Every winter in Iceland, friends and relatives give each other a book. It is a national tradition, this exchange of literary presents, which means that all the books in Iceland are published around Christmastime.
In America, there is no such tradition, but a well-selected book will far outshine, say, a nice sweater. Reading, by nature, requires us to take something inside us, to hold it long enough for it to become part of our inner life. No turtleneck, no matter how luxurious, can lay such a claim.
Of course, the hard part is picking out which book will snag on to your father-in-law's or sister's or uncle's mind and keep him or her hooked. With this in mind, here is a rundown of some of this year's most gift-able books, from history to fiction, science to poetry—and everything in between.
David McCullough might be the reigning seducer of elder men's minds, and Doris Kearns Goodwin takes the cake when it comes to bringing history to life, but it seems unlikely anyone will write as cogent and compelling a study of American democracy as Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz. The Rise of American Democracy: From Jefferson to Lincoln (W.W. Norton, hardcover, $35) is his elegant and richly detailed story of how American democracy came about. At 1,000 pages, it will keep Dad quiet all winter long.
The Great Game might be over—at least in Europe—but John le Carre's novel about it, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Walker, hardcover, $19), is beginning to look eternal, especially in this newly reissued hardback format, which just begs to be smuggled home to a safe house.
Le Carre might be the master of the spy novel, but Robert Littell is certainly its most literary practitioner. Legends (Overlook, hardcover, $25.95) is his latest "novel of dissimulation," and it involves a former CIA agent turned private detective who, like Jason Bourne in The Bourne Idenity, begins to question who exactly he is, or was, for all those years.
It ought to be Zadie Smith's hilarious, ribald, funny and potently barbed On Beauty (Penguin Press, hardcover, $25), the story of a white college professor, his black conservative rival and the dust-up that ensues when their families become entangled on a college campus that bears a striking resemblance to Harvard University, where Smith taught recently.
A generation ago, Kurt Vonnegut got slackers and wastrels to pick up a book—now Dave Eggers has moved into that role. Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs (McSweeney's, hardcover, $22) is his latest anthology-cum-valentine for kids who believe short fiction should be more fun to read. He's right, and the tales in here by Kelly Link, Jonathan Safran Foer and George Saunders show just how that can be done.
If the baby boomers' nostalgia was muscle cars, Generation X and Y have turned their memory fetish on vintage sneakers. What else explains why young men and women plunk down hundreds of dollars for shoes they wore at age seven? Sneaker Freaker (Riverhead, hardcover, $20) is a handy little guide to the ins-and-outs of this odd, not-so-little world, complete with photos, graphics and interviews with sneaker freaks from Singapore to South Central.
Unlike many Alaskan residents, who see an avalanche and run, Jill Fredstone seeks them out. She even purposefully triggers snowslides with explosives and films the ensuing mess: just to see what makes them tick. Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches (Harcourt, hardcover, $24) is her fascinating and terrifically written account of this odd avocation. It will make you glad someone else calls this work.
As Hidden Camera (Dalkey Archive, paper, $13.95) opens, its undertaker hero finds a note slipped under his door inviting him to the premiere of a movie. At the cinema, the lights go down to reveal a shot of him eating his lunch, the day before. Thus begins one of the strangest and most alluring novels to come out this year—a Truman Show for existentialists. Hopefully, the novel will bring Serbian novelist Zoran Zivkovic's name wider recognition.
As cofounder of the integrated circuit, Robert Noyce has a finger on every computer, car, cell phone and video game available today. In The Man Behind the Microchip (Oxford University Press, hardcover, $30), Leslie Berlin opens up the circuit board of Noyce's life and shows what made him tick.
"Winter settles down in Venice like it means to make friends and stay forever," writes Jane Turner Ryland in Across the Bridge of Sighs (Pantheon, hardcover, $22), her latest collection of vignettes about her adopted home. Read this by a fire and you will get all the melancholic chill of Italy's most romantic city and none of the sticker shock.
Marty Asher reminds us in Philip Marlowe's Guide to Life (Knopf, paper, $14.95) that Raymond Chandler's dashingly dour hero was a champion of the aphorism. Asher has collected these bon mots in a little book that's small enough to fit into a gentleman's suit pocket, and worth its weight in chuckles. "They say lust makes a man old, but keeps a woman young," goes one. "They say a lot of nonsense." On marriage, Marlowe is as sanguine as a hangover: "For two people in a hundred it's wonderful."
Long before poetry slams became the literary equivalent of monster truck rallies, City Lights Press was at the heart of the San Francisco poetry renaissance, putting out volumes by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman—the true founders of the so-called spoken word movement. All of these writers appeared in the Pocket Poet series, which could fit in a jeans' pocket and made a perfect companion for inebriated, cross-country jaunts. The series survives on, and the latest addition is Kamau Daaood's The Language of Saxophones (City Lights, paper, $10.95), a book so hip and full of soul even Miles Davis would have treated it with respect.
Thirty-five years ago, Steven C. Caton traveled to a rugged part of Yemen to study its poetry and, a few misunderstandings later, found himself jailed as an American spy. In his thoughtful and gripping memoir, Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Meditation (Hill & Wang, hardcover, $26), he revisits that time and eventually, in 2003, the country to find out what went wrong.
One needn't spend too much time contemplating Edvard Munch's "The Scream" to realize the Danish painter had some issues. His recently discovered journals, We Are the Wretched Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth (Terrace Books, hardcover, $29.95), bear some of these demons out, often with unexpected humor. One evening at a café, Munch remembers a paramour saying to him: "You remember you talked / about dreaming that you kissed me / and that your kiss / Devoured Death's cold lips / Yes I say / You know—there / was maybe something / in that."