He's made his list and checked it twice: Critic Alan Cheuse recommends the best books to give as gifts in 2011. This year, it's mostly fiction — books that will light up dark winter nights with warm stories, large characters and beautiful language.
The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston
This intensely visual coming-of-age novel is made up of scraps of another age — 1920s diary entries, mementos, notes and memories. This hybrid between a conventional novel and a graphic novel tells the story of a young New England woman who takes a daring solo trip to New York City, Paris and back again — and discovers her talent for writing.
Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea
Queen of America is the sequel to the fiery story Urrea began in his 2005 novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter. It's about an ancestor of his — Teresita Urrea, a miracle-working Yaqui Indian woman from northern Mexico who changes the political course of her home country and then emigrates to the U.S.
The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb
Artist R. Crumb's collection of album covers — his jazzy and bluesy interpretations of the music of an era — is a neat gift for anyone who remembers the '60s.
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. The holiday shopping season is upon us and for those of you with avid readers on your lists, never fear. Our book Santa, Alan Cheuse, has once again put together his annual winter short list of top reading recommendations. And this time around, it's a whole lot of fiction.
ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: I've been building this mound of novels that I want to recommend to you. A novel about an escaped tiger from a Balkan zoo. About a wonder boy of a shortstop. A novel about a Mexican healer traveling through the U.S. at the turn of the century. A book about a woman's life in words and images.
All of this fiction that lights up the dark and warms us by the fire of great stories and large characters and beautiful language.
CAROLINE PRESTON: (reading) Frances Pratt, personal information. Nickname, Frankie. Hate Frances. Birthday, September 5th, 1902. Address, Cornish Flat, New Hampshire.
CHEUSE: So what's this? Scraps of another age, diary entries, mementos, notes, memories, scraps that make up a large part of the pages in an intensely visual coming of age novel set in the 1920s. Writer Caroline Preston calls her work "The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt" and it's a hybrid, something between a conventional novel and a graphic novel.
Preston tells the story of a young New England woman who throws over convention, takes a daring solo trip to New York, then to Paris, then back to New York and discovers her talent for writing.
PRESTON: (reading) I arrive in New York City. Two days after graduation, I roll into Grand Central Station, check my suitcases and typewriter with a red-cap and buy a guide book at the newsstand. Edna St. Vincent Millay told me Greenwich Village was the only place for an artist to live.
So how do you start to seek your fortune? Here is my to-do list. One, find way around New York City. Two, figure out subway and buses. Three, find place to live. Four, open bank account. Five, find job. Six, write novel. Seven, get novel published. Eight, find the love of my life.
CHEUSE: Novelist Caroline Preston. Her book is "The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt."
Now, enter Tijuana-born Chicago novelist Luis Alberto Urrea, bearing the gift of his latest novel, "Queen of America," the sequel to the fiery story he began in his 2005 novel, "The Hummingbird's Daughter." It's about an ancestress of his, Teresita Urrea, a miracle-working Yaqui Indian woman from northern Mexico who changes the political course of her home country and then emigrates to the U.S.
Teresita Urrea, looking for love and protected by her larger-than-life father.
LUIS ALBERTO URREA: (reading) Here came Don Tomas Urrea to the dance, riding his finest black stallion. He was dressed all in black. His pants had silver conchos up the outside seams and he wore twin pistolas, butt out, in a holster so he could cross-draw in case he needed to shoot anyone.
(reading) He had named the horse Caballito Urrea and apparently was going to name all of his animals after himself, for there was Caballito Urrea. There was a bull known as El Toro Urrea. They even had a green parrot named Periquito Urrea, who spent his days in his cage yelling, Periquito, Periquito, Periquito all day, which made people think he was either an egomaniac or thought they, too, were parrots.
CHEUSE: Now, from charming parrots to a more dangerous beast in "The Tiger's Wife" by first time novelist, Tea Obreht. "The Tiger's Wife," nominated for one of this year's National Book Awards, the book takes us to the Balkans during difficult post-war days.
A young medical student deeply influenced by her physician grandfather treks through the mountains to find the truth of his life and shed some light on her own. A tiger sets everything in motion. The recollection of a tiger in the Balkans zoo shown to her in childhood by her grandfather, a tiger that's the sign of all the wild part of life, good and bad, a tiger that stalks its way through the novel.
TEA OBREHT: (reading) All day long, the tiger walked up and down the length of the ridge letting the smells drift up to him, puzzled by the feeling that they weren't entirely new. He had not forgotten his time at the Citadel Zoo, but his memory was heavily veiled by his final days there and the days afterward, his arduous trek, burrs and splinters and glass stinging his paws, the dense, watery taste of the bloated dead.
By now, he had only an indistinct sense in another layer of his mind that, long, long ago, someone had thrown him fresh meat twice a day and sprayed him with water when the heat grew too unbearable.
CHEUSE: Tea Obreht reading from her novel, "The Tiger's Wife."
Another major league first novel, "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach, a former amateur shortstop himself who's written one of those stories that appears on the surface to be about Midwestern college baseball and blossoms into a book about vocation, big dreams, love, with a cast of wonderful characters, ball players, a college president, friends and lovers, all of them trying to find their way in a world bordering on deep confusion.
It all begins with a skinny, young shortstop named Henry Scrimshander and a glove called Zero, as the kid tries out for a spot on a team for which he seems to have no chance at all.
CHAD HARBACH: (reading) Bold nowhere else in his life, Henry was bold in this. No matter what the coach said or what his eyebrows expressed, he would jog out to shortstop, pop his fist into Zero's pocket and wait. If the coach shouted at him to go to second base or right field or home to his mommy, he would keep standing there, blinking and dumb, popping his fist.
(reading) Finally, someone would hit him a grounder and he would show what he could do. What he could do was field. He'd spent his life studying the way the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so that he knew in advance whether he should break right or left, whether the ball that came at him would bound up high or skid low to the dirt. He caught the ball cleanly always and made, always, a perfect throw.
CHEUSE: What Chad Harbach can do is write a beautiful, delightful, deeply moving novel, "The Art of Fielding."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF MY HEART")
JANIS JOPLIN: (Singing) Come on, come on, come on.
CHEUSE: And, finally, some musical images. Artist R. Crumb's collection of album covers, his jazzy and bluesy interpretation of an entire era, "The Complete Cover Collection," it's called. A neat gift for anyone who remembers the '60s or wants to stir things up for the sake of a celebratory dance right now. Feel it, get up on your feet and move. I'm on my feet wishing you an R. Crumby Christmas, Hanukkah, wishing you a New Year bright as all words and music.
BLOCK: Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He recommended "The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt" by Caroline Preston, "Queen of America" by Luis Urrea, "The Tiger's Wife" by Tea Obreht, and "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach, all novels. Also, "The Complete Cover Collection" by R. Crumb.
You'll find more on these books and other year-end recommendations from Alan at NPRBooks.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF MY HEART")
JOPLIN: (Singing) Baby, you know you got it. Whoa, take it. Take another little piece of my heart now, baby. Take it. Take another little bit of my heart now, darling. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Power. Take another little piece of my heart now, baby. You know you got it if it makes you feel good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.