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November 22-28, 2006

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Martha Gellhorn

Love is hell: Martha Gellhorn survived life with Papa. Her collected letters tell many tales.

Read 'Em and Leap

Literary gifts for even the toughest list

By John Freeman


Aside from lotto tickets, it's hard to think of a gift with a greater upside than a book. If your beloved doesn't fall for the latest Donna Leon mystery, she can put it down after 20 minutes. Little time wasted. But if for some reason the book speaks to her, she has eight hours of enjoyment to look forward to. And on top of that, a lifetime memory of having been inside that book--something only blunt trauma and age can take away. Here's a mini guide to what's out there in the stores and worth giving.

For your itchy-footed friend, who always talks about starting over on an island far, far away: Three years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert appeared to have it all: a terrific job writing for magazines, a big burly husband and a large house tucked away in the woods. 'Eat Pray Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia' (Viking; $24.95) tells the story of how this all crumbled beneath her and she took off to spend the year traveling, eating and meditating to put herself right again. It's not Siddhartha, sure, but it's nearly impossible to stop reading.

For your friend with the sneaky comic habit: Purists might crave the original issues, wrapped in plastic and laminated from all those damaging elements, but most will salivate for Vertigo's boxed, slip-cased 'Absolute Sandman: Vol. 1' (Vertigo; $99). This edition collates issues one through 20 of Neil Gaiman's groundbreaking series and adds such collector ephemera as his original proposal for the series and early sketches.

For the girlfriend who ran off with your heart, to prove you really are too sensitive for her to appreciate: In 1990, Grégoire Bouillier's phone rang and he heard the voice of the woman who had left him five years earlier without a word or an explanation. She was calling not to apologize but rather to invite him to a birthday party, to appear as the mystery guest. Translated from the French by Lorin Stein, 'The Mystery Guest: An Account' (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $18) describes the mental somersaults he does as he prepares to face one last time the woman who ruined his life.

For the dad you fear won't ever read a book again: David McCullough isn't the only literary defibrillator for dads who have let their minds grow cobwebs. Steven Johnson has written hugely compelling books on computers, ants, pop culture and now, with 'The Ghost Map' (Riverhead; $26.95), he chronicles London's plague of 1854, the worst outbreak of cholera in human history. Hardly sounds like a scintillating read, but this book moves like a 19th-century novel, and has all the grit and drama of a cliff-hanging episode of 24.

For your friend who keeps threatening to leave the country if Bush isn't impeached: 'Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America,' by Mark Ehrman (Process; $16.95). This earnest little book will tell you everything you need to know about getting out of the good old U.S. of A., from how to acquire foreign citizenship to where English is spoken, providing testimonials along the way. "Dubai is expat haven," swoons one person. "They have just opened one of the largest indoor skiing mountains."

For your hipster friend: 'Up Is Up but So Is Down: New York's Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992,' edited by Brandon Stosuy. (NYU Press; $29.95) Long before Starbucks took over Greenwich Village and one-bedroom rents hit $3,000, downtown Manhattan was skuzzy, vibrant and alive with arts. Collecting the work of rock-star poets and beat-down bohemians, this hugely illustrated book attests to the fact that the life portrayed in Mary Gaitskill's edgy work isn't a dream.

For your indecisive friend: Why read magazines at all when the best work inside them will just be collected for you in a Best American series (Houghton Mifflin; $14 each)? The long-running readers' digest for smart folks is now available in two gift box flavors: one burly ('Best American Sportswriting 2006,' editor, Michael Lewis) and the sensitive ('Best American Travel Writing,' editor, Tim Cahill).

For your uncle the atheist, who won't be celebrating any goddamn holidays: 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin; $27). Herein, the great Oxford scientist and proclaimed atheist--not to mention the man who introduced the notion of the "selfish" gene--takes aim at faith, which he believes is simply a whole lot of pabulum.

For your buddy, the aspiring writer: Impossible to read just one, The Paris Review series of interviews with writers is the book fiend's potato chip. Now you can binge. 'The Paris Review Interviews: Vol. I' (Picador; $16) pokes, prods and pries more than a dozen great poets and novelists into admitting their techniques, and their fears. "Interviewer: Do you feel as though you're up there without a net under you? Kurt Vonnegut: And without a balancing pole, either. It gives me the heebie-jeebies sometimes."

For the relative who is always giving away money to homeless people on the street: 'Stuart: A Life Backwards' (Delacorte; $20). In this miraculous and beautiful little book, Alexander Masters spins, in reverse, the incredible life story of a man he found drunk on the street in Cambridge from their first run-in back through crimes, prison, juvenile hall, suicide attempts and special schools.

For your co-worker, the current-events junkie: 'The Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn' (Henry Holt; $32.50). She drank with the guys and then beat them to the scoop, married Hemingway and survived. Martha Gellhorn lived a 21st-century life in the 1940s, and biographer Caroline Moorhead's big, luscious collection of letters fills us in on all the dramatic backstory to each chapter of her eventful life.

For the fiction lover in the family: Alaa al Aswany's runaway bestseller 'The Yacoubian Building' (HarperPerennial; $13.95) has finally made it to this country, and it does not suffer in translation. The book unfolds around the time of the first Gulf War in a Cairo apartment block that has seen better times. The characters range from the 65-year-old cosmopolitan Zaki Bey, who has loved more women than Casanova, to Hatim Rasheed, the editor of a prestigious Cairo weekly and regular customer of the gay bar downstairs, Chez Nous. Hilarious, soulful and bawdy, Dickens would have written a tale like this had he been born in Cairo.


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