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Arts & Life

The 2021 Talk of Iowa holiday book guide for adults

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It’s the time of year when many of us begin to think about gift giving -- and also when we're anticipating hunkering down with books as the winter bears down.

Three indie booksellers/book lovers joined host Charity Nebbe on Talk of Iowa to discuss the best new books to give and receive this holiday season.

Guests

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Fiction

Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
"Normal People, which probably she wrote when she was 28, I thought it was maybe the best book about class that I'd ever read, because it didn't make it the direct subject, but it was really good. And there's a lot of that in this book too. It follows Alice, who's a writer that's not comfortable with her fame and her best friend, Eileen, from college. Largely, it is about their relationship and their relationships with men and their discussions about world issues."
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Bewilderment by Richard Powers
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
"Richard Powers was a Pulitzer Prize-winner for Overstory, and this book is much shorter as it's loosely based on flowers for Algernon … it's a really, really moving book, and obviously, Richard Powers is an incredible writer. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and I recommend it very highly.”
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Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Recommended by Tim Budd
“It is three simultaneous stories. One is set in 15th century Constantinople, now Istanbul, when the city is under siege. The second story is set in present day Idaho, and the third story is set far into the future in some spaceship. And what connects these three stories is a Greek story written in the first century A.D. called Cloud Cuckoo Land that was discovered in a tomb … If you're a reader, if you like books and you love to read, you will really enjoy this book.”
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Corporate Gunslinger by Doug Engstrom
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
“He's actually an Iowa author, and this is his debut novel, and it's set in a near-future world where you can settle your disagreements with your insurance company by going head to head with a professional gunslinger. And the main character, Kira, is drawn into this life as a corporate gunslinger because she is under an immense amount of student debt. So it's a very dark, gritty tale about the desperation that that debt will drive some people to.”
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Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
“As Jonathan Franzen is want to do, each chapter sort of takes a character’s perspective. It's 600 pages, but it's very fast. It's serious, but it's also funny.”
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Dovetails in Tall Grass by Samantha Specks
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
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The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
“Part thriller, part mystery and part ethical dilemma. The main character is a scientist, and she has perfected cloning, and in the future, cloning is only used for organ farming. And for body doubles for like political figures. And she finds out that her ex-husband has taken her research and created a better version of her. … It kind of leaves you on the edge of your seat.”
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The God of Lost Words by A.J. Hackwith
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
“This is actually the third and final book in her trilogy of the Health Library series. And this series was written specifically for people that love to read and for story lovers. In book one, you discover what stories are made of and in book two what happens when stories stop being told or lost. Book three wraps up the series, and you get a satisfying ending and conclusion about the sacrifice made to ensure that stories and libraries endure for all time.”
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How to Find Your Way in the Dark by Derek B. Miller
Recommended by Tim Budd
“It is the coming of age story of Sheldon Horowitz from 1938 to just post-World War II 1947… it's really the World War II experience at home in a domestic situation and also a Jewish experience into a Jewish family. So you're looking at it from that lens. … I just think it's delightful and surprising and charming, and even the darkest moments are handled with fun.”
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Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
"It's a very moving book. I mean, you know, the characters are all very whole."
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This is Happiness by Niall Williams
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
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The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
“It's set in the 1950s in a fictional college in upstate New York, which I have heard is based on Cornell … the main character is the only Jewish faculty member in the university. And he's put on the search committee and asked to take this person around, even though his field has absolutely nothing to do with the field that this guy is applying for a job for … I can't say that he's better than Roth, but in that territory.”
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Sisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
“I know there are a lot of World War II historical fiction books out there, but what stands out about Kaia’s book is about the 6888, which was a group of Black women that were stationed over in Europe that helped deliver the mail to the servicemen that were serving over there for the U.S. So it kind of shows their struggle for equality and just to have a life, and also follows at least one Black soldier and his goal to be recognized as a foot soldier in the military during that time.”
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Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
Recommended by Tim Budd
“It is that warm, fuzzy, wonderful book that just even though it deals with death, and in some cases suicide, that really is affirming about the life you lead and the life to come. It's really a beautiful, lovely book.”
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What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad
Recommended by Tim Budd
“It is very immersive, I think because of the author's journalistic background. You're reading this book, and you are in that boat. You are on that beach, and it's the kind of book for someone who's socially conscious, who is issue driven. It really explains the refugee situation from a child's point of view.”
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Nonfiction


