12 Best Books for the Holidays of 2012

REVIEWED BY ReadTheSpiriT Editor David Crumm—For the Delight of Young and Old …

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, NO. 1: The Smoke-Free Santa Claus

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.We laughed when we saw this—in spite of ourselves! A wink of the eye and a twist of the head soon gave us to know we had nothing to dread. That’s a fitting review of this year’s most controversial Christmas book. ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile and I got to know Pamela McColl recently during a retreat for new-media developers in New York City. She told us her story of creating a version of Clement Moore’s classic ‘Twas the Night before Christmas without the detail of Santa smoking. Pamela is a Canadian writer who cares passionately about reducing smoking among girls and boys who could grow up to be addicted adults. So, she assembled the creative team behind a colorfully illustrated version of the poem minus the words: “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.”

Sounds so simple, right? Yet one would think she had published a Bible with only 9 Commandments! If you jump to Amazon to order a copy of her book (just click the book covers today), you will find 165 enthusiastic 5-star reviews—and 50 furious 1-star reviews from customers who collectively regard her as a dangerous heretic. That anger seems out of place. In fact, millions of children, teens and young adults envision Santa Claus from TV specials and movies—including such perennial hits as Tim Allen in The Santa Clause. Most of these recent versions of Santa are missing the clouds of tobacco smoke. While ReadTheSpirit promotes great children’s literature, we can’t imagine kids objecting to this slight revision.

Now, is this edited version of Clement Moore’s poem going to keep anyone from smoking? That claim is a stretch, but McColl makes a different kind of argument. Millions of American families include a relative who has died with complications of tobacco addiction and, especially in those homes, the association of one of the world’s most beloved figures with a cloud of smoke can be painful. To that argument, we exclaim as we continue our tips: ‘Happy Christmas, Pam McColl!’ Smoke won’t pass our lips.


Click the cover to visit the Amazon page.Anyone who cares about the Christian roots of Christmas will enjoy this new biography of the original St. Nicholas. The author is Dr. Adam English, a scholar who specializes in the early Christian church. For several years, English immersed himself in all of the latest research on the ancient fellow who would transform into our modern Santa Claus. For those serious readers wanting to dig much deeper into the history of St. Nicholas of Myra, English provides his own roadmap for further reading in more than 30 pages of notes at the end of his book. But most of us simply will enjoy English’s delightfully written 200-page story of this saint who moved the whole world to greater compassion toward the poor. As remarkable as this may seem to modern Christians, Nicholas took the world by storm because his heart was focused on helping the most needy and vulnerable in his day. Back in that era, civic and religious leaders did not assume that was their role in the world. Poor people had to survive or perish on their own, or so the conventional thinking ran until Nicholas began his campaign to change hearts and minds. If you care about Christmas traditions, and especially if you care about the Christian roots of compassion, we highly recommend this book. Want more? Read our Holiday story about the December 6 Feast of St. Nicholas. And: Come back next week to meet Adam English in our author interview.


Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.We can’t imagine a better Hanukkah present than this! For five years, we have recommended the graphic novels of historian, artist, storyteller and educator Steve Sheinkin. Here is one of our earlier interviews with Steve about his most famous creation, to date: Rabbi Harvey of the Wild West. Sheinkin divides his professional efforts between graphic novels and serious history books for kids. His lifelong passion lies in bringing history to life—to encourage a new generation to become fascinated with the heroes, villains, dramas and weird quirks of history. After all, that’s what hooked Steve on history when he was a kid. His history books—such as The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery and King George: What Was His Problem?—explore corners of American history that more stodgy text books ignore. Leaping into graphic novels, his Rabbi Harvey was a brilliant collage of centuries-old rabbinic tales coupled with a sort of Clint Eastwood vision of the Wild West. However, unlike Eastwood, the courageous black-garbed Harvey favored spiritual wisdom over firearms. Now, in El Iluminado, Sheinkin takes his graphic novels a step closer to the historical record. This is an entirely new, non-Harvey adventure based on the discovery of Crypto-Judaism taking root centuries ago during ruthless persecution against religious minorities in the American Southwest. Right there, anyone familiar with the ancient story of Hanukkah sees the holiday connection.


Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.Fans of comics and graphic novels will love this gift! Zondervan has been producing bibilical graphic novels for years, but never in this lavish, full-color format. Got a comic fan on your shopping list? Trust us: The new Book of Revelation will immediately become a collectors item. Beyond comic fans? If you’ve got someone who loves Bible study and is especially drawn to the mysteries of Revelation, this graphic novel is based on a new translation of the ancient text, coupled with gorgeous, dramatic, full-color scenes on every page. The translation was perpared by Greek Orthodox Bible scholar Mark Arey, so the language has a fresh feel for most American readers. The scenes were designed by filmmaker Matt Dorff and graphic artist Chris Koelle. This landmark production began with Avery’s text of Revelation. Then, Matt used his screenwriting talents to divide the story into comic panels, showing us this timeless epic from the point of view of the startled narrator envisioning these divine revelations. Finally, Chris Koelle had the huge challenge of turning what amounted to Matt’s “screenplay” into cartoon panels. Chris prepared an elaborate series of reference photographs, then spent nearly two years drawing and coloring this book. Want to know more? Come back in December to meet Matt and Chris in ReadTheSpirit interviews about their collaboration. This book wil be popular long after Christmas and is great for individual enjoyment and small-group discussion.


Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.Don’t limit yourself to the publisher’s recommendation that The Shema in the Mezuzah is for children ages 3 to 6. We believe that well-designed children’s picture books can be enjoyed by all ages. Remember that most Americans’ knowledge of religion is minimal at best. The majority of American Christians can’t name the 4 Gospels in the New Testament in annual surveys. Jewish kids do better at picking up their own religious traditions, because their minority faith tends to make parents more active in explaining customs. Nevertheless, its safe to say that the vast majority of Americans don’t know much about the curious little fixtures on Jewish doorframes—let alone that there is something inside these traditional cases. Even for those steeped in religious diversity, the lesson of the mezuzah’s placement on the doorframe will come as a refreshing tale. Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is a longtime teacher and writer—and veterans of interfaith programs nationwide may recognize her name. She is the second woman ordained a rabbi (1974); and she is the first rabbi to become a mother. She holds a doctorate in ministry and still is active in interfaith efforts. We won’t spoil the book’s plot—but we can assure you that it is wise, funny and very welcome. It’s a perfect gift for families of any faith.


Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.For our regular readers, all we need to say to recommend The Elephant’s Friend is this: Our friends at the multi-award-winning Candlewick Press published this picture book for children and the adults who love them. We think it’s a great idea for families to help our next generation understand the culture of the world’s largest democracy: India. Call it interfaith relations, cultural competency or appreciation of diversity—or simply call it a wondrous opportunity o enjoy some engaging folklore. But, order a copy of this vividly colored picture book as a gift. The book includes a series of stories, designed halfway between traditional picture-book formats and graphic novel panels. The title story involves a royal elephant befriending a most unlikely creature—and turns on what happens with this odd friend suddenly is taken far away.  Other tales are called The Scrawny Old Tiger, The Talkative Tortoise, The Wise Little Pebet (a mythic bird from Eastern folklore), The Golden Swan, The Monkey and the Crocodile, The Tale of the Three Large Fish and finally The Foolish Lion.  We love the pitch-perfect voice of these ancient yarns, retold in modern Indian-English. At one point, when a villain is finally unmasked, we hear his captor declare: “You heartless rascal!” Parents will have great fun reading this book!


Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.Looking for more adult choices to promote awareness of the world’s great religious traditions? Yale University Press brings us a substantial volume by John Bowker, a professor of religious studies who has taught at several universities, including Cambridge. He is an honorary canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a consultant for UNESCO, as well as a BBC broadcaster and author and editor of many books. Using his half century of immersion in the world’s religions, Bowker now gives us this hefty, illustrated book to help people interested in faith find appropriate pathways into the sacred works of: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism—and more! You will find helpful references to 400 sacred works. Bowker’s book will be helpful to students studying world culture, community leaders hoping to understand diverse populations—even business leaders and medical practitioners trying to navigate cross-cultural challenges. But don’t mistake this for a dry encyclopedia. Bowker’s many years of broadcasting and writing for general readers ensure that his first mission is engaging his audience. In this case, he hooks us by connecting dots across our world’s seemingly vast mosaic of spiritual ideas. I especially enjoyed his section on Japan, where Bowker’s takes huge leaps. While discussing cherry blossoms and the Samurai code, he leaps back a millennium to the world’s first novel (The Tale of Genji) and then rockets to 19th-century Europe to Vincent Van Gogh! We recommend: Enjoy touring the sacred world with Bowker’s book and you will come back far wiser for the journey.


Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.Now, here’s a tour of cultural treasures you can taste! The best way to recommend On the Chocolate Trail is to list some of the recipes you will find in these pages: Chocolate Matzah Brickle, Red Chile Bizcochitos (Little Cookies), Cayenne Chocolate Kicks and Cocoa Nibs Citrus Salad. Hooked already? But wait—this is far more than just another chocolate cookbook. It’s not even an entirely Jewish exploration of chocolate. Rabbi Deborah Prinz is a noted expert on chocolate, related Jewish food customs—and the world history of chocolate. This review may not yet be summoning your social conscience—but consider that the collision of Old and New Worlds 500 years ago set off centuries of yearning for sugar, chocolate and the ruthless repression of entire populations in pursuit of those addictive treats. Rabbi Prinz takes us through some of that history as well as contemporary tips about shopping for the very best chocolates—as well as “green” chocolate that is ethically produced and marketed. At the end of her book, she has a mouth-watering 20-page guide to chocolate producers, landmarks and even chocolate museums worldwide. Even if you’re not likely to board a plane and try chocolate tourism yourself, many of these listings include websites so a virtual tour of chocolate gems may be in your future.


Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.You also may enjoy reading our ReadTheSpirit interview with Thomas Nelson Bible-research professor David Capes, one of the key figures behind the complete Voice Bible—an ideal gift for any Bible-lover on your holiday list. Our conversation with Capes about the massive effort behind The Voice is our featured author interview this week. Given the tidal waves of Bible translations in recent decades, many Christians may have overlooked the individual sections of the Voice that have been published by Thomas Nelson over the past half dozen years. Now, the entire Protestant Bible is finished, including Old and New Testaments. This particular project has strong evangelical roots, as would be expected with a Thomas Nelson imprint on the cover—but a number of prominent mainline figures also were involved in The Voice. The most important thing to understand about The Voice is its origins among pastors, preachers and teachers who wanted a rendition of the ancient text that was accurate yet also was presented in a format that made reading the Bible easier in congregations. For example, some sections of the text that are essentially dialogue between various men and women are presented in screenplay format. That makes it easy to organize a group reading. At this point, Nelson has announced no plans to produce a Catholic or Orthodox version of The Voice with the additional books of the Bible used in those Christian denominations. Nevertheless, whatever your Christian background—The Voice is well worth exploring for eye-opening insights into Scripture.


Cick the cover to visit this book’s Amazon page.We had to struggle to keep our review copy of The Art of Faith from scooting out of our offices in the hands of curious churchgoers—once readers actually cracked the front cover and discovered what was inside. The book’s title may sound tiresome—like an art-appreciation lecture you were supposed to appreciate as an undergraduate yet had trouble following without a few yawns. But wait! Think about this book, instead, as a very cleverly designed toolbox for suddenly expanding your appreciation of churches around the world! This book is a Swiss Army Knife for unlocking all kinds of wonders embodied in confusing—even if colorful—details in the windows, woodwork, stone carvings, vestments and fabric arts of churches both new and ancient. At ReadTheSpirit, we are longtime promoters of visiting houses of worship. However, even for Christians, walking into a new church is like trying to read hieroglyphics in an Egyptian museum exhibit. The symbols are exotic and mysteriously appealing, but most of us don’t have a clue what they mean. Truth be told, most of us can’t understand the symbols in our own churches! Now, before you get defensive about this review—Judith Couchman, the art historian who created this must-own reference book, admits that even she was unable to find a proper Christian Symbols 101 guidebook to tuck into her own shoulder bag while touring churches. That’s why she wrote this one. We say: Thank you, Judith!


Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.In 2006, Christianity Today ranked the 50 most influential Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals. Number 3 on the list, outranking a host of evangelical super-stars, was C.S. Lewis and his Mere Christianity. If you have a person on your Christmas list who actively talks about his or her Christian faith, they probably have read this classic and likely have a well-thumbed copy on their bookshelf. Mere Christianity is Lewis’ attempt at making a common-sense argument for the Christian faith—aimed at general readers whose lives have been fairly secular. The popular approach of these texts is no accident. Mere Christianity began as a series of BBC broadcasts by Lewis during World War II. Later, they were edited and collected into a series of three short books. Eventually, they became the one volume that has been a best seller for more than half a century. No, Mere Christianity’s sales do not rank in the Stratosphere with The Chronicles of Narnia, some volumes of which have sold well over 50 million copies. Nevertheless, it is a hugely influential book and a smart choice for someone on your holiday list. There are various editions available both new and gently used. But, this 2012 “Gift Edition” adds some unique and welcome features: The type is big and bold; illustrations are sprinkled through the text; and key points are highlighted in even bigger gold lift-out quotations. Stick a copy in someone’s stocking this year.


Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.James Bond is all the rage this winter. If you doubt that claim, read our earlier story on why Bond will remain at the crest of popular culture for months. Perhaps you’re contemplating giving a gift of the $100-plus boxed set of all the 007 movies to a Bond fan in December. More than likely, though, the price tag for those two dozen movie disks is simply too high. So, in our 12th Best Books selection for holiday gift giving, we are recommending a book that was released three years ago: The James Bond Omnibus 001. At just a little more than $10, this is a great stocking stuffer for the 007 on your list. And, if you love the idea of giving James Bond collectibles, that Amazon page for volume 001 also links to volumes 002 through 004. The final volume was just released in October 2012. Beyond the appeal of collecting an unusual piece of Bond memorabilia, why would readers care about these comic strips first published in the 1950s in British newspapers? One reason is that, although Ian Fleming originally opposed 007 comic strips—he later embraced the idea. The comic strips arguably depict Bond closer to Fleming’s own image of the spy. Some sources from the 1950s claim that is so. There’s no argument that these comic strips are closer to the original novels than the movies. So, as a quick refresher of the original books, these 300-plus-page collections are lots of fun. Volume 001 (the one shown above) contains Casino Royale, Goldfinger, Dr. No—and more—all in one thick paperback. And you can’t beat that for pure adventure this holiday season!


YOU CAN CLICK ON ANY BOOK COVER (above) and jump to the Amazon page that way. Or, you can use these text links to find the books we recommend.

  1. Twas The Night Before Christmas: Edited by Santa Claus for the Benefit of Children of the 21st Century (Smoke Free)
  2. The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra
  3. El Iluminado: A Graphic Novel by Steve Sheinkin and Ilan Stavans
  4. The Book of Revelation: A Graphic Novel by Matt Dorff, Chris Koelle and others
  5. The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other
  6. The Elephant’s Friend and Other Tales from Ancient India
  7. The Message and the Book: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions
  8. On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao
  9. The Voice Bible: Step Into the Story of Scripture
  10. The Art of Faith: A Guide to Understanding Christian Images
  11. Mere Christianity: Gift Edition
  12. James Bond: Omnibus Volume 001, Comic strips based on the Ian Fleming novels that inspired the movies, bound as graphic novels


PLEASE CONSIDER SHOPPING READTHESPIRIT BOOKS, TOO? Visiting our new ReadTheSpirit Bookstore to explore our great titles for individual reflection and group discussion.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.


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