Holiday Gift Guide 2011
Special Pull-Out Section
We tend to have a knee jerk opposition to electronic toys in our house, favoring puppets and kazoos over
Let’s Rock Elmo. But we are perfectly willing to acquiesce that good electronic toys can engage kiddos in
open-ended play, and prepare them for a techcentric world—without making parents rip their eyes out and
stick beans in their ears.
While tablet computers have a ways to evolve yet, their multitouch interface is an amazingly
accessible introduction to the nearly limitless world of computers for the younger set, and kid-friendly
apps abound. While we hesitate to recommend a “toy” with a price point that starts at $500, we do
recommend crayola’s iPad-compatible Crayola ColorStudio HD ($29.99) if you already have a tablet,
or will be tucking one under the tree. ColorStudio HD comes with an iPad stylus that looks like a Crayola
marker, but which unlocks the accompanying ColorStudio app’s “paper,” coloring pages, music and
animation. Little digital artists can mimic a variety of media—crayons, paints, pencils, markers and more.
The app can differentiate between the stylus and tiny fingers to encourage creative manipulation, and
kiddos can save and e-mail their creations straight to Grandma. Of course, the virtual version doesn’t
replace real finger paints and markers, but it’s a great introduction to digital art, and—parental bonus—
it’s mess-free. Although you might want to consider encasing your iPad in an Otterbox ($79.99), which
will render it nearly indestructible, before you hand it over to the kids.
And while you may still fumble with the DVD remote, your budding computer programmer will
likely take off running with SmartLab Toys’ ReCon 6.0 Programmable Rover ($69.99). At first look,
this little guy resembles a bevy of other toy robot buddies. This charming little rover has the potential to
dance, navigate courses, deliver a treat to a pet or a personalized message to a family member, even carry
a soda or guard a bedroom. But tech-savvy kids need to unlock that potential by actually programming
ReCon themselves. The accompanying manual is an engaging intro to computer programming that starts
out simple; the more advanced robot tricks motivate kids to keep learning.
Legos meet Light Brite with Laser Pegs, an award-winning glowing construction toy available in
a variety of different sets starting at $25. Once a single Laser Peg is connected to the power source, each
block added to the ensuing creation feeds the next piece low-voltage current, which illuminates each peg
with colorful LED lights. While model kits are available, the pegs themselves encourage the exploration
of color and light and the construction of whatever you can imagine.
Of course, when it comes to toys, endurance says a lot about quality and fun, and what’s old-
school to you is still new to a kid. Colorforms 60th Anniversary Edition ($49.99) is a rerelease of the
original set that launched the beloved brand back in 1951 and earned a place in the Toy Hall of Fame.
With 350 bold geometric stick-ons, a reversible two-sided playboard, and a bit of Colorforms history
packaged in a spiral-bound book, it’s a nostalgic gift for adults and still a huge hit with kids.
Books and games remain go-to gifts for us, and a handful of top game manufacturers—including
Colorforms creator University Games—have teamed up with classic children’s-book brands to create
lines of fun, beautifully designed learning games featuring favorite storybook characters. University
Games has partnered with Eric Carle and Mo Williams in a series of games based on Don’t Let the
Chicken Ride the Bus and the colorful creatures from the Wonderful World of Eric Carle. You Hoo Can
You Moo ($10.99) is a favorite in our house. Similarly, Briar Patch has a line of Goodnight Moon and
Madeline games, and I Can Do That! Games has teamed up with Richard Scary’s Busytown, Curious
George and Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat I Can Do That ($19.99) challenges kids to tackle feats as
whimsical and wacky as the cat himself. Bundle a fun new game with a classic book and you’ve got the
best of both worlds.
And just about as classic as it gets, eeboo’s Sidewalk Games ($8.50) is a clever packaging
of traditional games including Skelly, a coin rolling game, London Calling, a fusion of hangman
shuffleboard, and Potsy, a strategic sort of hopscotch. The set includes a rolling coin, sidewalk chalk and
a book full of rules, game history and facts about the region of each game’s origin. Not all the games are
well-suited to an upstate New York winter, but you can roll coins in the kitchen or paint a canvas Potsy
court to ward off cabin fever in the living room with old-school flair.
And, of course, kids will forever delight in the enduring simplicity of wooden blocks, a bag of old
scarves, homemade play dough, a tin can drum and a wax-paper comb or a shoebox full of tissue paper,
buttons, paint chips and glue. Or give parents and kids alike the gift of a winter outing with theater tickets,
museum memberships, or a velvet sack full of arcade tokens.
Buying gifts for the tech-savvy people on your list can be a daunting task if you’re not up on the
latest trends in the digital world, but that doesn’t mean you’re destined to disappoint your favorite
gadget geek. There are lots of reliable options out there if you have some passing knowledge of
your intended recipient’s lifestyle or general interests.
In the interest of making your gift the best surprise of the holiday season for your favorite
techie, here are some suggestions to get you aimed in the right direction.
For the photographer on your list, Eye-Fi Wireless Memory Cards instantly send
photos from a digital camera to a registered computer via Wi-Fi, eliminating the need to manually
transfer images from your camera’s memory card to your computer. The Eye-Fi card can also be
connected to the user’s Flickr or Facebook accounts for instant uploads as the photos are taken. A
4GB card will run $50, while the “Pro” card will cost $100 for 8GB of photo space.
If there’s someone on your list who’s never without a smartphone or tablet computer, you
can make the winter months a little easier on him or her with the Agloves touch screen gloves.
Silver nylon thread woven into the gloves allows them to conduct the body’s bio-electric current
through the material—which enables you to use your iPhone without taking off your gloves.
There are several versions of the gloves available, with the basic pair costing $18.
For the old-school music-lovers on your list, why not give them an easy way to transfer
their favorite vinyl or cassette tapes to digital form? What used to be an expensive process is now
fairly cheap—and simple—with Ion Audio’s Tape Express and Quick Play Flash. Both items
connect directly to your computer via the standard USB drive, and offer a quick way to convert
analog music to digital-standard MP3 format. The Tape Express will cost you $60 to preserve
your precious mixtapes, while the Quick Play Flash will run you $70 for its vinyl-converting
If converting music isn’t an issue, but playing it on the go is, make sure to check out
the X-Mini Capsule Speaker. Sure, it looks like a yo-yo, but this palm-sized speaker packs a
powerful sound. It uses the standard 3.5mm output jack, and its collapsable, accordion-like design
allows it to fit just about anywhere. The best part? You can combine several of the speakers
together to increase the audio output. The X-Mini will cost you around $30, but the amount of fun
your intended recipient will have with it is priceless.
