STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
People looking for holiday gift ideas have a resource - the NPR Book Concierge. It's a page with more than 400 book titles selected by NPR critics and staff. NPR Books editor Petra Mayer is here to explain how it works. Hey there, Petra.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: And let's first talk about what this is. This is not exactly one of those lists where the top books are listed one through 10 or whatever.
MAYER: Nope, it's nothing like that. We were very tired of lists at one point, and that's how this happened. So every fall, we ask our critics and our staffers to pick their favorite books from the past year. And we take all those nominations - there's hundreds of them - and we wrestle them down to a semi-manageable number. This year, there's about 380 of them. So if you go to npr.org/bestbooks, you will see them in a giant matrix of book covers, and they are in random order. It's not a ranked list. It looks different every time you click.
INSKEEP: And hundreds of books is almost too many to deal with. But there are all these buttons down the left side where I can narrow them down and I can say that I want a particular kind of book or funny stuff or whatever, and it reduces the number that I look at.
MAYER: Yeah, yeah. So we've got these very handy tags, and they are stackable, so you can just click a combination of them. Some of them are things like book club ideas or staff picks, which is always the most popular one, actually, or nonfiction or science fiction or comics. So, you know, you can stack them. You'd say, like, I want a book for my book club and it has to be short and it has to be funny and it has to be about a woman. So you'd click book club ideas, rather short, funny stuff and ladies first, and the concierge will bring you the book that matches that, which is called "Temporary" by Hilary Leichter. It's a satire about a woman who has a succession of terrible temp jobs - looks really fun.
INSKEEP: And I do like that you can say rather short or choose if you'd rather rather long. So some MORNING EDITION hosts have gone through this list and made some of their own choices to get you started with recommendations. And the first comes from Rachel Martin. It's called "Why Fish Don't Exist," which is a book by Lulu Miller, who was formerly of the NPR podcast Invisibilia.
MAYER: Yeah. And she - you know, all of the storytelling talent that you love from that podcast shows up in this book. It's a complicated, multilayered sort of book. It's a mix of memoir and scientific investigation. She talks about her own troubles as a kid and growing up, failed relationships, even suicide attempts and how through all of that her interest, almost a fixation, on this particular scientist named David Starr Jordan was kind of, you know, a guiding star, as it were. He was the first president of Stanford, and he was a famous ichthyologist. He found and he named all these kinds of different fish. And he seemed to have this very charmed, confident life. And Lulu writes about how she felt like maybe he could be her guide out of her own troubles. But as she discovered, you know, this confidence that he had, this certainty that he understood the natural order of things, led to just absolute horrors because he turned out to be one of the major proponents of eugenics in America in the early 20th century. And she does confront that pretty unsparingly. So at heart, it's a book about sort of giving up certainties, which might be hard for people right now. But it's such a good book. It's so worth it.
INSKEEP: Well, this is interesting because Lulu Miller has a true story about discovering that someone is different than you thought. Noel King chose a work of fiction where the same thing happens. It's called "Mexican Gothic." The author is Silvia Moreno-Garcia. And Noel writes that the main character is a socialite named Noemi, who's in Mexico City, and she's sent out to rural Mexico to find out why her cousin is sick and finds out creepier and creepier things about the family that she married into.
MAYER: Yes. Ooh, this is one of my favorite books of the year. And yes, creepy is the word. So, yeah, I love Noemi. She's a great character. She's a social butterfly. She loves parties. She's grumbling about boys that don't meet her standards. And she's also really smart. She wants to go to grad school. And her father says, OK, if you go check on your cousin in the country, then I'll let you go to grad school. So she goes out to this creepy, creepy, creepy mansion where her cousin has married into this English family. They're settlers there who owned a mine. And of course, you know, the house is - is it haunted? You bet it is. So it's a creepy house story. It's also a lot about sort of the terrible harms of racism and colonialism. It's also just a straight up horror story. It starts out very atmospheric. You're not really sure what's going on. But by the end, it's really grizzly. And I'm not going to spoil it, but I'm just going to say you're never going to look at mushrooms the same way again.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK, thanks for the hint. You say mushrooms the same way again. Let's stick with food then because David Greene chose a book about food. It's called "Cool Beans" by Joe Yonan. David says it transformed his home cooking. What's it about?
MAYER: Oh, yeah. Beans - the ultimate pandemic food. I'm honestly a little shocked that David picked this because I sort of thought we were all supposed to be over beans. But, you know, if you were one of the people like me that bought five flats of beans at the beginning of the pandemic and you haven't touched them, this is a perfect book. It's very beginner-friendly. Yonan starts out right with the basics, like the arguments about whether or not you should soak your beans, which is something I always worry about. He goes through all the different kinds of beans and what each one is best for. And of course, he also addresses the digestive implications of beans, which, you know, that's dedication.
INSKEEP: OK, good to know. So there's a story of the musical fruit, and there is also on our list "Interior Chinatown" by Charles Yu. And this is a book that I'm suggesting here. It's a satire, hard to describe, but I guess you could say it's entirely in the form of a movie script for an Asian American who is stuck playing various stereotypical characters like background oriental male or striving immigrant or guy who runs in and gets kicked in the face.
MAYER: Yes, yeah. This is a great one. It actually won the National Book Award this year. It is a fast read. And yeah, it's hard to describe. It is kind of done in the style of a TV or a movie script. You know, the main character is like a - he's a bit player in the background of a cop show. But what he really wants to be - he aspires to be a kung fu guy, which is the sort of pinnacle of achievement, he thinks, for somebody like him. One of the things I loved about it is how multilayered it is because all of his characters are - they're characters - right? - in this show that never ends and it takes up every aspect of their lives. They live in this sort of Chinatown that could be anywhere in a tenement building that itself resembles a lot of movie sets. They all seem to have acting jobs and, like you said, roles like generic Asian man and pretty hostess and kung fu guy that kind of bleed back and forth between the screen and their real lives. So actually, in a weird way, like, it did remind me of watching a kung fu movie because, you know, if you've ever seen one of those, they're set in a world where everybody knows kung fu. And they all know the rules and the mythology of it. And it has a place in every aspect of their life, the same way that Yu's characters all live in this screen world where these casting decisions are the one constant and everyone knows the ins and outs and the unspoken rules. Yeah, it's a great read.
INSKEEP: OK. So those were some recommendations that we pulled from NPR's Book Concierge. But don't rely on our recommendations. You can go through this list and sort it and make your own selections. Just go to npr.org/bestbooks. NPR Books editor Petra Mayer, thanks so much.
MAYER: My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOLIFE'S "NITE GLO")
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