coach of the L.A. Lakers:
I've always given books as gifts to my five children and, for the 16 years I've been an NBA coach, to my players and staff. However, the book I'd really like to give this year might not be for those who don't remember rabbit ears on TVs or cars without seat belts (let alone shoulder harnesses and air bags). The book is Richard Ford's "The Lay of the Land." Ford has revisited his protagonist Frank Bascombe for the third time. Bascombe's now in his mid-50s and dealing with mature adult issues: cancer, death, "lost" wives and friends, and the political climate of America in the new century. This book made me reflect about the process of aging. What important lessons did one learn from life's experiences?
"The Lay of the Land" is as good as it gets, and I'm not done with it yet.
chairman, Broad Foundation:
"The Audacity of Hope," by Sen. Barack Obama, is an exhilarating work that affords valuable insights into the thinking of one of our country's most promising young leaders and his vision for a better American politics. The senator's candor and steadfast belief in the fundamental values of community, education and hard work come through clearly and make for an inspirational read.
John E. Husing
consultant specializing in the economics of the Inland Empire:
Recently I had occasion to reread Jules Verne's "The Mysterious Island." As a child, I spent hours with this book, often under the covers at night with a flashlight when I was supposed to be sleeping. (Imagine punishing a child for reading today!) It is the story of an odd assortment of travelers -- an engineer (and his faithful dog), a former slave, a journalist, a sailor and a boy -- in a hot-air balloon that gets blown off course en route from Richmond, Va., during the Civil War and lands on an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. There the castaways have to figure out how to survive, how to defend themselves and ultimately how to create the beginnings of an industrial economy. As a 65-year-old PhD in economics, I was amazed to find that this exciting adventure, which includes a description of Captain Nemo's final days, contains one of the best explanations I've read of how an economy evolves from foraging to agriculture, mining, pottery and on to electricity and industry. My fascination with this book as a youngster seems to have foreshadowed my career. It seems a good choice for any budding young economists on my list.
France Anne Cordova
professor of physics and astronomy, and chancellor of UC Riverside:
In my first year as a Caltech graduate student, I saw a notice for something called the annual TGTNGPHS party, which I finally learned meant "Thank God the North Galactic Pole Has Set." It was a vivid reminder that the night sky changes from season to season -- and that an astronomy student's pattern of research and sleep can be defined by those changes. For years, I've thrilled to the changing seasons of the night sky and the "old friends" that come calling annually, like the Seven Sisters in winter. Thus I knew I'd found something special when I discovered Robert Gendler's "A Year in the Life of the Universe."
The author arranges the night sky according to season and guides the reader via star charts to find the location and time of the debut of the sky wonders depicted in the book. The richly colored, deep-space photographs were taken by Gendler with electronic cameras. In the photo captions there's some science, too -- such as what makes a quasar and how a gravitational lens works. Without even going outside, a family can enjoy together the likes of Thor's Helmet, the Eskimo Nebula or the Pinwheel Galaxy. But the idea, of course, is to go outside at night and look up! This book just might create some aspiring astronomers during this holiday season.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
political analyst and author of "The Emerging Black GOP Majority":
When's the last time you picked up a historical work that runs nearly 900 pages and read it in two sittings? Bleary eyes and all, that's what I did with Doris Kearns Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Team of Rivals."
This is history the way it was meant to be written and lived. I say "lived" because I felt I was right there in the White House, the Old Soldiers Home, and the various encampments where Abraham Lincoln and his highly contentious Cabinet members and generals debated and squabbled over policy matters regarding the conduct of the Civil War and made the monumental decisions that shaped our nation's political future.
The book is subtitled "The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." Not an unfamiliar subject, but it took a writer with Goodwin's laser-like historical instincts and sensitivity -- and, yes, passion -- to bring out the high drama of Lincoln's turbulent, perilous years in the White House. It's a timeless book for all seasons. And you don't have to read it in two sittings to delight in this stirring and vital pageant in our nation's life.
music director, L.A. Philharmonic:
W.G. Sebald was a name only vaguely familiar to me until two people, a poet friend and the late Susan Sontag, recommended that I read his work. I found a copy of Sebald's "Austerlitz" in a Helsinki bookstore and it was one of the great literary experiences of my life. I've gone on to read everything else he published before he died in 2001.
I'm completely fascinated by the way "Austerlitz" doesn't seem to belong to any particular genre. At first it seems like an essay or documentary about history and architecture, but it is also the story of a boy, Austerlitz, who's rescued from World War II Europe by the Kindertransport -- so many children were saved by being sent to the United Kingdom. The boy lives with a strict Calvinist couple in Wales, and after his foster parents' death he seeks to discover, bit by bit, his true background and identity. He's terribly alone already, but in the process of rediscovering his identity he becomes even more lonely; all of his roots are gone. There's something profoundly tragic here, but the novel is never sentimental -- Sebald presents sadness as a noble state of mind.
Sebald's work is also fascinating for its elusiveness. I like the way he uses photographs to illustrate the story, yet you're never quite sure if these pictures are really connected to the story. For a European reader, there's an extra layer of meaning in Austerlitz's search: Sebald is trying to reconstruct what it once meant to be European, and he comes to the conclusion that an older, nostalgic idea of Europe has disappeared -- things have changed so profoundly in our world that these cultural identities no longer exist.
There's a moment, near the end, when Austerlitz goes to Paris' new National Library to unearth documents about his identity, and Sebald gives us a fierce critique of the place as basically not conducive to reading. A library, he tells us, should be a pleasant, practical place, where it's easy for one to read, but in the national library Austerlitz encounters a totally computerized, scary, futuristic kind of monster that turns reading into a terribly complicated process. For the holidays, I would want to introduce other people to "Austerlitz"; it moved me deeply, and I would hope it would do the same for them.
Mary Sue Milliken
co-chef/owner, Border Grill Santa Monica, Border Grill Las Vegas and L.A.'s Ciudad restaurant:
When I fall in love with a book, I have been known to buy a few dozen and give one to each of my friends (I hate shopping). This year, after having read too many intense and sometimes disturbing novels set in all parts of the world, I'm in the mood for relaxing, for giving fiction from familiar ground.
That's why I'm turning to Ellen Gilchrist's stories. They delve deep into your soul, yet they are painless, even delightful to read. Her Southern belles make the Dixie Chicks look like church mice, and they always find themselves in a pickle.
Gilchrist's stories can be the perfect year-end tonic, like a warm, reflective snuggle with your honey -- and just as addictive. Best of all, you come away remembering what you always knew: Some craziness is perfectly normal. This year I'm giving early collections of Gilchrist's stories: "In the Land of Dreamy Dreams" (1981) and "Drunk With Love" (1986).
Is anyone wondering what to get me? While doing some dreaded shopping recently, I spied a 5-year-old book I'd never encountered: "Still Life: Irving Penn Photographs 1938-2000." I love being surrounded by his quirky images of food so much that whenever one of them appears in my Vogue, I tear out the page and pin it up on my wall.
cultural programs director for L.A. Public Library and curator of the "ALOUD at Central Library" series:
There were fierce differences of opinion after a recent dinner party, when I asked two of my fellow guests who'd read Cormac McCarthy's new novel, "The Road," whether or not they would give it to someone as a holiday gift. OK, it does take place in a Beckettian postapocalyptic world where a father and young son wander, starving, through a charred and ruined landscape of ashes, corpses and cannibals. One guest, a photographer, was horrified at the idea of it as a gift. "Those images will never leave me," she said, holding her head in her hands as if stricken with an instant migraine. Another, a composer, admitted he'd burst into tears twice in the first 25 pages but that the novel was "about so much more than darkness."
I agree with both of them. This is one stunning book! Its ear-hammering prose contracts the gut and tests the heart. "The Road" makes you rejoice in the tenderness possible between human beings and consider how much we have to lose. It reminds you why we can't give up trying to save our world.
What better gift for this particular winter, when the ice caps are melting? That said, pick your recipient carefully. Don't say you haven't been warned!
Michael V. Drake
chancellor, UC Irvine
"The Things They Carried," one of Tim O'Brien's several books about Vietnam, skillfully blends reality and fiction in a gripping, thought-provoking tale of the horrors of armed conflict. The book employs O'Brien's own experiences in Vietnam as a jumping-off point for his narrator, "Tim," whose fictionalized tales of war -- imaginatively and beautifully written -- bring home to readers a reality too unreal to be portrayed as fact.