Great Gift Books

      IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE THE SEASON OF GIVING, so here are Book Critic Ellen Heltzel's picks for books that would be ideal for the readers on your gift list.

      1. "The Casual Vacancy," by J.K. Rowling. OK, so we thought all she could write was Harry Potter books... and, certainly, that would have been more than enough. Now Rowling surprises us with her first novel for adults, and it is a pleasure to read, especially if you share her sardonic view of the world. In an English village, one of its own drops dead suddenly from a heart attack, and this starts us on a deep journey into the psyches of the survivors. Contemporary small-town life recreated in the style of Jonathan Swift. Definitely not for children.

      2. "Flight Behavior," by Barbara Kingsolver. Environmentalists, take note. As usual, Kingsolver is on the side of the angels (that is, those who crusading to keep the world free of those who would exploit it for a buck). Her latest novel, set in a fictional Tennessee town, posits a valley full of monarch butterflies that is her version of the canary in the mine, warning of the dangerous consequences of global warming. Kingsolver, a hugely popular novelist and one who never shrinks from a definite social and political message, delivers one more time.

      3. "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson," by William Souder. As long as we're talking about the environment... here's one for the nonfiction fans, a biography of the woman whose work launched the environmental movement. She was a biologist, not a crusader, once described as a "nun of nature." Anything but a showboater, she launched her writing career after her boss at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries said one of her reports was too good to be kept from a wider readership. Her most famous book "Silent Spring," published 50 years ago and focusing on the destruction caused by DDT, turned Americans (or, at least, Oregonians) into stewards of the planet.

      4. "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis," by Timothy Egan. History and biography buffs will love this one. Egan's story of ambition and uncanny vision focuses on the scrappy son of a preacher who has become one of America's best-known photographers. It starts in Seattle near the turn of the last century, when Native Americans were being shunted onto reservations and their children sent to boarding schools so they could learn how to act and think like white people. Somehow Curtis had the insight to think differently about these marginalized people and to train his camera lens on their vanishing culture, with stunning results. Photos included!!

      5. "Nutcracker," by E.T.A. Hoffman, with pictures by Maurice Sendak. Sendak, who died earlier this year, wrote and illustrated award-wining books for children and also designed stage sets. This reissue of the holiday classic is based on the sets he created for the Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of "Nutcracker" in the 1980s and makes a beautiful holiday keepsake, one that captures the magic of the season and also offers a read-aloud opportunity for families with young children.