Booked for the Holidays

Easy to wrap, hard to put down: Consider these books for the readers on your list.

December 18, 2004|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A Democrat triumphed -- at least on the best-seller list.

Bill Clinton wrote the big book -- his fulsome autobiography -- of 2004. Bob Dylan weighed in on his own enigmatic existence and porn star Jenna Jameson bared herself -- in words, not just photos. Philip Roth imaged a nightmare America that cozied up to Adolf Hitler, and the 9/11 Commission's report on a real nightmare in America became an acclaimed best-seller. Tom Wolfe published a new novel, and critics thought it was a nightmare.

What follows is not a list of the year's best-sellers but rather, a catalog of our favorites, as well as a sampling of gift books to consider for holiday stockings (in some cases, huge holiday stockings).

FICTION

Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 247 pages. $23

The most singular novel of the year, this is a tale told as a letter written in 1956 by a dying Iowa preacher, John Ames, to his 7-year-old son. We learn of Ames' fearsome abolitionist grandfather, his pacifist father, and his own marriage at age 69 to a much younger woman. More than anything, though, we get a meticulous reckoning of this man's ardent Christianity. Robinson's narrative doesn't cozy up to readers, but is moving nonetheless.

The Tree Bride

By Bharati Mukherjee. Theia/ Hyperion. 294 pages. $23.95

Exploring the family history of a San Francisco woman as she searches for her Indian roots, Mukherjee's new novel propels the reader back in time. There are grand tours of Victorian London and Calcutta, and forays into the jungles of East Bengal. This tale is full of freedom fighters, petty bureaucrats, dreamers, schemers, and a sensual swirl of an India that refuses to stay buried in an American woman's past.

The Jane Austen Book Club

By Karen Joy Fowler. Putnam. 304 pages. $23.95

Readers needn't be familiar with Jane Austen's novels to enjoy this book about six quirky people in a central California town who meet monthly to discuss her work. Its characters include a prickly dog breeder, an imperious high-school French teacher, a skydiving lesbian and a forlorn single man. A comedy of manners brave enough to acknowledge sorrow, this is a novel that's short on plot but long on personality.

Natasha and Other Stories

By David Bezmozgis. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 147 pages. $18

A 30-year-old Canadian writer makes a commanding debut with an openhearted book that combines melancholy and hope. Its seven stories offer a portrait of a family of Latvian Jews just after they emigrate to Toronto in 1979. Told from the perspective of the Bermans' only child, Mark, this is a piercingly honest account of what that family gains and loses through assimilation. The title story, in which 16-year-old Mark is obliged to supervise his troubled Russian step-cousin, is a knockout.

Going East

By Matthew d'Ancona. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 384 pages. $25

In this smart literary thriller, the contemporary London setting is as vibrant as its characters. D'Ancona shows what happens after a young socialite, Mia Taylor, loses her entire family in a terrorist bombing. Devastated, Mia quits her job as a political consultant and moves to the seedy East End, where she investigates the corruption that led to her relatives' deaths. D'Ancona's affecting thriller gives Bonfire of the Vanities-style views of a city and a traumatized woman in cataclysmic times.

Donna Rifkind is a former literary agent and magazine editor whose writing has been published by Commentary, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times. She reviews fiction for The Sun.

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