In news that will surprise absolutely no one who knows me, books are the best present you can get me. A few years ago for my birthday, my roommate got me a gift card to Strand Bookstore because she didn’t know what books I already had read or wanted to buy. It was so thoughtful!! But, I’m not here to talk about me or my old roommate (hi Amy, miss you!), but to make a case for why books are the best Hanukkah gifts and why, if you plan to give any gifts this holiday season, books are your best bet.
One, they are the perfect last minute gift. PSA: Local bookstores still exist! And, what better way to support your local community than to buy a book or two or eight? (You can use Amazon, if you want, but I always vote buying my books at a bookstore. Check out IndieBound to find books at local bookstores near you!)
Two, it’s an affordable way to give something meaningful. You can gift a book you read and loved and you really want your loved one to read so you have someone to talk about it with. (If they don’t love it, that’s also okay! Difference of opinions isn’t always a bad thing.) Plus, even the newest, most buzzy hardcover will always be under $30.
Three, even if they don’t ever read the book you gave them, a book still makes a nice decoration in your home/apartment/dorm room/wherever you live. No, I am not advocating for buying books as decoration, but I will tell you my dream living situation includes a library with floor to ceiling bookshelves and a cozy reading nook.
Four, books are great for all tiers of best friends in your life and all types of relatives.
You can give a book to your sibling! To your college friend you still randomly exchange presents with! To your exclusive-hook-up-but-we’re-not-dating-yet! To your partner of 10 years! Books for everyone!!
Five, use the “holidays” or “Hanukkah” or “it’s the end of December and it’s been a long fucking year” to treat yourself to a book. I try not to buy books (emphasis on try) as much as possible, and instead I use the library’s ebook borrowing as much as I can, but there are some books you just want to hold in your hands. (Like, Chanel Miller’s Know My Name I put on hold at the library, then decided, nope, I need to read it now.) (And I’m not even into the ~recommendations part~ of this piece, but everyone should read her book. Truly everyone.) So: Buy yourself a book this Hanukkah.
Now that I’ve convinced you to get a book for someone in your life (you’re welcome), what book should you gift this Hanukkah 2019? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered…
(Quick note: I tried to keep this list to eight books, because, you know, Hanukkah, but there ended up being a lot more. But eight main ones!)
For the person who loves reading: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.
Because who else would you get a book for? This is possibly my favorite book of 2019. Bernardine Evaristo’s gorgeous novel — which won the prestigious Booker Prize this year — interweaves 12 stories of Black British women. The story begins with Amma, a playwright whose work focuses on her Black lesbian identity, and soon spirals out to her daughter, her oldest friend, and many, many more. Some stories you will think, how is this person related? As Evaristo explained, “It’s an experimental novel where each woman has her own space, and that’s what’s so important. I think the form is very important, because they’re not short stories, it is a single novel.” And the novel all comes together in a beautiful and deeply satisfying way.
Because you will get the person who loves reading two books, the other book I recommend: Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, a dive into the 1986 Los Angeles Public Library fire, but also a love letter to libraries and those who love them.
For the person who will happily get swept up in a good sci-fi story: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo.
Leigh Bardugo is perhaps best known for her YA series, Six of Crows (which are also really worth your time), but her first venture into adult fiction is truly remarkable. Set at Yale where the secret societies deal in dark magic, the story follows Alex, a high school drop-out who gets accepted to the prestigious school because she can see dead people. Relevant to Alma readers and making this a particularly great Hanukkah gift? Bardugo, born in Jerusalem and raised in LA, makes her unlikely heroine, Alex, Jewish. (As I wrote in our fall books preview, it’s honestly the first time I’ve ever seen Ladino in a major novel, playing a role in the plot.) (Also, it’s being developed into a series at Amazon Prime, if you like reading-the-book-before-the-show.)
What happens if the person has obviously already read Leigh Bardugo’s newest? What else you got? Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook is absorbing, different, and is both sci-fi and a great thriller/mystery. (But I don’t recommend the new TV adaption at all!)
For the person who begrudgingly watched Game of Thrones, but really wished it was better: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James.
Did you, like me, watch Game of Thrones to the bitter end, even though you hated everything about what the show became? Well, have I got the remedy for you: Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf. I promise it is unlike anything you’ve ever read before. In 2015, when James won the Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, he told an interviewer he was going to “geek the fuck out” and write an “African Game of Thrones.” And he delivers. (Sidenote: to compare it to Game of Thrones is to do it a disservice, in my opinion. It’s so much more than just the African ___, and much more superior to Game of Thrones, lol.) The story at the center of the epic? A hunter named Tracker, hired to find a missing boy. But there are animals who become men, witches, vampires, nuanced characters, love stories, futuristic cities… agh just go read it. (Plus, Michael B. Jordan is currently attached to the adaptation!)
Want a different type of epic, not rooted in fantasy but in myth? Definitely go for Madeline Miller’s Circe, a retelling of the witch Circe who makes a brief appearance in Odysseus’s tale.
