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A mix of titles to put under the tree

Last year, everybody in America unwrapped one of three books beneath the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree: Bill Clinton's memoir, Jon Stewart's "America," or "The DaVinci Code."

OK, so that's a slight exaggeration.

But the fact remains: most of us now own multiple copies of a few of the really hot books from 2004.

So, inquiring minds want to know: what books will we be ducking -- or, better yet, furtively rewrapping and regifting -- in massive quantities this holiday season?

Take comfort in this, the experts say: there are no real "must-buy" books in 2005.

And there are very few runaway surprise hits, like Jon Stewart's wicked satire last year.

"I don't see surprises," said Daisy Maryles, executive editor of Publishers Weekly. "There is nothing really new. I see fairly well-known names."

As a result, people will be giving and receiving a much wider variety of titles this year than they did last December, booksellers said.

"It's one of those years," said Jonathon Welch at Buffalo's Talking Leaves book shop, "where it's more of a pick-your-weapon kind of thing."

And oh, the weapons you can pick.

Though there are fewer true blockbusters out there, uniformly good selections may be found in virtually every category, experts said.

"Basically what you have right now on the best-seller lists is a whole group of best-selling writers and their latest books," said Maryles. "They're all doing well. Right now, that's what people are buying."

Herewith, some selections for excellent choices for the various people on your list.

>For the woman in your life

Lots of people, but especially women, will love Joan Didion's terrific new book, "The Year of Magical Thinking," which tells the story of what happened to Didion after her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a massive heart attack in their home in 2003.

It may sound like a grim choice for the holidays, but that's not the case, said Maryles at Publishers Weekly.

"It's an amazing book," she said. "Every word is a pearl in that book."

Novels on some people's wish lists include two big ones from this year that received very mixed reviews -- Amy Tan's "Saving Fish From Drowning" and Zadie Smith's "On Beauty."

Tan's new novel is not her best, but it may please readers who like books with large ensemble casts and plots about exotic trips. And, despite the fact that "On Beauty" did not receive the near-unanimous raves Smith won for her debut, "White Teeth," Welch said buyers seem undeterred. "People are willing to give it a chance," he said.

Perhaps more certain to be popular is "Teacher Man," the new memoir by Frank McCourt, which chronicles his days as a teacher in New York City. McCourt, the author of "Angela's Ashes," is winning modest raves for this new one.

And there's a new Doris Kearns Goodwin selection called "Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." It's about the Cabinet that Lincoln assembled to help him lead the country.

Welch said the Goodwin book is selling well despite the author's rocky public image.

"Despite the blemish on her reputation from her plagiarism scandal, people still like her and think she's a good historian," he said of Goodwin.

>For the man in your life

Well, last year pretty much every guy got one of a few hot biographies or memoirs. If not Bill Clinton, then Benjamin Franklin or John Adams -- other figures chronicled in massive tomes lately.

Mix it up a bit for dear old dad this year, hmmm?

What about poetry, for a change? The big new collection of W.S. Merwin, called "Migration: New and Selected Poetry," would be a hit, if you're willing to fork out the $40 for it.

"The problem with the Merwin book is, it's expensive," admitted Welch.

When it comes to poetry, Welch says, it's a good idea if you know a bit about the person's tastes. "It can be tricky," he said. "There's no one-size-fits-all in poetry."

On a more modest budget, the man in your life might enjoy David McCullough's "1776," the detailed story of the most pivotal year in American history, with lots of cool insights into the mind and character of George Washington.

Or, if nothing but biography will do, try one of these slightly more offbeat picks: "John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights," by David S. Reynolds, or "Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times," by H.W. Brands.

There's also a new J.M. Coetzee novel, "Slow Man," which might please those who appreciate writers with a Buffalo connection. The Nobel Prize-winning Coetzee taught at the University at Buffalo.

For a novel by a promising new writer, try Philip Beard's "Dear Zoe," the story of what happens to a young adult when her little sister is killed before her eyes. The story, which unfolds against a backdrop of the Sept. 11 attacks, was recently named to Booklist's list of the Top 10 first novels of 2005.

>For families

Yes, you can select a book that will please an entire family.

Just choose a classic title and you can't go wrong, said Dawn Everett at the Barnes & Noble on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst.

This year, classics in all categories are flying off the shelves, she said.

"Every year we get the new Christmas titles. But the tried-and-true is what's selling this year," Everett said.

How about "The Night Before Christmas" by Clement C. Moore, she suggests? Or maybe "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" by Dr. Seuss.

Pair it with a vintage board game -- Scrabble, Monopoly or Yahtzee -- and you're giving a whole family a ticket to a wonderful "family night," she said.

"People are saying to us, 'We're getting back to that family night tradition,' " Everett said.

>For the kids

The gift of Narnia always pleases a kid, book sellers say.

But this year more than ever, because the new big-screen version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is in theaters.

"Narnia always sells," said Alicia Hoffman, the children's literature guru at the Talking Leaves bookshop on Elmwood Avenue. "There's never a time of year when we don't have to stock it. But there's been a huge increase, with the ads for the movie coming out."

Narnia also comes in all sorts of editions and price ranges now; at Barnes & Noble, for instance, a whole table near the front of the store is covered with the Narnia books plus extra reading material on C.S. Lewis.

" 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' is just flying off our shelves right now," said Everett, at the Amherst store.

So try this: if a child in your life hasn't seen the new movie yet, buy him the seven-book Chronicle of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, and have him read the classic -- and absolutely wonderful -- books (or at least the first one, which is what the movie is about). Then make a special trip to see the flick.

Afterwards, you're practically guaranteed a terrific conversation about books, movies, and the space between.

Connecting with your kid? Now there's a happy holiday.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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