In a shocking twist, book lovers are as fanatical about giving books as they are about reading them. While some people tailor their gift titles to each individual recipient, others have go-to books that fit the bill time and time again. We asked around the office to find out some Algonkians’ go-to books.
•Elise Howard, editor/publisher, Algonquin Books for Young Readers: This year it will be Brown Girl Dreaming, hands down. Its lyrical evocation of the author’s childhood is so powerful that I found myself vividly seeing the scenes from her childhood in parallel with long buried moments from my own. I expect it will have that effect on all readers young and old.
(It should turn out much better than the year I tried giving Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. I bought it first for myself and regarded it as the Open Sesame to the secrets of the domestic arts and sciences. Apparently my giftees thought I was telling them they were slobs.)
•Elisabeth Scharlatt, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill publisher: For anyone under five years old, I give Happy Birthday, Moon because I love imagining the child’s gleeful discovery of the joke that will come years later.
Over five years old, I give The Little House, because it satisfies my own need to push my values on a new generation.
Over eleven years old, The Little Prince, a book no one should miss out on.
And anyone over forty gets The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating because it’s a subject we don’t think will interest us until we see that it is.
•Kelly Bowen, publicity director: Still Alice by Lisa Genova is one of the books I recommend to people constantly, and often give as a gift. It’s a beautiful book that illuminates a mind decaying from early onset Alzheimer’s. Don’t be dissuaded if you don’t have a loved one suffering from the same disease, because the story is so gripping and the writing so incredible that you can’t help but be swept up into Alice’s life and mind.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is the book I re-read every single year, in the way that many read Jane Austin or the Brontes. This is the perfect book for fans of 80s pop culture, music, and movies, as well as any fan of a dystopian YA novel (except this one has a male protagonist! And avatars in a computer game!). It’s awesome.
•Kathy Pories, senior editor: Most of the time, I don’t give the same presents to anyone in my family or circle of friends, as I come from a very opinionated and vocal group, and no one minds telling me that they didn’t like a book I gave them. However, over the years, I have given as a present Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, as it’s a satisfying set of books on so many levels — for sheer storytelling, for the twists and turns each book takes, for the variation in tones between all three. And they are smart and fun and so engagingly written. Plus, as they begin in Canada in the winter, they seem so right for the Christmas season.
•Emma Boyer, publicist: Graceling by Kristin Cashore. This is a YA fantasy that has lots of my favorite things: a kick-ass teenage heroine (who is also kind of awkward), the kind of plot that makes you stay up too late reading, and a love story that doesn’t end the way you expect it to. It makes a really good gift for people who liked The Hunger Games (or other popular dystopian series) but who aren’t regular book buyers.
•Amy Gash, senior editor: One of my favorite books to give friends is The Principles of Uncertainty by author and artist Maira Kalman. How can anyone not be charmed by her illustrations, which are whimsical and profoundly moving and completely original. Kalman is funny and sad and philosophical, and she goes wherever her mind takes her. The book is filled with her musings on everything from hats to Spinoza to a woman eating a cheeseburger in a restaurant. After rereading this book, which I do often, I always feel happy that Maira Kalman is willing to let us into her world in such a personal way — and that’s what I want to share with others.
•Chuck Adams, executive editor: Because I work in publishing and can get virtually any book I want for free, I almost never give the gift of books, or when I do I tell the receiver that it’s not really a “gift,” but something I picked up for them on my way out the door. There are, however, books that I’ve recommended over and over to people (especially writing people), encouraging them to read them. Three in particular come to mind:
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote — This one I recommend in great part because of the movie that was based on the novel. I loved that movie and it began my lifelong affection for all things Audrey Hepburn. But then I read the novel, after seeing the movie, and while there were definite similarities, the book is a whole other experience: Holly Golightly is a much more enigmatic creature in the novel, a woman of mystery and complexity who seems to reduce her daily life to the most basic elements of survival. The narrator is the male lead in the novel; while fascinated by Holly, there is no romance because he is gay. And the ending…well, the novel begins with the ending and then circles back, and suffice it to say there is no cat and there are no tears and no kisses in the rain. Reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a revelatory experience for anyone who has seen and loved the movie, and also for anyone who has only read Capote’s In Cold Blood—he was a great writer on many levels, and probably one of the most wasted and underappreciated talents of his generation.
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier — I know that Rebecca is considered du Maurier’s masterpiece, but I think My Cousin Rachel is almost better because it combines romance and gothic mystery in a seamless way, not through an intricate plot as in Rebecca, but through the development of tension between two very strong characters. The novel’s great achievement, I think, is the fact that while the title character is the focus of the story, with her presence felt on every page, when the reader comes to the novel’s end s/he realizes that the “mystery” is not remotely over because du Maurier has so cleverly and carefully constructed the story to make it impossible to know if Rachel is a saint or a devil. I read this book many, many years ago, but it has stayed with me, and I’ve recommended it over and over, especially to writers who are struggling with plotlines and character development. In fact, I think My Cousin Rachel should be required reading for all aspiring writers, especially anyone going for their MFA; du Maurier’s merging of story and character provides a virtual master class in construction.
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris — This author never fully emerged from the shadow of his wife, novelist Louise Erdrich, and then he ended his life after being accused of molesting one of his children, casting a damning shadow over all of his work. I can’t speak to his literary achievements beyond this novel because it’s the only one of his I have read, but it is one that I have recommended to many people and especially to young writers. The novel is basically a story told in reverse, through the voices of three Native American women, a teenage girl named Rayona, her mother Christine, and her grandmother Ida. In some regards, it reads like the same story told three times, but Dorris meticulously creates distinct voices for each of his characters, and the way they each view the story is so different from the others that it never feels repetitive. The device also serves to give real depth to these characters as each reveals her view of the lives they are forced to live, gradually peeling off layer after layer of their stories and in the process causing the reader to reevaluate each character and to reconsider the truths that they may or may not be telling.
•Debra Linn, online marketing manager: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss – I have not so much bought this book and given it to people as a gift, as I handsold it to more than 300 people back in my bookselling days. And handselling is the gift that keeps on giving. (Cue the string section for stirring music here. )
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro – It’s good for all ages, all tastes, all people.
Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri – How many tacos do you need for a dragon taco party? Take a boat. Fill it with tacos. That’s how many tacos you need.
Gift-, read-, and taco-party on!