So, what about the health-conscious techie on your list? Well, the Fitbit Ultra has
quickly become the must-have item for anyone interested in tracking their fitness (or lack thereof)
routine. The tiny device tracks all of your activity throughout the day, whether it’s simple steps,
climbing stairs, jogging, or even sleeping, and creates all of the charts and graphs you could
possibly want from the data. Want to know how many steps you walked today or how many
hours of actual sleep you got last night? The Fitbit Ultra will tell you. On top of all that, it’s Wi-
Fi compatible, so there’s no need to constantly sync it up with your computer or upload any data.
This pocket-sized personal trainer will run you $100.
Of course, if your tech-friendly giftee is more of a sedentary type, there are a lot of
options out there on the entertainment side of the industry, too. The Roku Streaming Player is
the hands-down favorite among streaming video boxes, offering the most bang for the buck when
it comes to channels, apps, and options that make overpriced cable plans look silly. For those who
aren’t familiar with streaming video boxes, the devices hook up to your television and offer an
organized, intuitive arrangement of free streaming video and subscription-based services (like
Netflix and Hulu Plus). Basically, it allows you to choose your own programming options and
watch streaming video without the need for a full-on computer attached to your TV. The basic
Roku box costs just $50, with more expensive models offering higher-definition video.
Finally, what about all those tablet computers everyone’s talking about? Well, when it
comes to that market, Apple’s iPad 2 is the industry leader by a wide margin, but Amazon’s new
Kindle Fire has been closing the gap since it launched last month. No one will turn down an iPad
2, but if you want your gift to be the one everyone wants to try for themselves, pick up the Kindle
Fire. The 7-inch tablet takes up barely any space in a backpack or satchel, has access to thousands
of awesome apps, and is optimized for reading your favorite books. It’s safe to bet that the Kindle
Fire will probably be one of the most popular gifts this holiday season, and with a $200 price tag
that’s significantly cheaper than an iPad (basic models start at $500), it’s hard to go wrong with
And there you go, aspiring gadget-gifters—a list to delight even the most hardcore tech
geeks. Whether you’re buying for your friends or family, each one of these gifts is likely to make
its new owner’s eyes light up like an LED. And while the admiration and thanks each gift will
earn you makes it a sort of win-win deal, we won’t think bad of you if you decide to double-up
and pick up one of these gadgets for yourself, too. ‘Tis the season, after all.
Pop and Indie Music
Simmer down, Fox News. If anyone’s waging a war on Christmas, it’s Spotify. Ever since the
Swedish music-streaming service set up shop on American soil earlier this year and started
offering its degenerate, pagan, gay agenda of bottomless free music with limited commercial
interruption, it’s made it even harder to justify giving Target that $15 for the new Ke$ha record.
Just as the pop/indie genre designation becomes less meaningful, the act of purchasing digital
records becomes more and more abstract. And yet, Santa’s elves continue to cobble ones and
zeros together in some icy workshop north of Björk’s recording studio for the listening pleasure
of the good little boys and girls.
Speaking of Björk, the Icelandic nymph recently released Biophilia, a hugely ambitious
science-oriented record complete with an iPad app for every track. The interactive nature of this
package is one new way in which recorded music is beginning to transcend its easy disposability
and return to the level of durability that could make for a great gift—that is, if you’re a Björk fan.
The project has been panned by critics, but then this isn’t a list of year-end critical picks. Look
out for those in a couple weeks.
Looking at my list here, the most economical, if discriminatory, way of breaking down
my suggestions in the pop/indie umbrella category is by gender. Let’s start with the ladies.
Annie Clark just might be all things to all people. Performing as St. Vincent, Clark has
managed to craft songs that highlight both her sweet, seductive vocals and absolutely menacing
electric guitar playing. Strange Mercy is destined to top year-end lists and is a safe bet for both
conventional and experimental musical tastes. It’s something to dance, rock and swoon to. On
the vocal end of things, Clark owes a debt to Leslie Feist, who also has a new record. The former
Broken Social Scene singer is virtually the archetype of the contemporary indie songstress, as
powerful in her vocal approach as she is innocent at times. Adding to the physical appeal of the
CD, fans were asked to vote on the cover art for Metals. Julianna Barwick’s debut album The
Magic Place was originally filed under the new-age and ambient genres when it first came out,
but don’t let that prevent you from checking it out. The singer is a one-woman choir, using loops
and effects to stack her crystalline vocals into gorgeous, pastoral blankets of sound.
On the male end of the vocal spectrum, James Blake (the British musician, not the
American tennis player) has crafted one of the most distinctive records of the year with James
Blake. The former dubstep artist rebranded himself as a singer-songwriter, drawing on a
toolbox of electronic effects—namely, vocal delay and window-rattling bass—to complement
his icy, atmospheric songwriting. On his debut as Bon Iver, Justin Vernon also went the cold,
lonely route, but with Bon Iver things took a turn for warmer climates. With detours into ’80s
production values, the record goes for a big, swallow-you-whole sound, padding Vernon’s
gorgeous falsetto with plenty of horns and guitar. Robin Pecknold completes the triad of
distinctive male voices. Fleet Foxes’ debut absolutely bulldozed the industry a few years back,
and this year’s Helplessness Blues was one of the year’s most anticipated. It was worth the wait.
Here’s a record you can get for the 20-something indie rocker and 60-something classic rocker in
your life. Just make sure it’s on vinyl.
But, wait: Tom Waits has a new record too. Most Waits fans would be content to listen
to him sing the Betty Crocker cookbook (which I’m sometimes convinced he’s doing on certain
tunes) and Bad as Me doesn’t disappoint. There’s as much jukebox growl on this record as on
anything he’s ever put out.
So, I’m tempted to weigh in on the hip-hop side of the equation, but be careful here.
You don’t want to go giving an Odd Future fan that Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration. They’ll be,
like, “swag?” Watch the Throne was rivaled only by Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV and Drake’s
Take Care this year in the realm of larger-than-life mainstream rap. It’s no wonder, then, that
so much independent stuff spilled out from under the radar. There were about six dozen Odd
Future releases, but the single strongest freestyle-oriented record came from A$ap Rocky in
LIVELOVEA$AP. However, if you like your beats with a strong dose of weird, Shabazz Palaces’
Black Up is a ranking record-of-the-year regardless of genre.
