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Books and love for the holidays

Books and Love go together. They always have since Gutenberg and always will which is one of the happier things about gift giving season. Whether you're giving your kids a book you've always loved or your grandmother a massive collection of one of her favorite writers, you're passing your love along with ease.

I've chosen some wonderful books people should be aware of for the holidays--some that are well-off the trail and some others that are amazing editions that celebrate stuff you studied in school and thought no one would ever celebrate. Some holiday season wonders:

JEWISH COMEDY:  A Serious History by Jeremy Dauber, Norton, 364 pages, $28.95. According to Jeremy Dauber's hugely smart and hugely readable book, in the "second greatest" Jewish joke ever, two old Jewish men meet on a park bench in Tel Aviv and recognize each other as long lost friends. "How are you? How are your parents?" "Oh" said the second man. "They died decades ago. We're old men now." "Yes, well, of course" Reuven replies.  "To be expected I suppose....But your siblings? I loved spending time with them. How are they?" "Oh" his old friend "You haven't heard. My brother died years ago. Cancer." This goes on full of memories and more news from the graveyard ("stroke" etc.) Finally, Reuven asks Shimon "Your are your kids." "You'll laugh" Shimon said. "But they're dead too."

Not all Jewish humor is that dark by any means but much of it is. Here is a serious book full of the reasons Jewish humor is as funny and influential as it is, whether it's a response to persecution or a social satire or intellectual or raunchy or ironic or folksy. Whether he's writing about Woody Allen, Larry David, or Philip Roth, Dauber is never less than smart and never less than readable.

IMPROV NATION: How We Made an American art by Sam Wasson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 441 pages, $28. It started in Chicago with Nichols and May and their friends at Second City. Descendents like Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrey and Key and Peele are the American Comedy of the current moment. But this is the place to learn about what Viola Spolin did in Chicago's Hull House that was so imitated. Harold Ramis, no less, was a friend of the author's parents. His death gave Wasson the urgency to tell this story about what has become a keystone American theatrical art form.

"Improv Nation" by Sam Wasson (Amazon)


KURT VONNEGUT, Complete Stories, collected and introduced by Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield, foreward by Dave Eggers, Seven Books, 960 pages, $45.  Not only is this a single volume of Vonnegut's short fiction complete for the first time, it's a celebration of the beloved writer from some writers who are themselves considerable--Jerome Klinkowitz,Dan Wakefield and Dave Eggers, who reports that Vonnegut once drew a gravestone for him on which was written this epitaph "Damn it, you got to be kind." "Do no harm" was the philosophy of a formal literary adventurer. "Take care of your family. Don't start wars." The moral core of a very inventive and persistent American treasure.

MIDDLE-EARTH FROM SCRIPT TO SCREEN by Daniel Falconer, Foreward by Peter Jackson, Harper Design, 505 pages, $75. If this isn't everything devoted fans ever wanted to know about "building the world of 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit'" on film, it will certainly long function as being close enough to suffice. As Peter Jackson says in his foreward, the art in this massive coffee table beauty is "a lasting tribute to all the wonderful artists who confronted their fear of failure by pushing themselves beyond the limit of their ability." A paradise between covers for filmdom's Middle-Earthers.

DASHIELL HAMMETT: "The Big Book of the Continental Op" edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, Vintage Black Lizard, 752 pages, $25 paper. Hammett's first Continental Op. story appeared in Black Mask--that primal feast of American pulp fiction--on Oct. 1, 1923. His 28 Op. stories and two novels ("Red Harvest" and "The Dain Curse") became some of the most influential fiction ever published in America. To this day, the American fictional imagination often revolves upon what Hammett invented at Black Mask. Here, is all of the Continental Op. collected together between covers for the first time. An amazing prospect.

ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME: Let's say that the tales and histories and mythologies of Ancient Greece and Rome captivated those formerly drawn to tales of dinosaurs during their earlier school years. Somewhat incredibly, this season bulges with amazing books to make those ex-students happy. Edith Hamilton's eternal favorite "Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes" now been published in a gorgeous new edition in honor of its 75th anniversary. The illustrations by Jim Tierney are rather wonderful. (Black Dog Levinthal, 389 pages, $29.99) Emily Wilson's terrific new translation of Homer's "The Odyssey" (Norton, 562 pages, $39.95) is so much better than the older, dustier ones in telling one of the essential epic tales of Western Civilization. For those Latin students who struggled to translate the works of Julius Caesar in school, you'll discover how it ought to have been done in the mammoth "The Landmark Julius Caesar" (The Complete Works), Pantheon, 793 pages, $50). (Warning: Shakespeare and Shaw nothwithstanding, Cleopatra is barely a walk-on in the massive original.)

PATTI SMITH, Devotion, Yale University Press, 93 pages, $18. A creative, graceful and uncommonly beautiful little book about writing fr0m the poet and singer who has, in maturity, become an even richer and more complex artist than she was at her greatest fame. She has become one of the most compelling writers of prose that we have and one of the most arresting about artists and other writers. Follow her here as she deals with Camus, Nabokov, Mishima, Genet, Simone Weil, and Patrick Modiano. Originally delivered as a series of lectures at Yale and artfully illustrated for this edition, this, in book form, is as exquisite as anything published in this season. In her late-life self discovery as a prose master, Patti Smith may have found yet another masterful voice.

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