THE BLOG
12/10/2010 11:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ten Great Books You Won't Find On Every List This Holiday Season

If your friends and family know that you're a big-time reader, you're surely going to get books for the holidays.

And if they don't know you well, you're going to get multiple copies of the same book.

Women will get Nora Ephron's I Remember Nothing.

Men will get the Keith Richards memoir, Life.

Liberals and Oprah watchers will get the Jonathan Franzen novel, Freedom.

No knock on any of those books --- I've read them, I admire them --- but it's much more appreciated if the gift and the recipient match up. My job: to create a list of off-the-beaten-path books you might like to get --- just in case anyone asks. And, on the flip side, to make a list of books you might like to give.

At HeadButler.com , I review as many as four books a week, There were many to choose from; it was hard to choose. Each of these books thrilled me. See if they work for you....

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman
The nominal topic here --- how the film of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" came to be made, and why Audrey Hepburn was so crucial to that effort --- concerns a novel I don't much like and a film I've never watched all the way through. The cool thing: you don't have to care about any of that to love this book. You just have to like dish (and who doesn't.) You have to be interested in how things really work --- in this case, how, in a time of prudery and censorship, two smart producers, one savvy director and a sharp screenwriter figured out how to take "a novel with no second act, a nameless gay protagonist, a motiveless drama and an unhappy ending and turn it into a Hollywood movie." And you have to be interested in a book that has an idea at the center of the narrative --- how Audrey Hepburn, a "good girl princess" as pure as Doris Day, helped to change the American distaste for "bad girls" with a single movie. And, just as much, with "a little black dress" that even the least mouseburger of a secretary could afford.

Spies of the Balkans

Once again Alan Furst serves up everything I hope to find in fiction and never expect to see in a thriller. I come away with fresh knowledge about pre-war Europe. And, without fail, Furst forces me to ponder a question that no other novelist consistently flings in my face: If an "enemy" were about to invade --- and, very possibly, overrun --- your country, what would you do? Here we meet a new hero, Costa Zannis. Who do you go to when Jews, smuggled out of Germany, are coming through the Balkans on their way to freedom in Turkey? Costa. Who can help the British extract one of their scientists from occupied Paris? Costa. Who dares to launch a romance with the gorgeous wife of the richest man in Salonika? Costa. This policeman in Salonika --- he's one great character.

Atlas of Remote Islands (Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will)

Judith Schalansky, a German designer and novelist, got interested in maps and atlases for the most personal of reasons. She was born in East Berlin; when she was 10, East and West Germany merged, "and the country I was born in disappeared from the map." With that, she lost interest in political maps and became fascinated with the basic building blocks of Earth's land masses: physical topography. With a twist --- she disdains any island you can easily get to. The more remote the destination, the more enthusiastic she is for it. Like Lonely Island, where the average annual temperature is -16 degrees. Or Diego Garcia, a secretive British military base with a golf course where 500 families once lived. A hundred twenty million crabs begin life on Christmas Island; millions of penguins inhabit Macquarie Island. France tested its hydrogen bomb on Fangataufa, after which no one was allowed to set foot on it for six years. On Pukapuka, there is no word for "virgin." The Banabas hang their dead from their huts until the flesh disappears; they store the bones under their houses. In short, the world's loneliest places, in lovely two-page spreads, with geographical information and curious histories on the left, and, on the right, a map of the hapless land mass set on a deceptively peaceful blue background.

Canal House Cookbooks
A few years ago, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton --- professional foodies --- decided to devote themselves to "good work and good ideas relating to the world of food." They set up a studio near New Hope, Pennsylvania and began to self-publish exquisite seasonal cookbooks for the home cook. They shop at farm stands. They cook on ordinary stoves. And, best of all, their books are ruthlessly edited. Curated, really --- each book presents fewer than 70 recipes.

Just Kids
At 14, Patti Smith was a "skinny loser," a frequent occupant of the dunce chair. At 21, when she was ready to go to New York and be some kind of great artist, she didn't have enough money for a bus ticket. But she got to New York, and there met Robert Mapplethorpe, and discovered they were both burning to be artists. They both made it --- Mapplethorpe as a controversial photographer, Smith as a poet and rock singer. This lovely memoir chronicles their romance and their artistic alliance, which did not, Smith insists, end with his death from AIDS in 1981. "Just Kids" recently won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. It deserved to.

The Hare With Amber Eyes
This book has, as they say in show biz, everything. The highest echelons of Society in pre-World War I Paris. Nazi thugs and Austrian collaborators. A gay heir who takes refuge in Japan. Style. Seduction. Rothschild-level wealth. Two centuries of anti-Semitism. And 264 pieces of netsuke, the pocket-sized ivory-or-wood sculpture first made in Japan in the 17th century. It is on these netsuke that Edmund de Waal hangs his tale --- or, rather, searches for it. Decades after he apprenticed as a potter in Japan, he has returned to research his mentor. In the afternoons, he makes pots. And, one afternoon a week, he visits his great-uncle Iggie, who owns a large vitrine, in which he displays his netsuke collection. An unlikely thriller, beautifully written.

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

The New York Times and I rarely agree when it comes to year-end "best" lists, but here is Joan Schenkar's radically original Highsmith biography on both lists. Why? Well, it starts like this: She wasn't nice. She was rarely polite. And no one who knew her well would have called her a generous woman. Why would you even think of reading almost 700 pages about such a monster? Because Highsmith wrote a half dozen books --- among them Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and a wonderfully sexy, though never graphic, lesbian novel called The Price of Salt --- that will be read as long as readers like fiction that equally thrills and chills. Or maybe just because this was a train wreck of a life --- and you just can't turn away.

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway's book was, for me, the biggest eye-opener of the year. Their book takes us, in just 274 brisk pages, through seven scientific issues that called for decisive government regulation and didn't get it, sometimes for decades, because a few scientists sprinkled doubt-dust in the offices of regulators, politicians and journalists. Suddenly these seven issue had two sides. And Congress and regulatory agencies often decided: Better not to do anything until we know more. How did this happen over and over again? Because some of the scientific "experts" who were on the payroll of tobacco companies in the anti-smoking fight, for example, turn out to be the very same scientists now working for oil and coal companies to create confusion about global warming.

A Village Lost and Found: Scenes in Our Village

Brian May --- lead guitarist of Queen --- went on to earn a PhD. from Imperial College, London. He wrote some learned books, and then he took lifelong interest in stereoscopic photography and produced a picture-and-text book that is at once a historical chronicle and a work of art. (The book comes in a slipcase; in a separate folder, you get a 3-D viewer.) The pictures are of small English village in a magical, soon-to-vanish 1800s moment. The book has about 80 scenes, some in color. Intelligently, the left hand page offers a large single image. On the right, you'll find two panels of that image. Slip the page into the 3-D viewer, let your eyes relax --- and enter a world that's 150 years old.

Lit: A Memoir

If you read "The Liar's Club," you know Mary Karr is one sassy Texan. In this memoir, she marries a tall, Harvard-educated poet, has a son, and, right there, when it looks if she has everything, she starts downing a bottle of Jack Daniels a day. It isn't as if she doesn't recognize the trouble she's in. Alcohol flows through her family history --- her father, she's written, could start a fight sitting alone on the front porch. "Lit" is about many things: the resolution of her relationship with her mother and father, her struggle for recognition as a writer, her inability to unfreeze her marriage. But mostly it's about alcohol and faith --- about an intellectually arrogant woman who's too proud to surrender and too smart to believe. And she does both. Magnificently.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]