Monday, December 2, 2013

Best Books to Buy for Christmas 2013

It's time for Ye Olde Yearly List. Unlike others you'll find coming out right about now, books that made my list weren't necessarily published in 2013. I also leaned heavily toward nonfiction this year, at least in my favorite reads. Nor do I cover some genres, since there are plenty of genres I go years without reading... All that said, here goes:

Just like all the Oscar contenders come out in December, my favorite read of 2013 happens to be the last book I read.

The cover (almost) says it all. Basically, if you loved Seabiscuit, you'll love this book. There's the same underdog stories, Rough-West-versus-Snooty-East theme, thrilling sports coverage, triumphs and setbacks. Seabiscuit even comes in for a mention, as does Louie Zamperini of Unbroken. Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels make more than cameo appearances. It's like meeting all your favorite friends at a party! (And don't tell me you don't like to encounter Nazis at parties. From the enduring popularity of WWII books, I think we can all admit we love to meet Nazis at parties.)

I would recommend this book for sports fans, Laura Hillenbrand fans, UW alums, rowers and their parents. If you're looking in particular for BOY books, go with this one or Ready Player One (below). The Boys in the Boat features classic boy-book elements like father-son issues, proving oneself, lumberjacking, and making friends.


This novel draws on 80s culture and the history of video games for its fantasy-quest plot. A dead ga-billionaire leaves a prize for anyone who can solve his video-game-related clues, setting off a worldwide cyber quest. Total fun and a great trip down Memory Lane. Reading it made me miss my sister and our trips to play arcade games at Golfland--there's even a Joust scene that had me reaching for the phone. Clean enough for teens and tweens to read. Wreck-It Ralph in book form. Delightful.


I'm going to proclaim two winners in this category, since I read a lot of great narrative nonfiction this year. (And this category is not counting The Boys in the Boat!)

What did I say about loving Nazis at parties? Our friends show up again here, as a backdrop to the development of the first Sulfa drugs. Absolutely fascinating. Life before antibiotics was no picnic, and author Hager lets us all experience the wonder of the first wonder drug.

If you're sick of Nazi villains, however, try North Korea's leaders for a change of pace:

I couldn't put this one down. Demick weaves the stories of several North Koreans--their daily experiences and suffering and challenges, and their eventual escape to the West. Imagine thinking the rural Chinese were living the good life! They were, if you hailed from North Korea, just across the river. A glimpse behind the curtain.


From North Korea to amnesiac housewives. If you like lighter reading fare, or have a friend who does (and you've already read/given all my books--har har), try this one on for size:

Alice bangs her head in spin class, loses her memory, and rediscovers her life. If your marriage was fine and dandy before kids happened and before life happened, this book will make you quite wistful for ye good olde days. If you're still married to your fella, it'll make you be nicer to him for at least a couple days. A two-fer!


For the wannabe higher-brow fiction readers among us, I loved this one:

I must confess, I'm no fan of The Odyssey. Every time I got assigned it in college, I was bored to death. And I never picked up The Iliad until after reading this book, based on events leading up to and covered by The Iliad. But this book was good enough to make me have another go at Homer. I even made it through several hundred lines of epic poetry before I nodded off. Miller tells the story of Patroclus and his "special friendship" with Achilles. Yep, that kind of friendship. But apart from one hand-job scene, Miller keeps it subtle. This is no 50 Shades of Troy. I thought Patroclus seemed out of step with his culture, for being such a pacifist, but I got over it.


One caveat: it's more about the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration than about the Ice Balloon, but since I love people slogging through the Ant/Arctic, freezing to death and behaving (ig)nobly, this book was right up my alley. Going over the North Pole in an air balloon??? And you thought you had bad ideas, sometimes!


Really enjoyed this book about a gal who was raised in the foster care system and who has spent her life hiding in books and adopting the personas and lines of her favorite characters. She gets a chance to attend grad school in journalism, as long as she writes letters to her benefactor, who calls himself "Mr. Knightley." Not just Austen references abound--Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo and Anne of Green Gables make appearances. Very fun and surprisingly gritty for a book with such a froufrou cover. It even got me over my dislike of epistolary novels.


For the greenie in your life. I spouted facts constantly while reading this, and even inspired my 10YO daughter to do her class presentation on plastic trash.

Like all my favorite histories-told-through-the-lens-of-one-item, Freinkel picks a few iconic things made of plastic and traces our evolving love affair with the substance. Some are obvious, like the plastic water bottle, the plastic shopping bag, and the plastic chair, but her discussion is fresh and expansive. She also goes places I never thought about, as when she looks at plastics in medicine. The environmental repercussions of our love affair are heartbreaking, and I must say, this book made me much more unwilling to buy things that are over-packaged or meant to be disposed of after one use. I may Re-Use and Recycle, but the key is Reduce.


If you liked The Kite Runner, as I did, except for the awful molestation/torture bit, you will love Fort of Nine Towers, except for the awful torture bit. Omar tells the story of his family in Afghanistan before and during the takeover by the Taliban. Moving, harrowing, loving, and inspiring.

And finally,


I'm a Maud Hart Lovelace fanatic, as my blog readers will know, from my many posts on Betsy-Tacy and the Literary Dream Tour I took my girls on in April. But I'd never tried any of her other fiction before this one, set in the early, early days of St. Paul and Fort Snelling. The days of Indians and fur trappers and soldiers. It was wonderful! A gutsy, thoughtful protagonist, cultural clashes, and conflicts galore. Plus, this being MHL we're talking about, a good love story. Sigh. You may have a little more trouble locating this book than the others, but it's worth it.

There you have it! The List for 2013. Knock out your whole Christmas list, or just get a little goodie for yourself. Happy holidays.


  1. Thanks Christina! I added two new books to my wish list thanks to your reviews!\
    Doug Raubacher