Eric's 12 Books for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other Feasts of Gluttony

19.12.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
People are always looking for something good to read over the holidays. So here are 12 books that I’ve recently read (or revisited). You probably won’t find many of these on the usual “best seller” lists.

Just to clue you in, my interests tend to focus on:
-         good mystery stories
-         20th century history
-         entrepreneurship
-         stuff that helps me understand other cultures
-         stuff that’s just plain entertaining

And I always read stuff that’s been recommended to me.

I hope you find something that fits your tastes. And there’re no particular order to these books – I don’t feel like playing librarian today.


I really like these 12 books. I hope you will, too.

Paris to the Moon
Adam Gopnik
Random House, 2001

Gopnik is a sensible, well-educated American who writes for the New Yorker. In 1995, he and his wife moved to Paris – simply because the city appealed to them. The book is a fascinating journey of discovery that moves the perception of “the artist’s Paris” beyond Hemingway, and demonstrates the enormous cultural gap between North America and Europe, even for people who are sensible and well-educated. Really, one of the most interesting, well-written books on ex-pat experiences I’ve read in many years.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
Bill Bryson
Black Swan, 2007

Bryson is my age and grew up in Iowa. I grew up a couple of hours away in St. Louis. We watched the same TV shows as kids (Sky King, Lone Ranger, etc.) and share a frightening number of quintessentially Midwestern experiences (like meeting Stan Musial). And like me, he spent most of his adult life in Europe (Britain counts as Europe unless you’re British). This particular work is a kind of memoir. But Bryson has a dozen other books out there that are equally good. If you don’t know of him, you really should pick one up.

Memories of a Pure Spring
Duong Thu Huong
Picador, 2000

Once one of the most popular novelists in Vietnam, Ms. Huong’s books have been “withdrawn” in that country. This is a wonderfully poetic, yet emotionally intense trip through a nation emerging from three decades of civil war. Struggles with the modern bureaucracy, plus flashbacks to the “American War” can put a lot of things in perspective for those who experienced the war first hand, and those who only know Vietnam as a holiday destination. The only minus is that my edition “feels” translated – unfortunately Asian literature frequently does.

The Vicious Circle
Mysteries and Crime Stories from the Algonquin Round Table
Fall River Press, 2009

Back in the 1920s and 30s, New York’s Algonquin Hotel played host to the cream of American literati, who lunched there every day. These luminaries included George S. Kaufman, Howard Dietz, Robert Benchley, Marc Connelly, Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Edna Ferber, and Ring Lardner. Each of these brilliant writers has contributed a short story to this entertaining compilation.

Shel Israel
Portfolio, 2009

@elreiss Great book by a guy from my generation who really understands social media and doesn’t just play it lip service:

(and yes, that was EXACTLY 140 characters)

Business Stripped Bare
Richard Branson
Virgin Books, 2009

For an entrepreneur like me, reading about Richard Branson’s exploits is as magical as Harry Potter. In fact, if I’d known about this fellow 30 years ago, I’d have moved to England and swept the floors in his office just to get to know him personally. This book shows you how much fun you can have when you like to build things rather than just buying expensive toys with the money you’ve made.

American Lightning
Howard Blum
Crown, 2008

A crime novel that is actually a history book. It’s about one of the early terrorist acts in the United States: the bombing of the Los Angeles Times on October 1, 1910. Curiously, the careers of William J. Burns (America’s foremost detective), D.W. Griffith (Hollywood’s industry-shaping filmmaker), and Clarence Darrow (America’s leading legal mind) intersected at Los Angeles’ legendary Alexandria Hotel at this time. Blum tells their story in a way reminiscent of Capote’s In Cold Blood.

The cover bills this as “Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century.” Howard Blum nailed them all. Great stuff.

Music and Silence
Rose Tremain
Vintage, 2000

Here’s the story of King Christian the Fourth of Denmark. He sits in his summer residence, Rosenborg Castle, pondering the fate of his nation while listening to the music that permeates the building via ventilation ducts leading to a string quartet kept out of sight down in the basement. Not only is this a great read, it was suggested to me some years by the young Australian girlfriend of the Danish crown prince. Today, she is H.R.H. Crown Princess Mary. Interesting recommendation from someone destined to become Queen of Denmark.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Marina Lewycka
Penguin, 2005

The first paragraph reads: “Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

I haven’t laughed so hard in years. This is a fabulously entertaining book.

Ted Dewan
David Fickling Books

Bing is a stuffed bunny, who is helped by his friend Flop (also stuffed, but difficult to identify zoologically). They paint, they play, they bake, they make incredible messes. And they’re hugely entertaining. There are a bunch of Bing books – all great reads for kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, and folks like me.

I met Ted Dewan when he spoke at EuroGel in Copenhagen a few years back. We both do road happenings in our respective cities (Ted’s from Oxford) and it was like meeting a long lost brother. You’ve simply got to check these out!

Why Architecture Matters
Paul Goldberger
Yale University Press, 2009

No. This isn’t another history of architecture. Rather, it’s an erudite review of how and why architecture affects us emotionally and intellectually. For anyone doing design work, this could be the most exciting book you read this year (or next). Why, for example, have the utilitarian boxes of Walter Gropius survived the test of time, whereas the utilitarian boxes of Iron-Curtain-era Europe are being torn down?

Now that we’ve spent years figuring out how to build usable, utilitarian websites, it’s time to figure out how to make them both utilitarian AND exciting.

Three Trapped Tigers
G. Cabrera Infante
Harper & Row, 1971

An Argentinian friend of mind recommended this book to me about 20 years ago. I read it every year or so – for the language, for the history, for the entertainment, for the pathos. Infante was the son of Cuban revolutionaries and headed the Cuban Film Board after the rise of Castro. But Che Guevara (yes THAT Che) sent out a hit squad and Infante fled to London.

Three Trapped Tigers is the story of late-Batista-era Havana. The nightclubs, the girls, the vice, the graft. An altogether unforgettable story. It’s Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy meets the Tropicana Tiki Bar. And when the United States opens up legal tourism to Cuba again, this book is going to rocket to the top of the N.Y.Times bestseller list. Although the English translation is brilliant, if you can get it in the original Spanish, you’re really in for a treat.