Holiday Gift Books: Suggestions from Writers, Readers, and Book Lovers

We Iowans are a literary people. After all, writers from both coasts and around the world come here to study. We’re well-educated, we appreciate good literature, and we love to read. It makes sense, then, in this season of giving, to give books to our loved ones.

Choosing the right book is a delicate art. For inspiration, we asked a number of local folks for their suggestions, and we got a whole range of subjects and genres in response. Some of these titles will be easy to find; others might take a little research.

After the holidays, when all the celebration and merrymaking come to an end, throw another cob in your corn-burning stove, curl up in a comfy armchair with a stack of your favorite books, and dwell in the warmth of a good story. It’s a fine restorative for the cold season ahead. (Prices listed are for hardcover books, unless noted).


The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini ($24.95 hardcover, $14 paper). The Kite Runner is a tremendously moving story of friendship. After reading it, I immediately sent off a copy to my long-lost childhood friend who isnow an Air Force pilot based in Charleston. Like the main characters in this book, the two of us spent endless hours battling our kites and running after them when the strings snapped. Of course, this book is about so much more than flying kites. Friendship, betrayal, salvation … you’ll lose yourself in this powerful epic and learn a lot about ethnic and religious tensions in Afghanistan along the way.
— Ben Kieffer, WSUI Radio Host

Runaway, by Alice Munro ($25). Canadian Alice Munro is one of the  best living fiction writers in the world. “Her subject is people. People people people. Munro is a pure story teller. . . . A small town’s annual lottery is revealed to serve a rather surprising purpose. . . .A middle aged Dubliner leaves a party and reflects on life and love. More than any writer since Chekhov, Munro strives for and achieves a completeness in the representation of life.” —The New York Times.
— Jim Harris, Prairie Lights Bookstore

The Baroque Cycle, vols. I-lII: Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson (each$27.95). Fans of Neal Stephenson’s erudite treatments of cryptology and currency in the engaging fictionof Cryptonomicon or his cyperpunk marvel Snow Crash have alreadybeen devouring his mammoth treatment of world history in the 17thand18th centuries. But those who value an immersive read in the seasof piracy, slavery, royalty, and alchemy; the minuet of war and peace;and the evolution of natural philosophy and money involving the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and dozens of other historical notables will relish this 2,700-page historical fiction that is both a great epic romance and elucidation on development of modern science and financial systems.
— Mark Petrick, photographer

An Unfinished Life, by Mark Spragg ($23). Mark Spragg is one of the greatest writers of our generation. His latest novel is being made into a movie starring Robert Redford. For the person on your list who loves great fiction, this is the perfect gift.
— Tony Kainauskas, 21st Century Bookstore

Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, by Richard Powers ($13.95,paper). Richard Powers is one of today’s most respected literary novelists. His layered novels cover an amazing amount of territory as hisfierce intelligence and inquisitive nature allow him to occupy the heady space of writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. ThreeFarmers on Their Way to a Dance, Powers’ first novel, brilliantly weaves together three disparate storylines, including one based on a 1914 August Sander photograph from which the book takes its name. Other Powers titles includeThe Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, and his most recent, The Time of Our Singing.
— Rob Cline, freelance arts writer

The Last Day of the War, by Judith Clair Mitchell ($24.95). This is the love story of a Jewish girl from St. Louis and an Armenian American soldier who find themselves in a maze of intrigue and politics at the endof the First World War. Eighteen-year-old Yael Weiss reinvents herself as Yale White, a 25-year-old Methodist who travels to Paris to work in a soldiers’ canteen. Doubleday Hagopian is at once the patriotic son of immigrants from Rhode Island and a member of a covert organization bent on avenging the Armenian massacres of 1915. All of this is romance and intrigue enough to keep us interested, but what I like best about the book is author’s skill at weaving history into the fabric of fiction.This book does so well what fiction can do in the face of history, which is to let us experience firsthand how easy it is for the world—as one character puts it, to get “all bollixed up.”
— Mary Helen Stefaniak, author and teacher

The DaVinci Code—The Illustrated Edition, by Dan Brown ($35).One of the past year’s bestsellers is now available in a beautifulgift edition with illustrations and photographs. — Tony Kainauskas,21st Century Bookstore


