Hiding from your kids this holiday? Here's what to do read in your secret lair.

A Short History of Nearly Everything (Special Illustrated Edition) by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition by Bill Bryson is a fantastic overview of exactly how we got here – and by “here” I mean on this planet, in this particular solar system, and via the sheer good luck to have been attached to a favored evolutionary line.

“Consider the fact,” Bryson writes, “that for 3.8 billion years, a period older than the earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forbears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstance to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.”

And wait, there’s more. Bryson delivers a short history of everything from birth of the universe, and the unimaginable immensity of the cosmos, to the tininess of the atom (“one ten-millionth of a millimeter”). And while the scope of the book impresses, it’s the details that win the reader over.

“Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you,” Byson writes. “...So we are all reincarnations – though short-lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere – as part of a leaf or other human being or drop of dew.”

With admirable clarity and lightness of touch, Bryson weighs in on quarks and hominids and chloroflurocarbons – explaining just exactly how all of these seemingly esoteric phenomena relate to, and are intimately interconnected with, every sentient being on earth. It’s not only an addictive read, but also a book that’s a pleasure to flip through – each chapter supported by photographs and illustrations of everything from ice sheets to atom-smashers to a single strip of deoxyribonucleic acid.

Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor

Saul Bellow is one of the late 20th century’s truly great novelists, an artist that you simply must read. To list his many accolades, starting with the Nobel Prize for literature and working on down, doesn’t do justice to the sheer joy of reading his expansive, comical, savvy, vital, heart-breaking books. In Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor, we get an epistolary self-portrait of Bellow through letters to friends and family, and perhaps even more interestingly to many of his fellow writers.

Here he is writing to a young Philip Roth:

“...I knew when I hit Chicago (was it twelve years ago?) and read your stories that you were the real thing. When I was a little kid, there were still blacksmiths around, and I’ve never forgotten the ring of a real hammer on a real anvil.”

The letters also provide a fascinating insight into Bellow’s modus operandi, as evidenced by the letter to one David Peltz. Peltz was angry that an episode from his life had been fictionalized in an excerpt from Humboldt’s Gift in Playboy – and he’d written to Bellow to express his concerns.

Bellow responded:

“We’re known each other forty-five years and told each other thousands and thousands of anecdotes. And now, on two bars suggested by one of your anecdotes, I blew a riff. Riffs are irrepressible. Furthermore, no one should repress them. I created two characters and added the toilets and the Playboy Club and the fence and the skyscraper. What harm is there in that? Your facts are unharmed by my version. Writers, artists, friends are not the Chicago Tile and Trust Company or the Material Supply Corp.”

Much of Letters is a testament to Bellow’s generosity and good humor. He comes across as a loyal friend, devoted father, and encouraging mentor to younger writers – among them Martin Amis, Cynthia Ozik, and Stanley Elkin. But Bellow could also be a fierce and unsparing correspondent, as illustrated in a letter to Jack Ludwig.

In the mid-50s, Bellow had befriended the Winnipeg-born Ludwig, a young critic and aspiring writer. But Ludwig proceeded to have an affair with Bellows wife, Sondra – a betrayal that led to the unflattering portrayal of the Ludwig-inspired character Valentine Gersbach in Bellow’s novel, Herzog. And in this letter, three years before the publication of the book, we can see Bellow’s blood is already boiling.

“...I’m not superman but superidiot. Only a giant among idiots would marry Sondra and offer you friendship. God knows I am not stainless, faultless Bellow. I leave infinities on every side to be desired. But love her as my wife? Love you as my friend? I might as well have gone to work for Ringling Brothers and been shot out of the cannon twice a day. At least they would have let me wear a costume.”

How To Make Love To A Negro Without Getting Tired, by Danny Laferriere

Earlier this year I reviewed I Am A Japanese Writer by Danny Laferriere, a book that distinguished itself as perhaps the most compelling piece of Canadian fiction published in 2010. Laferriere’s voice is sharp, beguiling and provocative, walking a razor’s edge where words begin to shimmer like poetry only to suddenly harden and snap back into ice cold, rock solid, crystal clear prose. It’s a bit of a magic trick, and Laferriere is a bit of a trickster. And so, without saying anything more, please accept this as a notice that the good people at Douglas & McIntyre also publish Laferriere’s earlier novels How To Make Love To A Negro Without Getting Tired and Heading South. Go out and read them. You will feel better and the quality of your life will dramatically and mysteriously improve.