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Gift Suggestions:

With the holiday season fully upon us, and with gift-giving the order of the day, and with many of us wondering what to give to X or Y, I offer a few suggestions of books to give friends as presents. My list here is utterly random and certainly idiosyncratic.

For humor, just about any collection of “Doonesbury” cartoons. Trudeau keeps me sane. First thing I do each morning is to bring in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times and read “Doonesbury.” It is uncanny how well he keeps his finger on the pulse of American politics and culture.

Also, an old anthology edited by Isaac Asimov and John Ciadi entitled Limericks: Too Gross is sheer pleasure – and actually not all that gross.

For those inclined to mystery, I suggest any of the reprints of Ross MacDonald – a master craftsman. Or for pure page-turning appeal, read any of the recent (as in the last 10 years) novels of Lee Child. His quasi-detective Jack Reacher is a tough guy’s tough guy. But lately I have been drawn to James Lee Burke, whose Dave Robicheaux is an articulate, dark, and compelling seeker of the truth. Also, Burke’s books-on-tape are a delight because of the added brilliance of Will Patton as a reader. I find I don’t mind being caught in a freeway snarl when listening to a James Lee Burke tape.

For those with a passion for poetry, any number of collected works are great gifts – Frost, Auden, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings – to name but a few. And recently the collected works of several wonderful late 20th century poets have become available: Kenneth Koch, William Stafford, Kenneth Rexroth, and Robert Lowell.

In addition, the Poetry Speaks anthology, replete with three CDs and narrated by Charles Osgood, is a reading and listening lifetime treasure.

Selecting political or historical books is sometimes difficult simply because of the sheer mass of books that have been written lately. But a few I recommend are:

1. Saul Friedlander, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945. A massive and magnificent work of scholarship.

2. Joan Petersilia, When Prisoners Come Home. A superb discussion of how to solve a growing crisis in America.

3. David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. A riveting account of the 1960s by a former 12th grade English student of mine. (Some bias involved in this recommendation.)

4. Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. An account of some 60 years of getting almost everything wrong.

5. And, of course, Two Americas, Two Educations: Funding Quality Schools for All Students, written by yours truly, makes a great gift for friends suffering from insomnia.

In the environmental field, Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth and the Davis Guggenheim film thereof would make a nice duo-gift. Gore’s recent Nobel speech underscores the crisis this book and film confront.

Also, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods is an important and readable account of, as its sub-title indicates, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

In fiction, in addition to the aforementioned mysteries, I suggest a couple of magnificent oldies – in recent reprints – that are sometimes neglected: Two in particular are Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man and Fydor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. While both are not easy reads, they are, nevertheless, profound examinations of the human condition.

So there you have it. Happy Holidays to all and to all a good read.

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