RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Nobody likes fruitcake. OK, maybe one of you out there does. But instead of fruitcake, how about books for holiday gifts? NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg asked three independent booksellers for some suggestions.

SUSAN STAMBERG: I joke about that sultry 1930s sexpot Jean Harlow. Her boyfriend once asked her what she wanted for Christmas, Jean Harlow replied, anything but a book. I have a book. That answer frosts the heart of Rona Brinlee, owner of The Bookmark in Atlantic Beach, Florida. But Rona's heart is warmed by the book, “Alpana Pores: About Being a Woman, Loving Wine, Having Great Relationships.” It has tips about what a wine - champagne, say - can tell you about dating.

Ms. RONA BRINLEE (Owner, The Bookmark): If he orders Cristal, it's new hot love. If he orders champagne all the time, then you are not the only one on his speed dial.

STAMBERG: Alpana Singh and Robert Scarola are the authors of “Alpana Pours.” Singh, the youngest woman to become a master sommelier, wants to demystify wines so that you're not uneasy in restaurants, wine stores or on dates.

Ms. BRINLEE: If you go out to dinner with a guy and he orders wine by the glass, she tells you just get over it. Because if he can't commit to a bottle of wine, he ain't committing to you, honey.

STAMBERG: Rona Brinlee also lifts a glass to the historical novel “On Agate Hill,” the story of feisty Molly Petree. Orphaned by the Civil War, she grows up, marries a scoundrel. Novelist Lee Smith tells the tale from various perspectives through letters, diary entries…

Ms. BRINLEE: And like any good story there is a wonderful secret and a mystery that pervades the entire story. And that is a man named Simon Black, who shows up at Agate Hill when Molly's about 13. And he shows up every time something major happens in Molly's life. He's there to help her or to support her in some way. He's the mystery man that haunts her life.

STAMBERG: You're not going to tell us the mystery now, are you?

Ms. BRINLEE: No, I'm not.

STAMBERG: Mystery is part of the plot of Jess Walter's novel “The Zero,” a National Book Award finalist chosen by Lucia Silva, buyer for Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, California. This is a post-9/11 book, although September 11th is never mentioned.

Ms. LUCIA SILVA (Buyer, Portrait of a Bookstore): A cop of weeks up days after what you learn is a terrorist attack on some giant site, and he's having gaps in his memory kind of like skips on the record.

STAMBERG: The policeman gets caught up in some kind of covert operation. He's not sure if he's doing good or ill. Lucia Silva says “The Zero” is a mix of thriller and hilarious political satire and an astounding read. You can't put it down.

Ms. SILVA: It should be the novel that we look back on in years to define this era of American and geo-political culture. I don't know if it will be, but I think it should.

STAMBERG: “Home Ground” is another Lucia Silva holiday pick. A reference book that is good to read, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. They ask writers to define various geographical formations - peninsula, marsh, plunge pool. The definitions are arranged in alphabetical order. Here's the sample from poet Gretel Ehrlich's explanation of oasis.

Ms. SILVA: Most often an oasis is an island of aquatic relief. It is the place where lives are saved and, figuratively speaking, refers to any calm center. As a topographic feature, an oasis is life. It's a gathering point, a sanctuary and a feeding station. It is the desert's umbilical.

STAMBERG: Oh my. Until you got to the umbilical cord, I thought it was a wonderful definition of books. “Home Ground” is a coffee table book. Another biggie is the choice of Karl Pohrt at Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It's Thomas Pynchon's novel “Against the Day.”

Mr. KARL POHRT (Shaman Drum): This is a huge book.

STAMBERG: How huge?

Mr. POHRT: One thousand eighty five pages long.

STAMBERG: Now, Mr. Pohrt, do people really read books that length, and do they really read Thomas Pynchon?

Mr. POHRT: Well, I'm about three-fourths the way through it.

STAMBERG: Wow. Bookseller Karl Pohrt likes the meandering story - funny, fantastic, terrifying - about a moment in history much like our own, when everything changed.

Mr. POHRT: The book begins with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and it ends just off of the First World War.

STAMBERG: Pynchon's hundreds of characters include Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination triggered World War I. There's also actor Bela Lugosi. He defined “Dracula” on film and a dog named Pugnats, who enjoys the writing of Henry James.

In chilly Ann Arbor, Karl Pohrt says “Against the Day” is the perfect book for reading and dreaming your way through long winter nights. Finally, “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction.

Mr. POHRT: This is the best novel I read this year. When I finished the book, I wanted to tell everyone you must read this book. It'll change your life.

STAMBERG: A young man suffers a head injury and can't recognize his closest family and friends. Bookseller Pohrt says “The Echo Maker” reads like a mystery and explores the frontiers of neuro-psychology.

Mr. POHRT: This is a book about damage and healing and the interconnectedness of all living things.

STAMBERG: Toward the end of the novel, the book's message.

Mr. POHRT: What joy is there in this life, lifting past us always. What pointless joy.

STAMBERG: In this season of joy, thanks to all of our independent booksellers for their suggestions and happy holiday reading and gift-giving to you.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can find all those titles and more suggestions are NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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