Read Right

AUSTIN, Texas -- My fellow procrastinators, never let it be said that we do not think about Christmas shopping. Actually doing anything about it is such a radical step we can safely put it off for a few more days. But I feel contemplation counts almost as much as the actual gift. Hence, the annual Christmas roundup of good books. We have plenty of time to decide which one goes to whom -- that's the hard part -- then a simple One Stop at the local bookstore, and we're all done.

My favorite book this year is "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer" by Tracy Kidder. It's about two things simultaneously. The first is the life an extraordinary man, Paul Farmer, who has simply thrown himself -- all his time, talent and every ounce of his energy -- into saving lives, particularly of those most desperately in need of help. The man pretty much set out to save the world and damned if he isn't making progress. It's an amazing story: He just went to Haiti and started working, and now he's changing medical thinking all over the world.

Sounds daunting, doesn't it? The book jacket describes Farmer as "brilliant, charismatic, charming." Actually, he sounds like someone you'd really like to know. You'd have to run to keep up with him, but apparently he's a nice and even funny guy, on top of being a MacArthur Foundation-certified genius.

That gets us to the second thing this book is about: us. So why aren't we doing what Paul Farmer is? Or even one tenth as much as Paul Farmer is? The trouble with reading about someone who is doing with his life what all of us know we should be doing, too, is that it really puts you on the spot. Kidder, a meticulous reporter, is brilliant at taking us through all the reactions to this guy -- admiration, envy, self-justification, rationalization, churlishness. What is with this guy Farmer, does he have a martyr complex or something? Finally, I think, the only possible way to take Farmer is for what he is -- an inspiration. Think about all the sleazy, selfish people in this country who get tons of media attention, from Michael Jackson to Tom DeLay. Here's a by-God hero. What a swell book.

Here are some more:

  • "Living to Tell the Tale," a memoir by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Naturally a must for Marquez fans, but also worth reading just for the portraits of his family.

  • "Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx" by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. (The nice thing about this new mania for long subtitles is that the reviewer no longer has to explain what the book is about.) As this country becomes more and more segregated by class, so that we're sort of a giant version of the reality show "The Simple Life," here's one way to get to know people who are not middle class.

  • For anyone with family in Iraq, Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles" is the real deal.

  • For murder mystery fans, life is simple. A new Reginald Hill, a new P.D. James, a new James Lee Burke, a new Lindsey Davis and a new Bill Fitzhugh. Doesn't get better than that.

  • For the politically alert, a veritable cornucopia. Jim Hightower's "Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back" is a rollicking good read. Since the country is demonstrably being run by kleptocrats, someone needs to say so, and Hightower is awfully good at it. But I think even more important is that the book is optimistic and for good reason -- because the American people are pretty damn terrific, and they're fighting back. (Hightower is an old friend, but I'd plug him even if he weren't.)

    Paul Krugman, economist and New York Times columnist, has a more-than-collection out called "The Great Unravelling." Packed with information and unsparingly clear-eyed.

  • Eden Lipson, our contributing authority on children's books, recommends the following. For teen-agers in the upper grades, "After," by Francine Prose, a cautionary tale about what happens after a Columbine-like incident and what fear does to freedom. For little ones, "Two Eggs, Please" by Sarah Weeks, illustrated by Betsy Lewin, set in a diner. Truly hilarious various customers give the same order with different results.

For everyone six and up, "Mosque" by David Macaulay, is about the reconstruction of a fictional mosque opens Islamic architecture and history in an entertaining way. Also fun for all, "A Day in the Life of Murphy," a memoir by a terrier and by Alice Provensen. The first sentence is, "My name is Murphy Stop That."

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