Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Gift Book List for the Dour and Difficult

 We love the holiday lights and decorations, but Christmas is a time for lowered expectations. If you bake a brilliant pie, someone will ask for Cool Whip.  ("Will ice cream do?")  If you give quirky gifts, the recipients will start trading like stockbrokers.  

Now we limit gifts to one book per person.  We have become expert at choosing books for the dour and difficult, the crotchety curmudgeons, irascible CEOs, restless recluses, vainglorious narcissists, and even the hep-cats, by which I mean the cats. 

Let me be your personal shopper!

The following books should be available at your local bookstore. Nothing too far out here - something for everybody - unless they are attendees of Renaissance Fairs or WorldCon,  in which case you are entirely on your own. I would also appreciate your recommendations, please!

The Gift Book List for the Dour and Difficult


1.   Silverview, by John le Carré.  This gorgeously-written literary thriller is on many critics' Best of Year lists, with good reason.  Le Carré's smooth style - never a wrong word -  puts most contemporary writers to shame.  

The plot of this posthumously-published novel is classic le Carre:  Proctor, an English spy, must investigate a security leak, or at least a blip, after receiving a letter from Deborah, a dying spy and former head of the Middle East office.  Her resentful daughter, Lily, a single mother who wants nothing to do with her mother's secrets, delivers the letter sullenly. But the situation is complicated for Lily:  Deborah has banished Lily's father, Edward, a freelance academic, from their house, Silverview. And Edward roams the town drunkenly, chatting up everybody, including owners of small shops and cafes. 

The plot centers on a bookstore.  Julian Laundsley, a former trader in the City, has bought the town bookstore and hopes to improve it.  Julian is trying to catch up on his  own reading - he did not have a literary education - and when Edward wanders in and suggests the basement could house books by the great thinkers, Julian is thrilled.  He finally has his syllabus. They name the section the Republic of Books.

But not all is right in Edward's life, as the sophisticated Julian discovers. Julian meets Deborah and Lily, and falls in love with the whole family. But something odd is happening at Silverview. You may suspect a few things are wrong, but it is impossible to predict all the twists and turns, and you will gulp this wonderful book in a sitting or two.

2.   Pleasure Palace:  New and Selected Stories, by Marian Thurm.  These delightful short stories, published between 1979 and 2021, are graceful, witty, and vigorously engaging.  In the early stories, characters worry about unfulfilling jobs and the lack of marriage prospects, while in later stories the middle-aged worry about elderly parents and mourn the death of loved ones. In "Banished," Cliff, a widower, bonds with a retired English teacher over a comma. In "Today Is Not Your Day," Lauren falls and breaks her knee immediately after her fiancé Alex breaks up with her. In "Pleasure Palace," the narrator mourns the loss of her husband, Jordan.  She is furious when  Ron, her contractor, botches  the renovation of the bathroom she and Jordan had planned as a "pleasure palace." Even those who dislike short stories will find much to admire:  the details turn them into breathtaking mini-novels.

3.  The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. A fascinating novel about Climate Change, set in the near future.  The young hero, Frank May, is the sole survivor of a terrifying wet-bulb temperature heat wave in a city in India that kills 20 million people. After the traumatic event, he becomes a radical environmentalist and a catalyst for change.  The book centers on the  Ministry for the Future, established by the U.N. in 2025 to calculate how to keep the planet safe for the next generations. Mary, the chief of the Ministry, is resigned to her role as a talking head, until Frank kidnaps her (just for a few hours) and educates her about the  economics of the environment and how to work the system.  An inspiring book, with a positive spin and a hopeful outcome.  It should please readers of science fiction and literary environmental novels.


4.  What You Can See from Here, by Mariana Leky, translated from the German by Tess Lewis.  This gem-like novel, set in a village in Germany, is narrated by Luisa, whom we first meet at the age of 10.  Picture a group of quirky Anne Tyler characters, only not in Baltimore. In the first chapter, Luisa's grandmother, Selma, divulges her dream of an okapi the night before: she is apprehensive, because it is a portent fo death.  We learn the reactions of neighbors and friends.  The optician, who suffers unrequited love for Selma, assures them that death and the dream are not connected.  Luisa's father, a doctor, says it is utter nonsense.  But the superstitious Elsbeth, Selma's sister-in-law, decides warns the mayor's wife, and soon the news is all over town.  Because of loss - Luisa witnesses her best friend's death, then her father inexplicably leaves Luisa and her mother to travel the world - she is resistant to change,  As an adult she works in a cozy bookstore in a town near her village, so she can keep everyone close.  But life is shaken up when she meets a handsome Buddhist monk.  And we also follow the lives of her family and friends in the village.


5.  Unsettled Ground, by Claire Fuller.  Fuller’s stunning novel, shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize, was my favorite on an excellent list.  Her style is lyrical, the plot is engrossing, and I ached for the characters, fifty-one-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who are shattered when their mother dies. They have always lived in their childhood home – and now they are evicted. The mood is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though Unsettled Ground is not a horror novel. A slightly surreal atmosphere permeates the pages due to the twins’ perplexity about the performance of the simplest actions in society.


6.  Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone, by Diana Gabaldon.  Women love Gabaldon's time-travel historical romances, and the ninth book in the Outlander series is cause for rejoicing.  Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall are reunited with their daughter Brianna during the American Revolution. 


7.  Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Fiona Sampson.  This well-reviewed biography is on my wish list . According to The Washington Post, it "reads like a thriller, a memoir and a provocative piece of literary fiction all at the same time."  Fans of the brilliant poet will be happy to find this book under the tree.  

What books do you give on Christmas?  And may I ask as an aside, when did people begin to use "gift" as a verb ?


  1. Not a bad Christmas list. I'd read them all.

  2. A query: how could Brianna be reunited with her parents during the American revolution? did she travel back through the stones again? with Roger? what about their two children?

    1. I've only read the first Gabaldon, so I copied this info from the book description at Goodreads.