Looking for a book to wrap up for holiday giving? Here are suggestions for the reader on your list who appreciates quality fiction or revealing memoir, for the never-Trumper or the cookbook aficionado.
A PILGRIMAGE TO ETERNITY
By Tim Egan
Lapsed/questioning/confused Catholics would seem to be a subculture just waiting for a great book written just for them. Looking around the Roman Catholic Church, let's just say there are problems. Reformer Pope Francis has his hands full. But really, it's always been like that, and in times of trouble many Catholics through the centuries have decided to get back to the basic tenets of their faith... by going on a walkabout!
Of course, they call them pilgrimages, from where the faithful lived to some of the key holy sites of Europe and beyond. To recreate that grand tradition, and to contemplate some of his own complicated feelings about God and religion, Timothy Egan traced the Via Francigena, from Canterbury in England to Rome.
There's a time during Catholic mass, just after communion, when you sit in the pew, in silent reflection. It might be the best part — a rare quiet moment amid a busy, distracted life. For the faithful, it's a time to listen to God.
Pilgrimages strike me as kind of the same thing — 1,000 miles to shut up and think. In A Pilgrimage to Eternity you get to hear Egan's inner monologue, exploring doubt and beauty, and his own thoughts on the church's many sins and mixed history. Oh, and his blisters! (Pro tip: Duct tape helps.) Egan, a Spokane native who was raised Catholic at Assumption Parish and Gonzaga Prep, is one of our most thoughtful writers, and this is his most personal book yet.
You're in good hands, so jump on the Via Francigena with Tim as your guide. The only blisters you'll get will be on your thumbs as you can't stop turning the pages. (TSM)
THE LAST LEONARDO
By Ben LewIs
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps humanity's greatest intellect. And he's never really left the headlines, as over the past couple years the art world was consumed by the provenance of a newly discovered Leonardo painting, Salvator Mundi. In 2017, it was bought by a Saudi prince for $450 million — the most any painting has ever sold for.
And that's where art critic, author and filmmaker Ben Lewis picks up the trail. Lewis traces the twists and turns, from Mundi emerging out of obscurity in 2005 to be sold for $1,175 to that jaw-dropping Christie's auction in London. Along the way, you get a crash course in da Vinci's sprawling genius along with a trip through the sketchy swamp of art dealers, arriving at the still controversial determination that Mundi is, indeed, a da Vinci.
Lewis has layered a detective novel on top of a masterpiece, underlining that, like beauty, truth can be in the eye of the beholder. (TSM)
By ChrIstina Thompson
One of the enduring human mysteries is how Polynesia was settled. Made up of more than 1,000 tiny specks spread across more than 100,000 square miles, Harvard Review editor Christina Thompson has set out to reconcile the mess of theories that have tried to explain how people got to some of the most remote places on the planet and made a go of it.
Spanish silver ships sailed right past the inhabited islands for 200 years before Captain Cook "discovered" Hawaii and Australia. Visitors immediately puzzled over how the natives got there, as does Thompson, who pays special attention to the most recent archaeological discoveries, filtered through new technologies.
Like others, she debunks, among others, the popular Kon-Tiki theory that settlement started in South America. Instead, she starts by believing the oral histories of this rich, fascinating culture, including the tale of the legendary seafarer Rata.
Those early voyages really were like space shots, Thompson concludes, with the pioneers packing up everything they needed to survive, then more or less floating away, out into the great unknown. (TSM)
By Kenneth Womack
The classic album Abbey Road came out 50 years ago — almost exactly at the same time the Beatles broke up. Talk about going out on top! As epitaphs go, it's unmatched — a tour-de-force that continues to make the case that the Beatles remain the greatest band of all time.
Beatles devotee Kenneth Womack is celebrating with a new book detailing the making of Abbey Road and the end of the band. Unlike many critics, Womack is not one to blame anybody (cough, Yoko). He just unspools the story, interviewing those who were there about the magic behind such eternal tracks as "Come Together" and "Here Comes the Sun." From how they set the dials in the studio, to which guitars they played to what they argued and laughed about, it's all here.
So if you're buying that Beatles superfan the Abbey Road 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe set, with three discs, an LP and a coffee table book, all packaged in an official Abbey Road gift bag, you might as well toss in a copy of Solid State. (TSM)
By Mo Rocca
Remember when movies were based on books? Now it's books that are based on podcasts. Whatever it takes to hear more from Mo Rocca, I'm in. Perfecting the hipster-nerd paradigm, Rocca first made an impression on The Daily Show and now CBS This Morning. He has a kind of meandering interest in the things you never really think about.
The conceit here is to rewrite the obituaries of people — a couple of places and things, too — that we let slip by with too little notice.
Some are serious, like Elizabeth Jennings, a black woman who climbed aboard a whites-only streetcar 100 years before Rosa Parks. Others are quirky, like Billy Carter, the president's good-old-boy brother best known for having a beer named after him. Prussia, a place, gets a Mobit, as does the great American station wagon, clearly a thing.
"The Ford Country Squire at one point was 19 feet long," Rocca told NPR. "I mean, you couldn't... there weren't even parking spaces big enough for them."
Mobituaries delivers Rocca's trademark style — random information, with an addictive dash of panache. (TSM)
CATCH AND KILL
By Ronan Farrow
If insider entertainment gossip is your thing, Catch and Kill is the culmination of years of investigations starting with Harvey Weinstein but spilling over to Matt Lauer, NBC and The National Enquirer.
