Suspend Your Disbelief

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Oft-Given Gifts, Part 1

Books for giving, again and again.

Books make for a risky gift.  Guessing even a close friend’s taste can be a challenge, and if she doesn’t like the book or doesn’t read it, you’ve just given her another thing she’ll have to box up when she moves. But books can also be some of the best gifts: when you’ve just loved a novel and you want to share it, when you guess correctly and a book just nails, just really so gets what your friend has been feeling lately. With the holidays already upon us (Happy Hanukkah, all!) FWR editors Anna and Rebecca discussed some of their favorite books to give (and offered some warnings about a couple that haven’t worked out quite so well).

Dear American AirlinesRebecca: I’m starting with Dear American Airlines, by Jonathan Miles. This slim novel by the former New York Times cocktail-columnist begins as a demand for a refund after a cancelled flight and evolves into something much sorrier. Stranded in O’Hare, with no flight in sight, Ben is about to miss his daughter’s wedding. He bemoans and defends his life up to this point—his spotty work translating forgotten Polish writers, his forgotten years of drinking, his forgotten daughter.  I gave it to my father, who loved it, but who hemmed and hawed over his follow-up question:  no, I wasn’t trying to make a point. I just knew he would love its particular humor and pathos as much as I did (and I was right!).

needlemanAnna: Rebecca, funny to hear you talking about your father wondering if he should take your gift personally.  When we decided to do this post, I immediately thought of Deborah Needleman’s The Perfectly Imperfect Home, a book I more foisted on my parents than gifted them. Needleman used to be the editor of domino, and her book, a guide to decorating your home in your taste, is full of answers to questions I hadn’t known I had (How do I distribute lamps around a room? What qualities should I look for in a chair?) accompanied by sweet, unintimidating illustrations. (Needleman eschews photographs to make it easier to imagine how her decorating principles would apply in any home.) I’d heard Needleman interviewed and thought that her book would make a great gift for my parents who’d recently moved into a new house. But when they unwrapped the book, they clearly registered it as an insult.  Did I not approve of how they were doing on their own? They politely kept the Needleman on the coffee table for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but the next time I visited the book was gone.

important artifactsRebecca: I think that’s a great present! You should try it again on someone else. For the holidays, it seems kinder to give “dip-into” books instead of “isolate yourself for three days” books—unless you are actually trying to remove that person from the festivities.  For this reason, I love to give Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, a love story in the guise of an auction catalog of a couple’s relationship detritus, complete with photographs and notes. It’s a sweet, sad, and razor-sharp portrait of two people who define themselves by what they like. I like it as a gift for anyone who’s ever sweated over a mixtape, bought a used postcard, or baked a cake from a wartime recipe. Maybe not for an ex who wouldn’t let you touch his records. That would be mean.

fun homeAnna: My go-to, guaranteed-to-suck-you-in-for-a few-hours book to gift is Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home. Just months after Bechdel comes out to her family and learns of her father’s affairs with men, her father is hit by a bread truck and dies. The memoir circles his death, which Bechdel believes may have been a suicide, and along the way Fun Home proves as charming as it is moving.  When Alison goes off to college, her twinned literary and sexual discoveries ring sweet and true. Throughout, the memoir is dense with allusions to the literature Bechdel and her father loved. If you’ve read your James and Joyce and Proust, you’ll be in on the joke, but there’s plenty here for those of us who haven’t conquered Ulysses. I received Fun Home from my sister, and I’ve since given it many times. You’ll be hard pressed to find a crowd Fun Home doesn’t please.

Rebecca: My crowd-pleaser is Jon Ronson. A lot of people may have heard his wispy, baffled interrogations on lost at seaThis American Life or seen the movie The Men Who Stare at Goats, based on his book of the same name. My recommendations are for The Psychopath Test and his new essay collection, Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, which collects his work on the frivolous (children with indigo auras, reenactments of James Bond’s road-trips) and the damned (ruthless fake psychics, credit card companies). If I had to give the same book to everyone on my list, this would probably be it. I got it for my dad, who gave me The Psychopath Test last Christmas. But I removed the jacket so I could read it first.

On Thursday: Oft-Given Given Gifts, Part 2: Short fiction, YA, and novels new and old.

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