At Christmas families will gather and exchange gifts, and here are some book suggestions about some imperfect or incomplete families who, nevertheless, find and share love.
Switching on the Moon: A Very First Book of Bedtime Poems has been collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, and illustrated by G. Brian Karas using pastels and pencil.
The poems range from playful, asking, "Why can’t I go to bed dirty?" to lyrical, as is Langston Hughes’ "The Dream Keeper." This book can be put right to use on Christmas night to settle the young ones, and then kept throughout the seasons to muse on fireflies and camping out (Candlewick Press, 2010; hardcover, $21.99.)
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis is a Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award-winning classic about a boy who decides to hit the road to find his father (Delacourte Press, 1996; paperback, $6.77). Having lost his mother four years earlier, Bud Caldwell has endured life in a Flint, Mich., orphanage and in several foster homes.
One of Bud’s friends convinces him to hop a freight train, but they are beset by railroad police. Finally, Bud pins all his hopes on an old poster announcing performances by the Herman E. Calloway band in Grand Rapids and starts walking.
Spare Parts by Joshua Davis is a nonfiction account of the struggles of high-school robotic engineers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014; paperback, $14). But these aren’t your typical band of loveable nerds — they are living in this country illegally, brought here as children by their parents.
The title reveals how little they had to work with in order to qualify for the Marine Advanced Technology Education Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition. Although only high schoolers, they were going up against elite, well-funded teams from programs like MIT. But their ability to think outside the box and innovate solutions to problems that other teams’ sleek, gleaming creations could not handle gives them hope that they’ll at least "not finish last."
In Commonwealth by Anne Patchett (Harper Collins 2016; hardcover, $16.79), "(Cousins) knew that making a move on a married woman was a bad idea, especially when you were in the woman’s house and her husband was also in the house and her husband was a cop and the party was a celebration of the birth of the cop’s second child. Cousins knew all of this but as the drinks stacked up he told himself that there were larger forces at work."
The devastating results of this alcohol-driven mistake marks the children of both families for their adult lives. There are dark secrets, poor decisions, aimless existences and professional failures, but finally, reconciliation and a certain redemption.
In Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright, 2016; hardcover, $20), biographer Ruth Franklin focuses on Jackson’s enormous contribution to American short story ("The Lottery" is her most famous) and novel, and on her capacity to also be a "typical" housewife.
Did you know that Jackson’s family lived in Rochester in the 1930s, and that Shirley attended Brighton High School and the University of Rochester? Later, married to scholar and critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, she lived in various small New England towns where she felt very much the outsider. This is a major theme both in this biography and in Jackson’s work.
This last title might strike you as a bit odd for a Christmas gift: How Not to Die by Michael Greger, M.D., with Gene Stone (Flatiron Press, 2015; hardcover, $27.99). His prescription being all about our lifestyle choices, Greger writes with humor and humanity, anticipating many of the readers’ objections. His data is compiled by his team from "every issue of every English language nutrition journal in the world."
Part 1 includes chapters on such leading causes of death among Americans as heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, breast and other cancers — and how our lifestyle choices can prevent and even reverse most occurrences of these illnesses. His basic prescription is eating a plant-based diet.
Part 2 answers the question: What do you eat every day, Dr. Greger? His answer is both enlightening and practical. And it is not tied to any pharmaceutical magic bullet or fad diet for which one must buy specific products. The best part is that Greger makes no profit on the sale of the book or from his website. "I’m privileged to be able to donate my time as a labor of love," he says.
Now if that’s not a perfect Christmas message, I don’t know what is.
Palma is an adjunct associate professor of English at Monroe Community College in Rochester. She has a master of science degree in education from Nazareth College and master of arts in theology from St. Bernard’s Institute.