A recent Saturday Night Live skit with guest host Emma Stone features a 90s-style music video making fun of the “the gift of having a gift to give away.” In this case, it’s an impersonal, peach-colored candle that you can pull out of your purse and re-gift on a whim.
By contrast, real gifts require forethought, careful attention, and personal knowledge of the recipient. A good book is particularly special. In anticipation of Christmas, we asked CT Women writers to report on the one book they’d recommend as a gift. From memoirs to “anti-devotionals,” old Russian classics to new releases, here are their favorites.
By Rachel Ignotofsky
I love finding books that inspire younger women with real-life role models, and this one was the perfect choice for the 10-year-old super girl on my Christmas list. Ignotofsky profiles 50 women of science—from an entomologist to a renowned mathematician— that hail from diverse countries. Their profiles are paired with whimsical illustrations. The book is as brainy as it is charming and perfect for mothers and daughters, or maybe aunts and nieces (in my case), to read together. Made me proud to be a girl! —Jamie Janosz
By Jane McGonigal
I can't say enough good things about this research-based self-help book. McGonigal, a game designer and PhD, breaks down the science behind video games and explains how the concepts of gamification apply to real life. This book helped me rethink my approach to a lot of difficult situations this year and also provided a framework from which to rethink my approach to self-care and post-traumatic growth. This will shock some people who know me, but it convinced me to invest regular time in playing games like Plants vs. Zombies and Angry Birds. —Alicia Cohn
By Raymond Barfield
To get a sense of this book’s main character, Yslea, imagine a pregnant 19-year-old with the curiosity and introspection of Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe and the honesty and calm of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila in a contemporary Memphis slum. This book offers everything I'm looking for when I read: a blend of realism and hopefulness, a story about a fallen but redeemable world. Yslea reminds us that we create the lenses through which we see the world, even if the glass is broken. —Mandy Smith
By B. J. Novak
A good children’s book engages the readers with the book. A truly great children’s book engages the readers with each other as they read the book, with little eyes looking up to meet yours, page after hilarious page. We’ve read thousands of books out loud with our kids, and for the sheer delight of togetherness in reading with children, Novak (of The Office fame) delivers a winner. —Bronwyn Lea
By David Brooks
I read this New York Times bestseller when it first released in 2015 but have referenced it throughout this painful and divisive election year. Using both positive and negative examples— including church father Augustine, organizer Bayard Rustin, General George Marshall, and more—Brooks challenges readers to consider how and for whom they're living their lives. For followers of Jesus, Brooks’s words serve as a reminder that moral maturity is both the fruit and goal of our discipleship. —Michelle Van Loon
By Michael Schudson
As we leave a year in which news (real and fake) is itself making news, and journalists find themselves explaining their occupation to the public, perhaps it's time to better understand the people who produce news. Schudson, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, covers the history of US journalism, the work routines of journalists, and the way news fits into the broader picture of American society. For anyone who has been confounded, frustrated, or inspired by journalism or journalists this year, this is a must-read. —Ruth Moon Mari
By Jen Wilkin
There might be a large pink bloom on the cover of this book, but it was first recommended to me by a man. My father handed me his underlined and marginalia-ed copy with the unflowery endorsement: “Read this. It’s seriously good.” As I read, Wilkin’s clear explanations on seemingly esoteric divine attributes, like immutability and incomprehensibility, became invitations to delight in my God. Closing the book, I was more aware of my own limits and increasingly thankful for the God who has none. —Megan Hill
By R. J. Palacio
I’ve read or listened to this book three times now, once on my own and twice with our kids. This story of August or “Auggie”—a fifth grader with a physical disability who encounters prejudice when he goes to school for the first time—prompted conversation and compassion for all of us. —Amy Julia Becker
James K. A. Smith
You Are What You Love condenses and simplifies Smith’s decades-long work on the role of formative practices, “cultural liturgies,” imagination, and desire in the Christian life. The result is not only accessible to the average reader but also a real joy to read. If I could give this book to everyone in the church, I would. It is a gorgeous, textured, fascinating stone dropped in a pond. Its ripple effects will be felt for many years. —Tish Harrison Warren
By Mark Dunn
When do society’s preferences for tradition and convention morph into totalitarianism and censorship? Using linguistic wordplay, Dunn tackles these serious questions of citizenship and freedom. In this clever novel (written for adults), protagonist Ella employs smarts and courage to wrestle with steadily shrinking freedoms of speech and expression. I found this to be a highly enjoyable read—and apropos, considering current events—and wasn’t surprised to discover a 2017 film is in the works. —Erin Straza
By Daniel Bergner
Ryan Speedo Green was an African American kid who grew up in poverty, was abused at home, spent time in a correctional facility, and was nonetheless determined to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Journalist Daniel Bergner tells Green’s gritty, grueling, fascinating story in a book that’s like no other musician’s biography you’ve ever read.
