The xoJane Holiday Book Guide: 29 Literary Gifts for the Book Lover in Your Life

Plus, The Penguin Hotline is now offering personalized book gift ideas to callers!
Publish date:
December 3, 2014
presents, shoppables, books, holiday gifts, reading, s.e.'s bookshelf, gifts, readers

The holidays are upon us, and the book nerds are growing restless. We've got you covered.

1) Cookbooks! The classic holiday gift, advisably given before the holidays to prompt your family members to cook something that is not terrible.

"Saveur: The New Classics Cookbook" (The Editors of Saveur Magazine) At $45, this book's price is no sneeze. It's also heavy as all get-out, although it's well-weighted so the pages actually stay open. (Isn't it annoying when you're stuck balancing heavy on a cookbook to keep it open so you can use it, because you feel guilty about the thought of breaking the spine so it will stop snapping shut at crucial moments?) Despite these drawbacks, it's a kitchen must-have.

The "Joy of Cooking" and "How to Cook Everything" (including the vegetarian version) are really great kitchen staples, especially for new cooks, but this one ups the bar. It has tons of amazing recipes, plus smart, sassy, and sometimes really hilarious commentary.

For more light-hearted cooks or those who want simple, easy recipes (or help figuring out what to eat after a long day), there's the fantastic "What the F*@# Should I Make for Dinner?" You can also hand out "What the F*@# Should I Drink?" to your boozy friends. Both are great, and they come at lower price points than the above cookbooks, so you're not going to break the bank.

2) Books about dead people! OK, so this one might seem counterintuitive, but as we know, I love dead people, so I couldn't resist including these. If you know someone who shares an interest in the macabre, or dead people, or smart, incisive takes on the dead, hook 'em up this holiday season.

"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (Caitlin Doughty) is an xoJane favorite, and with good reason. It's a great discussion of working in a real-life crematorium, but also of how we deal with death, dying, and the great beyond. This one bridges the divide between memoir (so overblown, right?) and amazing cultural examination. If you're intrigued by Caitlin Doughty's life and times, she also runs the Order of the Good Death, which has a ton of really fascinating and informative posts on a variety of death-related topics including the history and anthropology of death...while also empowering people to care for their own dead.

So awkward when a head turns up in your lost and found. Turns up that, as documented in "Severed," heads show up in the darndest places. In a text that manages to be informative but still accessible, Frances Larson takes on the history of taking and preserving various body parts, most notably heads, and also plunges into subjects like colonialism, repatriation, and even sainthood. Good times. For something a little less heavy, check out "Rest in Pieces," a chronicle of the strange fates of famous decedents.

3. Books with queens in them! I swear I did this by accident, but while I was compiling recommendations for adult fiction, I realized that two of my recommendations included queens in their titles, so I thought they deserved their own category. There's "Queen of the Tearling," the first in Erika Johansen's Queen of the Tearling Series, which surrounds the life of a sheltered princess finally called upon to enter the world. She's grown up in, and expected to take charge of, a nation torn apart by civil war, evil, and magic. So, basically, Tuesday.

"Queen of the Dark Things," the sequel to "Dreams and Shadows," is a really smart, atmospheric entry into the fantasy genre. C. Robert Cargill is a screenwriter and film critic, and it shows in the pages of this book, which has an almost cinematic quality and scope. Don't let the genre put you off; this book is intensely literary and totally devourable.

4. Fiction! "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" is basically going to punch the reader in the face. I don't really like recommending softpedaled or pedestrian literary fiction at any time of year, let alone the holidays -- winter alone is not an excuse to soften up on readers. This book chronicles the experiences of an Australian surgeon in a Japanese POW camp in the Second World War, haunted by the deeds of his past. It will make you feel very uncomfortable. It also won the Man Booker Prize, so apparently other people think it's pretty good.

"Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute." I love this totally bizarre, quixotic series from Jonathan L. Howard about a necromancer, his vampire brother, and their series of utterly baroque adventures. Don't let the fantastical elements trick you into thinking this is another cheap bid at capitalizing on fantasy trends. This whole series is dark, morbid, and hilarious. While this is the most recent in the series, it's worth checking out the earlier books, too.

