ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The trees are lit, holiday tunes are on the airwaves, Santa's making the rounds at your local mall. Whatever you celebrate, it's hard to escape the fact that the gift giving season is in full swing.
And that means time once again for our book reviewer, Alan Cheuse, and his annual end of the year recommendations. So take out your pen and paper, if you can, or if you're driving and you can't get to a pen and paper, there's always our Web site for later.
In the meantime, here's Alan to bring you some holiday cheer.
ALAN CHEUSE: We need extra nourishment in the winter season, it seems to me. And that means feeding the body and feeding the mind. I have a recommendation that combines the two, "Life is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days." It's a year's worth of deliciously textured day by day entries about preparation, tasting, culinary history and personal history by award winning fiction writer James Salter and his playwright wife, Kay Salter.
KAY SALTER: January 1st, the meal is the essential act of life. It is the habitual ceremony, the long record of marriage, the school for behavior, the prelude to love. Among all people and in all times, every significant event in life, be it wedding, triumph or birth, is marked by a meal or the sharing of food or drink. The meal is the emblem of civilization. What would one know of life as it should be lived or nights as they should be spent apart from meals?
CHEUSE: That's Kay Salter, reading from "Life is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days."
Let me turn to some good after dinner reading now. For the fiction fanatic, I want to recommend a new Thomas Pinchon novel, "Against the Day." A book of a thousand pages set between 1893 and the aftermath of World War I. It's got an overarching revenge plot and dozens of subplots filled with charming characters, such as ardent boy sleuths in air balloons and dogs that read Henry James.
"Against the Day" is so long and dense that it will take even the most devoted Pinchon fan a week or two to read, and then more time to reread and ponder. Pinchon is a modernist. He may not be for everyone on your list. But for those folks who want to make that extra effort to spend time in an alternative world of humor and wild imagination, he's your best bet.
One of the most stimulating novels I've read all year is a novel perfect for the holidays, Tucker Malarkey's "Resurrection." It's a thinking person's "Da Vinci Code" with a wonderful heroine, Gemma, who discovers her late father's work with the Nag Hammadi Gospels in post-World War II Egypt.
Here's Malarkey, reading a passage in which Gemma, along with a friend, discovers the appeal of the Egyptian landscape, just after her arrival from post blitz London.
TUCKER MALARKEY: The languid colorless Nile flowed slowly passed in the sails of feluccas flapped in a windless morning. Across the river, two women rung out their washings on the shore. Twisting the moisture from the long sheets held between them. A man and a boy stood barefoot in the showers and threw a fishing net. Above them, the palms were high enough to stare with the breeze Gemma could not feel. She was uncomfortably damp and inexplicably dirty. But she smiled from under her hat.
"I think it's beautiful."
CHEUSE: Tucker Malarkey, reading from her new book, "Resurrection."
Next, I want to recommend a non-fiction narrative, the story of the opening of the American West during the mid-19th century. It's called "Blood and Thunder." Here's its author, Hampton Sides.
HAMPTON SIDES: Tribes of the Southwest had long held legends and prophecies that told of a new conquering race coming from the East. A few glancing encounters with white men had begun to inspire incredible stories among the Navajos, stories like the one about the giants who had floppy ears that reach down to their ankles.
At night, these people build fires on their knees and cover themselves with those ears of theirs and lie down to sleep. Some Navajos believed white men lacked anuses. And that's because of this, they could not eat normally, that instead they could only inhale the steam, rising off boiling food. One man frets in Navajo texts our country is about to be taken away from us by men such as these.
CHEUSE: "Blood and Thunder" from Hampton Sides. It's a fascinating history filled with mountain men, charismatic Navajo warriors, American presidents and the legendary scout Kit Carson.
SIEGEL: Language for an American Landscape," edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. It's a feast of definitions of geographical terms by some of America's best writers. Listen to two of them, Robert Hass and Elizabeth Cox.
ROBERT HASS: Chaparral. Chaparral refers to the low scrub vegetation of the dry regions of California and the Southwest. Chiparro is the Spanish name for that tough-broad leaf evergreen.
ELIZAETH COX: Bog. A low-lying area saturated with water, creates a hollow of decomposed vegetation in wet, spongy ground. This strange land is called a bog, a word rarely -
HASS: Cranny. A cranny is a narrow hole or opening. Synonyms include notch, cleft, crack, jag, nitch, chink, crevice and fissure. The origin of the word is disputed.
CHEUSE: Those definitions from the book "Home Ground."
If you need some comic relief, try "World War Z," a zombie novel by Max Brooks.
Unidentified Man: The zombie war came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Driven by the need to preserve the first hand experiences from those apocalyptic years while they still exist in living memory, Max Brooks traveled across the planet defined and record the testimony of men, women and sometimes children who came face to face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that terrible time.
CHEUSE: The audio book version of the story of our world attacked by the living dead will prove to be a great antidote for long commutes, if you dare to go out on the road.
Clearly not for kids, but I do have what I think is a great suggestion for them. "The Rabbit Ears Treasury of" series on CD. It's all your favorite fairy tales, tall tales and fables told by voices you might recognize - Cher reading "The Ugly Duckling," Glenn Close reading "The Emperor and the Nightingale," Denzel Washington telling the West Indian tale "Anansi" and Nicolas Cage reading "Davy Crockett."
NICOLAS CAGE: My name is Davy Crockett. And I am a legend of American history. The original ring-tailed roarer of the Western woods, I called myself, the yellow blossom of the gumswamp. Oh, hee, I was a beauty.
CHEUSE: Nicolas Cage as Davy Crockett.
And finally, a fine gift for friends and family who love poetry, from the Library of America, "American Religious Poems," an anthology by Harold Bloom. It's 700 pages of great poems on faith and hope and charity and holidays by many of our finest poets, including Lucille Clifton.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Holy night. Joseph, I afraid of stars, they are brilliant seeming. So many eyes, such light. Joseph, I cannot still these limbs. My hands keep moving toward thy breasts. So many stars, so bright. Joseph is wind burning from east. Joseph, I shine, oh Joseph, oh illuminated night.
CHEUSE: Oh illuminated night. I wish you many of them with plenty of light to read by through the winter.
NORRIS: Once again, Alan Cheuse's recommendations are -
SIEGEL: "Life is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days" by James and Kay Salter.
NORRIS: Thomas Pinchon's "Against the Day."
SIEGEL: "Resurrection" by Tucker Malarkey.
NORRIS: "Blood and Thunder" by Hampton Sides.
SIEGEL: "Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape" from editors Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.
NORRIS: Max Brooks's zombie tale, "World War Z."
SIEGEL: "The Rabbit Ears Treasury of" CD series for kids.
NORRIS: And "American Religious Poems," an anthology by Harold Bloom.
SIEGEL: This full list and more readings from the authors are at our Web site, NPR.org.