Books to give any time: The Inquirer staff’s recommendations

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: December 22, 2013
Byline: John Timpane

Holiday time for many of us still is book-giving time. So the call goes out – and people are really pounding me, assistant books editor, for recommendations. What’s good? What do you recommend? Old, new, no matter?

Why should I do all the work, though?

Luckily, the Inquirer staff is full of readers, folks of discrimination and taste, of course. Here are their recommendations. Most prices are for hardbacks (but we know plenty of folks giving e-books). There’s something below for almost any bibliophile, for Christmas or any other time. Happy giving – and getting!

Business reporter Chris Hepp says 12 Years a Slave, an 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup (Engage Books, 202 pages, $12.75), and basis for the smash movie of the same title, is an “evocative depiction of the vagaries and brutalities of a slave’s day-to-day life.” He also tabs Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (Random House, 336 pages, $27). “The man who emerges,” Hepp writes, “is more a radical, rhetorical bomb-thrower intent on challenging the established order than a peace-loving preacher willing to passively live and let live.”

City education reporter Martha Woodall likes Zealot, too. She also recommends The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf, 340 pages, $27.95), an “elegant, moving novel” that follows two brothers born in India in their divergent lives. It’s a “jewel,” Woodall says. She likes The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (Riverhead Books, 417 pages, $27.95), this year’s National Book Award winner (and a former Inquirer contributor), a “Rabelaisian account of Henry Shackleford, a young slave boy who is taken up by the fiery abolitionist John Brown in the Kansas territory in 1857.”

Trudy Rubin, foreign affairs columnist, recommends A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 416 pages, $19.45), “a moving memoir of childhood under the Soviets, the mujaheddin, and the Taliban that gives more of the flavor of Afghanistan than The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.”

South Jersey education reporter Rita Giordano recommends Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by former Inquirer staffer Gaiutra Bahadur (University of Chicago, 312 pages, $35): “She set out to research the immigration of her grandmother from India to Guiana and ended writing about the whole indenture experience.”

Fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington found The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Knopf, 243 pages, $24.95) a gritty, solemn, and poignant tale of a working-class African American family who migrated to North Philadelphia during the era of the Great Migration. She also enjoyed the salacious thriller of a marriage gone bad, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown Publishers, 395 pages, $25). On her list of quick and meaningful reads is The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruíz (Amber-Allen Publishing, 168 pages, $9.95). The life rules, especially “Don’t Take Things Personally,” are seemingly obvious, Wellington says. “But when I really started to understand what they meant, I started to see my life shift.”

Movie critic Steven Rea says The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz (Harry N. Abrams, 336 pages, $40), an overview of Anderson’s oeuvre, was the best book on movies he read in 2013. Walter Naedele recommends The Old Man and the Sea, the 1952 novel by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner, 96 pages, $20), “especially for father-figure-seeking teenagers.”

Copy editor Suzanne Weston recommends the 1978 novel The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (Penguin, 368 pages, $16), which she calls “a kind of travelogue but with a deep undercurrent of spiritual awakening.” Bucks County reporter Chris Palmer “loved” Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff (Penguin Press HC, 304 pages, $27.95). LeDuff “rides along with firemen, profiles corrupt (and wildly entertaining) politicians, and tries to give an insider’s perspective about the decaying city. A great combo of strong reporting and irreverent, sharp writing.” And South Jersey columnist Kevin Riordan calls The Circle by Dave Eggers (Knopf, 504 pages, $27.95) “thought-provoking entertainment.”

Architecture critic Inga Saffron recommends There Goes the ‘Hood by Lance Freeman (Temple University Press, 248 pages, $28.95), a 2006 book she calls “relevant, local, and a contribution to the great debate over gentrification.” She also liked Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia by Gregory L. Heller (University of Pennsylvania, 320 pages, $32.95). In fiction, she liked the 1996 blockbuster Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown, 1,088 pages, $35) and The Centaur in the Garden, the 1980 novel by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar (Texas Tech University, 240 pages, $18.95), a tale of Jewish settlers in Brazil.

Saffron also mentions Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen (Brandeis, 320 pages, $29.95), one of the first bios of the comic songster of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” fame.

South Jersey assistant editor Porus Cooper recommends the wonderful Histories by the Greek historian Herodotus, “specifically Aubrey de Selincourt’s translation” (Penguin, 771 pages, $12): “Riveting, timeless.” Business writer David Sell says he just finished reading Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird (Grand Central, 384 pages, $7.99) to his 9-year-old son.

Editorial assistant Barry Zukerman says All the Great Prizes by John Taliaferro (Simon & Schuster, 688 pages, $35) is “a biography of John Hay, who was Lincoln’s private secretary and Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary of state. The guy was friends with everyone from that era, including most of the great literary figures of the day.”

City reporter Jennifer Lin likes the 1995 memoir On Gold Mountain by Lisa See (Vintage, 454 pages, $15.95), “which tracks her family’s migration from China to Los Angeles. Fascinating look at Chinatown in L.A.” Metro columnist Karen Heller likes the smash hit The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, 784 pages, $30). “Brilliant,” she calls it, a “twist on Great Expectations, and the thing works. Tartt produces a novel every 10 years, and it’s worth the wait.” Continuing in fiction, she also liked & Sons by David Gilbert (Random House, 448 pages, $27), The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, 400 pages, $26.99), and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking, 512 pages, $28.95), “set in 19th-century Philadelphia.”

Politics editor Dan Biddle likes the 2012 novel Canada by Richard Ford (Ecco, 432 pages, $27.99), saying, “Man can write.” He’s transfixed by the 2008 book The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson (Holt, 848 pages, $18), part of Atkinson’s World War II trilogy (“incredible reporting and energetic writing”). He also recommends Robert A. Caro’s 2012 book The Passage of Power (Knopf, 736 pages, $28), his fourth volume on Lyndon Johnson, and Unbroken, the 2010 book by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, 496 pages, $28) on the Pacific Theater in World War II: “First page leaves you totally breathless.”

And city reporter Vernon Clark likes Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters, the 2011 book by Penn prof Donald Bogle (Harper, 640 pages, $26.99), calling it “a tightly detailed history about a black female actress who excelled in spite of not fitting the Hollywood profile of youth and beauty.”

OK, you say – put up or shut up, Timpane. Hang it on a limb. OK, guess I can’t get out of it. This year, I read many books that knocked me out. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 944 pages, $35) is a masterful, sympathetic look at Lincoln, how he filled his cabinets with his political rivals – and how that savvy move saved the country.

A book I’d give anyone is All the Odes by Pablo Neruda (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 896 pages, $50), as wide-ranging, easy to get into, and joyful a collection of poetry as you could want. For memoir, the profound, arresting My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24) maps out a space for belief in the midst of illness and pain.

The biggest for last. I just, just finished Marcel Proust’s enormous, enthralling seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. Nothing like it. Never to be repeated. Read it as part of a reading group. Against prevailing opinion, I’d go not with the time-honored translations of C.K. Scott Moncrieff and company, but rather with the very recent Penguin translations, edited by Lydia Davis. To my ear and head, they capture best the precision, perversities, and poetry of Proust.

And we have not even scratched the surface.