NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, doing double duty as Day to Day book editor, selects her favorite tomes for the gift-giving season — everything from award-winning fiction to Italian family cookbooks.
Featured on the Show:
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. An absorbing biography of one of the nation's founding fathers — Revolutionary War hero, architect of America's central government and the first secretary of the Treasury. But he was also prickly, sensitive about his illegitimate Caribbean origins, astonishingly attractive to women and a prisoner of his personal passions. Not your boring history lesson.
Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot. Sure, he was the actor every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to be with. But as biographer Eliot shows, little Archie Leach, who would grow up to become one of the world's best loved movie stars, spent his life looking to assuage his personal anxieties about being abandoned as a child in Bristol, England. Grant's pursuit of emotional and financial security led him through several marriages and changed the way the movie business operates. The book has several photos not previously published.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones. When Henry Townsend's master gifts him with his first slave, Henry's parents are aghast: They are black, they worked themselves to the bone to buy themselves and Henry out of slavery, and now he wants slaves of his own? How can that be? Edward Jones' elegant writing and finely nuanced characters have made us look at slavery and who it affects in a much more complicated way than we're used to. Here's hoping Hollywood doesn't buy it and spoil it.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. A combination of history, romance, mystery and magic, The Shadow of the Wind follows young Daniel Sempere from the time he is allowed to choose one book to protect from the Cemetery of Lost Books, through several decades. As Daniel matures, he persists in trying to discover why writer Julian Carax vanished into history. It's a discovery that could, ultimately, cost him his life, and ruin the people closest to him.
The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker by the editors of The New Yorker. Sure, you buy the New Yorker for its fine writings and reporting, but tell the truth: Don't you go through the magazine and search out the cartoons first? Now they're all her in one huge (and way heavy) compendium that has included every single cartoon ever published in The New Yorker's august pages. Charles Addams, Saul Steiglitz, Roz Chast, William Hamilton are here, along with, well, everybody. So if you ever wanted to find that cartoon about the Frog Leg Special (PETA members, close your eyes!) — your search has ended.
Other Books to Consider:
Rising From The Rails: The Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class by Larry Tye. The current black middle class is four times larger than it once was — but back in the 1930s through the 1950s, some of the most economically stable black families were supported by the men who worked George Pullman's sleeper cars on the American passenger railroads. Ironically, at a time when the country was segregated, here were black men privy to the most intimate details of their white passengers — after all, they made their beds. The porters' ability to move smoothly between the worlds of servitude and leadership enabled them to establish secure futures for their children and grandchildren. This is a portrait of a lost era.
The Noise of Infinite Longing: A Memoir of a Family — and An Island by Luisita Lopez Torregrosa. Called to Texas for her mother's funeral, editor Luisita Lopez Torregrosa's memories flood back to her early upbringing as the child of a doctor and lawyer in Puerto Rico in the 1940s. There are evocative passages of family folklore and the genteel formality of life on the island, and of Torregrosa's mother's ferocious love for her children — perhaps she had to make up for their physician father's preoccupied aloofness. One of the best parts of the book centers on when Torregrossa is shipped off to boarding school on the East Coast. There, she discovers that what the world thinks of as Puerto Rican is completely different from her own privileged experience. A fine coming-of-age story.
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat. Who we were and who we become when we make new people of ourselves are central to Danticat's absorbing tale. The Dew Breaker is a series of interconnected stories about a Haitian refugee whose American-born daughter presses him to reveal his past so she can know him, and herself, better. When he finally gives her the information she wants, it sends her reeling. How that revelation will affect their personal growth, and their relation to each other, is part of the book's strength.
The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri. When she won a Pulitzer Prize for The Interpreter of Maladies, people waited to see what Jumpa Lahiri was going to do for her sophomore effort. Would it be cursed, or cause for celebration? With the publication of The Namesake, virtually all reviewers agreed: The first good book was no fluke. Lahiri's novel about a young East Indian-American who is pulled toward American culture even as his adoring parents try to make sure he is firmly tethered to his Indian culture is at once particular and universal — and a delight.
Assorted Gift Books
Sports Illustrated's 50 Years: The Anniversary Book. You forget (okay, I forget) how much of contemporary America is reflected in our sports events. This big book of you-are-there photos, accompanied by some contributions from some of the country's best sports writers, will delight both sports junkies and the casually curious.
Jim Marshall: Proof by Jim Marshall. Ever wonder what the photographer is thinking when he focuses on you and urges you to smile? Jim Marshall, the dean of rock photographers, presents photos and their outtakes opposite each other. We get to hear what was going on when he shot the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead — but we also see what magazine readers usually don't: the photos that almost made it, but for some reason, didn't.
Bouchon by Thomas Keller. A couple of years ago, the chef of Napa Valley's famed French Laundry restaurant produced a coffee table cookbook that was gorgeous to behold, unwieldy to use, and filled with complicated recipes. If followed, they led to an unforgettable meal — but you were also 15 years older by the time you finished cooking and cleaning up after yourself. Bouchon, named for a string of Keller restaurants, is equally beautiful, but much easier for normal cooks to use. And even if you never cook anything from it, knowing you could might be knowledge enough.
Lidia's Family Table by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich. This is family cooking by one of America's favorite TV chefs. Bastianich's no-nonsense, friendly "you can do this" approach makes you want to try her recipes. And when you make pasta her way, for instance, you'll find intense flavor for relatively minimal effort — and you'll probably find it infinitely harder to settle for sauce from a jar.
The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. The late, beloved professional story teller Virginia Hamilton originally wrote The People Could Fly in 1985 as a collection of classic black American folk tales. The central story "The People Could Fly" is a tale about slaves who escape abuse by rising up from the fields and flying off to freedom. It has since become a classic. This new picture book of the original's title story reunites husband-and-wife illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon with Hamilton's story, to beautiful effect.
Jazzy Miz Mozetta by Brenda C Roberts, illustrated by Frank Morrison. An infectiously cheerful book about Ms. Mozetta, who may be getting old but who has no interest in giving in. What Miz Mozetta really feels like doing one evening is dancing, but when she puts on her blue high heels and her snazzy red dress, all she gets is a polite push aside from her young neighbors. They love her, but she can't keep up. Miz Mozette returns to her own apartment and summons forth the ghosts of her zoot-suited past. All of a sudden it's the kids who can't keep up with her. A good object lesson in not judging books by its cover.
HOOT by Carl Haaisen. Any book that features both an antidote to bullying and a fake fart competition wins hands-down! Which explains why Hoot is so adored by kids (especially boys) from 9 to about 13. The other part is, it's funny — which befits one of the funniest writers in the English language — and it’s filled with the sense of adolescent outrage that is typical of the age. Perfect for a reluctant reader with a subversive sense of humor.