Top holiday gift picks in nonfiction, fiction and graphic novels.
Top picks in nonfiction, fiction and graphic novels:
Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, by Michael Kinsley, $18
Michael Kinsley owns what might be the most envied journalistic voice of his generation — skeptical, friendly, possessed of an almost Martian intelligence — and in this superb book he turns his sights to aging.
Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, $26
The television show “Seinfeld,” which ran from 1989 to 1998, was genuinely funny, dry as good vermouth, eminently quotable and — yada, yada, yada — here is a good book about it.
The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, $32
After Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” no one was quite sure, including the author himself, whether he had another book in him — at least not a work with such an impressive wingspan. It turns out he did, though, in the story of the gene, which starts with Gregor Mendel’s experiments with peas and concludes with the sci-fi prospect of customizing our own children.
The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th-Century Bookseller’s Obsession With a Lost Masterpiece, by Laura Cumming, $28
“We say that works of art can change our lives,” Laura Cumming writes in “The Vanishing Velázquez.” In the case of John Snare, this cliché became true in the most literal, consequential sense: A painting he purchased in 1845 made him famous, then broke, then itinerant, then utterly alone — all because he was convinced it was painted by Velázquez, rather than van Dyck. Part history, part mystery, part critical appreciation, this demented love story consumes the reader just as the painting did Snare. Dickens himself couldn’t have given him a better name.
Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler, $25
This novel about the New York City restaurant world (the author worked at Union Square Café) has the onrushing vibe of a culinary “Bright Lights, Big City.” It’s well observed and darker than many readers will expect.
The Adventurist, by J. Bradford Hipps, $26
This bright and big-souled book, set in a large Southern city, may put some readers in mind of Walker Percy’s classic novel “The Moviegoer.” It’s that relative rarity, a business novel that’s interested in what people get out of their work lives.
Scary Old Sex, by Arlene Heyman, $26
Rueful and funny and observant short stories about late-flowering lust. The author is a psychiatrist in New York City, and she nails her characters and their longings. Viagra, stretch marks, over-the-counter lubricants, strange moles: Oh, my.
The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie, $26
Some novelists can’t help it: Their eyes take in the world at a 30-degree angle; their ears pick up frequencies their fellow humans cannot hear. Elizabeth McKenzie, luckily for us, is one such writer, and her third novel makes a screwball comedy of truly unlikely stuff (including, but not limited to: consumerism, pragmatism, parental narcissism, premarital jitters, mental illness, Big Pharma). The result is a work of festive, life-affirming originality. It also happens to star a squirrel. Yeah, yeah, I know. But it works.
Grace, by Natashia Deón, $25
If ever a novel cried out to be a film, this debut by Natashia Deón is it. Naomi, a runaway slave shot dead just after giving birth, tells her story from beyond the grave, and it loops and swirls as gorgeously as a kite’s tail. We travel with her back and forth in time, across and back through the plantations of the South; an intense maternal love powers her forward, and an intense sense of identification keeps us with her every step of the way.
The Complete Peanuts: 1999 to 2000 and Comics and Stories, by Charles M. Schulz, $50
This two-volume gift box caps Fantagraphics’s epic project of reprinting all of Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” strips. The “1999 to 2000” volume collects Schulz’s last work, and even here, 50 years after “Peanuts” was born, his line is sure and lyrical, his voice insightful and gentle. Snoopy still lusts after Linus’ blanket, Peppermint Patty is school-clueless, Charlie Brown sighs and frowns. “Comics and Stories” is a miscellany of rare “Peanuts” art, including storybooks and advertising.
The Lost Work of Will Eisner, edited by Andrew Carl, Josh O’Neill and Chris Stevens, $25
Will Eisner, with Jack Kirby, established the visual vocabulary of action comic books. But what the reader gets here is Eisner, best known for the Spirit, honing his design ABC’s. These mid-1930s Eisner strips, “Uncle Otto” and “Harry Karry,” were unearthed from a trove of vintage printing plates and represent his earliest known cartooning. “Uncle Otto” is a pantomime strip in the tradition of “The Little King” by Otto Soglow, while “Harry Karry” is an adventure comic. Together, they’re a fascinating glimpse at the beginning of a pro’s career.
Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay, by Ben Katchor, $23
In his pining for a long-vanished New York, Ben Katchor is the Joseph Mitchell — that irreplaceable New Yorker scribe — of the graphic novel. With “Cheap Novelties” — in a beautifully produced 25th-anniversary edition — we again follow Julius Knipl, real estate photographer, as he stalks the city seeking the homely, the daily, the forgotten: cheap flophouses, human beasts of burden, weights to hold down towers of newspapers. Katchor’s distinctive line is wistful, his voice quiet, subtle — all the better to make the reader lean closer, to stop and stare as the past recedes.
The Vision, Vol. 1, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta, $18
It is rare to know that a comic book masterpiece is unfolding before your eyes, but that is what “The Vision” has delivered since it began last November. The creative team has mined the Vision’s past and moved him forward with a suburban setting and a new family, pet dog included. The story is exquisitely melancholic and taut. It evokes the films “American Beauty” and “Ordinary People,” but with even more self-destruction.
Kaijumax: Season 1, by Zander Cannon, $10
Godzilla doing time in HBO’s “Oz” is catchy shorthand, but it does not fully capture this comic. While the initial hook is Kaiju (Japanese for strange beasts) in prison, the story includes the guards and life on the outside. (It’s hard out there for ex-con monsters.) The cartoony art is the ultimate sucker punch: Some of the creatures are cute and start to tug at your sympathies — despite their sometimes reprehensible actions.