Nonfiction book for multi-generational gift swap
November 27, 2016 10:17 AM   Subscribe

I've settled on bringing a book and a thematically relevant trinket to my family's gift swap this year. The family consists of my grandparents (80s), my mother and her siblings (50s) and the grandkids (undergraduate/twenty somethings) with a few overlapping interests and I'm looking for a book that will be intriguing to as many of the attendees as possible - but particularly my grandparents who usually have the most trouble finding something interesting at our swaps.

For reference, this will be a "mean santa"/"white elephant" style gift exchange where you choose between unwrapping a new gift or stealing a gift from someone else. This is the only gift exchanging we do so the goal is ostensibly for everyone to end up with something that makes them happy.

My grandfather in particular is very interested in history/biographies - especially about the time periods when his parents/grandparents were young (turn of the 20th century and slightly earlier). The rest of us either have broader taste in books or have caught on to the secret santa game well enough to not unwrap something that is obviously a book. With this in mind, I'm looking for a relatively lightweight book that my grandfather would like but would also catch the interest of another relative who winds up with it. Seabiscuit, biographies of Woody Guthrie and Barry Switzer, and Larry McMurtry's nonfiction/historical fiction would all be good if not for the fact that we've all read them already. Good themes for books would be important figures in college football (I briefly looked for a biography of John Heisman but couldn't find one that looked readable), the history of the American southwest, memoirs from the dust bowl/farmers in general, and stories about tracing your ancestry/genealogy. Whatever I choose needs to be no denser than the aforementioned Seabiscuit and probably should max out at about 300 pages.

Bonus points if you can suggest something fun, small, cheap, TSA friendly, and possibly consumable to wrap up with the book to make the package a little more exciting.

My personal tastes tend more current and more literary so I'm looking to the hivemind to help me out here.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms to Shopping (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Based on the criteria it sounds like my dad has very similar tastes to this guy! After doing a little research I recently got him the book Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America and he said it was fantastic.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:22 AM on November 27, 2016

I totally should have thought of this while I was writing my question, but my grandfather loves to sing and play "Goodnight Irene" and a book where Leadbelly and that song are prominently featured would be amazing. My problem picking a book for this has been that a lot of what is written about these topics looks too dry and academic for a family gift swap.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 10:33 AM on November 27, 2016

What about a photoessay of the part of the United States that he has close associations with? Historical maps, history of the town and so on?
posted by metahawk at 10:33 AM on November 27, 2016

Chernow's Hamilton Biography with the soundtrack; Bill Bryson's a Walk in the Woods; I'm reading the Map Thief right now and it's interesting; Willie Nelson's The Facts of Life: and Other Dirty Jokes is great if your family would be into that. If the family liked Seabiscuit what about Unbroken?
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:44 AM on November 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean is a classic. It's the story of a 1949 wildfire in Montana that killed a group of smokejumper firefighters; MacLean goes back and reconstructs how it happened.

John McPhee is a reliable bet for nonfiction on any subject he touches. Basin and Range is about the geology of the US west, from Utah to California; he has a whole series of books on US geology which are collected in the huge Annals of the Former World.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:49 AM on November 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

The Boys in the Boat about a college rowing team is slightly longer than your ideal but I bet your grandfather would really enjoy it.
posted by emd3737 at 10:52 AM on November 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

Seconding Boys in Boat

For slightly off beat Knowledge is beautiful is one that everyone who's ever picked it up, at my house, is fascinated with.
posted by Ftsqg at 10:54 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Because you mentioned both Woody Guthrie and the Dustbowl, I'll nominate a book from the list of things I want to get around to someday. It's called The Campaign of the Century, and it's about Upton Sinclair running to be governor of California. (I heard an interview with the author on NPR and it stuck with me.) During the Depression, he ran on the socialistic sounding idea that there was enough food in California to feed everyone and it should be shared. Naturally, the powers that be attacked him in many unfair ways.

People who are completely sick of this year's election might find the topic nauseating, though. However, maybe someone can buy it for a Bernie or Buster friend, because there are parallels.
posted by puddledork at 10:54 AM on November 27, 2016

Hard Road West is about the California Gold Rush and is supposed to be great.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:54 AM on November 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I know it is fiction, but Jack Finney's Time and Again is so meticulously researched and so vividly brings to life the New York of 1882, complete with newspaper ads and photos. It really is the most extraordinary book:

Somehow, Simon Morley’s detailed time-travelogue journeys along Fifth Avenue in a horse-drawn cab, and Third on an elevated train, and the Ladies’ Mile on foot, are unputdownable. He somehow infects the reader with his own fascination with that era, and makes that world seem real, and therefore riveting. It’s a fairly staggering achievement. []

I was looking for this time travel t-shirt but on a mug, as it is amusing without being geeky, but they don't seem to sell it. I do like this one as well; it makes a nice gift for whomever ends up with this. A book and mug could be paired with a time travel passport too, to make a little themed package.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:02 AM on November 27, 2016

