DURING THIS SEASON of giving, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the worst gift I ever received. It was from an ex-boyfriend who heard me talk about the Atlas moth, an insect that counts itself among the largest on the planet (its wingspan is wider than the hand of most NBA players). It can also count itself among my greatest fears. After a brush with one of these furry creatures at the Museum of Natural History’s butterfly exhibit, my boyfriend presented me with a dead specimen suspended between panes of glass. He had registered “moth obsession,” not “moth chills.”
The relationship didn’t last long (not because of the moth … though not not because of the moth), but the Atlas moth still hangs in my living room. It’s a reminder of what happens after we give a gift. There’s so much focus on the gesture, on the moment of unveiling, but what comes next? With the passage of time, the moth has become an inextricable part of my decor, emerging from the awkward cocoon of its origins into a prized possession.
A similar process can happen when we are gifted a book. The first impressions of the cover and opening lines, good or bad, and the details of how the book came to be in your possession, good or bad, do fade. Only then can the real story reveal itself. In due time, the right book becomes part of your life until you can’t imagine the walls of your mind without it — until it feels like it was yours all along.
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On the surface, Juhea Kim’s gorgeous debut novel, “Beasts of a Little Land” (Ecco), might not seem like an intuitive gift: “Here, have this often dark, sometimes violent novel about people struggling for survival and hope within the brutal context of colonialism and war. Saw this and thought of you.” But this transporting and elegant tale of complicated characters whose lives intertwine during the Korean independence movement of the early twentieth century is not to be missed. It opens in the mountains of occupied Korea with a starving hunter recalling his father’s lessons about not killing tigers, but it takes a Japanese soldier to prevent him from doing just that. Kim’s vivid and precise descriptions of place glow: “The waterbirds from Siberia were settled around the shimmering sheets of ice covering the Han River.” Her sense of history and politics stands out as well, especially when it comes to Jade, a young girl forced into the life of a courtesan. Moving from Pyongyang to Seoul, Jade’s friendship with an orphan boy named JungHo is one of the most affecting aspects of this historically informative story. The conceit of a novel full of characters presented with hard choices is not, in itself, a revolution, but Kim has propelled the reader into those choices with refreshing skill.
There’s one in every family and in every friend group — the creative type. The yearning, striving, introspective, sometimes volatile, sometimes fragile flower. If you live in just about any urban environment, there’s … well, there’s more than one. Tom Bissell captures such characters with humor and empathy in “Creative Types: And Other Stories” (Pantheon). It should come as no surprise that the shapeshifting Bissell (critic, journalist, screenwriter, fiction writer, video-game aficionado) brings us these seven delightfully observed stories about artistic people in the midst of personal crisis. To illuminate: “Thus she pushed her fork into the risotto and watched steam rise from its disturbed center.”; “Everything cocaine did not make unbearably clear it erased.”; “Supine on the stiff-cushioned couch — only partially visible through the orchids and lilies, like some fabled cryptid — was the man himself.” That last line hails from “The Hack,” a pitch-perfect satirization of an assistant navigating James Franco’s “Saturday Night Live” appearance (Bissell also coauthored “The Disaster Artist”). These stories would make an ideal gift for the beloved creative type in your life — maybe with no note.
In 1961, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, known for their monumental public installations, began plans for wrapping Paris’ L’Arc de Triomphe in fabric and rope. The heavily photographed project came to fruition earlier this year and is now further immortalized in “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped” (Taschen).
In “Garbo: Her Life, Her Films” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), famed critic and editor Robert Gottlieb focuses his gaze on silver-screen siren Greta Garbo, who appeared in relatively few films in proportion to her massive fame and enduring legacy.
British novelist Scarlett Thomas serves up a moving and original memoir in the form of “41-Love” (Counterpoint), a story of finding what sustains us in the face of unexpected change and grief.
Amanda Gorman’s “Call Us What We Carry” (Viking) unveils her lyrical poems about global politics and personal identity during our ever-shifting and hopefully evolving times — an urgent gift to her readers.
Sometimes described as a “twenty-first-century Virginia Woolf,” essayist Siri Hustvedt dissects the thin layers that separate family, feminism, and the basic borders we take for granted, in her funny and incisive new collection “Mothers, Fathers, and Others” (Simon & Schuster).
In Italian novelist Francesco Pacifico’s latest, “The Women I Love” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a one-time poet, rapidly approaching 40, dissects a lifetime of relationships with women, from his family to his lovers, to great analytical and humorous effect.
Peter Stamm’s “It’s Getting Dark” (Other Press) features snowy introspective short stories, from Vermont to the Alps, all of which poke at the fragility of our world, none of which wrap up in a neat bow.
Shea Ernshaw’s “A History of Wild Places” (Atria) takes us to the woods, to a secluded commune called, fittingly, Pastoral, as three residents take it upon themselves to investigate the disappearances of two outsiders.
Catherine Price teaches us how to recognize and seek out pure enjoyment (a confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow) in “The Power of Fun: How To Feel Alive Again” (The Dial Press). “Fun” is not merely escapism, not merely putting down the phone and decompressing, but finding ways to actively fill your life with joy. What better gift could there be?
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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.
Marina Esmeraldo Illustrator
Marina Esmeraldo is a Brazilian-born, Barcelona-based illustrator, artist, and lecturer. Her award-winning work draws on a tropical upbringing, a modernist training in architecture, and her innate wanderlust.