It's that time of year again — the leaves have fallen, the dark comes early, the air brings with it a certain chill — and I've been piling up books on my reading table, books I've culled from the offerings of the past few months, which because of their essential lyric beauty and power stand as special gifts for you and yours.
They sometimes seem at odds, the lyrical impulse and the narrative impulse. My own taste runs to the books that somehow combine the two modes, and when I'm considering what to give as gifts to people who live to read — and read to live — it's always those books that stand out in my mind as the best variety of gift.
We all have our stories that extend over time, but if the stories don't pulse at least now and then with the power of the lyric impulse, it's not really life in all its fullness.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Could it be? Is that Hanukkah Harry carrying presents or Santa Claus with his sack? No, it's our own reviewer Alan Cheuse rushing in with his list of books worth giving and gently reading before wrapping this holiday season.
ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: So, yup, here I come, bearing books to recommend as gifts, books I've culled from the offerings of the last few months, which because of their essential lyric beauty and narrative power stand as special gifts for you and yours. To set this holiday table, I want to recommend poet Kevin Young's anthology "The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink." Here is gustatory poetry for all seasons, from summer berry picking to autumn harvests, winter holiday meals to maple syrup springs, poems about meat and drink, soups and salads, desserts, coffee and even drinking a Coca-Cola.
The joy in these poems knows no bounds. The company of loved ones, the presence of friends, all here, tripping off the tongues of some of the country's and the world's most gifted poets. To introduce it all, Kevin Young gives us poet Joy Harjo's poem "Perhaps the World Ends Here."
JOY HARJO: (Reading) The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of Earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on. We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it. Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
CHEUSE: Stacked up on the book table, a 70-page novella, "Christmas at Eagle Pond," by former poet laureate Donald Hall. In this straightforward piece of narrative nostalgia, Hall conjures up what it would have been like if he had visited his grandparents' New Hampshire farmhouse for Christmas in 1940. In doing so, he's made one of the most engaging Christmas stories in a long line of these by American writers, a story filled with the brisk December cold, horse-drawn carts, trains, recitations at the local meeting house and, as Hall gives us, a bountiful description of the holiday meal.
DONALD HALL: (Reading) Called to the table, we found it covered with food from end to end. My grandfather distributed the chicken. Next to each portion of meat huddled a spoonful of stuffing, and as the plates rounded the table, so did bowls of vegetables and the gravy boat. Everything on the table, except for salt and pepper, came from the acres of Eagle Pond Farm.
CHEUSE: Next, a British poet's love and respect for ancient poetry. Here's "Memorial," Alice Oswald's audacious, powerful and beautiful version of the "Iliad," with, as she notes in her introduction, seven-eighths of the poem removed, not missing but sheared away, so that Oswald can focus on what she calls the lament tradition in the metaphors about the deaths of hundreds of warriors on the battlefield of Troy.
ALICE OSWALD: (Reading) The first to die was Protesilaus, a focused man who hurried to darkness with 40 black ships leaving the land behind. Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs where the grass gives growth to everything - Pyrasus, Iton, Pteleus, Antron. He died in midair jumping to be first ashore. There was his house half built. His wife rushed out clawing her face. Podarcus, his altogether less impressive brother, took over command, but that was long ago. He's been in the black earth now for thousands of years.
CHEUSE: Alice Oswald reading from her dark and yet uplifting poem for the dark part of the year "Memorial." And now to novelist Susanna Moore's version of Germany during World War II in her novel "The Life of Objects."
SUSANNA MOORE: (Reading) I thought that I could hear thunder, but I decided that it was only the hundreds of military transports on their way to the Eastern Front.
CHEUSE: "The Life of Objects" tells the story of a dreamy Irish country girl, a lace maker, who gets taken up by an aristocratic German family just before the outbreak of World War II. The book is the Irish girl's initiation story and our initiation, no matter how many times we may have read about the Nazis' rise to power, into the war itself and the Russian occupation that followed. The view the narrator gives us of the war is unusual in its frankness and the spareness and, yes, in the beauty of the delivery.
MOORE: (Reading) When the rumbling sound grew louder and the earth began to shake, I knew that it wasn't the lorries but the hum of hundreds of planes. A piercing high-pitched sound like a scream grew louder and louder, and there was the flash and bellow of an explosion. The oaks marking the path to the stables burst into flames. I thought how strange it was that only moments before I've been listening in the dark to the applause of the concert audience as the magic flute came to an end.
CHEUSE: Susanna Moore reading from her novel "The Life of Objects." From such darkness, such beauty. The final book I want to recommend to you is part of a series of short novels by the talented and versatile fiction writer Walter Mosley, made up of two short novels, "Merge" and "Disciple." These odd and original books in which ordinary men, black Americans, find themselves contacted by aliens of one sort or another offer a neat mix of ideas and entertainment.
WALTER MOSLEY: (Reading) It wasn't there a moment before and then it was, in my living room. I thought at first it was a plant, a dead plant, a dead branch actually, leaning up against the wall opposite my desk. I tried to remember it being there before. I'd had many potted shrubs and bushes in my New York apartment over the years. They had all died from lack of sun. Maybe this was the whitewood sapling that dropped its last glossy green leaf just four months after I bought it, two weeks before my father died. But no, I remembered forcing that plant down the garbage chute in the hall. Just as I was about to look away, the branch seemed to quiver. The chill up my spine was strong enough to make me flinch.
CHEUSE: Walter Mosley reading from the novel "Merge" from his "Crosstown to Oblivion" series. But if oblivion sounds too dark even for this time of year, well, pick up that book, that first book I recommended, Kevin Young's poetry anthology, and turn to Jimmy Santiago Baca's poem about having breakfast at his grandmother's house in New Mexico and the world will light up again.
JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: (Reading) She serves me green chile con carne between soft warm leaves of corn tortillas, with beans and rice - her sacrifice to her little prince. I slurp from my plate with last bits of tortilla, my mouth burns and I hiss and drink a tall cold glass of water. All over New Mexico, sunburned men and women drive rickety trucks stuffed with gunny sacks of green chile, from Belen, Beguita, Willard, Canones(ph), Estancia, San Antonio y Socorro, from fields to roadside stands, you see them roasting green chile in screen-sided homemade barrels, and for a dollar a bag, we relive this old, beautiful ritual again and again.
CHEUSE: Such rituals that give us so much comfort and sustenance, maybe even comfort and joy, food and books, may they all pile up and perhaps even overflow from your tables at this time of year.
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BLOCK: That's Alan Cheuse. His latest book is a collection of novellas called "Paradise." You can find his list and yearend recommendations from all our critics at npr.org/bestbooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.