for
the Comic Lover

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America

By David Hajdu

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 448 pages, $26

Anyone who read Michael Chabon’s masterful The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay will remember that once upon a time, the comic book was considered by some a threat to the moral fiber of American youth. Fredric Werthem wrote a sweeping tome coming down on the comics industry (The Seduction of the Innocent), which suggested that comics would inspire anti-social behavior and were often meant to be homoerotic. Hadju lambastes Werthem’s methods of research and his cost to the comics industry. As a result of Werthem’s work, many comics artists were called before Congress. Though it’s laughable now, the damage Werthem did was very real and very unnecessary.


5. Best Book about Nothing

Collections of Nothing

By William Davies King

University of Chicago Press, 160 pages, $20

William Davies King, a theater professor, has dedicated his life to collecting what many of us would call trash. By his own account, he is an oddball. And yet he insists neither his work nor his therapy has in any way influenced his strange compulsion to collect everything from gum wrappers to chain letters, skeleton keys to cat food labels. A great look into the mind of a man who seems to see value in everything.


6. Best Book for
the Tyke in Your Life

Dinosaur vs. Bedtime

By Bob Shea

Hyperion Book CH, 40 pages, $16

This whimsical charmer shows Dinosaur conquering his day in typical dino-fashion (Dinosaur vs. Spaghetti! CHOMP CHOMP!). Dinosaur takes on everything from a pile of leaves to talking grown-ups, but he does have one little weakness. Read it with your kids and see for yourself what that is.


7. Best Thriller with a Moral

A Most Wanted Man

By John le Carré

Scribner, 336 pages, $28

The author of 21 novels, Le Carre is a master at the spy story. But this time, he clearly has a nit to pick — Western civilization’s xenophobia toward anyone Muslim. The story of Issa, a young Chechen with a Russian father who raised him to be anything but Muslim while condemning his mother to death, is one of impossible hopes for a brighter future. As Issa struggles to retrieve funds left for him by his father so he can go to medical school, an array of government agencies, including one from the good ol’ U.S.A., watch his every move as a possible terrorist. Issa, gentle soul that he is, never has a chance.


8. Best Book for
the Teen in Your Life

The Graveyard Book

By Neil Gaiman

HarperCollins, 320 pages, $18

OK, Neil made the list again. But it’s because he’s so good at his craft! Nobody Owens (aka Bod) would be a completely normal boy. But there’s the tiny fact that Bod lives in a large graveyard and is educated by ghosts and guarded by a figure that belongs neither to this world or the next. Bod faces terrors wherever he goes. A nice break from all the Twilight hype.


9. Best Book for the Sci-Fi Fan

Black Ships

By Jo Graham

Orbit, 448 pages, $15

A strange, dark, yet imaginative weaving of The Aeneid and the rescue of the Trojans. Viewed entirely through the eyes of Gull, Oracle of the Lady of the Dead. Gull sees the “black ships” burning at Troy and travels to join Aeneas in the saving of the remaining Trojans. A unique blend of Virgil and Graham.


10. Best Book for
the Science Lover

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body

By Neil Shubin

Pantheon, 272 pages, $24

No boring lecture here. Shubin, a fish paleontologist, uses humor and science to deftly guide you through human evolution, from our days in the water to our days sitting in front of the TV. Fossils give clues to our senses while human cells and sponges have remarkable similarities. Probably not the best gift for the Creationist on your list.


11. Best Book to
Cover the Meth Epidemic

Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through
His Son’s Addiction

By David Sheff

Houghton Mifflin, 336 pages, $24

Nic Sheff had everything going for him. A happy, outgoing kid, it seemed like the world was ripe for the picking. But as adolescence hit, Nic began to spiral out of control. He used mind-altering substances. By the time his father, who narrates this story, found out about his son’s drug problem, Nic was a full-blown meth addict. David Sheff doesn’t candy-coat his struggles with his son. But he preaches the eternal prayer of every parent: hope.


12. Best Book for
the Modern Historian

The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America

By Thurston Clarke

Henry Holt, 336 pages, $25

When Bobby Kennedy announced his run for president, America was on the brink of disaster. With an unwinnable war in Vietnam and social policies that weren’t working on the home front, Kennedy worked for a tragically shortened time to bring back the social conscience of the country. Assassin-wary, Kennedy once predicted “I’m afraid there are guns between me and the White House.” But Clarke doesn’t get stuck on the might-have-beens had Kennedy not been correct. Instead, he reminds us that for a short period, Kennedy drew Americans together.