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13 Chicago Writers on the Books Beneath Their Christmas Trees

13 Chicago Writers on the Books Beneath Their Christmas Trees


Admit it—you still haven’t finished your holiday shopping. And every publication on earth (including us) is barraging you with a list of books to wrap for your loved ones. How do you sort through all the clutter?

You ask writers. To save you the trouble, we asked 13 Chicago authors (including many of this year’s Chirby Awards finalists) which book they recommend putting under your Christmas tree: Chris Abani, Jessica Chiarella, Wesley Chu, Abby Geni, Mary Robinette Kowal, Maryse Meijer, Ethan Michaeli, Toni Nealie, Ada Palmer, Lori Rader-Day, Lynne Raimondo, Martin Seay, and Christine Sneed. Some books offer a welcome escape, while others shed light on the political calamity of 2016.

on-livingOn Living by Kerry Egan
Riverhead Books, 2016

On Living is a unique gem of a book. A nonfiction exploration of a chaplain’s experience with the sick and dying might seem like an odd recommendation for a holiday gift, but On Living is anything but mournful. In fact, it’s one of the most hopeful and insightful books I’ve read in years. Wise without being preachy, warm without being cloying, Kegan offers a delightful, humorous, and ultimately joyful perspective on what it means to be alive.” —Abby Geni, author of The Lightkeepers (Counterpoint, 2016)


City of city-of-bladesBlades by Robert Jackson Bennett
Broadway Books, 2016

“The book I’d like to recommend everyone pick up is Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades. Heck, I think everyone should read the entire series. It’s one of the smartest second world fantasies out there and has some of the most memorable characters in recent memory. Also, if Santa gets you the first two books, you will be ready just in time for the last book, City of Miracles, which is scheduled to drop in April 2017.” —Wesley Chu, author of Time Siege (Tor Books, 2016)



notes-of-a-native-sonNotes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
Beacon Press, 2012 (originally published 1955)

Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin, is an elegant, sharp companion to buoy us into an uncertain new year. Baldwin wrote that ‘the conundrum of color is the inheritance of every America’—we are still unraveling it. As today’s white supremacists would turn back the clock to an imagined state, Baldwin reminds us, ‘This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.'” —Toni Nealie, author of The Miles Between Me (Curbside Splendor, 2016)


the-book-of-magicThe Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment by Brian Copenhaver
Penguin Classics, 2015

“There has never been a history of magic like this, a collection of short and engrossing primary sources, excerpted from dozens of sources from the Old Testament, to witchcraft trials, to Shakespeare and Newton, and organized chronologically, so it creates a first-hand history of humanity’s attempts describe, practice, and understand magic from the earliest written records to the Scientific Revolution.  All the magic terms and concepts we see reused so much in popular culture—the Philosopher’s Stone, alchemy, golems, demonic possession—here take their place in a coherent and meticulously-researched chronology, so you can see when each major concept entered the conversation about magic, and how each was used and transformed over time. Brian Copenhaver is a masterful scholar and translator, so each separate document is fascinating to read, but together they show how the study of magic, like that of science, has, for three millennia, been one of the central forces in humanity’s attempts to understand the world around us, and ourselves. This book is perfect for fantasy readers who want to access the real history of magic, and for anyone interested in the history of ideas, or the history of science, which was so intimately entwined with magical practices for so many centuries.” —Ada Palmer, author of Too Like the Lightning (Tor Books, 2016)

84-charing-cross-road84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Penguin Books, 1990

“Books as gifts are so personal, it’s tough to suggest just one that might work for everyone on your list. But there’s one book that I can wholeheartedly recommend for your most bookish people: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Warning: it’s sad. But it’s also touching and charitable and funny. What else do you want out of a book at the end of a long year like this one?” —Lori Rader-Day, author of Little Pretty Things (Seventh Street Books, 2015)



Second Person Singular by Sayed Kashua
Grove Press, 2010

“My recommendation is Second Person Singular by Sayed Kashua, translated from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg. A lawyer, a happily married man with two young children living a fashionable neighborhood in Jerusalem, opens a copy of Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata” in a used bookstore to discover an undated note written to his wife by a lover. The mystery of the lover’s identity is only one layer to this tale. The lawyer, like the author, is an Israeli Arab, a member of the Palestinian Muslim minority within the state of Israel, an individual with conflicting loyalties to the traditional society where he grew up and the modern state which has allowed him to prosper. The book was a best-seller in Israel, where Kashua, who writes in Hebrew rather than Arabic, also produced television and theater. But in 2014, worried for the safety of his family in Jerusalem and troubled by the political situation in the whole country, Kashua accepted a teaching position in the Hebrew Language and Culture department at the University of Illinois at Champaign, a personal journey which has been covered in The New Yorker, among other places. In this time of turbulence and uncertainty, Second Person Singular is an escape that is not an escape at all, a deeply conceived novel full of wit and humor that tears down the wall between the personal and the political, humanizing all sides of one of the world’s conflicts deemed most unsolvable.” —Ethan Michaeli, author of The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

the-ancient-minstrelThe Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison
Grove Press, 2016

