In these tough economic times, books offer a great return on a gift-giver's investment. Relatively inexpensive, they provide hours of enjoyment for the recipient — if you make the right choice. Never fear: the Book Bag is here to help.
Lovers of intrigue and derring-do will enjoy Jean-Vincent Blanchard's "Eminence" (Walker, $28), a biography of the infamous Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu is best known in popular culture through Alexandre Dumas' unflattering portrait in "The Three Musketeers," but Blanchard reveals a more complex truth.
Caught between the mercurial King Louis XIII and the king's power-hungry mother, Marie de Medici, Richelieu survived by acting as a master tactician and political broker. As the queen and her courtiers jostled, often murderously, with the king's favorites for position, Richelieu coolly played them against each other for both the glory of France and his personal gain.
Blanchard's lively style will appeal to general readers, while history buffs will appreciate his careful footnotes and plethora of primary sources.
Jim Carter, the focus of Margaret Wertheim's "Physics on the Fringe" (Walker, $27), has lived a fairly adventurous life himself. Carter dropped out of college to pan for gold, worked for many years as an abalone diver and built a trailer park business from the ground up. But it is his unusual scientific theories that most interest Wertheim.
In 1993, Wertheim, a journalist with a physics degree, came across Carter's unorthodox theory of gravity. Slowly, Wertheim found herself drawn to the world of what she calls "outsider physics": theories developed mostly by laymen that are far outside the bounds of current scientific paradigms. "Physics on the Fringe" is a portrait of the contemporary community of outsider physicists, but it is also a work of history and philosophy.
Wertheim shows that there always have been passionate amateurs storming the gates of mainstream science, and she considers the profound need these outsiders have to define the world on their own terms.
Try giving "Isle of the Dead" (Dalkey Archive, $17.95), by Gerhard Meier, to those on your list who prefer fiction. The Swiss writer's novella is reminiscent of his fellow countryman Max Frisch's "Man in the Holocene," although its comically tinged, elegiac tone also recalls the dramas of Chekhov.
The spare but haunting narrative takes place over one November day in 1977. Two former army colleagues, Baur and Bindschadler, now grown old, take a long stroll through town, reminiscing as they go. Or rather, Baur reminisces. Bindschadler mostly listens, offering the occasional non sequitur. As the men ponder mortality, spirituality, nature and the passage of time, their seemingly haphazard dialogue achieves a low-key pathos and profundity.
If your intended recipient prefers something more densely plotted, Yael Hedaya's "Eden" (Picador, $20) might do the trick. The inhabitants of the eponymous gated community find it is hardly the paradise its name might suggest.
Devastated by infertility, Dafna obsesses about her ovulation cycle while her husband, Eli, seeks relief in an extramarital affair. Roni, Eli's teenage lover, drifts, trying to recover from a previous liaison. Roni's father, Mark, and his estranged wife, Alona, juggle raising their two young children with security concerns and an ambivalence about their separation.
Through these angst-ridden characters and many supporting players, Hedaya combines high-stakes personal drama with a portrait of the social issues confronting Israel today.
In "The Marriage Plot" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), Jeffrey Eugenides folds literature, religion and madness into the story of three young Brown University graduates. Mitchell Grammaticus grows deeply involved with Catholic mysticism. Madeleine Hanna devotes herself to academically unfashionable Regency and Victorian literature. Leonard Bankhead is an irreverent, tortured biologist. Mitchell loves Madeleine. But Madeleine loves Leonard, whose struggles with manic depression make it difficult for him to love anyone.
Mitchell travels to India in search of transcendence, while Hanna and Leonard move in together, trying to launch their careers and forge a relationship. But Madeleine's indecision, Leonard's illness and Mitchell's sudden epiphany lead to a surprising conclusion.
Perhaps there is someone on your list who is always determined to do his or her own thing. In that case, "Fug You" (Da Capo, $26), Ed Sanders' memoir of his bohemian 1960s experiences, might be just the ticket. Sanders is well-known for his poetry and for "The Family," a study of Charles Manson, but he was also a founding member of the underground rock band the Fugs and the owner of the counterculture Peace Eye Bookstore in New York City.
In short, impressionistic chapters, Sanders details his adventures, as well as his encounters with seemingly everyone who was anyone in the Beat and hippie scenes. From Allen Ginsberg to Abbie Hoffman, the free stores of the Lower East Side to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Sanders provides a fly-on-the-wall view of many facets of a turbulent decade.