BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS: BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Blockbusters, thrillers, biography, fiction or letters: if you want to buy books at Christmas, the choice can be baffling. For the festive season, we asked some of our critics to choose a 'present' from their best books of 1995 for each of seven imaginary friends and relations BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS
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JO

Jo is 12/13 years old, and of indeterminate sex. Intelligent, obviously, but it is not clear what motivates this creature. The world of books is before her/him

2 I'd give Jo Angela Carter's Collected Stories (Chatto pounds 20) but I think that other people will, so instead Shahrukh Husain's Women Who Wear the Breeches: Delicious and Dangerous Tales (Virago pounds 12.99). MW

2 The First Man by Albert Camus (Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99): a moving description of a determinate childhood. GS

2 For Jo, a bouquet of Penguin 60s. I saw a person of much this description reading Marcus Aurelius in the Caledonian MacBrayne departure portakabin at Oban this summer. Also Peter Sis's seductive The Three Golden Keys (Pavilion Books pounds 10.99), a children's book of many layers, set in Prague. CMcW

2 Jo clearly needs to be brought up by a devoted Nanny, rather than his/her neglectful parents Nicholas and Sheryl (see opposite), and ought to start a campaign about it. Penelope Lively's delightful memoir of her childhood, Oleander Jacaranda (Penguin pounds 5.99), will show him/her that mother surrogates can be better than the real thing. BP

SOPHIE

Sophie, aged 20, is reading Gender Studies at Loughborough. She is into black music and New Age philosophy, sport and other people's motor bikes. She seems to read nothing but horror fiction.

2 For the likes of Sophie, Natalie Angier's The Beauty of the Beastly (Little, Brown pounds 17.50): essays, by a Pulitzer prize-winning science writer still only in her mid-thirties, which illuminate the workings of nature's most repugnant organisms (cockroaches, men) in prose of great charm and quiet artistry. MIm

2 Gender-conscious pc-minded Sophie deserves the challenge of Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth (Cape pounds 15.99), a how-far-can-you-go novel of (male) sexual obsession. BM

2 Something to shock her: Ulfat Idilbi's novel about the cloistered lives of young women in the Middle East, Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet (trs Peter Clark, Quartet pounds 9). Set in the 1920s and by Syria's leading novelist, it evokes the world in which female students are barred equally from taking part in the struggle against their country's colonial rulers and from choosing their own husbands. JS

2 For Sophie: On Flirtation, by Adam Phillips (Faber pounds 7.99). Perhaps it will teach her that intelligence and jokes can and should co-reside. Also Alan Warner's Morvern Callar (Cape pounds 9.99), a thrilling Scotiish debut, apparently about wreckage but full of glamour and wit. CMcW

2 Sophie gets Penguin Modern Poets 2 (pounds 5), work by three women poets, Carol Anne Duffy, Vicki Feaver and Eavan Boland. Nothing slipshod about these sybils, who are unafraid of feeling, without being softies either. Their idioms are up-to-date, bold, sometimes cruel and often funny. Try "The Biographer", "Crab Apple Jelly", "Love" (one from each), and you'll want to give a copy to all your friends. Anthony and Cheryl would certainly profit by one, and even Jo might find some surprises. CT

2 For Sophie: Nina Auerbach's Our Vampires, Ourselves (University of Chicago pounds 17.50). MW

2 D-Day : June 6, 1944 The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen E Ambrose (Simon & Schuster pounds 10.99) Absorbing, gendered, heavy American bias. GS

2 William Golding's postumously published story of the Pythia, The Double Tongue (Faber pounds 12.99) - about the Delphic feminist who seeks to hold civilisation together as it plunges into a commercialised Roman barbarism - is the obvious stocking-filler for Sophie. BP

2 For Sophie : Anne Enright's The Wig My Father Wore (Cape pounds 9.99) Agonisingly funny about Ireland, television dating-games, visiting angels, stroke- language, and written like a dream. Anyone who can describe her father's wig as seen throught the washing-machine window, dancing about among the bras and pants "like a rat on holiday", could lure a Gender Studies student away from horror fiction. RF

NICHOLAS & SHERYL

Nicholas and Sheryl, 47 and 43, are the archetypal luvvie couple. They both have busy jobs in assorted media/business occupations. They have a second home in Provence or perhaps Umbria; they already have (signed) copies of The Moor's Last Sigh and the River Cafe Cookbook.

