Some books are for looking at, and some are for reading - and rereading. Here are some reader-friendly books that would make fine gifts. Prices are for hardbacks, although many of these are available in paperback, download or CD form.
History, autobiography, biography, tell-all-about-it - this was a great year for true stories told by master storytellers. You can learn a lot - as in former Inquirer writer Tom Moon's magnum opus,
1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die
(Workman, 992 pp., $49.95), a title guaranteed to keep a lot of people busy.
You can go far back in time, as with Barry Cunliffe's
Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC to AD 1000
(Yale University Press, 480 pp., $39.95), in which a great historian narrates one heck of an eventful 10,000 years. Or you can come nearer the present age, with
, by Rick Perlstein (Scribner, 896 pp., $37.50), which powerfully traces a turning point in our history a generation ago.
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
, by Annette Gordon-Reed (W.W. Norton, 800 pp., $35), won this year's National Book Award in nonfiction. Our reviewer James S. Sanders called it "a history of the emotions" felt by a slave family owned by Thomas Jefferson "as they forge lives in a divided country."
The winner is, as usual, Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday bicentenary comes in February. Our reviewer Desmond Ryan surveyed many titles, including
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief
, by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson (Penguin, 384 pp., $35), which, Ryan wrote, "maintains [McPherson's] very high standards." As a popular subject, a close second, as usual, is Winston Churchill, with
Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1897-1945
, by Carlo D'Este (HarperCollins. 843 pp., $39.95). And, this year being John Milton's quadricentennial, there are many fine Milton bios, including
, by Anna Beer (Bloomsbury, 480 pp., $34.95). You also have
John Lennon: The Life
, by Philip Norman (Doubleday, 864 pp., $34.95), a comprehensive bio that had the aid and blessing of Yoko Ono.
Perhaps the most startling bio of all is
The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul
, by Patrick French (Knopf, 576 pp., $30). Our reviewer Floyd Skloot calls it a "harrowing" study of a life of "mythic cruelty."
Or you could give one of the usual host of celebrity autobiographies, including
Call Me Ted
, by Ted Turner (Grand Central, 448 pp., $30) or
, by Barbara Walters (Knopf, 624 pp., $29.95). In the inspirational category, there's
The Last Lecture
by Randy Pausch (Hyperion, 24 pp., $21.95), the Carnegie Mellon professor who dispensed his last-act wisdom in a series of eloquent classes.
Words in Air
, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 928 pp., $29.70), offers the complete correspondence of two of the best American poets of the 20th century, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. And
Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
, by Paul Mariani (Viking, 496 pp., $34.95), about the Victorian/Modern poet, is one of the best biographies of the year. Our reviewer Joseph J. Feeney wrote that the "great Hopkins finally has a great biography."
If you know someone who likes poetry, go out now and get David Hinton's
Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512 pp., $45). For decades, Hinton has been making beautiful translations of classical Chinese poetry, and this selection gives us hundreds of the very best of that tradition's first 3,000 years. Lovely, calm, unforgettable.
It may have been an even better year for fiction. It had
by Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison (Knopf, 167 pp., $23.95), which Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano called "beguiling and beautiful . . . sinewy with imaginative sentences, lyric flight and abundant human sensitivity." It also had spymaster John le Carré's
A Most Wanted Man
(Scribner, 330 pp., $28), now a most wanted book.
The year 2008 had Dennis Lehane's novel of 1918 Boston,
The Given Day
(William Morrow, 702 pp., $27), which our reviewer Stuart M. Kaminsky said "moves at the pace of an Indiana Jones movie with a narrative voice that touches the eye and delights the ear."
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
(Ecco, 566 pp., $25.95) was a startling success, appearing on many "best of" lists. So did Joseph O'Neill's
(Pantheon, 256 pp., $23.95), in which cricket and 9/11 figure large. Francine Prose's
(Harper, 288 pp., $24.95) is a very moving young-adult story for adults. And Amitav Ghosh's much-awaited
Sea of Poppies
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 515 pp., $23.95) is, according to our reviewer Karen Heller, "a work of astonishing ambition."
As for thrillers, 2008 has been the year of thrills from abroad. Stieg Larsson's
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
(Knopf, 480 pp., $24.95) is an international bestseller by one of Sweden's greats, who died soon after the book appeared. Kate Atkinson's
When Will There Be Good News?
(Little, Brown, 400 pp., $24.99) left Stephen King, writing for Entertainment Weekly, "staggered" by Atkinson's "artistic wizardry."
Consider Jhumpa Lahiri's tremendous tales of Bengali immigrants,
(Knopf, 333 pp., $25), which reviewer Heller called the work of a writer of "luminous prose and indelible stories." Tobias Wolff continues his distinguished fiction career with
Our Story Begins
(Knopf, 400 pp., $26.95); our reviewer Andrew Ervin wrote that "it's impossible to read Tobias Wolff and not come away transformed."
Big boxed sets.
How about a collection of all Patricia Highsmith's Ripley mysteries?
The Complete Ripley Novels
(W.W. Norton, 5 vols., $100) gives you the whole, chilling arc of one of the strangest antiheroes in mystery history. Or - Rats! - there's always
The Complete Peanuts, 1967-1970,
by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 688 pp., $49.99), the work of a master at his peak. The boxed-set aisle of your local bookstore is a dawdler's delight.