Michiko Kakutani's Gift Guide Book Recommendations

Posted by Cybil on November 16, 2020
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Pulitzer Prize–winning literary critic Michiko Kakutani, the former chief book critic of The New York Times, is the author of the newly released Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread, a collection of 100 personal, thought-provoking essays about books that have mattered to her and that help illuminate the world we live in today. 

So, who better to help you find the perfect books for everyone on your holiday gift list? Here Kakutani offers her picks in dystopia, memoir, and books about race and identity.

Dystopian Novels

Enduring dystopian novels look backward and forward at the same time. This is one of the reasons that so many classic novels, written decades ago, have become bestsellers today, at a time when our daily reality feels increasingly alarming and surreal.

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(1949) 1984 is both a savage satire of the Soviet Union under Stalin and a prescient parable about a futuristic surveillance state, in which the Party—and its totemic leader, Big Brother—controls peoples lives by redefining the very nature of reality through a barrage of lies and propaganda. Here, language has become meaningless—WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”—and whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.”

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(1932) Conceived as a pessimistic response to H.G. Wells utopian novels, Brave New World reflected its authors worries in the 1930s that individual freedom was threatened by both communism and assembly-line capitalism, and it anticipated a technology-driven future in which people would be narcotized and distracted to death by pleasure and entertainment.

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(1985) In writing her dystopian classic, Atwood extrapolated some of the trends she saw in the early 1980s (like the rising fundamentalist movement in America) while looking back at the 17th-century Puritans' anti-women bias. When many of us first read The Handmaids Tale back in the 1980s, the events Atwood described as taking place in Gilead felt like the sort of disturbing developments that could only happen in the distant past or in distant parts of the globe. By 2020, however, Americans found the news filled with reports of accelerating climate change threatening life as we know it on the planet, and a president who not only used racist language to sow fear and hatred, but who also oversaw an administration that forcibly separated children from their parents.

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(2005) This haunting novel is set at a pretty English boarding school that harbors a dark secret. Ishiguro employs his pared-down, Pinteresque prose and masterful use of understatement to tell a far-out science fiction story—involving clones and organ transplants. The result is an oblique and elegiac meditation on mortality and lost innocence: a portrait of adolescence as that hinge moment in life when the shedding of childhood dreams can lead to disillusionment, rebellion, or newfound resolve.


There were seeds of the current memoir boom in the autobiographical writing done in the 1960s and 70s—the heyday of the so-called New Journalism—by writers like Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, George Plimpton, and Norman Mailer.

Then, in the 1990s, The Liars' ClubMary Karrs remarkable account of her childhood in East Texas, showed us the groundbreaking possibilities of this capacious genre, as did Dave Eggers' stunning 2000 book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

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(1979) These books are not memoirs—they are collections of essays, but in them, Didion used her own anxieties and experiences as a kind of index to the American zeitgeist in the mid-20th century. She wrote about how the California she knew growing up in Sacramento had metamorphosed overnight into a new California, where Charles Manson and his gang of followers terrorized Hollywood and lost flower children migrated to San Francisco in search of new lives and new identities.

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(1995) Funny, gritty, and unsparing, Karr possesses an utterly distinctive voice thats part badass Texas girl and part lyric poet, and in this memoir she draws an indelible portrait of her eccentric family that possesses the emotional amplitude and afterlife of a great novel and the shocking frisson of being true.

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(2000) In these pages, the younger Amis, Martin, wrote with great humor and affection about what it was like to share the vocation of novelist with his dad, Kingsley, the well-known author of Lucky Jim. The portrait of a father-son relationship in Experience is animated by clear-eyed literary insight, enduring love, and a novelists ability to animate the past with tactile emotional detail.

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(2000) In recounting the story of how his father and his mother died within weeks of each other, and how, at the age of 21, he became a surrogate parent to his eight-year-old brother, Toph, Eggers wrote a head-swiveling memoir-y kind of thing” that attested to his astonishing range as a writer—capable of shifting gears, exuberantly, between the self-referential and the sincere, the hyperbolic and the earnest, the playful and the tender.

Books About Race and Identity

This summers Black Lives Matter protests raised public consciousness about the systemic injustices African Americans have suffered over the centuries in this country—from slavery and Jim Crow through todays ongoing struggles with police brutality and mass incarceration. The protests also created renewed interest in classic works by James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Zora Neale Hurston, and such important nonfiction books as The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

Here are several other books not to be missed.

