The best part of Christmas isn't the morning so much as the afternoon. Sure, there's the giddy thrill of ripping open presents at the crack of dawn, but there's also something to be said for the lazy contentment of Christmas afternoon. All the holiday chaos is over, you have nowhere you have to be and it's perfectly acceptable for you to curl up in a warm corner with your tea and a brand new book. And this year, finding a great book for the readers on your list (or yourself) won't be difficult at all; in fact, limiting yourself to one or two from this year's impressive literary crop will be.
One of my favorite new discoveries this year is The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup ($24.95), by Susan Orlean. A writer for The New Yorker since 1992, Orlean could be considered part of that new wave of writers and journalists (think Ira Glass, David Sedaris and the BBC's Louis Theroux) who are fascinated with the lives of ordinary, even downright unusual people. With wit, and remarkable insight Orlean crafts profiles of ordinary mortals (although there is the occasional minor celebrity thrown in) that range from compassionate to searing. Orlean is a significant new talent.
Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea ($40) by Carl Zimmer. A companion volume to the elegantly educational PBS series, Evolution explores the far-reaching implications of Darwin's infamous theory. From the rough-skinned newt of Oregon (which produces enough toxin to kill 17 adult humans) to the frightening new range of antibiotic-resistant diseases, Evolution is fascinating reading throughout. More than150 color photographs illustrate Zimmer's engaging, intelligent text, making this a great gift for any families on your list.
Half a Life ($24) by V.S. Naipaul. From the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, Half a Life is the story of Willie Chandran, who naively follows the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi by setting aside his own brahmin status and marrying a woman of a lower caste. Their union is disastrous, and he flees to London to find himself in the literary bohemian atmosphere of the 1950s. Realizing he doesn't belong there either, he falls in love with a woman who takes him with her back to Africa, but even there he finds himself part of a political struggle that he really has nothing to do with. A brilliant evocation of a rather accidental life.
The Naked Chef Takes Off ($34.95) by Jamie Oliver. Although Oliver is host of his own wildly popular cooking show on the Food Network, he looks barely old enough to be boiling water for mac and cheese on his own. Don't let his youthful good looks fool you, however; Oliver's sequel to his first cookbook, The Naked Chef, is filled with such gorgeously photographed delicacies as "tortellini of ricotta, lemon, parmesan and sage butter" and "baked cod with French beans, pancetta and pine nuts." And although Oliver is British, his text is anything but reserved. We especially liked his description of "fantastic fish pie": "It's a homely, hearty thing. Tacky but tasty and that's what I like."
New York, September 11 (29.95) by Magnum Photographers. The most affecting and unforgettable coffee table books this year are also the most disturbing. We saw quite a few titles on the events of Sept. 11, including one by the editors of Time magazine, and there are plenty that offer the all-too familiar moments of explosive impact. This title shows quiet restraint in that there are only a few shots of the planes striking the towers. New York, September 11 is exactly what the title implies; this is a book about a city, its people and how everything changed in an instant. From broad panoramic shots of the Brooklyn Bridge against a thick bank of black clouds to intimate scenes of blank-eyed New Yorkers wandering through rubble, these photographs bring back the stunned emotions of that day.
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World ($24.95) by Michael Pollan. What if potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify specific human desires in order to get humans to help them multiply? That is the intriguing premise at the heart of The Botany of Desire, which artfully blends history, narrative and science to tell the stories of four domesticated species: apples, tulips, potatoes and marijuana, but from the plants' point of view. Pollan's prose is a joy to read and he effectively makes a case for co-evolution.
Fury ($24.95) by Salman Rushdie. I have to admit, I loved Rushdie's cameo in the film treatment of Bridget Jones' Diary and that he let himself be the butt of a joke where people at a literary gala, too intimidated to actually speak to him, instead ask him where the bathrooms are located. A darkly humorous sensibility suffuses his newest effort, Fury, which introduces us to a Cambridge professor, born in India, who abandons his family in London in order to seek a new life in Manhattan. His new life, however, turns out to be less than idyllic. Bike messengers spit obscenities, a serial killer is on the loose and he discovers in himself and others a surprising rage and pettiness. Unflinching prose and a strong sense of both place and character make this book not-to-be-missed.
Faithless: Tales of Transgression($27) by Joyce Carol Oates. You know, nothing says "Happy Holidays" like a sturdy collection of stories about infidelity! Here, the frighteningly prolific Joyce Carol Oates wreaks stories of emotional, and often physical, havoc. Her characters, from the bitter young woman of "Ugly" to the two sisters of "Faithless" who remember their mother's disappearance quite differently, are finely crafted constructions who are blind to themselves and move through life unaware of the broader implications of their actions. Nevertheless, Oates writes about them with a tenderness and understanding approaching love.
Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert ($23) by Terry Tempest Williams. Williams is undoubtedly one of the finest environmental writers around, and in Red, she is at her narrative and persuasive best. A collection of journal entries, stories, poems and even congressional testimony, Red springs from her deep connection to the red rock desert of southern Utah. Few writers could effectively tie their Mormon heritage into a love of the land that borders on the erotic, but Williams does so with courage and integrity.
Demonology ($24.95) by Rick Moody. Heralded as one of the most original and gifted writers of his generation, Moody comes into his own with this astonishing collection of short stories. Although his characters are from all walks of life, they tend in this collection to be young more often than not, and therefore dwell in a kind of pop-cultural, post-modern mental space. Moody's writing, however, is wise beyond his years, following the rules of really good short fiction and building up to the sort of comes-out-of-nowhere punch that Flannery O'Connor was so good at. The title story is worth the price of the book alone.
Patience and Fortitude ($35) by Nicholas A. Basbanes. In 1995, Basbanes introduced the term "a gentle madness" to describe the symptoms of bibliomania, or a fierce love of books. In this, the sequel to A Gentle Madness, Basbanes turns his attention to "book people, book places and book culture," profiling everything from Maurice Sendak, to the search for the libraries of Alexandria. And while he holds to the clich & eacute; that you can't judge a book by its cover, it helps that this is a remarkably pretty book.