Jazz has always been a genre for collectors, and as many of its perennial heroes age, we haven’t
yet witnessed a wholesale shift away from the physical product. This is good news for both those
who like to stack their jewel cases to the ceiling and those who love to wrap jewel cases in fancy
Speaking of aging heroes, it was with sadness that we learned last month of legendary
drummer Paul Motian’s death. No less than six new records came out this year that featured
Motian’s playing, but the one for the fan and collector was The Windmills of Your Mind, his
last recording as a bandleader that came out the day he died. The one that might capture his
improvisational chops best, though, is Live at Birdland, a set he recorded with Lee Konitz, Brad
Mehldau and Charlie Haden.
Keith Jarrett has always been at his best at a piano and without a net. Fans could spend
hours of their lives on his live solo improvised recordings alone, but that doesn’t make his new
one Rio superfluous. Critics are calling it the new standard for his work in this mode. Following
in a similar vein is pianist Matthew Shipp, who released four records this year exploring the outer
limits of improvisation. The ones worth looking into are Night Logic, with Sun Ra’s Marshall
Allen and Art of the Improvisor featuring legendary bassist William Parker.
There was plenty of good funky stuff that came out under the jazz banner this year.
For True has been earning Trombone Shorty a lot of attention lately, and for good cause. The
high-energy, trombone-playing bandleader has become one of the day’s great ambassadors of
New Orleans music. Trumpeter Steven Bernstein has always been a shape-shifter, building and
dissolving ensembles to do his bidding. The Millenial Territory Orchestra has always been one of
his most exciting, and this year they put out one of their most distinctive records. MTO Plays Sly
is just what it says: a record of Sly and the Family Stone covers. It’s one fun surprise.
With lots of jazz musicians adopting the rock band ethos to record and release group
records, it was only a matter of time before Joshua Redman got in on the action. James Farm
is the name of the group he co-leads with Aaron Parks, Matt Penman and Eric Harland. And
James Farm is the name of their first release, a record that trades solo showboating for collective
Albany High grad and celebrated vibraphonist Stefon Harris has a new record with a trio
including David Sanchez and Christian Scott. Ninety Miles is an exploration of Cuban rhythms
recorded in Havana with a number of different backing quartets.
Folk, Blues, Bluegrass, and Celtic Music
As the number of CDs on retail racks dwindles as inexorably as the daylight hours at this time
of year, it’s ever more difficult to find the right gift disc for the roots-music fan. That’s why I’ve
been prowling around the electronic ethers of the Web, scoping out prime releases in the folk,
blues, bluegrass and Celtic music genres for you. Here’s my hot list.
The earliest blues song we know of is “Joe Turner’s Blues,” heard in New Orleans in
1890. That and other traditional Crescent City tunes are performed on Wynton Marsalis and
Eric Clapton Play the Blues (Warner Bros.). This pairing of the Nawlins trumpet virtuoso
and the British guitar god represents the origins and evolution of the blues, respectively. Here
they’re backed by a Dixieland combo consisting of clarinet, trombone, piano, banjo, bass, drums,
keyboards, and second trumpet. Taj Mahal guests on two sweet tracks.
Along with the late William Clarke, harmonica ace Rod Piazza was a protégé of Kansas
City bluesman George Smith, and subsequently an architect of the West Coast swing sound.
Another fine CD to consider is Piazza’s latest, Almighty Dollar (Delta Groove Productions).
For this outing, Piazza, hailed by Downbeat magazine as “a superior diatonic and chromatic
harmonica player with style,” is joined by guitarist Rusty Zinn, fellow harp player Johnny Dyer,
bassists Norm Gonzalez on electric and Hank Van Sickle on upright, and sax man Jonny Viau.
For bluegrassers, Grammy winner Alison Krauss and Union Station have Paper
Airplane, their first record together since 2004. Krauss’ mellifluous vocals, rather than her fiddle
playing, are center-stage here, and while the album breaks no new ground, the picking is flawless
and the song choice satisfying. Dan Tyminski sings lead on three tracks, and Dobro king Jerry
Douglas contributes peerless twanging. For more hillbilly jazz, local heroes the Gibson Brothers
live up to their laurels as 2010 IMBA winners with their new disc, Help My Brother (Compass
Records). Framed by their masterful close harmony singing, the songs look at family, lives gone
wrong, and the need for love. The brothers also serve up fine covers of Jim and Jesse and the
How many Celtic bands can draw a crowd of a quarter-million? The Irish group Dervish
did at the Rock in Rio festival. Originally formed to record the richly ornamented traditional
music of their native County Sligo, they pushed on to earn supergroup status. Live at Johnny
Fox’s (Emtee Music) is taken from a 1996 show at Glencullen, near Dublin, where the sextet
fire off swirling dance tunes and sing Ireland’s mournful songs, here often performed in Gaelic.
Ireland alone has a musical instrument for a national symbol. Masters of the Irish Harp, an
anthology of leading Irish harpers, includes the playing of Grammy winners and Riverdance
troupe members who have entertained U.S. presidents. The music here spans up to five centuries;
harp tunes by the Baroque-era bard Turlough O’Carolan are mingled with jigs and reels and even
a 21st-century composition for harp, flute and trumpet. This one’s a delight.
Next year marks the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth. Note of Hope—A Celebration
of Woody Guthrie (429 Records) offers unpublished lyrics by the Dustbowl balladeer set to
music by Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Lou Reed, Madeline Peyroux, Pete Seeger, Tony
Triscka, and others. Readings of Guthrie’s critically acclaimed prose are included, most
notably by Studs Terkel. While it’s unlikely to be the occasion’s sole tribute to Guthrie, it will
nonetheless be hard to beat.
Gillian Welch and longtime musical partner David Rawlings ended an eight-year
songwriting hiatus this summer with The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony Records). The two
reportedly spent considerable time tweaking their old-time-flavored material, and critics have
lauded the 10-track, sparely textured album as some of their best work. With its dark Appalachian
themes of heartbreak and tragedy, this is must-have Welch.
If you followed my suggestion last year and purchased the 103-CD Jascha Heifetz box set,
your investment is now appreciating. The set is out of print and its price is climbing. All the
more reason to consider the forthcoming Arthur Rubinstein: The Complete Album Collection.
With 144 CDs, packaged in miniatures of their original LP releases, two DVDs and a hardcover
book, it’s selling on Amazon right now for $259, a price that surely will climb by the Jan. 31
release date. Its predecessor, a Complete Rubinstein in jewel boxes, was released for $1,600, and
the expense of producing the set pretty much killed the RCA Red Seal division. Evidently the
original jackets approach is more economical.
