Books as gifts

Books as gifts (Keri Wiginton, Chicago Tribune / November 11, 2012)

Inevitably this holiday season, my mom will tick through her shopping list and say with a sigh, "Your dad wants a book." Since I was a kid, my mom has teased my dad about the predictablity of this ritual, which usually involves the purchase of a brick-sized tome of history. I love shopping for my dad. I don't buy what he asks for; I go with books I suspect he'll like. Bill Buford's "Heat," a memoir about Italian cooking, was an unexpected hit. The next year, I bought him a cookbook.

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Giving books as gifts is an act of communion. Done correctly, it requires thought and intuition; it shows loved ones just how well you understand them. Regardless, though, some books lend themselves more to giving than others. Here's a roundup.

For people-watchers

The biography section of the bookstore is fertile territory for gifts. We're all paparazzi at heart, curious to glimpse what makes fascinating people tick. For literary fans, consider Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives by John Sutherland (Yale, $39.95), a collection of short biographies of authors dating back to the 17th century. It's the sort of book you get lost in as you browse: You start out by flipping through for your favorites and wind up detouring through the lives of less familiar ones, adding more titles to your list of books to read as you go.

Memoirs by Patti Smith and Keith Richards sparked a flurry of musicians' autobiographies this year. Perhaps the best of the crop were When I Left Home by Buddy Guy with David Ritz (Da Capo, $26), which features a particularly riveting account of his early, lonely years in Chicago; and Pete Townshend's Who I Am (Harper, $32.50), a thoughtful account that sometimes wanders a bit like a personal diary might. Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young (Blue Rider, $30) is only recommended for die-hard fans willing to put up with some serious rambling.

History buffs and students of American politics should be pleased by the fourth volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power (Knopf, $35), and Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, $35). For a more personal take on world events, consider Madeleine Albright's memoir, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War (Harper, $29.99). The former secretary of state blends her family's compelling history — she didn't learn her family was Jewish until late in life — with that of World War II and its aftermath.

Dearie by Bob Spitz (Knopf, $29.95) offers a well-rounded, entertaining portrait of Julia Child for the person who didn't get enough of the iconic cook from her memoir, "My Life in France."

Probably the least-reviewed book in this bunch is Not Young, Still Restless by Jeanne Cooper with Lindsay Harrison (It Books, $25.99). Cooper, star of one of the few remaining soap operas, "The Young and the Restless," offers a chatty look into the life of a working actress — even the part where she let the TV show film her own facelift. Soap fans (or nostalgics) will get a kick out of this slice of pop history.

Finally, Brothers by George Howe Colt (Scribner, $30) is perfect for, yes, brothers or anyone willing to meander with Colt through a sprawling memoir and history of what brotherhood really means.

For story-lovers

Fiction gets a little trickier, but not much, if you think about what sort of stories your friends and family enjoy. Do you know an adventurous reader, someone as interested in the form of a story as much as the tale itself? Consider Building Stories by Chris Ware (Pantheon, $50), a boxed set of several pamphlets that tell stories about the inhabitants of a Chicago apartment building, or The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon, $26), an experimental storybook for adults who love H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Or, for a more straightforward bit of suspense, consider Julia Keller's crime novel A Killing in the Hills (Minotaur, $24.99), which follows a teenager and her lawyer mom as they seek to solve a murder in Raythune County, W.V.

Want to make a frazzled mom laugh? Check out Ian Frazier's Cursing Mommy's Book of Days (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25). It offers permission to laugh at the Cursing Mommy's frustrations — and our own. Another fun read to consider is Davy Rothbart's My Heart Is an Idiot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), a collection of self-deprecating stories about Rothbart's relationship foibles.

Let's round out the roundup with a local pick: Chicago Stories by Michael Czyzniejewski (Curbside, $14.99) is a slender collection of stories written in the voice of Chicago icons — alive, dead and even inanimate. It's a clever conceit, well-executed and illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings. It's the sort of book you read out loud for fun.

For poetry aficianados (and newbies)

Poetry magazine turned 100 this year, and the anthology published to celebrate the anniversary is well worth adding to your shopping list. Open Door edited by Don Share and Christian Wiman (University of Chicago, $20) features a broad range of both well-known and lesser-known poets. It's as accessible to those who are new to poetry as it is of interest to those who are well-versed in it.

For those in need of a new-clad classic

Keep an eye out for new versions of the classics. This year's releases included the 50th anniversary edition of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (Norton, $24.95) and the Hemingway Library edition of A Farewell to Arms (Scribner, $27). Both offer additional text; "A Farewell to Arms" includes 47 alternate endings Ernest Hemingway wrote. Also consider Penguin Classics: The publisher offers particularly inventive cover art for a wide array of classics, including Jabberwocky and Other Nonsense by Lewis Carroll ($22) and The Greek Myths by Robert Graves ($25).

The Library of America's two-volume set of American Science Fiction, 1953-1958 is ideal for the person mourning Ray Bradbury, the person seeking to learn more about the influence of science fiction on contemporary lit or anyone looking for a fun read. It's a great entree into the genre — and edited by a local: Gary K. Wolfe is a professor at Roosevelt University.