Segullah Suggests: Books to Buy This Christmas

Iusedbooks‘m a traditional kind of girl—you know, one who puts off her Christmas shopping until the day after Thanksgiving and then spends December in a frenzy of list-making, bargain-shopping and gift-wrapping. Although I wish I could be one of those women who creates dozens of heartfelt handmade gifts, alas, craftiness is not my thing. One thing I can do, though, is buy a good book. That’s a skill, right? I love giving books as gifts, and I also love getting good ideas about books to give as gifts. So I figured since our Segullah readership has excellent taste (you do, don’t you!), we’d get going on this Christmas shopping thing and swap some book recommendations.

I polled the Segullah staff and ended up with a truckload of titles. I’ve divided the recommendations into seven categories: Adult Fiction, General Nonfiction, Memoir, LDS Fiction, LDS Nonfiction, Young Adult Fiction, and Picture Books. I also had to winnow each category to a reasonable size, so I went with six suggestions per category and focused on newish titles (although I cheated a little with the picture books). Each book below has been recommended by at least one member of the Segullah staff and several are endorsed by many of us. Also, a caveat: some recommended books might contain some language or difficult content. I also can’t know the content of every book recommended in the comments. Since we’re all individuals, it’s ultimately up to each of us to decide what constitutes good literature and what doesn’t. In other words: do your due diligence and check things out before pulling out your debit card.

Oh, and you all know you should be subscribing to Segullah the magazine, correct? And that it makes a perfect holiday gift? Of course you do!

So now, without further ado, the list:

Adult Fiction

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. This novel-in-stories won the Pulitzer Prize. Beautiful writing, memorable characters, startling insights. Plus who doesn’t want to read about a 7th grade math teacher and her neighbors living in coastal Maine?? Seriously–you want to! Trust me.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows This epistolary novel has been a favorite of book clubs all year. And I admit it: I haven’t read it yet because I didn’t like the title . . . but I have been assured that the novel is powerful and life-affirming and all-around good. It’s on my list of books to read.

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese So many people whom I trust have been going ga-ga for this novel that it’s rocketed right to the top of my “you must read this book, and soon!” list. Apparently it’s brilliant, masterful, extraordinary, and every other superlative adjective found in a book reviewer’s thesaurus.

The Likeness by Tana French. This novel is a truly literary thriller. I picked it up because I wanted to do some escapist reading (a murder, a doppelganger, a bunch of English majors vs. a bevy of Irish cops) but I found myself swept away by French’s gorgeous writing as often as I was by the suspenseful story. And speaking of Irish cops: there’s some language. But there’s very little violence and almost no sex, which is a surprise given the genre.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I can’t swing a book bag without hitting a woman who’s swooning over this book. Set in Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement, the novel explores the relationships between privileged whites and the African-American women who raise their children (but aren’t allowed to polish the silver). Publisher’s Weekly calls it an “optimistic, uplifting novel.”

The Gathering Storm (Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. Mormon lovers of speculative fiction went bananas when one of our own, Brandon Sanderson, was asked by the late Robert Jordan’s widow to complete the final installment of Jordan’s famous Wheel of Time series. Currently ranked #1 in Amazon’s Science Fiction and Fantasy category, and #23 overall, The Gathering Storm is a big dang deal. Plus, lovers of speculative fiction tell me it’s awesome.


General Nonfiction

Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman. This is a fascinating, provocative book detailing how a number of our assumptions about parenting and the way kids’ brains work are just plain wrong. (For example, did you know that watching Arthur on PBS might make your kid MORE aggressive than watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles??) Although the conclusions are based in solid science, the writing is accessible and breezy.

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. Fascinating insights into what makes a person successful–and it has a lot less to do with inborn talent and a lot more to do with practice and perseverance than you might think: a concept I find both liberating and exhausting.

Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph. A great book full of practical advice (backed by science) for parents and caregivers of boys and male teens. Because we need all the good advice we can get.

