Last Minute Book Gift Guide 2015

Remember that episode of Family Ties where Alex has a transformative Ebeneezer Scrooge experience on Christmas Eve and then rushes out to buy presents for his family at 7-11, which is the only store open in the wee hours of Christmas morning? 

If Christmas is your thing (or you just enjoy a random end-of-year present fest), there are probably at least of few of you - some might call you procrastinators, but I'd say those in possession of full and busy lives - that are planning a similar eleventh hour dash for holiday gifts. 

Not to worry, I am all over this.  The 2015 Book Gift Guide is here for you.  And the good news is, there's still a few more days to hit up your local bookstore, so it probably won't come to gifting your loved ones with cough syrup and beef jerky like Jen and Mallory Keaton. 

Let's get our reading love on.

A teen read for language lovers:
The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Maire McLemore

This book is a lovely, lyrical Romeo-and-Juliet inspired story about two families of traveling performers who put on competing shows in the same Central California town once a year.  It's a book that feels quite ageless in its appeal to me.  I could see gifting this to adults and teens alike as the spirit moves you.  Basically: Gorgeous metaphor-and-simile junkies, this book is for YOU.

A duo of graphic novels:
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

If you're a fan of Noelle's work on the cover (and truly awesome endpaper) of Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, you'll love her edgier, more fanciful art in her National Book Award nominated graphic novel, Nimona (originally self-published as a webcomic).  The thing I especially love here is the nuancing of lines between heroes and villains that happens in this story.  The world could use more of that, I think.

This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

This was easily the most visually stunning graphic novel that I read this year.  It tackles a lot of big, coming-of-age questions especially related to the complexities of learning to see one's parents as flawed people with their own struggles and darkness.  The story is a touch meandering, but the images are so beautiful that I don't even care. Not one bit.

(P.S. Signed copies this way, y'all.)

For a bold, concise shot of mind-blowing prose:
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (English Translation by Lisa Dillman)

This short novella by Yuri Herrera is my number one read of 2015.  I loved it.  The original Spanish prose is rhythmic and sensory, and the English translation by Lisa Dillman is carefully and artfully done (I also enjoyed reading the translator's afterword about her process and choices).  It's a good train, guys.  Get on it.

For a long drink of mind-blowing prose:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is certainly a larger time commitment, but Adichie's prose is equally lovely and intimate and close.  It's an interesting reading experience in that probably 75% of the book involves the central character sitting in a hair salon thinking about things that have already happened.  To pull off something like that, I feel like the last 25% needs to really deliver to make the pay off worth it.  It does and it is. 

For lovers of vintage non-fiction:
Bobby Fischer Vs. The Rest of the World by Brad Darrach

When I was fourteen I checked out a copy of this book from the Quartz Hill Public Library (maybe it was the stark, 70s cover with the red background and white block letters that really sold me), and I still remember it as one of the favorite reading experiences of my young life. 

Admittedly, this pick is a little bit random, but there's something deeply fascinating about this story - Chess Champion Bobby Fischer's epic match against Boris Spassky in 1972 -  and I feel like with the release of Pawn Sacrifice this year, it's earned a bit of current relevance again. 

For friends with a culinary New Year's resolution:
The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Danny Bowien and Chris Ying

Ever since we moved to Mexico's Central Coast last year, my Brooklyn-loving heart has so missed those cheap-and-flavorful Chinese food deliveries that were a twice or thrice a week ritual when we lived in Clinton Hill.  To fill this dan dan noodle-shaped hole in my heart, I've resolved to try making some Chinese-inspired dishes at home.  This cookbook is my best friend in that effort.  It's interesting and accessible, with cool twists on more traditional faves (sitr-fried sweet peas, anyone? Smashed cucumbers with sesame paste? Yes, please).  It's co-authored by James Beard Award-winning chef of the Mission Chinese Food restaurants, Danny Bowien, and editor of Lucky Peach, Chris Ying.

Speaking of which...

