STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Think for a moment, if you would, about small-town America at the holidays, whether it's the small town you live in or the Christmas village on display on the mantelpiece of somebody you love. Small-town America is at the heart of many of the books suggested for holiday giving this year by independent booksellers around the country. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has the list.
SUSAN STAMBERG: A small college town in Ohio is the setting for P.F. Kluge's novel, "Gone Tomorrow." Rona Brinlee at The Bookmark in Atlantic Beach, Florida, says it's about a writer lured to the college because he'd had two bestsellers and was working on a third.
Ms. RONA BRINLEE (Proprietor, The Bookmark): And they're now pushing him out and making him resign because they need a new star, because he never delivered on the third novel. It's kind of a case of what have you done for us lately?
STAMBERG: Of course, something like that would never happen on a real college...
Ms. BRINLEE: Oh, no. But the wonderful thing about these things about academia is academia really is sort of a microcosm of the larger world. And most of us have been students at some point, so we can at least see it from that perspective.
STAMBERG: Rona Brinlee says "Gone Tomorrow" is a gentle book and funny in places.
Ms. BRINLEE: When he is introduced to the guy who's going to take his place, the young, you know, upstart says to him, I read your novels - great. And the professor says, I've lifted yours - heavy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STAMBERG: A small town in North Dakota is featured in Chuck Klosterman's novel, "Downtown Owl." Chris Livingston of The Book Shelf in small-town Winona, Minnesota, says one of the book's main characters is a young schoolteacher fresh out of Chicago.
Mr. CHRIS LIVINGSTON (Proprietor, The Book Shelf): She's the only young, attractive, single woman in the entire town. And when she goes out at night to one of the seven bars in town, she never has to buy herself a drink.
STAMBERG: She comes to love the attention, being treated like town goddess. Then comes a blizzard from hell.
Mr. LIVINGSTON: At 6 p.m. the wind chill factor at Fargo's Hector International Airport was measured at 74 degrees below zero.
STAMBERG: And just three hours earlier, it had been a cozy 39 degrees there - February in a small North Dakota town.
No temperature readings in "The Oxford Project," but plenty of photographs of most every resident of Oxford, Iowa - some 700 of them. Peter Feldstein first took their portraits in 1984. Twenty years later, he did it again. The book is one of Lucia Silva's holiday picks. She is the buyer for Portrait of a Bookstore in Culver City, California. Lucia says the Oxford residents run the gamut.
Ms. LUCIA SILVA (Buyer, Portrait of Bookstore): There's old hippies, bikers, younger evangelical Christians, World War II veterans, World War I veterans...
STAMBERG: There they are posing in front of plain backgrounds in simple black and white.
Ms. SILVA: What's amazing to watch just visually is the people's stances, their posture. They stand exactly the same 20 years later, whether they're, you know, 10 years old and then 30 years old or 50 years old and then 70 years old. They almost always have the same exact expression, their hands behind their back or their legs crossed a certain way.
STAMBERG: Their faces and bodies describe their lives.
Ms. SILVA: Every time I show someone this book in my store, they sort of just sink to the floor and stay there for an hour until they've looked at every single picture.
STAMBERG: A classic children's story is also on Lucia's list. It begins this way in a new translation.
(Soundbite of fairytale "Pinocchio")
Ms. SILVA: (Reading) Once upon a time, there was...
Ms. SILVA: A king, my little readers will say at once. No, children, you're wrong.
(Soundbite of fairytale "Pinocchio")
Ms. SILVA: (Reading) Once upon a time, there was a piece of wood.
STAMBERG: Pinocchio, the non-Disney version. This wooden puppet is wicked, selfish, lazy, a bad boy, and a very funny piece of wood. And while we're on the subject, Chris Livingston adds this title to the mix.
Mr. LIVINGSTON: "A Splintered History of Wood: Belt Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers, and Baseball Bats" by Spike Carlsen.
STAMBERG: Yep. It's nonfiction and not necessarily a guy book. Carlsen takes a long and fascinating look at wood through the ages.
And does he do toothpicks, please?
Mr. LIVINGSTON: He does do toothpicks.
Mr. LIVINGSTON: He talks about the oldest-known wooden tool, which goes back to prehistoric times. And there's evidence on human skulls that we used wooden toothpicks to pick our teeth.
STAMBERG: Sure, twigs around the cave fires - oral hygiene even then. Another nonfiction pick from Rona Brinlee, Les Standiford's book, "The Man Who Invented Christmas." There's a long subtitle: "How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits."
Ms. BRINLEE: Dickens was going broke. He had lots of debts, and he was the son of a debtor who had gone to debtors' prison. So he wasn't really relishing the fact of going bankrupt. So he wrote "A Christmas Carol" to save himself.
STAMBERG: In six weeks, Dickens' book was written and printed, in time for Christmas. No publisher wanted it, so he published it himself. His printer finished on December 17, 1843. Days later, all 6,000 copies had been sold. And the rest, including Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and bah humbug, is history.
Rona Brinlee's next choice taps history too, but it's a novel. "The Cellist of Sarajevo" by Steven Galloway takes a real event, the siege of Sarajevo, and imagines some consequences. During that siege, 22 people standing on line to buy bread were killed by a mortar shell.
Ms. BRINLEE: And the cellist from the Sarajevo Symphony committed to spend 22 days to sit in the hall every day and play for each of the 22 people who were killed.
STAMBERG: The novel focuses on the lives of three Sarajevans and what it took to cross a street under sniper fire just to get a loaf of bread. Rona Brinlee says the book is a haunting testament to endurance.
Ms. BRINLEE: The logic is that the people in this story need to maintain their psyche and their humanity so that when they get their city back, it's still their city. Otherwise, when they rebuild Sarajevo, it won't be the city that they remember and then they love. So they really are trying very hard not to get captured by all the horrors of war.
STAMBERG: Finally, and we mean that literally, "The Economist Book of Obituaries" by Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe. Lucia Silva says the British magazine runs one obit a week, a thousand words on some little-known people who've made contributions, like the man who invented noodle soup in a box, some famous people - Arthur Miller, Rosa Parks, Julia Child - and some infamous people - Anna Nicole Smith.
(Soundbite of book "The Economist Book of Obituaries")
Ms. SILVA: (Reading) What you saw first on meeting Miss Smith were the breasts. There were only two of them, but they made a whole frontage: huge, compelling, pneumatic. They burst out of tight, red dresses or teased among feather boas, or flanked a dizzying cleavage that plunged to tantalizing depths. These were celebrated American breasts, engineered by silicon to be as broad and bountiful as the prairie. With them, a girl from nowhere or from Houston, Texas, could do anything.
STAMBERG: A girl could die for an obituary like that. Thanks to our always independent booksellers, happy holiday book giving and reading. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
INSKEEP: You can find all those suggestions and more for holiday book giving at npr.org. It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.