Come now the holidays, and -- if we can stop thinking about the bad news that surrounds us -- maybe we can make these few weeks an island of caring and kindness. In another universe, we might express those tender feelings directly, but that feels so icky to most of us that we'd rather limit emotion to the small card scotch-taped to a gift. In that case, let's buy gifts that matter.
Books matter. Not most of the books on the bestseller list -- they're product, carefully calculated to build franchises for writers capable of cranking out a new book every year. Those books are just fine. Okay, they're fine for someone. But not for you. And not for the people you care about.
The whole and entire point of HeadButler.com is to identify books you won't hear about in every Conde Nast magazine and online gift guide. Then it's to explain those books so you can buy them with some confidence they're what you want. And, finally, it's to hope that my recommendations hit the target, and that the recipients are delighted with their gift and with you, that you are pleased as punch with yourself, and that, somewhere in that process, the name of HeadButler.com is mentioned and that I get the gift not only of gratitude but a growing readership. (Hey, a boy can dream, can't he?)
One great advantage to this list: I don't have to limit myself to 2009. Why? Because almost everything ever published is available on Amazon. Or, if you prefer, at an independent bookstore.
The Fabulous Sylvester
If you know disco at all, Sylvester James was the singer with the church-bred voice that ranged from a rich baritone to the stratosphere. "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real" -- for me, that was the big hit. Talk about propulsion! Anticipation! Heat! It's not the silly lyrics ("And the music's in me/And I feel real hot/Then you kiss me there/And it feels real good") that burn into you, it's Sylvester's gospel refrain -- "Woooh, I feel real, I feel real, I feel real, I feel real." And he was. He was a man and he was a woman, but most of all, he was a lover of an idea: that the world could be a place "where race and gender no longer divide us and we love whom, when and how we want". This biography is complete and compassionate, inspiring and haunting, and it's as good a gift for bigots as it is for those whose ideals of brotherhood include freaks, drag queens, football players and MBAs.
Canal House Cooking Volume No. 1
Canal House Cooking Volume No. 2
In a brick studio in Lambertville, New Jersey, two distinguished foodies have launched a self-published series of seasonal cookbooks. Their mantra: "home cooking by home cooks for the home cook." Those words cut through the frou-frou of modern cookery like a spoonful of quince sherbet between courses at dinner. No. 1 is for summer, No. 2 is holiday cooking (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's) and more. Both are simple and straightforward; both are in heavy rotation in our kitchen.
Seth Greenland's novel was published in 2008, and nothing funnier has crossed my desk since. Consider: A pimp dies -- heart attack, hot tub -- in Los Angeles. He has one asset: a dry cleaning store called Shining City. His brother -- heavily in dent, wife's business failing, his company moving to China -- inherits it. And only then learns it's a front for a prostitution service. Will he and his wife take over the business? Or rather: How much do they think they need to make before they quit?
Long before Paul Johnson fell in love with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, he revered Winston Churchill. Now the distinguished British historian has produced a slim (166-page_ biography of Churchill that casts him as the greatest hero of the 20th century. Your recipient may not agree, but this is undeniable -- this is a great portrait of a real leader. Mere politicians shrink by comparison,
The Queen's Gambit
An eight-year-old orphan named Beth Harmon. Who turns out to be the Mozart of chess. Which brings her joy (she wins! people notice her!) and misery (she's alone and unloved and incapable of asking for help). So she gets addicted to pills. She drinks. She loses. And then, as 17-year-old Beth starts pulling herself together, she must face the biggest challenge of all -- a match with the world champion, a Russian of scary brilliance. You think: This is thrilling? You think: chess? You think: Must be an "arty" novel, full of interior scenes. Wrong. All wrong. "The Queen's Gambit" is "Rocky" -- and you don't have to know anything about chess to love this book. And love Beth Harmon.
A Really Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson, a writer who makes reading the most fun you can think of with your clothes on, has done me -- and you, and every curious kid burdened by a dull textbook or a brain-dead science teacher -- a huge favor. He's taken the greatest hits of his Big Book on the history of the world, trimmed the history so the text is mostly stories, and added illustrations that are variously helpful and amusing. The result: a book that a curious 9-year-old can get something out of, a 12-year-old can read like a novel, and an adult can devour, blessing Bryson all the while for explaining the history of life on earth in such reader-friendly prose.
And There Was Light
Jacques Lusseyran was eight years old. He was totally blind. And he was completely happy. Then the Germans rolled over France. At 17, he decided to organize his friends into a resistance unit. Wisely, they appointed him head of recruiting -- his hearing made him a great judge of character. Later he and his friends started an underground newspaper; it would become France-Soir, the most important daily newspaper in Paris. And that's just the start of an amazing story of courage and grace.
Parents, lovers/husbands, children. Sharon Olds deals mostly -- I could almost say: deals only -- with the big topics. At least, the big topics if you have parents, husbands/lovers and kids. And she deals with them so directly, so bluntly, that it may come as a surprise to those who do not know her writing that she is a poet, and, for my money, the best we have. Like this:
I could not tell I had jumped off that bus,
that bus in motion, with my child in my arms,
because I did not know it. I believed my own story:
I had fallen, or the bus had started up
when I had one foot in the air.
I would not remember the tightening of my jaw,
the irk that I'd missed my stop, the step out
into the air, the clear child
gazing about her in the air as I plunged
to one knee on the street, scraped it, twisted it,
the bus skidding to a stop, the driver
jumping out, my daughter laughing
Do it again.
I have never done it
again, I have been very careful.
I have kept an eye on that nice young mother
who lightly leapt
off the moving vehicle
onto the stopped street, her life
in her hands, her life's life in her hands.
For my list of 10 MUSIC CDs that others aren't likely to suggest, click here.
For my list of ten THINGS that others aren't likely to suggest, click here.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]