For the person who is super politically involved and listens to “The Daily” on the daily: She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.
As Jodi Kantor explained to me, “Part of what’s so confounding is that everything has changed and nothing has changed. And that’s part of why we wrote the book — we did it to bring you behind the scenes of these events and bring you to ground zero. People have developed such powerful feelings about #MeToo. This book was an invitation to come with us, to join our partnership and to come understand these events as they transpired.” Going behind the scenes of Kantor and Twohey’s reporting was remarkable — illuminating what men in power will do to remain in power. The book ends with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and her decision to testify. A must-read for anyone who reads the news (so, all of us).
For the person who is obsessed with Derry Girls (or who you keep telling to watch Derry Girls): Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe.
Okay, first, have you watched the delight that is Derry Girls? My job is writing for a Jewish website, so I have yet to be able to write about this as there’s nothing really Jewish about it… until now. I’m obsessed with this show, set in Derry, Northern Ireland, following a group of friends in the 1990s. It’s on Netflix.
Anyway. I’m writing about Derry Girls because if the show at all piqued your interest in the conflict in Northern Ireland — called The Troubles – do I have the book for you! Say Nothing clearly helps you understand what happened, focusing in on a few key players and one major thread: the 1972 murder and abduction of a widowed mother of 10, Jean McConville. I won’t say anything else (even though it is history, can you really spoil history?), but it’s a compelling book and makes hard history easier to understand.
Want more Irish literature that addresses the Troubles, but not into non-fiction? May I recommend Milkman by Anna Burns, maybe the most challenging (but most rewarding) book I read this year.
For the person who loves The Crown or any good historical series: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste.
You want gorgeous historical fiction? Well do I have the book for you… Set during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (also called the Second Italo-Ethiopian War), Megniste’s debut novel follows a young fighter, Hirut, who goes from a maid to a warrior over the course of the story. The story also shifts in perspective on occasion to other voices — to a colonel in the Italian army, to Fifi, an Ethiopian woman, and even to Emporer Halie Selassie. We also get a character named Ettore Navarra, a Jewish Italian soldier who is documenting the horrors and worried about his Jewish parents. As the NPR review pointed out, “It’s a brave, stunning call for the world to remember all who we’ve lost to senseless violence.”
What if I don’t want to read World War II historical fiction, but I still want to read historical fiction? I recommend Carolina de Robertis’s Cantoras, which begins in Uruguay in 1977 under a military dictatorship when five queer women escape to the seaside for a week.
For the person who follows Meghan Markle fan accounts on Instagram (or doesn’t follow, but you know their whole explore page is Meghan Markle, c’mon): Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory.
Jasmine Guillory’s romance novels are always a joy to read, and her latest, Royal Holiday, doesn’t disappoint. Plus, it’s the only explicitly holiday book on this list! I love reading a book during the season it’s set in!! Royal Holiday takes place in the universe of her other books (but you don’t need to read her other books to read this one) and the story is loosely inspired by Meghan Markle’s mom, Doria. (All hail Doria!!)
Quick summary: Maddie has landed a dream gig, styling a Duchess (unnamed, but you can guess who!) during the holidays. She is invited to stay with the family during the Christmas holiday — so she brings her mom, Vivian. Soon after arriving, Vivian meets a handsome man, Malcom, who has worked for the Queen for years. A holiday romance? Or something more?
Craving a queer romance novel? Definitely read Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, which has received a ton of well-deserved hype this year. The book asks the question we’ve all been thinking: What happens when the president’s son and a British prince fall in love?
For the person who binge-watches Law & Order and loves puzzles: The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz.
Searching for a classic whoddunit? Search no further! Anthony Horowitz (who I loved growing up for his Alex Rider series) writes a version of himself into a mystery novel. The premise? The mother of a famous actor goes to a funeral parlor to plan her own service. Six hours later, she’s found murdered. Disgraced detective Daniel Hawthorne is brought on to help solve the impossible case, and he asks writer Anthony Horowitz to shadow him (a fictional version of Anthony Horowitz, that is).
Want to get a little weirder? Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids imagines what would happen if the Scooby Doo gang grows up. There’s a mystery at the heart of it, obviously.
For the person who… I actually don’t know a good description for this category, but I wanted to include this one, besides it’s my Hanukkah book recs and I can do what I want!! Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut short story collection is set in Colorado, centering the voices of Latinas of indigenous ancestry. These are tough but beautiful stories that dive into what it means to be Latina and indigenous. The titular story is about two cousins — Corina is a cosmetologist who is preparing her cousin, Sabrina, for burial after she’s been murdered. Fajardo-Anstine described her book to LitHub as, “Women, Denver, Chicanas of indigenous ancestry in the Southwest, legacies of violence and addiction, the power of love and resiliency, family, homeland, and truth.”
What else? The Crying Book by Heather Christle also blew me away this year. A mix of poetry and memoir and just riveting.
Happy reading! Happy Hanukkah!
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