It’s been a good year for great pianist. Martha Argerich turned 70 and was celebrated by
EMI with three multi-disc sets: Solos & Duos (6 CDs), Concertos (4 CDs) and Chamber Music
(8 CDs), much of it drawn from her Lugano Festival collections—to which was added another
excellent installment, Live From Lugano 2010, which includes Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 and a
charming quintet by Granados among its three discs.
Gould, Glenn: In Concert 1951-1960 (West Hill) is an elusive six-CD set that features
a fascinating array of broadcast recordings, including yet another Goldberg Variations and such
other Bach works as the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and the Keyboard Concertos 1 and 5; also
works by Beethoven, Schoenberg and others.
You can see Gabriela Montero in concert at the Troy Music Hall in early May in a recital
featuring her amazing improvisations. There’s a healthy taste of them, along with a number of
neglected Latin works, on Solatino (EMI).
A couple of young violinists made a splash this year. Ray Chen performed at Union
College in the same program as his self-titled debut recording (Sony Classical), featuring sonatas
by Franck and Tartini (“Devil’s Trill”). And even without the brooding, GQ-esque cover photos
of the handsome fiddler, Charlie Siem should be selling CDs on the basis of talent. His self-
titled collection of short pieces (Warner Classics) includes works by virtuoso violinist-composers
Wieniawski, Kreisler, Paganini and Sarasate, and features Bazzini’s finger-busting “Round of
the Goblins.” His recording of concertos by Bruch (No. 1), Wieniawski (No. 1) and Ole Bull on
Warner Classics affirms his place in the realms of interpretive skill.
The incredibly prolific and fascinating Jordi Savall continued to release recordings
old and new. Among the latter: The Sublime Port: Voices of Istanbul, a follow-up to last
year’s Istanbul, this time exploring the multinational realm of song over the centuries with an
appropriately multinational ensemble. Rereleases included Mozart’s Requiem and five discs of
the five books of Marin Marais’s Pieces de Viol, reminding us of Savall’s million-selling success
with the soundtrack recording of the film Tous les matins du monde (all on AliaVox).
Two of the 20th century’s bad boys of classical music were Conlon Nancarrow and
George Antheil. Ensemble Modern tackled Nancarrow with As Fast as Possible (Wergo),
collecting a number of transcriptions of his tough, fascinating pieces for player piano, among
Antheil’s horribly neglected one-act opera The Brothers, his version of the story of Cain
and Abel, got a good recording in Germany (cpo), while his four fascinating, widely varied violin
sonatas (including one for solo violin) were nicely recorded by violinist Mark Fewer and pianist
John Novacek (Azica).
What’s the Mahler news this year? Valery Gergiev’s symphonies cycle with the London
Symphony finished with the release of Nos. 5 and 9 (LSO Live), as hot-blooded and dynamically
rugged as the rest of the set. Meanwhile, Simon Rattle returned to the Symphony No. 2, this time
with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) and soprano Kate Royal and mezzo Magdalena Kozena.
It features a far more expansive reading of the first movement than he’s given before, but Rattle
makes it make sense.
Kate Royal put together A Lesson in Love (EMI), a gorgeous, melancholy look at the arc of a love affair threading together songs by Schubert, Wolf, Copland, Brahms, Duparc, Bolcom
In other vocal recommendations, Nikolaus Harnoncourt tackled Brahms’s German
Requiem with soprano Genia Kühmeier, baritone Thomas Hampson, the Vienna Philharmonic
and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir (Sony Classical) in version that’s deliberate of tempo but filled
with excitement in a showcase of what a good recording should sound like.
Another favorite Requiem is that of Gabriel Fauré, newly recorded by Paavo Järvi in
his new position of Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris (EMI). With baritone Matthias
Goerne and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, it’s a lovely performance of the full orchestral
version, and the disc is filled out with such Fauré rarities as Super Flumina Babylonis and
Cantique de Jean Racine.
Fauré’s chamber music also gets its due in a new five-disc Virgin Classics set featuring
the Capuçon brothers, Renaud (violin) and Gautier (cello), the Quatour Ebène and others.
Here are the two violin sonatas, the two cello sonatas, a piano trio, a string quartet, the two piano
quartets and the slightly forbidding piano quintets.
Finally, local favorites the Emerson Quartet are newly arrived on Sony Classical. Their
debut there is a revisit of Mozart’s three Prussian Quartets, his last works in this form. Typically
with the Emersons, they avoid the sentimentality that can creep into pieces like this, and instead
give us music that’s crisp and scintillating and ageless.
While music is a constant in people’s lives, the album era is all but gone and shuffle play has
become the intermingled soundtrack to all manner of other activities. Great albums are still being
made (or, in some cases, reissued), but they are quite easily missed. Here then are some gift
suggestions for your musically inclined friends and family who may have been distracted when
these all quietly landed in whatever is left of the marketplace.
At the top of the list is Ry Cooder’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch).
Even erstwhile Cooder fans didn’t seem to know about this one. He revitalized and expanded his
recording career over the past half-dozen years with a trilogy of albums that found him, for the
first time, flexing his muscles as a songwriter. Having been a great interpreter of songs composed
over the past century, he learned his lessons well. With this year’s release he’s brought forth
a formidable set of protest songs. They’re rich with character; he’s pulling no punches as an
armless soldier ponders an empty Christmas, or a high roller wonders how he’ll get by without
his maid. Potent stuff, and some richly supple playing with his usual gang of musical cohorts.
With his Yo Miles! Ensemble, Wadada Leo Smith released two double albums (Sky
Garden is 2004, Upriver in 2005) devoted to Miles Davis’ ’70s funk-based music. Heart’s
Reflections (Cuneiform) is the second with his band Organic. The extended pieces are comprised
of far brighter colors than what Davis was creating 40 years ago. It’s a rich tapestry of electric
guitars (including the legendary Michael Gregory), keyboards and bass, drums (Pheeroan akLaff),
saxophones and a violin on a few, and Smith’s stunning trumpet throughout.
Ray Bonneville’s Bad Man’s Blood (Red House) is a new peak in his 30-year career.
Born in Canada and living in Texas, he writes rich vignettes suffused with the stuff of life: love,
regret, hope, and loss. One cannot listen to this album’s “River John” and be unmoved. The
performances are built around his acoustic guitar, his tapping foot and some judiciously deployed
accompaniment by sympathetic players. As with Greg Brown and Chris Smither, Bonneville
doesn’t fit easily into categories, being neither folk nor blues, but falling into both those camps,
while always delivering with a soulful honesty.