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(1952) By turns realistic, fable-like, and hauntingly surreal, Invisible Man is, at once, a visionary meditation on race and the multicultural heritage of the United States and a vibrant modernist bildungsroman—a Kafkaesque account of the narrators journey from naivete to knowledge, from passivity to action, from credulity to understanding.

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(2016) Like his hosting of The Daily Show, Trevor Noahs stand-up comedy is fueled by his keen sense of the absurd—a knack honed by his childhood in South Africa under apartheid. His 2016 memoir provides an unnerving look, through the prism of his family, at the cruelties of daily life under that countrys institutionalized racial segregation and white rule. Its also an eloquent love letter to his remarkable mother, who vowed that he would not grow up paying what she called the black tax”—black families having to spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past,” using their skills and education to bring their relatives back up to zero.”

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(2016) In this compelling novel, Whitehead turns the covert 19th-century network of secret routes and safe houses—run by Black and white activists to help slaves escape from the Deep South—into an actual train, a kind of subway running north toward freedom. In recounting the story of a teenage slave named Cora who flees a Georgia plantation and risks everything in pursuit of freedom, Whitehead gives us the backstory to the injustices African Americans and immigrants continue to suffer, but a backstory only in the sense, as Faulkner put it, that the past is never dead. Its not even past.”

Which books would you recommend as the perfect gifts? Let us know in the comments below.

Check out more recent articles:
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Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Barko You're Not Listening by Kate Murphy
Anam Cara by John O'Donohue
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

message 2: by Yvonne (new)

Yvonne Janot Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession

Silver  - Have a great day, you're loved Or any other books in the Gifts of the Heart series, really.

message 5: by Jaclyn (last edited Nov 16, 2020 11:41AM) (new)

Jaclyn Schoknecht John Lewis's graphic book trilogy March about the Civil Rights movement. The three book set is a great gift for tweens through adults.

message 6: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Voung ~ I have read this book lately.. A stunning read for people into literary fiction.

message 7: by Timothy (new)

Timothy When I think of gift books I think: 1) a favorite of my own of course; 2) something on the short side; 3) something off their personal beaten track; 4) not recent ...

Some books I have given to friends: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (for the serious book lovers), The Willowdale Handcar by Edward Gorey (for those who only want to look at a book for a few minutes), Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip, The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, Ronja the Robber's Daughter by Astrid Lindgren, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (for those dystopians who don't realize that before 1984 there was something greater), The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis, Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa (for those who love to cry), Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson ... ok, better stop now before I list half of Ursula K. Le Guin's books ...

message 8: by Alfred (new)

Alfred Weber I love dystopian fiction, so I would gift 1984 or Fahrenheit 451.

I also love The Goldfinch, A Prayer for Owen Meany, David Copperfield, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Any of those would make great gifts.

message 9: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Kline Everyone loves to learn, so here are three fun science-y reads with shorter chapters
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? by Caitlin Doughty
What If? by Randall Munroe
The Elements by Theodore Gray

message 10: by Annie (new)

Annie If you are a caretaker, a family member or anyone who knows someone with dementia, The Elderwise Way: A Different Approach to Life with Dementia, by Sandy Sabersky and Ruth Neuwald Falcon
will be invaluable to read. It inspires a change in how we understand and work with people living with dementia. It's not only a book with a different approach to life with dementia - it is just a wonderful approach to life.

message 11: by Anna (last edited Nov 26, 2020 01:43AM) (new)

Anna I remember in 2018, when I was working at a bookstore, I suggested "Pachinko" by Min Jin Lee to a lot of people seeking books as gifts; especially people who didn't know much about the recipient, or said that the person has "already read everything". Not only is the book aesthetically pleasing (likely to look great on a shelf, even if it doesn't end up loved), it's also beautifully written historical fiction, and an interesting saga novel. Plus, I loved it, so I gave a very enthusiastic pitch.

As far as I know, no copies were returned, I had to re-order two more shipments, and I distinctly remember a man (in his early 40's maybe?) who came in looking for a book for his elderly mother, bought it after my pitch, read the first chapter to see if she might like it, and came back to buy two more copies the next day- one for his sister, and one for his mother, because he ended up keeping the first copy. It was one of my proudest moments working there.

message 12: by Liam (new)

Liam Ward Always the same.

message 13: by Karen (new)

Karen A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer
Finding Chika by Mitch Albom

message 14: by _.axkr._ (new)

_.axkr._ The book thief by Mark Zusak
Love, hope and magic by Ashish Bagrecha
Five feet apart by Rachael and team
To kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee

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