Farrow is a controversial figure on his own, with lots of powerful people now his sworn enemies. He is steeped in weird Hollywood controversy, being the estranged son of Woody Allen. No surprise he has turned his sights on the moral rot he sees there. As a journalist, he's a badass, winning the Pulitzer for his Weinstein reporting in The New Yorker.
This new book clears out his reporter's notebook, detailing not only Weinstein's alleged crimes but how other media helped keep it all under wraps for years — they "catch and kill" embarrassing stories.
"I follow a trail of clues from how Harvey Weinstein weaponized The National Enquirer all the way up to how Trump weaponized The National Enquirer and used them to suppress stories," Farrow told WBUR in Boston. "This had a bearing on our democracy." (TSM)
Edited by Daniel Jones
Since 2004, the New York Times has published its "Modern Love" feature, with essays on the joys — and terrors — of dating in modern New York. Also a podcast, now it's a series streaming on Amazon Prime. This new book compiles the greatest hits of the beloved feature, including the columns that inspired the TV shows.
Daniel Jones, who has edited the essays (and yes, the writers bravely use their own names) since the start, says he has pored over probably 100,000 stories over the years.
"One of the best things about love..." he wrote recently, "is how impossible it is to master."
But people keep trying!
Dates with guys who look like dad. Dates that end at the ER. Cyber-stalking your ex. It's all there, delivered in quick, column-length bites, making it a book you can jump in and out of.
It's entertainment, for sure, both cringe-worthy and tear-jerking. But it also adds up to some pretty solid relationship advice. (TSM)
By Richard Powers
Unlike most of the books on this list, The Overstory was published last year, but recently released in paperback. At 500 pages it may be overlooked by some but is gift-worthy for serious readers. A National Book Award winner, it is a masterfully woven tale of a disparate collection of people who came to love trees in their own unique way and become unlikely warriors in a battle to save the biggest, most majestic trees of Northern California and Southwest Oregon. Each character is introduced with a vignette of family backstory. Powers provides a few clues so that the reader knows all these people will somehow become part of a larger story. But how? Powers' skill as a writer and storyteller intertwines plant life from below the soil to the treetops with the lives and history of his characters. The result is a tale full of life and death, love and loss, a contest for survival of people and landscapes, and one heck of a story. (MC)
By Margaret Atwood
This may not be the appropriate gift for every reader, but for the feminist on your list who has read The Handmaid's Tale — now a classic — the recently released sequel is a must-read. The story is set 15 years after the first book ended as the misogynistic Gilead empire, which rules much of the former U.S., faces threats from inside. Atwood is a lucid writer able to capture the voices of three main female characters who drive the plot to its thrilling conclusion. An even better gift idea for someone who has not read The Handmaid's Tale would be a two-book set. (MC)
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING
By Delia Owens
There's a reason Where The Crawdads Sing has been on the New York Times bestseller list all year. It is a captivating story told by a writer with deep knowledge of the natural world who creates a place and a fictional character that together carry the story from a lonely unkempt childhood in the marshes of North Carolina to adulthood and dangers beyond. The reader falls in love with Kya and roots for her as she matures beyond the marsh. The originality and readability of this book has made it a favorite of book clubs and would be a welcome surprise under the tree. (MC)
FALL BACK DOWN
WHEN I DIE
By Joe Wilkins
This is a beautifully written, complex story about bonds created and broken – between individuals, between people and the land and between past and present. The protagonist, Wendell, is a gentle soul in the not-so-gentle Montana environment. This is a story about the consequences of grievance and entitlement as Western myth confronts the complicated reality of the modern West. Any reader who lives in or near open spaces of the West and experiences the inevitable culture clash in daily life will appreciate Fall Back Down When I Die for the beauty of the language as well as for the well-told story of a good man. (MC)
OF AN IDEALIST
By Samantha Power
This memoir hits the book market like a beacon to remind us how idealism can play a role in our national life. The timing is ideal as we experience in real time what has come to be called a transactional presidency, a leader as deal maker. Power was a feisty youngster who immigrated from Ireland with her family. She took that feistiness into her work as a freelance journalist covering the horrors of war in the Balkans in the 1990s. There she met humanitarians who influenced her career trajectory. She campaigned for Obama, joined his administration as a foreign service advisor, and was named U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Her resume, which includes Harvard Law School, is impressive, but the strength of this memoir is Power's honesty and intensity in telling her life story, revealing her mistakes, both personal and professional, and her abiding belief in fundamental ideals of America. (MC)
HOW TO COOK
By Mark Bittman
For the ambitious cook on your list there is no better surprise under the tree than a colorful all-purpose cookbook. For years, Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything has been my go-to book in the kitchen, which years ago replaced my mother's tattered and grease-spattered Joy of Cooking. So, I was happy to learn that Bittman, a New York Times food writer, has updated his book on its 20th anniversary with lots of color, while keeping the basic goal of making food and its preparation understandable. I don't yet have this updated version, but I browsed through it at a bookstore. Santa, are you reading this? (MC)
Is there a never-Trumper on your gift list? He or she might be interested in A Warning by "Anonymous." The book came out on Nov. 19. I have not yet read it, but plan to, despite some misgivings about the author's anonymity. Much as been written about the book, however, and it's known that the author is a Republican who supports the president's agenda, if not his behavior, and wrote the anonymous op-ed that caused a stir inside the White House when it appeared last year in the New York Times. This is for that someone who relishes insider accounts of political turmoil, especially as we head toward the 2020 presidential election. (MC) ♦