Maximum City—Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta ($27.95).In the vein of V. S. Naipul’s Nobel Prize-winning India–AMillion Mutinies Now, Suketu Mehta’s examination of life in contemporaryBombay hews close to the lives of a tantalizing range of real-life characters:political leaders and crime bosses, cops and strippers, Bollywood denizensand wannabees, as well as the poets, slum dwellers, and middle-class aspirantsthat one shoulders on the trains every day in this teeming world-classmetropolis. Towards the end of the book, Mehta tells the fascinating storyof a wealthy Jain family that gives away its millions to assume the livesof wandering monks and nuns. Superficially, we think of Bombay as a masala-flavoredNew York, but in the end, its stories are deeply unique and awesome.
— Mark Petrick, photographer

Out of This World, by Mary Swander ($14). A wonderful read, especiallyfor anyone who knows how baffling illnesses can bring you to your knees—intears, laughter, and absolute surrender. Suddenly stricken with a hostof allergies that makes modern life unbearable, Iowa-born Swander movesto a rural Amish community and begins her healing journey. Locusts, tornadoes,and floods become her teachers in this earthy, lyrical, and funny pieceof literary journalism.
— Christine Schrum, Source Associate Editor


Stop Time, by Frank Conroy ($14, paper). My favorite book was writtenby someone I know. Back in the mid-60s, Frank Conroy, Director of the Writers’ Workshop,wrote this wonderful little book, which is still in print. It’s sortof a cross between Catcher in the Rye and ThisBoy’s Life, and seemsso honest and uncontrived that it appears to have simply written itself.That’s always a sign of good art, when you can’t imagine theworld without it.
— Dan Coffey, author and radio personality


The Skull Mantra, by Eliot Pattison. ($6.99, paper). Fed up withreality? Want some escapist reading for the holidays, a good mystery witha tidy ending? For escape, nothing surpasses Eliot Pattison’s Tibetmysteries. These novels about Shan Tao Yun, a former prosecutor from Beijingwho was sent to a Tibetan work camp for reasons he never learns, providesheer intoxication as Shan and the reader are led into an exotic worlddominated by ancient Buddhist customs and beliefs. In the first book, TheSkull Mantra, Shan is called on to solve a mystery at the heart of twoworlds: a corrupt establishment and a timeless world beyond the reach ofthe every day.
— Peter Alexander, UI Arts Center Relations

Death by Discount, Mary Vermillion ($13.95, paper). I love thisbook, a murder mystery that twists and turns against the backdrop of asmall town in Iowa. Big trouble develops when the town’s residentscan’t agree on whether to welcome the building of a Wal-Mart or fightit—to the death? The first book in a new mysteries series, Deathby Discount introduces Mara Gilgannon, an engaging Iowa-grown detective-heroinewho is funny, smart, and full of surprises. She’ll have you lookingforward to the next book by author Mary Vermillion. (Who knows what othermysteries lurk in the mind of a mild-mannered English professor at MountMercy College in Cedar Rapids? I can’t wait to find out.) — MaryHelen Stefaniak, author and teacher

The 87th Precinct Series, by Ed McBain. Ed McBain has beenproducing novels about the detectives at the 87th Precinct in thefictional American city of Isola since 1956. To date, there are 54books in the series, including the most recent entry, Hark. Starta loved one off with The Mugger, the first book in the series, andyou’ll have automatic gifts for many a holiday to come. A fewtitles are out of print, but tend to be available in libraries andused bookstores. Some of the novels have fairly explicit content,but generally they should satisfy the mystery lover on your list.
— Rob Cline, freelance arts writer


Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris, ($14.95). Published around2000, but still timely. I’ve been living in Norway for the last year,and after the election, may stay here. Which puts even more pressure onme to learn to speak Norwegian more better. If you find yourself in thesame frame of mind, you’ll need to keep your sense of humor whileyou experience adult illiteracy and homesickness for your mother tongue(a tongue currently giving 51 percent of American voters the raspberry).
— Candance Booth, freelance writer

America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, by JonStewart, Warner Books, ($25). For college students, Jon Stewart’sThe Daily Show is the primary source of news, information, and belly laughs.Stewart’s “civics book” is more of the same. Not carriedin Wal-mart. Forward by Thomas Jefferson.
— Jim Harris, Prairie Lights Bookstore

The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, editedby Robert Manikoff ($60). The book contains 2004 of the best cartoons publishedin TheNew Yorker, and the two accompanying CDs have all 68,647 cartoonsfrom the last 80 years. — Sharon Kainauskas, 21st Century Bookstore


