Giving The Gift Of Reading: 27 Books That Make Great Holiday Gifts

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It's the season of gift giving, which can be lovely — especially if you've figured out what to give your partner, your kids, your parents, your friends, the friends of your friends and on and on. And if you haven't, that's just one of the things that makes this a sometimes stressful season.

But fear not, Radio Boston is here to help. When in doubt, give the gift of reading.

We went to the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge earlier this month to talk about some of the best reads of the year, and what great books can make great gifts.

So whether you're looking for an absorbing novel, a fascinating history, a great biography, or an imaginative children's book, we covered it all with a couple of very knowledgeable bibliophiles.


Rachel Betz Cass, head buyer for the Harvard Book Store.

Celeste Ng, author. Her debut novel, "Everything I Never Told You," came out this year. She lives in Cambridge and teaches fiction writing at Grub Street. She tweets @pronounced_ing.

Liz Sher, children's book buyer for the Harvard Book Store.

Radio Boston's 2014 Book List

1. "The Secret History of Wonder Woman," by Jill Lepore

  • She’s the most popular female superhero in the world, with an invisible jet, a lasso of truth, not to mention a great pair of legs. But the story behind the creation of Wonder Woman is even more fascinating than the character herself. She sprung from the mind of a pioneering psychologist who invented the lie detector test, lived in a house with two mistresses and his wife and had a taste for bondage and radical feminism.

2. "Warburg in Rome," by James Carroll

  • Toward the end of World War II in Europe, the Nazis were in retreat and the curtain was pulled back, revealing the horror of their “final solution.” The curtain was also pulled back on the complicity of the Vatican. While the church did work quietly to rescue Jews, critics say it did too little to oppose the roundup of millions of them, and then colluded with the Germans, allowing many Nazis to escape capture by the Allies. This book tells the story of David Warburg, a young Jewish American government official sent to Rome, just after the Allied liberation.


3. "Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir," by Roz Chast

  • As has been said about life, “None of us gets out of here alive.” Given that, why is it so hard for so many of us to talk about the end of life? That’s one of the big questions in Roz Chast’s new memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” about her parents at the end of their lives. Roz Chast is the brilliant cartoonist for The New Yorker. Through her words and drawings, Chast captures the lives of George and Elizabeth Chast, who were married for nearly 70 years.

4. "Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World," by Ben Hewitt

  • The average day for two school-age boys in Cabot, Vermont, doesn’t actually begin with school. Instead, Fin and Rye — who are 12 and 9 years old, respectively — work on homemade bows, build shelters in the woods, weave basket, tap maple trees for syrup or — if the weather is particularly nasty — sit down with a good book. That’s because Fin and Rye’s parents are “unschooling” their children. It’s a form of home schooling, but there’s no curriculum, no tests and very minimal desk work. In the words of their father, Ben Hewitt, the boys “learn by living.”

5. "Only the Longest Threads," by Tasneem Zehra Husain

  • Husain is a theoretical physicist who has a love affair with science. She asks, “What happens when our understanding of the universe is challenged? In those grand and terrifying moments, what do scientists think, and how do they feel?” Husain has written a novel that takes you back in time to explore some of the most important scientific discoveries and theories that have shaped our understanding of the world and universe, from quantum mechanics to string theory. Her fictional characters are science enthusiasts, who witness and illuminate these new theories.

6. "The Drop," by Dennis Lehane

  • Lehane's latest novel about crime, cops, love and faith is set in Boston. The novel is actually based on Lehane’s screenplay for a movie, which also opened this year. “The Drop” stars Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, in his final role before passing away last year. It’s described as “a love story wrapped in a crime story wrapped in a journey of faith,” with much of it set in a so-called “drop bar.”

7. "The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War," by Dick Lehr

  • In 1915, Boston was ground zero in a fiery national debate over censorship, artistic freedom, racism and a nascent Civil Rights movement. At the center of this story were two men who couldn’t have been more different. One was Monroe Trotter, a black Harvard-educated newspaper editor and civil rights advocate who was the son of a black Civil War Union officer. The other was D.W. Griffith, the white son of a confederate officer and a brilliant filmmaker. His popular but hugely controversial masterpiece was “The Birth of a Nation,” a sweeping film about the Civil War and reconstruction that depicted freed slaves as reckless villains and knights of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic protectors of American values.

8. "New Life, No Instructions: A Memoir," by Gail Caldwell

  • When she hit her 60s, Cambridge-based writer Gail Caldwell was “offered a new chapter to an old story.” And she asks: “What do you do when the story changes in mid-life?” It did for her in a big way. Gail Caldwell is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former chief book critic of The Boston Globe. In her new memoir, she reflects on her childhood in Texas, her battle with alcoholism and the losses of her mother, her best friend Caroline Knapp and her sled dog Clementine.

9. "Mindfulness, 25th Anniversary Edition," by Ellen Langer

  • Here’s a true story about the power of mindfulness: a group of women spent their days cleaning houses. When asked if they exercised regularly, they said no. Then, as an experiment, half of them were told to view their work as exercise, just like going to a gym. The results were dramatic. The women who were told to think of their work as exercise lost weight and their blood pressure went down. This is just one of the studies described in “Mindfulness” by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. She originally published the book in 1989 and it’s now been re-released in a 25th anniversary edition.