By Jim Wallis
Wallis’s book comes at a critical time in America’s history. Tensions between whites and minorities continue to escalate, at least in part because so many whites deny the systemic injustice that has shaped our land since its inception. Wallis, an author, activist, preacher, and teacher, compellingly and convincingly makes the case for why white American Christians need to not only understand and acknowledge the existence of racial injustice but also work to eradicate it. —Dorothy Greco
By Justin Cronin
On page ten of The Passage, I asked my husband, who had recommended it with gusto, “Is this a vampire novel?” “Keep reading,” he replied. I'm glad I did. This trilogy is perfect winter reading, thick and rich with imagination. Cronin is a master creator and writer. If the size of the books scares you off, keep in mind that he interrupts the tale often with trails that seem at first jarring but then—finally—perfect. —Lore Ferguson
By Sarvenaz Tash
When it comes to unrequited love, we all have a tale to tell. Is there anything better than smiling your way through a novel about a handful of teenagers holed up at New York Comic Con for the weekend? Full of wit, writerly aphorisms, and a diverse cast of characters, Tash’s book is sure to put a smile on your face as you cheer on the protagonist Graham in his quest for love. —Cara Meredith
By Bryan Stevenson
In this New York Times bestseller, New York University law professor Bryan Stevenson shines a piercing light on America's death row inequities while allowing his fight for the most vulnerable to inspire in him—and in the rest of us—a shining grace, compassion, and mercy for all. This book is an astounding triumph.
By Ruth Everhart
Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t put a book about sexual trauma on a Christmas wish list. But this book is a notable exception. Filled with lyrical writing, honest faith wrestling, and poignant reflections, this is a book I’d recommend for every woman. On one level, it broaches big questions about how we form our identity as women and how the church handles highly charged topics. But on another level, it stands strong as a beautiful, highly readable story of healing and redemption.
By D. L. Mayfield
Reading this book made me uncomfortable. D. L. Mayfield writes with such truth and insight that I found myself convicted, entertained, and ultimately inspired. In a tenderly aggressive manner, Assimilate or Go Home forced me to abandon my preconceived ideas of helping the helpless and instead embrace a theology of neighborly love that Mayfield spells out using her own mistakes and fumbles. At a time when we’re questioning the very presence of refugees among us, this book has never been more needed.
—Joy Beth Smith
By Paul Kalanithi
In this 2016 bestselling memoir, a brilliant young neurosurgeon has his entire career ahead of him when he receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. The story serves as an antidote to our anxious age. As my pastor recently put it, we’ve become so accustomed to purchasing comfort that we have no category for suffering when it comes. Kalanithi has given us more than a category—he’s given us his story of brave and graceful submission to his own mortality. —Corrie Cutrer
By Anne Kennedy
I’m buying Anne Kennedy’s anti-devotional, Nailed It! for all my curmudgeonly Christian friends—and there’s a lot of them! This quirky, snarky look at some of the least-told and most-told Bible passages will refresh even the most exhausted and cynical among us. Yet, at heart, Kennedy is a woman who loves God and his Word faithfully and well. Now that’s really refreshing. —Karen Swallow Prior
By Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally
I love hefty classic literature (think Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace) but there is no work I love more than Kristin Lavransdatter by Nobel Prize–winning writer Sigrid Undset. Set in 15th century Norway, this trilogy is an epic story resonating with themes of guilt and redemption, suffering and faith, family and human frailty. Kristin’s journey as a daughter, wife, and mother is depicted with both painful realism and beautiful richness. —Kelli B. Trujillo
By Howard Thurman
An artist with words, Howard Thurman offers wisdom without whining, challenge without cheese. Jesus and the Disinherited is a timeless read that speaks with piercing honesty about hate and love. I would gift this short but thoughtful read to any friend who is willing to spiritually struggle, rather than spiritually sleep, in response to the weighty issues of our day. —Alicia Britt Chole