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5 great book picks for gift-giving this holiday season

'Inside Animal Hearts and Minds' by Belinda Recio and 'Shahnameh' by A. Ferdowsi are two books that would make ideal gifts this year.

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Prince Valiant Volumes 1-3
By Hal Foster
Fantagraphics Books
336 pp.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters
By Ursula K. Le Guin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
240 pp.

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The sheer, staggering variety of the book world in 2017 presents endless bookish possibilities for gift-giving – very much including the time-honored tradition of gift-giving to yourself. The year saw a blast of biographies of American presidents, a blast of top-notch fiction, and a blast of books commemorating the centenary of the Russian revolutions. But there were hundreds of outstanding titles in other genres, books ranging from dancing memoirs to dystopian vegan food guides – plenty to satisfy virtually any kind of reader. Here are five exemplary picks from that abundance:

Inside Animal Hearts and Minds: Bears That Count, Goats That Surf, and Other True Stories of Animal Intelligence and Emotion by Belinda Recio: In this new book by veteran nature writer Belinda Recio, the once-narrow parameters of animal cognition and empathy are blown open; the Lockean conception of nonhuman animals as unthinking biological machines withers as Recio recounts in wonderfully anecdotal prose some of the latest scientific findings, from grieving birds to laughing rats to dozens of other species exhibiting traits humans once reserved for themselves. It all makes for consistently eye-opening reading. 

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Shahnameh: The Epic of Persian Kings by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, translated by Ahmad Sadri, illustrated by Hamid Rahmanian: From Liveright comes this gorgeously illustrated slipcased translation of the great Persian epic, the most innovative and inviting translation ever made into English. Translator Ahmad Sadri has taken considerable liberties with the traditional arrangement of the "Shahnameh"'s endless tales of heroes, monsters, and the supernatural (and he's chosen prose instead of verse), but everywhere his aim is to make this treasure trove of a work less intimidating, to make its wonders more immediately accessible to non-scholars. These efforts, combined with the physical beauty of the edition, make it a must-have for all enthusiasts of great world literature.

Prince Valiant vol. 1-3  by Hal Foster: Fantagraphics collects their stunning full-sized and painstakingly remastered reprints of one of the greatest newspaper comic strips of all time, Hal Foster's run on "Prince Valiant," into this boxed set of three volumes covering the strip from its inception in 1937 to 1942. The set fleshes out the strips themselves with a huge amount of supplementary material, from sketches to essays on setting, style, and the heyday of the funny pages that have now all but vanished from the American newspaper scene. In the six years reprinted in these volumes, readers watch as Foster quickly grows into his medium and starts taking the kinds of artistic chances no comics draftsman had tried before – and there's the boisterous adventure of it all along the way. 

Death at Nuremberg  by W. E. B. Griffin & William E. Butterworth IV: Under the “guilty pleasure” heading of thriller fiction (in case you're not quite up to the new Solzhenitsyn translation currently out at almost 700 pages from Notre Dame, for instance), there's this new novel by William E. Butterworth IV (in cooperation with the indefatigable W.E.B. Griffin) in the “Clandestine Operations” series, in which our hero, special agent James Cronley, is assigned to protect the chief US prosecutor at the notorious Nuremberg Trials from a possible kidnap attempt, all the while hunting down – and fending off – the Nazi underground movement still very active in the city. Our authors absolutely fill the narrative with action, snappy dialogue, and painlessly-added historical setting – and as a result, as with all “Clandestine Operations” novels, the pages fly by. 

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula Le Guin: The more you re-read this collection of blog posts by science fiction Grandmaster Le Guin, the more you're convinced of Oliver Wendell Holmes's quip that for the true thinker, nothing is trivial. Here Le Guin, who is nearing 90 and has written dozens of books (including a handful of the greatest classics of science fiction and fantasy, some of which were recently collected in a lovely 2-volume Library of America boxed set), adapts to the telegraphic and aphoristic world of blogging as though she were born to it. She offers pithy observations on a hundred subjects, from the dignities (and otherwise) of aging in America to the cultural ubiquity of lazy, language-dulling obscenities to the pleasures of living with an old cat she's known since it was a kitten. All of it is delivered in the core-drilling, clear, thoughtful language of somebody who's been crafting English for more than half a century – but the entries on the craft of writing itself are, perhaps predictably, the best things in the book.