MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Christmas and Hanukkah are just a couple of weeks away. Hanukkah begins at sundown on the 25th this year. And if you're looking to wow your friends and loved ones with something literary this season, listen closely. Our book reviewer Alan Cheuse has put together his recommendations for holiday gift giving. A full list is at our Web site, npr.org.
ALAN CHEUSE reporting:
I'd like to begin by recommending a book that reads like a dream because it is one long, narrative dream made out of distinctive prose and haunting images. "Madeleine is Dreaming," the lyrical novel by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, was nominated for the National Book Award last year and has just come out in paperback. Here she is reading from it.
Ms. SARAH SHUN-LIEN BYNUM (Author): `Hush,' Mother says. 'Madeleine is sleeping. She is so beautiful when she sleeps, I do not want to wake her.'
The small sisters and brothers creep about the bed, their gestures of silence becoming magnified and languorous, fingers floating to pursed lips, tiptoes rising and descending as if weightless. Circling about her bed, their frantic activity slows. They are like tiny insects suspended in sap, kicking dreamily before they crystallize into amber. Together they inhale softly and the room fills with one endless exhalation of breath. Shh.
CHEUSE: And the main character stays asleep for the entire length of the story. But I predict you'll stay awake with this wonderful combination of Virginia Woolf and Freud and Jung and Bynum's own gifts for imagery and wordplay.
And at this same ethereal level, a James Agee fiction volume from the Library of America. It includes Agee's powerful though unfinished novel "A Death in the Family," a story about the impact of a father's death on a young Knoxville, Tennessee, boy and his devout and grieving mother, a story that opens with the most sublime pages in American literature.
`Knoxville, summer 1915. We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. Supper was at 6 and was over by half-past. There was still daylight shining softly and with a tarnish like the lining of a shell, and the carbon lamps lifted at the corners were on in the light and the locusts were started and the fireflies were out and a few frogs were flopping in the dewy grass by the time the fathers and the children came out.'
And now moving from the sublime to the sublime, I want to call to your attention the new science-fiction novel by Stephen Baxter. It's called "Transcendent" and tells the story of the future evolution of our species, taking us back hundreds of millions of years in time and projecting us half a million years forward into the future. Baxter collaborates, from time to time, with Sir Arthur C. Clarke. and his own work comes close to inducing the same sense of wonder as Clarke's. Here's Baxter reading a passage about a young woman and her sister out of the future who have the power to transport themselves into space. They call it skimming.
Mr. STEPHEN BAXTER (Author): In one last mighty skim the girls leapt all the way out of the Nord itself. Alia felt the tautness of the vacuum in her chest, the sting of hard radiation on her face as delicious as a shower of ice water on bare skin. With her lungs locked tight and the mist of biomolecules and nanomachinery that suffused her body eagerly scouring for damage, she was in no danger. There were stars all around the sisters above, below, to all sides. They were suspended in three-dimensional space. In one direction a harder, richer light came pushing through the thick veil of stars. That was the core, the center of the galaxy.
CHEUSE: And going now from the transcendent to engrossing lowfalutin entertainment, a book for your friends who like to devour legal thrillers like popcorn. It's "The Color of Law" by Mark Gimenez.
Mr. MARK GIMENEZ (Author): Lawyering is a lot like football. In fact, Scott always figured his football career was the best prelaw curriculum the school offered. It certainly made the transition to the law an easy one for him. Whereas football is legalized violence, lawyering is violent legalities. Lawyers use the law to pummel each other's clients into submission. And just as football coaches want smart, mean and tough players, rich clients want smart, mean and tough lawyers and they want to win at all costs.
CHEUSE: And now let me make a 180-degree turn and suggest something for the high-flying art lover you know, Jonathan Harr's non-fiction narrative about the search for a lost Caravaggio painting in "The Lost Painting." It reads like a novel, beginning in Rome and taking us to Dublin and into the heart of a wonderfully appealing student of the history of art and the fascinating work of an Italian art restorer by the name of Sergio Benedetti. In this passage read by Harr, Benedetti is in the library of the Jesuits' residence in Dublin, inspecting a large painting in an ornate frame.
Mr. JONATHAN HARR (Author): It was dark, the entire surface obscured by a film of dust, grease and soot. The varnish had turned a yellowish-brown, giving the flesh tones in the face and hands a tobaccolike hue. The robe worn by Christ had turned the color of dead leaves, although Benedetti's eye told him that beneath the dirt and varnish it was probably a coral red. He could see that the canvas had gone a little slack in the frame. He judged that it had not been cleaned or relined in more than a century. He came close to the painting, squatting on his haunches before it, his face inches from the surface. It was definitely a 17th-century work he thought. The craquelure, the network of fine, hairline cracks, was just what he would expect in a painting almost four centuries old.
CHEUSE: Jonathan Harr reading from "The Lost Painting."
For someone who wants to read about the lives of novelists, in this case one of our greatest, there's Andrew Delbanco's new biography of Herman Melville.
Mr. ANDREW DELBANCO (Author): Moving clause by clause through Herman Melville's prose is like strolling or browsing on a city street.
