Throughout the holiday season, we’re gathering books that make the perfect gifts for everyone on your list—from your mother and the teen in your life to your foodie friend and the coworker who loves Harry Potter. Need more ideas? Check out all of our amazing gift guides!
When I was little, I used to present my ever-so-indulgent mother with garish, puffy-sticker embellished bookmarks on Christmas morning. Now that I’m older, and I have slightly more than a nickel-stuffed piggy bank to my name, I get her real books. Sure, I could always freshen her wardrobe, or get her the latest small appliance—and sometimes I do!—but gifting her with a book signifies two important things: 1) I’ve taken note of all of her historical/biographical/literary/Deep South cooking interests, and 2) I want her to have the gift of several hours’ relaxation and escape. The 12 books below are good choices for the mom (like mine) who, after the stockings are emptied, just wants to put her feet up (and send Dad on an eggnog run).
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
The latest short story collection from the masterful Munro, 2013 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is a tender (and characteristically understated) evocation of all of life’s most vulnerable moments. Additionally, it’s in this collection, her 14th, that Munro has found a home for her own stories, claiming the final four of the collection to be “the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” In her trademark style, Munro crafts each story with just a whiff of plot, giving Mom a series of poignant narratives—ranging from bittersweet to absolutely heart-wrenching—to reflect upon long after she’s finished reading.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, by Jill Lepore
This fascinating double biography from acclaimed historian Jill Lepore illuminates the life of Jane Franklin Mecom, the constant correspondent, confidante, and beloved younger sister of Benjamin Franklin. By weaving together recently discovered letters, portraits, and other supporting artifacts from a diminutive, hand-stitched “Book of Ages,” in which Jane recorded the births and deaths of her 10 children, Lepore brings to life the previously unknown “Jenny,” provides a unique perspective on the remarkable “Benny,” and offers a historical backdrop of considerable depth. While Lepore admits that “the facts of Jane Franklin’s life are hard to come by,” explaining that “[Jane’s] obscurity is matched only by her brother’s fame,” she creates a portrait of colonial America rendered in vivid, painstaking detail, and in her effort to write Jane’s “unwritten story,” brings to the forefront Jane’s daily struggles within the confines of a patriarchal society.
The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan
In her first novel since 2005, Tan examines complicated mother-daughter relationships in this sweeping epic chronicling three generations of repeatedly tested women who endure. The multilayered narrative transports readers from the gilt parlors of Shanghai courtesans to a remote village in China, and on to San Francisco at the turn of the 18th century. As in Tan’s previous novels, her knowledge of Chinese customs and history, humor, and adroit handling of complex characters and relationships creates an engrossing, rewarding read for Tan fans—like your mom!—everywhere.
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
In her latest novel, a family saga spanning generations and continents, Lahiri maintains her reputation as a consummate storyteller and a creator of works of immense beauty and depth. When the book opens, Subhash and Udayan are brothers growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s. Though inseparable, they are opposites on the precipice of vastly different fates. Where Subhash is cautious and dutiful, Udayan is impulsive and strong-willed, but they’re nonetheless devoted to each other. Subhash reflects that “he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there.” Theirs is a deceptively simple, spellbinding tale of suspense, passion, and familial love and obligation, with fluid dialogue and lyrical prose that elevate it to a modern masterpiece.
Someone: A Novel, by Alice McDermott
National Book Award winner McDermott’s first book in seven years is haunting and powerful—a dazzling and complete portrait of a woman’s life. Surprisingly compact, Someone is full of startling encounters and seemingly simple exchanges between main character Marie and memorable neighbors, family members, and suitors. McDermott steadily, deftly builds momentum with her straightforward prose and fully realized scenes of drama, joy, confusion, and pain. Ultimately, Someone is for everyone.
