Holiday Books

It has been waaaay too long since we've done a Virtual Book Club. So now, just in time for last-minute holiday gift ideas, I invite any and all good book recommendations that help you stay "balanced." No need to stick to work/family subjects or self-help business or parenting books here; anything that you've enjoyed over the past 12 months will do.

As for me, I tend to favor memoirs and most of my top ten have a "balance" theme -- people coming to terms with their childhoods or finding more meaning in their lives. But my 20 minutes reading before conking out every night are one of the only guaranteed moments of peace amidst my daily work/life insanity. As you can see from my list below, I often prefer books that help me forget the juggling act.

Top 10 favorite books I've read in the past year:

1) Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay -- a mesmerizing novel about a young French girl who survives World War II.

2) Driving With Dead People by Monica Holloway -- a funny, moving memoir about growing up in a nutty family, by one of my favorite Mommy Wars authors.

3) The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly -- a young adult novel about a boy who copes with his mother's death by retreating to a fantasy world populated by strange fairy tale characters, such as a Little Red Riding Hood with a thing for the wolf, communist Seven Dwarves, and a kindly Woodsman who helps him comes to terms with adulthood's risks and realities.

4-5) Mapping the Edge and Snowstorms in a Hot Climate -- all by Sarah Dunant, the astonishingly good story-teller and best-selling author of The Birth of Venus and In The Company of the Courtesan. Especially enjoyable if you like books that transport you to Italy. (And yes, I did sneak in four books here.)

6) Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert -- searching for meaning following her divorce, 30-something Liz Gilbert explores Rome, India and Bali and tells all as if you were her new best friend. 44 well-deserved weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

7) The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall -- fiction about a Russian emigre and her teenage daughter growing up, falling in love, and discovering life's compromises in a fast-growing Chinese city.

8) On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan -- don't want to ruin this impressive read by the author of Atonement by trying to describe it.

9) Amazing Gracie by Dan Dye and Mark Beckloff -- a funny, not-schmaltzy tale of two gay bakers in Kansas City creating a family centered around their adopted pooch, this is ten times as good as the lackluster My Dog Marley.

10) The End of the World as We Know It by Robert Goolrick-- a haunting memoir by a lonely New York City advertising executive trying to come to terms with his abusive father.

What are your best books of the year? What role do books play in balancing your life?

By Leslie Morgan Steiner |  December 19, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Virtual Book Club
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Dog Days by Jon Katz

Just a truly terrific tale of a man and his animals, solitude and friendship, weather and hardship.

If you haven't read Katz's "Rural Life" columns on Slate, you're missing out!

Posted by: newslinks1 | December 19, 2007 7:47 AM

What? You have time to read? Wow!

Posted by: Fred | December 19, 2007 7:51 AM

Speaking of holidays, do people exchange gifts with co-workers? If so, do you have to get something for everyone or can you just give to the people you like?

Posted by: KLB_SS_MD | December 19, 2007 8:01 AM

"The Age of Turbulence" - Alan Greenspan. A tough read but a very, very important book from a man who's been at the highest reaches of power for a long time. I don't completely agree with all of his philosophies (he seems to ignore the pain and suffering that occur when jobs shift to new locations and people thrown out of work have to retrain, etc.), but he makes some important points. (An American friend recommended this one to me; I owe him for it.)

"Crazy Plates", "LooneySpoons", and "Eat, Shrink and Be Merry" by Greta and Janet Podleski - three great cookbooks with quick, healthy recipes - and tons of really bad jokes! (Somebody recommend these to Rebeldad next time he's complaining about the amount of time he spends in meal preparation.)

"I Am America (and so can you)" - Stephen Colbert - why didn't you &*)(*& Yanks let him run?!!

My wife recommends anything by Lynn Kurland for light romance.

And I can give you recommendations on any number of network design manuals and computer programming how-tos that will solve any insomnia problem!

Posted by: m2j5c2 | December 19, 2007 8:03 AM

I miss reading! I had a book a week habit prior to the birth of the lovely Miss B. I'm out the minute my butt hits the bed these days. Those 30-60 minutes of reading each night have been lost. I really wish I could take public transportation and get some 100% personal time. I've gotten a transmitter for my iPod to use on the car radio, but it's not the same as reading. I know I'll get it back some day.

Posted by: atb2 | December 19, 2007 8:09 AM

Reading has always been my favorite luxury. WHen I was working, I would spend about $50 a week at the bookstore. Now that I'm at home, my trips to the library are the best "me" time.