CHEUSE: When it comes to the matter of success and failure, Melville's life is one of the most instructive and saddest we'll ever know because of the New York writer's rise as a best-selling author and his decline after publishing his masterpiece "Moby Dick." Listen to Delbanco describe Melville's prose.
Mr. DELBANCO: Each turn of phrase brings a fresh association. Sometimes we're brought up short by a startling image requiring close inspection. Sometimes a rush of images flickers by. But there's always the feeling of quickened pulse, of some unpredictable excitement in aftermath or anticipation. And if New York broke open Melville's style, it opened his mind as well to the cosmopolitan idea of a nation to which one belongs not by virtue of some blood lineage that leads back into the past, but by consent to the as yet unrealized ideal of a nation comprehending all peoples. `Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon,' he wrote in "Redburn," `made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one in a future of universal freedom.'
CHEUSE: The words of Herman Melville read by his biographer Andrew Delbanco.
Soaring up into space again, this time with best-selling writer Dava Sobel.
Ms. DAVA SOBEL (Author): Mars is a great respecter of longevity. Most of Mars' surface endures today much as it always has, while Earth and Venus go on reinventing theirs through constant upheaval.
CHEUSE: That's Sobel reading from her essay on Mars, one of a dozen delightful, idiosyncratic pieces that make up her new book "The Planets."
Ms. SOBEL: Yet Mars is no slavish preservationist like the moon or Mercury, whose static vistas are shaped almost entirely by outside forces. On the contrary, Mars, a globe only half the size of Earth, raised the tallest mountains in the solar system, carved vast labyrinthine valleys, inundated its lands with liquid water and then froze to a desert of spectacular dunes in a palette of reds, yellows and browns so vivid as to make Mars, seen from afar, glow like an orange star.
CHEUSE: For the traveler here on Earth, one of our finest living prose writers has a new book of essays called "There and Then: The Travel Writings of James Salter." It's a collection of the maestro's recollections of kicking about France, climbing and skiing.
Mr. JAMES SALTER (Author): There are days, months, even years when you feel invincible, dropping down the face of Bell(ph), Corkscrew, Lowerstein(ph) as if slipping down the stairs, edges biting, bumps disappearing in your knees. You're slicing the mountain as if with a knife. Of course, even on great days there is always that lone skier, oddly dressed, off to the side past the edge of the run, going down where it is steepest and the snow untouched in absolute grace, marking each dazzling turn with a brief jab of the pole. There is always him, the skier you cannot be.
CHEUSE: James Salter, in his 80s now by the way, and still skiing and writing.
For the youngest crowd, poet Quincy Troupe's boldly told little biography of Steveland Judkins Morris Hardaway.
Mr. QUINCY TROUPE (Author): And when the boy named Stevie starts singing in Detroit's back alleys and on crowded street corners, people cheer and clap their hands and whistle. Then one day a big man over at Motown Hitsville USA hears Stevie sing, signs him to a record contract and gives him a new name, Little Stevie Wonder.
CHEUSE: The book is illustrated by Lisa Cohen, and there's an accompanying CD.
(Soundbite of song)
STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Hello there, everybody, hey, there. Everybody have a good time. So if you want me to, if you want me to, I'm gonna swing a song, yeah, just one more time and then I'll come back. Just one more time, well, I'll come back. So be advised.
CHEUSE: Also for kids--I couldn't leave this one out. It's so terrific--"Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs" by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart. This is one of the most striking and elaborate pop-up books you'll ever wrestle away from your child and play with on your own. So realistic you can almost hear these prehistoric beasts roar.
(Soundbite of "Jurassic Park" soundtrack)
CHEUSE: Well, that's the soundtrack from "Jurassic Park," but your children are going to love this book as much as you love the movie.
One final suggestion...
(Soundbite of "Reading Rumi" DVD)
Mr. ROBERT BLY (Poet): The chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot where it's being boiled. The chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot where it's being boiled. Why are you doing this to me?
CHEUSE: For anyone and everyone, a poetry DVD, "Reading Rumi," a two-hour live performance by poets Robert Bly and Naomi Shihab Nye reading the poetry of the great 13th-century Persian Sufi mystic Rumi.
(Soundbite of "Reading Rumi" DVD)
Mr. BLY: Remember when you drank rain in the garden? It was for this. Grace first, then sexual pleasure, then a boiling new life begins so that the Friends--capitalized--will have something good to eat. Brilliant.
CHEUSE: And on the holiday table, along with good things to eat, something good to read, something good to read.
NORRIS: Once again, these holiday recommendations from Alan Cheuse.
BLOCK: "Madeleine is Dreaming" by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.
NORRIS: The James Agee fiction volume from the Library of America.
BLOCK: Steven Baxter's "Transcendent."
NORRIS: "The Lost Painting" by Jonathan Harr.
BLOCK: A new biography of Herman Melville by Andrew Delbanco.
NORRIS: Dava Sobel's "The Planets."
BLOCK: "There and Then: Travel Writings by James Salter."
NORRIS: Quincy Troupe's "Little Stevie Wonder."
BLOCK: "Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs" by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart.
NORRIS: And the poetry DVD "Reading Rumi."
BLOCK: You can see this entire list of recommendations and find excerpts and readings at our Web site, npr.org.