The holidays are considered a time of peace and harmony. Inside, we have heaps of books — more than 100 — to please and delight, to give as gifts that engage and soothe, intrigue, invigorate and inspire. But before we get to that, we wanted to share some books of the season that are more controversial, that might start — or even ignite — conversation over the holidays.
The biggest conversation starter of all may be Donald Trump. The notoriously self-aggrandizing real estate mogul and reality TV star has been leading the Republican presidential field for months. No matter how few people are at your holiday gathering, at least one is sure to be fascinated by the Trump phenomenon. For him or her, there’s “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” by Michael D’Antonio (Thomas Dunne Books, $26.99). Trump, his friends and family cooperated on the biography, which portrays him in a generally positive light.
Can he convince the majority of the electorate — or the people at your holiday celebration?
Let’s step away from politics for a moment to the topic of poetry. The literary world was rocked with controversy this fall when the anthology “The Best American Poetry 2015" (Scribner, $18.99 paper) included a poem by Yi-Fen Chou — not a Chinese-American, as guest editor Sherman Alexie assumed, but a pen name for white poet Michael Derrick Hudson.
Hudson’s use of an Asian-American pseudonym — which critics called “yellowface” — caused an uproar that reached far beyond the typical audience for a poetry collection. Two months before, Spokane NAACP head Rachel Dolezal had made headlines for falsely portraying herself as African-American, and the two incidents — and the widespread negative reactions to them — raise enduring questions about race and culture.
What does cultural appropriation mean in 2015? What should we do when white pretenders adopt different racial personas? Within publishing, the backlash was swift and positive: The supportive Twitter hashtag #ActualAsianPoets. One such poet is Liu Xia, the wife Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Her “Empty Chairs: Selected Poems” (Graywolf, $16 paper) was written while her husband has been imprisoned.
Why do we connect the life of the artist with their art? Should a work stand on its own, judged solely on its own terms? That’s an old debate, and it comes to mind with two new books: The coffee-table book “Woody Allen: A Retrospective” by Tom Shones (Abrams, $40) and a light bio, “Woody: The Biography” by David Evanier (St. Martins, $27.99).
Shones’ book is hagiographic, with gorgeous photos from Allen’s films and film sets, so immersed in the director’s world that it even uses his distinctive film-title font for oversized pull quotes. Both it and “Woody” are written for people who admire Allen and have chosen to look past public allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
The French novelist Michel Houellebecq has also been accused of sexism and racism. He is one of France’s most notoriously difficult personalities and has even been taken to court for inciting religious hatred toward Muslims. (He won.) His new novel, “Submission” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), is controversial: It portrays a future France led by an Islamic party that quickly becomes conservative.
Compared to that, this final book is a piece of cake: “See Me” by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central, $27), which seems positively anodyne. People love Sparks’ books — his romances have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Admirers find his stories swoonworthy; to critics, they’re saccharine. In a room with a few readers in it, there will probably be people on both sides. The best way to resolve the dispute? Give the book to the person who most wants it.
Then, after a hearty discussion, everyone can curl up and read.