As with everything else, it's been a rough year in bookselling. Now that it's gift-giving time, is it better to select books that offer a certain amount of escapism or to select those that address the actual tenor of our times? How about if we simply agree to support local(ish) retailers and writers? Here are some titles to consider.
By Yaa Gyasi
288 pages; Alfred A. Knopf; $27.95
Former East Bay resident Yaa Gyasi follows up the success of her debut novel, Homegoing, with a tale of a Ghanaian family that moves to Alabama.
A sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Stanford, Gifty studies the neural pathways between addiction and depression in mice. She also has personal experience with both topics. Her older brother died of a heroin overdose, her father abandoned the family and now her mother is holed up in Gifty's apartment, grappling with depression while seeking a cure through prayer.
Gyasi's Homegoing alternated between two timelines and dealt with the legacies of slavery. Transcendent Kingdom also plays temporal tricks and shines a spotlight on racism and the immigrant experience. It is a narrative in a different mood, but powerfully absorbing.
'Meadowlark: A Novel'
By Melanie Abrams
240 pages; Little A; $24.95
Simrin and Arjun grew up in a spiritual compound in the desert. Decades after they escaped, Arjun sends Simrin an email that drags both back into their pasts. At a facility known as Meadowlark, Arjun has a new cadre of believers, and local law officers seem ready to intervene on behalf of resident children. With her five-year-old in tow, Simrin must decide whether she can still trust Arjn or whether she should pay more attention to his anxious spouse before the sheriff raids the community.
Meadowlark is a taut crime thriller that examines the effects of trauma. It's timely and compelling, rooted in deft character revelation, a good choice for when one wants a crime novel serious in intent but not needlessly dour.
'How Much of These Hills Is Gold: A Novel'
By C. Pam Zhang
288 pages; Riverhead; $26
For darker fiction, one might turn to How Much of These Hills Is Gold by San Francisco's C. Pam Zhang. The novel focuses on two Chinese orphans struggling to survive the most menacing aspects of the California Gold Rush. Carting their father's corpse around as they seek some kind of sustenance, Lucy and Sam are in almost constant physical danger. Their struggles reflect issues of genocide, identity and the myths of the Wild West.
The narrative may be daunting at times, but How Much of These Hills Is Gold rewards patience. With hints of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, it portrays a California at once strange, familiar and unforgiving.
'The Forests of California'
By Obi Kaufmann
640 pages; Heyday; $55
If you enjoy communing with nature, Oakland artist Obi Kaufmann's The Forests of California offers a unique way to know what you're looking at. Exquisitely designed with lavish water-color illustrations, this field guide presents a new way of understanding the outdoors.
A good choice for both casual hikers and dedicated explorers, The Forests of California reminds us how fragile these ecosystems are and why it is imperative to preserve them. Some of its entries feel inscrutable to the lay reader, but it's difficult not to be impressed by the level of artistry on display here.
'Why We Swim'
By Bonnie Tsui
288 pages; Algonquin; $26.95
In Why We Swim, Berkeley journalist Bonnie Tsui expounds on the pleasures and perils of water, from swimming pools to the open sea. A competitive swimmer herself, Tsui seems to instinctively understand the rhythms of liquids. Traveling around the globe from Iceland to the China Sea, she finds people and animals tuned to her aquatic channel.
Why We Swim is a strong recommendation for staying fit, even if it means diving into freezing water in the dark. Wide-ranging and passionate, Why We Swim inspires and informs, a gripping mix of memoir and reporting.
'Under the Red, White and Blue'
By Greil Marcus
176 pages; Yale University Press; $26
Rock critic extraordinaire Greil Marcus confronts the legacy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece in Under the Red, White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of "The Great Gatsby." The book dives deeply into the 1925 classic tale of aspiration, reinvention and the American Dream.
Berkeley resident Marcus connects Fitzgerald's slender novel to the hefty Moby-Dick, as well as to Philip Roth's The Human Stain and Raymond Chandler's and Ross Macdonald's hard-boiled potboilers. Gatsby has inspired filmmakers and musicians alike, from Jelly Roll Morton to Baz Lurhmann, and Marcus brings the full force of his critical acumen to bear on them.
For anyone who loves Gatsby or is simply interested in sharp-eyed literary and cultural criticism, Under the Red, White and Blue is an astute celebration of a beloved classic.