Convenience Store Woman (Grove, $20), by Sayaka Murata, is an intimate glimpse into an ordinary life that, in the eyes of society, is still not ordinary enough. The book’s protagonist, Keiko, is quite content with her self-acclaimed peculiar, quiet existence, but everyone around her is always trying to judge and “fix” her. Keiko’s internal dialogue and her attempts to construct a “normal” identity make this book one of the best character studies in modern literature. This tiny novel packs in a Kafkaesque look at conformity, questions about how to live one’s life and what it means to be “normal.” all with a fiercely feminist voice and sharp insight. Get it for someone who is looking for the perfect entry point into contemporary Japanese literature, or for a slightly quirky and unsettling read.
Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers (Viking, $27) travels through the years, merging past and present with two narratives, one about the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 1980s, the other about a mother searching for her daughter in Paris in 2015. The stories are connected by subplots, characters, and themes, all propelled by Makkai’s riveting narration. Chicago was hit heavily by AIDS, and yet there are few books written about the city in that time of crisis. Makkai went the extra mile with research and in-person interviews for the novel, and her dedication shows in the intricate and skillful way she chronicles the epidemic from its beginnings until almost the present day. Get this incredible novel for someone who will savor commitment to reading a layered and rich book. This novel is an immersive education, both in history and in storytelling.
The Mere Wife (MCD, $27) , by Maria Dahvana Headley, is the perfect gift for anyone on your list who likes fierce and smart retellings of canonical works that turn the original stories on their heads and make you rethink things you had learned in school. The Mere Wife is a re-invention of Beowulf, set in suburbia and done in Headley’s gorgeous prose and with her flair for fantastic and immersive storytelling. The novel hits you hard whether you know every line of the original or have never read it. Headley has taken apart the original story, rewove and repurposed the pieces, crafting a dark and beautiful fable about war, trauma, power of women, and what it means to keep those you love safe.