It's been a sad/difficult year, so I've been reading a lot of fluff and comedy. The Betsy (Queen of the Vampires) series by Maryjanice Davidson fits that bill nicely, as does anything by Charlaine Harris, Meg Cabot or Terry Pratchett.

I also just finished Writing in the age of Silence, a memoir by Sara Paretsky. For those who don't know her, Paretsky was one of the first authors writing mysteries with a hard-boiled female protagonist. Her memoir is fascinating.

Posted by: newsahm | December 19, 2007 8:26 AM

The only books we have time to read these days are the following (although they are all highly recommended!!):

Moo, Baa, La La La
When It's Time for Bed
Anything by Dr. Seuss
Goodnight Moon
The Backyardigans A is for Adventure

There are many others but that is just a small sampling!! Hope you enjoy the list!

Posted by: happydad | December 19, 2007 8:30 AM

"It has been waaaay too long since we've done a Virtual Book Club."

Probably 'cause the last one was a flop...

Posted by: chittybangbang | December 19, 2007 8:37 AM

How about this for a good read- the Iliad, Robert Fagles' translation. My husband was reading my son an illustrated childrens' version of the Iliad and it was so interesting, I thought I'd finally read the real thing. It was _awesome_. I read the Odyssey as well but liked the Iliad better. Never too late to catch up on the classics...

More good recent books:

The Zero, by Jess Walter

The Keep, by Jenifer Egan

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

Special Topics in Calamity Physics- Marisha Pressl

The Inheritance of Loss- Kirin Desai

Absurdistan- Gary Shteyngart

This year I also finally read Philip K. Dick - both short stories (excellent) and novellas. Highly recommend.

There are so many great books out there. Everybody- there is always time to read! (Yeah, I work full-time, have 2 kids, and I still read all this stuff this year, and much more. How can people live without reading?)

Posted by: barfster | December 19, 2007 8:51 AM

Oh Oh Oh. happydad, this is a book club I can contribute to! My personal favorites: But Not the Hippopotamus and The Grouchy Ladybug. Sandra Boynton and Eric Carle RULE.

Posted by: atb2 | December 19, 2007 8:54 AM

OK, I guess I lied. I read Rammer Jammer (great if you have a Bama connection) and The Glass Castle (chapters are like short stories, so it's OK to put down for a few days) this year. It seems I'm only capable of reading books that are delivered directly to me. I can't manage to think about what I want to read and go get those books, and I'm not motiviated enough to go browse the library. Plus, I want them vetted through someone I know and trust (SIL) so I don't waste my time. We've basically given up on movies because at the end we pretty much always want those 2-3 hours back!

Posted by: atb2 | December 19, 2007 9:03 AM

I vote for Eat, Pray, Love.

I'm finishing "World without End" and I'm about to start "The Lightning Thief". Has anyone read it? I also have "Exposed" on my nightstand, but that's guaranteed to make me feel a grinch this holiday season, so I'll wait until after Christmas at least.

Meesh, I think you were the one who brought up the seatbelt bags. I got one yesterday and LOVE it. I've already had 6 people ask me about it and all I've done is ride the elevator to my office and walk to Caribou to get coffee!

Posted by: WorkingMomX | December 19, 2007 9:23 AM

"What role do books playing in balancing your life?"

I think that you meant to say "What role do books play in balancing your life?"

Posted by: aflorstagnato | December 19, 2007 9:39 AM

Oooooh, I love this topic. I'm one of those folks who feels incomplete when I don't have a good book to go home to. Here's a few of my recent favorites.

Non-fiction: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. Conversational book by a former musician/recording professional turned academic researcher on what we know about music's influence on the brain. Fascinating.

Memoir: Without a Map by Meredith Hall. Breathtaking storytelling by a woman who was shunned/betrayed by family and friends after she got pregnant as a young teen. In part of the story, she relates traveling to Europe where she runs out of money and literally walks through Europe and into the Middle East -- emotionally and very nearly physically evaporating from the planet. I couldn't put it down.

Fiction: Saturday by Ian McEwen. Great story, full of suspense, fascinating main character who shares his thoughts and reflections in a way that gives the reader an amazing opportunity to really enter into someone else's life (and you'll forget he's a fictional character totally).

