My friends and I gather for dinner at my house on Christmas Eve. Afterwards, we walk up the street to attend services at a neighborhood church. This gathering has become a beloved annual tradition, and part of that tradition is a book I specially select for each friend. Here are the ones I gave this year, and why.
Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison
This brought a whoop of joy when unwrapped, telling me I’d hit the mark, which is not always an easy thing to accomplish, even for a book critic with a wide, sweeping scope of available books. My friend is not only a successful entrepreneur but also an ordained minister, who’s very well read in all things spiritual. Nevertheless, even though this story has been told many times by great authors throughout the ages of literature, I thought this new take on it would interest her. The Boston Globe wrote this:
“What inspired Kathryn Harrison to suit up and step into this intimidating ring? Harrison offered this clue in a 2012 New York Times op-ed, ‘Joan of Arc: Enduring Power.’ The mythic heroine, who was burned at the stake, ‘was feverish in her determination to succeed at what was, by anyone’s measure, a preposterous mission,’ Harrison writes. ‘[She] defied every limitation placed on a woman of the late Middle Ages.’”
Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured is described as a weaving together of historical fact, myth, folklore, scripture, artistic representations and centuries of scholarly and critical interpretation.
Baking: 60 Sensational Treats You Can Pull Off in a Snap by the Editors of Food52
A departure from the stories I typically give, this selection came from my visit to Kitchen Arts & Letters, an inspiring, small bookstore between 93rd and 94th streets on Lexington Avenue in New York City. My friend who loves to bake, and brings the most delicious desserts to our friend gatherings, came to mind. So I asked the store clerk to help me make a selection for her: something different but easy, yet enticing for a knowledgeable baker. Baking is what he pulled from the shelf, a collection of recipes that fall under categories such as special occasion cakes, everyday cakes, custardy cakes and puddings, fruit desserts and savory baked goods, to name a few. They are from the Food52 editors who“believe that if you want to eat better, and you want to help change our food system, you need to cook. Maybe not all the time, but some.”
The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by Molly Peacock
I gave this book to a friend who came to the Christmas Eve dinner for the first time this year. I’m not sure she’s a reader, and I’m not even sure I selected well for her, but something drove me to pick Molly Peacock’s biography. It’s a gorgeously produced and moving story about an ordinary woman in the 18th century whose late-in-life artistic work is now in the British Museum. I wrote about it here on TLC in 2012, beginning with this:
“Imagine everything you’ve done in your life — all the activities you’ve pursued that didn’t seem to have any significance beyond daily life — evolving into your finest work at the end of your life: beautifully, miraculously, unbidden and without purpose. That is the story of Britain’s Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700 – 1788).”
My friend, in recent years, has courageously faced challenges in her work life that limited her ability to fully use her skills and expertise. She was patient and hopeful in a situation most people would allow to depress and defeat them. This true story seemed to be of my friend’s story, and so it came to mind as the perfect gift.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I was a little worried the friend I thought of for this book might already have discovered Elena Ferrante’s popular Neapolitan Series. She likes books about evolving relationships, and this is a perfect fit for her. Fortunately, it was a surprise. My Brilliant Friend is first in a four-novel series that has captured readers, including myself. It is the story of two best friends growing up in a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Italy. Together, they navigate the tough streets, but when it comes to school, Elena continues on into upper grades while Lila goes to work in her father’s shoe shop. Nevertheless, they remain closely tied to one another, yet their friendship struggles with their emerging individuality and independence. Below, in an earlier TLC blog post, you can read about the fourth and final book in the series that won critic’s attention this year.
The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith
This is another departure (a children’s book), and for a friend who would’ve been at the table but this year traveled during the holiday. Before she left, I gave her this gorgeous children’s book, described as a tale for all ages. It won Waterstones Book of the Year 2015 award, surpassing such popular novels as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, let alone Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life that was nominated for the Man Booker and National Book awards. Waterstones is the largest bookselling chain in the United Kingdom. The story is about a fox whose only friend is a star, which lights the fox’s way in life. One night, the star does not appear, and fox huddles, overcome with sadness, in his den until it’s time to search for his friend. “Have you seen my star?” he asks the trees in the forest. From the author, in The Guardian:
“’I was thinking about how in life, if you hold on to something too tightly, you lose it, so to love something you have to let it go, and I wrote the story around that. It relates to so many situations – everyone has suffered – and it came together for me with losing my mum at an early age,’ said Bickford-Smith. ‘Children seem to love the idea of the friends and the crazy illustrations, while adults like the concept of things being tough, but coming out the other side.’”
I selected The Fox and the Star for this friend because we’ve shared together the grief experience, her for a friend and me for my father. Author Coralie Bickford-Smith says inspiration for the book came from William Blake’s poem “Eternity” and from the designs of William Morris. Below is a page spread from the book.