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Talk of Iowa's 2022 holiday book guide for adults

Six adult fiction picks: Babel: an Arcane History, Fellowship Point: a novel, Shutter, I'm More Dateable Than a Plate of Refried Beans and other Romantic Observations, The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II and the Philosophy of Modern Song.

The holidays are for family, fun and cozying up with a good book.

Two indie booksellers and an Iowa author 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

Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang

Recommended by Rachel Mans McKenny

"For fantasy or language lovers, I recommend Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang. The main character, Robin Swift, is orphaned in Canton and brought to London by a professor of language. He’s trained up to attend Oxford’s institute of translation, where it’s clear that there is literal magic in languages and the ability to translate them. This book is pure dark academia: secret societies, a satisfying magic structure, betrayal and violence. It’s absolutely delicious."

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Do You Take this Man by Denise Williams

Recommended by Rachel Mans McKenny

"Winter means cuddling up under a blanket for me and getting lost in a book, and romance novels are perfect for that. Do You Take this Man by Denise Williams is one of my favorite reads of the year. A divorce lawyer’s side-habit of officiating weddings throws her directly in the path of an event planner who is annoying and incredibly attractive. William’s book is everything good about an enemies-to-lovers: spicy and full of banter. I rooted so hard for these characters."

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Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"Protagonist Agnes Lee is a celebrated children’s book author thinking about her legacy. She is determined to protect Fellowship Point, the coastal Maine peninsula where she has spent all 79 summers of her life. To donate the land to a trust, Agnes must convince the remaining shareholders to agree to the plan, but her lifelong friend and co-shareholder’s sons have another plan. Jo Ann Beard says, Fellowship Point is deeply concerned with the land, the creatures who inhabit it and the legacies of ownership, stewardship and friendship. It is also just a great, absorbing and transformative read.”
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Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Recommended by Rachel Mans McKenny

"In Four Treasures of the Sky, Daiyu, a girl from China, is kidnapped at the fish market and sent across the ocean, forced to learn English along the way. On the other side of the voyage is Idaho, where she faces a world where Chinese immigrants build railroads and work in mines and brothels, but have no agency or respect. It’s a beautiful historical novel, with a tender coming-of-age story set in the old west that we don’t get to typically see."
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Go Home, Ricky! by Gene Kwak
Recommended by Rachel Mans McKenny
"I cannot claim to love wrestling, but Go Home, Ricky! made me love books about the subject. After years on the semi-pro wrestling circuit, Ricky sustains a major injury in a match right before he can make it big. Forced to the sidelines, he starts a journey to find the father he never knew. This book is alternatively laugh out loud funny and sincere, with short propulsive chapters, and is set in Omaha."
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Lucy By The Sea by Elizabeth Strout
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"This novel by the Pulitzer-prize winning Elizabeth Strout is set in Maine during the pandemic. Lucy Barton’s ex-husband William (familiar to readers of her previous novel, OH, William) insists that she leave Manhattan with him in March of 2020. The novel chronicles their lives together in rural coastal Maine in the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic. Lucy and William's complex past and sudden precarious present is the subject of this lyric, introspective novel that quietly captures so much of our current culture."
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Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Gluck
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"This brief, beautiful book is the poet — and nobel laureate — Louise Gluck’s first foray into fiction. The story of infant twins, Marigold and Rose, is a fairy tale, an intergenerational saga and an investigation of the mystery of language as it encompasses time itself. Shot through with stoic wonder, this is a small book to be read and re-read."
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Shutter by Ramona Emerson
Recommended by Tim Budd