It's a bit of a tome but The Great Bridge by David McCullough (building of the Brooklyn Bridge) is an insanely good read. Great mix of bridgy engineering stuff and biography. Or maybe something shorter by him? It's all so good.
posted by bluebird at 11:12 AM on November 27, 2016

At the beach house my in-laws rented for more than a decade, there was an amazing coffee-table book of late 19th/early 20th century photos - an anthology from the now-defunct Detroit Publishing, perhaps - that three generations of family pored over throughout every stay. The owners took it with them when they sold the house and I've never been able to locate it. I did find a very able substitute in the Time-Life Books series "This Fabulous Century," which was published in the early 1970s and covered 1870-1969. The volumes are divided by decade (except 1870-1899, which are covered in one book) and you can find them for a buck or two a piece on Amazon or Ebay. I would highly recommend it for a multi-generational swap.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 11:40 AM on November 27, 2016

There are two Bill Bryson books that might be of interest. First, his autobiography about growing up in Iowa called The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. I'm recommending this because my dad (~70) really liked this book because it reminded him of his youth (although he's a bit older than Bryson). The other is called One Summer: America, 1927 which, as its name suggests covers just one summer in American history but it turns out (because it's Bill Bryson) that that summer connects to so many pieces of history - flight, baseball, pole-sitting, movies, etc. These books are little geographically distant from the American southwest but very enjoyable reads and potentially of interest to more than just your grandfather.
posted by hydrobatidae at 11:58 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding Bill Bryson.

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City
posted by chimpsonfilm at 12:00 PM on November 27, 2016

Seconding Unbroken, by the same author as Seabiscuit--with the caveat that the subject matter is considerably more grim.

For a fun addition, I've never tried these myself but I bet miracle fruit tablets would be a hit. (You might want to get extra so everyone can try.)
posted by bettafish at 12:01 PM on November 27, 2016

I was coming in to rec Hard Road West, but LobsterMitten beat me to it, so I'll second it. It's a fantastic history of the Gold Rush Trail. The author's a geologist, and he uses the letters and diaries of the Gold Rush travelers to talk about the geology of the American West, and he writes clearly and less technically about the geology than McPhee (whom I love, but I'd recommend The Control of Nature over Basin and Range).
posted by rtha at 12:03 PM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing Bill Bryson's 'One Summer.' It's a fantastic book. It wasn't a time period I was very much interested in. But it was completely fascinating and entertaining all the way through. Bryson did a really great job of making you really get what it was like to be alive at the time, and what impact the events had on people.
posted by Caravantea at 12:40 PM on November 27, 2016

Also nthing Bryson's "One Summer: America, 1927." I like nonfiction but emphatically not "history" and I was enthralled.
posted by raspberrE at 2:14 PM on November 27, 2016

A very accessible and easy read is Stephen Ambrose nothing like it in the world is a great book. It also helps with AMC's Hell on Wheels show. I have loaned this book to my father grandfather and college nephew. Another good one is Cannonball about the races across the continental US
posted by dstopps at 3:57 PM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Eight Men Out
posted by BWA at 3:59 PM on November 27, 2016

For something that might appeal to grandpa AND other family members, I'd recommend Malcolm Gladwell. His books are more explorations of ideas, but are fun and interesting reads. The Tipping Point and Outliers are both excellent.
posted by wwartorff at 6:48 PM on November 27, 2016

Dead Wake is about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.
posted by elmay at 7:45 PM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

For football history, what about Carlisle vs Army, which is about the 1914 game played by the Carlisle Indian School (coached by "Pop" Warner and featuring Jim Thorpe) vs Army (featuring a young Dwight Eisenhower). The whole story of Pop Warner, the Carlisle Indian School team and the early years of football is really interesting. I haven't read the book, but I heard a great podcast (SLRadiolab) on the Carlisle Indian School and their use of football in the early days to make their students more accepted as "American", but also how their style of play revolutionized the game and made Pop Warner into the first coach to be a household name. Booklist compared the book to Seabiscuit and Kirkus compared it to The Perfect Storm.
posted by clerestory at 2:50 AM on November 28, 2016

Nthing Boys in the Boat.

It is later than your suggested time period, but Oliver Sacks' Uncle Tungsten is a memoir about his childhood fascination with chemistry, starting before WWII.
posted by azalea_chant at 10:35 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone! I'm getting the Willie Nelson book for the family swap because I can think of two other family members who will specifically enjoy it in addition to my grandfather.

Carlisle vs Army is now on my "to read" list - I've always been fascinated by Jim Thorpe's story.

I'll keep Bill Bryson in mind the next time I'm looking for a gift for a non-fiction lover (or to expand my own reading horizons) I had heard his name but didn't realize how many different books he has written.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 12:33 PM on December 10, 2016

I've only read one of his books, and it wasn't about history at all - it was about him and a buddy hiking the Appalachian Trail - and it was great.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:38 PM on December 10, 2016

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