Columbine by Dave Cullen This account of the Columbine shooting sheds new light onto the horrific events of that day and turns many of the prevailing myths about the circumstances surrounding the shooting on their heads. Although it’s a difficult book detailing a very tragic event, the Washington Post says it’s full of “tough minded compassion.”

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
This book isn’t just about running: it’s a great story full of compelling characters and a philosophical look at the exercise industry. I’ve seen it recommended in a number of places, and the book also has been given an enthusiastic thumbs-up from my Segullah compatriots, so it’s on my own Christmas list as a must-buy for my runner husband. (Shhh . . . don’t tell him!)

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns. More than just a coffee table book full of beautiful pictures (although there are a number a gorgeous photos), this book is a companion to the recent PBS series of the same name and is an excellent history of our national parks. A must for those interested in America’s history and natural wonders.

Memoir

-The Year My Son and I Were Born by Kathryn Lynard Soper. Yes, this stunning memoir was written by Segullah’s very own captain, Kathy Soper—and it’s one of the finest memoirs I’ve ever read. Get it! Read it! Savor it! And if you’re me, be amazed and grateful that the woman who wrote it is your friend.

-An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. I’d read McCracken’s fiction and knew she was an amazingly talented writer. But I wasn’t prepared for the depth and potency of my emotional response as I read this account of the stillborn birth of McCracken’s first child. It’s a heartwrenching, funny, devastating and ultimately hopeful book.

-The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan. This is a memoir about a mother’s battle with breast cancer. But it’s also a funny and inspiring take on family life. Another up-and-coming book club read.

-The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker. This book is also clawing its way to the top of my must-read list. I know Mormons who love, love, love this memoir and Mormons who are supremely bugged by it, but there’s no doubt that Baker is a compelling new voice.

-Garlic & Sapphires by Ruth Reichel. New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichel dresses up in funky clothes, eats great food, and dishes on all the secrets of the New York City restaurant scene. Full of humor and full of food. What’s not to like?

LDS Fiction

-Rift by Todd Robert Petersen. This Marilyn Brown award winning novel was recently reviewed by Shelah Miner here at Segullah. I’ve read it as well and can attest that Petersen is one of the best writers in the Mormon market. This book might be a particularly good choice for any male fiction lovers in your house.

-The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale. Although this book was published by a national press for a mainstream audience and therefore isn’t technically “LDS fiction,” Mormon author Shannon Hale’s novel centers on the complicated platonic relationship between an LDS homemaker and a dashing movie star. The Mormonism in the book is accessible to non-Mormon readers and recognizable to Mormon ones, which is a real feat, and Hale tackles many (deliciously) complicated themes related to marriage, monogamy and fidelity.

-Fool Me Twice by Stephanie Black This novel won the Whitney award for Best Mystery/Suspense this April. It’s a fast paced read full of surprises and intriguing characters–compelling and a lot of fun.

-Waiting For the Light to Change by Annette Haws. Another Whitney award winner, this time in the General Fiction category, this novel about a Utah high school teacher and single mother dealing with life’s challenges is complex, emotional, and finely written.

-Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom Okay, so I feel a little sheepish including my own book, but this list is a compilation of Segullah staff picks and the staff told me to. So, as Forrest Gump is wont to say, that’s all I have to say about that.

-Irreantum subscription
I have a vested interest in this title, too, since I co-edit the journal with Jack Harrell, but I don’t feel sheepish at all about shouting from the rooftops: if you are interested in great writing by, for, or about Mormons, Irreantum is the magazine for you. Our upcoming issue is chock full of great stuff (Orson Scott Card, Terryl Givens), and if you subscribe during the month of November you’ll get a copy of The Best of Mormonism absolutely free.

LDS Nonfiction:
-The Mother in Me: Real-World Reflections on Growing Into Motherhood edited by Kathryn Lynard Soper and written by Segullah staff. The perfect gift for any mother of any age (or any mother-to-be). And if you haven’t yet purchased a copy for yourself? Maybe you could put this title on your wish list.

