Is there any Christmas gift better than a book?
Some probably think so, but for local bibliophiles, books will always be among the best gifts to give and get.
“Giving a book indicates that you care enough about the person to pick out something that you know they’ll be interested in for a week at least [or] however long it takes them to read it,” said Cheryl McKeon, a bookseller at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. “I think it’s a very thoughtful gift because you have to know something about the person to pick out the right book.”
McKeon, along with several other Capital Region booksellers, has a few recommendations of the best books to give and to pick up this holiday season, including bestsellers and others that aren’t as well known but should be.
“There are so many ways to look at recommendations. I try to choose at least a few things that are not yet on the bestseller list or are a little bit quirky, that maybe people haven’t heard of. But on the other hand, there are things on those lists that just have to be included because they are phenomenal,” McKeon said.
Here are some of McKeon’s top picks.
“Still Life” by Sarah Winman
It’s described by the publisher as “a big-hearted story of people brought together by love, war, art and the ghost of E.M. Forster.”
Art threads through this book significantly, but it’s really the story of how families are made, and how people come in and out of our lives.
From a 1944 Tuscany immersed in war to London and back again, Winman creates humor and pathos equally, in passages that beg to be reread and savored.
“The Lincoln Highway”
by Amor Towles
Set in 1954, it follows four boys, Emmett, Billy, Duchess and Woolly, who travel from Nebraska across the country in search of a brighter future. According to McKeon, it’s “as complex and entertaining as ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ (Towles’ previous novel), yet totally unique.”
“Cloud Cuckoo Land”
by Anthony Doer
The story bounces back and forth between past and future, as multiple tales are told over the course of centuries. It’s an homage to books and libraries, and their importance in our lives. It’s going to be a classic.
At Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, bookseller Mike Hare offers up two compelling nonfiction works.
“The Cause: The
American Revolution and
its Discontents, 1773-1783”
by Joseph J. Ellis
A clear, concise and compelling account of the colonies’ break from Great Britain. Ellis not only insightfully captures the perspectives of determined patriots and loyalists but sharply evokes the mood in Great Britain, particularly the maneuverings between Parliament and King George. Ellis also reveals the commanding figure of George Washington, who, while obsessed with appearances and his own reputation, possessed the moral fiber without which American independence may not have been gained.
by Susan Orlean
Lions and tigers and chickens, oh my! Pandas and whales, oxen and mules, rabbits, donkeys and pigeons — with the obvious dogs and cats — comprise this glorious menagerie. Orlean, who came to respect and even admire turkeys, renders the contradiction of animals burrowing into our hearts yet remaining fundamentally inscrutable, with sublime wistfulness.
Nancy Scheemaker, Northshire’s general manager, recommends a mix of memoir and fiction for this season.
by Ashley C. Ford
In this outstanding American memoir, Ashley C. Ford raises the bar on the art form and perhaps opens the door for new contemporaries. Her testimonial of an impoverished childhood, marked by the absence of her imprisoned father and ongoing vulnerability to her struggling single mother, is delivered with lucid honesty and without blame.
Ultimately, Ashley’s story is about love — familial love and self-love. Despite a childhood of harrowing experiences, her reflections build to a crescendo of proudly becoming her best self. Ashley’s story is sure to resonate, be admired and inspire a very wide audience.
“Olga: A Novel”
by Bernhard Schlink
This turn-of-the-century novel has all the grace and elegance of a classic. Olga’s is the story of an ambitious young German woman who defies the proscribed boundaries for women at the time, achieving an education and a degree of personal independence. Beginning in an era when horse and carriage are commonplace and letter writing is the key to holding on to anyone far away, this sweeping saga plays out through both world wars and is saturated by her passionate lifelong relationship with a world adventurer. In the spirit of classics such as “Cold Mountain,” “The English Patient” or “Out of Africa,” readers will be spellbound by this enduring love story and Schlink’s storytelling mystique.
In Schenectady, the Open Door Bookstore’s Lily Bartels recommends what are bound to be a few crowd-pleasers.
Ken Follett’s latest novel “Never” is a heart-pounding international thriller that weaves together multiple plot lines in telling the (hopefully) fictional but all too plausible story of how close we are to the brink of a final world war that would obliterate us all. Follett brings this scenario grippingly to life with masterful storytelling. Not for the faint of heart, but at 800-plus pages, this is an epic, edge-of-your-seat “what-if” read to lose yourself in through long winter nights.