On the reissue front are an important pair by country soul songwriters. Harlan County
by Jim Ford (Light in the Attic) was released in 1969. Sly Stone called Ford “the baddest white
man on the planet,” and there is quite a tale to read, but suffice to say songs and performances
of this caliber were never going to go away. A contemporary reference point of sorts would be
the stripped-down approach that Nick Lowe has adopted over the past 20 years of his career.
Bobby Charles achieved greater success as a songwriter during his life than did Ford, but he also
released a singular classic. Now expanded to a three-disc set, Bobby Charles (Rhino Handmade)
contains the perfect original album along with a couple dozen additional numbers, demos and
other fully recorded songs. People often already know his songs without knowing his name
(“Tennessee Blues,” “Small Town Talk, “Walking to New Orleans,” “See You Later, Alligator”),
or may remember his appearance with the Band in their Last Waltz.
Ho ho ho! What new holiday music does Santa have in his bag?
At the top of the list there’s the duo She & Him with the appropriately titled A Very She
& Him Christmas (Merge). Zooey Deschanel’s blank-sounding, 3 AM-and-the-bar’s-closing
vocals prove perfectly suited to traditional seasonal tunes. “The Christmas Waltz” will make
you wistful; “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” will make you sad; and “Baby It’s Cold
Outside” will make you laugh, because Deschanel and M. Ward switch gender roles on what has
become known among the younger set as “the date-rape song.”
The weirdest holiday release, by far, is Scott Weiland’s The Most Wonderful Time of
the Year (Atlantic). Weiland’s singing has always had an appealingly mannered side, but it’s hard
to know how to take the STP and Velvet Revolver dude as a flat-out crooner. Some of the songs
work well, including a reggae arrangement of “O Holy Night,” but on others, Weiland sounds,
well, distracted. (And heavily auto-tuned, of course.) But since that’s part of his MO, this is a
good bet if you know someone who likes Christmas music and whacked-out frontmen.
In a more traditional mode is sometime fiddler, sometime violinist (see what I did there?
) Mark O’Connor’s An Appalachian Christmas (OMAC Records). O’Connor has a lot of cool
friends, and a bunch of them show up to sing and play on this lovely album: Renée Fleming, Jane
Monheit, Yo-Yo Ma, James Taylor and Alison Krauss. The various genres they represent should
give you a good idea of the album’s musical range.
If you know someone who likes old-school Nashville-style singers (and if you don’t, why
not?), then Mandy Barnett’s Winter Wonderland (Rounder) has a classic honky-tonk sound that
pleases. Really, she’s terrific—and she’s the only person other than Brenda Lee you’ll ever want
to hear sing “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Lyle Lovett just released Songs for the Season (Lost Highway), a three-song EP that’s
available via download only. There’s one wry original, “The Girl With the Holiday Smile,” and
two covers, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here.” Lovett is
joined on the covers by the very fine Texas-based jazz singer Kat Edmonson.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without a couple of worthwhile reissues. Tony Bennett’s
The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia Legacy) is a “greatest hits” culled from his many
holiday records recorded for Columbia over the last six or seven decades. All the usual holiday
suspects are included; his version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is one of the most
Finally, the 1960s were a golden age of slightly nutty, overarranged instrumental music
and a golden age of Christmas records. A prime example of both is Sony Classical’s reissue of
Andre Kostelanetz’ 1963 album Wonderland of Christmas. Swirling strings, eccentric solos and
a devotion to melody: It’s all there is this very tasty, rum-soaked musical fruitcake.
This is the year DVD died.
Major studios are deleting catalog DVD titles by the hundreds—just check the bargain
bin at your favorite music-and-moves retailer—and recent films are, more and more, available
only as Blu-ray/DVD “combo packs.”
So, let’s have a wake. Dive into those bargain bins; you’ll find all sorts of treasures, from
first-class editions of Japanese monster movies to stone-cold classics that barely got released.
Seriously, bargain DVDs make great stocking stuffers. A good example of this is the once-elusive
Paramount Centennial Collection 2-disc edition of Chinatown, which was pulled from shelves
when director Roman Polanski wandered into Switzerland and got himself arrested. It’s turning
up here and there for less than $10.
As for recent releases, the format has no mightier tombstone than the DVD megaset for
the longest-running drama in television history: Law & Order. For 20 seasons, we followed the
show’s detectives and prosecutors as they solved one ripped-from-the-headlines murder after
another. (Trivia time: Which series regular appeared on the most episodes? Sam Waterston?
Nope. Jerry Orbach? Nope. Jill Hennessy? Not even close.) Universal’s monster-sized Law &
Order: The Complete Series retails at $699.99, but you can find it for considerably less.
This is not, however, the year DVD-R died. Burn-on-demand discs have thrived, as
studios looked at the success of Warner Archive and ramped up their own release schedules
of obscure and/or specialty titles. Notable among these included Richard Lester’s satire How I
Won The War (MGM), starring John Lennon; Federico Fellini’s Casanova (Universal), starring
Donald Sutherland as a particularly icy great lover; and Housekeeping (Sony), Bill Forsyth’s
haunting version of the Marilynne Robinson novel.
The pioneers of MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD-R discs, Warner Archive,
recently ventured into new territory (for them) with the seven-film, seven-disc Jean Harlow
100th Anniversary Collection. It’s their first formally packaged box set with extras, which
include a set of still photos and, on the discs, newly discovered trailers, a Harlow radio drama
appearance and other goodies. All of the films are worth a look, but the best are Bombshell, a
hilarious Hollywood satire about a screen sex goddess not unlike Harlow herself; Riffraff, a gritty
waterfront drama costarring Spencer Tracy that’s marred only by the lousy political spin MGM
favored in back in the day; and Saratoga, Harlow’s last film, a racetrack comedy set you-know-
where and costarring Clark Gable, Frank Morgan and Hattie McDaniel.
For home video collectors—yes, Virginia, there are still plenty of people who don’t
prefer their movies streamed—Blu-ray is The Way.
Warner Home Video released two major collections of classic animation at the beginning
of the fall: Tom & Jerry Golden Collection Vol. 1, and Looney Tunes Platinum Collection Vol.
1. Warner never did right by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s iconic cat-and-mouse duo on
DVD, but this Blu-ray set makes everything right. It’s the first 37 MGM Tom & Jerry cartoons in
chronological order, restored, uncensored and in all their senselessly violent glory. (Doesn’t that
cover art just get you?) The Looney Tunes Blu-ray set, however, annoyed a lot of collectors by
recycling cartoons from earlier DVD sets. Still, it’s a fine overview of the studio’s best characters
and directors, and includes a few genius one-offs like Katnip Kollege.