“I’m just now finishing Jim Harrison’s final novella collection, The Ancient Minstrel.  Harrison was a profoundly humane, funny, profane and sexy writer, and deeply reverent of natural world.  I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading his books and am so happy that he left us with so much fine prose and poetry.” —Christine Sneed, author of The Virginity of Famous Men (Bloomsbury, 2016)



hypnerHypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream attributed to Francesco Colonna; translated by Joscelyn Godwin
Thames & Hudson, 2015 (originally published 1499)

“Based on the axiom that the best gifts are those that their recipients would never buy for themselves, consider giving the book-lover on your list a copy of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a bizarre, cryptic, largely plot-free allegory originally published in Venice in 1499 and widely regarded as one of the most beautiful books ever printed. Attributed to Dominican monk Francesco Colonna, the practically-unreadable-but-still-somehow-delightful text resisted translation into English until 1999, when musicologist Joscelyn Godwin got the job done; his rendition is available from Thames & Hudson in multiple bindings, including a pricey one that replicates the format and dimensions of the original. For the reader who has everything, this!” —Martin Seay, author of The Mirror Thief (Melville House Books, 2016)

bad-feministBad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Harper Perennial, 2014

See Also

“For anyone who didn’t grab it up when it first came out, Bad Feminist feels like the perfect book for the 2016 holiday season. It is funny and searing and political and deeply personal. It demands something of its readers: to step outside of their understanding of the world and look at everything—books, movies, music, social movements, themselves—with empathy as well as a critical eye. And, perhaps most importantly, it punctures the idea that women must be perfect in everything, including their feminism.” —Jessica Chiarella, author of And Again (Touchstone, 2016)

hillbillyHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

“My top pick for gift-giving this holiday season is Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper 2016). Whatever your politics, this book should be required reading for anyone hoping to understand  the forces that shaped our recent presidential election.  Part memoir, part sociological study, Vance explores the declining fortunes of poor whites in Kentucky and Ohio, the so-called ‘hillbillies’ of the title.  It’s not all grim: some of Vance’s family anecdotes are hilarious. But what struck me most about the book was its unflinching honesty about the joblessness, addiction, and social collapse that have affected large swaths of our population.  Vance writes about his upbringing with moving compassion and the result is a portrait of America you won’t soon forget.” —Lynne Raimondo, author of Dante’s Wood (Seventh Street Books, 2013)

astronaughts-guide-to-lifeAn Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
Back Bay Books, 2015

“I picked this up as a research book and sort of fell in love with it. It’s a self-help book, really, but with a crunchy delicious coating of astronauts, space, and science. Hadfield is a compelling story-teller and as you’re busily swallowing stories of nearly dying in space, you suddenly realize that he’s just given you a really good life lesson. It’s sneaky and fun.” —Mary Robinette Kowal, author of Ghost Talkers (Tor Books, 2016)


in-the-absenceIn the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations by Jerry Mander
Sierra Club Books, 1992

“Several Christmases ago my twin sister gave me a book that changed my life. Jerry Mander’s passionate treatise on the misuses of technology and its devastating effects on cultures around the world isn’t exactly a feel-good read, but it remains deeply relevant—and extraordinarily provocative—25 years after its publication. Gentle, practical, and hopeful as well as challenging, this book is sure to inspire even the most die-hard techie to re-think their relationship to their devices.” —Maryse Meijer, author of Heartbreaker (FSG Originals, 2016)

last-lakeLast Lake by Reginald Gibbons
University of Chicago Press, 2016

“Gibbons, in his tenth book of poems, in simple elegant lines, distills a life of profound search for grace to quiet epiphanies that reveal the sublime in the most commonplace—’the evening forgives the alleyway.’ His lines are alive with language that is self-aware even at the level of the word, elevating every moment to the emblematic. Gibbons stitches Texas, Canada, Chicago, the Russian Steppes, and Lakes into a song of both awe and elegy. A beautiful book that is a joy to read. Go buy your copy now.” —Chris Abani, author of The Face: Cartography of the Void (Restless Books, 2016)

In addition to his book recommendation above, Martin Seay (author of The Mirror Thief) has a few words of wisdom on the beauty and necessity of independent presses:

Few choices reflect our values more clearly than the books we pick to read—which means that giving them as gifts can be tricky. (“Why did you think I’d like this?”) To hedge your bets, embrace serendipity, and get a bigger bang for your gift-giving buck, consider buying your special person a subscription to an independent publisher that you admire. A wide range of indie presses—from venerable stalwarts like Graywolf, Coffee House, and New York Review Books, to Chicago favorites like Haymarket and Curbside Splendor, to quirky dynamos like Action, Black Ocean, and Wave, to brave internationalists like Archipelago, Deep Vellum, New Vessel, and Open Letter—offer subscriptions or comparable multi-book deals. (So do Melville House, which published my novel, and Rose Metal Press, of which my spouse Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor.) You and the lucky recipient will be assured of having something to discuss (or argue about) all year long.

Happy holidays from all of us at the Chicago Review of Books!

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