Out of all my childhood Christmases, three gifts stand out: the shiny blue Schwinn bike I saw under the tree at 3 a.m. and touched with tremulous awe; the big, brown-eyed doll I'd admired at Marshall Field's but never dreamed could be mine; and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. It didn't thrill me the way the other two did at first, but that book-which, tattered and stained, is in my bookcase today-turned out to be the most satisfying gift of all.
For a week after Christmas, I lay on the sofa in the living room of our little tract house on the edge of the Illinois prairie, engrossed in the faraway world of those plucky March sisters and their devoted Marmee; and when saintly, sickly Beth finally breathed her last, I sobbed so hard I soaked the Colonial-print slipcover with my tears, much to the derisive amusement of my older brothers. I must have read that book a dozen times over the next decade, and those characters and their history seem almost as real to me as my own life.
Bookstore owners and library officials tell me I have many kindred spirits in Sarasota; we may be getting more glamorous by the minute, but we're also a city of bookworms, devouring literature and magazines at a rate well above the national average. We also love hearing as well as reading distinguished authors, as those long lines for the Sarasota Reading Festival seminars always attest.
Considering the enduring magic of a great book, we decided to ask some of the authors scheduled to appear at the Nov. 5 event a timely question: What book would you give this holiday season to someone you love?
We can be haunted-or helped-by our past, believes poet and novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, whose Queen of Dreams is the story of a young woman who forges a healing connection with her Indian heritage. But too often we obsess about old losses and mistakes rather than moving on. So for her mother, "who often thinks regretfully of past events," Divakaruni would choose Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now. "This book, about living in the present moment and connecting with one's own joyful inner self, can help anyone who is trying to evolve spiritually," she says.
For Bruce Feiler (Where God Was Born), faith is the central issue of our time, as fundamentalism and intolerance make many wonder if religion is a force for war rather than peace. Feiler is the father of newborn identical twin daughters, and he wants them to grow up "to create their own relationship with God." That's why one day he'll give them The Dignity of Difference by British rabbi Jonathan Sacks. This "penetrating, learned and highly readable" book, he says, "can help us all find common ground through faith."
TV star Denise Nicholas (Room 222) has written her first novel, Freshwater Road, about a young black woman growing up in the turbulent '60s. But in any place or time, she says, it's love that redeems our lives, and no book expresses that better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic Love in the Time of Cholera. This story of a couple separated until they are old is about the patience and power of love, she says, and would make a wonderful gift for one of her single friends. As a single woman herself, she says, "It breaks my heart every time I read it; it makes me laugh; and it gives me hope."
Mystery novelist Bob Morris (Jamaica Me Dead) can be hilarious in person or print, but this fourth-generation Floridian is dead serious about our state's heritage. Years ago, his wife gave him a first edition of The WPA Guide: Florida, the Southernmost State that he counts as one of his most treasured possessions. "It's simply the best and most comprehensive book ever written about the state," says Morris, and he's giving his sons, Bo and Dash, their own copies this Christmas. "I want them to have a sense of what Florida was like before so-called progress flattened everything into sameness," he explains.
On their HGTV show, Room by Room, and in their book, Real Decorating for Real People, new Sarasotans Shari Hiller and Matt Fox explain that decorating is all about creating the feeling of home; and for Hiller, there's nothing homier or more heartfelt than reading bedtime stories to your children. Every night, she reads aloud to her six-year-old son, and this Christmas she's planning to add to their collection of books of poetry by Jack Prelutsky. "They're as much fun to read as they are to listen to, and the simple line drawings that go with them are just perfect," says Hiller.
For popular TV cook Lidia Bastianich, food is love-but it's science, too, and if you're one of those cooks who wants to know why bread rises or sauces thicken, Bastianich, who is also the author of Lidia's Family Table, has just the book for you: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. Far from being dry or academic, she says it's "fascinating and empowering," explaining food chemistry in a way that we all can understand-and use to improve our own culinary prowess.
And while we're on the topic of reading, we're proud to report that our company was just recognized by the Florida Magazine Association with 17 awards for excellence in a number of categories. They range from design and photography to overall excellence (with SARASOTA winning the silver in that category). But sweetest to our readaholic editors were the writing awards, including a first-place "Charlie" for Craig Pittman's "The Case of the Purloined Orchid" in our March issue; two for Robert Plunket, for his Culture Vulture and Mr. Chatterbox columns, and the award for Best Headlines (you'd be surprised how much agony and effort go into writing those brief little phrases!).
And-drumroll, please-we tied for the gold with our sister publication, Gulfshore Life, for Best-Written Magazine. The judges wrote that SARASOTA combines "gorgeous photography and splashy layouts" with "an obvious dedication to provide stories meant to be read, not just skimmed" and "writers who combine style with impressive reporting skills." And, they added, "Even harder to believe in this USA Today/McPaper world, some of those intriguing stories were allowed to run longer than one spread-longer than two! Hooray and congrats!"
That's a compliment not only to our editors and writers but to you, our readers. Sarasota-and Sarasotans-appreciate and encourage good writing and good reading, and that inspires everything we do.