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Week 3 Recap: Authors’ favorite book gifts

December 22, 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 third week.
Read previous recaps: Week 1, Week 2 

Day 15: Sandra Beasley, author of I Was the Jukebox: Poems and Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life
The best book I ever received for Christmas is a first edition of W. S. Merwin’s THE FOLDING CLIFFS, “a narrative of 19th-century Hawaii”–in other words, one of the great epic poems written in our time. In elegant, urgent verses Merwin tells the story of a family determined to stay together as they flee government capture during a quarantine effort on Kauai. Woven in amidst the action is an appreciation of the native culture, mythology, and landscape of this gorgeous island. The book is dedicated to Olivia Breitha (1916-2006); Breitha was known as an outspoken advocate of those discriminated against for leprosy, and her firsthand experience resonated with later generations affected by the AIDS epidemic.

It would be enough to appreciate this gift in terms of its literary merit…but the real reason I share it with you is because of the spirit in which it was given. It was the first Christmas that I had chosen to spend away from home to be with a love, and I was on the eve of making a trip to Kauai myself–without him. He was a huge Merwin fan. The day after Christmas, after all the “official” gifts had been opened, I was packing to make the 15-hour drive back to see my family for a day and catch a plane to Hawaii. That was when took his own copy of this book, signed it to me, and told me I must read it. I carried this spontaneous gesture to Kauai’s beaches.

There is a second signing in the book–“To Sandra and her own poetry. All good wishes, William Merwin.” Merwin came to DC, where I live, to serve as Poet Laureate. Earlier this year after one of his readings I nervously waited in line with THE FOLDING CLIFFS. When I handed him the hardback, still in its original 1998 slipcover, his face softened. He said it was one of his favorite of his books, but it had never found much of a reception outside the West coast. I told him it had been given to me, a DC girl, from a guy who’d read it while in Vermont, on a day spent in Mississippi: proof these poems had reached well beyond Hawaii and California.

The tale of Pi`ilani and her family does not have the happiest of endings. But you can have a great love without a happy ending. This profoundly moving collection reminds me of poetry’s highest ambitions: to illustrate fundamental truths through small, human moments. I will never know a purer form of loyalty than the moment when Pi’ilani struggles up a mountainside under the moon, through the rain, so she can stand at her husband’s grave–which she dug with her own kitchen knife–

“she stood watching the ragged light scattered across the leaves
tears were running down her face and under her breath
from the center of her body she chanted to the place
Kalua i Ko`olau nobody knows where you are
nobody has found you nobody has found you.”

–and I will never know a purer form of generosity than to take a beloved book off the shelf and press it into someone else’s hands. 

Day 16: Sandra Brown, author of Lethal, Rainwater, and others
My husband, Michael, gave me my best Christmas present book: a rare copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, printed in Florence in 1928 because it was banned in England and the United States. In pristine condition, my copy is number 841 of only 1000 D. H. Lawrence signed. This beautiful story wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1959.

Day 17: Elaine Hall, author of Now I See the Moon and co-author of Seven Keys to Unlock Autism
The best book I ever received for a Hanukkah Gift was To Begin Again by Naomi Levy. In this beautiful, soulful memoir, Rabbi Naomi Levy tells first her own story – being part of a very loving family and having a close relationship with her father – and then living the horrors of his being murdered shortly before her 13th birthday. That she dedicated her life to being of service to others as a Rabbi and how she has helped others “begin again” inspired me during a very dark time in my own life. My son, Neal was six years old, diagnosed severely autistic; he was unable to attend public school due to intense sensory sensitivity and challenging behaviors so I had to homeschool him; my husband left us penniless and we were about to be homeless. Reading Naomi Levy’s beautiful book gave me Hope to begin again.

Day 18: Diane Isaacs, co-author of Seven Keys to Unlock Autism
I was tomboy growing up, spending my free time climbing trees, playing kickball at the end of Cedar Lane or catching frogs in the lily pond. As in my favorite classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout and I shared the barefoot and overall fashion statement. In fact, I had a full piggy bank by kindergarten because I would chargemy parents serious coinage to put on a dress. And more, to keep it on. As an adult, my sporty nature developed into a competitive amateur Ironman triathlete. I loved the extreme challenge of pushing my body to its edge…and beyond- and was quoted in an article for Muscle and Fitness, “Ironman is not a day in my life, but my life in a day.” A few Christmas’ ago, my sister gifted me the book, Explorers of the Infinite, by Maria Coffey, that fearlessly explores the psyche of extreme adventurers and athletes, weaving between the intensity of high risk and the serenity of finding a spiritual connection. I am humbled by the outrageous conquests of these extreme athletes, and yet, could tap into the diverse descriptions of how they touched something beyond the mountain peak, the dangerous expeditions or the finish line.

