Archived Reading Room

Books for holiday gifts can be a risky business

bookThink of the times someone has said to you: “You’ll love this book!” This well-intentioned person then shoves a book into your hands and dances off, leaving you gripping a volume, white-knuckled, you are now required to love. Though occasionally you’ll open the book and find yourself surprised by its pleasures, more likely you will read a few lines and sink slowly into the nearest chair as full of lead as Bonnie and Clyde. 

This agony, combined with the trials of those buying the book who really do seek to please a beloved bibliophile, explains why so many readers prefer receiving gift cards for presents. Not only do they get the pleasure of buying a book they really want, but they also enjoy the pleasure of the hunt.

Still, there is something second-class or slightly impersonal about a gift card. How many people do you know, for example, who open a greeting card and shriek with excitement and joy at the enclosed two-by-three-inch piece of plastic? It’s just a little too easy, a little too removed. (Anyone reading this column who has given me a gift card for a present, please be assured that I do in fact shriek with joy. But I think that’s probably rare and passing strange).

Recently I decided to visit a bookshop and select four books that would make fine gifts for a variety of people. I eschewed all general categories such as sports, crafts, and nature, and made my selections from two tables of newly-released titles. Keep in mind that I did not read the books, but instead found in their subject matter, writing and information a favorable first impression.

First up on the list is Jennifer Scott’s Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets Learned While Living in Paris (ISBN 978-1-4516-9937-1, $23). While an exchange student in Paris, Scott comes under the tutelage of a mentor, a woman whom she calls “Madame Chic.”

Her book is an account of the lessons learned from this mystery woman — lessons ranging from diet and exercise to make-up and dress, from cultivating an air of mystery to living a passionate life. The writing here, a combination of elegance and breeziness, seems to reflect Madame Chic’s personal philosophy that life is to be lived fully and elegantly.

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Lessons from Madame Chic would make a perfect holiday gift for many women, as long as the recipient didn’t regard it as a personal comment on her present situation. (An aside: the book also interested me as a male. Having lived the single life for eight years, I find myself more and more confused by women. I seem to possess a positive knack for clumsiness and the wrong word. Who knows? Perhaps Madame Chic might offer valuable and corrective insights).

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (ISBN 978-0-307-35214-9, $26) combines research, statistics and personal stories to examine the status of introverts in our society. According to Cain, one third to half of people are introverted, though some of these may go through life disguised as extroverts.

Particularly striking to me as a teacher, was the chapter when Cain remarks that teachers need to be aware of the introverts in their class and how they should exercise caution in trying to transform them into gregarious extroverts, a bit of advice with which I am in hearty agreement. 

Cain goes on to remind us of the value of silence, what she calls the “power of quiet.” We live in a world of noise, a world where, we are told, to be assertive and loud is a virtue. She warns also against the dangers of Groupthink, which all too often can silence the introvert, and reminds us of the power of the inner world of the human being. 

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, returns to this subject in Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life (ISBN 978-0-307-88678-1, $26). 

Like Madame Chic, this sort of self-help book often elicits mockery from some critics, yet on examining it I found my own objections melting away. Over a nine month period, the length of a school year, Rubin tackles a variety of different projects, all centered on her home, on herself, on those she loves. “Of all the elements of a happy life,” she writes, “the home is the most important.” In Happier at Home, she combines wit, philosophy, and practicality to show the reader how to forge a life of “greater simplicity, comfort, and love.”

Ken Follett’s Winter of the World (ISBN 978-0-525-95292-3, $36) follows his Fall of Giants, the first novel of his Century Trilogy. In Winter of the World, Follett takes the reader through the 1930s to World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. With its many stories and characters, the novel should appeal to men and women alike.

The book is expensive, yes, but readers who enjoyed Follett’s other historical novels — and readers who enjoy history in general — should find satisfaction here. Winter of the World does indeed make a fine gift for the winter, as it runs over nine hundred pages in length, one of those doorstop novels that seem perfectly suited to long hibernal evenings.

(Final note: a daughter-in-law responded with high excitement when I told her I had mentioned the Rubin book in this review. Inspired by her enthusiasm, I returned to the store, purchased Happier at Home for my daughter, and threw in Madame Chic for the aforementioned daughter-in-law. I will peruse Madame’s advice before wrapping, but expect to remain as confused as Freud in my efforts to understand the female of the species).

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