The fall and winter have seen a bounty of contemporary and old-school classic titles.
The folks at Criterion Collection recently remastered one of their most popular titles for Blu-
ray, Jean Renoir’s heartbreaking, funny Rules of the Game. It’s always ranked in critic’s polls as
among the top four or five films ever made for reason—it’s a delight. And they also just released
Ernst Lubitsch’s sharp-edged, sexy reworking of Nöel Coward’s Design for Living, starring Gary
Cooper, Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March as the three corners of the eternal triangle.
For the comedy lover, Kino’s Buster Keaton Blu-ray reissues continue this month with
Seven Chances, which finds our stone-faced hero off in search of a bride. After four reels of
fruitless effort, the best he can manage is not being flattened in a rockslide. (Progress!) Know
someone who loves feature-length animation? Disney has given the deluxe remastering treatment
to Dumbo, a 1940 classic that’s rich in character and delirious imagery (“Pink Elephants”). And
for the fan of classic musicals, there’s the loaded-with-extras West Side Story 50th Anniversary
For classics of a more recent vintage, there’s Nicole Kidman, deliciously wicked, in Gus
Van Sant’s black comedy To Die For (Image); Peter Jackson’s last great film before he became
obsessed with elves and monkeys, Heavenly Creatures (Miramax Lionsgate); Todd Haynes’ love
letter to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine (Miramax Lionsgate); and George Clooney’s directorial
debut, the letter-perfect satire Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Miramax Lionsgate), starring
Sam Rockwell as TV game-show guru Chuck Barris.
And if you prefer to wait until the last minute, two of this year’s unlikely big hits arrive
in stores Dec. 20: Woody Allen’s charming Midnight in Paris (Sony), and the heartwarming
Dolphin Tale (Warner Home Video, in both 3D and flat formats).
Literature and Nonfiction
When you’re not dealing in gas cards and chocolate-covered pretzels, holiday gift giving requires
an intimate understanding of the passions and interests that constitute your loved ones. Because
of this, shopping for books can quickly become a fool’s errand in bookshelf decoration if that
tome’s contents don’t equal its pretty cover art.
Best-selling science writer James Gleick may have inadvertandly solved this Christmas
quandry by publishing a book on perhaps the most universal subject: information itself. The
Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is far from a dry romp through raw data; it’s an
insightful history of how humans have attempted to capture and catalog the thoughts and
expressions that constitute our very lives, leading up to the present moment where information
saturation has become an inescapable facet of society.
Facebook, of course, has been one of the primary forums for info addicts. Author Lou
Beach approached the social networking site as a type of artistic opportunity, though, using his
profile as an outlet for flash fiction. 420 Characters is a collection of the miniature narratives he
posted to his wall, interspersed with gorgeous collages. A byproduct of the pace at which all this
text is moving around us these days is, paradoxically, chronic boredom. Who among you hasn’t
compulsively refreshed a website (say, Facebook) only to find that the world hasn’t generated
any novelty in the last 30 seconds? Boredom is at the heart of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished,
posthumous novel The Pale King. While its rough structure (even for DFW) makes this one
most suitable to the author’s committed fans, the ideas Wallace was working on at the time of his
unfortunate death were incredibly salient and arguably optomistic. Through the work-a-day lives
of IRS employees, he seems to suggest that boredom and data overload can actually be a window
to joy and transcendence.
Another big, ambitious novel worth considering for a reader so-inclined is Japanese best-
seller Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. The title is a sly riff on the year George Orwell immortalized
as the dawn of a new age. The question Murakami inserts is in the mind of a woman named
Aomame, who begins to notice mundane evidence that the Tokyo in which she lives is actually a
parallel reality. In the style of Murakami’s great surrealist mysteries, 1Q84 features enough twists
of logic to make you start questioning the concrete nature of your own world. You’d probably
pinch yourself in an attempt to wake up if you found thousands of rubber duckies washed up
on the beach. This isn’t an episode from Murakami, though; it’s the event that tips off Donovan
Hohn’s journalistic odyssey Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and
of Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who
Went in Search of Them. That title alone probably wouldn’t fit in a Facebook post but will give
the most creative fiction writers a run for their money.
Of those fiction writers, a number of them have new books this year. Pulitzer Prize-
winning author of Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides explores a triangle of college students obsessing
over the romance of a Jane Austen novel, while the ironic world of the early ’80s swirls around
them in The Marriage Plot. A 1950s ocean liner bound for England is the setting for Michael
Ondaatje’s latest, The Cat’s Table, as an 11-year-old boy embarks on a coming-of-age journey
that mirrors that of the vessel he explores. Ava Bigtree faces some of these same themes, only
at her parents’ gator-wrestling Everglades theme park in Karen Russell’s celebrated debut
novel Swamplandia! Colson Whitehead has received plenty of press (not to mention sales) for
his popular, if unlikely, zombie novel Zone One. There’s a reason for this. Post-apocalypse is
explored in a different, slightly ambivalent way in Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers. A sort of
rapture has struck a small American town, spiriting some of the virtuous and criminal away with
an equal hand, leaving the leftovers to make sense of it all.
He doesn’t use the term post-apocalypse, but author Michael Lewis does attempt to make
sense of our new fallen society in Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. With global
economies in collapse, Lewis begins his analysis of formerly wealthy nations (like our own) from
the financial perspective but hones in on the cultural dimension of this shift. Yes, the outlook
is bleak, but humorists have always been our saving grace in such times. And So It Goes: Kurt
Vonnegut: A Life is Charles Shields’ authoritative biography of one of our culture’s greatest.
Funny and insightful, this one also scores local points, as Vonnegut may be Glenville’s most
famous former resident.
From a few ounces to half a dozen pounds, the season is rich with books for any of your music-
loving friends and family. First, let’s look at the new offerings on the perennials front. George
Harrison: Living in the Material World by Olivia Harrison (Abrams, $40) is a companion to
the recent HBO documentary directed by Martin Scorsese. It’s a large and luxurious collection
of rare photographs and ephemera. The early years of his well-known band are celebrated in The
Beatles in Hamburg by Spencer Leigh (Chicago Review Press, $19.95).
Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown by David Yaffe (Yale University Press, $24)
examines four aspects of Dylan’s career: the underrated influence of his singing style, his
relationship to racial matters, his image in films, and his songwriting methods. David Bowie:
Starman by Paul Trynka (Little Brown, $25.99) looks at the ongoing influence of the man
who hasn’t released a new album in more than eight years. The still-touring Judy Collins has
brought forth her autobiography, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes (Crown, $26). Tom Waits on Tom Waits
(Chicago Review Press, $19.95) is a bracing collection of interviews with Waits from the past
four decades, edited by Paul Maher, Jr.
