Need books for your friends and family? I haven’t read all of the books in 2016, but I’ve read my fair share. Some gift ideas from my shelf:
For the music lover: Anatomy of a Song by Marc Myers
Myers traces America’s Rock & Roll roots in an oral history account of groundbreaking songs. This is a funny and compelling collection of short pieces. You could read it in any order, and you can give this to someone who isn’t a fan of longer reads. Myers does a nice job of weaving together details from each song with trends in American history. In an era when you can find a lot of information about music online, Anatomy of a Song still feels like something special.
For the history geek: Alison Amend’s Enchanted Islands
Amend’s novel is based on the real-life story of married spies living in the Galapagos islands before WWII. Come for the spies and oblique historical references. Stay for the lush descriptions of Galapagos and the complex takes on marriage and friendship.
For the word nerd: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has a little fun with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which she sets in a prison literacy program. Only because this is Atwood, there’s a play within the play on Shakespeare’s play. It’s full of literary “Easter eggs,” and charmingly readable. No worries if you haven’t read The Tempest. You’d be okay either way–but it’s only a two-hour listen on audible if you’re into that. You know I am.
For the pal who likes creepy tomes: Ali Shaw’s The Trees
Overnight, a dense and nearly impenetrable forest blankets modern-day England. Panic, alliance-forging, and heroic journeys ensue. Bonus points for freaky tree creatures, and a little bit of mythology. Plus, this is some amazing cover art, right?
For the cousin who is into smart/sad short stories: Desert Boys by Chris McCormick
People “don’t know how un-California most of California is,” Chris McCormick writes, in one of my favorite sentences of 2016. Desert Boys is a nostalgic, bleak, and beautifully rendered collection about identity and growing up in the harsher parts of the Golden State.
Something unexpected: Marisa Silver’s Little Nothing
Silver’s dark fairy-tale manages to feel both old and new. This is a book that draws on our associations with fables, but also asks us to examine what still happens to women now. Silver’s protagonist, Pavla, a dwarf, undergoes several transformations in the book, and you’ll have to take some magical leaps. Silver will force you to really think about time. Weird and different. Loved, though, and got lost in it.
For the binge-watcher: Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello
Every Kind of Wanting is about six lives entangled in a messy plan to conceive a baby through surrogacy. Just as in life and in the best bingewothy dramas, everyone is lying, and everyone has something to lose. This book goes there; Frangello is a fearless writer, but her greatest strength is writing with empathy. You’ll be thinking about these characters long after you finish reading.
For the reader who likes a challenge: David Means’ Hystopia
This book is weird: an alternate history where Kennedy’s assassination is unsuccessful, and the Vietnam war rages on while subsequent attempts on the president’s life are made. The conceit of the book is that it’s told as a series of notes about a found manuscript. There are so many layers to the thing that it is really difficult. It’s an incredibly dark and a tangled narrative. And great.
If you want to support a new writer: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This debut novel (and winner of the National Book Award’s 5 Under 35 for 2016) traces the lineage of two half-sisters’ lines, and spans 300 years of history. Each chapter tells the story of one generation, so it’s not a linear novel, but more like a novel-in-stories. The form mirrors Gyasi’s message about broken links between the families sold into slavery. Homegoing is a stunning debut.
Quirky and touching mother-daughter genre-bending story: The History of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane
Super brainy, religious, and weird if you can handle that: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
I haven’t read it yet, but I can’t wait to… This year’s “it” book, and a NY Times Holiday Gift Guide pick: Grace by Natashia Déon
My recommendation for just about anyone on your list: Michael Chabon’s Moonglow
This novel is getting all kinds of attention for being written as a memoir. That conversation obscures (a little bit) the fact that this is just a damn good story. Chabon’s narrator is retelling his grandparents’ history as told to him on his grandfather’s deathbed. There are several intertwining storylines, and Chabon is just a master of weaving the historical into the personal. Moonglow touches on everything from rocket science and Nazis to python hunting at a retirement homes in Florida. I enjoyed it so much, and it’s a good bet for just about anyone on your list.