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Santa Says, "Read, Dammit!"

Pages to put under the tree

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Here is a baker's dozen of some of our favorite books of the past year, any of which we feel would make a fine gift for the lit hound on your list. In addition to these hardbacks, we also highly recommend two novels now in paperback: White Teeth by Zadie Smith, one of the most remarkable young novelists to come along in years, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the Pulitzer Prize winner by Michael Chabon.

Fiction

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. The astonishing Carey, author of Oscar and Lucinda, puts himself in the place of notorious Australian Victorian-era bandit Ned Kelly and tells the complex, chilling, and hilarious story of his life as a rogue, freedom fighter, and folk hero.

Paradise Park by Allegra Goodman. Goofy yet true to life, wonderful yet nerve-wracking, this novel tells the story of a young Jewish woman in search of religious ecstasy who tries everything from strict fundamentalism to New Age fantasies to, well, just being herself. Oh, and it takes place in Hawaii.

Yonder Stands Your Orphan by Barry Hannah. A master of darkly hilarious, though occasionally disjointed, Southern fiction, Hannah brings to life a cast of characters that serves as a kind of hallucinatory reflection of our culture's own warped values.

The Last Report On The Miracles At Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. A completely captivating novel about Father Damien Modeste, a priest who serves the Ojibwas country in North Dakota. Modeste lives for a century -- and has a very big secret.

Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken. A fast-moving, funny novel about a vaudeville and film comedy duo, from the author of The Giant's House. McCracken's tale turns into an astute story about human relationships of all kinds, while laying on the dark humor pretty thick, all tied up by a galloping, imaginative narrative.

The Practical Heart by Allan Gurganus. Four novellas by one of the state's finest writers, this book takes place in Gurganus' favorite fictional town, Falls, NC. He sidesteps cliched Southernisms and tells compelling stories about people who are largely impractical dreamers who make the decision to live their lives over the edge of the norm -- which makes them practical in defending their life choices.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. A charming and profound short novel about two victims of Mao's Cultural Revolution who rediscover love and the eternal gifts of literature while working as quasi-slaves in the hinterlands. The novel's genuine appeal comes from the almost magical way in which it draws comedy and romance out of oppressive circumstances.

Non-Fiction

Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution by Diane McWhorter. A daughter of "Bombingham's" white elite, McWhorter wrote an exhaustive history of her hometown's almost unbearably intense civil rights struggles, while revealing how this pivotal era affected the lives of its citizens including her own contentious family.

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad. Good cultural journalism that offers a rich look into the indie rock scene that developed in the 80s and died out after it finally gained mainstream success.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. One of America's most engaging political writers joined the ranks of the working poor in various jobs to explore the possibility of working oneself out of poverty in today's economy. An eye-opener in both social and political senses, Ehrenreich's book should be required reading for politicians (and those who believe them) who make a career out of bashing the poor.

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden. Another fast-paced reads-like-a-novel work of journalism from the author of Black Hawk Down. Bowden tells the amazing story of the American government's deep (and patently illegal) involvement in the long, ultimately successful hunt for Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cocaine cartel in Colombia.

On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker by A'Lelia Bundles. A splendid biography that also serves as a moving social history of the early 20th century. Walker, an African American woman born to a poor family, earned an immense fortune -- and her independence -- with a line of hair-straightening products and became a heroine to the country's black population. She became a leading philanthropist and an advocate of women's rights. After reading this, you'll wonder how in the world Walker isn't more well-known.

Ava's Man by Rick Bragg. The author of the acclaimed All Over But The Shoutin' has written another family saga, this time about his Appalachian rounder of a grandfather. A compelling look at a forgotten time and place, and wonderful tales that, as in Bragg's previous book, show the implicit worth of ordinary people's lives. *

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