These are the books to give this year, to everyone from your scuba-diving work bestie to your novel-writing housemate. You might find a few here for your own wish list, too.
For your BFF, who keeps the books that make her cry in a stack beside her bed:
Bury What We Cannot Take, KIRSTIN CHEN, ’03; Little A. Set in early Maoist China, Chen’s second novel tells the story of one family’s escape to freedom at the height of political oppression. The catch is that they are forced to leave their 9-year-old daughter behind. This tale of survival, grief, betrayal and love offers a rare glimpse into a little-documented period in China’s history.
The Caregiver, SAMUEL PARK, ’98, MA ’98; Simon & Schuster.
Novelist Samuel Park, author of the acclaimed This Burns My Heart, seeks what abides and what is fleeting in human relationships in The Caregiver, his final novel. Park succumbed to stomach cancer in 2017. The Caregiver alternates between ’90s-era Bel Air and ’70s Rio de Janeiro, juxtaposing protagonist Mara Alencar’s work as an undocumented caregiver for a cancer-stricken woman with Mara’s mother’s involvement in political intrigue under the military dictatorship in Brazil.
As Mara learns more about the decisions her mother made while caught up in the struggle between left-wing student rebels and the right-wing military government, she begins to think of her mother as a woman who made mistakes but did her best, rather than as a superhuman or villain. Still, the novel reminds us that life can be unexpectedly cut short, and, as one character puts it, “Sometimes you have to get it right the first time.”
For your mom, who dishes about political scandal over dinner:
The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address, JOSEPH RODOTA, ’82; William Morrow. The storied symbol of the scandal that sank Nixon’s presidency was also a bustling social center for its residents. If its walls could talk, these are the stories they’d tell — including New Year’s Eve with justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, as well as Sen. Bob Dole’s doughnut delivery to reporters clamoring for his beleaguered neighbor Monica Lewinsky.
For your sister, who’s there for you no matter what:
Everything Here Is Beautiful, MIRA T. LEE, ’92; Pamela Dorman Books. Lee’s debut novel explores the powerful bond between two sisters: Miranda, older and weighted with responsibility, and younger, free-spirited Lucia, who is living with schizophrenia. As the story unfolds, Lee reveals the complexities of loving a person whose actions are swayed by illness, as well as the continuous joys and difficulties of being that person.
For your dad, who wrote his thesis on Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech:
From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, MICHAEL MCFAUL, ’86, MA ’86; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
McFaul’s newest book begins with a look back at a moment of high hope in U.S.–Russia relations: flying into Prague with President Obama in 2010 for the signing of a historic deal to slash the countries’ nuclear arsenals. It was a personal triumph for McFaul, a Stanford political scientist who was then a presidential adviser and the principal architect of Obama’s ambitious plan to “reset” relations with Russia.
And yet just two years later, McFaul would arrive in Moscow as the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Russia to an alternative reality of mistrust and anger, as evidenced by the tongue-lashing he received in his first encounter with Vladimir Putin, recently restored to the Russian presidency. Soon McFaul, and even his staff and family, were being stalked, harassed and surveilled.
McFaul explores what went wrong with the mix of analysis, history and anecdote available only to one who had been there. Ultimately, he remains hopeful that the U.S. and Russia will one day be allies—just no time soon. “The hot peace, tragically but perhaps necessarily,” he writes, “seems here to stay.”
For your co-worker, who makes the best paleo brownies:
Diet and the Disease of Civilization, ADRIENNE ROSE BITAR, PhD ’16; Rutgers U. Press. Read as literature, contemporary American diet books—some 400 of them—shed light on civilization and its discontents. Whether the genre is harnessing nostalgia for a purportedly pure Eden or despair at the supposed toxicity of modern industrial society, Bitar says, it promises more than just weight loss. It supplies a vision of a better life.
For your brother-in-law, who wants to quit his day job:
Mastering Stand-Up: The Complete Guide to Becoming a Successful Comedian, STEPHEN ROSENFIELD, MFA ’72; Chicago Review Press. If spending a week or four attending a comedy class in New York City sounds impractical, there’s no need to drop the mic. This entertaining guide by the founder of the American Comedy Institute makes a solid stand-in for learning to humor your way into an audience’s heart. Geared toward aspiring comics, Rosenfield’s techniques of performing and writing are just as useful in the classroom or the boardroom.
For your tween niece, who talked half the family into becoming vegetarians at Thanksgiving:
You Are Mighty: A Guide to Changing the World, CAROLINE PAUL, ’86; Bloomsbury. Kids are fierce change agents. Whether they’re passionate about animal rights, politics, the environment or social justice, they can use Paul’s handbook to learn how to turn their emotions into action. Workbook exercises help kids research an issue, make a protest sign, start a petition, organize a boycott, harness social media and more. Anecdotes about real kids who have made a difference will inspire the tween audience they’re written for—as well as other readers.
For your work bestie, who geeks out over sea life:
Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods, DANNA STAAF, PhD ’10; ForeEdge. “Squid and octopuses are so weird it’s tempting to call them aliens,” writes Staaf, a biologist who specializes in invertebrates. The book, a quirky and often tantalizing read, dives into “the world of the head-footed.” One fun fact: These creatures with tentacular noggins have the most highly developed nervous system of all invertebrates.
For your novel-writing housemate, who’s applying to medical school:
Patient Care: Death and Life in the Emergency Room, PAUL SEWARD, ’64; Catapult. A surgeon relates unforgettable cases from his nearly 50 years of practice. Though there’s no shortage of suspense, his concise storytelling focuses not on the high drama of the ER but on the lessons learned there from the shared humanity of patient and physician (and nurses, pharmacists and coroners).
For your brother, who is not throwing away his shot:
Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical Is Restaging America’s Past, RENEE C. ROMANO, MA ’92, PhD ’96, and CLAIRE BOND POTTER; Rutgers U. Press. Facing up to the award-winning play’s power to shape our understanding of America’s past, Romano and Potter present a collection of accessible but scholarly essays to investigate Hamilton: An American Musical. Delving into history, politics, race relations and contemporary culture, the book poses big questions: Can Hamilton help create a new, multiracial American civic myth? Or was the real-life Alexander Hamilton — an elitist and a skeptic of democracy — simply too divisive? Besides, who owns American history — and who gets to tell it?
For your boss, who recommends the best biographies:
The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age, DAVID N. SCHWARTZ, ’76; Basic Books. An Italian scientist living with his Jewish wife, Fermi used the occasion of his Nobel ceremony in 1938 to flee to America and join the Manhattan Project. Schwartz brings Fermi’s science down to earth in this account of Fermi’s life as a father, a teacher and a morally conflicted but brilliant physicist.