-Weakness is Not Sin: The Liberating Distinction that Awakens Our Strengths by Wendy Ulrich. Ulrich, author of the equally wonderful Forgiving Ourselves, is a psychologist with years of experience counseling Latter-day Saints. This book helps Mormon readers come to terms with their own weaknesses and learn to find joy despite inevitable human frailty.

-Why?: Powerful Answers and Practical Reasons For Living LDS Standards by John Hilton III and Anthony Sweat. Full disclosure here: this book was co-written by my brother, Anthony Sweat, but I speak without the taint of nepotism (really!) when I say this is one of the best titles for LDS youth I’ve ever come across. Not only does it cover a wide range of topics, but everything from the energetic writing style to the full-color, eye-catching layout makes this a book an attractive choice for teens. It’s also a great resource for adults—I’ve used it for a number of FHEs. (It comes in particularly handy if it’s 8:25 on a Monday night and you haven’t prepared a single thing and you think “Tithing! Let’s talk about that!” Of course, this never happens to me.)

-I Hate It When Exercise is the Answer: A Fitness Program for the Soul by Emily Watts. Emily Watts brings her trademark wit and insight to this guide for spiritual and emotional fitness. A fun, inspirational read.

-Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel. This is a great gift for serious students of the scriptures . . . as well as those of us who want to look smart during Gospel Doctrine class. The world of the Old Testament is painstakingly explored from a variety of angles, and the inclusion of stunning visuals makes the book a worthy investment.

-Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations by James N. Kimball and Kent Miles. The editors of this extraordinary book traveled all over the world to interview women representative of the diversity and strength within Mormonism. Fourteen women—including LDS scholar Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, poet Emma Lou Thayne, and Tsobinar Tadevosyan, an Armenian woman who spent five years in the Soviet Gulag—share their personal definition of what it means to be both a female and a Latter-day Saint.

YA Fiction:

-Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. Don’t tell me you haven’t read The Hunger Games yet. If you haven’t, get cracking! Then quickly get your hands on this compelling sequel. I haven’t been so engrossed by a YA novel in years, and both books have kept my kids reading late into the night.

-The Last Olympians by Rick Riordan. The entire Percy Jackson and the Olympians series has been a huge hit at my house for years, and my boys had a little tiff over who would get their hands on this fifth installment first. (The youngest won.) This series is great for boys and girls, but I’ve heard from parents that it’s a particularly good one for boys who are otherwise reluctant to read. I love these books!

-My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison. This YA novel by author Rallison (and yes, she’s LDS, but she writes for a national audience) is a fun, lively romp of a book. At least that’s what my 11 year old daughter tells me. Although she didn’t use the phrase “fun, lively romp of a book,” and if she had, I would have been seriously concerned. But I do know we got it from the library and she couldn’t put it down and have heard from other trusted sources that it’s a great read, especially for pre-teen girls.

-The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams. Williams is another YA author writing for a national audience who also happens to be LDS, and this particular novel tackles a subject very familiar to Mormons: polygamy. The protagonist is a contemporary 13 year old girl who struggles to escape a polygamist cult after being told she’s to marry her 60-year-old uncle. The plot is riveting and the writing is strong. A compelling read for older teens.

-The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo. Sometimes I wish I was Kate DiCamillo, if only to know what it feels like to write such amazing books. The author of Because of Winn-Dixie has written another gem of a novel: a quick but beautiful read most appropriate for pre-teens.

-Fablehaven: Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary by Brandon Mull. Mull has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success nationally with his Fablehaven books, and I can’t imagine any Mormon parent hasn’t heard of them yet. (But if you haven’t, boy are you in luck! Buy the whole series and your kids will be reading until their eyeballs fall out!) I wanted to include this title, though, simply because my own kids have enjoyed the Fablehaven books so much that there’s no way I could make a YA list without mentioning them. And I’ve met Brandon Mull in person, and he’s incredibly funny and nice. I really like super-successful authors who are also funny and nice, don’t you?

