ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The holiday season is upon us. We here at NPR have our own literary Santa of sorts. Every year, we ask our bearded book reviewer, Alan Cheuse, to give us some suggestions of this year's good books that might make good presents.
Welcome back to the program, Alan.
ALAN CHEUSE: Ho, ho, ho, Melissa.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: Well, let's start. What do you have first on your list here?
CHEUSE: It's a book about Norman Rockwell, and it gives us access to his method, which was to take photographs to use as models for his paintings, which complicates the supposedly sweet, simple world of Rockwell a little bit, I think. And there are some wonderful photographs that take us through the story of contemporary America in his lifetime.
BLOCK: And great fun to see these juxtaposed side by side. I'm looking at a page of the Saturday Evening Post cover "Two Plumbers." And then right next to it, you see the photograph, which is virtually identical - black and white instead of colored - but other than that, you can see exactly what he's working from.
CHEUSE: Well, actually, I thought the paintings were much better than the actual life rendered in the photographs. I think he got it right. He knew that he had to get the real thing in his painting.
BLOCK: Ah-hah. Let's move along from capturing Americans in pictures and on canvas to a book titled "Becoming Americans."
CHEUSE: This is a huge volume from the Library of America. This book gives us 400 years of immigrant writing, from the Puritans all the way to contemporaries like Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri. And towards the end of the book, there's this lovely poem called "Self-Help for Fellow Refugees" by a contemporary Chinese-American poet, Li-Young Lee, who grew up in Indonesia, and then in Chicago when his parents emigrated.
So he's got a kind of double vision. This poem really for me shows us we're all of us on the outside looking in and on the inside looking out.
BLOCK: Okay, here's Li-Young Lee reading his poem.
Mr. LI-YOUNG LEE (Poet): (Reading) If your name suggests a country where bells might have been used for entertainment or to announce the entrances and exits of the seasons or the birthdays of gods and demons, it's probably best to dress in plain clothes when you arrive in the United States and try not to talk too loud.
And if you meet someone in your adopted country and think you see in the other's face an open sky, some promise of a new beginning, it probably means you're standing too far. Or if you think you read in the other, as in a book, whose first and last pages are missing, a story of your own birthplace, a country twice erased, once by fire, once by forgetfulness, it probably means you're standing too close.
BLOCK: That's Li-Young Lee reading from his poem "Self-Help for Fellow Refugees." It's from the anthology "Becoming Americans."
And next on your list, Alan, is another anthology.
CHEUSE: Yep, in two volumes, "American Fantastic Tales," which is really the kind of dark side, the underside of American life. These stories run from the oldest horror stories we have in our culture, from Poe, Hawthorne, through H.P. Lovecraft, right up to a lot of contemporaries. And I think it's a great antidote to some of the horror light that we see around us in the culture today, you know, movies about vampires that don't really bite, polite werewolves. This is a horror book that will keep you up at night if you read the right stories.
I think it's a great way to introduce younger readers, especially boys, to the pleasures of being scared to death or nearly scared to death in prose.
BLOCK: Why especially boys?
CHEUSE: Well, you know, there's a problem about getting boys to read. And I think horror fiction is a way of bringing the boys into the great corral of American readers.
BLOCK: Let's give listeners a sample here. This is the fantasy writer Kelly Link, reading the opening of her novella, "Stone Animals."
Ms. KELLY LINK (Author, "Stone Animals"): (Reading) Out on the lawn, the rabbits were perfectly still. Then they sprang up in the air, turning and dropping and landing and then freezing again. Catherine stood at the window of the bathroom, toweling her hair. She turned the bathroom light off so that she could see them better. The moonlight picked out their shining eyes, the moon-colored fur, each hair tipped in paint. They were playing some rabbit game like leapfrog. Or they were dancing the quadrille, fighting a rabbit war. Did rabbits fight wars? Catherine didn't know.
They ran at each other and then turned and darted back, jumping and crouching and rising up on their back legs. A pair of rabbits took off like racehorses, sailing through the air.
CHEUSE: This is no fuzzy bunny story. This is going to make you scared, terribly afraid, of rabbits.
BLOCK: Uh-oh. That's Kelly Link, reading from her novella, "Stone Animals," part of the two-volume set "American Fantastic Tales."
And next, Alan, you wanted to talk about a novel for young adults, YA fiction. It's called "Wherever Nina Lies," and it's by Lynn Weingarten.
CHEUSE: Yes, and this is aimed at teenage girls - and surprise, surprise, no vampires, no werewolves, no magic - straightforward story about a young girl working as a barista in a city in the East, whose sister has disappeared. And she takes off with a guy she knows, on the road, trying to find her sister.
The first-person narrative is a voice that, really, I found quite attractive, and it's the kind of voice that I can read, anyone can pick up and read, and it reminds you of the really great voice of teenage characters like, say, Holden Caulfield in "Catcher in the Rye."
BLOCK: That's quite a model. Here's Lynn Weingarten, reading in this voice you're talking about, the voice of Ellie.
Ms. LYNN WEINGARTEN (Author, "Where Nina Lies"): (Reading) Two years ago, on the afternoon of June 24, my sister, Nina Melissa Wrigley, disappeared. She'd gone out in a late afternoon and then she just never came back.
When she was gone, she was gone. She didn't have a MySpace page or a Facebook account or a cell phone. All her stuff remained in her room exactly as it always had been: clothes in piles on the floor, tubes of hair dye on the nightstand, sketch pads and drawing pencils and pots of ink scattered everywhere.
Here's the thing about my sister. Nina did what she wanted. She wasn't reckless, but she didn't worry about things other people worried about: getting in trouble, getting laughed at, looking stupid. She pool-hopped late at night and cut class and talked to strangers. She was the type of person who, if she saw a guy wearing a big cowboy hat that she liked, would say, hey, cowboy, can I try on your hat? And he would probably end up letting her keep it.
BLOCK: Alan, we've worked our way through most of your list. We have one book left, and this is a real beauty. It's a reissue of "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson with just these incredible woodcut illustrations and beautiful, beautiful type.
CHEUSE: It's a great pirate story. It's probably the best-known pirate story in the culture. And it's given us a song that allows me to sing ho-ho-ho again.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHEUSE: (Singing) Fifteen men on a dead man's chest, yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum.
BLOCK: Is that singing, Alan?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHEUSE: But I'm not advocating rum for kids there.
CHEUSE: Just good stories and good books that they can cuddle up with at holiday time.
BLOCK: Alan, thanks for coming in and telling us about all your books this year.
CHEUSE: My pleasure.
BLOCK: And let's recap here. We talked about the new illustrated edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island;" Lynn Weingarten's young adult novel "Wherever Nina Lies;" the two-volume set "American Fantastic Tales: From Poe to the Pulps;" the anthology "Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing;" and finally, "Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera" by Ron Schick.
And, Alan, we should mention that your own latest book is a collection of travel essays called "A Trance After Breakfast." You can find more book recommendations at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of song, "Zat You Santa Claus?")
Mr. LOIS ARMSTRONG (Singer): (Singing) 'Zat you, Santa Claus. Sure is dark out, ain't the slightest spark out. Pardon my clackin' jaws. Who's there, who is it, uh, stoppin' for a visit. Is 'zat you, Santa Claus? Are you bringin' a present for me.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.