Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Prompt, not pretty

April 30, 2010

Earlier this week it was my friend Beth’s birthday.  I’d been trying to find a copy of a certain book for her, which I’d read and thought she’d enjoy too (Don’t look behind you by Peter Allison, an entertaining memoir about his work as a safari guide in Africa).  Beth grew up in Africa and loves its wildlife, so I thought she’d enjoy this particular book.

Four days before her birthday, I still hadn’t been able to track down a copy of it.  So when I found a copy of it last Saturday (her birthday was the Tuesday following), I quickly purchased it – complete with exchange card, just in case – then pondered my options.

If I took the book home to wrap, I wouldn’t be able to post it until Monday, the day before her birthday.  So it might not arrive on time.  Plus it would take a special trip to get it posted (I have a few health complications – nothing life-threatening, but it means I need to slow down a bit just now.)

Having weighed all this up, and the fact there was a post office just around the corner, open for business, I made my decision.  Five minutes later the book was packaged, addressed and in the postal system.  Okay, there was no card or pretty wrapping paper with it, but it was going to arrive on time.  I made a choice, and ‘prompt’ won the day over ‘pretty’.

When I got home I emailed Beth to let her know her birthday present was en route, but undressed.  Beth is in her early 50s – she can handle an unwrapped gift (and she’s very popular – I know she’ll get many more gifts all gussied up in their finest!) 

However, if I was sending a gift to a child, I would definitely have taken the book home and made sure it was wrapped – the pleasure of unwrapping an attractive gift is, for a child, a big thrill indeed.


What NOT to give an older person

February 3, 2010

I’ve made my share of gift gaffes in my time, but Caroline’s gift to her elderly father – a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Fountain of Age (a study of aging and how people face aging) – is quite breathtaking.

In fairness to Caroline, she was just trying to give her much-loved dad a thoughtful gift and, as he was entering his seventies, the aging process was a very real part of his life.  Perhaps a topic he might want to read about and explore, she thought.

Whereas many people would see a gift like that as a big banner with the words “YOU’RE GONNA DIE!” emblazoned on it.  Not too many people are queuing up for those sorts of gifts. 

Caroline’s dad wasn’t offended, exactly…but neither was he thrilled with the gift.  I think he’d’ve preferred a bottle of aftershave, any day.  Or a good bottle of wine.  Or a book that wasn’t about his own mortality.

“Eat me”

January 15, 2010

There’s a great example of creative gift-giving in Marian Keyes’ latest novel, The Brightest Star in the Sky (Michael Joseph, 2009):

Laid out on…the counter was a series of gifts for her.  A bottle of champagne with a Post-it saying ‘Drink me’; a kilo box of Godiva chcolates saying ‘Eat me’; a huge bunch of roses saying ‘Smell me’; and a pink beribboned box of wispy underwear saying ‘Wear me’.

What a great way to give presents when you can’t be there in person!  (The giver of this lovely loot had unfortunately to be overseas on business on the day of his girlfriend’s birthday.

Definitely worth emulating, even if on a smaller scale – not all of us can afford kilo boxes of Godiva chocolates, etc.

And the clever, instruction-based labelling is itself probably inspired by the food and drink that Alice discovers in Alice in Wonderland (or is it Through The Looking Glass?  I’m never sure!)

Brilliant books

December 28, 2009

As an avid reader with catholic (and I don’t mean the religion) tastes, from time to time I discover books that I think certain friends and family members would love to read. 

Occasionally, I act on this impulse.  Only occasionally, because sometimes being given a book with an instruction to read it (“You must read this book!  You’ll love it!”) can feel like being given homework.  And you just know the gift-giver is going to stalk you about it later.  (“Have you read it yet?  Did you like it?  I must send you the author’s other works.”)  So it can be a bit of a bore, being given a book.

I try to avoid being that kind of bore. 

So the book is given in a low-key manner, and – usually – received in much the same way.  “Oh…a book!….Thanks…”   You can tell they’re unenthused.  But if you’ve chosen wisely, the fun is in the next part. 

Six months later, on a rainy Sunday afternoon and with nothing better to do, they finally crack the book open.  A while later, you get a phonecall:

“THAT BOOK!!!” they exclaim.  “Is a GREAT BOOK!!!”  And then they rave on for ten minutes about how much they enjoyed it/are enjoying it. 

It gives me so much satisfaction. 

[Twice, it was about Straight From The Horse’s Ass by Lee Hughes, about a man’s journey on horseback across America, from Canada to Mexico.  Lee hadn’t ridden a horse before he made that journey, so it was a true greenhorn effort.  He had been living in rainy London and saw the movie Dances With Wolves, and it inspired him to do something bold and frontier-like.  It’s a wonderful book, and very funny.

Another time, it was about Anthony Bourdain’s muscular memoir, Kitchen Confidential.  The teenage boy I’d given it to glowed with delight when he thanked me for the book.  I think it’d been a long while since he’d read something that had spoken to him so directly.]

Mao’s last dancer

December 24, 2009

I’m an avid reader, but am often reluctant to recommend specific books as gifts because reader taste varies so widely. 

However one book that I loved reading and has been highly regarded by a wide range of people is “Mao’s Last Dancer”, Li Cunxin’s autobiography about how he was picked from obscurity – on the basis of his physique alone – in a rural Chinese backwater to become a trainee ballet dancer under Mao’s Communist regime.

The story spans how he grappled with life in the big city away from his peasant family, struggled to reconcile his glimpses of Western prosperity with the Communist propaganda he’d been told, and eventually defected to the USA, becoming a successful dancer there and in turn Australia, where he later emigrated to.

Mao’s Last Dancer is nothing less than fascinating, not simply because of the unusual subject matter, but because the book is very well written.  In other hands it could, despite the exotic and dramatic content, have nonetheless been a dull read.  But Li Cunxin writes his story off the page.  Literally, in fact – a movie is being made of it too.

Book humour

November 22, 2009

Books aren’t everybody’s idea of a great gift, but some books are tailor-made to make ideal presents.  Especially if they’re visual and funny.  You can dip in and out of these books as the mood takes you, and share them with the whole family.

Two I’d recommend are Cake Wrecks and Signspotting (actually, Signspotting III, two earlier editions having already been published in recent years).  Both are based around photos – with amusing captions – of real-life cakes and public signs respectively that have gone hilariously, unintentionally wrong. 

Recommended for Christmas, but also make good birthday gifts.

One-stop Christmas shopping

November 20, 2009

I have long had a theory that all your Christmas shopping could potentially all be done in one store, at one time, if you wanted to get it all over and done with in one fell swoop.

The store in question would be either a very large bookstore-stationer’s, or a very large pharmacy/drugstore – both of these having a wide enough range of merchandise to suit a wide range of tastes and budgets. 

Here’s how it would work: you prepare a comprehensive list of everyone you want to buy Christmas presents for.  You take this list with you on a day where you have two to four hours free to spare.  Then you walk into that store, get out your list and start shopping for the name that appears on the top of the list.

“Something for Susan.  Okay, let’s go look for some perfume for her…maybe a Tresor gift set…some of this upscale lip moisturiser looks good…” and so forth.  You simply wander the store thinking, “What would Susan like?” until you have the gifts selected for Susan.  You carry them to the counter, arrange for the staff to hold them, then consult your list and go shopping for the next person.

It’s certainly one way of getting everything done and out of the way!  I’ve never tried this myself – I prefer a wider range of stores – but I can see how it could work!

1001 songs

November 18, 2009


I’ve been enjoying reading Toby Cresswell’s tome, 1001 Songs, which comprises short, informative essays on…1001 songs.  The selected tunes range from the 1920s to last week (or so it seems), most being from the 1960s to present day.

This book makes a great gift for any rock and pop music lover, as there is such a wealth of knowledge and opinion to scan through.  It’s perfect for ‘dipping into’ – both to learn more about the songs you know, and also those you don’t – but might want to investigate.

I love some of the trivia in it.  My favourite: how Gladys Knight and The Pips’ famous song ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ was actually inspired by Farrah Fawcett.  Who would have guessed that?  Turns out the songwriter called Lee Majors one evening for some reason, and initially chatted to Lee’s then girlfriend, Farrah – who mentioned that she was currently packing her bags in order to catch the midnight plane to Houston.  And so, ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’ was born – but Gladys Knight, who loved the tune, wisely suggested the change of vehicle and destination.

One great thing: Smarter Than Jack

September 18, 2009

I have previously posted about the joy of finding “one great thing” – a versatile item that works as a wonderful gift for all sorts of people.

My best find to date was a new book called “Smarter Than Jack“, a collection of 87 true animal stories, submitted by their owners – some of the stories were sad and moving, some of them were funny, many of them were amazing, and all of them were interesting.

That book made a terrific Christmas present back in 2002, because it “worked” for everyone: those who liked to read, those who didn’t like to read so much (because the stories were all quite short, so the book wasn’t too demanding), for older children, for adults, for males, for females.  And most people like animals, especially smart, funny or clever ones like those featured in the stories. 

I got great feedback about that book.  It also had the twin bonuses of:

– making Christmas that year very simple, because so I didn’t have to find a variety of gifts.

– getting a tenth book free, thanks to the bookstore’s 10-trip card for purchasing books.

The first “Smarter Than Jack” book has since spawned a range of  related titles, but I haven’t given any further of them as gifts, not wanting to get a reputation for repeatedly giving animal books as gifts.  But it did make a spectacular one-off, and I’m always on the look-out for the next “one great thing”.

The one that got away

June 15, 2009

D’oh!  On Friday I was walking past a good second-hand bookshop and noticed a handsomely illustrated book on generals of the American Civil War. 

It caught my attention because my father-in-law, whose birthday it is soon, is a history lover who counts the Civil War among one of his particular interests.  (This is a guy who re-watches the movie “Gettysburg” every few months, and sometimes quotes Civil War generals to us.)  So the book looked like a definite ‘must’ to check out.

But I was hurrying to an appointment at the time, so made a mental note to come back and thumb it over on Monday; after all, the store’s stock doesn’t turn over all that fast – I pass its window display most days.

You know what happened, of course.  Today I went back to the shop, and the book was no longer there.  Somebody else had found it interesting too.  Alas, alas.

I know there must be a moral to this story, but for the life of me I can’t think what.  I genuinely couldn’t spare the time on Friday to pop in and buy it, so “buy unique gifts as soon as you see them” doesn’t work.  And ninety-five times out of a hundred, the book would still have been there on the Monday.

My only consolation is that I already do have some nice birthday presents for him, stashed away.  But I’m still thinking about “the one that got away”.