10. "Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape," by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani

  • In the summer of 1937, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and a professor at Harvard's new Graduate School of Design, rented a house on Planting Island, near the base of Cape Cod. There, he and his wife, Ise, hosted a festive reunion of Bauhaus masters and students who had recently emigrated from Europe: Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, László Moholy-Nagy, Xanti Schawinsky and others. Together they feasted, swam and planned their futures on a new continent, all sensing they were on the cusp of a momentous new phase in their lives.

Rachel Betz Cass' 2014 Book List

11. "Just Mercy," by Bryan Stevenson

  • "Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and "Just Mercy" is a memoir of his career working for greater equality and compassion in our justice system. Very timely."

12. "We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas

  • "A family novel, with powerful and raw descriptions of what happens to a family pursuing the American dream when they are blindsided by a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's. Beautiful and completely heartbreaking."

13. "Astonish Me," by Maggie Shipstead

  • "A novel that begins in the American ballet world of the 1970s and leads up to the present day. It's told from multiple perspectives, but mostly centers on dancer (later former dancer) Joan. Some of the most beautiful descriptions of dance I've read, as well as a great story."

14. "Women in Clothes," by Sheila Heti

  • "A multimedia book including interviews, drawings, diagrams, etc. that explores women's relationship to clothes, how women present themselves and what style really means. Lots of great contributors, including Miranda July, Roxane Gay, Molly Ringwald and Lena Dunham."

15. "All the Light We Cannot See," by Anthony Doerr

  • "A novel about a young French girl and a young German boy growing up before and during World War II. Anthony Doerr is a wonderful, beautiful writer and this is an epic novel, his first in 10 years."

16. "The Secret History of Wonder Woman," by Jill Lepore

  • "The story of the creator of the most famous female comic book character, her creator, and her deep roots in progressive feminism."

Celeste Ng's 2014 Book List

17. "Bad Feminist," by Roxane Gay

  • "A wide-ranging collection of essays on politics, gender, race, pop culture and more by one of the smartest critics out there. I've been a fan of Roxane Gay's work for some years now and was thrilled when I heard this essay collection was coming out."

18. "Euphoria," by Lily King

  • "Lily King's fourth novel, loosely based on an incident in the life of Margaret Mead, is about a love triangle between three anthropologists in New Guinea. This book is showing up on all the year-end best-of lists for a reason: it's an adventure story entwined with personal and professional jealousies and the writing is as gorgeous as the cover."

19. "Bellweather Rhapsody," by Kate Racculia

  • "A remote hotel is racked by a murder-suicide. Years later, when a high school performing arts festival takes place at the hotel, a young musician disappears under eerily similar circumstances. The best description I have of this novel is "The Westing Game" for grownups — a wickedly smart murder mystery where nothing is as meets the eye, with a hefty dose of '90s nostalgia."

20. "2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas," by Marie-Helene Bertino

  • "Three separate story lines — an aspiring 9-year-old jazz singer grieving the death of her mother, her shy teacher and a troubled jazz club owner — intertwine and converge. This novel was by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and the language itself sings like jazz."

21. "Home Leave," by Brittani Sonnenberg

  • "A family of expatriates struggles with the loss of one their daughters in this debut novel. I met Brittani Sonnenberg at the University of Michigan and admired her writing then, and her elegant first novel gives each member of the Kriegstein family a voice as they try to redefine 'home' in the face of a tragedy."

Liz Sher's 2014 Book List

22. "Flashlight,", by Lizi Boyd

  • "A look at a nighttime nature walk. It's an intricate work of art, and it’s not wordless — it’s got Mac Barnett’s wry and minimalist text."

23. "The Farmer and the Clown," by Marla Frazee

  • "A sweetly humorous book that features a farmer straight out of American Gothic and a small clown who's lost his circus."

24. "Once Upon an Alphabet," by Oliver Jeffers

  • "Are you searching for a read-aloud that multiple children of multiple ages can all enjoy together. Here it is. Oliver Jeffers offers 'short stories' for every letter. Each story is a mini world,each with its own punchline, but they’re connected in a way that will have kids zigzagging through the pages to catch all the references. It’s wacky, surrealist, sophisticated and so much fun."

25. Brown Girl Dreaming," by Jacqueline Woodson

  • "Jacqueline Woodson's stunning (and National Book Award-winning!) memoir in verse deserves all the accolades coming its way. It ends when Woodson is in grade school, when she’s just starting todiscover herself as a reader and writer. I’m hoping this marks the beginning of a multi-book project for Woodson, one that traces her artistic development all the way to the present."

26. "The Turtle of Oman," by Naomi Shihab Nye

  • "What you think is going to be a 'coming to America' story morphs into a celebration of the homeland young Aref Al-Amri is preparing to leave behind. Aref spends his last week in Muscat with his grandfather, his beloved Sidi, coming to terms with the impending move while saying goodbye to all his favorite places and hidden haunts. Another exquisitely-written jewel from the poet Naomi Shihab Nye."

27. "This One Summer," by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

  • "Mariko and Jillian Tamaki nail that in-between period of adolescence, when you’re still close with your childhood friends but beginning to be curious about what all those older kids are up to. The adult world — parents’ fighting, the personal aches and private tragedies of grownups — is also creeping into your consciousness for the first time. One of the best teen reads of this or any year."

This article was originally published on December 24, 2014.

This segment aired on December 24, 2014.


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