Friday, December 3, 2010

Merry Christmas! Have a book, Part I

My mother has a rule when it comes to Christmas time gift-giving. It goes like this: we are the family that gives books. When every other member of our extended family is engaging in a toy shopping extravaganza for the younger cousins, we are in our local Chapters (that's the Canadian Borders equivalent for my more southerly friends), stalking the aisles for the perfect book.

Buying books for people can be easy or it can be hard. It's easy enough if the person you're buying for has a John Grisham habit or is a fourteen year old girl with a penchant for the undead, but things get a little more difficult when you're trying to find a book for someone whose tastes are a little more diverse. Buying someone a book isn't just about what they like to read -- it's also a representation of who you think they are and what you want to share with them. If they don't give you a list, sometimes you have to do a little scrounging. Luckily, I spend over 9000 hours per week in bookstores because I have poor coping mechanisms and flipping pages keeps my heart rate down and my mood elevated, so I've seen a lot of books in my day. In lieu of the paper I'm supposed to be writing, here's your handy-dandy 2010 holiday book shopping guide, Part The First (what, you thought I could restrain myself to just one post?). Note: the one thing I am bad at when it comes to books is staying current, so this list might hop around a bit.

For your literary father who likes his prose poetic and his landscapes cinematic: 
Gil Adamson's The Outlander was a semi-finalist in last years Canada Reads competition (the winner, Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes is another excellent read), and for good reason. Set against the backdrop of the early 19th century West, Adamson's novel follows Mary Boulton, a 19-year-old woman who murdered her husband and is on the run from his two brothers. Tracked by bloodhounds, and wracked by her own delirious mind, Mary retreats from her crime, and her culture, to the wilderness of the Rockies. Adamson's style is lyrical, but her pacing is tense and her story populated with well-wrought portraits of the people who lived and died in the Canadian West. If you like your cinematic landscapes with a lot more blood and a lot fewer x-chromosomes, try Cormac McCarthy's masterful Blood Meridian. Or pick up Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy.

For your teenage cousin whom you are trying desperately to keep away from Twilight:
There's been a lot of hullaballoo lately about Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy being the girl power answer to Twilight-mania, but for this recommendation I'm reaching back to my own past for Tamora Pierce's excellent (and empowering) Song of the Lioness quartet. Pierce is one of the few YA authors who openly deals with gender, sexuality, relationship violence, and feminism in all of her novels, but her first quartet of books, about a woman, Alanna, who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight (and a gifted mage to boot!) is the gold standard for fantasy novels about kick-ass women and the choices they make. I'd spend my time recommending the rest of her novels (The Immortals and The Protector of the Small quartets are much beloved), but there's only so much space for gushing, so instead I'll also recommend Maria Snyder's highly entertaining Poison Study. Biggest benefit of all of these recs? None of them contain sparkly vampires who watch you in your sleep.

For your history-loving grandpa who already knows everything about everything:
Philip Dray's There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America showed up at just the right time for me -- I'd been publicly complaining about the lack of a popular history of labour not written by Studs Terkel when all of the sudden this book appeared on the Daily Show to satiate my desire. The book fulfills the promise of its subtitle -- at 784 pages, it is, indeed, an epic tale -- meandering through the early days of American industrialism all the way up until the 21st century. Dray's narrative is both panoramic and intimate, and never strays too far into polemic, maintaining a healthy attitude toward the tensions that have characterized the American labor movement from its very beginning. If your grandpa is less into unions and more into intellectuals, Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club has the benefit of being both an intellectual history and a rollicking good story.

For your younger brother who finished Harry Potter and is looking for something a little more grown-up:
The best thing that I can say about M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation is that it is essentially perfect. The story of a young black slave living in Boston at the time of the Revolutionary War, Anderson's book is nothing short of brilliant. His characters are fully realized, his history is impeccable, his plot is compelling, and his politics are subtle enough not to overwhelm the narrative, but progressive enough to make this book a standout among YA fiction. Anderson's previous novel, Feed, is an equally accomplished futuristic dystopia, and both novels are worth reading no matter how old you are. Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book is also excellent. And, at risk of breaking my own rule, Nickelodeon's Peabody award-winning Avatar: The Last Airbender is a brilliant TV series that, like Octavian Nothing, transcends its YA status to tell a complex, harrowing, and beautiful story.

For your budding-feminist daughter who isn't quite ready for an encounter with Judy B.
Susan Douglas' Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done is a Backlash for the digital age. Just when Faludi's seminal work was starting to feel a bit outdated, Douglas' book asks how we square persistent gender inequality with the media message that feminism is done. With a glut of nth-wave feminist books out there by everyone from Feministing's Jessica Valenti to Ariel Levy, Enlightened Sexism stands out as a book that moves away from asking why young women don't identify as feminists and towards a critique of the culture that tells them that they don't have to. Or, do what I did when I was 16 and pick up a copy of bell hooks' Feminism is For Everybody. For the dude in your life looking for a little gender theory of his own, you can't get much better than Michael Kimmel's excellent Guyland. Or just pick up Justice and the Politics of Difference and admit you're a theory junkie from the start.

And with that, I'll leave be until tomorrow. Coming up: books for that friend of yours who "really likes music" but won't stop fucking listening to The Wall sixteen hours a day. Etc.

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