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. Set on a Pacific Island in the midst of a civil war with only one white character who takes on the job of school teacher when the regular teacher flees. He uses as his sole text Dickens' "Great Expectations" so there are these wonderful contrasts and confusions between the world of Victorian England and this tropical island yet of course, Dickens is all about wonderful characters and real human emotions so it becomes a reflection on the power of art.

I look forward to seeing everyone else's recommendations!

Posted by: anne.saunders | December 19, 2007 9:45 AM

Hmm, the only decent book I've had time to read this year (besides the two books a day my daughter gets at bedtime!) was "Tolstoy Lied" by Rachel Kadish. Highly recommend if anyone is looking for an intelligent love story.

Posted by: plawrimore1 | December 19, 2007 9:45 AM

I can't read. oh well.

Posted by: DandyLion | December 19, 2007 9:59 AM

also, in terms of holiday books, my dad always read "Cajun Night Before Christmas" in a comedically-exaggerated Louisiana accent when we were growing up.

I mean, really, how can you not fall in love with a book in which Santa delivers toys in a pirogue (a swamp boat) pulled by alligators while wearing "muskrat from his head to his toes"???


Posted by: newslinks1 | December 19, 2007 10:04 AM

I know I finished some books this year but the titles seem to have vanished into a the general fog of sleep deprivation that was 2007...
I seem to recall that Damascus Gate by Robert Stone is a good one for anybody who is interested in the middle east. Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott is great for anybody expecting a baby. I'd also recommend The Glass Castle. And Vonnegut is always good reading, particularly if you only have snippets of time here and there.
Thanks for the recommendations Leslie, and I'll also have to check out the The Brain on Music thing, and the cajun christmas.

Posted by: pinkoleander | December 19, 2007 10:29 AM

Thanks for all of the great book recommendations!

And for those who say "there's no time to read" and/or who say the only thing they read is Eric Carle, I'm with barfster - there's always time to read. For working people - lunch hour? Weekends? For SAHPs - naptime? at the park? If it's truly important to you, you'll find the time.

Posted by: fake99 | December 19, 2007 10:44 AM

I am in the middle of reading "Before I Die," a young-adult novel by Jenny Downham. It's about a 16-year-old girl who's dying of leukemia. She makes a list of what she wants to do before dying and ... well, I'm not done yet, so I can't say much more. I know it sounds depressing, but so far it's not. I may recommend it to my 14-year-old, or I may decide it's too intense.

Another is "Forever," by Pete Hammill - about a young Irishman who comes to NY in the 1850s and is granted eternal life - on the condition that he never leave the island of Manhattan. Brilliant! (And I'm not usually a big Hammill fan.)

Posted by: lorenw507 | December 19, 2007 10:52 AM

Leslie - The book you slammed as "lackluster" is not My Dog Marley, but Marley and Me. Please don't be so lazy - You can look stuff up on this thing called the world wide web if you aren't sure about it.

Posted by: apilot | December 19, 2007 11:13 AM

Oh, everyone is reading such good-for-you books! I have to admit, reading is my escape, and I tend to pick not-so-good-for-you books, the scarier the better. Anything by Jeffrey Deaver, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Janet Evanovich, Preston/Child, Iris Johansen, I could go on and on. Looking forward to time off over the holidays to read!

Posted by: jjtwo | December 19, 2007 11:18 AM

Barfster -- Love Jennifer Egan. Tell more about The Keep. What was the plot? Why did you like it?

Kids books: best discovery of the year was a series of funny books about a nutty mom. First one is "When Mommy Was Mad." Then "Mommy Go Away" and I forget the third one. My kids start laughing even before we start reading.

Also at Christmas we always read The Grinch and Barbie in the Nutcracker.

Posted by: leslie4 | December 19, 2007 11:26 AM

"Another is "Forever," by Pete Hammill - about a young Irishman who comes to NY in the 1850s and is granted eternal life - on the condition that he never leave the island of Manhattan. Brilliant! (And I'm not usually a big Hammill fan.)"

I figured you weren't a big fan when you didn't know how to spell the author's last name! It's HAMILL!

Posted by: chittybangbang | December 19, 2007 11:27 AM

Not necessarily new this year, but the best I read this year were:

Suite Francaise (Irene Nerimovsky)
Atonement (Ian McEwan)

Posted by: jen_omeara | December 19, 2007 11:32 AM

Looks like a typo in the name of the author of Suite Francaise - it's Nemirovsky. I mention that only because I agree it's a great book and I want to make sure people can look it up if they're interested.

