Looking for holiday gifts? Tech gadgets are so ho-ho-hum, but no matter what startled visitors to my house say, you can never have too many books. Here, then, are a sackful of titles sure to make the season bright.
“Jeeves and Wooster ,” “Golf ” and “Blandings” (Overlook): Three P.G. Wodehouse boxed sets . Start to read anything by P.G. Wodehouse and you’ll be smiling before you reach the bottom of the page. This year Overlook, the master’s American publisher, has brought out a trio of introductory gift sets, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. Still, I should point out that “The Code of the Woosters”— in the “Jeeves and Wooster” box — is generally viewed as Wodehouse’s finest single novel. It’s the one about the theft of an 18th-century cow creamer and the machinations of the would-be dictator Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts.
“J.D. Salinger: The Last Interview and Other Conversations,” edited by David Streitfeld (Melville House); “Conversations With Robert Stone,” edited by William Heath (Mississippi): Who isn’t fascinated by the enigmatic and reclusive author of “The Catcher in the Rye”? Following Streitfeld’s lively introduction, “J.D. Salinger: The Last Interview” reprints 150 pages of compulsively readable Salingeriana. It’s a perfect stocking stuffer, as are other recent titles — about Lou Reed and Oliver Sacks — in Melville House’s admirable last interview series. For even more literary talk, turn to the “Conversations” volumes published by the University of Mississippi Press. In the latest, William Heath, professor emeritus at Mount St. Mary’s University, collects a dozen interviews in which Robert Stone discusses his early years, the 1960s and his dark moral fictions of American life, including “A Hall of Mirrors ” and “Dog Soldiers.”
“In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper,” edited by Lawrence Block (Pegasus): If a picture is worth a thousand words, any of Edward Hopper’s paintings of American loneliness is worth an entire short story. Here 17 contemporary authors imagine the Depression-era backgrounds to various Hopper masterpieces. Consider the matchups: Michael Connelly with that apotheosis of the urban diner, “Nighthawks,” Lee Child with the bleak “Hotel Lobby,” Joyce Carol Oates and the naked woman at the window of “Eleven A.M.,” Stephen King and the alienated couple of “Room in New York,” and Megan Abbott with “The Girlie Show.” Ekphrasis — seeing a story in a picture — was seldom so much fun.
“The Face of the Buddha,” by William Empson; edited by Rupert Arrowsmith (Oxford); “Yours Respectfully, William Berwick,” by Christine A. Smith (Legacy Press); “The Prelude ,” by William Wordsworth, edited by James Engell and Michael D. Raymond (Godine): Don’t neglect the gift potential of scholarly works. Empson’s recently rediscovered essay about sculptural depictions of the Buddha is the work of a passionate amateur who just happens to be the most dazzling literary critic of the 20th century. Smith’s massive work contains a biography of the pioneering manuscript restorer William Berwick and a detailed history of “paper conservation in the United States and Western Europe, 1800 to 1935.” Godine’s sumptuous edition of Wordsworth’s autobiographical masterpiece, written in the best blank verse since Milton, is further enhanced with explanatory annotations and 130 period-appropriate paintings and drawings.
“I, Robot,” by Isaac Asimov; “From Russia with Love,” by Ian Fleming; “In Patagonia,” by Bruce Chatwin, “Love and War in the Apennines,” by Eric Newby, and “The Folio Science Fiction Anthology,” edited by Brian Aldiss (The Folio Society): These titles — sure to please any book lover — are just some of the 2016 offerings from the Folio Society, known for its beautifully designed and illustrated classics. Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia,” for instance, is probably the most influential travel book of the past half-century.
“ Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart ,” edited by Krista Halverson (Shakespeare and Company): Established in Paris in 1951, George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company — like the original bookshop of this name operated by Sylvia Beach — wasn’t just a place where you could buy English-language books. It was a haven, a refuge. Exchange students, famous writers, lost souls — all could be found browsing the shelves, sipping tea or crashing for the night on the mattresses upstairs. I nearly stayed on one myself back in 1971. Chockablock with photographs and brief memoirs, this nostalgia-laden scrapbook pulses with the sweetness of being young in Paris.
“The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories,” edited by Tara Moore (Valancourt); “Afterward,” by Edith Wharton and four other titles in the mini-paperback series “A Ghost Story for Christmas” (Biblioasis); Robert Westall’s “Antique Dust,” read by R.C. Bray (Valancourt audio books); “The Averoigne Chronicles,” by Clark Ashton Smith (Centipede); “Darkness, My Old Friend,” by John Pelan (Fedogan and Bremer) and “The Girl With the Peacock Harp,” by Michael Eisele (Tartarus): Now is the time for “winter’s tales,” and here are ghostly classics from Valancourt and Biblioasis; Robert Westall’s tales of eerie clocks and diabolical dolls read so perfectly by R.C. Bray that you’ll shiver with pleasure; a legendary author’s gorgeously written medieval fantasies in a lavish edition; and two excellent collections of contemporary weirds. Pelan — “the prince of pulp” — can be grim, humorous or distinctly metafictional. Eisele’s collection shows that he has learned from the best, as in “An Old Tale,” which opens like a story by Steven Millhauser: “Long ago, in faraway Russia, there was a great academy of ballet. Every year, many pupils applied . . . ” The ending is wonderful, if a bit sentimental, but so is “A Christmas Carol.”
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.