Gift Guide: Non-Fiction

January Magazine’s Holiday Gift Guide 2006 continues with non-fiction books. Selections in fiction are here. Children’s books are here. And check back for further gift book selections over the next few days.

A Mermaid’s Tale by Amanda Adams (Greystone Books) 180 pages
“Crimson-tailed mermaid in a celadon sea — this is how I see her. Blood-red scales that glint in clear green water. Long hair that trails past scaled hips, unfurling in waves of dark brown and black, hair that swims alongside and against the mermaid as a second living thing.” As this first paragraph from Amanda Adams’ new book suggests, A Mermaid’s Tale is more than a pop culture peek at the beautiful, sometimes deadly creatures from myth and legend. Adams holds a master’s degree in anthropology and it shows in the thoroughness of her research here, and the lucid way she shares her material. If you don’t know much about mermaids, you will by the time you’ve finished Adams’ book. If you know a lot, I hazard you’ll learn more. But learning isn’t the only issue in A Mermaid’s Tale. Adams writes beautifully and seems to care deeply about her subject and, as she tells us, “people do want to believe in something. A life without some magic is tedious, and we live in a society that increasingly eschews belief and ritual. We are the poorer for it.” Adams, through her lovely book, would enrich us. — Linda L. Richards

Canadian Wings edited by Stephen Payne (Douglas & McIntyre) 246 pages
On the anniversary of a century of aviation in Canada, Stephen Payne, curator of the Canadian Aviation Museum, has put together a stunning book that records a century of record breaking. Beginning with the history of aviation in general, then moving to its evolution in Canada, Canadian Wings documents this development with historic photographs, illustrations and fine art. It’s a rich and fabulous journey that tracks commercial aviation and manufacturing, as well as Canada’s contributions to the international knowledge bank on flight. (Even those with some knowledge of the field will be surprised to discover how extensive these are.) Enthusiasts of aviation and Canadiana alike will find much to enjoy in this beautiful, well-produced and gorgeously illustrated coffee table book. — Lincoln Cho

Cool Creatures, Hot Planet: Exploring the Seven Continents by Marty Essen (Encante Press) 455 pages
If the tone here is occasionally a little too breathless, perhaps author Essen can be forgiven. He’s arrived at this place not as a writer but as a citizen of the world with a story to tell: a story of travel, adventure and lessons learned on the road. Approaching mid-life, Essen and his wife shook themselves free of professional responsibility and travelled to just about every compass point they could reach. Reading Cool Creatures, Hot Planet is not like reading your average travel memoir. (And as enjoyable as that can be, it isn’t what this is.) It’s more like sitting across from a well-travelled friend and listening to his stories. Or a bit, even, like a worthwhile blog. There’s a real casualness here and a refreshingly sweet — occasionally almost naive — sincerity. Those who enjoy armchair eco-tourism will dig on Cool Creatures, Hot Planet. — Linda L. Richards

Crazy About Quilting: Confessions of an Average Quilter by Ada K. Moyles (Whitecap) 192 pages
Quilting is consuming, though it might not look like it from the outside. It’s a madness, a hunger or, as author Ada K. Moyles claims, a life changing addiction. “I’m a quilt addict,” writes Moyles. “Of course I knew that long ago, but, like many other addicts, refused to admit to my addiction. It wasn’t until recently that it came out into the open.” Moyles writes charmingly about her passion and the ways it’s altered her life: the trips cut short, the short-circuited housework in order to make time for quilting, the life that needed to be reorganized to make room for her burgeoning passion. Crazy About Quilting reads like a series of newspaper columns: if newspapers syndicated columns about quilting. The book would make the ideal gift for the quilter on your list. After all, if a quilt addict finds herself in a place or position where she can’t be quilting, what better thing to do than read about it? — Monica Stark

England in Particular Sue Clifford and Angela King (Hodder & Stoughton) 512 pages
Anglophiles rejoice! Your ship has come in. “This book is a counterblast against loss and uniformity, and a celebration of just some of the distinctive details that cumulatively make England.” England in Particular is a book about English things written for English people. A sort of revisitation of the whole Arts & Crafts movement idea that the world is moving so quickly, good things are in danger of being left behind. What sort of good things? You name it: chert and cobnuts; dudley locusts and drove roads; gaps and ganseys… it’s a fat book so it’s a long list. The tone is at once affectionate and informative, making the book a potential treasure for ex-pats as well as those who would remember the fond details of their history. Both authors are involved in Common Ground, “a charity that plays a unique role in linking nature and culture. It believes that popular involvement and local celebration is the best starting point for action to improve the quality of ordinary places and everyday lives.” Which, in essence, is what England in Particular is all about. — Aaron Blanton