2 With any luck, Nicholas and Sheryl will be on the first plane to Savannah, Georgia, once they've read John Berendts's gripping real life tale of the Deep South, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Vintage pounds 5.99). BM

2 They'll already have read Tim Parks's Italian Neighbours; the follow- up, An Italian Education, provides more fascinating information about the society in the boundaries of Chiantishire. MD

2 For Nicholas and Sheryl, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits (Thames and Hudson pounds 48) by Euphrosyne Doxiadis. Living portraits of the long dead, painted in Egypt around 200-300 AD to go with their mummies, but uncannily modern in appearance, and handsomely reproduced in this very superior coffee-table item. MIm

2 Africa: The Art of a Continent, edited by Tom Phillips (Royal Academy/Prestel pounds 25), published to accompany the current exhibition. MIg

2 Assuming I don't like them much, anything by Delia Smith. If I do, Margaret Shaida's Legendary Cuisine of Persia (Penguin pounds 12). JS

2 Journey to the Centers of the Mind : Toward a Science of Consciousness by Susan Greenfield (Freeman pounds 17.95). Greenfield draws strong simple analogies and (unlike Paul Churchland, Francis Crick, Dan Dennett, and Gerald Edelman)] is quite clear about how much remains unexplained. This is one of the best books on the neural basis of consciousness. GS

2 For Nicholas and Sheryl: to shatter their smug views and received snobberies, this couple doesn't deserve Raphael Samuel's subtle Theatres of Memory (Verso pounds 18.95) but they should read it. Samuel looks at our take on the past and reprocessing of it with intelligence and vigour. CMcM

2 Nicholas and Sheryl, who left the Labour Party for the SDP in 1981 because it was all so dreadfully left-wing, and who are now trendy republicans, need Frank Prochaska's thoughtful and scholarly Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy (Yale pounds 19.95) to teach them all about the British Royal Family's impressively social democratic credentials. BP

[Our critics must have thought that this couple already has everything. Eds.]

ELIZABETH

Elizabeth, 60, energetic, caustic, independent, lives in a country village. Her interests include gardening, porcelain, classical music, golf, archaeology, politics, but she reads everything. Everyone wanted to give her a present.

2 Penelope Fitzgerald's latest offering, The Blue Flower (Flamingo pounds 14.99), has been widely misunderstood and under-appreciated. Here it will surely find its ideal reader. MD

2 For the thoughtful and independent Elizabeth, I'd buy Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet (trs Peter Clark, Quartet pounds 9), by the 83-year old Syrian author Ulfat Idilbi, a novel of female hope pitched against patriarchy and colonialism. BM

2 Elizabeth is my favourite and will receive two presents; Louis de Berniere's Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Minerva pounds 6.99), comic, tragic and luminous as its Greek setting, and Oliver Bernard's splendid and timely rendering of both parts of the great Middle English lyric Quia Amore Langueo, last seen in its entirety in Faber's 1937 limited edition. Obtainable from Blackfriars Publications, 39 Alan Road, Manchester, M20 4WG at pounds 1.20. At this price all deserving folk might have a copy (not Anthony and Sheryl). EB

2 Just in the shops, and the perfect match for a country lady: Marie- Louise Legg's beautifully edited The Synge Letters: Roscommon to Dublin 1746-52 (Lilliput pounds 35). An extraordinary find; letters from a widowed 18thC Irish bishop to his young daughter, affectionately instructing her about everything. How to talk to Catholics, bread-making, false modesty, mixed borders, menstruation ... It will take its place with classics of "overheard" social history, and tell Elizabeth things she doesn't know. RF

2 Raphael Samuel's Theatres of Memory (Verso pounds 18.95), where she will find the history and the polemic behind her favourite pursuits. MW

2 The Moral Animal : Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life by Robert Wright (Little, Brown pounds 18.99). How the Pleistocene informs the present: a strictly Darwinian approach to the problem of how loyalty, friendship and love (etc) can be the by-products of perfectly "selfish genes". GS

2 Konin by Theo Richmond (Cape pounds 18.99) MIg

2 Elizabeth - a wartime evacuee and probably the real-life heroine of J D Salinger's story For Esme with Love and Squalor - will be moved by the poignant writings in Hearts Undefeated: Women's Writing of the Second World War, ed Jenny Hartley (Virago pounds 9.99), as well as by the shrewd commentary. BP