Two in the Far North, by Margaret Murie ($15.95).First published in 1962, this classic is now in its 35th printing, whichshould tell you something. Part autobiography and part nature writing,the book spans the years 1911 (when “Mardy” first came to Alaskaat age nine) to 1961. It is a passionate love affair with a place and itswilderness. Mardy’s “voice” is direct and simple in away no longer possible, it seems, in our complex modern world. She sharesher childhood in frontier Alaska and her courtship and marriage to naturalistOlas Murie, with whom she went on to have a lifelong partnership of environmentalactivism and wilderness travel. Mardy Murie died last year at her homein Moose, Wyoming, at age 101. — Pam Whitworth, artist and businesswoman

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, by PhillipHoose ($20). I was almost afraid to open this book, because I knewin advance that we lost the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and I didn’twant to feel sad. But I enjoyed the book completely. This was a bird withcharacter. When a famous artist captured one alive in 1809 to try to paintit, the bird hacked the hotel’s mahogany table (to which it was tethered) intoa pile of wood chips in about five minutes. When we finally realizedthat the bird was disappearing along with the great swampy forests of thesoutheast, we tried to save enough of its habitat to allow the bird tosurvive. We didn’t succeed, of course. But I learned a lot aboutthe giant woodpecker I’ll never get to see, and about what habitatmeans, and about how to go about saving the birds that we still have. Iended up inspired and galvanized. — Diane Porter, freelance writerand birdwatcher

Remarkable Trees of the World, by Thomas Pakenham($49.95). This gorgeous, nourishing, and soothing picture book showcasesunusual trees from all the continents. From the world’s oldest knowntrees, the Bristlecones, which live only above 11,000 feet, to itsstrangest, the wildly-shaped Baobabs of Madagascar, South Africa, and Australia,the fabulously photographed trees are pure joy. Americans treasure California’sRedwoods, yet it is great to meet the New Zealand variety, too. — DaynaNorris, Source Book Editor

Prairie Smoke, by Melinda Perrin ($8.95), This new book by Fairfieldplant-spirit-medicine practitioner Melinda Perrin presents a highly engagingcollection of poems and prayers on living in harmony within our Midwestterritory.
— Steve Semken, Ice Cube Press

On High: The Adventures of Legendary Mountaineer,Photographer and Scientist Brad Washburn ($40). The title says it all—almost.Washburn, who is 94, is also a cartographer (he gave us maps of the Alaskanwilderness, the heart of the Grand Canyon, and Mount Everest, which heundertook at age 70), a pioneer of aerial photography using large formatcamera, and the founder of Boston’s Museum of Science and its directorfor 41 years. A gorgeous book filled with Washburn’s stunning photosof uncharted glaciers and Alaskan mountain peaks, it tells the story ofhis rich life, including his long marriage and partnership with BarbaraWashburn (whose book The Accidental Adventurer; Memoirof the First Woman to Climb Mt. McKinley is also a delightful read).
— Pam Whitworth, artist and businesswoman

Growing Fruit and Vegetables, by Richard Bird ($12.95, paper).It is not necessary to be a gardener, just an eater, to appreciate thisbeautiful book that shows how fruits and vegetables grow. Just seeing howasparagus and rhubarb stick up from the ground is a wonderful surprise.The great leaf vegetables—cabbages, chards, collards, lettuces—arelovingly described and photographed. The book does include cultivationtechniques, but the best part is knowing more about the delicious plantsthat give us life.
— Dayna Norris, Source Book Editor

Living With Topsoil: Tending Spirits, CherishingLand ($9.95).Live in Iowa for a length of time and you will develop a story about thesoil. This book is an exploration of living with our state’s rich,fertile, world-famous topsoil. New writings by Iowans Mary Swander, ConnieMutel, Patrick Irelan, Michael Carey, Tom Dean, Tim Fay, and Larry Stonemake this harvest book a real Iowa favorite.
— Steve Semken, Ice Cube Press


Heaven & Earth: Unseen by the Naked Eye, edited by David Malin($16.95, paper). The greatest photograph book on the planet about the planet,this volume ranges from the smallest to the largest, from microcrystalsto galaxies. Going in order by scale from bubble chamber trails to VitaminC to the Virgo Super Cluster, the unbelievably beautiful pictures revealthe universe we inhabit yet do not see. This book won’t stay on ashelf after the holidays, but will be opened again and again. — Dayna Norris, Source Book Editor

Shoji Hamada: A Potter’s Way and Work, by Susan Peterson ($59.95). First published in 1974, this classic has recently been reissued. If you need aesthetic inspiration, this is it!Hamada, a leader in the revival of the folk craft tradition in Japan and designated a National Treasure, lived a life as subtle, earthy, and elementally aesthetic as his pottery. Filled with photos of his work and his dailylife, this book is a reminder of the nourishment to be found in a simple life built on simple values. — Pam Whitworth, artist and businesswoman


