Recommended Reading: 5 Books for Excellent Last-Minute Gifts

Tis the season for end-of-year best-of lists, and while I’m quite happy to endorse many of the critic’s favorites this year, it may be that you don’t know your last-minute giftees quite well enough to give them A Little Life or Fates and Furies or The Wake (excellent, but . . .).

Herewith, in no particular order, five  2015 releases sure to please:

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Patricia Park, Re Jane: A modern take on perennial favorite Jane Eyre, this smart, funny novel is a must-read for any fans of Charlotte Brontë and modern retellings on your list.

Kathleen Jamie, The Overhaul: For the poetry fan who hasn’t read this Scottish poet and who craves a well-turned image and a gorgeous landscape. (Check out “The Whales,” part of which I have tattooed.)

Anthony Marra, The Tsar of Love and Techno: For anyone who loved A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, aficionados of the short story, or anyone who wants to be transported to a different time and place. (Bonus pick for fiction aficionados: Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal)

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk: For anyone who hasn’t read this year’s must-read memoir yet, a gripping blend of writing about grief, literature, and goshawks. (Bonus memoir recommendation: Hold Still, by Sally Mann)

Sarai Walker, Dietland: For feminists, proto-feminists, and anyone who is utterly exhausted by the fat-shaming and the dreaded “have you lost weight?” questions (twins, aren’t they?) that always seem worse around the holidays.

And you, Dear Readers? What are your last-minute book recommendations?

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Recommended Reading: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

I read this book in the best company: my new niece's.

I read this book in the best company: my new niece’s.

Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, was so breathtaking that I felt sincere trepidation when his new collection of short stories, The Tsar of Love and Techno*, arrived in the mail.

I shouldn’t have.

These linked stories, though they don’t swell with the emotional buildup made possible by the length of the novel, are nonetheless beautifully constructed, achingly sad, grimly funny. If A Constellation of Vital Phenomena had me sobbing, The Tsar of Love and Techno made a lump rise in my throat more than once (and to be fair, the former’s depiction of torture made me ill, and this book made me only faintly queasy in comparison).

Again, Mr. Marra finds his subjects in violence-torn Chechnya, where a placid hillside depicted in a minor nineteenth-century painting is a touchstone that winks in and out of nearly a century of darkness in St. Petersburg (and its other names), Siberia, and Grozny.

The stories begin in 1937, when a prolific censor begins painting his brother into each work he “corrects,” and then they expand outward in time and space. We meet the beautiful granddaughter of an exiled ballerina, the bereft self-appointed curator of a Chechen art museum, two young brothers on the edge of a chemical-swollen manmade lake, a boy thinking about getting himself arrested so he won’t be drafted, a middle-aged woman desperate to connect with her daughter and make sense of a daunting half century of change.

The level of detail in the stories is exquisite, the settings unforgettable (a wolf-haunted forest of fake trees, a mine-strewn hillside, piles of rubble that used to be apartments) and the characterization unfolds from tale to tale with great skill. Each story could stand alone, but one or two later you’ll find a character is more nuanced than when you first read about him or her. Sometimes all it takes is a sentence: “she had long ago learned to ignore her largest moral failures by attending to the smallest social proprieties” (233).

It’s a testament to the brilliance of this book that Mr. Marra shows the sheer terror of Stalinism and the icy cruelty of Putin’s oligarchy and yet still finds a way to convey humor and even a little beauty (besides that in the writing, which is extensive), and the human, individual mystery that sends the same man almost mad with a longing for home, and then the implacable determination to return to war.

The Tsar of Love and Techno is a marvelous book. Highly recommended.

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

If I hadn’t read the jacket copy, I would have assumed A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the work of an accomplished, many-times-published novelist. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

But it’s Anthony Marra’s first novel, and when you read it, you’re going to weep, not just because there’s no way that should be possible, but because the story is so moving and so perfectly told, a gut-wrenching exploration of two Chechen wars, history, family, and the significance of place.

Eight-year-old Havaa’s father, Dokka, is disappeared by Russian forces in the middle of the night. Their neighbor Akhmed (like Dokka and Havaa, an ethnic Chechen) finds Havaa in the woods the next morning, and (rightly) fearing for her safety, takes her to the last doctor in the only hospital in the neighboring city, an ethnic Russian named Sonja. Sonja is processing her own trauma — the disappearance of her sister, Natasha. Over the course of the novel, the threads connecting all the principal characters — Dokka, Havaa, Akhmed, Sonja, Natasha, and Dokka’s betrayer and the betrayer’s father — slowly reveal themselves, forming a web more complicated and more harrowing than any of the characters understand.

The narrative jumps back and forward over a period of ten years, but the tendrils of connection reach back into Soviet Russia and forward into a future that’s not yet known. Tangential sequences that reveal information about secondary characters were masterful; the level of detail, the attentiveness to the minutiae of human survival, are impeccable.

I could write about this book for pages and pages, but I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s sense of discovery. It’s a December book, in that it will make you feel grateful for whatever and whomever you have to wrap around you.

*Be forewarned: there are torture scenes that made me physically ill, and I have a strong stomach.