The life of the R&B-loving son of a Turkish diplomat who built Atlantic records is
detailed in The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun (Robert Greenfield, (Simon
& Schuster, $30). Who else would have jacket blurbs from Henry Kissinger and Kid Rock?
Post-baby-boom musicians are popping up more and more on the shelves. New tomes include
This Is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl by Paul Brannigan (DaCapo, $26) and See a
Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould with Michael Azerrad (Little Brown,
There’s a pair of fine wonders for the eyes. Rock Seen (Abrams, $45) is a glorious spread
of photos by Bob Gruen, from the iconic Clash shot on the cover to a multitude of John Lennon
portraits that have become fixed in our collective consciousness. From the Ramones at CBGBs to
Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden, it’s five pounds of photos! Instrument by Pat Graham
(Chronicle, $29.95) offers his photos of favorite instruments belonging to members of Wilco,
Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Wire, New Order, and many others.
Two new books are each devoted to a pair of Californians who are unlikely to ever record
together: Eddie Van Halen and Beck. The former is by photographer Neil Zlozower (Chronicle,
$29.95) and finds the guitarist backstage, onstage and in the studio. The latter is a playfully artful
endeavor by photographer Autumn DeWilde (Chronicle, $35) with a dust jacket printed on both
sides that opens up into a large circle, and a foreword by the sympathetically inclined filmmaker
Electric Eden by Rob Young (Faber & Faber, $25) is subtitled “Unearthing Britain’s
Visionary Music.” You’ll learn about everyone from the expected (Incredible String Band,
Fairport, Pentangle, Nick Drake) to the lost and obscure (Mr. Fox, Bill Fay, Dr. Strangely
Strange). While some might argue that there’s too much Jethro Tull and not enough Soft Machine
within, Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s by Paul Hegarty and Martin
Halliwell (Continuum, $24.95) follows the threads from King Crimson and Yes right up through
Radiohead. Another often unfairly maligned genre, fusion, is explored in Birds of Fire by Kevin
Fellezs (Duke University Press, $23.95). And banjo players and enthusiasts will be glad to
receive Crowe on the Banjo (University of Illinois Press, $19.95), Marty Godbey’s biography of
the influential J.D. Crowe.
A pair of books look at different eras and aspects of New York City’s music and cultural
scene. Love Goes to a Building on Fire by Will Hermes (Faber & Faber, $30) is subtitled “Five
Years in New York That Changed Music Forever” and covers the era when punk, loft jazz, salsa
and disco were all bubbling in the mid-’70s. Ed Sanders’ Fug You (DaCapo, $26.99) explores the
Lower East Side counterculture scene of the mid-1960s, which spawned the author’s store (Peace
Eye Bookstore) and band (The Fugs).
Rock and Roll Always Forgets by Chuck Eddy (Duke University Press, $24.95) is a
collection of 25 years of music criticism, covering everyone from Emmett Miller to Marilyn
Manson, the Ramones to Debbie Gibson. At more than 800 pages, Dorian Lynskey’s 33
Revolutions Per Minute (Faber & Faber, $19.99) offers as complete a history of protest songs
as you’re likely to find, from Woody Guthrie to Fela Kuti to Public Enemy. Flying Saucers
Rock ‘n’ Roll (Duke University Press, $24.95) is a wonderful collection of interviews with an
assortment of musical eccentrics, originally published in editor Jake Austen’s long-running
Roctober magazine. The 33 1/3 series is pushing towards 100 small volumes (Continuum, $12.95
each). Three new ones delve into an album each by an artist from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s: Johnny
Cash (American Recordings by Tony Tost), The Rolling Stones (Some Girls by Cyrus R.K.
Patell), and Television (Marquee Moon by Bryan Waterman).
Sure, I like to curl up with a good cookbook. That’s why I enjoy ones that balance the recipes
with narrative. The narrative in Shaw Rabadi’s Savor the Spices of Life (Food for Thought) starts
out like a spy thriller and ends up exhorting you in the nicest possible way to take another look
at the way you cook for the betterment of your health. Rabadi, chef-owner of BFS Restaurant
in Guilderland, offers a refinement of the Mediterranean rich in flavor, low in all the bad stuff.
Find the book at his restaurant and in local bookstores. It’s ring-bound for kitchen-counter
convenience, which means that Barnes & Noble, according to corporate policy, won’t carry it.
But they’ll make an exception on a local basis, right? Wrong. The magic of big-box stores.
Although American Flavor by Andrew Carmellini (ecco) purports to focus on domestic
dining, it reminds us that we’re really poly-gluttons. Carmellini’s acclaimed NYC eatery the
Dutch made its name serving this compelling mix of foodstuffs, the development of which is
detailed in a fascinating intro. Then on to Mac-‘n-Cheese Stuffed Meatloaf, Lamb Chili with
Chickpeas and Raita, Wax Beans with Popcorn and Parmesan and more why-didn’t-I-think-of-
How about a potato-chip omelet? That’s one of the novel items fed to the staff at El Bulli,
acclaimed as the world’s finest restaurant. It closed earlier this year (it never turned a profit), but
chef Ferran Adrià’s The Family Meal (Phaidon) gives a month’s worth of daily three-course
dinners, lavishly step-by-step illustrated. Beautiful and inspiring!
Two similarly gorgeous restaurant-centered books are Eleven Madison Park by Daniel
Humm and Will Guidara (Little, Brown) and Bluestem: The Cookbook by Colby Garrelts and
Megan Garrelts (Andrew McMeel). Eleven Madison Park is an oversized volume that screams to
live on the coffee table, with the most breathtaking food photos since Charlie Trotter’s gustatory
porn of a few years back. Bluestem’s recipes feel a little more home-cook accessible, with a nice
seasonal contextualization of it all.
Traveling around the Mediterranean, we find Food From Many Greek Kitchens by
Tessa Kiros (Andrews McMeel) which, although short on narrative, offers such a variety of
dishes (nicely photographed) that it’s the kind of tome that makes you antsy to cook. I’ve already
had a great success with the baklava recipe.
He’s photographed to a fare-thee-well within, and titles one of the chapters “Dude.