Day 19: Jessica Francis Kane, author of The Report and Bending Heaven
Three books come to mind. (I’m sorry. I’m chronically unable to list just one of anything.) My first Christmas in college, my parents gave me The Chicago Manual of Style. My mother’s inscription said something about how they believed I was a writer and this book would help—a boost of confidence I’ve never forgotten. That orange-jacketed hardback has anchored a corner of my desk ever since. My senior year in college, my boyfriend gave me a copy of The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. He’d heard me go on about how much I loved The Great Gatsby in high school, and he thought someone serious about literature ought to have the complete works. He was right. Then a few years ago, this same wonderful man (now my husband) gave me The Final Solution by Michael Chabon. Our daughter was almost two and we were visiting my husband’s parents. I’d finished very few books since she was born, the sleeplessness and demands of parenting interfering with the part of my brain that loved to read. When all the presents were opened, my husband put the book in my hands and said, Go. Go read. With that, he gave me a day of uninterrupted time. It was glorious.

These Christmas books were not rare or particularly expensive, but each one changed my perception of myself, or reminded me of something I’d forgotten, and that is a wonderful gift, indeed.

Day 20: Amy Wilson, author of When Did I Get Like This?
When I was a little girl I wanted to be an actress– a typically grandiose career aspiration for a youngster (see also: astronaut; Yankees pitcher). Unlike most other kids, my overambition never corrected itself, and when I was seventeen, I told my nonplussed parents that I would be pursuing a life on the stage. That Christmas, they gave me Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting, which taught me not only how to act but also how to hold my head high with my career choice in the years to come. As I told my parents, I didn’t “want to be” an actress; I was one, even if I wasn’t Julia Roberts. And to my parents’ great credit, they gave me that respect– even when they must have been certain I was throwing away my $80,000 college education. Now that I think of myself more as a writer, I still think of Ms. Hagen’s words of wisdom– like when I’m told that blogging isn’t real writing, or that writing about motherhood is not to be taken seriously, or that choosing life as an author is fighting a losing battle in today’s marketplace. Thanks, JTRB, for including me!

Day 22: David Ebershoff, author of The 19th Wife and Pasadena
William Trevor: The Complete Stories. 
I had just graduated from college and my dad knew I wanted to be a writer. He also knew I didn’t have a clue of where to begin. I had a notion of myself as a writer although in fact I wasn’t actually writing all that much. On Christmas morning he handed me a present. It was obviously a book but especially heavy and dense, nearly four pounds. I was thinking Dad got me a bible? It wasn’t a bible, although for the next five years or so it became mine. I studied almost every story in that book to figure out how Trevor did it. Underlines, dog-ears, asterisks in the margin – each marking a turn of phrase or plot that showed the master, as many call Trevor, subtly at work. I analyzed his Irish oddballs and lonelyhearts, his farmers and bachelors and sales ladies and old maids, to break down how precisely Trevor broke their hearts – and mine. I lugged the book around as I moved from one AC-less apartment to the next, propping it on windowsills, radiators, atop the microwave. It became my MFA degree (minus the department parties with the greasy pizza and warm merlot). The dust jacket was white with red letters. Wherever my dad had bought it, probably at Hunter’s Books in Pasadena, they had cut the price off the flap on the diagonal. I found that gesture touching and appropriate because you can’t really put a price on a bible – although of course people do. I don’t know why my dad chose this book over all the others. A review? a bookseller? because he’d read a few stories in the New Yorker? My dad is the quiet, sit-down-and-do-it type and maybe he realized that this book, with its 1300 pages of stories, could teach me as well as any that there was only one way to become a writer: you sit down and you begin.

Day 22: Walter Kirn, author of Lost in the Meritocracy, Up in the Air, and Thumbsucker
At Christmas time in 1978, when I was a junior in high school, a favorite English teacher — the one with the long hair, the eight-cups-a-day black coffee habit, and the Dire Straits tapes in his car — gave me a copy of Naked Poetry, a paperback anthology of contemporary free verse. I didn’t know what free verse was at the time, nor did I know that English teachers were allowed to break certain sacred classroom boundaries and give a student a book. I was flattered to an almost tearful level. I read the poems in the barn on our small farm, afraid to take the book inside the house because its title suggested revolutionary content. And so it was. The poems by Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, Robert Creeley and other visionaries cracked open my head like a geode full of crystals. I sparkled inside, I realized as I read. I was full of crazy, lovely, colored light. Later, I noticed the book had an inscription. It was something like “To Walter, Who Wants to Write.” How had my teacher known? Why did he care? And what if he hadn’t acted on what he’d known? I dare not think about even now.

It turns out, though I didn’t know it when he gave me the book, that my teacher had attended the Iowa Writers Workshop but had dropped out when he learned that his girlfriend was pregnant, and he made a hard decision: give up his writing studies to concentrate on preparing for and supporting a new family. When he met me, he said, I reminded him of himself as a very young man and so he passed his dream to me. It was an “I am not worthy moment,” devastatingly touching. And isn’t it true that for all the schooling we undergo, it always comes down to just one or two teachers when the question of our true destiny is concerned?

One more thought: good books are like good deeds. You never know what wonderful repercussions they’ll have. But to do their work someone first has to liberate them from the bookstore and get them out there into the world of readers where they can do their stuff! (Come to think of it, good books aren’t like good deeds — good books are good deeds.)

Next > Read the Week 4 Recap

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