There’s a reason books are one of the most popular gifts: there is truly something for everyone; they fit any budget; and they provide escape and delight. With so many to choose from, in a bid to make our readers’ lives easier, we pick books each year that we think would make great presents. This week, look for books that range through fiction and non-fiction and holiday fare; next week we’ve got ideas for younger readers, plus diversions and discoveries.
A big read, a boxed set and pairings
“Grey Bees” (New Vessel Press, $23.50) by Andrey Kurkov, one of Ukraine’s best known writers, is about a beekeeper in the midst of conflict. Pair this with “Volodymyr Zelensky In His Own Words” (Pegasus, $37), a collection of the Ukraine president’s quotes on myriad subjects, edited and researched by Lisa Rogak and Daisy Gibbons, and/or “A Message From Ukraine: Speeches, 2019-2022” (Crown, $22), personally authorized by Zelenskyy with a new introduction by him. Proceeds go to United24, an initiative Zelenskyy launched to co-ordinate charitable donations to his country.
“The Passenger” and “Stella Maris,” Cormac McCarthy (Knopf Doubleday, $41 and $36, box set $77): These companion books from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author are both just out individually. “The Passenger” is a sprawling novel, the story of a salvage diver who makes a grim discovery; “Stella Maris” is told entirely in dialogue by a woman in a psychiatric facility. Buy them on their own or in a convenient box set.
“Nomenclature,” Dionne Brand (McClelland & Stewart, $45): At more than 600 pages, this book collects eight volumes of the beloved Canadian poet’s work, plus a new long poem, “Nomenclature for the Time Being.” It becomes a record of almost four decades of her career and a treasure for admirers.
Award winners from indie publishers
“The Sleeping Car Porter,” Suzette Mayr (Coach House, $23.95): Winner of the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize, this novel stars Baxter, a queer, Black sleeping car porter on a train crossing the country in 1929, and illuminates the things he must put up with to earn enough money to realize his dream: going to dentistry school.
“Some Hellish,” Nicholas Herring (Goose Lane, $24.95): Winner of the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, this debut novel from the P.E.I. native is about a middle-aged Atlantic lobster fisher who goes through something of an existential crisis, about which the prize jury said, “What Cormac McCarthy did for cowboys and horses, Nicholas Herring does for fishermen and boats.”
“Finding Edward,” Sheila Murray (Cormorant, $24.95): Finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, Murray’s debut novel is about Cyril, who immigrates to Canada from the Caribbean in 2012 and, as he becomes involved in the search for a mixed-race baby’s story, discovers secrets of the country’s Black history along the way.
“Indigenous Toronto: Stories That Carry This Place” (Coach House, $24.95): Winner of the Speaker’s Book Award and the Heritage Toronto Book Award, this book captivated the judges (full disclosure: I was on that panel) with stories from a city we thought we knew. It will make you want to explore and understand Toronto’s rich and deep history, and all the people and stories we don’t yet know.
“Getting Lost,” Annie Ernaux (Seven Stories Press, $24.95): French author Ernaux was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.” “Getting Lost” is a diary she kept when having a secret affair with a younger, married man, an experience she fictionalized in her novel “Simple Passion.”
“The Junta of Happenstance,” Tolu Oloruntoba (Palimpsest Press, $19.95): Winner of the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize and a 2021 Governor General’s Award, Oloruntoba’s debut volume of poetry finds beauty in chaos and the poems, said the Griffin jury, “make peace with accident and fate. They bring breath to survival.”
Books for Culture Vultures
“The Philosophy of Modern Song,” Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster, $55): In his latest book, Nobel Laureate and glorious weirdo Dylan turns his songwriter’s eye on 66 songs from other writers, from Perry Como to the Clash, from “The Whiffenpoof Song” to Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up.” The audio book is a treat, featuring Dylan alongside readers including Jeff Bridges, Helen Mirren, Oscar Isaac, Alfre Woodard and others.
“Cinema Speculation,” Quentin Tarantino (HarperCollins, $43.50): Before he was considered one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, Tarantino was a cinema devotee. “Cinema Speculation” is Tarantino’s education in film, focusing on key American films of the golden age of the 1970s, including “Deliverance,” “Dirty Harry” and “Taxi Driver.”
“Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers,” Emma Smith (Knopf Doubleday, $37.99): Oxford professor (and Shakespeare specialist) Smith takes readers on a history of the book — not just the content, but the varying forms (a book made of slices of cheese!) that have created the iconic experience of reading. There is no better guide to “bookhood” and no substitute for the pleasure of a book in the hand.
“A Book of Days,” Patti Smith (Knopf Canada, $37): Rock iconoclast and poet Smith has been documenting her life in photographs since 1996, with more than a million followers on Instagram waiting on her every update. “A Book of Days” explores the devotional aspect of the medieval form with a photo for every day, designed to enthrall, fascinate and spark curiosity.
“Penguin Classics Marvel Collection” (Penguin, $66): The canonical doors of the Penguin Classic library burst open to include three seminal volumes of Marvel Comics. The books — on Captain America, Black Panther and Spider-Man — not only chronicle their respective origin stories, but detail the rise of a powerful cultural force. You can get them individually or get the set. For the comic geek of all ages.
Lives Lived: personal stories to inspire and illuminate
“Big Men Fear Me,” Mark Bourrie (Biblioasis, $24.95): Journalist Bourrie chronicles the life of George McCullagh, the creator of the Globe and Mail and one of the most powerful men in Canadian history, a story that has remained largely in the shadows before now. A transfixing and tragic account.
“Above the Fold,” John Honderich (McClelland & Stewart, $35): Completed just weeks before the author’s death, “Above the Fold” is the inside story of the history of the Toronto Star. Longtime publisher of the Star Honderich leaves behind the paper and this fascinating account, a compelling legacy on both counts.
“Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands,” Kate Beaton (Drawn & Quarterly, $39.95): “Ducks” is cartoonist Beaton’s graphic-memoir account of two years she spent working in Alberta’s oilsands to pay off her student loans. Unflinching in the face of blistering, risky work and caustic co-workers, “Ducks” is the beauty that comes from hardship.
“Tanqueray,” Stephanie Johnson with Brandon Stanton (St. Martin’s, $32.99): Originally an online sensation in Stanton’s “Humans of New York,” the story of Tanqueray, a.k.a. Stephanie Johnson, once the burlesque queen of New York, lives on in book form. If you haven’t met Tanqueray, now’s your chance: she’s a force of nature, no-holds-barred, no-crap-taken. And if you’re familiar with the story, the book goes even deeper. It’s a treasure.
“Joan Didion: What She Means,” edited by Hilton Als and Connie Butler (DelMonico Books/Hammer Museum, $52.95): A unique way of looking at an icon and our relationship with her, “Joan Didion: What She Means” collects artwork and critical responses to the literary superstar. Neither a biography nor a hagiography, this is an examination of the effect of an artist and their work on other artists.
Stocking stuffers: Little books that make a big statement
“A Small Book of Exemplary Deaths,” Matt Sturrock (Sutherland House, $16.95), is one of those little volumes of odd information that are perfectly quirky and ideal for gift-giving. It’s a compendium of people ranging from Ancient Greece to today, whose deaths displayed “their extraordinary strength of character in the face of annihilation.” Some might call them heroic. With copious notes and a long bibliography, it also suggests a reading list to span the ages.
“Christmas Ghost Stories” (Biblioasis $9.50 each, $25 for the three-pack): This series began in 2015 when internationally celebrated Guelph cartoonist Seth dug deep into his archive of ghost stories to resurrect a Victorian tradition of reading one on Christmas Eve. This year’s trio includes “A Visit” by Shirley Jackson, “The Corner Shop” by Lady Asquith and “The Dead and the Countess” by Gertrude Atherton.
“All I Want For Christmas,” Maggie Knox (Viking, $19.95): This is the second year in a row that Canadian writers Marissa Stapley and Karma Brown have gotten together to collaborate under the pseudonym Maggie Knox to create holiday romance. Add this to last year’s edition, “The Holiday Swap.”
“Shopomania,” Paul Berton (Douglas & McIntyre, $36.95): This is a regular-sized book, so for a rather large stocking — but maybe that’s the point during a season when consumerism generally runs rampant. The Hamilton Spectator editor-in-chief has developed a new lexicon for shopaholics with words such as Shopreneur and Shoptopia, for example, sardonically exploring all the various reasons we shop.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings,” editor John Lorinc (Couch House, $23.95): A delicious little book for foodies, armchair anthropologists and armchair food travellers alike, filled with essays about the various little pockets of delectableness that feature in almost every country around the world.
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