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Week 2 Recap: Authors’ favorite book gifts

December 14, 2011

Every day in December, we’ll have a different author visiting our Facebook page to answer the question “What is the best book you’ve ever received as a gift for Christmas or Hanukkah?”  Here’s a recap of the great stories from our second stellar week.
Click here to see days 1-7. 

Day 8: Matthew Polly, author of Tapped Out and the crictically acclaimed American Shaolin
When I was growing up in Topeka, KS, all I wanted to be was a writer, but I kept it a secret because “being a writer” was not considered viable possibility. So I kept it to myself and planned to become a lawyer, until I won a Rhodes scholarship. That’s when I made the fateful decision to try to write for a living, thinking to myself, “How much harder than winning a Rhodes can it be.”
My very conservative parents were horrified, but I set off for New York City to make my way. My first Xmas my parents came to visit and were horrified by the tiny little hovel I was barely able to afford. My dad took me aside and said, “I’m worried about you, son. But if you are going to try to live you dreams, you might need this.” It was a copy of Writer’s Digest. And I actually got a few writing gigs using it. But it was the most special book, because it showed that while my father didn’t approve, he still loved and supported me.

Day 9: Donna Johnson, author of Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir
The World Religions by Huston Smith tops the list of my favorite holiday gift books. Smith renders each of the major faiths through the eyes of a devout believer. This is religion at its most mysterious and lovely. I originally bought the book used when I was sixteen and read it so often if fell apart. One holiday morning years later, I found it again in a stack of wrapped books my new husband had chosen for me. I had mentioned the importance of the book once, and he had heard me.

Day 10: Priscilla Gilman, author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy
Every Christmas, my sister & I give each other hard-to-find or especially cherished gems from our childhood. My favorite book gift was one Claire gave me about 10 years ago, a few years after I’d had my first child & begun working as an English professor. As I tore open the wrapping paper & saw the familiar green & golden cover of the original edition of Eleanor Estes’ The Witch Family, I was instantly transported back to the summer of 1979, when we first read this book over and over again & endlessly enacted pretend scenarios inspired by it. The story of two best friends, Amy and Clarissa, “ordinary real girls” who love to draw and tell stories about characters they invent, and whose belief in their imaginative creations blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, spoke powerfully to me and Claire, two “ordinary real girls” who believed our Paddington Bears were living, breathing members of our family and spent most of our waking hours either engrossed in novels or engaged in creative play. At some point when we became teenagers, my mother had given the book away, and I’d longed for it for years. Claire’s gift of this beloved and influential book simultaneously attested to the persistence of our childhood bond and affirmed the sanctity of imagination and unfettered imaginative exploration. It reminded me, at a time when I was feeling downtrodden by the competitiveness and aridity of academia, why I’d chosen to study and teach literature: because I passionately loved words and stories, characters and imagination. It reassured me in the midst of all my new parent exhaustion and anxiety that though I was now an adult and a parent, I need not give up the freshness of perception and faith in magic that had characterized my childhood. The Witch Family has since been re-released in spanking new editions, but I will always treasure the worn, well-loved book whose flap copy celebrates “a story that is exciting, humorous, wholly original, and marvelously unpredictable, in which the worlds of reality and fantasy blend into an unforgettable whole.” Unforgettable indeed.

Day 11: Sharon Heath, author of The History of My Body
What a wonderful coupling ~ the winter holidays can open our hearts; a terrific book often opens new worlds! At fifteen, I was a relative newcomer to the college town of Berkeley, California. My plumber father and waitress mother had taken advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start their own business and moved us out of L.A., where I’d actually been one of the popular kids for the firs…t (and only) time. Berkeley in those days was pretty tame, suspended in a brief hiatus between being a west coast anchor to the beat generation and a lightning rod for the sixties. I hated the sweet rhythms of that small town; the boys all seemed awkward, and the girls barely wore any makeup! Lonely, sullen, and mutely lost to myself as only a teenager can be, I was surprised with a gift from one of the more sympathetic Cal students who worked at my family’s hamburger joint: a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Suddenly I was on fire. Whitman’s poems alerted me to a world beyond my constant quarrel with my parents and a body sprouting unwelcome curves, strange smells, and unmentionable desires. Instead, he celebrated such things, poking his protean imagination into the glories of sex, our kinship with the natural world, and death as the enigmatic frame for life’s rich palette. Reading “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” I hardly knew what to do with myself. What kind of a magician was this Whitman, looking like a cross between a hobo and God, with his dented hat and curling white beard? How could the cry of a mockingbird for its missing mate stir such a hunger in me? As I remember all this, it’s beginning to dawn on me just how much my writing The History of My Body – with its young protagonist Fleur mourning the fallen petals of a rose, savoring the luminous patterns of light rippling across a pool, losing herself to the first boy who calls her “beautiful,” finding the irreplaceable solace of friendship – was seeded by that early, poignant call.