"Rita, a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque police department, has a secret that allows her to find clues that the police overlook: she sees the ghosts of the victims she photographs. When the ghost of a supposed suicide insists that she was murdered, Rita is badgered by the angry spectre into finding the killers herself. I was so compelled by the premise of this novel, I had to read it. Who can resist a paranormal police procedural?"
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The Book of Goose: a Novel by Yiyun Li
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"Yiyun Li is a Chinese American who came to Iowa City from China when she was about 20 to study epidemiology and ended up writing, and now she is very acclaimed and the head of creative writing at Princeton. Her new book, The Book of Goose, is about two friends, Agnes and Fabian, who are growing up in a French village in the 1950s. Agnes has been allowed to go to school and Fabian not. They are like young girls can be when they're 12. Their whole world is their friendship, and Fabian decides that they should write a book to let the world know what it's like to be them. Fabian dictates it and Agnes writes it, and their book gets sent to a publisher in Paris, who thinks the book is wonderful and sends Agnes to a boarding school to write more — which Agnes can't really do without Fabian."
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The City of Brass; The Kingdom of Copper; The Empire of Gold (The Daevabad Trilogy) by S. A. Chakraborty
Recommended by Tim Budd

"This fantasy trilogy builds on Middle Eastern mythology and tells an epic tale of magic, court intrigue and war, populated by djinns, peris and an unforgettable heroine named Nahri, a con artist trying to make a living in Cairo until she unwittingly summons an ancient djinn warrior. I loved every page of these three novels, perfect for Game of Thrones fans, for its creation of a world so foreign, so exotic and detailed, you'll begin to smell spices. The perfect escape."
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The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"Ten months after her mother’s death, the narrator of The Hero of This Book takes a trip to London — the city that was her mother’s favorite. As that narrator wanders the streets, theaters and museums she reflects on her mother’s life as thoughts of the past meld with questions of the future. McCracken is both deeply poignant and deeply funny. This portrait of her eccentric, beloved mother is a tender, philosophical examination of the grieving process, as well as the functions of memory and art."
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The Presence of Absence by Simon Van Booy
Recommended by Tim Budd

"Max Little, bedridden and hospitalized, writes journal entries to preserve — and come to terms with — his final months. A gorgeous exploration of the philosophy of life, death and rebirth crafted by one of the finest novelists writing today. This seemed to me the best novel to emerge treating the core issues and aftermath of the pandemic: how do we move on with our lives after so much loss? And only Mr. Van Booy could craft something so elegantly beautiful, moving and inspiring."

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The Shore by Katie Runde
Recommended by Rachel Mans McKenny

"The Shore is a family drama set in the last months a man’s life as he dies from brain cancer, told from the perspective of the wife and two daughters that he leaves behind. The Dunne family has been stretched thin by this diagnosis, and the mother finds solace in online chatrooms, without knowing that one of her daughters is posing as someone else in that chatroom to get to know her better. There is anger and a summer romance, but above all, Runde’s book shows the beautiful truth of a family trying to love one another through difficulty. Perfect for people who love Emma Straub novels or for mother/daughter gifts."
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The Slowworm’s Song by Andrew Miller
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

The Slowworm’s Song takes the form of a 250-page letter from Stephen Rose, a middle-aged gardening-center worker in Somerset, England, to his daughter. Rose has just received a summons to an inquiry into what happened in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the summer of 1982, when he was a British soldier briefly assigned to the decades-long conflict known as The Troubles. His letter is an attempt both to reconnect with his daughter and to redeem himself ahead of past actions becoming public knowledge."
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The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

Recommended by Tim Budd

"Set on the southern coast of England and spanning 1919-1945, this debut novel follows the lives of the Seagrave family, especially those of the children. Christabel, Flossie and Digby are raised on imagination and play in the country until World War II erupts, pushing Christabel and Digby into service as undercover agents while Flossie makes her own stand on the homefront. Engrossing characters, excellent writing and thrilling situations make this an impressive historical novel. Fans of British TV will find this novel a truly enjoyable read."

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The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings
Recommended by Rachel Mans McKenny

"For lovers of Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler, I’d recommend The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings. Giddings writes a world where at thirty, if women aren’t married, they are put on a witchcraft registry. Josephine’s own mother has disappeared, with some potential ties to witchcraft, but Jo decides to honor one last wish in her will. Doing so reveals a lot about herself, but also about the twisted society that she’s surrounded by that forfeits female autonomy."
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We Spread by Iain Reid
Recommended by Tim Budd

"The third novel by the brilliant Mr. Reid tells the story of Penny, an aging artist who finds herself struggling with the downside of growing old. After one too many 'slips,' she is moved into a long-term-care facility, where she improves, surrounded by peers and the beautiful setting. But as things begin to blur and she loses more and more of herself, she's unsure whether this is part of the natural aging process, or if there is something more sinister at work. What makes the work of Iain Reid so fascinating is his skill with manipulating the reader's perceptions. Just when you think you're on solid ground, he will change the entire way you've looked at things."
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Nonfiction

Acceptance: A Memoir by Emi Nietfeld
Recommended by Rachel Mans McKenny

"If Educated was a book that shook you, you need to pick up Acceptance by Emi Nietfeld. Like Educated, it tracks one woman’s journey out of less than ideal situations and into the promise of education. Emi’s journey weaves in and out of her hoarding mother’s home into mental health struggles and foster families, and finally into the hypocrisy of the elite institutions she once held on such a high pedestal. It’s an ideal book club read."
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Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs by Greil Marcus
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"The brilliant music (and cultural) critic Greil Marcus has written an astonishing book chronicling how Dylan reflected the cultural moment even as he changed it. This is Dylan’s story told through seven of his most transformative songs. As Joyce Carol Oates says, 'Dylan is the most original musical genius of our time, and the perfect subject for (Greil Marcus), the most original music critic of our time.'"
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Hysterical: A Memoir by Elissa Bassist
Recommended by Rachel Mans McKenny

"Part medical mystery, part cultural criticism, Elissa’ Bassist’s Hysterical tracks her three year journey from mysterious symptoms, 20 medical professionals refusing to hear her concerns, to an answer. Tying the narrative together is a wider concern of not being listened to and of a voice lost and found. Bassist is a humorist with an incisive eye for detail, so her memoir makes you laugh and angry in equal measure."
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I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
Recommended by Rachel Mans McKenny

"The buzziest memoir this year is buzzy for a reason. I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy takes you inside the life of one of the child stars of iCarly, a Nickelodeon show. I’ve never watched the show, but you don’t need to to be rapt by McCurdy’s stories of calorie restriction, anxiety and addiction. What I love most is the dark humor and candor here. Where most celebrity memoirs read flat for me, McCurdy’s voice makes this story of resilience unputdownable. It’s also, I have to say, a fabulous audiobook."
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I’m More Dateable than a Plate of Refried Beans: And Other Romantic Observations by Ginny Hogan
Recommended by Rachel Mans McKenny

"For the single person in your life, I highly recommend I’m More Dateable than a Plate of Refried Beans: And Other Romantic Observations by Ginny Hogan. Hogan’s humor collection has funny quizzes and short stories and short pieces with titles like Out of Office Replies for Dating Apps. I’ve been married for years, and even I found this book hilarious."
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In Praise of Good Bookstores by Jeff Deutsch
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"Jeff Deutsch runs one of the very best — and possibly the most literary — bookstore in America: The University of Chicago’s Seminary Co-op. His book, which is the one of the best examples of creative nonfiction that I have ever read is, as Wendy Donniger says, 'an erudite love letter to bookstores, books, readers, writers and the communities that they create and constitute.' He believes that maintaining an open society requires educated citizens and that bookstores are one of our few truly democratic institutions. Of course, being a bookseller, I love this book, but its meditations, deeply informed by great literature of all ages, will move any reader and inspire that reader to keep on reading."
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Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"Andrea Wulf is the bestselling author of The Invention of Nature, the book about Alexander Von Humboldt and his group of intellectual rebels that changed the way we thought of our relationship to the physical world. Her Magnificent Rebels, she chronicles the 'Jena Set' — a group of poets, playwrights and philosophers who lived in the small university town of Jena in the 1790s and launched romanticism onto the world stage. This group included Goethe, Schiller and Novalis, as well as the philosophers Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. At the center was Hegel’s wife Carolyn who sparked many of their dazzling conversations about nature, identity and freedom. Andrea Wulf is an exceptional writer, one able to make complex, historical moments both absorbing and clear. She makes the past feel present and turns historical figures into gripping —human — stories. This book is mesmerizing and timely as it reminds us that the desire to be true to oneself — and to be free to be that — is a desire that transcends time and borders."
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Maybe We’ll Make It by Margo Price
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"The singer/songwriter Margo Price was born on a farm in rural Illinois, just across the river from the Quad Cities. She was also born in 1983, just before her family lost their land in the farm crisis of the 1980s. Her struggling parents, nonetheless, noticed that she had singularly powerful singing voice and they made sure she had lessons. Her journey has not been an easy one. She worked constantly and exhaustingly at her art and has just begun to get national recognition. Now a Grammy-nominated artist, she has also composed a powerful book about her struggles that give us an insight into the state of our nation. Willie Nelson says that 'Margo’s book hits you right in the gut— and the heart — just like her songs.'”
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National Geographic Birding Basics: Tips, Tools, & Techniques for Great Bird-Watching by Noah Strycker
Recommended by Tim Budd

"A beautiful and informative reference guide for birders, whether they be beginners or more advanced, with tips on everything from how to read a field guide to what to wear to how to keep your own notebook. And portable enough to fit handily in your backpack. Addressing almost any question the birdwatcher might have, even questions they didn't know they had. This book is a great resource for the birdwatcher of any age or the whole family."
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Still No Word From You by Peter Orner
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"Peter Orner is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate and novelist who teaches at Dartmouth. During the pandemic, he wrote this collection of essays on reading and memory. Musing on writers like Lorraine Hansberry, Primo Levi, Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf, Orner’s highly personal take on these writers alternates with his own memories (life stories) of loss, love, hope and despair. This beautiful book, devoted to other books, offers solace to all of us who are bewildered by time and memory. It seamlessly brings together storytelling, memoir and essay and is a book for anyone for whom reading is as essential as breathing."
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The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: a Memoir by Paul Newman
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"Paul Newman had a biographer who did all these interviews with both Newman and all the people in his life and then Newman decided that all those cassettes had to be burned. And then, after he died and the biographer died, his daughters found the transcripts of the tapes and they put this book together. It's interviews with Newman and all the people around him, and the title is The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man because he never felt that he was extraordinary at all, which is possibly what makes him extraordinary. It's funny, I usually never read the biographies of movie stars, but I like this one."
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The LEGO Story: How a Little Toy Sparked the World's Imagination by Jens Andersen
Recommended by Tim Budd

"The fascinating story of the Danish family that created one of the most iconic toys of the 20th century, a global company that still sells boxes of plastic bricks to over 80 million kids a year, as well as some 10 million adults. A tribute to corporate innovation and evolution, and the unlimited fun of imaginative play. You'll love reading this while you remember your own LEGO set or while watching your kids play with theirs."
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The Mosquito Bowl: A Game of Life and Death in World War II by Buzz Bissinger
Recommended by Tim Budd

"The author of the hit Friday Night Lights recounts the football game played on Guadalcanal on Christmas Eve 1944 by members of two Marine regiments that had an amazing roster of some of the finest college ball players from the forties, many of whom would not survive the upcoming battle for Okinawa. The perfect book for the man on your list who loves sports and/or military history. I found it more emotional than I'd expected. Mr. Bissinger's shoot-from-the-hip journalistic style places the reader so deeply into these men's lives, as I was taken from the football field to the foxhole."
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The Only Woman by Immy Humes
Recommended by Tim Budd

"Oscar-nominated documentarian Immy Humes has assembled group photos from 1862 to 2020, where only one woman is in the photo. Ranging from politics to sports to the arts and social scenes, each photo has a brief contextual essay outlining the circumstances of the moment captured forever on film. This book is a real eyeopener, portraying women as sometimes tokens and sometimes trailblazers and pioneers in a room full of men. An amazing book for any woman aged 9-90."
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The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan
Recommended by Jan Weismiller

"This is a big book year for Dylan fans. The Philosophy of Modern Songs, Dylan’s first book since Chronicles and since being awarded the Nobel Prize is a master class on the art and craft of songwriting. In it, he writes over 60 essays focusing on songs from other artists ranging from Hank Williams to Nina Simone. Mysterious and mercurial, these pieces are like everything Dylan does."
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Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa