Inevitably this holiday season, my mom will tick through her shopping list and say with a sigh, "Your dad wants a book." Since I was a kid, my mom has teased my dad about the predictablity of this ritual, which usually involves the purchase of a brick-sized tome of history. I love shopping for my dad. I don't buy what he asks for; I go with books I suspect he'll like. Bill Buford's "Heat," a memoir about Italian cooking, was an unexpected hit. The next year, I bought him a cookbook.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Giving books as gifts is an act of communion. Done correctly, it requires thought and intuition; it shows loved ones just how well you understand them. Regardless, though, some books lend themselves more to giving than others. Here's a roundup.
The biography section of the bookstore is fertile territory for gifts. We're all paparazzi at heart, curious to glimpse what makes fascinating people tick. For literary fans, consider Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives by John Sutherland (Yale, $39.95), a collection of short biographies of authors dating back to the 17th century. It's the sort of book you get lost in as you browse: You start out by flipping through for your favorites and wind up detouring through the lives of less familiar ones, adding more titles to your list of books to read as you go.
Memoirs by Patti Smith and Keith Richards sparked a flurry of musicians' autobiographies this year. Perhaps the best of the crop were When I Left Home by Buddy Guy with David Ritz (Da Capo, $26), which features a particularly riveting account of his early, lonely years in Chicago; and Pete Townshend's Who I Am (Harper, $32.50), a thoughtful account that sometimes wanders a bit like a personal diary might. Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young (Blue Rider, $30) is only recommended for die-hard fans willing to put up with some serious rambling.
History buffs and students of American politics should be pleased by the fourth volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power (Knopf, $35), and Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, $35). For a more personal take on world events, consider Madeleine Albright's memoir, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War (Harper, $29.99). The former secretary of state blends her family's compelling history — she didn't learn her family was Jewish until late in life — with that of World War II and its aftermath.
Dearie by Bob Spitz (Knopf, $29.95) offers a well-rounded, entertaining portrait of Julia Child for the person who didn't get enough of the iconic cook from her memoir, "My Life in France."
Probably the least-reviewed book in this bunch is Not Young, Still Restless by Jeanne Cooper with Lindsay Harrison (It Books, $25.99). Cooper, star of one of the few remaining soap operas, "The Young and the Restless," offers a chatty look into the life of a working actress — even the part where she let the TV show film her own facelift. Soap fans (or nostalgics) will get a kick out of this slice of pop history.
Finally, Brothers by George Howe Colt (Scribner, $30) is perfect for, yes, brothers or anyone willing to meander with Colt through a sprawling memoir and history of what brotherhood really means.
Fiction gets a little trickier, but not much, if you think about what sort of stories your friends and family enjoy. Do you know an adventurous reader, someone as interested in the form of a story as much as the tale itself? Consider Building Stories by Chris Ware (Pantheon, $50), a boxed set of several pamphlets that tell stories about the inhabitants of a Chicago apartment building, or The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon, $26), an experimental storybook for adults who love H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Or, for a more straightforward bit of suspense, consider Julia Keller's crime novel A Killing in the Hills (Minotaur, $24.99), which follows a teenager and her lawyer mom as they seek to solve a murder in Raythune County, W.V.
Want to make a frazzled mom laugh? Check out Ian Frazier's Cursing Mommy's Book of Days (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25). It offers permission to laugh at the Cursing Mommy's frustrations — and our own. Another fun read to consider is Davy Rothbart's My Heart Is an Idiot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), a collection of self-deprecating stories about Rothbart's relationship foibles.
Let's round out the roundup with a local pick: Chicago Stories by Michael Czyzniejewski (Curbside, $14.99) is a slender collection of stories written in the voice of Chicago icons — alive, dead and even inanimate. It's a clever conceit, well-executed and illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings. It's the sort of book you read out loud for fun.
For poetry aficianados (and newbies)
Poetry magazine turned 100 this year, and the anthology published to celebrate the anniversary is well worth adding to your shopping list. Open Door edited by Don Share and Christian Wiman (University of Chicago, $20) features a broad range of both well-known and lesser-known poets. It's as accessible to those who are new to poetry as it is of interest to those who are well-versed in it.
For those in need of a new-clad classic
Keep an eye out for new versions of the classics. This year's releases included the 50th anniversary edition of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (Norton, $24.95) and the Hemingway Library edition of A Farewell to Arms (Scribner, $27). Both offer additional text; "A Farewell to Arms" includes 47 alternate endings Ernest Hemingway wrote. Also consider Penguin Classics: The publisher offers particularly inventive cover art for a wide array of classics, including Jabberwocky and Other Nonsense by Lewis Carroll ($22) and The Greek Myths by Robert Graves ($25).
The Library of America's two-volume set of American Science Fiction, 1953-1958 is ideal for the person mourning Ray Bradbury, the person seeking to learn more about the influence of science fiction on contemporary lit or anyone looking for a fun read. It's a great entree into the genre — and edited by a local: Gary K. Wolfe is a professor at Roosevelt University.
The Telegraph reported this year on a British poll that found fairy tales are too scary for children. It's no wonder, then, that two books marking the 200th anniversary of the publication of "Children's and Household Tales" by the Brothers Grimm are aiming for adults. In Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (Viking, $27.95), Philip Pullman, author of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, seeks to tell the "best and most interesting" of the stories, offering versions that are "as clear as water." The author's notes at the end of each story — with bits of trivia, reasons for the choices he made and further context — are as interesting as the retellings themselves.
If you want context, though, The Bicentennial Edition of The Annotated Brothers Grimm edited by Maria Tatar (Norton, $35) is a bargain. It's a beautifully illustrated volume offering a deep look at fairy tales: the conditions under which the stories were told and the later works they influenced. Where Pullman seeks to streamline, Tatar lingers to explore every facet of meaning. She doesn't shy away from the ugly side of fairy tales, and she includes a handful of adult stories removed after fairy tales began to be sold as children's books.
For visual detectives
Coffee table books are often dismissed as dust collectors. That's simply not true of the best ones. Here are some titles worth lingering over — and reading.
It is possible, thanks to frequent features on such TV programs as "Chicago Tonight," that you might think you know all there is to know about Vivian Maier. She is the North Shore nanny who spent four decades, roughly from the 1950s through the 1990s, wandering the area and taking photos. In life, she kept them to herself. But, following her death in 2009, the photos started to surface and the acclaim began to pour in. In Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows (City Files, $60), Richard Cahan and Michael Williams have given us the definitive story about this still somewhat mysterious woman. Of course, the book is filled with Maier's work. But the thoughtful and, indeed, heartfelt text manages to enrich the experience of looking at her photos and enables us to see this woman not as mere curiosity but as unforgettable artist.
In Edible Selby (Abrams, $35), Todd Selby turns his impeccable gaze to food, inviting readers to share in the passions of artisan chocolatiers, urban fishermen and innovative chefs. In his first book, "The Selby Is in Your Place," Selby documented the creative set's homes and work spaces with an irresistible sense of energy. He does the same for food, telling the stories of some of the most interesting people working in food — a sea forager who catches fish in storm drains in San Francisco, chef Grant Achatz here in Chicago — with stunning photography. Each vignette includes a hand-written Q&A with the subjects. It's the definition of a satiating read.
America's Other Audubon by Joy M. Kiser (Princeton Architectural, $45) is both beautiful and tragic. It tells the story of "Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio," a book of 68 hand-colored lithographs published in 1886, a project started by Genevieve Jones, of Circleville, Ohio. She was an educated and accomplished woman who didn't find the right man to marry until she was nearly 30; but when he turned out to be an alcoholic, her father forbade the match. To distract her from her grief, her family encouraged her to pursue a project to document nests, but Jones died of typhoid after completing five illustrations. Her family — particularly her mother — toiled to complete Jones' work, determined to finish it as a memorial. This is an ideal gift for nature-lovers and mothers alike.
