Every December, Icelanders celebrate the holidays—and their love of books—with a “book flood.” This year, we’re bringing Jólabókaflóð to American living rooms with our favorite literary gifts!
Need a holiday gift for any and all of your friends? Think of these conversation-starters as a massive batch of seasonal treats you’d prepare in bulk and distribute to your friend network bit-by-bit (minus the kitschy snowman tins and dramatic potential for unanticipated food allergies). Choose a title that will get everyone talking, grab a copy for each of your pals (and yourself), then ping them all in 2018 when they’re ready to break it all down over coffee or cocktails. Voilà: You no longer need to worry about cleaning your kitchen, wrangling a massive gift list, or how to break the seal on your social calendar in the new year. It’s a present and a potential book club, all in one.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
After three years in Parchman Farm, the brutal Mississippi State Penitentiary, 13-year-old Jojo’s white father is free to go; the family awaiting his release will take a road trip to bring him home. That ostensibly straightforward meeting begets many others. Jojo’s black mother, Leonie, chases chemical highs with a friend along for the ride (and communes with her long-dead brother when she does); Jojo’s toddler sister, Kayla, falls ill and turns to him for comfort as a surrogate parent; and Jojo begins to see Richie, the thirteen-year-old ghost of a Parchman Farm inmate. Haunting is both literal and lyrical in the South that Jesmyn Ward brings to life: trauma has the power to last beyond life, but the sense of belonging her flesh-and-blood characters should be able to offer one another is often spectral at best. This National Book Award Finalist’s message is simple: Honor these stories by listening.
- Chasing Light by Amanda Lucidon
“To be one of the few female photographers in [White House] history was really special. But on top of that, just to work for the administration that had appointed more women and minorities than any other administration; that was a real special thing,” former White House lenswoman Amanda Lucidon told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. Michelle Obama was more than Lucidon’s subject; as the young photographer followed the First Lady across the United States and to more than 20 countries, she adopted Mrs. Obama as an inspiration and role model. Many of the candid photos she shares of the First Family have never been seen before, and the love and spontaneity she captures are infectious. “I hope that people see the light inside themselves,” writes Lucidon. “And sometimes we need other people to bring that out in us. Mrs. Obama was one of the people who brought it out in me.” A portion of Chasing Light’s proceeds supports Turnaround Arts, a program that infuses the lowest-performing five percent of schools around the country with creative opportunities.
- The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick
“The hot one” might seem like a curious moniker to attach to your onetime best friend—and to the memoir in which you tell the story of her life and brutal death—but Carolyn Murnick isn’t interested in pulling punches. She wants her readers to think long and hard about the ways in which society pigeonholes women, and how problematic those limitations can be to their senses of self. She remembers Ashley Ellerin as a girlhood pal who played piano duets with her—and, later, as an acquaintance whose sexual precocity and glamorous magnetism made her virtually unrecognizable. Would the former friends have ever drifted back together? When a murder suspect is arrested years later, Carolyn immerses herself in the pretrial circus that springs up around the investigation and turns Ashley “into a public figure for the worst possible reason.” In the end, the ordeal’s only conclusions are the ones that Carolyn is forced to make about herself.
- Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
Though polygamy is an accepted tradition in Nigeria, Yejide and her husband, Akin, agree that it’s not for them. Four years without the blessing of children fracture that certainty, and Yejide is devastated when their families insist that she should accept Funmi, her husband’s second wife: “Women manufacture children and if you can’t you are just a man,” her mother-in-law says. “Nobody should call you a woman.” Yejide becomes more and more desperate to keep her place in her marriage, but when she does manage to get pregnant, things get even worse: her children might have sickle-cell disease. Adebayo comes at her characters’ fraying relationship from two angles, and as the narrative passes back and forth between husband and wife, it becomes clear that the old-fashioned morals of the traditional folktales they heard as children might not speak to them at all. Stay With Me, on the other hand, explores its characters’ struggles to define themselves with an eloquence that resonates across cultures.
- Bonfire by Krysten Ritter
If hard-boiled heroines are your thing, Krysten Ritter’s your woman; she’s won acclaim for portraying multifaceted tough broads in Breaking Bad, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, and her production company focuses on complex female protagonists. As of this fall, literature’s her turf as well: Meet Abby Williams, an accomplished environmental lawyer who abandoned the small town of her youth and is now thriving, sort of, in Chicago. She heads back home to Barrens, Indiana to investigate Optimal Plastics, the corporation that keeps the locals solvent and, potentially, sick. Abby thinks she knows how humankind works: she divides it into “the people of the world who squeeze and the ones who suffocate.” Fair enough—but where is she in that equation? One point is crystal clear: She’s no Girl Friday.
