The holidays are here, and you, my friend, are running out of time. The calendar trickery of 2019 left all of us with alarmingly fewer days to deck the halls, bake the gingerbread and wrap the perfect presents—WAIT—have you even gotten gifts for everyone on your list? Me neither. Ditch the hall decorating; if you got a tree up, you’re doing fine. And homemade gingerbread is decidedly optional, and barely even advisable when there are so many capable baking establishments (like Kroger) that will do the work for you and never reproach you for taking credit for their confections. Good News! There is still time to find gifts for everyone who didn’t make the advanced-planning spreadsheet, and who on earth doesn’t like BOOKS? Aunt Erma? Get her a candle. For everyone else, I am an Elf with a Cheat Sheet for all the recipients left on your list.
WORLD TRAVELERS: For the Francophile, try The Seine: The River that Made Paris (W. W. Norton & Company 2019) by Elaine Sciolino. Part memoir, part travel guide, it will have you dreaming about Spring in Paris. For the person who spent a fondly-remembered semester in Italy, there’s Hiram Mashar’s beautiful introspective A Month in Siena (Random House 2019), complete with full-color prints of the Sienese masterpieces Mashar once dreamed of as a young man. For your favorite armchair traveler, how about Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2020? It’s everything you need to start planning a trip to somewhere you haven’t even considered yet.
HISTORY LOVERS: For World War II buffs, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War (Random House 2019) by Lynne Olson is my choice for history book of the year. It’s the true story of the Parisian debutante who used her charm and guile to create the first intelligence network of the French Resistance, complete with hair-raising feats (an eight-hour trip over the Pyrenees hidden in a mailbag!) and daring rescues. It reads like Le Carre. If you’re tired of WWII subject matter, The British are Coming (Henry Holt & Co. 2019) by Rick Atkinson is a fast-paced narrative marvel with a fresh take on the American Revolution. Anyone who loved Atkinson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Liberation Trilogy (about the American Army in WWII) will want this book, the first in Atkinson’s planned Revolution Trilogy.
MYSTERY/THRILLER FANS: Speaking of the virtuoso, John Le Carre’s new spy novel Agent Running in the Field (Viking 2019) is the writer at his vintage best, with some very current politics driving the plot. For those who love a good psychological thriller, our customers can’t get enough of The Silent Patient (Celadon Books 2019) by Alex Michaelides. What made a perfect wife shoot her perfect husband five times in the face and then refuse to speak of it again? There’s a story there.
FOR YOUR BFF: If you haven’t already read Mary Laura Philpott’s I Miss You When I Blink (Atria Books 2019), immediately buy it for your bestie, and then read it before wrapping, or give it with an explicit demand that she lend-back-upon-reading. Or just buy two. You’ll thank me. It is poignant, hilarious, and will make you want to shout in solidarity: Yes! And yes again!
READERS IN SEARCH OF A NEW FAVORITE NOVEL: My top picks for best fiction of the year are: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press 2019) by Ocean Vuong (Bring the tissues.); The Dutch House (Harper 2019) by Ann Patchett (It is simply gorgeous. Not because I happen to work for her.); Women Talking (Bloomsbury Publishing 2019) by Miriam Toews (Based on a true story, it left me talking about it endlessly); Nothing to See Here (Ecco 2019) by Kevin Wilson (You will read it and then want to read everything by Kevin Wilson.); and The Nickel Boys (Doubleday 2019) by Colson Whitehead (Also based on a true story, this is the book everyone is talking about endlessly).
FOR THE COOK: Pick up South (Artisan 2019) by Sean Brock (for the cook who might appreciate a more accessible version of this chef’s signature fare), or Skillet Love (Grand Central Publishing 2019) by Anne Byrn (my fellow booksellers can’t stop humble-bragging about what they’re serving up from this book in their iron skillets).
FOR THE RELUCTANT TEENAGE READER: There is only one choice here: Andrew Maraniss’s Games of Deception (Philomel 2019). It is the true story of the 1936 Olympics, in which basketball appeared as an Olympic sport for the first time. Sports, Nazis, and an unlikely band of young American athletes who brought home the Gold—what’s not to love? After your teen reads this, you should too.
STOCKING STUFFERS: I know, I know, I waxed on and on about Late Migrations (Milkweed Editions 2019) by Margaret Renkl last month, but this extraordinary small book is exquisite and just the right size for stuffing a stocking. Another stocking-sized gem with a beautiful cover is How to Catch a Mole (Greystone Books 2019) by Marc Hamer. It is a sublime mix of poetic memoir, Welsh pastoral, and ode to the seasons of our lives—and my surprise-favorite nugget of the year. And, finally, just for comic relief and ranting, I highly recommend Effin’ Birds (Ten Speed Press 2019) by Aaron Reynolds. The title is just the beginning of the fun.
There. Get it done. Happy Holidays, and Happy Reading!
Guest columnist Keltie Peay is a top graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law (Class of 1998) and Harvard College (Class of 1995). Following law school graduation, she clerked with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia and the following year, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Prior to devoting her professional life to the dissemination of important ideas and valuable life lessons through books (both as an independent copy editor and bookseller with Parnassus Books), Keltie practiced white-collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation with the Nashville law firm of Neal & Harwell and the national firm Redgrave LLP. Her column, The Reader’s Docket, appears on Latitude’s blog Insights the third Thursday of every month. All of Keltie’s past and current recommendations are listed here and available for purchase online through Parnassus Books.