Every year, I want to buy every single person on my holiday gift list a book. And why not? Books are amazing. They’re the cheapest wormholes you can buy.
But some people in my life (and yours too, unless you live in a secret utopia of readers, where everyone brings their book to the dinner table and no one ever tells you to “come on, get over it, it’s just a stupid novel,” in which case why haven’t you brought me with you) aren’t really that interested in books. Or they claim to be voracious readers, but when you ask them the last thing they read, they say a Dan Brown novel– in 2003. Hmm.
But still, we press on! We buy books! We give books! And sometimes, months later, we see our friend’s dad or our boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend reading the very book we picked out with that characteristic (and unnerving) look of pure concentration that signals a good read! That moment of satisfaction is what I gamble for every year. Here are some of the books I’m placing my bets on in 2016:
For the Giftee Who Hiked the Appalachian Trail
I’m not an outdoorsy person. I have a giant recliner by my apartment window that lets me look out onto the pigeon-filled expanse that is Center City Philadelphia, and I am perfectly satisfied. Sometimes I even get crazy and open the window. I am the human embodiment of a house cat.
But some people– many people, or so I’m told– actually enjoy the outside. They say that things like “sunlight” and “not breathing heavily after putting away groceries” appeal to them. Some of these people are on my gift list. I do not understand them, but I do respect them and their strangely muscular bodies.
Terry Tempest Williams’ The Hour Of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks is the book I’ll be giving them, perhaps wrapped in several pairs of wool socks or a space blanket (are those things actually useful?).
I know Terry Tempest Williams from her insane(ly good) memoir-experiment When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, which is an exploration of the complexities of being a daughter (and a mother) and an exercise in making your own meaning.
When we returned home, a skinned coyote was hanging by its neck from the crossbar of the ranch as we drove into school. Ted was driving the school bus.
He stopped, got out, cut the rope with his buck knife always on his belt, and the coyote was released into his arms. We got out of the bus and circled around him.
“This used to be the Elbo Ranch,” he said. “Some of the old-timers don’t like what we’re doing.”
I wrote Mimi a letter describing what had happened. She wrote back, “We evolve as human beings through our imagination and will. However hard it must have been for you to see this act of cruelty, view it as an insight to those who wielded the knife.” I thought about the man who skinned the coyote and the man who cut it off the beam, both using the same weapon, both powerful gestures. If one can mark a moment, this was mine. I became a part of the “Coyote Clan.” I made a vow to the coyote who climbed Gannett Peak and the coyote who was murdered and martyred at the Elbo Ranch that I would not remain silent.
My Mother’s Journals are a gesture and a vow.
Looking back at this memoir, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a book from Williams about the national park system. Nature is everywhere in When Women Were Birds, and, just as in The Hour Of Land, it’s deeply connected to the personal and the political.
The Hour Of Land is not a quiet nature walk. Williams takes twelve national parks and uses each as a jumping-off point for a meditation on the role of nature in America’s history and current political climate. Early on in the book, she claims “America’s national parks were a vision seen through the horrors of war.” She returns again and again to the truths these parks– their history, their maintenance, their protection, and their future– can reveal about ourselves and our country.
I love giving people slightly weird books, especially people who complain that the medium “can’t hold their attention.” Williams’ book is a bit of a challenge, for sure, but it’s also fast-paced (since it’s subdivided into twelve essays) and deliciously well written: if you wrap a pack of highlighters to go with it, you can be sure that The Hour of Land will be saturated with neon by the end. Williams is a master of the underline-able sentence: “Canyonlands National Park is an open letter to time, deep time. This is a broken country– twisted, turned, cracked, baked, uplifted, warped, compressed, cut, collapsed, fallen. It is the most beautiful place on Earth. It is also the most vulnerable. The red rocks deserve our correspondence.”
For the Giftee Who Made The Thanksgiving Pies
Something deep in my millennial, free-information-fed soul hates the idea of cookbooks. I know, they’re beautiful, but they’re also not nearly as useful to me as an internet recipe: whenever I look at a cookbook, I find myself completely lost without the hundreds of dissenting voices in the comments squabbling over how long to actually leave it in the oven or how much vanilla to actually put in. Cookbooks feel like the product of another era to me, which is why I rarely buy them. But many of the people in my life love cooking. What to do?
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a graphic memoir by Lucy Knisley. Her bright, welcoming drawing style accentuates the heartwarming (and unique) stories she tells about growing up surrounded by food. Raised by a gourmet and a chef, Lucy sees food the way we see books– as an integral part of life. It’s a cozy memoir about doing what you love and loving what you do. Anyone who uses food as a way to connect to their loved ones will see themselves in Lucy. Plus, she’s got great family recipes between every section!
I’ve never had a giftee balk at a graphic novel or memoir (I think the popularity of Maus might have laid that specter to rest). In fact, I think these faster reads are even more welcome around the hectic holidays, since they’re easier to pick up and put down (or just finish in one sitting)!
For the Giftee In Need Of Cheering Up
Some years are harder than others. If someone in your life needs cheering up, Phoebe and her Unicorn is a great gift choice. I heard someone call it “the next generation Calvin and Hobbes,” which feels like a perfect description. A girl befriends a narcissistic unicorn (Marigold Heavenly Nostrils) after accidentally hitting her on the head with a rock– and saving her from being forever lost in the beauty of her own reflection.
Phoebe and her Unicorn is a compilation of stories from the webcomic Heavenly Nostrils, so you can get a feel for the tone and humor if you go here. The strip down below is an example of a recent one.
The jokes hit that perfect note that allows both adults and kids to enjoy them. It’s surprisingly smart and warm, and I originally bought it for a holiday gift for one of my students, because the vocabulary in the strip is phenomenal. But as I read more and more, I knew it would be perfect for a friend of mine who’s had a breakup and a difficult job search in the past 6 months. Sometimes, you just need a little magic in your life.
Well, that’s part one of this series! I’ve got a lot more people on my list, though, so I’ll report back with Part 2: books for The Mad Scientist, The Giftee Who Has Read Everything, and The Tech Enthusiast.