Picture Books

-Just What Mama Needs by Sharlee Mullins Glenn. This charming book was written by Segullah’s very own Sharlee Glenn, and it’s a delight from beginning to end. Sharlee’s books are always a joy to read aloud, and this book is one of my two-year-old’s favorites.

-The Baby Beebee Bird by Diane Redfield Massie. This classic book is one your kids will want to read again and again. Boisterous, happy, fun, and lively.

-Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. This book, by acclaimed Villiage Voice cartoonist Feiffer, has proven to me that my two-year-old has an excellent sense of humor. One of my favorite before-bed reads.

-The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Less a children’s book and more a graphic novel, this book depicts the immigrant experience through a series of beautiful illustrations. The winner of a number of awards in Australia, the book itself is a work of art and appropriate for adults as well as older children and teens.

-I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll. This book about a little boy who can’t fall asleep without his favorite monster is a great way to quell nighttime fears, and have a little fun in the process!

-Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins. Full of humor, animal facts, and great art, this book is sure to delight animal-loving kids. Like mine. They’re getting it for Christmas!

So there you go. Whew! I hope you were able to find some Christmas-shopping inspiration. If you didn’t, I might slink off to a corner and moan because putting this thing together took FOREVER! But I did it because I love books and I know so many of you do to. And because I have absolutely no ability to rationally evaluate how long it might take to implement my own bright ideas. But mostly because I love books. And you.

Now, let’s hear your suggestions.

About Angela

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

32 thoughts on “Segullah Suggests: Books to Buy This Christmas

  1. I just have to say, I really enjoyed The Likeness, too (although I did love her first book, In the Woods even more, it’s been less well received by the masses b/c it breaks some genre conventions). I picked them up to do research on Irish cops ;) .

    And just so you’re not the only one saying it, I enjoyed Bound on Earth, too. In fact, I read it in the spring, but I was just thinking about it this evening.

    My suggestions: I loved Stephanie Black’s Fool Me Twice and her new book, Methods of Madness, which came out in August, is also wonderful!

    Thanks for the list!

  2. Thanks for putting this together, Angela! A lot of work, but a really nice thing to do. I appreciate having several people’s opinions brought together in one place for easy reference!

  3. Love the list, Angela! You’ve given me lots of fodder for my personal reading list, Christmas presents can wait!

  4. Thank you Angela. I can second many of your recommendations and now I’m off to read the rest!

    Do you rest of you read YA fiction? I love it; can’t get enough of it. I’m in the middle of the Alchemyst series right now.

  5. Thanks for the list! One note, though for more sensitive readers – The Likeness has a lot of swearing, including many, many uses of Christ’s name in vain and the f word. Just a warning.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to put this together, Angela. I really want to get my hands on Holzapfel’s book on the Old Testament.

    Can I recommend a few travel books, even though you don’t have a specific category for that? These are all about China, since these happened to be the best travel books I read this year.

    Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuschia Dunlop- This one is about food all over China and is a fascinating read.

    Invisible China by Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson- This is one of the few books about the various ethnicities in China that’s also readable and accurate.

    China Road by Rob Gifford- The author is a journalist, but he also lived in and studied China before that, and speaks Mandarin. Before being tranferred from China to London, he travels across the country. It’s a great way to read about various parts of China.

  7. Love this list. I was talking with a friend about The Help just this weekend. Apparently it has caused a fair amount of discussion here in Mississippi. I live about 2 hours from Jackson, where the author lived and her stories are about real people, who are able to be identified by their stories, though she changes names.

    Many of them have ties to the community where I live. Some people are enjoying identifying them.

    I look forward to reading it myself. The dynamics between the races here is complex, but it’s a dance everyone knows.

  8. Thanks! I’ve been looking for more books to sink my teeth into.

    P.S. I second the recommendation for Catching Fire! Awesome book, can’t wait for the next one!