100 Things We've Lost to the Internet by Pamela Paul
Recommended by Tim Budd
“These are just a series of quick, little thumbnail sketches, essays, you know, one to five pages, depending on what she's dealing with. But, for instance, she covers things like birthday cards, window shopping, penmanship, blind dates, social cues, maps all of these things. And some of them are just very witty and kind of clever and funny, and some take a more sobering look.”
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The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family by Ron Howard & Clint Howard
Recommended by Tim Budd
“What I found particularly interesting about the book is that not only do you get a chronicle of American television through this time period, is that you also finally unlock the mystery of why child actors don't make it after they've grown up.”
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How to Resist Amazon and Why by Danny Caine
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
“An insightful series of essays by indie bookstore owner Danny Caine about Amazon's business practices and how it affects not just independent bookstores, but all small, independent businesses in the United States. So I learned a lot about some of the things that Amazon does and what you can do on a personal level to try to break up with Amazon, which is hard to do.”
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In the Weeds by Tom Vitale
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
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Last Best Hope by George Packer
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
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The Ninth Decade by Carl Klaus
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
“This book is about aging, and it's kind of remarkable that someone who is nearly 90 can write so clearly about both the joys and the, obviously, huge challenges of aging.”
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The Passenger by Chaney Kwak
Recommended by Tim Budd
"Chaney Kwak is a freelance travel writer based in San Francisco. He's in his 40s when he is on a cruise ship, and he feels a bit like an interlope r… And off the coast of Norway, they encounter a very bad storm, which nearly sinks the ship. So for 27 hours, the ship has no power, no movement … it really makes him face his own mortality. He's been with the same partner for 20 years, and he's wondering if that is worthwhile. He thinks about his parents and their immigration to the U.S. from Korea and how difficult that was. And he seems to question all these big life moments. So he writes beautifully, and it is a wonderfully sized book for anyone traveling over the holidays.”
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Rebel Chef by Dominique Crenn
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
“This is an amazing memoir about a survivor and an amazing chef in America. She was the first woman to get a 3- Michelin star restaurant. She's French, so it's about her immigrant experience to America, not knowing anything about it and just her journey to find out what she wanted to do with her life and how differently she runs her kitchens from the traditional way we hear about professional kitchens being run.”
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The Ride of Her Life by Elizabeth Letts
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
“This actually chronicles the life of Annie Wilkins in 1954, who jumps on her horse and rides from Maine all the way to California, and her journey and the people she met, and how she successfully crossed the country in a time when interstates were just becoming a thing … it's also a chronicle of like how cars became part of the culture of America, and where horses have gone and where they're going.”
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Subterranea: Journey Into the Depths of the Earth's Most Extraordinary Underground Spaces by Chris Fitch
Recommended by Tim Budd
"They cover classical world, the natural world, such as caves, but they even look at underground subway systems, and they (illustrated) the seed vault up in the Arctic that's holding all the seeds and underground bunkers and military things. But what's so great is that they put the city or the landscape or the cave where this underground network might be, and then drawn a map over that so you can see where the network of underground passages lies."
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Taste by Stanley Tucci
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
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The Transcendentalists and Their World by Robert A. Gross
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
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Truffle Hound by Rowan Jacobson
Recommended by Terri LeBlanc
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We Heard It When We Were Young by Chuy Renteria
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
“West Liberty was the first town in the state of Iowa that was (majority Hispanic.) He grew up there and he describes that childhood in a very, I'd say, compassionate way.”
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Wildland by Evan Osnos
Recommended by Jan Weismiller
“(Osnos) has been back here since 2011, maybe. And he was shocked when he came back and how changed the country was just between 2001 and 2011. So he decided to write this book bookending September 11 and January 6, the Capitol assault …You can read it without getting emotionally distraught. You can read it and just feel like, ‘Oh, this is what happened. This is clear.’ And, to some extent, it at least gives you a path forward in terms of what you'd like to see done.”
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You can hear the full conversation on the Talk of Iowa podcast. And, for even more great reads, check out the Talk of Iowa Bookclub.