Susan Stamberg presents the year's best books, picked by independent booksellers around the country. Selections range from gritty, free-verse fairy tales to ballerina photographs and a grim Southern story about a small town that would rather its ghosts remain at rest.
Books for the holidays — whether they're hardcovers or digitized — are always good gifts. NPR's Susan Stamberg talked with some of our go-to independent booksellers — Lucia Silva, former book buyer at the now-closed Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif.; Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee; and Rona Brinlee of The BookMark in Neptune Beach, Fla. — to find out what's on their Best of 2012 lists. This year's crop includes gritty, free-verse fairy tales; ballerinas who hug their children the way we normal folks do, but more prettily; and a grim Southern story about a small town that would rather its unleashed ghosts remain at rest.
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Books for the holidays, whether hardcovers or digitized, they always make for good gifts. Some independent booksellers across the country are about to present their annual picks. And this year's crop includes an essayist who vents, ballerinas who make the humdrum of life seem so pretty, and a grim Southern story that unleashes the ghost from a small town's ugly past.
NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has more on the booksellers' picks.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The most serious book in our holiday cornucopia is set in a small Florida Panhandle town. In Janis Owens novel, "American Ghost," the townspeople are full of buried shame. "American Ghost" is one of Rona Brinlee's picks, at The Book Mark, in Neptune Beach, Florida. A 1934 lynching is the ghost that haunts the town. More than 50 years later, a young man who comes to study the local ethnic heritage disturbs the ghost and the town.
RONA BRINLEE: People are nervous that he's going to find out things that they did in the past that they don't want to bring up or to remember.
STAMBERG: Rona says in basing her tale on an actual lynching, author Janis Owens is a classic Southern storyteller.
BRINLEE: And she's trying to navigate and reconcile the two Souths that she knows. The one she loves which she would call may be the Butter Bean South, which is all food, and family, and gentility, and church and God; and then the South that has this violent racial past.
STAMBERG: Another Rona Brinlee pick goes further afield. "Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life," is Harvard philosophy Professor Daniel Klein's vote in favor of an authentic and joyous old age. Klein's view is epitomized in this scene: Some old guys talking together in a Greek cafe. In comes a gorgeous 19-year-old girl. Conversation stops.
BRINLEE: And instead of being compelled to go see if they could hit on her, or ask her if they can buy her a drink, they turn back to their table and they start reminiscing about when they met their wives or the first beautiful women they ever saw. And so, its enjoying the moment as a 60, 70-year-old somebody, as opposed to trying to be a 20-year-old somebody.
STAMBERG: A younger guy, Davy Rothbart - he appears on This American Life and edits Found magazine - is one of Daniel Goldin's picks at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. Rothbart's essay collection is called "My Heart Is an Idiot." Love the title.
DANIEL GOLDIN: I love the title, too. And I love and sometimes hate Davy Rothbart. He's self-absorbed. His libido leads him into all sorts of crazy adventures that show a different kind of love, a love for humanity.
STAMBERG: Rothbart tries to save a Chinese restaurant in Buffalo, vows revenge on expensive writer's conferences.
GOLDIN: He's that friend you have that you really love but can sometimes drive you crazy.
STAMBERG: Show of hands - how many of us have friends like that? Right. But how many of us know people, in another book Daniel likes, who do everyday things...
GOLDIN: Sitting on a park bench, going to work, playing basketball, running through the park, hugging their child.
STAMBERG: ...and look absolutely gorgeous doing them, because they are professional dancers, assembled by photographer Jordan Matter in the book "Dancers Among Us," leaping, doing plies.
And are they wearing ordinary clothes or are they in those little tutu things?
GOLDIN: No they're wearing ordinary clothes.
STAMBERG: In other words these dancers are showing us ourselves, except they know how to hold their hands better, right? Or lift their legs better.
GOLDIN: That's right. It's the beauty that we imagine ourselves in our experiences.
STAMBERG: Instant photographs are the subject of a new work Lucia Silva likes for the holidays. Lucia was book buyer for the late, lamented Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, California - the store closed last spring. Christopher Bonanos' loving history, "Instant: The Story of Polaroid," traces that company and its founder, Edwin Land, who developed the instant camera in the late 1940s and was the Steve Jobs of his day.
LUCIA SILVA: And it's said that Steve Jobs modeled Apple after the Polaroid company.
STAMBERG: In this book about technology, art, society, Land emerges as a kind of genius with more than 500 patents.
SILVA: This brilliant perfectionist who believed in innovation and creativity, and employed people just to think about things.
STAMBERG: The kind of things that gave the world its first click of instant photographic gratification.
SILVA: Land completely foresaw a time when we would be taking pictures and instantly sharing them with a tiny little thing that we kept in our pockets and carried everywhere.
STAMBERG: We do that with books these days, too. And books, writing, are the heroes of Lucia Silva's last two holiday choices: "Object Lessons," edited by Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein at the Paris Review, presents great short stories chosen from that journal's archives by major short story writers - Lorie Moore, Amy Hempel, David Means - who explain and then anatomize their choices.
SILVA: They're pulling them apart, trying to figure out exactly how they do this thing called the short story.
STAMBERG: Lucia says it's the perfect gift for would-be writers as well as avid readers. And her next choice would also please them. It's called "My Ideal Bookshelf," edited by Thessaly Le Force and illustrated by Jane Mount. Here, various well-known people - serious writers as well as celebrities - rise to this literary challenge.
SILVA: They were asked to pick books, the books that changed their lives, their favorite favorites, the ones that made them who they are today.
STAMBERG: Humorist David Sedaris says Dorothy Parker showed him how to mix wit and tragedy. Filmmaker Judd Apatow got hooked on reading, thanks to Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes." And essayist Pico Iyer writes that over the years, Graham Greene's novel "The Quiet American," has become a friend.
SILVA: (Reading) What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady, to be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart. The books on my shelf never asked to come together and they would not trust or want to listen to one another. But each is a piece of a stained-glass whole, without which I wouldn't make sense to myself or to the world outside.
STAMBERG: May all your holiday books be such grand companions. Thanks to our independent booksellers for their suggestions.
Jingle books to all. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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GREENE: The books that Susan just described and more literary holiday suggestions are at our website, NPR.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
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