Two weeks ago we looked at some out-of-the-ordinary coffeetable books that would make great holiday gifts. Here is a selection of some of the books we've reviewed this year (and one new pick) for the book lovers on your list.
• Burning Bright by Ron Rash (Ecco Press, $22.95). A wonderful short story collection from one of the Carolinas' genuinely great writers. Twelve stories set in or near the Appalachians, in eras from the Civil War to the present, deliver calm, sometimes dark visions of ordinary people struggling to find what's most important to them. Rash's muscular, precise, poetic writing, and his mastery of dialogue, make each of these stories hard to forget.
• Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture by Alice Echols (Norton, $26.95). In her insightful look at an often reviled music form, Echols argues very convincingly that the disco phenomenon sped up social changes in America, particularly for freedom-seeking women and gays. More than a treatise, the book also creates a widescreen picture of a pivotal era.
• Star Island by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf, $26.95). The master of satirical mysteries, hi mojo fully restored, produced his best novel in years. Singer Cherry Pye, a sub-Britney pop star, can't sing, remember lyrics or keep away from drugs and men. From that base, Hiaasen builds a picture of American pop culture filled with razor-like wit, outrageous situations, incredible characters, as always, and hilarious insights. And not to worry, Hiaasen gets in his usual wicked digs at developers.
• Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend by James S. Hirsch (Simon & Schuster, $30). One of the most complete baseball players of all time finally has a biography worthy of his talent. Mays helped launch an era of fast, aggressive play at a time when the public was still adjusting to the sport's integration. Mays was a hero with a prickly personality, and Hirsch's excellent bio portrays a three-dimensional, fully human, almost inhumanly skilled player whose faults were often ignored by those around him.
• Picara by Pat MacEnulty (Livingston Press, $16.95 paperback). This loosely autobiographical novel is the story of a teenaged girl finding herself by leaving a rough situation at home and moving in with her father and his new family. MacEnulty, who teaches at Johnson & Wales U., has a terrific, straightforward style and a sure touch when portraying her characters, who always come across as three-dimensional people with dreams of their own.
• Just Kids by Patti Smith (Ecco Press, $16, paperback). The National Book Award-winning memoir by the legendary rock singer/songwriter tells the tale of her deep friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe during their 20s, in the late '60s and '70s. It's a riveting look at two visionary artists at loose ends, finding themselves with each other's help in elegantly described New York City. Smith's writing is drop-dead gorgeous, tender and surprisingly "proper," but the descriptions of that explosive era's NYC underground is strong stuff.
• Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (Back Bay, $14.99 paperback). Urrea's old-fashioned, semi-satirical quest novel takes in the contemporary issues of immigration, poverty and race, with a light touch and a collection of wonderful characters. Nayelli, a taqueria worker in coastal Mexico, travels with friends to the U.S. on a quest to find her father and six other as-yet-unknown men to form a new version of The Magnificent Seven who she hopes will come back with her and rid her town of drug lords.
• Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas (Pantheon, $30). Born a preacher's daughter during the Great Depression in Tryon, N.C., Eunice Waymon grew up to become the fiery and famous Nina Simone, an enormously talented, and often very troubled, singer, songwriter and pianist. Brilliance, arrogance and eccentricity are often partners in the lives of talented artists, and Simone embodied all three, in droves. Her temperament cost her some fans and record industry support, but to most fans and critics, it only amplified her legend.