Look, buying books for someone else isn't an easy task. There are the worries: "Will she think I'm trying to change her?" "What if he — oh, no! — doesn't like science fiction?"
But it's much easier to buy a book that will surprise, amaze and interest the people for whom you're shopping if you head for the odd, off-the-wall, genuinely excellent and little-known books of the year. In short, go for what everyone else is missing.
That's easy to do with fiction, where a handful of literary novels share all the attention with the usual best-selling crap (which this year happened to be softcore teen vampire fanfiction repackaged as the ultimate female-friendly BDSM trilogy).
Start with Wilderness (Bloomsbury USA, $25/hardcover), the debut novel by Lance Weller that's slipping under the book-biz radar, perhaps due to all-too-frequent public relations comparisons to Cold Mountain. That's silly, since all the two books have in common, really, is the presence of a Civil War veteran on a walk.
Weller's novel has a frame story wrapped around two narrative strands about the same man, Abel Truman, at two different times in his life. One takes place during 1864's Battle of the Wilderness, while the other recounts Truman's attempt to walk over Washington state's Olympic Mountains in the last days of the 19th century. Wilderness is not just about one man, though; this remarkable piece addresses the way racism cuts across our history and lives, leaving welts and scars in its wake, and is well worth lingering over.
Another top-notch novel that hasn't been widely read — probably because it's been shelved in "science fiction" — is Come Back (ECW Press, $18.95/paperback) by Sky Gilbert. The protagonist is an aging, disabled feminist scholar named Frances Gumm. If that sounds just slightly familiar, it might be that you know her by her stage name: Judy Garland.
In Gilbert's story, it's 2050, and thanks to multiple liver transplants and other only-for-the-big-stars medical technology, Garland didn't die in 1969. Instead, she's 138 years old and writing about a dead gay Canadian playwright. The novel romps through theater, and feminist, gay and identity theory, and covers more addiction ground than a Saturday night at a busy nightclub. It's a smart, vicious and snort-your-coffee funny book that will leave you wishing Garland really was a college professor in hiding somewhere.
Wiley Cash's novel A Land More Kind Than Home (William Morrow, $24.99/hardcover) is another under-the-radar gem. It's got elements of a mystery to it — how, precisely, did a mute boy die during a church service? — as well as family drama. Oh, and a smarmy preacher with a congregation full of people willing to take up serpents. That's right, they're snake-handlers. And in some parts of the country, it's not as rare an example of devotion as one might think.
On the nonfiction front, there's no shortage of impossibly good and terribly interesting books that will be passed by in the rush for the next political jeremiad.
For a serious history buff, especially those who like "forgotten" or "hidden" history, pick up Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35/hardcover) by Yang Jisheng. Yang, a journalist and former member of the Chinese Communist Party, spent years interviewing the survivors of this government-created disaster, which killed upward of 30 million Chinese during Mao's "Great Leap Forward."
Some starved to death and some were killed by the CCP cadres; a not-insignificant number were cannibalized. Yang's book, which he intended as a memorial to his foster father who died of starvation at the time, is detailed, frightening, accurate and unsparing in its indictment of any government that restricts information and creates an atmosphere in which people fear to speak the truth. It's also banned in China.
If you've got some outrageously smart and savvy readers on your list, especially if they identify as queer or LGBT, consider Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Duke University Press, $22.95/paperback) by Sarah Schulman. The novelist, playwright and activist writes about her own "deliberate ignorance" about the treatment of Palestinians by the state of Israel; her experience in refusing an invitation to speak at a gay conference in Tel Aviv and instead meeting with supporters of the Palestinian cause — gay and straight, Israeli and Palestinian — and how it spurred even more activism on her part.
What's most useful about the book, even if the reader doesn't end up necessarily agreeing with all her points, is that Schulman offers an honest and unflinching look at her step-by-step process for challenging her own biases. It's courageous work, and something we don't see nearly enough of, especially when it comes to hot-button issues.
Another excellent work that's escaped widespread notice is on America's most uncomfortable subject: race. Salon columnist Joan Walsh takes on the problem of the white working class — a group she knows from the inside out — in What's the Matter With White People? Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was (Wiley, $25.95/hardcover). As a working-class white woman and life-long blue collar Democrat, Walsh is in a unique position to get at the discomfort and sense of entitlement that have led so many people in that group — including many of her own relatives — to jump ship for the Republican base. Even better, she cuts through the "us vs. them" thinking that persists in the Democratic Party and which does so much damage when reaching out to that demographic, mostly because it crashes on the shoals of class.
In fact, buy an extra copy of this book to keep. Anything that makes a white person this uncomfortable belongs on the bookshelf.
Finally, there are some absolutely awesome graphic novels out there for giving this year. The big one, of course, is Chris Ware's magnificent Building Stories (Pantheon, $50/hardcover), but there are some others well worth giving to friends to reintroduce the pleasures of a well-done graphic piece.
Start with The Underwater Welder (Top Shelf, $19.95/paperback), Jeff Lemire's emotional and emotive paen to fatherhood, or try the graphic novel version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Vertigo, $19.99), written by Denise Mina, a mystery/thriller author with more than enough cred to handle the job. Call 'em graphic novels, call 'em upscale comic books; either way, they're wonderful gifts.