Posted by: anne.saunders | December 19, 2007 11:39 AM

Not a new book, but a fabulous study of pure evil: John Steinbeck's East of Eden.

Posted by: gottabeanon | December 19, 2007 11:44 AM

"Not a new book, but a fabulous study of pure evil: John Steinbeck's East of Eden."

Speaking of studies of pure evil, I thoroughly enjoyed "The Skin's The Best Part" by Jeffrey Dahmer. But I'm a little strange.

Posted by: antipATRICK | December 19, 2007 11:58 AM

My husband and I read every night before we go to bed. We love to wind down like that after a long day! These are the best books I have read this year:

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

Currently I am reading The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman, it's the second book in His Dark Materials trilogy. I liked reading The Golden Compass and I hope to see the movie this weekend.

Posted by: meredithneale | December 19, 2007 12:14 PM

Moo Baa La La La wins in my house, although it's rapidly being overtaken by If you Give a Pig a Pancake. :-)

Posted by: shandra_lemarath | December 19, 2007 12:37 PM

If you read 20 pages a day/night/evening, you can finish a 600 page book in a month. Sounds more doable, doesn't it? My favorite from this year: Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky. Don't skip the appendices - they reveal the inner workings of a writer's mind.

Posted by: babsy1 | December 19, 2007 12:43 PM

I don't get a lot of time to read, either. I usually read a book when I fly cross-country. If I were willing to give up sleep time, I would be able to read more, but I LOVE my sleep time.

I'm reading "Imperial Hubris" right now. One of my favorite books (and a really quick read): "Illusions" by Richard Bach.

Posted by: pepperjade | December 19, 2007 12:49 PM

Of course, my favorite books are anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald and nothing by Papa Hemingway. (OK, The Sun Also Rises is a great book by Papa, a Fred recommendation.)

Posted by: Fred | December 19, 2007 1:02 PM

I liked Eat Pray Love and found the middle section (Pray/India) to be the best part and I expected to like it the least.

I agree you can read 20-30 pages at a time as part of your daily juggle but many books don't lend themselves to being read in small doses. If you were formerly a voracious, get lost in a book reader, it can seem rushed and less pleasurable.

Posted by: tntkate | December 19, 2007 1:06 PM

marley, barley, whatever. it was a lousy book. so generic!

anyway, newslinks, i cannot believe you read Cajun Night Before Xmas too. i loved, loved, loved that book as a child. never met anyone outside my family who'd even heard of it. a classic!

Posted by: leslie4 | December 19, 2007 1:25 PM

i loved the italy section of EPL the most. drooled the whole time...

Posted by: leslie4 | December 19, 2007 1:27 PM

Cajun Night Before Xmas is a standard down here. In fact, every year the local TV stations play a video with (I believe) Justin Wilson reading it.

Posted by: Fred | December 19, 2007 1:38 PM

I love the Sue Grafton novels. I could not put down "T is for Trespass."

Posted by: shdd | December 19, 2007 1:50 PM

Great entry. This father of four children had an average year reading. Some of the highlights were Cormac McCarthy's The Road and No Country for Old Men. I also enjoyed McEwan's On Chesil Beach. Others that I enjoyed:

Malamud: The Natural
Roth: Portnoy's Complaint and Everyman
Bill Buford: Heat
Roger Angell: Let Me Finish
Russell Baker: Growing Up
Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilych

And, I got around to rereading Franzen's The Corrections. It was as overrated as I remembered it.

Posted by: jcieszkowski | December 19, 2007 1:51 PM

I can't read. oh well.

Posted by: DandyLion | December 19, 2007 09:59 AM

Books on tape from the library? I appreciate that I don't know what it's like to be blind, but for fiction, Books on tape can't be beat. They also have the added benefit of exposing your kids to real books when they might otherwise read the sort of crap I read when I was their age, LOL.

Posted by: mn.188 | December 19, 2007 2:06 PM

"Books on tape from the library?"

One idea. Also, books in Braille (for those who know how to "read" it). Or perhaps family members could take turns reading aloud to you -- in some families this is a time-honored custom. And for classics in the public domain (i.e., copyright expired), more are being added online frequently, so maybe text-recognition software can read them aloud to you, just as it does this blog.

Posted by: mehitabel | December 19, 2007 2:24 PM

Oops - I knew how to spell Pete Hamill - I just know someone who spells it with two 'M's.

Another vote for Suite Francaise - a fascinating book. Irene Nemirovsky never got to properly finish it, as she died in a concentration camp. I hear another of her books has just been published.