It's time to play the music.
It's time to light the lights.
It's time to meet The Muppets on The Muppet Show tonight.
See if you can crack the spine on Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal by Karen Falk (Chronicle, $29.95) without that song rolling through your mind. It seems to emanate from the pages of this raucous-looking book — a tonal match to the color and controlled chaos Jim Henson's puppets embodied. Anyone who visited last year's "Jim Henson's Fantastic World" exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry will enjoy this book. It spans Henson's career, from quirky college productions through goofball TV commercials, through the Muppets and Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock to his unexpected death at age 53 in 1990. It features sketches, footnoted scripts and lots of pictures. His playful work made adults and children smile; this book will too.
7 more to see
•My Ideal Bookshelf, art by Jane Mount and edited by Thessaly La Force (Little, Brown, 240 pages, $24.99)
Writers, architects, musicians, chefs, designers and filmmakers offer charming short essays on what's on their ideal bookshelf, and artist Jane Mount paints them. "The extraordinary self-consciousness of the exercise takes nothing away from it," Christopher Borrelli wrote of it earlier this year. "In fact, the brevity of the explanations and charming, colorful indelibility of Mount's art seem to have concentrated the selections, weeded out pretensions."
•Presidential Campaign Posters by The Library of Congress (Quirk, 208 pages, $40)
The recent election wore most of us out, but for those suffering withdrawal, this compilation of historic campaign posters will keep the fire stoked till 2016. When viewed together, the posters provide an illustrated guide to American values and aspirations.
•Listen Whitey: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power by Pat Thomas (Fantagraphics, 224 pages, $39.99)
This book provides a fascinating look at the intersection of the Black Power movement and protest music. It's a dynamic historical record that vividly documents the little-known Motown Records subsidiary, Black Forum, which released politically inspired recordings by Stokely Carmichael, Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis and Langston Hughes. Our only gripe: The companion CD is sold separately.
•The John Lennon Letters by John Lennon, edited by Hunter Davies (Little, Brown, 400 pages, $29.99)
Hunter Davies collects seemingly every scrap of paper upon which John Lennon doodled or wrote. You'll find childhood thank-you letters, love letters, lyrics, silly correspondence with George Harrison's mother, overly accommodating responses to fan letters, terse missives to fellow bandmates as The Beatles disintegrated and postcards co-signed with Yoko Ono are here. The sheer volume of correspondence presented — perhaps too much at times — offers an intimate portrait of Lennon, illustrated by doodles in the margins, in no small part because of the context Davies provides.
•The Kennedys by Mark Shaw (Real Art, 288 pages, $75)
We've been inundated by images of America's first "royal" family, but somehow this collection of photos from Mark Shaw still feels fresh. As Rick Kogan wrote earlier this year, "To see them playing in the sand and surf with their baby daughter Caroline ... is to be reminded that no matter how many times we have seen them, they appear as fresh and real as yesterday."
•The Newberry 125, introduction by David Spadafora (Newberry Library/University of Chicago, $45)
Explore the vast collection of The Newberry, with a book celebrating the institution's recent anniversary. Historical documents — from colonial maps and fur-trading contracts to a letter from Ernest Hemingway to Sherwood Anderson — The Newberry 125 offers a sense of the depth and range of one of Chicago's gems.
•The Sartorialist: Closer by Scott Schuman (Penguin, 512 pages, $30)
Scott Schuman is the guru of everyday fashion. In his second volume of photographs of well-dressed pedestrians, Schuman supposedly zooms in for closer look. But we're still distracted by all that style. It's a picture book — no words here to distract — which is as it should be.
Jennifer Day is editor of Printers Row Journal. Rick Kogan, Tribune senior writer and columnist, contributed.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun