Holiday Gift Books 2005: Our Readers Choose Their Favorites

While nature takes the path of retreat for the winter, we tend to go in the opposite direction—shopping, decorating, and partying ourselves into a frenzy with endless preparations for the holidays.

Make gift-giving a little easier on yourself this year and choose presents from this list of favorite books by avid readers.

Finally, don’t forget to schedule a little holiday reading retreat of your own. Set aside a quiet evening to get lost in the pages of a good book.


The Bowl is Already Broken, by Mary Kay Zuravleff. Mary Kay Zuravleff has a knack for writing prose that can veer from laugh-out-loud to funny to thought-provoking on the same page—or in the same sentence. Her wonderful novel lays bare the subtle but key ways our perceptions of ourselves and our ambitions vary from the perceptions of others.
—Rob Cline, freelance arts reviewer

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. The ultimate blockbuster, this is the best new fiction I have read in the last ten years. It has plot, incredible characters, power, wisdom, and describes an exotic and astounding culture and subcultures. Read it to laugh, cry, have your guts torn out, and gain fulfillment.
—Len Oppenheim, 21st Century Books

Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry. In this story of an orphan who becomes the bachelor barber of Port William, Kentucky, Jayber Crow bears witness to all the pathos and drama of the residents of the town and the changes that move through it. Jayber’s is an ordinary life illuminated by the light of love. Berry is a deeply humane writer. —Pam Whitworth, artist & businesswoman

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See. A story of Chinese women and culture 100 years ago, this sleeper hit is a novel of tender beauty as told by an elderly Chinese woman to her female companion.
—Tony Kainauskus, 21st Century Books

Blackberries in the Dream House, by Diane Frank. This is not your run-of-the-mill novel. It’s sensuous, lyrical, and sexy if you’ve got the right imagination for it. A real beauty.
—Patrick Bosold, environmentalist hellraiser

The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, by Louise Erdrich. Through a German immigrant and his family, and the others who touch their lives in the small North Dakota town where they settle, Erdrich compassionately explores every facet of life—love, war, tenderness, murder—and concludes with a breathtaking flight above it all into the realm of the universal. A masterpiece.
—Brian Stains, computer programmer/gardener

Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain. Sound like an unlikely pairing of subject and author? Twain obviously fell in love with his complex subject and was inspired to write a novel of great depth and tenderness. This book about her life is a tour de force that will stay in your heart.
—Pam Whitworth, artist & businesswoman

A Wedding in December, by Anita Shreve. Shreve’s recurring themes of passionate love and intense happiness juxtaposed by loss and suffering are again in full display in her new novel. With deceptively simple prose, the power of her words stays with you long after the reading is done.
—Tony Kainauskus, 21st Century Books

Dalva, and its sequel, The Road Home, by Jim Harrison. Powerful characters wrestle with how to live a meaningful life. Like Jayber Crow, these two novels rest in a strong sense of place, in this case Nebraska and the American plains and the epic history of the Plains Indians and their connection to the land.
—Pam Whitworth, artist & businesswoman


Christmas on the Great Plains, edited by Dorothy Dodge Robbins and Kenneth Robbins, This volume features stories by regional writers including Ted Kooser, Mary Swander, Jane Smiley, Paul Engle, Willa Cather, and Hamlin Garland that offer unique geographic, historical, and cultural perspectives on winter’s holiday celebrations and traditions. —Deidre Woods, UI Press Marketing Manager

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson, and A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. These are books to read aloud, no matter what age the listener and no matter what time of year. We liked to read them while driving over the river, etc., to Grandmother’s house in Milwaukee, or in installments before bed, but you can read them any time you’re in the mood to laugh your head off (in which case, choose Robinson) or give yourself the kind of musty, dusty, slightly creepy but still Christmasy feeling that only Dickens can deliver. For all the movies and musical versions of A Christmas Carol, it takes a read-aloud session to feel the rhythm of those crisp Dickensian sentences.
—Mary Helen Stefaniak, author & teacher


Midnight Assassin, by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf. Sorry to suggest serving up such gore and intrigue for a holiday literary feast, but I found it an absolutely delectable real-life murder mystery. The book takes us back to a moonless night in December 1900 when a prosperous Iowa farmer was murdered in his bed, killed by two blows of an ax to his head. If your special someone can recite that old playground song about Lizzie Borden, this may be just the gift!
—Ben Kieffer, Iowa Public Radio


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. First impressions are often spot on, says Malcolm Gladwell. He uses anecdote and research to explain why. And he also explains what circumstances cause them to be wrong. What’s scary about this book is the research that documents the many subconscious processes that enter into our decision making.
—Jim Karpen, freelance writer

Mediated, by Thomas de Zengotita. This guy is a social critic, writing about the way the media has distorted our perceptions of reality. My idea of a good read.
—Dan Coffey, writer and teacher

In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cultof Speed, by Carl Honoré. Buy this one for the overachieving, overscheduled person in your life. Not that it will make any difference, mind you. Even the author finds it difficult to get out of the fast lane as one of the leading authorities of the worldwide slow movement. I arrived for my interview with Carl Honoré at his Iowa City hotel room at 8 a.m. He’d already had two interviews that morning and had a full slate of media events that day.
—Ben Kieffer, Iowa Public Radio

The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Collective wisdom is almost always better and more accurate than that of even the best experts. James Surowiecki gives many specific examples and scientific studies to  prove his point and describes the necessary conditions for effective group thinking. His topics range from online decision/prediction markets to sports betting to committees.
—Jim Karpen, freelance writer


Freakonomics, A Rogue Economist Explores theHidden Side of Everything,by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. These authors use wonderful tidbitsto prove wealth is not the only economic incentive: Day-care centersstart charging for late pickups: more parents are tardy! Books at homeindicate an educated, motivated family with children performing well in school,but adding books at home does not increase students’ test scores. Areyou surprised that sumo wrestlers cooperatively fix their matches orthat some teachers give their students the answers to state tests? Or thatbeing a crack dealer is more deadly than being on death row? Freaky! —DaynaNorris, book reviewer


The Elemental Prairie: Sixty Tallgrass Plants pairsluminous illustrations with eloquent nature writing. Illinois-basedartist George Olson provides watercolor drawings of common prairie perennialsas well as less familiar plants, and John Madson’s essay “TheRunning Country” blendshistory, biography, autobiography, and both factual and lyric naturewriting as it introduces readers to the tallgrass prairie. —DeidreWoods, UI Press Marketing Manager


All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks, by John Allen, Jr. It often seems that American Bishops and the officials of the Holy See are talking past each other. The author, a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter who has covered the Vatican for several years, seeks to explain the Roman Curia to the English speaking world, Roman Catholic or otherwise.
—Robert L. Tree, retired history professor

Soldiers of the Law, by Donna Morris Stephens. An extensive history and study of the development of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol by a woman whose father was one of its first troopers. This book is now a text for new Oklahoma patrol officers, but anyone interested in the development of law enforcement will find it interesting. —Joe Brisben, writer and financial advisor

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail orSucceed, by Jared Diamond.From Easter Island, to the Anasazi of Chaco Culture, to Viking Greenland,to Rwanda and Haiti, Diamond develops five main reasons for societalcollapse: environmental damage, climate change, rapid population growth,unstable trade partners, and pressure from enemies. —Dayna Norris,book reviewer

General Washington’s Christmas Farewell, A MountVernon Homecoming, 1783, by Stanley Weintraub. A truly delightful Christmas story; itis true and its main participant is George Washington, who, after seven years of war, is anxious to get home to his family for Christmas. It takes a month to get from his headquarters on the Hudson to his home on the Potomac. No automobile, he does it on horseback.
—Robert L. Tree, retired history professor


In Search of L.L. Bean, by R.L.M. Montgomery. A wonderful study of the development of the famous purveyor of sporting goods and the cantankerous man who started it. —Joe Brisben, writer & financial advisor

Charles S. Johnson, Leadership Beyond theVeil in the Age of Jim Crow, by Patrick J. and Marybeth Gasman. Meticulously researched and well written, this biography is a mustf or anyone wishing to understand the intellectual underpinnings of the Civil Rights Movement. Johnson was a University of Chicago-trained sociologist and the first African-American President of Fisk University until his death in 1956. —Robert L. Tree, retired history professor


Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, by Lawrence Bergreen. Definitely the finest biography of a jazz musician ever written and placed like a jewel in the setting of Armstrong’s time. —Joe Brisben, writer & financial advisor


Loving What Is and I Need Your Love—Is That True? both by Byron Katie. The best psychology books ever show how to end the blame game and accept responsibility for everything in your life. Katie’s intellectual process can take anyone from the negative emotions of anger and disappointment to the happiness of personal power. —Dayna Norris, book reviewer

The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, by Debbie Ford. In a world in which we are overbalanced in the direction of everything being all sweetness and light, it is very healthy to recognizeand deal with our dark side. —Sharalyn Harris, freelance writer


The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller. In this re-issue of an old classic, Miller, a Freudian psychiatrist, takes aim at narcissistic disorders of all kinds, and the people like you and me who suffer from them.
—Dan Coffey, writer and professor


Flora’s Orchids, edited by Ned Nash and Isobyl La Croix. Page after page of luscious photos fill this slipcased volume from Timber Press, the nation’s premier garden book publisher. The definitive work for orchid freaks, Flora’s Orchids is also a lovely present for passionate gardeners everywhere.
—Claudia Mueller, Iowa Source Editor


A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa: An Expanded Edition,by John C. Gerber. Published in 1988, the first edition featured 330 black and white photographs accompanied by captions and short vignettes on student life, athletics, important individuals, and events that shaped the times. The addition of 50 color photos and extensive captions brings the history up to date. Perfect for all Hawkeye fans! —Deidre Woods, UI Press Marketing Manager


The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, by Wendell Berry.This collection by the Kentucky native and eco-activist, novelist, poet, andfarmer represents 35 years of poetry by one of America’s strongest voices forreclaiming our love of the woods, the soil, one another, and the mysteries ofthe world. Berry is one of those writers wise enough to admit that the universeis far greater than anyone can ever express within the confines of words, butnevertheless he captures the magic far better than many. —Meg White, writerand kitchen mistress