The Way to Cook, by Julia Child. ($65). The world lost a treasure this year when Julia Child passed on. The food worldhas never seen, nor is it likely to see again soon, a person who couldsimultaneously communicate passion and technique with such lively clarity.She made it possible for ordinary people to make extraordinary food. The Way to Cook is a perfectencapsulation of the bedrock of Western cuisine. With these methods as a foundation, anyone can cook anything without fear or flaw. — Kurt Friese, chef at Devotay

Bouchon, by Thomas Keller ($50). With more talentin one pair of hands than in any other ten, Thomas Keller built hisflagship restaurant, The French Laundry. Now he has opened a Bistro, inthe accurate sense of the term, right next door. Bouchon teaches true,hearty, French Bistro cooking in an authoritative manner with plenty of very well-composed photos that are sure to make you drool. While some ofthe dishes in his French Laundry Cookbook may have been somewhat intimidating for the homecook, Bouchon is approachable—well within the grasp of anyonewho loves to cook. — Kurt Friese,


Zappa, by Barry Miles ($25). I’m still sorry I missed seeing Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention when I had the chance as a teenliving in Madison, Wisconsin. One of my favorite songs of all time is “Peachesen Regalia.” Zappa succumbed to inoperable prostate cancer in 1993 at 52. This biography reveals a complex acerbic blown outspoken bawdy witty troubled deeply committed musical pioneer who rose up through the Southern California scene in the ’60s. How can you not love a guy who said, “Rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’ttalk, for people who can’t read.”
—James Moore, musician and writer

Chronicles, Volume One, by Bob Dylan. ($24). Okay,so Dylan allowed his music to be used for a Victoria’s Secret televisionad, and that creeped some people out. (Didn’t old-school feminismdie long ago?) “…Topoint out that Chronicles is designed to manipulate our perceptionsis simply to affirm that it’s genuine Dylan,” says Tom Carson in a New York Times review. What do you expect? It’s Dylan on Dylan.With plenty of style and word confection, Mr. Mystique paints a mythographicself-portrait. Though he leaves many answers blowing in the wind(there will be a Volume Two, after all), watching him play three-cardmonte with his memoirs is a treat. — James Moore, musician and writer


Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg($12.95, paper). This is a book that I return to again and again. Whilethe subject of the book is metta, or “lovingkindness meditation,” Salzbergaddresses the innermost thoughts of many of us in a caring way. The bookbegins: “Throughout our lives we long to love ourselves more deeply and to feel connected with others. We crave love, and yet we are lonely.” Suggested exercises range from developing compassion for oneself to opening our heartsto others.
— Karen Wachsmuth, Yoga Instructor


The High-Rise Private Eyes Series, by Cynthia Rylant. This children’s author knows that parents are often doing the reading. Her delightful books have enough zany humor to keep a parent from going glossy-eyed while reading bedtime stories, and her clever High-Rise Private Eyes series is among her most fun. Bunny Brown and her raccoon partner Jack Jones bicker and banter while solving cases. Equally delightful are the Mr. Putter and Tabby stories, the Henry and Mudge series, and the Poppleton tales. Rylant works with topnotch illustrators that lend each series a distinctive style that always complements the text. — Rob Cline, freelance arts writer


Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by JaredDiamond ($16.95, paper) This 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner remains popular,largely because of its breathtaking scope. Jared Diamond answers the question:Why are some societies more advanced than others? The answer has less todo with guns, germs, and steel, and more to do with geography. Some areasof the world simply had plants and animals that were more easily domesticated,and in addition, were geographically situated so that knowledge of thesedomesticates could easily spread to other regions with similar climate.
— Jim Karpen, freelance writer

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright ($15, paper). Wright makes the bold argument that evolution has a direction—toward greater complexity, directly contradicting the thinking of most scientists.He bases his argument on biology and on a survey of the entirety of humanhistory. And he identifies the mechanics of this process, borrowing a concept from game theory. In short, unlike zero sum transactions, in which oneparty gains and another party loses, in nonzero transactions both partiesgain. The exchange of knowledge is a prime example. While not explicitly making an argument for a divinity, the book leaves the reader with a strong sense of orderliness in the universe.
— Jim Karpen, freelance writer


Take on the Street: What Wall Street and CorporateAmerica Don’tWant You to Know, by Arthur Levitt, Jr. ($29.95). Levitt is one of my heroes.As chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Clinton,Levitt converted the stock market from pieces of eight to dollars and cents,made corporations print reports in readable English, and got the marketsthrough Y2K. His words about accounting practices were a harbinger of theEnron scandal.
—Joe Brisben, financial advisor and freelance writer


