What better gift than a good book? OK, right, 10,000 shares of Google stock, but play along. If your giftees are readers, books are great for the holidays. The Inquirer staff, great writers and readers both, offer these suggestions, with our holiday best wishes:
Nonfiction, bios and autobios. Bill Marimow, editor of The Inquirer, likes The First Tycoon, by T.J. Stiles (Knopf, $37.50), "an epic biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt." He also praises former ABC news correspondent Kati Marton's Enemies of the People: My Family's Journey to America (Simon & Schuster, $28). "Relying on voluminous secret police files of her parents' activities in the 1940s and '50s - both her mother and father were well-known journalists in Budapest - Marton reconstructs their lives under the communist regime with all its betrayals, cruelties, and deprivation. Reading this book makes one deeply appreciate the lifelong benefits of growing up in a democracy."
Marimow recommends the updated 10th-anniversary edition of Common Sense on Mutual Funds (Wiley, $29.95), by John C. Bogle, founder of the Vanguard mutual fund group. Bogle "writes about investing, leadership, and our fellow man with all the wit, wisdom and experience accumulated during his 58-year career. His formidable literary skills make reading about the world of mutual funds as enjoyable as coursing through a well-written novel."
Editorial page editor Harold Jackson recommends Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch's three-volume history of America in the age of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Parting the Waters, first published in 1988 (Simon & Schuster, $22 paperback); Pillar of Fire, published in 1998 (Simon & Schuster, $17 paperback); and At Canaan's Edge, published in 2006 (Simon & Schuster, $20 paperback). Jackson says these books help readers "understand the strategies of civil-rights leaders and the obstacles they faced. . . . You appreciate the players, large and small, who changed America."
It's a year of great bios. Martha Woodall, an education writer, recommends Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey (Knopf, $35), an "exhaustively researched and eminently readable" biography of writer John Cheever, and Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, by Michael Sragow (Pantheon, $40), about the Hollywood director of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Captains Courageous, and many others.
Deirdre M. Childress, editor of Weekend and Home & Design, recommends Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life's Challenges, by Byron Pitts (St. Martin's Press, $24.99), which she calls "inspiring and lighthearted . . . the life story of CBS's 60 Minutes contributing correspondent . . . how a mother's commitment to her son and his dream of network stardom spelled the difference between a fantastic life and one marred by ghetto strife."
Sportswriter Frank Fitzpatrick recommends Closing Time, a "hilarious and heartbreaking" memoir by humorist Joe Queenan (Viking, $10.20): "This moving examination of his irredeemable father and impoverished childhood is also a Philly-flavored paean to the spunk that allowed him to overcome."
Rhonda Dickey, a business editor, offers Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi (Random House, $16), a family memoir that "banishes some of the mystery" of Iran. "Nafisi's examination of a nation roiled, in turn, by the shah, the Islamic revolution, and the Iran-Iraq war is as much a revelation as the depiction of her own family's turmoil."
Movie critic Steven Rea recommends Bicycle Diaries, by David Byrne (Viking, $25.95). "The head Talking Head pedals everywhere from Detroit to Istanbul, dispensing unexpected wisdoms."
Sandy Bauer, who writes our "GreenSpace" column, likes World Ocean Census: A Global Survey of Marine Life, by Darlene Trew Crist, Gail Scowcroft, and James M. Harding Jr. (Firefly Books, $40). "For sheer beauty, and in case all those doomsaying eco books are depressing your giftee," she says, "you can't beat this one, which is jammed with stunning color photos." Lifestyle writer Lini S. Kadaba suggests Wonders of the World (Life Books, $29.95), a "visual extravaganza" of "remarkable photographs, plucked from Life's archives, of 50 natural and man-made marvels, complete with interesting facts and backstory dramas." It even has removable, suitable-for-framing prints.
Metro columnist Monica Yant Kinney recommends Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall (Viking, $25.95), which she calls a "rollicking ode to running as primal joy. . . . Argues convincingly to toss the sneakers and run barefoot." She also likes food books, such as In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan (Penguin, $15) and The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, by Steve Rinella (Miramax, $29.95).