“The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present” is a stunning celebration both of Paul McCartney’s musical genius and one of the most influential creative lives of the past six decades. Two gorgeous, slipcased volumes pair 154 of Paul’s most meaningful songs with his own commentary and hundreds of images from his personal archives of photographs, handwritten texts and paintings. The closest we’ll likely ever come to a McCartney autobiography, this masterpiece stands as the definitive literary and visual history of one of the greatest songwriters of all time. I can’t think of a more thrilling gift for any music lover — or yourself.
Open Door’s Children’s book buyer Kathleen Kemp also has a few recommendations for both adults and kids.
“Every Day Amazing:
Fantastic Facts for Every Day of the Year” by Mike Barfield
I love that this book provides a fun fact and trivia for every day of the year. It’s written for kids, but easily makes a great adult gift as well. Here’s an excerpt from the June 22 trivia: “The hole in a doughnut is supposedly invented in 1847 by a teenage American sailor called Hanson Gregory. Tired of eating deep-fried balls of dough that are still raw in the middle, Hanson cuts out the middle of a dough ball before cooking it, solving the problem.”
Picture Book: “The Littlest Yak” by Lu Fraser, illustrated by Kate Hindley
This is one of my favorite picture books this season. Gertie is the littlest yak in her pack. Follow Gertie through this lovely story as she learns to appreciate just how important being little can be.
Middle grade: “City of
Dragons: The Awakening Storm” written by Jaimal
Yogis and illustrated
by Vivian Truong
This action-packed and engaging graphic novel follows Grace, who has recently moved to Hong Kong with her mom and new stepdad. It’s a great, adventure-filled story with Chinese mythology throughout. Highly recommend.
Young adult: “A Snake
Falls to Earth” by
Darcie Little Badger
Little Badger came on our radar last year with her first book, “Elatsoe.” This follow-up is equally beautiful.
There are some books that were so good, book buyers and sellers at each store recommended them. Here’s what they each had to say.
“These Precious Days:
Essays” by Ann Patchett
Bestselling novelist Ann Patchett (“Bel Canto,” “The Dutch House,” “Commonwealth”) brilliantly switches genres with “These Precious Days,” a deeply personal and eloquent collection of essays that draw the reader into her world. Patchett’s usual knockout storytelling power mesmerizes as she reflects, with captivating intimacy and feeling, on home, family, friendships and writing. Lovely and heartfelt
— Lily Bartels,
Open Door Bookstore
There’s a generosity in the way she not only looks at the world but invites the reader in to stay for a while. Partly a pandemic-era-written collection, providing us all a way to look at our own worlds anew and reminding us how fleeting and enigmatic life can be. You will feel compelled to read passages aloud.
— Cheryl McKeon, Book House
by Louise Erdrich
Pulitzer Prize-winner Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence” gifts us with a sprawling novel centered on a diverse group of Native Americans who staff a small indie bookstore in Minneapolis that is haunted by the spirit of a deceased customer. The narrative unfolds between November 2019 and November 2020, a year beset by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, so its timeliness resonates. But this is also a story about community, books and reading, family and marriage, and — because it is Erdrich — expect beautiful writing that delivers profound insights.
— Lily Bartels,
Open Door Bookstore
Whenever I finish one of Erdrich’s works, I always feel that she has miraculously once again crafted a novel designed especially for me. “The Sentence” encapsulates life in our tumultuous contemporary times. Set in a Minneapolis bookstore, the storyline is a treatise on human imperfection, beloved stories and words, women and quirky bookstore life, COVID, George Floyd, ghosts, hauntings and the healing power of babies. But then, there are also book lists! Erdrich’s native perspective shimmers throughout with lasting humor and grace.
— Nancy Scheemaker,
“Five Tuesdays in Winter”
by Lily King
A wide array of characters, male and female, gay and straight, often recounting events of their youth, populate this excellent short-story collection. Their vivid stories, interwoven with characters as diverse as a frustrated middle-aged bookstore owner attracted to one of his employees; a 91-year old man grieving in the hospital for a young relative; and a woman apparently visited by apparitions, parade across the page with subtle artistry.
— Mike Hare,
Lily King isn’t afraid of big emotional subjects: desire and grief, longing and love, growth and self-acceptance. But she eschews high drama for the immersive quiet of the everyday. King’s latest book, her first story collection, explores some of the same territory as her beloved novel “Writers & Lovers.”
— Cheryl McKeon,