A Procrastinator's Holiday Book List
Look at this, fellow procrastinators -- almost two weeks before the actual day, and here I am to solve all your shopping problems with the annual one-stop, hit-the-bookstore with less than 24-hours-to-go, all-purpose Procrastinator's List.
Now, the only challenge is to hang onto the list long enough to get to a bookstore, lest we once again wind up as the last customer at the Jiffy Mart at 11:45 p.m. Christmas Eve, trying to decide whether our nearest and dearest would prefer a nice jug of STP 40W or the new hemorrhoid cure.
For a terrific read and a great political yarn, "An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas" is my nomination for best surprise book of the year. The story of Diane Wilson and her decade-long fight against a multinational chemical company pretty much has everything from corporate chicanery to political hoggery to fab Texas characters.
It's a bit like a true version of John Le Carre's "The Constant Gardener," only starring a chemical company and a true-grit Texas working-class woman with five kids and a mouth on her, who just happens to be one of the best writers I've come across in years. Not just enviros, activists and liberals, but all will celebrate what one citizen can do against power.
It's lovely to hear from an older Kurt Vonnegut in a book of what might be called "easily digested meditations" -- "A Man Without a Country"-- except Vonnegut has always been able to make getting through mental fiber seem effortless.
He's a little sadder and little angrier perhaps than he used to be, but then, as he puts it, almost everyone he knows is dead now, and he no longer has a country. Vonnegut is still an irresistible writer who can make you smile, wistfully.
Also in an elegiac key -- but that astonishing precision that distinguishes all her work -- Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking" is a great writer's gift to all of us. It's the gift of recognition, the incomparable solace that comes from connecting to someone who gets it right, who makes you say: "Yes. That's it. That's what this experience is."
For Aunt Eula and other mystery lovers, life is easy. A new P.D. James ("The Lighthouse"), a new Alexander McCall Smith ("In the Company of Cheerful Ladies"), a new Reginald Hill ("The Stranger House") and the fun Texas series by Ben Rehder ("Guilt Trip," "Flat Crazy" and "Buck Fever") set in the "Texas Hill Country and based on hunting and other good stuff."
Not quite in the category of "They're friends of mine, but Ã¢â‚¬Â¦" as they are getting great reviews all by their own, there are two young Texas journalists of whom I am immensely proud who have new books. I am connected to them through our having worked, during separate eras, at the Texas Observer, incubator of so much Texas talent.
Nate Blakeslee, who broke the extraordinary story "Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town," is a reminder of why investigative journalism at every level is so important. Blakeslee's story of how he and few other crusaders pulled off the near-impossible by getting a bunch of innocent black people freed from Texas prison is wonderful.
An equally arresting voice in fiction, Karen Olsson, has a novel, "Waterloo," that is the definitive wry, hip Austin novel. Years ago, another Observer alum, Billy Lee Brammer, wrote the classic Texas political novel "The Gay Place" about Austin -- fascinating to see the city through time and different eyes.
For children on your list, the Great and Invaluable Eden Lipson, now retired from The New York Times, points out not only is there a new Harry Potter, but no self respecting bookstore will be out of it. "The Lightning Thief" is an adventure for kids in the mid grades by Rick Riordan -- a boy with ADD turns out to be the son of the sea god Poseidon.
For the picture-book crowd, there is the hilarious "The Problem With Chickens" by Bruce McMillan and illustrated by Gunnella. How wonderful that so many good writers are doing children's books. Carl Hiaasen's new one is "Flush," and it is truly good enough for "all ages."
Finally, a classic picture book, "D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths," by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire, has been reissued, and it's a companion to their book of Greek myths.