Some people adore Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and read it aloud each December, but I’ve only read it recently in a handsome edition published by Candlewick Press.
There are passages in the text that sound oddly overwritten; in his writing as in his short life, Thomas was prone to excess. But we’re all in Thomas’ debt for a distinction he makes in “Christmas in Wales” between Useful Presents (socks, galoshes, itchy sweaters) and Useless Presents (toy soldiers, painting kits and what Thomas fondly recalls as “a whistle to make the dogs bark to wake up the old man next door to make him beat on the wall with his stick to shake our picture off the wall.”)
All of which invites the question: Is a book under the tree at this time of year a dreaded Useful Present or a delightfully Useless One? Thomas remembers with a sigh those dryly intoned and pictureless books of moral instruction for children, in which boys were warned not to skate “on Farmer Giles’ pond, and did, and drowned.”
But a gift book at Christmas doesn’t have to be the literary equivalent of sensible shoes, which is why I try to devote a post-Thanksgiving column each year to books I’ve enjoyed these past 12 months that might make good presents for others.
I’ll start with “Under Magnolia,” Frances Mayes’ winning memoir of growing up in the South after World War II. Mayes is best known for “Under the Tuscan Sun,” her bestselling account of restoring an old villa in Italy, but she makes the former Confederacy sound just as exotic, especially in her account of an eventful college weekend in New Orleans. She has a gift for rendering the familiar with new eyes, the mark of a great writer.
I had never heard of Bill Heavey until an editor asked me to review his latest collection of essays, most of which originally appeared in Field & Stream. Now, I can’t imagine not reading his magazine columns, which are nominally about hunting and fishing, but are really about life. The title of his latest book alone is almost worth the price: “You’re Not Lost if You Can Still See the Truck.”
Let me also recommend “The 40s: The Story of a Decade,” which collects some of The New Yorker’s best stuff from those eventful years that included World War II, then the attempt to rebuild the postwar globe. Troubled times, yes, but what comes through in this anthology is the quiet resolve of civilized people to prevail. Good medicine for our own anxieties these days.
Another glimpse of that eventful time comes in “The Churchill Factor,” Boris Johnson’s new book about the famous British prime minister. Johnson makes the point that Churchill succeeded as a leader because, among other things, he thought a lot of about what he was going to say before he said it.
Here’s hoping that catches on in 2015.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.