My reading this year has been somewhat over-concentrated on the Great Depression and financial crises, so I'm afraid that's what you're getting: an eclectic set of books on what happens when money problems get really, really bad on a national level.
The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith. I know I've recommended it in earlier years. The economics is more than a little iffy--when I asked one of my professors at Chicago which economic school Galbraith belonged to, he thought for a moment, then said "it's less of a school than a sort of conspiracy theory." But Galbraith is one of the really great popularizers of economic history. His writing is brilliant and witty, and while the theory may be overdone, the facts he presents offer some interesting parallels to our own time. Plus I guarantee that your recipient will be entertained. Also highly recommended: his A Short History of Financial Euphoria.
The Return of Depression Economics by Paul Krugman. In many ways, Krugman is the heir to Galbraith. Krugman is not as brilliant a prose stylist as Galbraith, but he is a much better writer. This, along with earlier books like Peddling Prosperity, should especially be read by conservatives who reflexively loathe everything the man writes. He emerged as our era's finest popularizers of sound economics in the 1990s, and if I don't care for him as a political columnist, his ideas need to be engaged with by any serious economic wonk today.
Money Mischief by Milton Friedman. For true wonks, go with Friedman and Schwartz's titanic Monetary History of the United States, or the smaller excerpt titled The Great Contraction which just covers the genesis of the great depression. But this work, while fascinating, is very dry. Money Mischief is delightful, and a great way to introduce lay readers to the inherent conundrums of money, and its role in our lives.
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes. A very challenging book. Often impenetrable. But if you are going to engage with his intellectual heirs, you should understand the seminal work to which Keynesianism traces its existence. I wouldn't give it to Grandma, though.
Once in Golconda Another history of the rise and fall of 1920s Wall Street, this one focusing more on personalities and tragic history, and less on broad economic forces. It's a lesser known gem than Galbraith's Great Crash, but an absolutely compelling read.
Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen. The first book was Allen's amused recollection of the transformation of America in the 1920s from staid Edwardiana to the Jazz Age. The book is broad rather than deep, chronicling developments from the emergence of bridge, crossword puzzles, and Mah-Jongg, to Charles Lindburgh and the great Florida real estate bubble of the mid-1920s. It's utterly charming, and gives you much more of a flavor of the life of the 1920s than most history. Since Yesterday was the successor he wrote to cover the 1930s. It lacks some of the charm of its predecessor, partly because the 1930s were not a charming decade, and partly because sequels are rarely as good as the originals. But that means it is merely very good, rather than superb, and like the earlier book, it gives you a street level view of what was happening to ordinary Americans, rather than the serene bird's eye panorama you usually get.
The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth. I absolutely cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is interested in the Great Depression. Not because it is the most glittering prose I have ever read, or the soundest economic text. But rather, because it is one of the few books that offers a blow-by-blow account of the Great Depression through ordinary eyes. Roth was a lawyer in Youngstown Ohio who decided to write down his observations of the financial panic in the early days, when people still expected it to be something like the recession of 1920, or the Panic of 1907. It stretched on through ten years of anguish, as Roth describes what it is like to be unable to get hold of any cash, to see all the banks in your city fail, to try to provide relief when 20-30% of the town is out of work. It is written without the hagiography, or the patina of nostalgia, that tends to envelop retrospective works. Even if it was a less-well written book, it would still be worth reading. I'll be blogging excerpts from it in the New Year, because I found it so extraordinary.