Omni Personal Shopper: The Mother-in-Law Who Loves Ondaatje and Good Food

Our first Personal Shopper request came via email. (Read more about our Omni Personal Shopper project this holiday, and add your own requests to one of our comments sections or via email to omnivoracious at We already have enough requests to keep us going into next week, but we'd love to keep going well beyond that.) Here's our anonymous correspondent's description:

She is my mother-in-law, and despite all stereotypes, I like her.  She is 75 and lives alone.  Although she has never had a lot of money, she has very urbane attitudes and interests.  She loves fancy cheeses, nice wine, and dinners out.  She doesn't always know a lot about the cheese, wine or food, but she loves to experience them all.  She also really likes people.  She has never, ever met a stranger and extracts interesting stories from everyone she encounters (usually by telling them other people's interesting stories).  She has no hobbies and does not cook, and doesn't get out much in the winter months (she lives in a cold, icy place).  She reads voraciously, so I'd like to get her a book.  She reads mostly fiction, and her favorite authors are Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Ondaatje.  I would like to get something for her that is either very new (published since October 2009) or very old, because she buys a lot of books and goes to the library, so I never know what she has read.

First of all, that profile is a story in itself--I have a great image of her already (perhaps because my mother-in-law, who I like too, is also a voracious reader). As we all know here (since everybody who struggles to find books to give us that we haven't already read tells us so), a voracious, up-to-date reader can be among the hardest to find a book for (but among the most satisfying when you get it right). We had a few ideas for her, though:

  • From Anne: An audiobook can be a welcome companion on those wintry days when no one wants to leave the house: we loved the sound of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Or, for someone who loves food and travel stories, Julia Child's My Life in France is about as delicious and charming as it gets, and The Tenth Muse--a memoir by Julia Child's cookbook editor, Judith Jones--is equally wonderful. Cutting for Stone has been a huge customer favorite this year; it would be the perfect next novel for anyone who enjoys Barbara Kingsolver or Michael Ondaatje.
  • Since Ondaatje and Kingsolver often write their storylines around compelling female characters, Lauren thought of Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women and Jeannette Walls's Half Broke Horses, two novels that were on both our Top 100 editors' picks and the New York Times's 10 Best list for 2009.
  • Mari thought of combining food and fiction with Gourmet Rhapsody, the new book by Muriel Barbery, the young French writer whose Elegance of the Hedgehog was a surprise hit in the U.S. last year. (New to English, that is--it was her first book, written before Hedgehog.) It's the story of Paris's premier food critic, who lies on his deathbed and recalls a life spent in thrall to food.
  • Maybe it was the presence of Ondaatje among her favorites, but my first thoughts were of two Canadians: Anne Michaels, whose second novel, The Winter Vault, didn't get much attention in the U.S. but a great response in Canada. (Her first novel was the international bestseller Fugitive Pieces.) Like Ondaatje, Michaels is a poet too, and I think her interest in history and her lyrical style would find a fan in any Ondaatje lover. And I also thought a lovely gift would be a set of the three collections of stories by Mavis Gallant that NYRB Classics has put out in the past few years: Paris Stories, Varieties of Exile, and The Cost of Living. Your mother-in-law likely knows Gallant's stories, but there are sure to be some new finds for her here, and like all NYRB Classics, they are wonderfully packaged.
  • And finally, if you want to go a little further off the beaten path, there's Clarice Lispector, the glamorously enigmatic Brazilian author who was profiled this year in her first major biography in English, Ben Moser's Why This World. You might combine his bio in a package with one or two of her strange, short novels, like The Hour of the Star or The Passion of G.H.
That's more ideas than you need, no doubt, but we hope there's something in there that sounds right. Let us know what you try. --Tom

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Comments (1)

I'm the anonymous correspondent. Thanks so much for the thoughtful suggestions -- they are spot on. I had already been thinking of getting Half-Broke Horses for her, so I will probably go ahead and do that. I am really intrigued by the Judith Jones memoir -- that seems like the sort of book she would really enjoy, but might not come across herself. Verghese also feels right, but Cutting for Stone was published in February and seems like something she is likely to have already read. And most of the other books sound like they would be very interesting to her.

I'm going to spend some time looking at all the reviews of the books you suggest closely. I think what I'll do is make up a list of all the books I considered for her, and give her that along with the books I choose. I think she would like to know what I looked at, and your suggestions are so good that I'd like her to have them all. Thank you very much for your help.

Posted by: Katxena | Tuesday December 8, 2009 at 4:57 AM

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