The Dead and the Living, by Sharon Olds ($15). Grace, grit, anddeft wordsmithing from a poet who’s not afraid to walk into the fire.
— Christine Schrum, Source Associate Editor

Donald Justice, Collected Poems ($25). Donald Justice’s poemswill last as long as any. They are beautiful, precise, and accessible tothe general reader, they embody the great themes, and they can make youcry. The book jacket carries four of Justice’s paintings. — MarvinBell, Iowa’s Poet Laureate


Ted Williams: The Biography of an AmericanHero, by Leigh Montville($26.95). A comprehensive examination of the background, the intelligence,and the emotional contradictions that made up one of baseball’s greathitters.
— Joe Brisben, financial advisor and freelance writer

The Greatest Game Ever Played, by Mark Frost ($15.95, paper). Justout in paperback, this is one of the greatest books with a golf theme everwritten. It’s about golf, life, human triumph—an incrediblebook.
— Len Oppenheim, 21st Century Bookstore


The Art of War, Sun Tzu ($14.95). Here’s a sample: “Tofight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supremeexcellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’scountry whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So,too, it is better to capture an army entire than to destroy it, to capturea regiment, a detachment, or a company entire than to destroy them.”
— Jacqueline Krain, arts entrepreneur


The Turk and My Mother, by Mary Helen Stefaniak($24.95, also available in paperback). Readers of Mary Helen’s “Aliveand Well” columnin The Source will recognize her fine intelligence, great storytellingskills, and generous spirit in The Turk and My Mother, her firstnovel, just released this year. Juggling five decades, four generations, and many geographies, The Turk and My Mother travels from presentto past to present again to tell a satisfying story that unravelsfamily mysteries involving deception and romance—allleading to a gratifying conclusion.

Iowa Curiosities: Quirky Characters, RoadsideOddities & OtherOffbeat Stuff, by Dan Coffey ($13.95). Dan Coffey, best known as publicradio’s Dr. Science, and Iowa City writer Eric Jones write a bookshowing the whimsical side of Iowa, a state so normal most people don’trealize it has an off-beat bone its body.

Crazy Star, by Rustin Larson ($10). Says poet Charlie Langton, “RustinLarson knows how much of life is a breathless high-wire act, stretching between affirmation and failure, balancing comedy and heart-wrenching pathos,juggling our inescapable isolation with the demands of family and community.In a voice both unflinching and deeply compassionate, he shows us how inadequatewe often are when faced with these apparent opposites, and how beautifulour struggles can make us, as each of us tries to live, like the diveron his book’s cover, suspended between flight and a fall.”


Children on the Farm, and Fromthe Heartland, postcard books ofphotographs by Pete Wettach ($9.95 each). In addition to many fine fictionand non-fiction selections, the University of Iowa Press offers some unique-to-Iowastocking stuffers, like these two tear-and-send postcard books. Each featuresa selection of charming black and white photographs taken by self-taughtFSA photographer Pete Wettach between 1925 and 1965. If some of the photoslook familiar, it’s because they’ve been featured several timeson cover of The Source.

Mushrooms in Your Pocket ($9.95) This is the latest title in theUniversity of Iowa Press’s clever laminated series of pocket guidesto Iowa’s natural world. Other titles are Butterflies, Woodland,Prairie, and Birds at Your Feeder. Each contains clear color photographsor illustrations in a foldable, portable format that fits easily in yourpocket.

Live Java Blend I and II , various artists ($15).How can you get an earful of great homegrown musicians and supportpublic radio in one fell swoop? Simple! Pick up a “Live Java Blend” togo. The newly released CD features 20 original songs by 20 artistsrecorded live as part of WSUI’s “Talkof Iowa Live from The Java House.” The collection ranges from thejazzy American songbook style of Susan Werner to the harmonious folk-rockmelodies of The Nadas and Big Wooden Radio, and from a tragic Celticballad by Border Lord to a powerful love song by rhythm and bluesartist Kevin “B.F.” Burt.Well-known folk veterans John Gorka and Dave Moore also contributesongs, as do such notable talents as Mike and Amy Finders, Bob andKristie Black, Scott and Michelle Dalziel, Stuart Davis, Jen Gloeckner,Dave Zollo, Will Whitmore, Robert Morey, Patrick Brickel, AmeliaRoyko, Ben Schmidt, No River City, and Burn Disco Burn. All the artistsdonated their performances. Proceeds will go to support WSUI andKSUI.