2 The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (Flamingo pounds 14.99). The story of the German Romantic philosopher-poet Navalis and his love for his child fiancee, who died of consumption. I would give this small masterpiece to each of them and it would have much to say. Elizabeth can also have Summer in The Hebrides by Frances Murray (Colonsay Books, Isle of Colonsay, Argyll, pounds 19.95, including a shred of seaweed), a fine reproduction of a Victorian idyll in the Western Isles. CMcW

BAZ

Baz is 29, and single. He might be your slobby brother-in-law or cousin. He got a copy of The Information for his birthday but he hasn't read it yet. He loves sport, Sky movies and homebrew; also trains, military history, American novels.

2 At the very least, Richard Rayner's apologia for the writer as a young nerd, The Blue Suit (Picador pounds 9.99), demonstrates winning strategies for putting the best possible spin on a mis-spent youth. MD

2 To snobby Baz I bequeath my review copy of the year's most boring, laddish book, Adam Thorpe's Still (Secker pounds 15.99). He will not get past the first two pages but it will look good next to The Information and he can use its extensive surface area for skinning up. EB

2 Baz sounds a bit obsessive so I would give him Nicola Barker's quirky novel Small Holdings (Faber pounds 8.99), which is set in a parks department in Palmers Green, in North London. JS

2 For Baz: Alain de Botton's new novel Kiss and Tell (Macmillan pounds 9.99) MIg

2 Baz can have the paperback of Patrick French's exuberant story of Younghusband (HarperCollins pounds 7.99), the military explorer who made a treaty with Tibet, crossed the Gobi desert and got to other distant, dangerous areas armed with little but his faith in God, the Game and the Empire. Patrick French followed him a good part of the way and his own story wittily mirrors his subject's. Good for the Colonel too. CT

2 I suggest James Ryan's Home From England (Phoenix pounds 8.99 paperback; there's a simultaneous hardback). Marvellous first novel about emigration, inner and outer: the in-betweenness of an Irish boy in England, the resentful returns home, the subtle structures of showing off. Psychologically astute, beautifully paced (and far shorter than The Information). RF

2 Baz ought to read political biography as well as military history. What will he make of Roy Jenkins' tightly elegant and wonderfully readable life of Gladstone (Macmillan pounds 20) and David Gilmour's outstanding biography of Curzon (Papermac pounds 12) They could even turn him into a less slob-like, less inferior person. BP

2 Baz sounds like the sort of person who would enjoy Brian Moore: The Autobiography (Partridge pounds 16.99). Thanks to Stephen Jones's assistance, this is far better put together than most rugby memoirs, allowing the full unpleasantness of the snarling hooker's personality and his inexplicable anti-Scottish animus to reveal them- selves. MIm

2 The Railway Man by Eric Lomax (Cape pounds 15.99). Eric Lomax, too, was interested in railways. As a very young man, however, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese, and terribly tortured. His plain tale of how a life lived for vengeance, and throttled by it, was at last set free is an immediate, transparent lesson. It's also gripping. Even the idlest reader could not let it go. CMcW

THE COLONEL

The Colonel is 75. His interests include history, politics, war memoirs and espionage, as well as diaries and letters of the recently dead. For him, the three literary masters of the century are T S Eliot, Evelyn Waugh and P G Wodehouse.

2 Neal Ascherson's Black Sea (Cape pounds 17.99) goes to both Elizabeth and the Colonel, lucky people. History, geography and archaeology brewed up into a feast, erudite, intensely personal, rich and strange. CT

2 For the war-nostalgic Colonel, I'm torn between offering him Robert Harris's Bletchley Park thriller Enigma (Hutchinson pounds 15.99) and Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (Macmillan pounds 25). BM

2 Anyone who's got to this age and still admires Wodehouse needs shaking up a bit, so I'd give him Terrors and Experts by Adam Phillips (Faber pounds 12.99). Phillips is the liveliest contemporary interpreter of psychoanalysis, and what makes this book appropriate for an ex-soldier is that he questions the role of authority figures and suggests we take them far too seriously. JS

2 If I had any expectations from the old buffer's estate, the handsome and definitive new edition of Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Allen Lane pounds 150) would seem an excellent investment. MD