Posted by: lorenw507 | December 19, 2007 2:26 PM

Russell Baker's Growing Up -- Read that 20 years or more ago. GREAT BOOK!

Posted by: gottabeanon | December 19, 2007 2:56 PM

Cajun Night Before Christmas
by "Trosclair"
Published by Pelican Publishing Co. 1988

'Twas the night before Christmas
An' all t'ru de house
Dey don't a t'ing pass
Not even a mouse
De chirren been nezzle
Good snug on de flo'
An' Mamm pass de pepper
T'ru de crack on de do'.

Den Mama in de fireplace
Done roas' up de ham
Stir up de gumbo
An' make bake de yam.
Den out on de by-you
Dey got such a clatter
Make soun' link old Boudreau
Done fall off his ladder.

I run like a rabbit
To got to de do'
Trip over the dorg
An' fall on de flo'.
As I look out de do'
In de light o' de moon
I t'ink "Manh, you crazy
Or got ol' too soon."

Cuz dere on de by-you
W'en I stretch ma' neck stiff
Dere's eight alligator
A pullin' de skiff.
An' a little fat drover
Wit' a long pole-ing stick
I know r'at away
Got to be ole St. Nick.

Mo' fas'er and fas'er
De 'gator dey came
He whistle an' holler
An' call dem by name:
"Ha Gaston!
Ha, Tiboy!
Ha, Pierre an' Alcee'
Gee, Ninette!
Gee Suzette!
Celeste and Renee!"

"To de top o' de porch
To de top o' de wall
Make crawl, alligator
An' be sho' you don' fall."

Like Tante Flo's cat
T'ru de treetop he fly
W'en de big ol' houn' dorg
Come a run hisse'f by
Like dat up de porch
Dem ole 'gator clim!
Wit' de skiff full o' toy
An' St. Nicklus behin'.
Den on top de porch roof
It soun' like de hail
W'en all dem big 'gator
Done sot down dey tail.

Den down de chimney
I yell with a bam
An' St. Nicklus fall
An' sit on de yam.
"Sacre!" he axclaim
"Ma pant got a hole
I done sot ma'se'f
On dem red hot coal."

He got on his foots
An' jump like a card
Out to de flo'
Where he lan' wit' a SPLAT!

He was dress in musk-rat
From his head to his foot
An' his clothes is all dirty
Wit' ashes an' soot.
A sack full o' playt'ing
He t'row on his back
He look like a burglar
An' dass fo' a fack.

His eyes how dey shine
His dimple how merry!
Maybe he been drink
De wine from blackberry.
His cheek was like a rose
His nose like a cherry
On secon' t'ought maybe
He lap up de sherry.

Wit' snow-white chin whisker
An' quiverin' belly
He shook w'en he laugh
Like de stomberry jelly!
But a wink in his eye
An' a shook o' his head
Make my confi-dence dat
I don' got to be scared.

He don' do no talkin'
Gone straight to his work
Put playt'ing in sock
An' den turn wit' a jerk.

He put bot' his han'
Dere on top o' his head
Cas' an eye on de chimney
An' den he done said:
"Wit' all o' dat fire
An' dem burnin' hot flame
Me I ain' goin' back
By de way dat I came."

So he run out de do'
An' he clim' to de roof
He ain' no fool, him
For to make one more goof.
He jump in his skiff
An' crack his big whip.
De 'gator move down
An' don' make one slip.

An' I hear him shout loud
As a splashin' he go
"Merry Christmas to all
'Til I saw you some mo'!"

Posted by: m2j5c2 | December 19, 2007 3:10 PM

" there's always time to read"

My problem is that I am a truly obsessive reader, so I start by carving out one of those small chunks of time, and end up staying up way too late, taking a way too long lunch break, etc etc. But I keep doing it, LOL! I am re-reading The Moor's Last Sigh right now, it's a pleasure.

Posted by: LizaBean | December 19, 2007 4:45 PM

thanks, m2j5c2!

my copy's at home with my parents. I need to buy my own copy, I guess. but it was fabulous to read it here, too.

note to all: the illustrations are hysterical, too. :)

Posted by: newslinks1 | December 20, 2007 8:33 AM

thanks, m2j5c2!

my copy's at home with my parents. I need to buy my own copy, I guess. but it was fabulous to read it here, too.

note to all: the illustrations are hysterical, too. :)

Posted by: newslinks1 | December 20, 2007 8:33 AM

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