Love Poems from God and TheGift, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.The Gift is a translation of the great Iranian poet Hafiz. Reading thesein Ladinsky’s translations sends me into rapture. LovePoems from God features the poetry of several mystic poets. You’ll be amazedat the universality of different ages and cultures.
—Sharalyn Harris, freelance writer

Crazy Star, by Rustin Larson. “Buy fresh,buy local” isa good motto for food, and it extends to locally written and publishedworks, too. This is poetry that makes me stop and breathe. And thinkabout how I really experience things as opposed to how I think Ido. Fresh, and refreshing. —Patrick Bosold, leftist iconoclast

The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy: Sacred Poemsfrom Many Cultures,edited by Robert Bly. Bliss, bliss, bliss. —Sharalyn Harris, freelancewriter


A Man Without a Country, the latest book by Kurt Vonnegut, displayshis razor sharp humor while presenting his views on subjects ranging fromlife, art, and politics to the condition of the soul of America today.
—Tony Kainauskus, 21st Century Books


Treasury of Spiritual Wisdom, by Andy Zubko. This sits on mydesk, where I can flip through 10,000 inspirational quotations thatcover every aspect of life. Everyone would enjoy thumbing through thisbook until the pages are worn.
—Len Oppenheim, 21st Century Books


’Zine: How I Spent Six Years in the Underground and FinallyFound Myself . . . I Think, by Pagan Kennedy. This collection of eight Xeroxed,stapled-together, self-published magazines is hardly a typical memoir. Fullof her own cartoons, artwork, gossip, and self-parody, Pagan’s Head(the name of the ’zine) always cheers me up. There’s not muchin here that isn’t pretty much who she really is—adorable, smart,serious, vulnerable, funny, loyal, and good (hmm, a lot like all of us).
—Meg White, writer and kitchen mistress

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, by Janisse Ray. For the adults on your holiday list—especially the ones who didn’t grow up in a junkyard, Ray’s 1999 American Book Award winner is sureto be an enlightening read. My Georgia-born mother’s own aunt Mollyand uncle Ebeneezer were the owners of a pecan grove whose sandy lanes were lined with wrecked cars and car parts, so I felt right at home in Ray’s childhood. But this book is more than the memoir of a warm and fascinating family; it’s a passionate and intelligent bid to save the longleaf pine forests that once covered the South. —Mary Helen Stefaniak, novelist

Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, by Christopher Merrill. Merrill, director of the UI International Writing Program, has written a remarkable book. Part history, part Scriptural exegesis, part travel guide to a place where few will ever travel, it is, at its heart, a personal tale of Merrill’s quest to overcome despair and to mend his marriage. —Rob Cline, freelance arts reviewer

700 Sundays, by Billy Crystal. Billy Crystal’sfather set aside Sundays to be with his family, and these preciousdays ended all too soon when he died unexpected. Billy calculated thathe had had 700 Sundays to spend with his father. This powerful autobiographicaljourney is a fabulous read and the comedian’s finest work to date. —LynnWaters, freelance writer


The Synchronized Universe: New Science ofthe Paranormal, by ClaudeSwanso, accomplishes what many have sought to do, but few have. It tiesmodern physics with virtually all aspects of the paranormal: ESP, healing,psychokinetics, etc. It reads like a memoir and is one book both believersand skeptics will enjoy.
—Len Oppenheim, 21st Century Books


Hey Willy, See the Pyramids, by Maira Kalman. Frequent NewYorker cover artist and former David Byrne collaborator Maira Kalmanis one of the finest authors of what are dubbed picture books I’ve everencountered. This 1988 entry about a boy who begs his older sister, Lulu, totell him a million bedtime stories is a brilliant, stream-of-consciousness rompinto the wonderful sphere of imagination. Filled with green-faced cousins, afirst meeting with Max the dog who wants to move to Paris to become a poet (alater book series for Ms. Kalman), and pet chickens, this book with its gorgeousillustrations and irreverent writing would make a welcome gift forany child aged 3 to 103. —Meg White, writer and kitchen mistress


13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley. PulitzerPrize winner and UI Writers’ Workshop alumna Jane Smiley decided to read100 novels to reinvigorate her urge to write. The resulting book is a delightful,thought-provoking examination of the art form. Smiley explores a remarkable crosssection of books, tracing the history and myriad genres of the novel. —RobCline, freelance arts reviewer


Science Fiction Quotations, edited by Gary Westfahl. Spend hours engrossed in the wonderful and weird world of science fiction with this entertaining selection of quotes from classics like Lost Horizon to contemporary works like the Harry Potter books. “Always act on instinct, Burke. It puts the sparkle in existence.” (from “The Monkey Wrench, by Gordon R. Dickson) “My! People come and go so quickly here!” (from The Wizard of Oz). “No storyteller has ever been able to dream up anything as fantastically unlikely as what really does happen in this mad Universe.” (from Time Enough for Love, by Robert Heinlein). —Claudia Mueller, Iowa Source Editor