Not long ago I was at Book Soup before a reading; a woman at the counter proclaimed loudly that she needed a book to read next. I spotted one of my favorite books of the fall on the display between us and couldn't help but blurt out my suggestion. Maybe it was my effusive praise that persuaded her — she bought the book — or maybe it was its cover. For my money, it's one of the best of the year.
That cover — so good because it's so fitting — was wrapped around the delightfully funny novel "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" (Little, Brown and Co.,$25.99) by Maria Semple. The book, in which an adolescent daughter tries find her vanished mother through the emails she left behind, wickedly points out the worst of Los Angeles, Seattle and progressive school communities everywhere. It is both antic and droll — much like "Arrested Development," which Semple worked on as a consulting producer.
A different kind of humor is packed into the impossibly short stories by Etgar Keret. In "Suddenly, A Knock on the Door" (FSG Originals, $14 paper), the dead may speak and violence threaten, but surreal plot turns and silliness await. A well-known cultural figure in Israel (he is also a filmmaker), Keret writes politics with an absurdist's skill. And like George Saunders, to whom he is often compared, Keret's stories — no matter how twisted — are suffused with sweetness and empathy.
Something genuinely twisted lies at the heart of "People Who Eat Darkness" by Richard Lloyd Parry (FSG Originals, $16 paper). This true-crime tale of the murder of a British hostess in Japan took Parry a decade to write and research. It is meticulously crafted, digs into cultural history, observes subtle signals and is kind to its subjects — except, perhaps, for some not-particularly diligent members of the police force. It's for fans of "In Cold Blood" — and is not as tawdry as its metallic red cover would suggest.
An even more lurid cover adorns "Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic" by David Quammen (W.W. Norton & Co , $28.95). Quammen traveled the world to report the stories he tells of apes, horses, labs and scientists, and writes in a fluid, conversational prose. It's the kind of book that I'd feel comfortable giving to anyone who likes a ripping science yarn or to fans of "The Walking Dead" — a less pedantic "Silent Spring" for the zombie apocalypse set.
I think of these books as universal donors, able to please almost anyone: a loved one, an acquaintance or a random customer in a bookstore who's looking for something good to read.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette Maria Semple Little, Brown and Company, $25.99Suddenly, A Knock on the DoorEtgar KeretFSG Originals, $14 paperPeople Who Eat DarknessRichard Lloyd ParryFSG Originals, $16 paper
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic David Quammen W.W. Norton & Co., $28.95
To read more of our book recommendations for the holidays, click here.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times