Emily Dickinson, faced with a long Christmas list, famously scribbled “There is no present like a book.” OK, the word “frigate,” not “present,” is what you’ll find in modern collections of her poetry, but I’m sure she must have initially been thinking about holiday gifts. Even now, books are bargains. Plus, they are really easy to wrap.
Should you be seeking 2019 titles, consult The Washington Post Book World’s recent guide to the best of this season’s readings. What follows here is a more idiosyncratic sampler, geared mainly to specialty presses and writers of the past.
For all the Janeites on your list, reach for “The Lost Books of Jane Austen,” by Janine Barchas (Johns Hopkins), which — despite the title — isn’t about unwritten sequels to “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park.” Instead it’s a fascinating, richly illustrated study of what we can learn from the numerous popular editions of Austen’s novels that appeared during the 19th and 20th centuries.
For sheer joy, few comics can match Carl Barks’ tales of Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck and the Junior Woodchucks Huey, Dewey and Louie. For several years, Fantagraphics has been publishing definitive albums of their myriad adventures, often to strange lands in search of treasure or in pursuit of Scrooge’s fortune, periodically stolen by the dastardly Beagle Boys. Even the titles of the collections are the stuff of childhood dreams: “The Black Pearls of Tabu Yama,” “The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan” and, most recently, “The Mines of King Solomon.”
While focusing on classics of every genre, the Folio Society’s handsome, well-printed books feature original artwork and new introductions, sometimes by the author, sometimes by a critic (even, on a few past occasions, by one with my name). This year, two of my very favorite books have been given the Folio treatment. John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” might be described as an irresistible love letter to the quirky — and sometime murderous — denizens of Savannah, Ga. Charles Portis’ “True Grit” is more than a western; it’s a masterpiece of American literature, beloved by writers as different as Donna Tartt (who introduces this edition) and George Pelecanos. Start reading the Berendt or Portis in the morning and your day will be a happy one.
Montaigne’s “Essays,” selected by Sarah Bakewell, inspired the Folio Society to produce a slightly oversize, faintly Renaissance-style volume worthy of that wary self-examiner. For children, pick up Margery Williams’ “The Velveteen Rabbit,” with William Nicholson’s original art freshly restored. Did you know, by the way, that early in her career Williams wrote “The Thing in the Woods,” a werewolf novel admired by H.P. Lovecraft?
Fans of HPL himself will be grateful to Necronomicon Press for two new works honoring the 20th-century horror master. Compiled by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, “Ave atque Vale: Reminiscences of H.P. Lovecraft” packs 500 pages with anecdotal memoirs by people who knew the Providence, R.I., writer, while “H.P. Lovecraft: Selected Essays,” edited by Joshi, provides a tasting menu of his wide-ranging nonfiction. For the fiction, “The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham” (Norton) is in some ways more valuable than Leslie S. Klinger’s first “Annotated Lovecraft” because it concentrates on less familiar work.
To paraphrase “Little Women,” it wouldn’t be Christmas without any ghost stories. Specializing in Irish writers of supernatural fiction, Swan River Press has just issued a beautiful keepsake volume of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea,” in which an unfortunate cleric finds himself bedeviled by a demonic, red-eyed monkey only he can see. Along with essays by Brian J. Showers and Jim Rockhill, this edition of Le Fanu’s Victorian masterpiece comes with a CD of the Wireless Mystery Theatre performing the story.
Any lover of classic mysteries will ooh and aah over “The Hooded Gunman: An Illustrated History of Collins Crime Club,” by John Curran, our leading Agatha Christie scholar. Ranging from the 1930s through the 1980s, this lavish art book reproduces the dust jacket covers of every title issued by the detective fiction imprint. What’s more, it includes each book’s descriptive blurb and Curran’s commentary throughout.
Collins used to advertise “a Christie for Christmas,” but there’s plenty of excellent entertainment to be found in the Golden Age rivals of Dame Agatha. For example, American Mysteries Classics, an imprint of Penzler Publishers, has just reissued John Dickson Carr’s dazzling howdunit, “The Crooked Hinge.” Its magnificently far-fetched plot turns on a line from G.K. Chesterton’s first Father Brown story, “The Blue Cross”: “There was one thing which Flambeau, with all his dexterity of disguise, could not cover, and that was his singular height.” If, like me, you are drawn to murder in locked rooms and other impossible crimes, be sure to check out American Mystery Classics’ earlier titles, notably Ellery Queen’s “The Chinese Orange Mystery” and Clayton Rawson’s “Death From a Top Hat.”
But don’t overlook the offerings, past and present, of the complementary British Library Crime Classics, available here from Poisoned Pen Press. “The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories” is this year’s seasonal collection, compiled by the series’s general editor, Martin Edwards. The largely Golden Age assortment features an exploit of Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard and clever tales by Ronald Knox, Cyril Hare and Julian Symons.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, Black Mask magazine took murder back onto the mean streets. Milton Shaw’s biography of his father, “Joseph T. Shaw: The Man Behind Black Mask,” chronicles the life of the pulp magazine’s editor, with anecdotes about such famous contributors as Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner. If you’d like to explore hard-boiled storytelling from the 1950s, pick up “The Best of Manhunt,” edited by Jeff Vorzimmer, with memoir-like essays by Lawrence Block and Barry Malzberg. Its publisher, Stark House, also reprints paperback classics of postwar noir fiction.
Savvy readers of Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” quickly realize that this four-volume masterpiece of the 1980s resembles an iceberg, with a lot going on beneath the surface of the beautifully crafted text. That’s why Michael Andre Driussi’s latest from Sirius Fiction, “Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun: A Chapter Guide,” is an essential vade mecum. Similarly, Gwyneth Jones’ “Joanna Russ” and Robert Markley’s “Kim Stanley Robinson” are welcome new titles in the University of Illinois’ series, Modern Masters of Science Fiction. Russ was a pioneering feminist author, best known for her 1975 gender-questioning tour de force “The Female Man,” while Robinson regularly envisions Utopian and dystopian futures in, for example, the award-winning Mars trilogy and the recent “New York 2140.”
To close, let me remind gift-givers that the Library of America always provides good value, never more so than with “American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s.” Among the masterworks assembled by Gary K. Wolfe are Samuel R. Delany’s Melvillean “Nova” and the great Jack Vance’s characteristically debonair “Emphyrio.”