Five Books To Give Yourself This Year

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lorenz347 via Flickr Creative Commons

You've shopped for the family, put up the tree, baked the kugel, prepped the brisket and mailed off your packages. Now give yourself a present: time alone with a good book. I read scads of them over the year, and these five would be particularly good company if and when you manage to grab a little quiet time during all the holiday chaos. (If you're feeling extra-generous, they're good presents for other people, too.)

'American Wife'

Curtis Sittenfeld's 'American Wife'
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, hardcover, 558 pages, Random House, list price: $26

If you've ever watched Laura Bush stand by her husband and wondered what's behind that Mona Lisa-like smile, dip into this. Curtis Sittenfeld takes many parts of Laura Welch Bush's basic biography and retells them as fiction: In Sittenfeld's hands, the almost-former first lady is Alice Lindgren, a shy bookish girl from an unremarkable Wisconsin suburb. Alice lives a quietly watchful life with her widowed mother and eccentric grandmother until her senior year in high school, when she accidentally kills the boy she has a crush on. (She literally runs into him as she's thinking ahead to their night together.) Still steeped in guilt several years later, Alice is working as the beloved librarian of a small elementary school, when Charlie Blackwell, scion of a Midwestern meatpacking dynasty, blows into her life.

Charlie is handsome, lively and spoiled — all bluster and frat-boy good humor, the underachiever of his privileged family. And after an intense, whirlwind courtship, Alice becomes Mrs. Charles Blackwell. She gradually adjusts to a life of privilege, to alternately accommodating and resisting her forceful in-laws. Eventually she succumbs to life in the public eye as Charlie, after a born-again experience, becomes a teetotaling conservative politician and then — to everyone's astonishment (including Charlie's) — is elected president. But when a traumatic episode from her small-town past returns to haunt her, Alice has to decide who is in charge of her life.

'Tallgrass'

Sandra Dallas' 'Tallgrass'
Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, paperback, 336 pages, St. Martin's Press, list price: $13.95

When a small farming town in Colorado is chosen as the site for one of the several internment camps that sprang up to imprison Japanese-Americans relocated from the West Coast during World War II, most neighbors react with suspicion and fear. The Stroud family is a notable exception: Loyal Stroud not only hires displaced Japanese farmers to harvest his beet crop (all the white boys have gone to war); he becomes a protector and surrogate parent for two of them, all the while showing his only child, 13-year-old Rennie, why prejudice is irrational and unacceptable.

Readers who have a soft spot for To Kill A Mockingbird's Atticus and Scout Finch will find echoes of it here in Tallgrass. Like Atticus, Loyal is firm in his convictions. Like Scout, Rennie has to puzzle her way thorough the customs and mores of her neighbors, and solve a mystery to boot. A little Snow Falling on Cedars, a little To Kill a Mockingbird, a lot thought-provoking.

'I See You Everywhere'

Julia Glass' 'I See You Everywhere'
I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass, hardcover, 304 pages, Knopf, list price: $24.95

Julia Glass has made a career of writing about complicated family relationships, and this book is no exception. Her novel centers on Clement and Louisa: sisters, opposites and competitors. Louisa is shy, smart, unconvinced that she is attractive (or attractive enough). She has always been The Responsible One — especially when contrasted to younger sister Clem, who is vividly beautiful, wildly willful and prone to bouts of self-destructive behaviors that leave her family alternately despairing and furious. After a period when the girls kept their distance from each other, they end up under the same roof when Clem drops in on Louisa at the home she has inherited from an elderly aunt. How each remembers past slights — and how they deal with the pain of their mistakes — will sound familiar to many who have siblings.

'Unaccustomed Earth'

Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Unaccustomed Earth'
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, hardcover, 352 pages, Knopf, list price: $25

Lahiri has become the modern-day mistress of the Indian immigrant tale. This luminous group of short stories continues Lahiri's exploration of the "twoness" American children of Indian-born parents feel. So much has been written about this heartbreakingly gorgeous collection that I'd only be repeating what better writers than I have already said. So instead I'll say this: Go find this book and read it. You won't be sorry.

'Mrs. Astor Regrets'

Meryl Gordon's 'Mrs. Astor Regrets'
Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach by Meryl Gordon, hardcover, 336 pages, Houghton Mifflin, list price: $28

Brooke Astor was charming, witty, infinitely generous and as much a part of New York City as the stone lions on the steps of the public library (a building that was one of Astor's favorite beneficiaries). The widow of pedigreed multimillionaire Vincent Astor, she was unfailingly attentive to her guests — especially male ones — and remained a huge flirt well into her 100th year. But by her own admission, Astor hadn't been so great as a mother to her only child. Meryl Gordon's exhaustively researched book carefully unravels the extremely complicated relationship Astor had with her son, Tony Marshall, and followed how his alleged mismanagement of her funds caused his own son, Philip, to take him to court so that others could properly care for Astor in her remaining days. A riveting cautionary tale of privilege, family resentment and greed, Mrs. Astor Regrets reads like good fiction, which — unfortunately — it isn't.

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