Day 12: Laura Zigman, author of Piece of Work and host of the NPR show “Hash Hags”
 I always freeze when anyone asks me what my favorite anything is: I remember a particularly promising interview with the then head of Doubleday back in the mid-80s, toward the end of which the guy — a hipster — threw me a curveball: “What’s your favorite music?” he asked. To which I stutterered and stammered and drooled: “Classical.” Not because Classicial was my favorite kind of music, but because I couldn’t, for the life of me, think of anything else. My mind went blank. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
But anyway: this answer will be a two parter: both post-op-related gifts. The first post-op best-book-I-ever-received-as-a-gift was Curious George Goes to The Hospital. Someone (my parents, probably) gave this to me when I was four and just recovering from emergency appendectomy surgery. My appendix had ruptured in the middle of the night, in the middle of a the Blizzard of ’67 (<–an actual storm, not a Dairy Queen treat), and it landed me at Boston Children’s Hospital for over three weeks. I was fascinated by doctors and nurses and surgery and stitches, and when I got the book and saw those great drawings of Curious George getting x-rayed after eating the puzzle piece — well, I just couldn’t get enough.
The second post-op best-book-I-ever-received-as-a-gift was one of Ina Garten’s cookbooks. I’d been recovering –for months — from breast reconstruction surgery five years ago, and at some point during the long cold winter in bed with my remote, I discovered The Barefoot Contessa on PBS. As always, I was late to the Ina Garten party, but I quickly became addicted to watching her roam around her giant Hamptons estate and kitchen and gourmet shops. There was something very comforting about the way she related to food and the way she prepared it and the way even though her husband Geoffrey was never home and they had kind of an interesting relationship, he came home every Friday night to a gorgeous roast chicken — and her.

Day 13: Michael Connelly, author of The Drop, The Fifth Witness, and many others
A few years ago I unwrapped a book from my wife. It was a first edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Not only is a first edition of the 1953 worth a few bucks, but I think it is one of Chandler’s best all the while being vitally important to me. Essentially, I became a writer because of this book. Of course, when I read it back in 1975 it was a paperback with a photo of Elliott Gould on the cover. It was a movie tie-in. Gould had played Philip Marlowe in the 1973 movie. I saw the movie, which led me to the book, which led me to all the books, which led me to the conclusion: I want to try to do this. I want to be a writer. More than three decades later there was a wrapped book. It’s a tough thing to give an author a book for a gift. You better be confident in your choice. My wife was and she was spot on. I love this book.

Day 14: Nicholas Sparks, author of The Best of Me, Safe Haven, and many others
The best book I ever received for Christmas was a signed, first edition copy of TO DANCE WITH THE WHITE DOG by Terry Kay. It’s one of my favorite novels, and a novel that I reread at least once a year. I adore the story, the characters are realistic and the pages continue to turn. It’s all that a good novel should be. My agent, Theresa Park, knowing how much I loved it, got me the copy, and it sits proudly on the shelf in my formal office.

Next > Read the Week 3 Recap.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2011 11:42 am

    When I was growing up in Topeka, KS, all I wanted to be was a writer, but I kept it a secret because “being a writer” was not considered viable possibility. The World Religions by Huston Smith tops the list of my favorite holiday gift books. Smith renders each of the major faiths through the eyes of a devout believer.


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