TERRY GROSS, host:
Book critic Maureen Corrigan has assembled her annual list of holiday book-buying recommendations. She calls it suggestions for a passionate holiday, and she's definitely not talking about kissing Santa under the mistletoe. Here's her list.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: It began to feel to me like an Internet version of one of those parlor games - charades or statues - that people supposedly played at Victorian house parties during the holiday season. I had sent a few friends this email: I'm putting together a list of books that people have written about their passions. Can you help with some suggestions? The deluge began. The books I'm about to recommend - mostly slim volumes about places or things that the writers themselves deeply love - made the cut because either I came up with the suggestion myself, or I heartily agreed after reading it.
This was a big year for the pleasures of the palate, given the popularity of the film �Julie and Julia.� There are a trillion books on food out there, but if you've never read Laurie Colwin, you must, must, hunt up her two unpretentious essay collections called �Home Cooking� and �More Home Cooking.� Colwin died at 48 in 1993, and when I try to explain the power of her novels and short stories to people, I usually end up saying her writing makes me happy - which sounds sappy, but it's true.
I picked up her two books on cooking, definitely not my passion, because I had exhausted the rest of her writing. Here are Colwin's opening words in an essay on coffee: I come from a coffee-loving family, and you can always tell when my sister and I have been around because both of us collect all the dead coffee from everyone's morning cup, pour it over ice, and drink it. This is a disgusting habit.
None of the pleasure Zadie Smith writes about in her terrific, just-published essay collection �Changing My Mind� fall into the disgusting category.
They're more endearing, like her prose valentines to Zora Neale Hurston, Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn. This collection also includes some poignant remembrances of David Foster Wallace and Smith's own father, a World War II vet who took part in the Normandy invasion. The great thing about Zadie Smith as a critic is that you get the sense here that her enthusiasms aren't fossilized yet, but are still being formed as she writes.
Nonagenarian P.D. James has, no doubt, been passionate about lots of things in her long life, but to her worshipful readers - and I'm definitely in that multitude - it's her passion for investigating murder most foul that we really care about. In a new little work of criticism called �Talking About Detective Fiction,� James elegantly surveys the British and American mystery traditions, makes some educated guesses about the future of crime writing, and shares some of her long-tended enthusiasms for, among others writers, G.K. Chesterton.
James, of course, lives in England, which would be my number one fantasy choice for where to spend the holidays - not going to happen anytime soon, but armchair travel is cheap and profoundly pleasurable. I received lots of intriguing suggestions for good books about place -Pico Iyer on Japan, Ishmael Reed on Oakland. But the one recommendation I found irresistible was Mary McCarthy on Florence, because I find any occasion to read Mary McCarthy, in all her tart brilliance, irresistible.
The book is called �The Stones of Florence,� and in it, McCarthy unveils what was then, in 1956, one of Italy's lesser tourist cities. She loves the handmade shoes, puts up with the then-mediocre food, and winces at the sugary vision of the city crafted by Victorians like the Brownings. McCarthy also talks a lot about architecture, and one of the most revelatory appreciations of architecture I've come across is New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger's new book, called �Why Architecture Matters.�
This isn't a history of architecture, but rather something more elusive. Goldberger explains: Everything has a feel to it, not just masterpieces, but everything in the built world. The purpose of this book is to come to grips with how things feel to us when we stand before them. Goldberger roams from classic masterpieces like the Pantheon to the architecture of memory, like the modest, two-family house of his childhood in New Jersey.
Any book about great architecture has to discuss the New York City skyline, and the minute I start thinking about New York, I think about E.B. White and his magnificent essay on the city, called �Here is New York.� White wrote it in the summer of 1948, when he'd returned to the city from Maine for a weekend and began to remember how magical New York seemed to him as a young man. Here's the first sentence: On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.
On any reader who desires the prize of what I think is the essential essay about New York, E.B. White's �Here is New York� will bestow the gift of nostalgia tempered with an acceptance of the necessity of change, as well as the gift of an enduring passion.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can read a list of her suggestions, and her complete review, on our Web site: freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.