Looking for presents for a reader on your list?

By James T. Keane
Sunday, December 11, 2016

A few years ago I was taking the New York City subway home from a softball game with some other team members, including our pitcher, who (like me) was an editor at a publishing house. “So can I bother the experts for an opinion?” asked another teammate. “What do you two read for fun?” Our pitcher looked over at me for a moment, then shrugged and said “Facebook, mostly.”

She was kidding, of course, but there’s some truth to the joke. Many people who “read for work” tend to seek out literary distractions that don’t tax the brain overmuch. The bulk of my workday is spent reading and editing books of Catholic theology, oftentimes meant for academic use, and once you’ve spent your day reading about Karl Rahner’s “supernatural existential” or Raimon Panikkar’s “cosmotheandric vision,” the temptation to watch amusing cat videos is a strong one.

That copy of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” on my shelf? It’s an accessory, mostly, the Burberry scarf of Gen-X intellectuals. Meanwhile, I’ve read Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising” and Stephen King’s “It” about 300 times apiece.

That being said, I do try to find time to read good books, ones that feed the soul and invite me into worlds not my own. My own recommendations for good Christmas gift books include two uplifting books and one very dark one, but I can guarantee all three take the reader into such worlds.

The first recommendation is the dark one: Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History.” Tartt gained international acclaim (and the Pulitzer Prize) for her 2013 novel “The Goldfinch,” but my favorite novel by her is actually this one from 1992.

It’s no inspirational tale, and it grows more and more macabre the further one delves into the book, but the writing is beautiful and the story beyond compelling, the tale of a somewhat naive college student who finds community and friendship with a tightly-knit band of Greek and Latin students — only to find that they are bound together by murderous secrets and impulses as much as by love of the aorist or iambic pentameter. I missed my train stop more than once while reading this spellbinding tale.

A more inspirational story is told by Cuban-American author Oscar Hijuelos in “Mister Ives’ Christmas.” Like Tartt, Hijuelos is a Pulitzer Prize winner, for his novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.”

In “Mister Ives’ Christmas,” he gives the reader “A Christmas Carol” for our time, the story of a successful advertising executive, Edward Ives, who has lived the American dream — until his seminarian son is killed at Christmastime on the streets of Morningside Heights for the $10 in his pocket. Ives’ life becomes a ruin in the aftermath, and it seems he will never again know happiness.

But, like the Dickens characters the book references, Ives’ interactions with those he loves (and hates, including his son’s killer) slowly bring healing and hope to his life, and he can once again experience the joy of Christmas. I used this book twice when I taught courses on American Catholic novels, and I love it for the warmth of its prose — a nice departure from many novels of its time.

My final recommendation is an off-beat book of short stories, Jim Gavin’s “Middle Men.” I confess that I know the author, which perhaps makes this an unfair pick, but you don’t have to take my word for it: Gavin’s debut was hailed by one critic upon its 2013 release as a “modern- day ‘Dubliners.’”

The protagonists of “Middle Men” are young and not-so-young-anymore men trying to construct meaning in their lives in the rootless suburbs of Southern California. Gavin’s wry humor and careful eye for the perfect detail makes each individual character sketch a tale worthy of its own novel; you might have already read one of them, “Costello,” which was published in the New Yorker at Christmastime in 2010.


  • books
  • theology

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