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'Day to Day' Holiday Book Guide

Dec 14, 2005 (Day to Day)

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Day to Day reporter Karen Grigsby Bates, doing double duty as literary editor, shares her list of books that would make great gifts for the holidays.

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Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, by H.W. Brands He's most famous for being the guy on the $20 bill, but our seventh president, says H.W. Brands in this very readable biography, was the first president with a real concern for the interests of common Americans. And he was an interesting stew of contradictions -- for example, he was a slave owner who also insisted U.S. troops fight alongside Haitians at the Battle of New Orleans. He ordered the massacres of thousands of American Indians, yet actively considered adopting one of the children his sorties had orphaned. A true believer in the merits of a democratic society, Jackson may have struck the template from which Abraham Lincoln eventually fashioned himself.

Tete a Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, by Hazel Rowley Two of the late 20th century's most glamorous intellectuals, Beauvoir and Sartre were so inseparable no one ever thought of them as anything but a duo. Author Hazel Rowley insists she didn't write a biography, but a work that shows these two people close up, in their most intimate moments. It's not always flattering, but it's always interesting. This story of their relationship, culled from many never-before published letters, plays out against much of the 20th century -- so it's world history and personal history in an intriguing mix.

Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin Franklin, one of the country's most venerated historians, reflects on the evolution of American society through his life. One of his earliest childhood memories is how his family was forced to live apart from each other as they sought sanctuary with whichever relative could take them in after whites in a murderous rage burned down the black business district of Tulsa, Okla. -- a section so prosperous it was called the Black Wall Street. From those unfortunate beginnings, Franklin would recover to become a military veteran, a university professor and one of the country's foremost experts on race and American history. (Bill Clinton asked Franklin to chair his Commission on Race, a two-year investigation into the current state of race relations in America.) From the horrors of lynching through the triumph of the appointment of a black U.S. secretary of state, Franklin insists that his progress is America's, too -- although there is still work to be done.

Them: A Memoir of Parents, by Francine du Plessix Gray Tatiana and Alexander Lieberman were the golden "Power Couple" of their day. Elegant, artistic and fiercely social, the Liebermans were White Russian emigres who descended upon pre-World War II New York City from Paris with Francine, Tatiana's young daughter from her marriage to a diplomat. They settled into a life that for a time placed them in the thick of the society. Tatiana held salons and designed hats for Saks Fifth Avenue, while Alexander crafted the look of magazines that would become the Conde Nast empire. On the outside, they were perfect -- on the inside, considerably less so. The Liebermans' consuming interest with themselves and their careers as social climbers left little time for Francine. Reading this makes one glad their daughter is able to tell her story -- and amazed that she emerged sane from the tensely glamorous life she was sometimes allowed to share with her mother and stepfather.

Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke The recently released biopic Capote (and Philip Seymour Hoffman's superb portrayal of the title character) has put the author back in the public eye again. This collection of his letters to friends, lovers and colleagues is a tantalizing look into his private life. Capote was as Capote in letters as he was in person. Here, for instance, he writes to friend Andrew Lyndon about his summer in Portofino, Italy, whereupon he accounts for -- and skewers -- the former King of England and The Woman He Loved; the founder of the Time Inc. dynasty and his acerbic playwright wife; one of the world's most reclusive actresses; and a venerated idol of the stage and screen with his high-strung (translation: frequently institutionalized) movie-star wife: "I've liked it here and have done a lot of work, but in August everything became too social -- and I do mean social... The Windsors (morons), the Luces (morons plus), Garbo (looking like death with a suntan) the Oliviers (they let her out)…." Ouch. Totally Truman, and wickedly enjoyable.

Summer Crossing, by Truman Capote Capote began this novel when he was very young. It's set in post-war New York City, where a wealthy young woman named Grady McNeil is left to her own devices for the summer when her parents depart for Paris and reluctantly decide the teen is old enough to care for herself in the family's Fifth Avenue penthouse. (Talk about sex in the city!) Grady becomes attached to a parking-lot attendant who is older and Jewish. The affair that begins in boredom and barely concealed adolescent rebellion ends up changing not only Grady's life, but everyone else's around her.

City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt The polite observer who did so much to make Savannah, Ga., famous (or infamous, depending on how one feels about it) has switched venues and is now in Venice, Italy. I wonder what it means that three nights before his arrival, the city's famed opera house, the Fenice, burns until nothing is left but a blackened shell? What irony: a cataclysmic fire in a city that slowly is being consumed by the water around it. Berendt's chronicle of finger-pointing, of social jockeying in the city's canal-front palazzos (both the inherited kind and the kind bought, or rented, with new money) and his loving descriptions of La Serenissima put the reader in the lap of one of the world's most beautiful, mysterious (and, some critics carp, overrated) cities.

Across the Bridge of Sighs: More Venetian Stories, by Jane Turner Rylands Unlike John Berendt, who lived in Venice for about a year, Jane Turner Rylands (who actually appears in Berendt's book) has lived there for more than 30 years. Her first story collection, Venetian Stories, captured parts of Venice that tourists hardly ever see. Across the Bridge of Sighs continues in that tradition and shows the city from the perspective of its permanent residents -- like this observation from a building inspector explaining why so many old buildings were missing their coat of arms plaques: "People used to hack those off. We don't let that happen nowadays. If a family sold to their social inferiors they would chisel it off before moving out; if they sold to their betters the new owners hacked it off before they came in...." Quintessentially -- and eternally -- Venetian.

Anton Chekhov: The Complete Short Novels Chekhov's name evokes the titles of his plays and his short stories, but here are five little-known novellas from the Russian master. For the first time, they've been bundled together in one book in a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Chekhovholics will be in heaven.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen Unlike Truman Capote, Jane Austen doesn't need a movie to resurrect her work for readers -- although the movie will probably entice a whole new generation of people to read her works. For the people who don't dedicate themselves to reading Austen's best-known work at least once a year, several editions are available, from collector's hardcover editions to mass-market paperbacks to a newly published paperback collection of all eight of Austen's novels. There's something for myriad tastes and budgets.

Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook, by Susan Spungen Spungen's beautifully photographed book will look familiar to Martha Stewart aficionados, and it should -- she was chief food editor for Martha Stewart for 12 years. But besides being pretty to leaf through, Spungen's book is heavy on technique. She wants her readers to become comfortable with how to do things in the kitchen, so they can relax and enjoy the process of cooking. Many of the recipes are straightforward and delicious, and there's plenty of advice for pulling together last-minute meals based on a few ingredients you can keep on hand in the pantry and fridge. Try the Saucepan Brownies -- you'll never go back to boxed mixes.

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