2 The Colonel, like any human being, will be given enormous pleasure by the second volume of Candida Lycett Green's monumental Letters of her father John Betjeman (Methuen pounds 20). EB

2 The Colonel will sink thankfully into the pre-permissive world revealed by The Austen Chamberlain Diary Letters: The Correspondence of Sir Austen Chamberlain with his sisters Hilda and Ida 1916-1937, superbly edited by Robert Self (CUP pounds 35). It was a time when a Prince of Wales's girlfriend had to be described, even in a private letter to a sister as "a certain lady", who fills everyone with anxiety, "but I can't write about it even to you". BP

2 Neal Ascherson's Black Sea (Cape pounds 17.99). MW

2 The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst (Vintage pounds 5.99). A paperback for the Colonel lest his hardback crack. GS

2 For both Elizabeth and the Colonel, Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk Road by Annabel Walker (John Murray pounds 25) : a rock-solid biography of the scholar and durable solo explorer who in the early years of the century plundered the buried cities of the Silk Road for the enrichment of the British Museum; a life fulfilling to lead, tricky at times to justify, exciting to read about. MIm

2 Always and Always: Wartime letters of Hugh and Margaret Williams, edited by Kate Dunn (John Murray pounds 19.99). Married love, sustained, it is true, by war, champagne and mutual beauty, irradiates these letters. Perhaps the Colonel should add Kingsley Amis to his list of the century's great writers, and read his sadly now complete oeuvre. CMcW

KATIE

Aged 38, she's the housewife who isn't. She is widely read and well qualified but nowadays seems to concentrate on giving birthday parties for her children's teddy bears. Her own choices would be Germaine Greer and Frida Kahlo.

2 Given the demands of her gruelling lifestyle, a gripping but intelligent yarn which addresses issues she cares about seems called for - Sarah Dunant's Under My Skin (Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99) fits the bill perfectly. MD

2 Katie will be riveted by Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing (Chatto pounds 18), a vivid, poignant and beautifully written account of the past and present of the gypsies of eastern Europe. As Katie ices the teddies' cake she may thank the Lord that she is not the daughter-in-law of a Roma matriarch in Albania. EB

2 Katie really ought to give up teddy bears' picnics and learn about Tom Paine from John Keane's brilliant biography, Tom Paine: A Political Life (Bloomsbury pounds 25). It reads like an emancipatory hymn - except of course, that Paine was a disgusting male chauvinist and wife-dumper for whom the "Rights of Man" meant precisely that, and no more. BP

2 Two books that are superficially hard to read but rewarding. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber pounds 15.99) sustains its note of mastery from its haunting and unspecific title to its horribly uncommitted plot. This is what it sometimes does feel like to be alive in the contemporary world. Love's Work by Gillian Rose (Chatto pounds 9.99) is a short, hard, book about dying that somehow consoles, as intense cold can, with its afterheat. CMcW

2 Helen Simpson's second book of beautifully written stories, Dear George (Heinemann, pounds 12.99); especially for the savage humour of "Heavy Weather", about the deprivation inflicted on mentally active mothers by the all- consuming phenomenon of young children. MIm

2 The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie (Cape pounds 15.99) MIg

2 For any woman whose horizons have narrowed, I'd recommend the first volume of Olwen Hufton's stunning re-interpretation of women's lives, The Prospect Before Her : A History of Women in Western Europe (HarperCollins pounds 25). Taking it stage by stage, she examines the possiblities and restrictions facing European women at puberty, on marriage, as widows, and when they rebelled. A book that literally re-writes history. JS

2 For Katie, Margaret Forster's Hidden Lives (Viking pounds 16), a close look at the bleak true stories of her mother, aunts and grandmother in darkest Carlisle, where half sisters could grow up unaware of one another's existence, Nottingham counted as the exotic south, and the only hope for a woman seemed to be a son. CT

2 Escape from this woman's nightmare existence, and a reminder of what really matters in life, could not be better provided than in Seamus Heaney's luminous Oxford lectures published as The Redress of Poetry (Faber pounds 15.99). RF

2 Mindblindness : An Essay on Autism and the Theory of Mind by Simon Baron-Cohen (MIT Press pounds 17.95) This explains the relationship between the children and the teddy bears. GS

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