Books to Give or Keep in 2016

It’s that time of year—when I am asked to recommend books I’ve read to friends who are working on their gift lists. I primarily seek out new fiction, but I enjoy deviating for an interesting memoir. Each of these books connects to aging, from midlife on up.

No matter their taste in books, I think anyone can enjoy The One-in-a-Million Boy (2016) by Monica Wood. Quinn, a professional musician perennially on the road, feels remorse for missing so much of his sweet and unusual son’s too-short life.  As penance, he takes on a Boy Scout commitment his son made and meets 104-year-old Ona Vitkus, a contrary, reclusive woman who has seen more than her share of well-intentioned Scouts. While filling Ona’s birdfeeders, Quinn learns that his son had endeared himself to Ona and had started a recording of her life for a school project. He also discovers his son was a savant, of sorts, when it came to the Guinness World Records, and Quinn takes up the eight-year-old’s quest to get Ona into the record book. Sentimental without ever being sappy, this is a heartwarming, heartbreaking story of friendship and of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. My favorite book of the year.

Phaedra Patrick’s The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (2016) is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed the best-selling A Man Called Ove (2015). Arthur rarely deviates from routine: set meal times and same outfit, day in and out. At 69, he’s widowed and shouldering his grief the best he can, choosing to be alone as much as possible. He’ll connect with his adult children, one emotionally distant, the other geographically distant, but he hides from a neighbor who drops in with a meal. His only “friend” is his houseplant, Frederica. On the one-year anniversary of his wife’s death, Arthur finds an expensive charm bracelet he’s never seen before. Determined to solve the mystery of the bracelet, Arthur comes to realize each charm represents a piece of Miriam’s history before they met. His mission takes him to foreign places, where he meets people who broaden his comfort zone and leave him open to the possibility of what may lie ahead.

Do you remember the TV game show This Is Your Life, in which Ralph Emerson reveals the story of a guest’s life with anecdotes from significant people? This is the premise of the oddly dark but hopeful novel This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance (2016) by Jonathan Evison. Recently widowed 78-year-old Harriet receives a letter informing her that her husband bid on and won a cruise for two. Harriet, who believes the ghost of Bernard visits her, discusses with him the pros and cons of going alone on the trip or canceling, ultimately deciding to go with her friend, Mildred. In the end, Harriet goes without her, only to be joined later by her own less-than-welcome adult daughter. Harriet feels sucker-punched to find that Bernard was having an affair and planned to take the other woman on the cruise. The story is told with forward and backward reveals, making the reader feel the pinball game of Harriet’s life. A story about mothers and daughters, marriage, forgiveness, regret and reinvention; this is a deftly told page-turner.

Are there foodies on your gift list? Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship (2016) is a memoir that’ll have them salivating. Author Isabel Vincent agrees to look in on a friend’s recently widowed father, Edward, a man in his 90s. Edward meticulously prepares meals for Isabel’s visits, sharing the love story of his married life. Isabel, too, has lost a love, so they share that connection; their dinners help Isabel rebound from divorce and rebuild her self-esteem. The menus are highlighted at the start of each chapter, though, sadly, without the recipes. Nevertheless, you’ll find this book very satisfying.

In Bettyville: A Memoir (2016) we meet author George Hodgman, an urbane and sophisticated gay man blissfully separated from his upbringing in Paris, MO. When his irascible, outspoken, strong-willed mother, Betty, falling into dementia, loses her driver’s license, George returns to Paris intending to settle her into a care facility and head back to Manhattan. Once in his childhood home, George comes to terms with his closeted upbringing and the desire to please his parents. Mother and son reunite with a combination of drama and comedy that seems to leap off the page. Clearly, I’m not the only one to see it that way: a television series based on the book is coming, starring my personal dream cast of Matthew Broderick as George and the incomparable Shirley MacLaine as Betty.

With winter closing in, I hope you can hunker down with a book or two from this list.