Architecture critic Inga Saffron suggests marking the holidays with fine books on architecture, including Why Architecture Matters, by Paul Goldberger (Yale University Press, $26), a "little gem of a book" by the New Yorker's architecture critic, "wise, concise, and utterly devoid of the ideological snark that infects the profession." Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, by Michael Sorkin (Reaktion, $27) is a memoir written over two decades and structured around Sorkin's daily walk from his West Village home to his architectural office. "His observations about buildings, parks, urban design, and city planning should inspire anyone who cares about the future of cities." And Wendy Evans Joseph Pop Up Architecture, by Wendy Evans Joseph (Melcher Media, $75), offers a pop-up presentation of her work, with 3-D paper pop-ups by paper engineer Kees Moerbeek. This cheeky book "reminds us that buildings can only really be understood in their three-dimensional form."
Business writer Reid Kanaley was impressed by A. Lincoln: A Biography, by Ronald C. White Jr. (Random House, $35), saying this "engaging biography is a great success." He also calls attention to Crowds and Power, by Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, first published in 1960 and available in paperback (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18). "The book is a completely startling examination of institutions and history as arising from animal instinct and our basic urge to merge."
TV and books editor Michael Schaffer likes Strength in What Remains (Random House, $26), the latest nonfiction gem from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder. "With his customary grace and compassion, Kidder tells the story of Deogratias, who fled genocide in Burundi and made his way to the United States with $200 in his pocket . . . yet ended up graduating from Columbia University and being accepted to medical school at Dartmouth."
Schaffer also admires Kidder's 2003 masterpiece Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, available in paperback (Random House, $18). "This is the remarkable story of a remarkable healer, Paul Farmer, an infectious diseases specialist who has spent his entire medical career dividing time between Harvard, where he teaches, and Haiti, where he practices medicine among the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere, and still has found time to lead efforts to improve care for TB patients in Peru and Siberia."
Fiction! Columnist and book reviewer Karen Heller loves, loves, loves The Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore (Knopf, $26), in which "one of America's best writers produces a novel as distinct, dazzling, and assured as her indelible short stories, capable of wry wit one moment and ineffable sadness the next." She also loves Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt, $27), a Booker Prize-winning mystery about economic and sexual intrigue in the court of Henry VIII. And she taps This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper (Dutton, $26), a "hysterical, inspired, and affecting comedy."
Entertainment writer David Hiltbrand praises Into the Beautiful North by Mexican writer Luís Alberto Urrea (Little, Brown, $24.99), saying that Urrea "displays a delightful and heretofore unsuspected flair for humor in this peripatetic novel. After seeing The Magnificent Seven, a Mexican girl heads (illegally) for the United States hoping to bring back all the men who fled her poor village. Oh, the places she and her companions go!"
He also likes The Cry of the Sloth, by Sam Savage (Coffee House, $14.95), a "screamingly funny novel" about a man "who fancies himself an important writer, despite all evidence to the contrary."
Woodall plumps for The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery and translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa, $15), a "captivating" novel that tackles philosophy, stereotypes, class, beauty, art, film, Tolstoy, and love while offering up a cast of unforgettable characters.
Skulduggery. Copy editor Peter Rozovsky, a formidable expert on world detective/noir, recommends Arctic Chill, by Arnaldur Indriðason (Minotaur, $24.99), "a spare, beautifully written tale by one of the world's finest crime novelists"; August Heat, by Andrea Camilleri (Penguin, $14), "as firmly rooted in Sicily's soil as Arctic Chill is in Iceland's"; and Breathing Water by Timothy Hallinan (William Morrow, $24.99), about Poke Rafferty, "a Bangkok-based travel writer who can't stay out of trouble."
Steven Rea likes The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson (Knopf, $25.95), and says "Lisbeth Salander, the raging brainiac punkette cyber-hacker, is one of the great new heroines of mystery fiction. . . . The action and intrigue kick in almost immediately in this second installment of the (lamentably) late Swedish author's trilogy."
Short stuff. Frank Fitzpatrick is back with My Father's Tears and Other Stories, by John Updike (Knopf, $25.95): "The short story master's final collection is a poignant, end-of-life reflection on the Pennsylvania roots that shaped his fiction."
Rhonda Dickey would wrap and give A Good Fall, by Ha Jin (Pantheon, $24.95), a short-story collection about immigrant Chinese in the New York area. In these "deceptively simple" works, "Jin's characters often take extravagant actions against their problems, and are as surprised as anyone when they prevail."