AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're going to do some last-minute shopping with our book critic Alan Cheuse. Needless to say, his friends and family can guess what they'll get from him. And this year he says he's proud of his selections.
ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Every year, I give my family books. What else? Sometimes I get it right and they love what I pick out. Other years aren't so successful. But this time around, I'm trying something new. I got each one on the record telling me what kind of book they wanted to read. I started with the hardest to please.
O'SHEA: I'm Kris O'Shea, and I'm Alan Cheuse's wife.
ALAN CHEUSE: Kris is a choreographer turned psychotherapist. And she's got a lot to read for work. But she does try to make time for fiction.
O'SHEA: I really love big, weighty, timeless novels.
ALAN CHEUSE: For Kris, I've picked up a copy of "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel. It's not that long and it's fashionably dystopian, but it's got big, dramatically played out themes and conjures up all sorts of great questions about the future of love and family in a world we would all hate to embrace. Next up, my son Josh and his wife Cara. They each had some specific requirements.
JOSH CHEUSE: I'm Josh Cheuse. I'm a creative director and a photographer. I like design books, music books, music biographies.
ALAN CHEUSE: Well, I know exactly what I'm going to give to Josh - "Louis Armstrong: Master Of Modernism" by Thomas Brothers. It opens in 1922 on the train that Armstrong took from his native New Orleans to Chicago, and it never loses steam. The book is exact enough for music scholars and readable enough for the rest of us. Josh's wife Cara is a little harder. Cara's an actor with a really creative soul.
CARA: I like history. And I like poetry.
ALAN CHEUSE: Well, she's in luck. A brand-new biography of the late 20th-century poet Philip Larkin has just come out. It's by James Booth. It's called "Philip Larkin: Life, Art And Love," and it gives us the man and the poet at work. Larkin comes off as a troubled fellow, maybe even a jerk, but sometimes bad people make great art. And Larkin was a master of turning ordinary life into a great subject. My daughter-in-law Anna is a lawyer here in Washington.
ANNA BALDWIN: My name is Anna Baldwin. And what I'm looking for is a really great collection of short stories.
ALAN CHEUSE: That's a slam dunk, as they say in this town. One of the best collections of stories I've read in a long time came out this year - "Something Rich And Strange" by Ron Rash, and that's what I'll give Anna. Rash's stories usually take place in Appalachia. They're beautifully made short fiction about ordinary people in dire situations. They make you think about your own life. A story couldn't do more. And finally, here's my daughter Emma with a delightful request.
EMMA: I'm always looking for a good book to read with my toddler. She'd probably asked for "Where The Wild Things Are," but you can only read that so many times.
ALAN CHEUSE: And you can only own so many copies. Well, it's not "Wild Things" or "Goodnight Moon," but for a toddler learning her alphabet, the book is "Once Upon An Alphabet" by Oliver Jeffers. And it gives us a short, short story for each letter in the alphabet, beginning with A and a story about an astronaut, all the way to Z, for a story about a zeppelin, with J and a jelly story and P and a parsnip story and such in between. And if I've made the right choices, you'll all be glad you learned your alphabets folks. Merry and happy everybody, from my family to you and yours.
CORNISH: Reviewer Alan Cheuse with some of his favorite books of the year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.