Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Novel Gifts: Christmas, in the present tense.

E-books have their place, but good, old-fashioned print remains dominant as a holiday gift. After all, it’s still rather difficult to wrap up a bunch of pixels and put them under a Christmas tree.

With that in mind, I compiled a selection of great books worthy of giving this season, broken into a number of categories. I’m sure that you’ll discover something here for the book-lover on your list.

The Novel of the Year  

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Here it is, folks—this year’s must-read novel. Not only is George Saunders one of the most celebrated American writers working today, but his debut novel recently won one of the most prestigious international awards in all of literature—the Man Booker Prize. In “Lincoln in the Bardo,” Saunders deftly blends historical realism with supernatural elements to deliver one of the most original and moving novels of the year. Taking the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, as its historical genesis, “Lincoln in the Bardo” is a literary masterpiece that proves Saunders’ place in the pantheon of American writers. Oh, and Saunders happens to be visiting the Midtown Scholar Bookstore on Friday, Feb. 9. To reserve your book and ticket, visit

Related Recommendations:
 “Sing, Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward; “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng; “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” by Arundhati Roy


For the Rare Book Enthusiast

“Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts” by Christopher de Hamel

Brighten your literary nerd’s heart with this journey into some of the world’s most ancient, elusive and remarkable manuscripts. With stunning photographs to boot, “Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts” takes us on a deep dive into 12 of the most fascinating manuscripts in the world, including “The Canterbury Tales,” “The St. Augustine Gospels” and a 6th-century Greek manuscript illustrating the life of Christ. Don’t let its scholarly subject matter fool you—Christopher de Hamel makes this book fun, insightful and the perfect gift for the rare-book lover in your life.

Related Recommendations:
 “The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization” by Martin Puchner; “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” by Stephen Greenblatt; “An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic” by Daniel Mendehlson


For the True Crime Addict

“Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann

New York Times bestselling author David Grann is quickly turning himself into a master of eminently readable narrative non-fiction. After watching his bestselling “Lost City of Z” turned into a major motion picture, Grann is back with his latest—“Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” The breadth and scope of this true story border on the unbelievable, and Grann is here to uncover the mystery. After oil is discovered beneath Osage land in 1920s Oklahoma, those belonging to the Indian nation begin to disappear, one by one. Featuring a young J. Edgar Hoover, the dawn of the FBI and one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history, “Killers of the Flower Moon” will leave you breathless, angry and hopeful that Grann will be back sooner rather than later with his next project.

Related Recommendations: “
The Fact of a Body” by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich; “Death in the Air” by Kate Winkler-Dawson; “The Man From the Train” by Bill James


For the Politically Conscious

“We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In a time of tragedy, whose voice do we turn to for our collective conscience? In “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” national correspondent for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, collects his most powerful and vital essays written during the eight-year Obama administration. In our current political moment, Coates has proven time and time again to be the leading intellectual of our generation, offering insights and reflections that are despondent, yet propitious—pragmatic, yet hopeful.

Related Recommendations: “
Democracy in Chains” by Nancy MacLean; “Notes on a Foreign Country” by Suzy Hansen; “Origins of Others” by Toni Morrison


Best Fiction of Pennsylvania

“Heat & Light” by Jennifer Haigh

If you enjoy novels like Jackson Taylor’s “The Blue Orchard” that resonate with a sense of place and history, you’ll find Dickinson grad Jennifer Haigh’s “Heat & Light” immensely satisfying. Her sharply drawn characters from the contemporary fictional town of Bakerton, Pa., reveal secret desires, fears and regrets to the reader, even as they hide essential truths from one another. Nurses, ministers, addicts, farmers, gas-drillers, tavern-keepers and scientists wrestle with the impact of fracking on the former coal mining town, while the energy industry’s machinery, from 19th-century oil wells to Three Mile Island’s generators to a Texas gas company’s extractors, prove monumental actors in their own right. Haigh spoke at the Harrisburg Book Festival about her affinity for the life of a hermit, but her characters leap off the page with a verve and passion that belies this, and her Bakerton novels deserve a place on your shelf alongside the classics of Americana fiction.

Related Recommendations: “
The Signal Flame” by Andrew Krivak; “The Readymade Thief” by Augustus Rose; “Love is No Small Thing” by Meghan Kenny


Not Your Ordinary Presidential Family Biography

“Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave” by Erica Armstrong

Drawing on what might be the only recorded narrative of an 18th-century Virginia fugitive to have escaped slavery, University of Delaware Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar recovers the fascinating, previously untold life of Ona Judge in her National Book Award-nominated biography, “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave.” Judge was among the enslaved workers in Martha and George Washington’s households at Mount Vernon and their Philadelphia Executive Mansion. For biography fans seeking a new view on our first presidential family, Dunbar offers a compelling other-side-of-the-story. In an impressive act of scholarly reconstruction, she recasts the Washingtons’ domestic family life in the early Republic matter-of-factly, as Judge might have seen, felt and experienced it. The free black community of 1790s Philadelphia showed Judge what freedom could be like and aided her escape. Her life afterwards is traceable thanks to New England abolitionist newspaper reporters’ interviews with her, 50 years later. Now thanks to Dunbar’s vivid historical re-imagining, we can finally learn her story, too.

Related Recommendations: “
Grant” by Ron Chernow; “The Earth Is Weeping” by Peter Cozzens; “Thunder in the Mountains” by Daniel J. Sharfstein

Alex Brubaker is the manager of Midtown Scholar Bookstore.

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