Preserved Lemons.” Nevertheless, Mourad Lahlou knows how to put an arm over your shoulder
and lead you into the kitchen, which is the feeling you get from Mourad: New Moroccan
(Artisan). A more classical look at the cuisine comes through A Month in Marrakesh by Andy
Harris (Hardie Grant)—ready for Roasted Lamb Shoulder with Orange and Honey Syrup?
Phaidon Press has had great success with The Silver Spoon (and its offshoots) and
Recipes from an Italian Summer. This year’s treat is Tuscany, a city-by-city tour of recipes,
background and photographs. You know it’s good when it can demystify the classic peasant soup
Let’s get down to basics. The supermarket meat counter is scary these days; better to
buy your meat from a farmer you know. In which case, The Art of Beef Cutting by Kari Underly
(Wiley) shows you, step-by-step, how to break down that steer—and why particular cuts respond
to cooking the way they do. Great just for an understanding of the biology of carnivorousness.
Two of the mothership books are back. The Professional Chef, Ninth Edition (Wiley)
is what’s used at the Culinary Institute of America. I haven’t seen it since edition six, and it’s
been intelligently rethought and redesigned to make the techniques and recipes (now presented
together) more accessible. Escoffier: Le Guide Culinaire (Wiley) was one of two books I
was handed when I started my kitchen training (the other was Harold McGee’s On Food and
Cooking), but it was an earlier Escoffier version. This new one is what the master chef meant us
to have—although you still need to know what you’re doing to get started with his recipes.
Staying in France, Ginette Mathiot’s I Know How to Cook is that country’s Joy of
Cooking, so her take on pâtisserie is long-awaited. The Art of French Baking (Phaidon) presents
her 20-year-old classic newly translated, a bible of techniques and recipes that well may inspire
you make your own puff pastry.
What promises to be a more comforting guide (geared, that is, more for beginners) is Le
Cordon Bleu Patisserie and Baking Foundations (Cengage). Coming from the international
cooking school, if the about-to-be-published volume is like its predecessors, it takes a teacherly
approach (with hands-on illustrations) to ease you through this most scientific aspect of the
But if you really want to show your gift-giving love, pony up for a boxed set of Le
Cordon Bleu Cuisine Foundations Gift Package (Cengage). This lavish set includes Cuisine
Foundations, detailing all the techniques you’ll need to get through Escoffier, and Cuisine
Foundations Recipes, so you don’t need Escoffier after all. It’s handsomely packaged with an
official Cordon Bleu side towel, which will drive your kitchen-loving recipient stark, raving fou.
Books are magical in general, sure, but there is a special sort of magic packed in the pages of children’s
books, where art and poetry and prose swirl together in the unfettered imagination of youth, where the
line between fantasy and reality is a wide watercolor swath to splash about in. There is no better gift.
And year after year wonderful new offerings from contemporary authors and illustrators hold
their own against beloved classics, tempting us to dive in from the bookstore shelves. Here are a few of
this year’s best bets.
For a stunning bit of seasonal mischief, check out Red Sled from author-illustrator Lita Judge
(Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $16.99). In the exuberant, almost wordless tale, woodland animals
take a child’s sled, left outside, for a whirlwind nighttime ride. The expressive animals in Judge’s bold
pencil and watercolor illustrations punctuate the still panoramas with a series of “Whoops” and “Alley-
oops” that are a delight to read aloud.
Walter Wick’s award-winning Can You See What I See Series has a new addition with Can You
See What I See: Toyland Express (Cartwheel Books, $13.99). Wicks’ spectacular photographs—some
of which were recently on display at Canajoharie’s Arkell Museum—are accompanied by rhyming seek-
and-find picture puzzles, follows an unpainted wooden train and other toys from the toymakers workshop
into the grand world of the toyshop, to birthday party, to playroom, attic and beyond. As always, Wick’s
puzzles engage eagle-eye readers, but the exquisitely detailed images and beautiful story are treat enough
One of our absolute favorites for young readers and pre-readers this year for its perfect simplicity
is Press Here ($14.99, Chronicle Books), from French designer Hervé Tullet, (whose minimalist Game
of . . . book series is equally pure and innovative). Press Here takes the seemingly instinctual childhood
urge to press buttons, and makes absolute magic with it—no batteries required. Start by pressing the
yellow dot on the cover, then turn the page and follow the instructions: Tilt the book, shake the pages, tap
five times. The result is an entirely print-and-paper sort of interactivity that challenges the imagination in
surprisingly magical ways.
Millions of people are already in love with Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, the star of the
similarly titled animated short from Saturday Night Live alum Jenny Slate and author-animator Dean
Fleischer. The big world of the endearing little shell with shoes and one googly eye became a viral
Internet sensation, but Marcel is no passing meme. Marcel has now become the star of a quirky picture
book, which was storyboarded by the authors, shot by a c cinematographer David Erickson and, finally,
rendered in brilliant photorealistic oils by Amy Lind. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About
Me (Razorbill, $18.99) is arguably even more charming and inspired than the source, and kids and adults
love the awkward, imaginative shell, whose answer to his own question, “Guess why I smile all the time,”
is simply, “Because it’s worth it.”
For the older set, Wonderstruck (Scholastic, $29.99) is the latest offering from Caldacott Award-
winning, genre-twisting author-illustrator Brian Selznick. Like in his earlier The Invention of Hugo
Cabret, the cinematic adaptation of which is currently wowing moviegoers, Selznick has revolutionized
storytelling with a magical intermingling of text and pictures, which serve, not to only illustrate the story,
but to be part of the storytelling itself. Wonderstruck presents the tales of two characters set 50 years
apart. Ben’s story is told in words, Rose’s in pictures, and the two intertwine effortlessly and affectingly
through 600 pages in what promises to be another classic from the truly visionary Selznick.
In another curious blend of illustration and story, The Myserious Benedict Society is at it again,
with The Mysterious Benedict Society: Mr. Benedict’s Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas,
and Curious Conundrums (Little Brown, $12.99), the puzzling companion to the best-selling series from
Trenton Lee Stewart and Diana Sudyka. But this one is chockablock mindbending puzzles, brainteasers
and riddles that will put you to the test along with your favorite Society members.
And as a true classic, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by Jules Feiffer,
celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, acclaimed author Leonard Marcus has released the beautiful The
Annotated Phantom Tollbooth (Knoph, $29.99), which weaves interviews with the author and illustrator,
excerpts from Juster’s notes, literary commentary and historical tidbits unobtrusively but illuminatingly
throughout the beloved story. Milo’s adventures into the Lands Beyond represent youth fiction at its best,
an instant and enduring classic. The anniversary edition honors the original and offers new morsels for
fans of all ages to appreciate.