Here are 10 books – five from me and five from my witty and literate colleague Sarah Lyall, who contributed this year on the book-reviewing front – that strike us as first-rate gift books, ones we’d want on our bedside tables on a winter night. They run the gamut from graphic novels to short-story anthologies to cultural criticism and poetry. For readers, it’s been a good year.
All My Puny Sorrows, By Miriam Toews, McSweeney’s, $24
This book, about a struggling Canadian writer trying to keep her brilliant, wonderful, intractably depressed sister from committing suicide, sounds like a real downer. But it isn’t. You’d be hard-pressed to find a novel this life-affirming or one written with more playfulness, generosity and wit. “All My Puny Sorrows” (the title comes from a Coleridge poeme) is an exuberant affirmation of family love, of the power of humor, of the responsibility we have toward one another. It’s still possible, the author demonstrates, to find meaning and joy amid tragedy.
The Elements of Style, Illustrated, By William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White; illustrated by Maira Kalman; The Penguin Press; $24.95, hardcover
Everyone should reread this book regularly, as a way to exercise grammar and usage muscles that have atrophied from underuse and overtexting. This elegant edition is enhanced by Maira Kalman’s singular brand of off-the-wall whimsy. “Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in” is the sentence the authors use to show how to set off a proper name with commas; Kalman has illustrated the point with a picture of a Basset hound looking balefully at, we assume, Susan. She’s also put a large semicolon on the back cover, for reasons of her own.
Here, By Richard McGuire, Pantheon Books, $35
The title of Richard McGuire’s graphic novel is deceptively simple, a little declarative word that (peeled back) reveals millions of years of history in a single corner of a house that may be in New Jersey. Babies are born; the earth erupts into life; the ceiling cracks; the floods come; a cat crosses the floor. It’s a visual and philosophical feast, almost too much to take in. Many frames show a number of things happening simultaneously, demonstrating how the past and the future are always with us. As Luc Sante wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “Here” makes the term graphic novel feel “awfully small.”
One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, By Dr. Seuss, Random House Books for Young Readers, $8.99
People tend to remember where they were during national calamities. I remember where I was (the school hallway) when I began reading the first book I ever checked out of the library, “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish,” a riotous volume of controlled surrealistic insanity whose nonsensical non sequiturs all but tickled my tiny brain to death. Adults like to read it aloud as much as kids like to listen to it. The fish are unusual enough (“This one has a little car”), but there’s also a menagerie of Goxes, Yinks and Yings, and strange goings-on. “Say, look! A bird was in your ear,” writes Dr. Seuss, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, Edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30
In this collection, Lorrie Moore selects 40 from the more than 2,000 stories that have been published in previous editions of this important annual series. There’s one terrible exclusion. This book omits any stories by Moore herself. (Modesty: the silent killer.) It’s possible to quibble with any anthology like this one, but there’s little doubt that its pages, as Moore writes, make up a “literary version of a national anthem.” This belongs in hotel rooms, atop the Gideon Bible.
Oreo, By Fran Ross, New Directions, $14.95
This year’s happiest reissue has to be Fran Ross’ feminist picaresque, first published in 1974. This novel has wings. It’s a pathbreaking African-American satirical work, and it deserves to be mentioned alongside lemony classics like “Catch-22” and “A Confederacy of Dunces.” This was Ross’ first and only novel. (She died in 1985 at 50, having abandoned fiction to write for Richard Pryor.) “Oreo” tells the story of a young girl’s quest to find her father; as it moves along, it becomes a work of pungent social criticism. You can open to almost any page and find arguments like this one: that coily hair (a term the author prefers to “kinky hair”) is an evolutionary improvement over straight because it keeps you cool in summer, warm in winter and, important then and now, protects “from concussions by absorbing the shock of blows to the head.”
Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986-2014, By Greil Marcus, Yale University Press, $35
I went on the record recently in praise of Greil Marcus’ “Mystery Train” (1975). It’s almost certainly the best book ever written about music in America; it packs emotion and intellection in equal measures. I like many of Marcus’ other books too, but now comes one that many of his admirers have longed for: “Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986-2014.” Marcus’ magpie columns collect stray opinions: on songs, movies, books, politics, moments. They make up a kind of underground cultural history of the past three decades, and the items in each column are by turns beautiful, strange, funny and vicious. This feels like both Marcus’ official bootleg and a reference book of a very high caliber. I suspect I will be flipping around in it until, as Seymour Krim liked to say about death, they take away my hot dog.
S O S: Poems 1961-2013, By Amiri Baraka, Grove Press, $30
Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) had a fierce gift, and this career-spanning collection shows how deeply this poet tapped into the suspicion and resentment that linger below the promise of American life. His poems are cynical, impolite and often ruefully funny. One poem asks:
If Elvis Presley is King Who is James Brown, God?
Not all of Baraka’s poems worked. Sometimes he seemed to be merely, as he put it, “a mean, hungry sorehead.” But when he was on, which was often enough, his words were hard and ecstatic and alive. “Get your pitchforks ready,” he wrote in one late poem. “Strike Hard and True. You get them or they get you.”
What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, Copper Canyon, $40
The poet Frank Stanford committed suicide in 1978, at the age of 29. Long a cult writer, Stanford was published mostly by small presses and his work has been increasingly hard to find. “What About This” provides a chance to see him whole. His poems are floods of language, related in stream-of-consciousness style. They’re deeply Southern; most of the metaphors come from swimming and hunting and fishing. But his poems are sensitive, un-macho, death-haunted. They have an uncanny way of bringing you up short.
The Tsar of Love and Techno, By Anthony Marra, Hogarth, $25
This novel will burn itself into your heart. It’s a collection of interlocking short stories that stand alone but also fit together, piece by delicate piece, to form an astonishing whole whose artfulness becomes increasingly clear as the book goes on. “The Tsar of Love and Techno” swoops around in time and place, beginning in Stalinist Russia and ending somewhere in outer space in the near future. It’s funny, moving and beautiful, the perfect thing to read as the dark closes in, the perfect antidote to end-of-the-year ennui.