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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Shopping, smelling, not cooking, civility, that's a short list of themes in some holiday book picks from independent booksellers across the country.

NPR's Susan Stamberg has the list.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: "The Toaster Project" by Thomas Thwaits is Lucia Silva's favorite book this year. Some compliment, considering how much she reads. Lucia buys books for Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, California.

LUCIA SILVA: Everybody loves toast. Almost everybody has a toaster.

STAMBERG: Thomas Thwaits decides to build one from scratch. He doesn't go to the hardware store. He wants to make every one of a toaster's 400 parts from the get-go.

SILVA: He smelts his own iron ore in a microwave...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SILVA: ...and mines copper from an abandoned copper mine.

STAMBERG: More than 2000 miles, and $1200 later, Thomas Thwaits has made a functioning toaster that would cost maybe $6 at the store. You do know that a simple long fork and some firewood could also brown a piece of bread.

And speaking of bread, flour and water get fancy treatment in George Legendre's book "Pasta by Design." Rona Brinlee, at The Book Mark in Neptune Beach, Florida, says the pasta book has no recipes, no sauces.

RONA BRINLEE: This book is not for cooks, and I say that not being a cook.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRINLEE: So it's really pasta as architecture.

STAMBERG: Ninety-two different kinds of pasta - spaghetti, tortellini, rotini, gorgeously photographed in all their pasta-white glory.

BRINLEE: You remember when you were little and you made a necklace of macaroni.

STAMBERG: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRINLEE: Well, so this is pasta as art continuing from your youth.

STAMBERG: You cannot really smell the pasta, but Rona Brinlee says there are plenty of smells in another of her gift-book picks. Diana Abu-Jaber's novel "Birds of Paradise," set in Miami, is absolutely redolent.

BRINLEE: The smell of the flowers and the trees and the ocean.

STAMBERG: "Birds of Paradise" is the story of a family, whose 13-year-old daughter runs away from home, deciding never to go back.

BRINLEE: And you don't know why. Nobody has done anything bad to her. Nobody has mistreated her. It's a loving family. She won't tell anybody why she runs away, so that secret really compels the story.

STAMBERG: A real page-turner, Rona says. And Miami is as important a character as the young runaway and her parents.

An adolescent boy is at the center of a coming-of-age novel picked by Daniel Goldin, proprietor of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. Larry Watson's book is called "American Boy."

DANIEL GOLDIN: It's sort of a series of snow globes. They're beautiful, scenic, pastoral nostalgic settings. And then you shake up the snow globe and there's a blizzard.

STAMBERG: Early 1960s in a small Minnesota town, Matthew's father has died. His mother waits tables at a supper club. He's befriended by a doctor's adolescent son. Into their lives comes a slightly older female. Matthew becomes obsessed by her.

GOLDIN: She keeps him at arms length. She will interact with him, as long as she gets something out of it.

STAMBERG: Her manipulative presence changes all the relationships. It's a story of longing, growing, drama and, says Daniel Goldin, beautifully written. Spare, like the Great Plains.

Ever put a book like that down - now, I said a book - and torn off the edge of a newspaper - yes, newspaper - to mark your place? In California, Lucia Silva says there's a new book devoted to such place-keepers, "Forgotten Bookmarks."

At his family's used book store, in Oneonta, New York, Michael Popek has collected things he finds tucked into the books, as markers. Things like love letters, photographs.

SILVA: So he finds a recipe for Mrs. Eisenhower's fudge in a copy of Nabokov's "Bent Sinister."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SILVA: He finds two tickets to a 1904 masquerade ball in "Elements of Greek."

STAMBERG: And a collection of letters a daughter sends to her father in a nursing home. He tucked them into a copy of "A Farewell to Arms."

Memories drive Amor Towles novel "Rules of Civility." Rona Brinlee says the book grabbed her from page one. Manhattan, 1966, a husband and wife visit the Museum of Modern Art.

BRINLEE: And they're at a retrospective show of photographs by Walker Evans, and he took pictures of people on subway of New York at the end of the '30s into the early '40s.

STAMBERG: In one of the photographs, the wife spots a man she once knew. He is clearly down on his luck, disheveled.

BRINLEE: And on the way out, she sees another picture of him. But in this picture he has a cashmere coat and a nice suit and tie. And the husband says, well, look. This is good. He's doing so much better and it's a case of good rags to riches. And then she points and says no, you need to look at dates. The second one is earlier than the first one. It's really a case of riches to rags.

STAMBERG: The story cuts back to 1938; how the woman and her friend met that man on New Year's Eve.

BRINLEE: (Reading) We're going to perch in this low-rent bar where the music was taken seriously enough that two good-looking girls wouldn't be bothered, and where the gin was cheap enough that we could each have one martini an hour. We intended to smoke a little more than polite society allowed. And once midnight had passed without ceremony, we were going to a Ukrainian dinner on Second Avenue where the late night special was coffee, eggs and toast for 15 cents.

(Reading) But a little after 9:30, we drank 11 o'clock's gin. And at 10, we drank the eggs and toast. We had four nickels between us and we hadn't had a bite to eat. It was time to start improvising. And that's when he came into the club.

STAMBERG: From "The Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles.

BRINLEE: If the pasta book makes you want to eat pasta, and the Miami book wants you to eat pastry, this one's going to make you grab a martini.

STAMBERG: Finally, from book buyer Lucia Silva, "A Christmas Tree for Pyn" by Olivier Dunrea, a book for children and everyone else about a little girl and her big, burly father, in a joyless home. The mother is absent - presumably she's died. Pyn badly wants a Christmas tree. Her father keeps resisting. Pyn charges ahead.

SILVA: She heads out into the snow in her little red clogs and her excited pigtails, and she decides to cut down her own Christmas tree.

STAMBERG: Eventually, the father helps and the family begins to mend. The holiday feeling that's been missing starts to bloom.

SILVA: It's about the real emotional core of the holiday, that Christmassy feeling.

STAMBERG: No Santa, says Lucia. No lists, wise men, shopping, just the grip of Christmas on the heart.

SILVA: I opened the pages and I fell in love with Pyn. And I sat down on a chair and cried after I read it. And then I opened it so I could read and cry again.

STAMBERG: Good reads. And yes, maybe some good cries. Thanks to all our independent booksellers. Happy holiday reading.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: These and more book suggestions at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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