Holiday book giving can be a tricky business. The shelves are overflowing with new titles come December, but taste in books can be a very personal and impenetrable thing. Do you want to risk giving someone a book they likely won't read, or would it be more generous of you to give a gift certificate and let them choose their own book?
I generally don't give books at Christmas, unless something new comes along that I am just busting to share. This year, I've discovered three such books.
At the top of my list is What the Dormouse Said: Lessons for Grown-ups From Children's Books, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. An impeccably chosen collection of quotable quotes from childhood classics, What the Dormouse Said reminds us what we learned from reading children's books and, more often, what we've forgotten.
The quotes are painstakingly divided among categories borrowed from life -- beauty, sadness, silence, character and individuality, etc. -- and are illustrated with witty pen-and-ink drawings by Pierre Le-Tan, best known for his work in The New Yorker.
Here are just a few of the hundreds of stunning gems in this priceless little book:
Faith and Courage -- "Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin ... What's he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on." (The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, 1939)
Defiance -- "And now," cried Max, "let the wild rumpus start!" (Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, 1963)
Imagination and Adventure -- "The whole world is full of things, and somebody has to look for them." (Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, 1950)
Animals -- "A lion in a zoo,/ Shut up in a cage,/ Lives a life/ Of smothered rage." (The Sweet and Sour Animal Book, Langston Hughes, 1994)
Love and Friendship -- "True friends never owe each other anything." (Bear Circus, William Pne du Bois, 1971)
Hidden Truths -- "I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me." (The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton, 1967)
What the Dormouse Said is the perfect gift for your sister, your mother, your brother, your nephew, your kid's teacher, your daughter away at college, your son in the Navy, your mailman, your priest, for the old lady next door or for the baby just born. Most importantly, give it to yourself. It will help you remember why you loved reading in the first place.
Also published by Algonquin is a new Christmas book in the tradition of sentimental tales that make us cry during this most vulnerable time of year, a slim volume titled When Angels Sing by Turk Pipkin.
What distinguishes it, first, from the tall pile of other Christmas books designed to pluck at our hearts, is that it's set in San Antonio, northern New Mexico, and suburban Los Angeles. Pipkin, who lives in Austin, Texas, and is a magazine, television and movie writer, infuses the book with a tough sentimentality and a modern edge that allows even the harshest Christmas cynic to delve farther, once he recognizes he's been roped.
When Angels Sing is the tale of a man, separated by tragedy from his brother, who comes to realize in his middle years that Christmas is foremost about remembering. The religious shadings are deliberately liberal and are cleverly melded with contemporary myths like Santa Claus. The tale flows quickly and painlessly but, nonetheless, leaves you feeling teary, unless you are a pre-Cindy Lou Who Grinch with a heart the size of a shriveled peanut. I plan to give it to friends and family who collect this kind of book, ranging from Truman Capote's classic A Christmas Memory to Richard Paul Evans' schlocky The Christmas Box.. Though you'll only pull it out at Christmas time, it's a keeper.
Every holiday season requires a good new children's book, and my favorite this year is Pioneer Church by Springs author Carolyn Otto. Otto, who currently sells books at the Chinook Bookshop, is the author of 12 books. Pioneer Church, which took eight years to complete, due to the complexity of the oil paintings which illustrate it, is a graceful evocation of Americana, explaining time and passing history by focusing on one building, a Pennsylvania church. With clear, steady diction and focus, Otto describes how early frontiersmen first built a log church atop a hill, then how it became the center of a growing community.
Church members marry, have babies, grow old and die. The cemetery marks their coming and passing. Seasons pass, a town emerges, times change, war erupts. Eventually, the log church burns down, to be replaced by a sturdier brick building, and that building, too, eventually, falls close to ruin, but happily is reclaimed by the people of the community.
The illustrator of the book, Megan Lloyd, helped to restore Old Zion Church in Brickerville, Penn., on which the book is based, and found she was too close to the experience to write the story though she painted many magnificent scenes from the church's and the community's history. She called on her friend, Carolyn Otto, to write the story, and the result is one of the finest children's books of the year, suitable for readers of all ages.
Pioneer Church offers a lasting lesson in the history of the man-made world, reminding us that behind each building are the lives of people who struggled to put it there, who spent time there, and who died while the bulding still stood. Historic preservation and restoration become notions as natural as breathing, when they are presented in such a simple and compelling format.