Songs of Willow Frost: A Novel, by Jamie Ford
The latest novel from the beloved author of Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a compassionate story of the enduring love between mother and son, and provides a rare glimpse into the Depression-era child welfare system, as well as Seattle’s Chinatown at the turn of the century. At the center of the narrative is William Eng, a 12-year-old boy who has lived for 5 years at the Sacred Heart Orphanage under Mother Angelini’s formidable, sporadically compassionate care. As he struggles to accept the reality of his mother’s demise (the details of which are scarce), William attends a movie as part of an orphanage-wide birthday celebration. There he becomes convinced that the singer on screen, Willow Frost, is his mother. Driven by the tantalizing promise of redemption, William subsequently embarks on a quest for truth—and his mother—remaining unflappable amid crippling setbacks and unspeakable revelations. Full of heart, as well as twists and turns, Songs of Willow Frost is a satisfying, well-researched page-turner.
The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
Allow your mother to immerse herself in this sweeping, expertly observed novel, praised by fans, critics, and another generational novelist of considerable note, Jeffrey Eugenides. In a haze of youthful fervor and artistic inspiration, six friends at the Spirit-In-The-Woods camp dub themselves “The Interestings,” and Wolitzer, who spends much of her time looking at one friend in particular, Jules‚ does the tricky work of charting the progress of each member of the group through the trials of adulthood and 40 years of their oft-challenged bond. Bringing into focus scenes of artistic fulfillment for some, disenchantment and middle-aged boredom for others, Wolitzer creates a mesmerizing story that demonstrates, in straightforward, powerful language, how money, status, and envy can bring into question the long-term viability of successful lives and relationships.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
The protagonist, 13-year-old Joe Coutts, narrates this coming-of-age novel, which juxtaposes the modern vernacular of an assimilated Native American youth with the myths surrounding his reservation, and the oral tradition espoused by his grandfather “Mooshum.” Joe tells his story in retrospect, looking back on the events that unfolded the summer before his eighth-grade year, marked by a violent attack on Joe’s mother and its harrowing aftermath. The Round House is both a fierce referendum on the position of Native Americans in society—and the laws protecting reservations—and a sympathetic portrait of Joe, who, in his frantic efforts to piece together his shattered family, is torn between concurrent desires to grow up or return, comfortingly, to a time of innocence.
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan
In this fascinating account, Kiernan pieces together the stories of several women, now in their eighties and nineties, who were lured to Oak Ridge, TN, at the end of World War II by the promise of good jobs, wages, and living conditions. They worked in ominous factories, remaining in the dark as to what they were working on until the secret of the factories was revealed. Kiernan’s Untold Story covers a period of our national history that is highly controversial, and she does it on behalf of the women who, by consequence of completing this secretive work for the U.S. government, became unwitting, invaluable assets in winning the war.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Just think of British mystery novelist Kate Atkinson’s wildly imaginative, colossal undertaking Life After Life as a Choose Your Own Adventure (And Subsequent Demise) novel. A darkly comic narrative follows heroine Ursula Todd as she features in several significant historical events—and abruptly dies many deaths—throughout the 20th century, starting with her death on the night in 1910 when she is born. The chronological shifts are rapid, so chapters denoting the month and year are helpful. It’s an unforgettable read.
The Eternal Wonder, by Pearl Buck
Written in 1973, this recently discovered manuscript from a novelist your mom likely treasures is a captivating coming-of-age and love story. More passionate than her earlier works, The Eternal Wonder follows ingenue Randolph Colfax (Rann) from New York to London, Paris, and Korea, and tells the story of his love affair with a Chinese girl—an intellectual equal—who lives in Paris with her father. Written at the end of her life, the novel is an intimate evocation of the themes Buck held dear in her final days.
We Are Water, by Wally Lamb
This year, give your mom the gift of reading about a family more dysfunctional than your own. Lamb, whose tinsel-wrapped tomes rarely disappoint in my household, tells the story of the Oh family in his latest novel. Alternating between the voices of all five members of the family (Annie, an artist and mother of three, who is divorcing her husband after nearly 30 years to enter into a same-sex marriage with her art dealer; Orion, Annie’s ex-husband and psychologist; and their children Ariane, Andrew, and Marissa), Lamb creates a brilliantly layered narrative and a touching and hopeful examination of family, loss, and modern American society.
Now that I’ve got you thinking, what books are on your mom’s list this year? Are there any I’ve missed?