For the friend that prefers editorials to novels:
A subscription to Lucky Peach

If you haven't yet arrived at the Lucky Peach party, now is totally the time.  Here's what I imagine happened: Momofuku restaurateur David Chang, New York Times food writer Peter Meehan and editor-in-chief Chris Ying sat down and said, "Let's put out the world's most awesome food magazine."  And then they did it.  Each issue is full of essays, art, photography and recipes structured around a theme and published quarterly.  Truly, it's hard to imagine anyone in my life that wouldn't enjoy reading about, say, Abel Nabor Campos, the doughnut-making luchador of East LA.

Happy reading! (and hopefully many calm and bright moments as the year comes to a close).

Want more? You can hop over to my Book Love page for additional recommendations.

ALSO: Penguin Random House has relaunched their #giveabook campaign this year, and has promised to donate one book to First Book for every use of the hashtag (up to 35,000) on twitter and instagram between now and December 24.

All images via Goodreads

Muppet December


True fact: I have loved Sesame Street longer than I have loved anyone or anything in my life except my own parents, who got to me only slightly sooner than Bert and Ernie.  I sometimes think loving Sesame Street is the thing that first taught me what it felt like to connect with stories and characters that are simultaneously not real and also the most real.  That's the transformative paradox of fiction, and it's come to define my life as an adult in ways I couldn't have known about when I was rushing home from kindergarten to see Maria and Luis get married on Gordon and Susan's rooftop.*

In tribute to this love that has lasted long and stayed true, I started a tradition when I was in college called Muppet December.  Every week in December, I watch one of the Muppet Christmas specials and use them as little moments of quiet in the last month of the year.  There are many to choose from - Christmas Eve on Sesame Street from 1979, A Muppet Family Christmas from 1987, and A Muppet Christmas Carol from 1992 are a few of my favorites.

But this year, somehow, December has gone by quick and rapid fire. The days have been full with lots of weighty projects and questions that need attention and energy and take up big swaths of mental space. The Muppet holiday specials haven't made it into the schedule. 

This morning I woke up with a to do list.  One of the long ones that doesn't bother with the smaller stuff and just goes right to the big, vaguely self-flagellating things like "figure out how to make the rest of my life work."  I ran through the list in my head in the shower and by the time I got out, it felt like even the time it would take to get dressed and out the door to my coffee shop was time I didn't have.

I was so far inside my own head as I pulled on my clothes that I didn't even notice Javi was watching TV until I heard a tiny monster voice say, "These cookies are for Santa Claus."**

Me: Are you watching Elmo?
JV: It's Elmo Saves Christmas.

Pause while I absorbed the totally matter-of-fact tone he used when he said this, and my frenzied heart swelled that I married this person who would casually watch Elmo Saves Christmas in Spanish in the middle of the day.  I got so, so lucky on that one.

JV: Want to watch? I could start it over.
Me: I gotta get to work.

I kept up the crazy pace of my morning, shoving my computer into my bag and tossing my power cord and phone charger on top of it.  Where are my headphones?

Elmo: Hi Rosita.
Rosita: Hi Elmo. I have a Christmas present for you.
Elmo: What is it?
Rosita: *kiss*

I think it was the kiss sound effect that did it.  That's all it took.  Javi and Jim Henson and Kevin Clash.  Those puckish, high-pitched voices chilled the frenzy right out, and I stayed home.  Eventually I got to the coffee shop and the to do list, but first I put my pajamas back on and watched 47 minutes of Sesame Street with Javi.  And the morning that had been about all the ways I should get my shit together, ended up being mostly about a red monster puppet on an adventure with a reindeer, a hilarious It's a Wonderful Life reference and Maya Angelou...

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Muppet December may have started a little late this year, but I think it's officially begun.

*You can actually watch that entire episode here: Maria and Luis's Wedding. You're welcome.
**Technically he said, "Estas galletas son para Santa Claus."  Elmo does his own Spanish language dubbing.
P.S. For a bit more on Muppet December, you can also check my holiday guest post for Idle Hands DC.