Books

The Gift of Words

Author Sloane Crosley’s selection of excellent books for the season and beyond.

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MY SISTER AND I used to shake our presents on Christmas Eve, guessing at their contents. There are multiple reasons why we shouldn’t have been doing this, chief among them the fact that we’re Jewish. We shouldn’t have been observing Christmas at all (but you try separating my mother from a string of lights). So observing it we were, as if from afar. Christmas breakfast was bagels and lox. Christmas music was “The Big Chill” soundtrack, which got stuck in the living room CD player sometime in 1995 and remains there to this day. When it came to presents, my parents could not let go of the eight-day trail of socks and chocolates leading to an “actual” gift. They numbered the packages in the order they were meant to be opened on Christmas morning — which meant all our guessing was low stakes, as the answer was generally “soap.” Books were the only shape that did not fill our young hearts with the dreaded sense that we were shaking a pack of AA batteries.

Each year, the internet is flooded with gift guides for books — here are the 53 best novels, the 26 best coffee-table books, the 101 best autobiographies by dalmatians. The numbers are haphazardly astronomical because, why not? Books make ideal gifts. They’re impossible to screw up too badly, they fit neatly in a suitcase, and they’re rarely embarrassing to display on a shelf. Sadly, the good ones don’t make any noise when you shake them. So herewith, a selection of the season’s excellent but distinctly jingle-free books.

One can rarely go wrong in turning to The New York Review of Books for a good gift … or six. For me, these are the pair of dark, slim, recently published novels by British author Gwendoline Riley. “First Love” (NYRB) is told from the point of view of Neve, a London woman in her mid-30s married to Edwyn, an older and ailing man who is resentful of her in every way, as they attempt to navigate each other’s moods. This is an emotional landscape (read: battlefield) in which every plant has roots in the past. Novels with “memory” as their primary subject do not always signal “page-turner,” but Riley’s writing is equal parts charm and weight, social and moral observation. “We walked up to the shops, into the throat of the wind. People were moving slowly, obstructively, in both directions: only these little tiptoe scutters when a gust caught them: arms lifted, bags.” The reader is transported into the tensions of a delicate relationship. (“I blame myself,” says Edwyn in a particularly graceless rant. “I knew what I was getting. I knew what you were.”) Riley writes like Brâncuși sculpts, letting precise lines of description do the heavy lifting.

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This quality is also on display in Riley’s “My Phantoms” (NYRB), a book as beguiling as “First Love” but twice as devastating. The mother in this haunting novel injects herself in conversations “as if she were trying to jump onto a moving carousel” while her daughter kicks and screams against the artifice of their strained relationship, which only deepens their respective isolation.

Both novels are stunners, fitting introductions of an acclaimed writer to an American audience, and both are worth the price of admission for the dialogue alone — though perhaps neither are meant to be given with a card that reads “saw this and thought of you.”


Candlelit

New Yorker writer Hua Hsu crafts a modern and moving account of the friendship that altered his life forever in the tragic but unsentimental “Stay True” (Doubleday).


There’s Snow Place Like Home

The inspiring images and tales of “The Getaways” (Gestalten) will make you rethink the appeal of van life (assuming artful pictures of airstreams inspire a certain kind of groan).


Holidaze

Toad” (MCD x FSG) by the late, great Katherine Dunn (author of “Geek Love”) follows a reclusive woman as she reflects on the past, in between floor waxing and doorknob polishing.


National Lampoon

Lydia Millet’s “Dinosaurs” (Norton) is a powerful examination of how we treat our environment (and each other), told through a heartbroken man who treks from New York to Arizona, only to have to contend with the neighbors.


Keep It Under Wraps

Mark Rothko” (Rizzoli) is a formidably boxed monograph dedicated to the abstract expressionist’s career and, while hardly the first Rothko tribute, it’s the first to feature foldouts and such close input from the artist’s family.


Flakes and Flurries

If you can’t get a table at the beloved West Village restaurant, bring the table to you with “Via Carota” (Knopf), written by co-owners Jodi Williams and Rita Sodi (with Anna Kovel). Come for the roasted carrots, stay for the sweet ricotta cake.


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Elf on a Shelf

You may be thinking to yourself, “No, I don’t need to rethink Florida,” but “Florida!” (A24) is a delightfully kitschy (covered in a squishy pink jacket) yet informative and enchanting 547-page guide to the country’s most easily maligned state.


Pining for You

Nick Hornby’s “Dickens and Prince” (Riverhead), a fan letter drawing delightful connections between legendary geniuses, makes for an ideal stocking stuffer (which is, in itself, quite Dickensian).


Spruced Up

Elaine Mayes: The Haight-Ashbury Portraits 1967–1968” (Damiani), edited by Kevin Moore, FotoFocus Artistic Director and Curator, the book features previously unseen portraits of the hippie epicenter that continues to ignite and haunt the country’s imagination.


Deck the Halls

Spanning 40 years of hip-hop jewelry, “Ice Cold” (Taschen) is a sparkling compendium of decades of decadence, showcasing custom pieces worn by everyone from Run-DMC to Cardi B.


Your Present Is Requested

Life Is Everywhere” (Graywolf), the latest by Lucy Ives, is bursting with energy and (successfully) lampooned cliches, a stuffed satchel of metafiction that’s a joy to unpack.


Y’all-tide

Nothing says “home for the holidays … and potentially unhappy about it” like “Southern Fiction” (Daylight). With photographs by Tema Stauffer, this arresting survey of the American South and writers’ spaces will resonate with lovers of architecture and fiction alike.


Have Yourself a Very Beachy Holiday

Assouline’s location-based books have long been the darlings of coffee tables the world over, so much so that it’s easy to overlook what’s inside. If you count yourself among said overlookers, break your streak on Elora Hardy’s “Bali Mystique” (Assouline), a transportive and glamorous collection of images, as well as cultural and architectural details, showcasing the Indonesian jewel as more than just an Instagrammable surf mecca.

Our Contributors

Sloane Crosley Writer

Sloane Crosley is the author of several essay collections, including “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” and “Look Alive Out There,” and the novel “The Clasp.” Her new novel, “Cult Classic,” is out now.

Lisa Lok Writer

Lisa Lok is an art director at Departures. A Brooklyn-based creative, she enjoys collaborating with illustrators and photographers from around the world. Her work can be found in the pages of Airbnb Magazine, NYLON, and Asia Society Magazine, among others.

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