Santa’s Book Club

There are lots of wonderful books to give this Christmas, and many we’ll want to choose for ourselves.

B6 - Book of Ages cover
Published December 21, 2013 5:00 AM
6 min read


B6 - Book of Ages coverThere are lots of wonderful books to give this Christmas, and many we’ll want to choose for ourselves.


By Whitney Clark


B6 - Book of Ages coverThere are lots of wonderful books to give this Christmas, and many we’ll want to choose for ourselves. Wrapping up a chunky volume to bring to a friend or put under the tree is a very satisfying form of gift-giving, promising some happy hours of escape or learning that can’t be duplicated by many other presents. Think of all the research, the ideas, the plots, the expertise that authors give us for a nominal amount of money! We could make new libraries of new books every year and try to finish reading them by the next Christmas. But most of us have to restrain ourselves — and so we can join Santa’s Book Club and choose from a good selection of recently published books.


A joyous book to receive would be “The MOST of Nora Ephron,” (Knopf, $35), good for everyone on the list. It comprises a 550-page choice of most of her writings, with a foreword by Robert Gottlieb, great friend and great editor. The book covers her time as a journalist, as a humorous advocate of serious interests, as novelist, screenwriter, and playwright, and also her career as a foodie and cook, a blogger and observer. One of my favorite pieces comes at the end of her life, called “What I will Miss,” very touching and pure Nora. I have used some of her recipes and they work. Her recipe for her life would also work for many of us — evenhanded realism, humor, and kindness.


The Beatles have touched all of our lives. An excellent new book by Mark Lewisohn called “The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1,” (Crown, $40) is just out, chronicling the formation and the times of the Beatles, by one of the foremost Beatles historians, who has worked on seven other Beatles books — and who will continue with two more volumes. This book covers the exciting beginning of their careers, ending just as they come into their overwhelming success in 1962. But these are the years that formed each of them, when they started down the road and made mistakes and discovered their genius.


There are long profiles of all the people who helped them on their way, many photographs of the young years (Paul always had a double chin), the bumps and twists of their lives, and the final coherence that brought them into the limelight. As the reviewer in the New York Times said, it is a book to enjoy slowly, as there are many footnotes and asides, which there should be in any history. 


For history buffs, especially those fond of early American history, “Book of Ages — The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” by Jill Lepore (Knopf, $27.95) gives us a wonderful picture of Jane Franklin, sister of Benjamin, and domestic and political history gleaned from her letters to her brilliant brother. Jane was an intelligent woman, but less fortunate in her life. She had 12 children and spent much of her time caring for them.


Lepore has brought the contents of the letters into the continuing history of both sister and brother, enlightening us to the daily hardships and adventures of colonial families. The book rounds out the picture of those times and introduces us to a fuller view of family life and the Revolution. At the beginning of the Revolution, Jane escaped Boston to live in Warwick, R.I., and eventually was reunited with her brother in a carriage ride from there to Philadelphia. She had lost one of her sons in battle, and had not seen Benjamin Franklin in 11 years. It is a fascinating story, researched extensively by Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard.


Many of us love maps and we all need them. But in spite of GPS, it’s a pleasure to follow the development of mapmaking and map reading provided in Simon Garfield’s “On the Map” (Gotham Books, $17, paper).  From the first maps, perhaps scratched in the dirt near the family cave to tell where the fattest antelopes were grazing, to the delights of the Internet, this book is full of stories explaining different aspects of world exploration and mapping. There are chapters on: “What Great Minds Knew” (how the ancient Greeks worked out the size and the shape of the world and our place in it), “Venice, China and a Trip to the Moon,” “The World in a Book,” (the Atlas), “The Opening of America and the Gridding of Manhattan,” “Cholera and the Map that Stopped It,” “The Worst Journey in the World and the Last Place to be Mapped” (the South Pole), “The Biggest Map Dealer, the Biggest Map Thief,” “Driving into Lakes: How GPS Put the World in a Box,” and “Mapping the Brain” (what taxi drivers have to offer the world of the neuroscientist). These chapter titles are listed to entice you into discovering just where Mr. Garfield is going to lead you and what you might learn in the process. It’s a great journey.


If you’re looking for a prizewinning author, Alice McDermott is a good choice. She just won the National Book Award for “Someone” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25), and three of her other books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. In “Someone,” she tells the story of a woman’s life and its twists and events as she matures and grows old. The book involves her family and neighbors, how she learns about the world in her Irish-American enclave in Brooklyn. There is a clean, homey feeling to the prose, carrying you along effortlessly, bring out the characters gracefully and understandingly. This is McDermott’s first book in seven years, and it was worth the wait.


If I could have one cookbook, I would choose “Ottolenghi: the Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, $35). The authors of last year’s “Jerusalem” own and run several superb restaurants in London. Mr. Ottolenghi is a Jew and Mr. Tamimi is an Arab, and their culinary relationship has conspired to create beautiful recipes from both old and new traditions. Their recipes are very much in the order of Mediterranean cuisine, but with a unique Middle Eastern slant that gives their food vibrant flavor, while being very healthful.


Although I’m no vegan, their vegetable recipes are always interesting and delicious sounding: Roast potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes with lemon and sage, parsnip and pumpkin mash with fried onions, roasted red and yellow beets, mixed mushrooms with cinnamon and lemon. In the protein department, they have roast chicken with saffron, hazelnuts and honey, salmon with red pepper and hazelnut sauce, buttered prawns with tomatoes, olives and arak. The baking department is overflowing with breads, tarts, teacakes, brownies, macaroons, and even chocolates. The photographs are absolutely stunning.


Could good food bring peace to the Middle East? Let’s try.


Moving right up the best-seller charts, “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown $30.) is becoming more and more the novel that everyone is reading. It’s a haunting tale, beautifully told.


A young boy tragically loses his mother and is abandoned by his father. His talisman of his former life is a small painting of a goldfinch that was owned by his mother. Before his father leaves him, he tries to take the money from the boy’s estate for his own devious purposes. Life goes on, the boy grows up and gets in trouble with the law. There are drugs and mistakes and some romance, all very seductively written. Ms. Tartt, also the author of “The Secret History” and “The Little Friend,” is an impressive writer, and her characters come alive on the pages.


For everything you’ve always wanted to know about J.D. Salinger, look no further than “Salinger,” by David Shields and Shane Salerno. It is a large, encompassing study of the life and times of Salinger, interpreted both by the authors and people involved in Salinger’s life. It begins with Salinger on Utah Beach, D Day, and follows him into his worst days in the forests and trenches of Germany. He gets through the war, marries, divorces, writing all the time, and eventually holes up in his New Hampshire forest studio. He would keep on writing until the end of his life, but never published during those later years, so there may be new material soon.


The book is oddly structured, with many people from his lifetime commenting about his work and his habits. But it adds up to a clearer view of the whole man. Certainly the war shaped him. But you would not really think of war when you read his work. Will it appear in his later stories, or will they amount to religious (Vedantic) meanderings, or was he doing the crossword puzzle every day is his secluded studio? Stay tuned.


All these books and many other good reads are waiting at Arcade Books. Enjoy some easy Christmas shopping and make Santa’s sleigh lighter. Rudolph will thank you.


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