Human Body: A Visual Guide by Beverly McMillan (Firefly Books) 304 pages
While books on the mysteries of the human body are in no short supply, it’s rare to find one as frankly inviting as Beverly McMillan’s Human Body. With carefully chosen illustrations and color photographs — hundreds of both — adding clarity to McMillan’s already lucid prose, Human Body would be a perfect book for a family to sit down together with to learn and discuss every aspect of the one thing all of us share: our perfectly designed human form. McMillan is not, as far as I know, a doctor and for a text like this — meant to be understandable by the widest cross-section of the population — that’s probably a good thing. Her bio says she is a science writer and book developer and the author of several books, as well as the co-author of a bestselling college text on human biology. Whatever her background, it all works here. Human Body is both beautiful and deeply informative. — Linda L. Richards

In Search of the Knights Templar: A Guide to the Sites of Britain by Simon Brighton (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 255 pages
In the year everyone went mad for The Da Vinci Code, In Search of the Knights Templar seems a good bet for a gift book. A few years ago, few would have cared about a book that is very close to a field guide of templar sites in the United Kingdom. In that regard, it’s a good thing that Templar aficionado author Simon Brighton didn’t create this book prior to the widespread templarmania brought on by Dan Brown’s book and the subsequent film based on same. One can’t imagine that a publisher would have allowed so many color photos on so many glossy pages on what would have been a book with a fairly narrow potential readership. As things are, Brighton’s loving and informative text is enhanced by lavish photos and illustrations. If there’s a templarmaniac on your list, In Search of the Knights Templar should be the one. — Aaron Blanton

The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim (Rodale) 377 pages
January Magazine’s readers have recently seen an excerpt from this wonderful book, but in case you need more, here it is. As you probably know, a devotional is a book that offers a year of religious readings, one day at a time. Here, the readings are greatly expanded on any number of subjects, including history, literature, visual arts, science, music, philosophy and religion. Seven broad topics, one for each day of the week. The idea is that you start at the beginning, and read a single day’s essay every day. After 365 such days, you’ll be wiser, smarter, and much better at games like Trivial Pursuit and, perhaps, Scrabble. Seriously, this is fantastic stuff, not quite an overview of our culture, but a 10,000-foot view of it, with deep dives into 365 important bits and pieces. One day you’ll read about Renaissance Art, another Anton Chekhov and the next Otto von Bismarck or D-Day or the Quran. Each bite-size chunk is readable in about five or ten minutes, in true devotional style. Here, the assumption is that the reader is devoted, as it were, to learning. And who, reading this, has a problem with that? — Tony Buchsbaum

Judi Dench: Scenes From My Life by Judi Dench edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 224 pages
What strikes one first when looking through the photographs in Dame Judi Dench’s wonderful biography is that the lady does not change. Oh, sure: an extra line here, a different hair color there, but the essential and signature clear blue sparkle that means Judi Dench seem to skim through the years unaltered. And where sometimes you can look at a photo of a film star from 10 or 20 or 30 years ago and not recognize them at all, this can not be said of Dame Judi. There is, for instance, a photo taken on her wedding day in 1971. She is beautiful, she is radiant, she looks exactly the same. And except when a role she is photographed in called for a serious expression, she is always — always — smiling. This is not the sort of down and dirty tell all biography we’ve gotten used to seeing. It is instead more of a biography in photographs punctuated with rich comments from the actress. Her family, her friends, even her pets are here. Most of all, though, we see her in her roles. One of the final photographs in the book show Dench leaning against a BMW sports car. “This is a very flash photo of me and my very flash car,” writes Dench. “I don’t drive it. I just lean against it. It makes me feel about twenty-nine.” The book is as charming as Dench herself. — Linda L. Richards

Portraits of Canada by Jonathan Hanna, Robert C. Kennell and Carol Lacourte (Fifth House) 211 pages
Portraits of Canada serves two functions, both equally important. On the one hand we find a collection of photographic images — many of them extraordinarily good — from Canada’s first century (though most were taken prior to 1950). On the other, a celebration of Canadian photographers previously unknown outside their own, select ranks: that of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s photographic corps. “Almost from the beginning,” a foreword to the book tells us, “CPR hired noted photographers, first on contract, then later in its own in-house photography and publicity department.” The same foreword tells us that the CPR today “maintains a heritage image bank of some eight hundred thousand” photographs. Of that 800,000, 158 have been selected for inclusion by the authors of Portraits of Canada. More than anything, what we see is the growth of a young country. Native villages, visiting royalty, historic street scenes from key cities; travelers by trail, rail and the company’s sumptuous ocean liner. Portraits of Canada offers an amazing glimpse into a world seldom seen and barely remembered: Canada, young, naive and on the move. You won’t soon forget what you see here. — Linda L. Richards

