AILSA CHANG, HOST:
If you are still looking for gifts for your family and friends, how about a book? Remember those? I have asked WEEKEND EDITION books editor Barrie Hardymon to think about her favorite books from the past year that will make great gifts for everyone on my list. Hey, Barrie.
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Hey.
CHANG: OK, so I first need to find a book for my boyfriend, Walt.
HARDYMON: Yeah, you do.
CHANG: He has been in the Marines for 27 years now. He loves nonfiction or fiction based on history.
CHANG: I don't really know what's out there. He loves military history is what I'm trying to say.
CHANG: But I have no idea what's out there. And he doesn't want anything too academic.
HARDYMON: OK, I got you. I got you. Luckily, I, too, live with a military dude or a very, very former military dude.
HARDYMON: So I occasionally try to read things that he would like so that he'll read "Wolf Hall." And, you know, it's like that thing where you're like, I'll watch "The Pacific" if you watch "The Crown."
CHANG: (Laughter) Let's take turns.
HARDYMON: But in any case, so here's the one I would recommend. There's a 2016 memoir called "Pumpkinflowers." It's by Matti Friedman. Matti Friedman is an Israeli-Canadian citizen who, when he was serving in the Israeli army, was assigned to an outpost on the border between Lebanon and Israel. So this was about the time - this is between 1994 and 2000. And it was - this group of soldiers was meant to secure the border from Hezbollah attacks. So that's all the...
HARDYMON: ...Sort of political stuff, which I know I maybe didn't make it sound that interesting. But here's the thing. What appealed to me as a books editor and not a news editor is that the prose is gorgeous. It has this kind of Denis Johnson feel to it, and it's a really - these wonderful portraits of the soldiers that he served with and just the utter ambiguity and disorienting nature of this kind of conflict. So it really gives you this feeling of what it's like to be a soldier under really difficult circumstances.
CHANG: So I also have a friend who has a 5-year-old daughter. This girl loves books. She loves trying to read, pretending to read. And she loves being read to. What's a good gift for her?
HARDYMON: OK, so this is perfect 'cause I happen to have a 5-year-old boy.
HARDYMON: And, you know, it's hard to read, sometimes, picture books to kids because, you know, you zone out and there actually maybe isn't, like, a great - a lot of great characterization. This book, which I'm about to recommend, which is called "Don't Call Me Grandma," it's by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated - gorgeously illustrated - by Elizabeth Zunon. This is a - has a real rarity, which is a fully-realized character that is a great-grandmother. The grandma of the title is Great-Grandmother Nell. She is 96 years old.
HARDYMON: This is an African-American family. She wears pearls every day, she doesn't hug and she eats fish for breakfast.
CHANG: She doesn't hug?
HARDYMON: She doesn't hug. And she sips out of a - we don't know what she's drinking either, which is kind of...
CHANG: Oh, very mysterious.
HARDYMON: ...Actually kind of wonderful. She's prickly and she's sometimes scary to the great-granddaughter, but she's also really fascinated by her. And what's great is this interplay between the illustrations and the prose. So there's these kind of mixed media. When you look at the things in her room, you can see some sort of civil rights-era memorabilia, a ticket to Alvin Ailey.
So you have to sort of put together, what was Nell's life? What made her into this difficult person? And it also - I mean, I think it's really important, even with 5-year-olds, to say, you know, grown-ups are complicated, just like kids.
HARDYMON: And, you know, there is a pleasure in loving difficult people. I mean, I hope so. I keep telling my son that.
CHANG: We're all complicated.
HARDYMON: Yeah, we sure are.
CHANG: I mean, I'm complicated. So let's talk about me. I think I deserve a gift from myself. So you know me pretty well, what stuff I like to read. And I don't know what this says about me, but I really gravitate towards stories about women going through really, really hard stuff. Like, I want to hear about a woman confronting her demons, her fears...
CHANG: ...Finding out some truth about herself. What would you recommend to me?
HARDYMON: So this was a beautifully reviewed book this year, but I don't know that it would be a thing that would end up under the tree, so this is why I really want to recommend it highly. It's called "The Mothers." It's by Brit Bennett. It follows three teenagers, two young women, just like you wanted, over a decade, and they're growing up in a black Southern Californian community. The protagonist loses her mother to suicide and then - which is one catalyst - and then there's another catalyst that I don't want to give away that creates a secret for the rest of these teenagers.
Now, this is a literary novel, so there - it does turn on this one secret. But it's also - there is also this amazing sort of community around these protagonists. And it's very much about mothers and motherlessness. And there's this - the mothers of the title are this kind of Greek chorus, the sort of elderly women of the church community. What I love about this book is it sort of - it really moves along. It has a wonderful pace. And it makes you feel like you're moving through the story, but you're actually moving deeper into it. It is so beautifully written. It is - it will make you think. So I would highly recommend this one.
CHANG: Yeah, I can't wait to read it. That sounds awesome.
HARDYMON: Good. I got one at my desk for you.
CHANG: WEEKEND EDITION's books editor, Barrie Hardymon. Thank you.
HARDYMON: You are so welcome.
CHANG: You can find more of Barrie's reading recommendations plus hundreds of other titles recommended by NPR staff and critics at the Book Concierge. That's at npr.org/bestbooks.
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