  9. Those are all great recommendations. Two Mormon non-fiction that I read recently and would recommend for anyone are “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” and “Lengthen Your Stride” (biography of Spencer W. Kimball). The McKay one is a bit me ‘scholarly’ in style, but they’re both very readable. After typing this I just realized what I want to get my dad for Christmas–he’s not an active member, but he loves Church history and reads a lot! He already has an Irreantum subscription

    And while we’re self-promoting I want to put in a plug for the book my husband’s writing group put together: “The Fob Bible” (FOB means ‘friends of Ben’ and is their writing group name). It’s kind of eclectic–they realized that a lot of them like to write Bible-themed stuff so it’s a collection of poems and short stories related to the Bible. And all profits go to LDS Humanitarian funds :) The website is here: http://b10mediaworx.com/peculiarpages/

    On the right hand-side are some free previews (‘plain and precious parts’) and you can either order it directly through the publisher or through Amazon. I really think it’s cool, not just because my hubby and his friends wrote it :)

  10. What: no poetry, Angela?

    Though I know poetry isn’t some people’s cup o’ tea I recommend Mark Bennion’s Psalm and Selah, Javen Tanner’s Curses for Your Sake, and anything by Lance Larsen or Kim Johnson. There’s also Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry (though it’s a bit pricey).

    And I second FoxyJ’s recommendation of The Fob Bible.

  11. Angela thank you for the list! lots of good reading there. I have my Christmas shopping done and doing a little making now (sorry…). This is what i did this year. I did Books, a couple cd’s of old radio shows and some warm weather stuff for the youngers. Made it real simple. for my quilters, books they can read to their grands and some flower bulbs to enjoy during the winter. Simple.

    My husband wants a new phone – NOW THAT IS HARD!

    I asked for some of the Elm Creek Quilt Books im reading – would suggest them to anyone, and Beverly Lewis is always a cozy read.

  12. I have to say I really hated The Actor and the Housewife. In fact, if I’m honest I have hated most of what Shannon Hale writes. But it you’ve liked her other stuff, you might enjoy it.

    I just got Hunger Games and Catching Fire for myself, and am on the waiting list for Columbine.

  13. Thanks for all the comments and suggestions so far! And Tyler, you’re right: I was seriously negligent not including poetry. Thanks for your suggestions. And m2theh & Amira, although I haven’t read Hale’s Actor and the Housewife, a few of our Segullah women have—and there’s been a decidedly split opinion on the book. But it’s an important enough novel—regular everyday Mormon characters for a mainstream audience—that I thought it deserved a shout out. And I do know some people who’ve quite liked it.

    Keep the suggestions coming! I love adding to my ever growing pile of must-read books.

  14. Angela, thank you so much for compiling this list. I know I’ll be referring to it as I do my Christmas shopping. You definitely deserve a gold star for this post.

  15. GREAT idea…
    I’m a big fan of YA literature.
    Some of my favorite reads from this year not on your list are:
    The Magic of Ordinary Days by Anne Creel
    The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
    Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
    Savvy by Ingrid Law
    Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

  16. Must agree with Amira & m2theh — Actor/Housewife was simply the most ridiculous book ever. EVER.

    And some how I missed the boat on The Help. A white woman’s portrayal, in 1st person narrative, of a uniquely black experience bordered on offensive to me. But it certainly has been accepted widely by the white community.

  17. LDS Non-Fiction: “Hard Times and Holy Places”
    by Kristen Warner Belcher. (My sister-in-law.)

    This book is amazing and perfect for anyone you know who might be suffering or just needs a lift or change of attitude.

    5 STARS!!!

    (Buy it at Des Book or Amazon!)

  18. Thanks for this list, Angela. I’m headed over to buy my husband the National Parks book right now…for Christmas!

    And there are several that I intend to read myself.

    =)

  19. In the YA category: “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy” by Gary D. Schmidt.

    And I second “Hard Times and Holy Places” by Kristin Belcher in LDS non-fiction.

  20. Your website looks really good. Being a blog writer myself, I really appreciate the time you took in writing this article.

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