Many are the books given as gifts for the holidays. And a lot of those books even get read. Below is just a taste of the best of 2017 in fiction and nonfiction, things we or our reviewers really got hooked on. As gifts, they’ll make you seem sensitive, knowing, and humane.
Fiction readers like good, meaningful stories, with characters whose lives work out important human themes. These suggestions do all that, with beautiful writing to power it all along.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry ($26). This won the prestigious Costa Book of the Year Award in the U.K. An Irish boy flees the Great Famine, travels to the United States, and signs up for the Army in the 1850s. From there, it’s the Indian Wars, the Civil War, and an enduring friendship. Reviewer Frank Wilson called it “a wonder, part western, part romance, part war novel, but at every turn humane and moving.”
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride ($27). The local American Book Award-winner hits us with a zesty, original, engaging, quick-reading collection of two novellas and some standalone stories.
Riverhead Books, penguinrandomhouse.com.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward ($26). This tale of a Southern family’s travels to the North won the National Book Award for fiction this year. A young boy tries to have a life during the Great Migration. A heartbreaking book full of heart.
The War-Bride’s Scrapbook: A Novel in Pictures by Caroline Preston ($29.99). And postcards, letters, newspaper clippings, and doodles. Lila Jerome elopes with a soldier in tumultuous World War Two America. He ships off to war, and she goes off to Harvard. And thereby hangs an engrossing tale.
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons ($22). Strath Haven High alum Clemmons writes of growing up feeling out of place. Thandi contends with her mother’s death, her mixed racial background, and the conflicting expectations of those around her.
Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles and Regret by Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore ($24.95). These paired essays really are a conversation — thoughtful, penetrating, and hopeful — between Nussbaum (one of our wisest, smartest writers) and economist and lawyer Levmore.
Oxford University Press, global.oup.com
Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years: 1898-1940 by Jed Perl ($55). This big, beautifully illustrated book traces the first half of local kid Alexander Calder’s career from the Philly area to being the most prominent U.S. sculptor of the 20th century.
Cartoon Country by Cullen Murphy ($27). This guy grew up in a Connecticut colony of newspaper cartoonists, among them some of the best of our time. Richly illustrated.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, us.macmillan.com
France Is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child by Alex Prud’homme and Katie Pratt ($35). Famed chef Julia Child’s spouse, Paul, took a lot of photos as they wandered through Paris and the French countryside, absorbing French culinary ideas.
Thames & Hudson, thamesandhudsonusa.com
Grant by Ron Chernow ($40). Chernow, known for his Hamilton bio, delivers what our reviewer Clayton Butler calls a mammoth reconsideration. Grant emerges as a vulnerable, humane, and accomplished leader, deserving of a place among our most celebrated Americans. For history lovers.
Penguin Press, penguinrandomhouse.com
The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone ($27.99). Longtime Philly journalist Fagone tells the story of Elizebeth Friedman, who helped invent modern cryptology, helped fight enemies in two world wars and organized crime in between, and helped found the National Security Agency. Reads like a novel, tells the truth, and gives our history a new heroine.
Dey Street, harpercollins.com
Lots of people give the great standards for the holidays. Here are two winners.
Persuasion by Jane Austen (Penguin, $17). This is a gorgeous, deluxe, reader-friendly Penguin Classics celebration of the 200th anniversary of this masterpiece. In Persuasion, Austen’s last finished book, and perhaps her best, a woman thinks she’s figured someone out … and then unlearns, bit by bit, what she thought she knew.
Penguin Classics, penguinrandomhouse.com
Note: The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition series is turning out beautiful new editions of many classics, from Great Expectations to Heart of Darkness to Dubliners. They are readable, beautiful to look at, and eminently giftable.
The Oddysey, translated by Emily Wilson ($39.95). The Penn professor of classics is the first woman to bring this epic poem into English. I wrote that “Wilson has created a page-turner, spacious, direct, and light-shot, yet also … an exciting chain of adventure stories. A perfect gift for everything from Christmas to Festivus!”
W.W. Norton, books.wwnorton.com