"The Weirdness" is, as the title advertises, weird. Really weird. It's a bit of a Faustian tale, but it's a whole lot funnier, and it has this note of surreality that leaves you kind of dizzied by the whole experience. It's basically awesome. And speaking of weird books, "The Supernatural Enhancements" will definitely appeal to anyone who likes layered stories, puzzles, smart mysteries, cryptography, and good books. I am thinking of buying a case of it for my friends, since most of them fit these categories. In the story, A. inherits a mysterious and probably haunted mansion...and it all goes downhill from there.

5. Children! "The Day the Crayons Quit" is proving hugely popular, and I can see why; it has a pretty sweet premise. I'm all about revolts of the proletariat, even when crayons are standing in for the proletariat and a kid is the bourgeoisie. For a beautifully illustrated picture book told from a variety of perspectives, "Audrey (Cow)" is definitely something to add to the shelves.

I also have to give a shoutout to two of my favorite picture books ever, both sadly out of print...but worth tracking down if you can find them. "The Cat Who Liked Potato Soup" is a really beautiful and kind of sad (what is up with picture books and being sad) story about a cat who, well, likes potato soup. "The Wuggie Norple Story," published in 1988, is fantastic...and also extremely expensive these days, so save it for a kid you actually like.

"The Boundless" is great for kids who are outgrowing "The Polar Express." It's a classic train mystery for middle grade readers with tons of adventure and totally smart characters. If you don't like train mysteries, I don't even want to talk to you. For the little girls in your life with big dreams, "All Four Stars," about a rad 11-year-old food critic, is totally the way to go. Plus, her name is Gladys Gatsby. Need I say more?

6. Young adults! "Stitching Snow," a Snow White retelling by R.C. Lewis, is amazing. Think Snow White as scrappy mechanic on an isolated ice planet, an evil stepmother who's extra evil, a prince who's not so simple, and a surprise twist that will punch you in the gut when you don't expect it.

Readers who enjoyed "Illusive" may also get a kick out of "The Young Elites," a fantasy in which some people infected with a virus recover with certain...special traits. Malfettos, as they're known, are feared and hated by society, and Adelina is no different, but just as she thinks she's found safety, she faces betrayal...

"Brown Girl Dreaming," which, as we may recall, just won a National Book Award, has managed to transcend my usual tepid response to poetry. Using verse, Woodson tells the story of her childhood and how her dreams manifested themselves into reality.

7. Book gear! The Kobo, my ereader of choice, has a lineup of products, but the Kobo Aura HD is really fantastic, with a focus on, well, reading, not doing a bunch of other stuff. If someone wants a tablet, great. If she wants to read books, give her a Kobo. I use a mini for traveling and love it -- and here are some tips on making your Kobo even more awesome (including instructions on sideloading).

Remember how we talked about cookbooks above? I love this cookbook stand, which can take the weight and heft of even seriously big cookbooks. Better yet, it has a Lucite panel that swings over the pages to protect them from kitchen spatters and more. If, like me, you like to keep your cookbooks close while you work, but hate seeing the pages messed up, this is a great solution!

Tees, sweatshirts, and more. Out of Print stocks a really great array of gear with classic book covers and more printed on it. I can vouch for the softness and quality of their tees, their sweatshirts are warm and cozy, and they make things in a ton of cuts and styles. Unfortunately, they don't carry larger sizes (I have complained! So can you!). Fortunately, for every item sold, they donate a book to a community in need; if you have a book lover who also loves charitable donations, you can kill two birds with one stone!

Tote your books in style with the Fuck You Bat. I like my book totes to make a statement, don't you? Ask nicely and they'll hook you up with different colors and fabrics.

I know. We didn't cover everything on this list. The comments are a great place to recommend books (and solicit recommendations), but it's worth hitting up your local independent bookstore this season too; not only is it a great place to buy books (indies sell ebooks and ship, too!), but it's a fantastic place to get personalized recommendations. Booksellers are very knowledgeable about their stock and they want to help.

Many indie booksellers also have programs for getting books into the hands of young readers in low-income communities every holiday season, like the Gallery Bookshop's Book Angel program and Oblong Books' Book Angel Project. If your store doesn't offer a community gift program, consider donating to a store that does; staffers will hand-select books using donated funds!

If you're in an emergency situation, hit up The Penguin Hotline. Don't be fooled -- though Penguin's running the hotline, they're equal opportunity recommenders, and they won't limit their advice to Penguin titles. Fill out a little information about the person you're choosing a gift for and wait for recommendations to arrive like magic in your inbox! (Note: The staff at Penguin really are hand-recommending books, so it may take a couple days, and I recommend that you get this done early so you have plenty of time for book buying.)