- A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
The family tree in Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s saga is rooted in New Orleans: It’s rich soil, but it’s saturated with inequality and disappointment. In 1944, Evelyn stuns her respectable (her father is a doctor and her mother is Creole) family by falling for Renard, whose menial work in a down-at-the-heels Twelfth Ward neighborhood isn’t enough, by popular standards, to merit her hand. Four decades later, Evelyn’s daughter Jackie is raising her son alone: She loves his father, but his drug addiction has a far stronger grip on him than she does, and he’ll most likely leave again. Evelyn’s son, T.C., stays out of trouble before Hurricane Katrina—but finds in its aftermath that the money he can make on the street is almost irresistible. Sexton spotlights her generations at moments of potential crisis, then gives each family member room to do the best he or she can. Theirs is unquestionably a story of suffering—and, just as unquestionably, a story of endurance.
- The Leavers by Lisa Ko
When Polly (born Peilan) Guo fled China for America, she wanted neither children nor marriage. She ended up as an undocumented Chinese immigrant working at a nail salon in the Bronx with an 11-year-old son. Life is stable, until it isn’t: Polly disappears, and her son, Deming, assumes she’s decamped to Florida for a better job. He’s relocated upstate to an adoptive family, where he becomes “Daniel Wilkinson” and an expert at juggling identities. After a decade, he’s able to reconnect with his mother—but where did she go, again? Ko was inspired to tell Polly and Daniel’s story after reading a New York Times feature on an undocumented woman from Fuzhou and her son, but Polly isn’t a stand-in for The Perils of Immigration; she’s not an ideal mother, but a woman who has dreams and motivations of her own. America’s immigration system teems with newcomers as complicated as its citizens, and Ko reminds us of our responsibility to see them as they are.
- Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
Eve Fletcher has a lot of time on her hands: Her husband left her for someone he met on Craigslist, her son Brendan has just emptied the nest for a new adventure at the state college, and her day job at the helm of a suburban senior center doesn’t captivate her. Thank goodness for technology, which plucks her from her suburban doldrums and deposits her at . . . MILFateria.com, an amateur pornography site that provides two-dimensional delicacies her ostensibly three-dimensional life can’t match. Brendan, in turn, is more than ready for the sexual cornucopia he has been conditioned to expect in his freshman year—but he doesn’t have the slightest idea how to treat women like people. Never fear: While both mother and son are unquestionably at sea when it comes to navigating their brave new worlds, Perrotta’s aims are comic rather than tragic. It’s alright to laugh at the mirror he holds up to modern society, even—especially—if you glimpse a bit of yourself in it.
- The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin
To research his disaster-romance, Charles Martin talked two friends into joining him in northeastern Utah’s 700-square-mile High Uintas Wilderness, renting snowmobiles, and riding 60 miles into the middle of nowhere. The germ of his story had come to him as he flew over the otherworldly landscape and wondered, What if a plane crashed into that mess? The tale that emerged navigates the adaptations that are necessary for both physical and emotional survival: If his hero and heroine make it home alive, will they be the same people they were when they left? Rooting for the relationships they leave behind could be even trickier than escaping a million acres of wilderness. Quasi-spoiler alert: In the film adaptation of Martin’s novel, in theaters now, Idris Elba and Kate Winslet masterfully portray his scrappy survivors.
Stripped of their land and forced to relocate to a part of Oklahoma that no one else wanted, the Osage Indian nation became, in the 1920s, the richest people in the world: Oil was discovered beneath the territory they’d purchased, and everyone wanted it. They wanted it so badly, in fact, that the U.S. government stepped in to “manage” their affairs (read: declare full-blooded Osage “incompetent” and in need of oversight, or hasty marriage to white people). Then, in the Osage Reign of Terror of 1920–24, more than two dozen people (both Osage and criminal investigators) died under suspicious or flagrantly murderous circumstances. Enter the F.B.I., then a comparatively small agency helmed by new director J. Edgar Hoover, and a new era for federal law enforcement: Led by former Texas Ranger Tom White, a mostly-undercover, newly-trained F.B.I. team set out to unravel the grisly mystery. New Yorker staff writer Grann’s years of research and flair for narrative nonfiction combine to tell a story more compelling—and horrifying—than any fiction.
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Featured image: Elsa Jenna