By Dennis Abrams
I have to admit to feeling a bit of skepticism (if not downright cynicism) when my Facebook feed started filling up with posts from the Penguin Hotline, promising me individualized book suggestions to make my holiday shopping as easy and stress-free as possible.
So I decided to take it for a test drive.
Making myself the potential gift recipient, I filled in the online form regarding age and gender, answered the question, “ In general, do you know what this person likes to read? Any favorite books, writers or magazines?” with Atticus Lish, Murakami, Didion, literary fiction in general, and the final question, “Any other good clues? Hobbies, interests, favorite radio, TV, or other passions?” with current events, politics, food, history, and travel, and submitted it.
Two days later, I received this:
Thanks for contacting the Penguin Hotline! It sounds like your gift recipient and I share some similar tastes in books. The first thing I’d recommend is Marlon James’ Brief History of Seven Killings, a fictional take on the gangs of Kingston, Jamaica during the 1970s and beyond. The book centers on a real-life attempted assassination of Bob Marley, but it’s really about the city’s roaming gangs, political operatives and people just trying to find a better life. It’s probably the best new novel I’ve read in the past two years.
I always point Murakami fans to a couple of other talented magical-realist authors. Mo Yan (winner of the Nobel Prize in 2012) writes brilliantly about China’s tumultuous wartime and post-Communist history in Red Sorghum, and I know people who also really enjoyed Big Breasts and Wide Hips. For another Japanese author (who delves into even deeper weirdness than Murakami), try Kobo Abe; his best-known work is The Woman in the Dunes, but I really enjoyed Secret Rendezvous despite the lame title. And a recent favorite of mine is Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound, which revolves around three generations of an Indonesian family that sees the end of Dutch colonialism and the painful transition to independence.
Lastly, I’m latching onto your food and travel interests because there are a bevy of great food and travel memoirs out there. A few of my favorites:
• On the Noodle Road – tracing the travels of the noodle from China to Italy
• The Inland Sea – puttering around one of Japan’s most picturesque locales in the early 1970s
• Barbarian Days – my favorite book of 2015 so far, it’s a wide-ranging memoir of family, travel and surfing by a respected war journalist
• Blood, Bones, and Butter – my standard for food memoirs, by the founder and chef of New York City’s Prune restaurant
I hope these suggestions help. Happy holidays!
Ryan, Penguin Random House
I have to say, I was highly impressed. Every title that Ryan suggested are things that I’ve either read (the fact that he loved The Inland Sea earned him a larger number of bonus points), have sitting on my pile waiting to be read (the Kurniawan for example), or are new books (like Barbarian Days and Secret Rendezvous) that have been added to my want to read list.
A personalized list of suggestions without a single miss? Wow. Give the Penguin Hotline a try if you’re stuck on your Xmas gift list. Based on my experience, it kind of rocks.
And thanks Ryan!