The Best Books to Give This Holiday

Nov 24, 2015

On this Talk of Iowa, Charity Nebbe speaks with Jan Weismiller and Paul Ingram of Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City and Nancy Simpson-Brice,  associated with Book Vault in Oskaloosa about their favorite books of the year and recommendations for gifts this holiday season.

Paul’s Picks

Finials: A View of Downtown IC by Marybeth Slonneger

“She has gone through I don’t know how many of old Iowa City photos from 1850 and 60 where everybody has beards and odd little hats. They’ll frequently put a shot that you’ll recognize something from the 1960s or 70s next to the same shot a few years previously. It’s the greatest gift for any Iowa Citian. Her book on the Hamburg Inn was just a joy and this is the same kind of joy. A lot of people will like this.”

On the Run by Alice Goffman

“She was in school, and she wanted to find out about the people living in Philadelphia neighborhoods and getting involved with people who are at risk from the police all the time. They always talk about how many people are in jail. She says the police are just dying to put black males into jail. It’s quite controversial for many reasons but it is gorgeous writing.”

Pitch by Pitch by Bob Gibson

“He and a writer just get down with the tape or the film of one game. It was one of his most incredible, magical games and they talk about every pitch he made. He’ll talk about making a decision on what pitch to throw and where to throw it, and he goes on and on. And he throws the ball, and it’s a foul ball. And he puts all these great anecdotes. It’s just a great baseball book.”

Audacity of Hoop by Alexander Wolff

“This is about basketball and what it means to Barack Obama and to the people he hangs out with. He was a very good basketball player in high school but he didn’t get to play that much because his team was too good. There’s a great scene where after he’s president he gets back to Hawaii and talks to his coach, because he was really giving his coach a lot of crap about not playing him more. Obama felt bad about that. All he wanted to do was find this coach and say ‘Coach, I wasn’t that good.’ There’s basketball all around his life.”

Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future by Lauren Redniss

“Lauren Redniss has invented a new kind of book, it’s not a graphic novel, it’s not a science kind of book, but it is all--it’s one of these I’m going to have to get you down to the bookstore to see because it’s just amazing. She’s a very, very good prose writer. This is really a collection of essays and art about weather.”

The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott

“The main character here, the basic sort of low end southern loser of a character, and he is a taxidermist as many people are beginning to realize that taxidermy is a low end profession in the South. And he wants most of all to get back to his girlfriend and he wants to get some money and he goes to a place called the center for cybernetic neuroscience and he has all these high powered humanities high-intellect things downloaded into his brain.”

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

“This is a collection of short stories, it just won the national book award. There are five or six stories and they’re long-ish and some of them quite funny, some of them poignant.”

All The Help You Need a Vic Pasternak novel by Sean Preciado Genell

“It’s about an Iowa City cab driver who drives around at night and he has owned a couple of the various cab companies that he works on and talks about. It’s kind of a noir. He is very, very funny and absolutely believable. He’s got a very, very nice style. I’m really high on this book.” 

Jan’s Picks

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

“These are nine linked stories that take place in Russia between 1937 and the future. And they sort of go back and forth between characters who are artists—there’s a dancer and there’s a visual artist and a photographer--and this character that is a tool of the state. And of course art is dangerous to someone who is a tool of the state so each of the stories is kind of this interaction between trying to maintain culture and trying to maintain it.”

100 Years of the Best American Short Stories — edited by Lorrie Moore

“It is, as we say at Prairie Lights, a thick tome. It begins in 1915 obviously and ends in 2015. One of the really wonderful things about this book is Lorrie Moore’s introduction. She says, ‘It’s a lovely shock of mercy and democracy to find that we need to spend time in the company of people whose troubles we might ordinarily avoid.’”

Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams

“It has been getting really fantastic reviews; people are calling it one of the most essential books of the year. They do have that sort of minimalist Raymond Carver kind of feel to them but she’s able to describe characters from many walks of life and on many social and economic levels which is interesting. She’s still got that sort-of wry, sardonic, very observant way of describing things but not everything is taking place in the same social strata which is very interesting actually.”

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste NG

“It’s a very loving very close family but they’ve all experienced these sad reactions to their mixed racial family and they haven’t told each other about it. So it just sort of builds this feeling about how we often don’t talk to the people we’re closest to about the things that are most emotionally hard for us. It’s a really good book, it’s really vivid and well-written.”

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs

“This is a history of the English and their culture from the Bronze Age to the present. But it’s very readable, because he’s got this just sort of incredibly encompassing personal voice that just draws you right in. He says something really interesting that if English history had been his field, he wouldn’t have been able to write a book like this for ordinary reader. He would have been bogged down immediately in the academic stuff.”

The Year of Lear:  Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro

“1606 is the year he finished King Lear and wrote both Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. In terms of Shakespeare’s life altogether, it’s hard to put together anything so this book doesn’t try to do that. It tracks more what’s going on that year. It’s right after the reign of Elizabeth has ended and King James who is Scottish and Catholic is there, there’s this gunpowder plot which attempts to assassinate him and fails. But there’s all this intrigue that he then ties to all three: Macbeth and King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra.”

I’ll Tell You Mine:  30 Years of Essays from The Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program edited by Hope Edelman and Robin Hemley

“The introduction talks about the history of the program because it’s not part of the Writers Workshop. It was begun in the 1970s in the English department, and it’s regarded. They start in the 80s with the essays that are in here. There are a lot of people included in here that are known and others that are not. They’re very diverse both in terms of style and subject, and it’s a really great anthology.”

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker

“It’s a collection of the letters she’s written to all the men in her life. They’re all short bur she’s very quick witted, and I think everybody can relate to wanting to write letters like these to people in your life.”

Nancy’s Picks

Bats of the Republic: An Illuminated Novel by Zachary Thomas Dodson

“‘Illuminated’ refers to all of the original artwork and handwritten notes and maps and sketches that are in this book. I like it because it guarantees that the physical book will stay around because there’s no way you’re going to be able to put all of this stuff on your nook. I would recommend this book to the hard-to-buy for person on your list; it’s filled with adventure, science fiction, political intrigue, future dystopian struggles, and, of course, love. It will make you look incredibly hip if you give it to a nephew or a grandson."

Beneath the Bonfire: Stories by Nickolas Butler

“Great stories, some of them are funny, some of them are poignant. Very unique stories, very Midwestern. I’d recommend to this to almost anybody.”

Descent by Tim Johnson

“It does indeed get thrilling and your heart is thumping. One reviewer said of this book “It makes Gone Girl seem gimmicky.” I would give this to the people on your list who may not like to read that much, it’ll grab ‘em.”

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell

“These are stories of strong women who get into and out of trouble with ease. Every time you turn around they’re either newly in or coming out. They can support each other as best friends or stab each other in the back.  This is a volume for all the strong women in your family.”

Stories from the Kitchen edited by Diana Secker Tesdell

“It’s stories of culinary arts from all across time and all across the world. You’ll have authors ranging from Charles Dickens to Nora Ephron and Amy Tan. It’s a nice little hardback but it sells for $16. At that price, and you’ll have Perfect hostess gift or slip in the stocking gift.”

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

“A funny delightful romp of a story, you’re going to laugh and enjoy it and feel good.”

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katrina Bivald (To be released in January)

“This is so much fun because Broken Wheel is a small town in Iowa, I mean, not really, but in this book. This is a very happy book, very feel good and you will be smiling when you’re done.”

The Golden Age by Jane Smiley

“It’s basically the story of Iowa itself as we have gone away from the farm, then to the small cities and then to the big cities. I think everybody in Iowa should read it. Especially if you’ve grown up on a farm, you will find a lot to resonate with.”