MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The trees are lit at the shopping mall, holiday tunes are inescapable. No matter what you celebrate or if you celebrate at all, you can run but you can't hide. The gift-giving season is here. And with the Yuletide Season, we at All Things Considered have our own literary scent. Every year, we ask our book reviewer Alan Cheuse to give us some suggestions of good books that might make good gifts. Welcome to the program once again, Alan.
ALAN CHEUSE: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: And where do we begin?
CHEUSE: I've got some wonderful books to give. You give a book and you give a life. You give a trip to Russia on the verge of a Napoleonic invasion. You give a year on world and pond. So, I'm very serious when I pick these gift books out. The Library of America has just issued a thousand page collection of Katherine Anne Porter's work. Porter, not terribly well known, she's kind of like the lovely ghost who flutters around the edge of the 20th century American literary canon. But she has written a collection of novellas, three novellas called "Pale Horse, Pale Rider." One of which "Old Mortality" I think is probably the finest female coming-of-age story in 20th century America literature.
SIEGEL: Right. And you have a reading for us, I see.
CHEUSE: I do. You know, alas we don't have her reading for us. This is towards the very end her character Miranda is thinking about her life and her mind closed stubbornly against remembering not the past but the legend of the past. Other people's memory of the past at which she had spent her life peering in wonder like a child at a magic lantern show. Ahh, but there is my own life to come yet, she thought, my own life now and beyond. I know it's terribly romantic but it's also beautiful and psychologically apt.
SIEGEL: By Katherine Anne Porter. Now again, your next book, we're not exactly doing new faces of 2008 here.
CHEUSE: Well these are people who need to be read, I think.
SIEGEL: OK. This is Doris Lessing.
CHEUSE: Doris Lessing who is nearly 90-years old now. Just won the Nobel Prize for literature, "Every Man's Library" just reissued her collected short stories. And here's Lessing reading, the opening of "Room Nineteen," which I think is an amazing story about modern marriage in the tradition of Chekhov and D.H. Lawrence, but with her own feminist twist.
Ms. DORRIS LESSING (Author, "Room Nineteen"): This is a story I suppose, about a failure in intelligence. The ruling thing is a marriage, was grounded in intelligence. They were older when they married than most of their married friends in their well seasoned, late 20's. Both have had a number of affairs, sweet brawls and bitter. And when they fell in love, for they did fall in love, had known each other for sometime. They joked that they had saved each other for the real thing.
SIEGEL: That's from Doris Lessing's stories. Next.
CHEUSE: More ordinary things to frighten you, Stephen King's collection "Just After Sunset" in which everything from port-o-potties to telephone calls at breakfast or in the middle of the night can scare everything out of you. Here's a reading by Stephen King.
Mr. STEPHEN KING (Author, "Just After Sunset"): I see it. Hi Trish, why are you calling so early, hon? Your mom's still in the sack. And at first there was no answer. I thought we've been cut off and then I heard these whispering, whimpering sounds. Not words but half words, like she was trying to talk but hardly anything could come out because she wasn't able to muster any strength or get her breath. And that's when I started being afraid.
CHEUSE: That's Stephen King reading from his story "Harvey's Dream" from his collection "Just After Sunset."
SIEGEL: With a menacing telephone.
CHEUSE: You won't want to dream anymore.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: OK. Next, you have some poetry for us.
CHEUSE: I do, from the ridiculous horror of everyday life to the sublime poetry. A wonderful poet named Kevin Young, and here he is reading a poem called to "Ode to Sweet Potato Pie" which you'll hear at the very end turns out to be an extraordinary elegy to his late father.
Mr. KEVIN YOUNG (Author, "Ode to Sweet Potato Pie"): Caramel, coffee cake, chocolate, I don't much love anyway. Tough taffy, anything with nuts or raisins, goobers, even my Aunt Dixie's apple pie recipe where the sweet potato pie my mother makes in. Even heaven, even Boston cream pie, key lime, baked Alaska, dense flourless torte covered in raspberries like a Bronx cheer. Sherbet spelt right, and sandwiches made of ice cream. Even mint or coffee, I never drink. Even sherry and smooth port pulled up from shipwrecks preserved on the bottom of the sea. All this and more, I would give up to have you here, pumpkin colored father cooking for me. Your hungry oven humming, just one more minute.
SIEGEL: What a nice poem.
CHEUSE: Wonderful poem.
SIEGEL: And again by?
CHEUSE: Kevin Young. The book is called "Dear Darkness."
SIEGEL: You have a memoir that you're recommending this year.
CHEUSE: Yes, John Adam's memoir about his life and music. It's called "Hallelujah Junction."
SIEGEL: The composer John Adams.
SIEGEL: Does he repeat the same sentence over and over again?
CHEUSE: No, he doesn't. He's a little bit more sane than Jack Nicholson.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: And you like the book?
CHEUSE: I like it a lot because he allows you to get inside his head and listen to him making his compositions. There's a moment early on in the book where he goes to a Duke Ellington concert. And he slips onto the bench with Ellington and watches Ellington lay down the chords and he's there in the center of the music, it's an extraordinary moment. And you get something like that when you read this book about how he became educated in American music and how he makes his own music.
SIEGEL: Yeah, I brought along a book to end all books.
SIEGEL: I'm going to recommend. This is a book here, look here. You might not even notice that there was book. So this is called "Birdscapes" it's from Miyoko Chu and her colleagues at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We've interviewed Miyoko Chu in the program in the past. "Birdscapes", a pop up celebration of bird songs in stereo sound - a book. I'm not sure if batteries are included with the book.
CHEUSE: So, there's music in it.
SIEGEL: There's music. There are eight birds, pop up environment, so - I've opened up the Pacific seabird colony.
SIEGEL: And it's a great pop-up of rocks and also penguins on the rocks. And if I flip the page over to the eastern deciduous forest, it's a different sound.
CHEUSE: I see, that's the great thing about traveling in literature and books. You can go from one space to another in an instant.
SIEGEL: That's right. Imagine if Tolstoy could have made a pop up book.
CHEUSE: The battle of war music.
SIEGEL: Exactly. He didn't have that. He didn't have that craft available to him at that time.
CHEUSE: This is a wonderful gift.
SIEGEL: It's a beautiful book.
SIEGEL: It's a beautiful book. It's $60. Not so much a book as a way of life, I think. It's a multimedia experience.
CHEUSE: But worth every chirp.
SIEGEL: Right. OK. Alan Cheuse, thank you once again for your recommendations and for tolerating mine.
CHEUSE: My pleasure, Robert.
SIEGEL: OK. Alan Cheuse reviews books for All Things Considered. Teaches writing at George Mason University and this is a hatrick, is the author of the new novel "To Catch the Lightning." And to recap Alan's picks, "Dear Darkness" by Kevin Young, Stephen King's "Just After Sunset" and two collections of short stories, "The Library of America" volume of the work of Katherine Anne Porter and "Every Man's Library" collection of Doris Lessing as well as John Adams memoir "Hallelujah Junction." And of course don't forget "Birdscapes," a pop-up celebration of bird songs in stereo sound. For the expanded list of Alan's reviews and All Things book related, go to our website npr.org/books.