If your holiday shopping list includes someone who loves to read, here are four widely varied books, all of them great reads -- accessible, smart, and stylishly written -- that should be welcome gifts.
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 496 pages, $30). Louis Armstrong's newest biographer, Terry Teachout, is a perceptive, compelling writer. In Pops (Armstrong's preferred nickname, rather than the press-created "Satchmo"), he challenges the so-called jazz purists who have often held Armstrong's vast popularity against him, as well as those who criticized his onstage clowning as Uncle Tom-ish. Teachout surveys Armstrong's life, music, writings, and a previously inaccessible collection of 650 revealing, personal tape recordings, producing a rounded portrait of not just a groundbreaking musician, but an inspiring man.
Most music historians agree that Armstrong was the single most influential American musician of the 20th century -- which is saying a lot, considering American music's influence on world culture. He brought innovations that marked the end of an old, more formal American musical era, and the beginnings of a new one that continues to this day -- faster, fun, freely improvisational, and marked by individual members of bands stepping up as soloists or stars -- something we take completely for granted today.
Teachout also makes it crystal clear that Pops was nobody's racial patsy. Armstrong was acutely aware of the racial and social realities of his era -- how could he not be, growing up dirt-poor in New Orleans and making his name in Chicago in the 1920s? -- and caused a stir when, in 1957, he called Pres. Eisenhower "gutless" for at first refusing to enforce school integration in Little Rock, Ark. Teachout argues very convincingly that Pops' ebullient, smiling personality, far from being "subservient," was a mark of the man's inner strength, and of his lifelong refusal to let life's blows and injustices diminish his joy in life.
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert (Scribner, 256 pages, $24). Former National Book Award nominee Walbert's A Short History of Women is a cleverly composed string of chronologically mixed chapters. Her writing is crisp, striking and gorgeous, while her protagonists -- female members of the Townsend family, over a period of nearly 100 years -- pass along insights into how modern women have fared in their quests for more freedom. From Dorothy Townsend, an early-20th century British suffragist, to her scientist daughter who comes to America, to an activist niece who's arrested for her politics in 2003, and the activist's daughters, straining to find themselves within a bland, conventional life, Walbert shows the ways women have been, and are, held back, or their influence checked -- and the often subtle ways they've used to find meaning despite the odds.
Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding (Bloomsbury USA, 272 pages, $25). Reding lived in Oelwein, Iowa in order to produce this three-dimensional, empathetic, at times harrowing portrait of a part of America most of us never see. Oelwein, population 6,000, is one of the small American towns devastated by job losses in the past decade. As in many other small towns, after the economic catastrophe came another disaster: a crystal meth epidemic. Reding's firsthand reporting captures the complex ways in which meth became the community's moneymaker, and its destroyer. Characters include a meth addict who blew up his mom's house while cooking up a batch; a doctor whose moving observations are key to the author's understanding; and a woman who spent her teen years building not one, but two money-making meth empires. Reding's accounts of personal encounters with and around meth heads and their friends are riveting, as is his overall picture of what is happening to many small American towns.
The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips (Random House, 272 pages, $25). Making music, or creating art of any kind, is a great subject for a novel, and Phillips lives up to it. Julian Donahue, an older man who creates commercials, becomes enthralled by a young singer, Cait O'Dwyer, and finds himself uncontrollably driven to be her muse. They engage in an odd, indirect courtship (they never meet) that explores, and blurs, the lines between creator and inspiration, musician and fan -- and honors the saving role that art, specifically music, can play in people's lives. Phillips' writing is witty and showy, but precise. One of the more captivating novels of the year.