2020 Christmas books: presents for myself

You get to a certain age when you buy for yourself during the holidays. It’s especially true if you’re a serious reader who often desires books that are off the beaten path. I’m referring to those books that aren’t in the current top-ten reading cycle of end-of-year lists and never are by fact of their obscurity, or the ones you’ve been meaning to read for eons that are now classics. Santa can’t always be trusted to deliver.

It’s not like I don’t buy for myself throughout the year, rather that Christmas silences the responsible inner voice that’s well aware — and judgmental — of my burgeoning bookcases and gives permission for joyful purchasing, guilt-free. This year, the shushing came at the same time I received notice of a sale happening at New York Review Books. Below you’ll find my delights from that sale — and by them, I send good wishes to all readers, that they find their own bookish delights under the tree on December 25, one way or another.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner was originally published in 1926, her first novel, and the first ever Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, according to her biography in this NYRB Classics edition. It’s the story of a woman’s struggle to break away from her controlling family. Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk, one of my all-time favorite memoirs, says this about Warner’s early 20th century novel: “It tells the story of a woman who rejects the life that society has fixed for her in favor of freedom and the most unexpected of alliances. It completely blindsided me: Starting as a straightforward, albeit beautifully written family saga, it tips suddenly into extraordinary, lucid wildness.”

In November, NYRB released Stories I Forgot to Tell You, Dorothy Gallagher’s moving essays-as-memoir about life with, and without, her late husband Ben Sonnenberg. A few months before, I had thought of buying Ben Sonnenberg’s Lost Property. After reading Gallagher’s Stories, it became not just a want but a must; I knew I had to have it. Lost Property is described as “a book of memoirs and confessions…a tale of youthful riot and rebellion.” According to the book’s description, Ben Sonnenberg grew up in family of New York City privilege and wealth. Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda says the book is “darting, anecdotal, slightly bemused, possessing a lilting irony that makes for compulsive readability.”

Notting Hill Editions is an independent publisher in the United Kingdom devoted to the art of the essay. It publishes “beautiful books by the most surprising thinkers of past and present.” I’m not new to Notting Hill — I fell for the Editions when I read My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty Gunn and Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf. These pocket-size books invite and seduce with their designs, presentations and topics. They are indisputably unique treasures and narratives. New York Review Books is their distributor in the U.S., which is where I came upon Found and Lost: Mittens, Miep, and Shovelfuls of Dirt by Alison Leslie Gold, a memoir told in letters. I selected it out of curiosity from the description: “…Gold charts the origin of her need to save objects, stories, and people (including herself) whom she has sensed to be on a road to perdition.” And then, there’s the intriguing quote on the front of the book.

Four years ago, I reviewed Volker Weidmann’s marvelous book Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark, about the friendship between the two 20th century Austrian authors. Ever since, I’ve been intrigued by their lives and their literature. Not surprising then that Notting Hill’s Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth by Dennis Marks propelled itself into the shopping cart. From the back of the book: “Joseph Roth…was one of the most seductive, disturbing, and enigmatic writers of the twentieth century. …Dennis Marks makes a journey through the eastern borderlands of Europe to uncover the truth about Roth’s lost world.”

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