Ho Ho Ho: John’s 2021 Holiday Book Gift Guide
Happy November! If, like Amy and I, you’re a big fan of Halloween, we hope you had a super spooky weekend. Little Orion, now 16 months old, was not as enamored of his tiger costume as we were, so hopefully we’ll make a better pick next year.
As our thoughts turn towards the next big holidays, you may be following the advice to start your shopping early. Since books always make a great gift, I am publishing my annual Holiday Giving Guide earlier than usual. I hope this will help you find some awesome reads to put under the tree for the special people in your life. Since great books are truly timeless, I’ve also included this link to last year’s Gift Guide.
Fiction and Short Stories A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, George Saunders – Saunders teaches an extremely popular course at Syracuse University on the art of the Russian short story. Thousands apply and less than a dozen students are accepted. And then one day he had the brilliant idea of turning his course material into a book so that the rest of us could enjoy and be enlightened by his teachings. He reprints seven short stories from Chekov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev, then walks the reader through his interpretations, musings, and lessons for both writers and readers. I, for one, am grateful to Professor Saunders, and hope that this becomes an annual exercise for him (next up, the short stories of O. Henry, perhaps?).
Restless, William Boyd – Someone is trying to kill Sally Gilmartin. It’s the summer of 1976 in England, and the only person she can trust is her daughter Ruth, a young single mother struggling with her own demons. She shares a bombshell: her real identity is Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian émigré recruited for the British Secret Service in 1939 and sent to New York to join the propaganda effort to entice the United States to enter the Second World War. Boyd seems to write nothing but classics – the NYTimes Book Review called this “a crackling spy thriller.” Special thanks to Will for being a contributor to The Gifts of Reading, an anthology whose profits are donated to Room to Read. The Invisible Collection, Stephan Zweig – There are so many ways I’m in awe of Zweig, and after reading his short stories for the first time I now have one more reason. Though these tales from Mitteleuropa were written nearly a century ago, the characters are still compelling and the narrative a joy to follow. It’s rare to read a book of ten short stories and love all of them; this comes as close as I’ve experienced. It was like that awesome bottle of wine where you're sad to see it come to an end. Trust Exercise, Susan Choi – Tales of young love and hopeful dreams set in a drama school where students fall under the magnetic spell of their instructor Mr. Kingsley. Chaos, subterfuge and all kinds of long-term consequences ensue. One of Barack Obama’s Top Books of 2019.
Pastoralia, George Saunders – By now you might be getting tired of me recommending books by Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo was my #2 book of 2018), but please trust me that this, his first short story collection originally published in 2001, is a total gem. I found myself constantly putting the book down while thinking How is it possible for anyone to write a sentence that good? The first story, about a down on his luck character forced to perform the role of a caveman in an under-performing amusement park, is alone worth the price of the entire book. And don’t miss your chance to meet The Unhappy Barber! Non-Fiction First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11, Toby Harnden – Within hours of planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, an elite team of CIA operatives were already packing their bags, certain that there was only one place that would dominate the coming years of their lives. Nobody other than Al Qaeda had both the intention to do this, and the ability to carry it out. Since he’s in Afghanistan, that’s where we’re heading. Orwell Prize-winning author Toby Harnden recounts the gripping story of the quick entry and first battles in Afghanistan. The reader is entranced not just by truly heroic characters, but also by unreliable allies, ethnic rivalries, suicide attacks, and errant bombs. The stories from the opening month of the war foreshadow the twenty-year forever war that followed.
The Passage of Power, Robert Caro – The fourth of Caro’s planned 5-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson opens on a fateful November day in Dallas, 1963. LBJ, once the all-powerful Master of the Senate, is now in Year Three of a miserable experience as a powerless and marginalised Vice President. The old bull has literally been put out to pasture. But this all changes with the crack of an assassin’s bullet, and within hours Johnson is on Air Force One, taking the oath of office with a distraught Jackie Kennedy at his side. Once back in Washington, he moves quickly to try to help the country heal and to set his own agenda for what will be accomplished on civil rights, the economy, and the eventual Great Society he will attempt to construct. Robert Caro’s descriptions of this “passage of power” are some of the best non-fiction writing I’ve ever read. The day Volume 5 goes on sale you will find me, like a kid awaiting the next Harry Potter book, in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk outside my favorite bookstore. Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, Ben Macintyre – To win the war, the Allied Forces needed to open up a southern front to attack Italy and Germany. Their plan was to land a massive army on the island of Sicily, but there was one problem – everyone from Hitler and Mussolini on down knew that this was the logical place to invade; they were well-armed and ready. So how did the British Navy convince them that the invasion would actually come from Sardinia and Greece, causing them to move the majority of their troops and leaving Sicily wide open? The story involves the corpse of a homeless man picked up on the streets of London and dressed in a pilot’s uniform, a faked airplane crash off the coast of Spain, falsified identities, spies and sympathizers, and enough drama to keep the reader constantly on edge. History at its finest, by the author of The Spy and the Traitor (one of my ten most-gifted books). Sports / Adventure / Outdoor The Salt Path, Raynor Winn – How would you respond if you learned that your beloved spouse of 32 years was terminally ill and given only months to live, and then in that same month have your farm and your sole source of income taken away from you by angry creditors? Raynor Winn and her husband (Moth) decide the only logical response is an illogical one – to set out to walk all windswept and hilly 630 miles of southwest England’s Coastal Trail. Out of shape, nearly broke and living off 40 pounds a week of unemployment stipends, they “camp rough”, carrying all of the essentials for travel on their backs. Adventure travel, social commentary, love, pathos and a certain unbreakable joie de vivre are all rolled into this glorious little book. Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports, John Branch -- Breathtaking tales of climbers and hunters, runners and racers, winners and losers by the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter. Branch’s riveting, humane pieces about ordinary people doing extraordinary things at the edges of the sporting world have won nearly every major journalism prize. Sidecountry gathers the best of Branch’s work for the first time, featuring 20 of his favorites from the more than 2,000 pieces he has published. The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer, Christopher Clarey – I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Roger Federer twice, and have long joined all who are in awe that someone this talented and famous can at the same time be such a gentleman. I was so eager to dive into this book when my friend and tennis partner Jason delivered it to my quarantine hotel room last month. I could not put it down. Clarey, a tennis writer for the NY Times for over 20 years, is a supremely talented guide to Federer’s history, his early struggles, his training methods, and family life. As an added bonus, there are the back stories on Nadal, Djokovic, and the rise of the Big Three and the many who have tried to challenge their hegemony over the game for nearly two decades.
Please feel free to share these recommendations widely. For those who want to receive my occasional booklists, they can sign up for my newsletter at www.johnjwood.com. Happy reading! John Wood