Sex Secrets of an American Geisha: How to Attract, Satisfy and Keep Your Man by Py Kim Conant (Hunter House) 224 pages
A burst on the back cover makes an amazing claim: “Go from single and alone to married and adored in 12-18 months!” With a shout out like that it’s a wonder the book hasn’t made every bestseller list in the country and that the author hasn’t been fielding claims that she’s set the woman’s movement back several decades. “I can’t cover my little ass,” Conant writes in her introduction, “saying politically correct things so that no one gets upset.” No worries, then. She doesn’t. Conant claims she was inspired to write Sex Secrets of an American Geisha by her own earlier experiences unlucky at life and love. “I wrote this book because I wanted to save other women from the mistakes I made and the lost time I suffered.” It should be noted that Conant doesn’t claim to be an actual geisha. Rather, she created her own approach, “what I now call my Geisha Consciousness — to find the best man for me, including eventually losing forty pounds.” Sex Secrets of an American Geisha is one part self-esteem manual, one part weight loss handbook and about 30 parts sex manual: sex — attitudes and actuality — plays a fairly significant role here. Readers that don’t find the book offensive might like it quite a lot. — Monica Stark

So We Sold Our House and Ran Away to the South Pacific by Gordon Cope (Fifth House) 214 pages
One day Gordon Cope, a reporter, and his wife, Linda, who worked in high tech realized that they’d reached a place in their lives where they both hated their jobs, had a big ol’ house that was driving them to bankruptcy and maxed out credit cards. They had become deeply unhappy with their lives and had no idea of what to do about it. One night while watching a television program about the South Pacific and thinking about their credit cards, Linda said, “Why don’t we just quit our jobs, sell the house, and run away to the South Pacific?” They both laughed, but something had been set in motion inside them. Within six months, they’d left snowy Calgary behind and were living in Rarotonga. In the year they lived there, they couple learned things that would change their lives. Elements of their story will touch a nerve with many readers. — Lincoln Cho

Sports Illustrated: The Baseball Book (Sports Illustrated) 292 pages
If you’re going to give a book, give big, I always say. Coffee table editions are especially welcome and if the topic happens to be baseball, so much the better. It sometimes seems unfair that publications like Sports Illustrated can simply reach into 50 years-worth of archives at any time and pull a gem out of their metaphorical hat. Such is the case with their new tome on baseball. The text is supplied by some of the best sportswriters around, including several from SI’s own masthead, like Tom Verducci, Robert Creamer, Frank Deford, and Rick Reilly, as well as other noteworthy scribes including Roger Kahn, Leigh Montville and George Plimpton. At less than 300 pages, words and pictures (after all the name of the magazine is Sports Illustrated), The Baseball Book is a compact but thorough rendition of the game at its best. The highlights of the edition — which features essays on Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Reggie Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Vladimir Guerrero, among others — are the decade-by-decade breakdowns and SI’s All Time All-Stars. A book like this isn’t simply read; it’s meant to be savored. And the winter, with several dark and cold weeks remaining until the new season kicks off, is the perfect time to start enjoying it. — Ron Kaplan

The Strange Case of Hellish Nell by Nina Shandler (Da Capo) 289 pages
In England, in 1944, Helen Duncan became the last person to be tried under the Witchcraft act of 1735. As interesting as the story of Duncan — nicknamed Hellish Nell in her home village of Callender — the 44-year-old Scottish mother of six who was England’s last official witch, the author’s story of discovery is almost as good. Duncan’s file had been ordered closed for 100 years. But a clerical error at the Home Records Office in London put the closed file in the hands of Shandler, an American psychologist, family therapist and author, leading her to stare in dismay at a note in Winston Churchill’s own hand at the top of the file, alluding to the “obsolete tomfoolery” that investigators were indulging in. In The Strange Case of Hellish Nell, and with the help of that closed file plus a lot of footwork, Shandler recreates Duncan’s remarkable life. A fascinating work that reads like an interesting but offbeat piece of fiction. — Monica Stark

Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens by Michelle Kodis (Gibbs Smith) 160 pages
In some places — many parts of the American South, for example — building some sort of summer kitchen is a matter of course. In hot climates, being able to prepare the family meal outdoors isn’t a luxury or entertainment, it’s a necessity. It’s just too hot to even contemplate the use of heat to prepare food indoors. Those summer kitchens of necessity are not the focus of Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens, but those building one would be well-advised to pay attention. Kodis has included 26 kitchens representing “the greatest diversity in terms of style and functionality as well as a broad geographic range.” She then organized her chosen 26 into broad and self-explanatory chapters: Just the Basics; Creative Functionality and, finally, Going All Out. These breakdowns make it easy for the would-be summer kitchen designer to find ideas for their own project… or the project they’d most like to dream about. A beautiful and potentially useful book. — Aaron Blanton

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