Lucky you. This holiday, you received a bookstore gift certificate. That means two things: one, that somebody knows you well and that you love books; two, you had better to get to a bookstore, pronto!
So many books, so little time, right? To make it easy, here are my top 15 picks, the books you can’t miss, have to read and shouldn’t pass up. Of the more than 300 books I read in 2008, these are the cream of the crop.
Nonfiction: top five
“Assisted Loving,” by Bob Morris. When Morris’ mother dies, his father goes on a dating rampage and drags his son along pushing Morris to find “true love.” This book made me laugh and there was a passage that still brings me to tears when I think about it. It’s a great read for anyone who has a parent who’s experimenting anew with the dating pool, or for anyone who’s looking for love in all the wrong places.
“Deconstructing Sammy,” by Matt Birkbeck. This bio is a fascinating look at singer Sammy Davis, Jr., his widow and the man who took on the project of untangling the mess that was Davis’ estate. I enjoyed this book because it’s a peek at stardom gone wrong, a story of obsession and responsibility and a nostalgic trip back in time for anyone who remembers the Rat Pack days.
“Outliers,” by Malcolm Gladwell. What makes success? This book will tell you how to spot it in typical Gladwellian-style. From Mozart concerto to Beatles concert, you’ll see how genius and opportunity meet to make a phenom. This is one of those fascinating, quick-read books that will make you think long after you shut the cover.
“La Clinica,” by David P. Sklar. This book surprised me, because I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did. Sklar’s multilevel book is his look back at time spent volunteering at a Mexican free clinic run by a man with several secrets. The back-and-forth between then and now moves this true story along and reading it is like exploring a cave: there’s something unexpected and wonderful in every little cranny.
“Breakfast at Sally’s,” by Richard LeMieux. I was only going to browse this book when I first picked it up, but by page four, I couldn’t leave it alone. When LeMieux, who is successful and wealthy, goes bankrupt and insolvent and loses his home, he hits the streets with his dog to live in a van. “Breakfast” is one of those books you have to read, particularly in this economy. It will make you thankful for every single thing — and person — in your life.
Fiction: top five
“After River,” by Donna Milner. When a young Canadian girl’s mother hires an American draft dodger to work on their farm, it causes turmoil in the entire family that resonates for years. This debut novel is beautifully written; one of those curl-up-on-the-sofa books to savor.
“Cake,” by D. Conversely. Warning: this book is not for everyone. It will curl grandma’s hair with its language and violence, but I raced through it in an hour. “Cake” is a page-turning story about a man who reluctantly gets involved in a drug deal gone bad, even though he’s desperately trying to live straight. It’s hip, urban and has an ending that will make you scream. Again, it’s not for everybody — there are things in here that aren’t “nice” — but I loved, loved, loved this book.
“A Mercy,” by Toni Morrison. Vintage Morrison, only better. This book is about three slave women and the ailing mistress they’re trying to save. Layer by layer, Morrison lets the women tell their tales of brutality, fear and love. “A Mercy” is a skinny book that starts out a bit odd, but stick with it. You’ll want to turn around and read it all over again when you’re done.
“The Right Mistake,” by Walter Mosley. This is another one of those “make you think” books. It’s about a former convict who wants to turn his community around, and he employs friends, family and thinkers to help him. Mosley’s main character Socrates Fortlow is the consummate philosopher, and this book is perfect for when you want a little more than a novel.
“Tan Lines,” by J.J. Salem. OK, so you’ll never see this book on any bestseller list, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. You’ll get scandal, snarkiness and a great murder mystery in a beach house deadly romp of a novel here, which makes it pure fluff and pure fun, all wrapped up in one.
Children’s: top five
“Angel Girl,” by Laurie Friedman, illustrated by Ofra Amit. As if the story — boy in concentration camp meets girl who saves his life; years later, he finds her and marries her — isn’t heart-rending enough, the illustrations will bring you to tears in this picture book. Be aware that even though this is a book for little kids, you might want to read it yourself first, to be sure it’s not going to scare sensitive listeners.
“Pete & Pickles,” by Berkeley Breathed. A pig with a predictable life meets an escaped circus elephant who messes with things in this charming, adorable book with illustrations that adults will love as much as the kids do. Get this book, read it to your resident toddlers, put the kids to bed and go read it again for yourself.
“You’re a Bad Man, Mr. Gum,” by Andy Stanton. Don’t buy this book. Seriously. Buy “Mr. Gum” on audio, because it’s much, much better when read by the author. The audio is only a couple of hours long, and I had to stop what I was doing when I was listening to it, because I was laughing too hard. This is fun for kids 7-and-up, and fun for you, too.
“See How They Run,” by Susan E. Goodman and Elwood H. Smith. It doesn’t have to be an election year for kids to be interested in politics, and this book makes Washington goings-on easy to understand. This is one of those “adults should read it, too” books, but it’s really perfect for kids 9 and up.
“Science on the Loose,” by Helaine Becker. Again, this isn’t going to be on any bestseller list, but it’s a great book. Kids will learn about their bodies and the world around them through silly cartoons and fun activities. Perfect for kids 8 to 12, it lets them learn something useful without making them feel like they’re learning.
There you are: 15 can’t-miss, gotta-buy-’em books for you to use with your gift certificate. If you’ve already read these, ask your bookseller for ideas; he or she has dozens of favorites to talk about.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out of here. Go. That gift certificate isn’t getting any newer, you know.
The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.