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Books

In a word (or thousands of them), good reading makes good giving

Art and Literature

We’re not going to argue with you about whether or not books make good gifts—they do, and that’s that—but in tried-and-true journalistic fashion, we’ll cite an expert who agrees with us and let him beat you into submission on our behalf.

In A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World (HarperCollins, $15.95), Nicholas A. Basbanes concludes his “bibliophile” trilogy (the earlier works being A Gentle Madness and Patience & Fortitude, if you’re feeling very generously toward your favorite book nut). In this enormously well-researched and informative volume, Basbanes looks to the relevance of the book as a physical object in the face of threats, both technological and ideological. The good news is that Basbanes is optimistic that the great pleasure afforded by books as both vehicles of information transmission and as artifacts will ensure their future; the bad news is that the future is thick with challenge, from the increasing digitization of the word, to the programmatic destruction of texts in the service of political/military conquest—as happened in Tibet, Cambodia and Sarajevo. (Basbanes’ interview with the librarian who rescued thousands of books from the Serbian attempt to destroy Croatian culture is particularly dramatic.)

If Basbanes’ celebration of print seems too heavy on the sociopolitical for your giftee, you might take a look at 20 Years of Style: The World According to Paper (HarperCollins, $35), which veritably explodes with downtown dazzle, in-crowd color and—of course—prescient hipster style. Paper started up just off Manhattan’s Canal Street in 1984, and has since consistently facilitated the transition of alterna-everything to the mainstream. It may be hard to believe while cruising the aisles of Target, but there was once a time when Todd Oldham needed a champion. Founders Kim Hastreiter and David Hershkovits claim that their motivation—and the motivation of their cohort of “filmmakers, artists, musicians, writers, fashion designers, performers, intellectuals and freaks”—was simply to be at the “epicenter,” but with the benefit of hindsight, it appears that Paper was always far to the fore—on everything from B-Boy to skate-rat style, and on everyone from RuPaul to Vincent Gallo.

Moving uptown a few blocks, Daniel Okrent presents a story involving a cast of characters every bit as eclectic—if more well-known out in the provinces—as those hanging around Paper’s water cooler: In Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center (Penguin, $16), the author spins the tale of the “most ambitious construction project since the Pyramids,” and reveals how the endeavor brought together such icons of the 20th century as the world’s richest man, John D. Rockefeller, and his son, blah blah blah Jr., whose philanthropic vision sparked the project, and Benito Mussolini, Henry Luce, Diego Rivera and V.I. Lenin., among others. Documentarian Ken Burns has praised the history for its Dickensian cast and drama.

For a history in a slightly less monumental vein, there’s Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book (Basic Books, $26). Author Gerard Jones documents the gritty reality, the wheelings and dealings, that launched the comic-book industry, astutely analyzing the intersection of Yiddish-American traditions and science-fiction that spawned the first pulp supermen. If you dug Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, then Men of Tomorrow will be right up your street. In fact, a scene or two will seem awfully familiar, as Chabon relied on some of these historical anecdotes for the most colorful scenes of his popular novel. (Believe it or not, publisher and hustler Lev Gleason did in fact drive a team of writers and artists to crank out a 64-page issue of Daredevil in just two days, to capitalize on a good deal on pulp paper, as dramatized by Chabon.)

>From funny books to girlie mags, we’re keeping it highbrow here. In Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3D!, viewers are treated to depictions of starlets both famous and forgotten—including Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe—starkers, as photographed by silent-film star Harold Lloyd. OK, yes, it’s naked actresses, but the compositions of these playful images are interesting enough to pretty well eliminate any creepy vibe. Plus, 70 of the 200 shots are in 3D, as boasted. Special glasses are included. Bob Crane never gave you 3D glasses, did he?

If Lloyd’s hobby is just a little too saucy for your coffee table, though, Annie Leibovitz has got a new collection out that might suit your needs. Leibovitz has been a photographer for Rolling Stone for decades, and in that time has shot just about every major name in pop music. In American Music (Random House, $44.95), she focuses on . . . well, guess. Investigating legendary settings—New Orleans jazz clubs, Texan honky-tonks, Bayou juke joints—Leibovitz seeks to capture the essence of the American contribution to the amorphous and evolving idiom. And, of course, the book’s jammed with portraits of icons—Tom Waits, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, the Roots, Dr. Dre, Dylan, Mary J. Blige, etc.—and includes essays from the likes of Patti Smith, Steve Earle, Mos Def and others.

Maybe your coffee table is even more sedate than that though. To each his own. If rock & roll will never darken your divan, you can sip your herbal tea while perusing a photographic tour of another medium altogether, while still retaining the nationalistic focus. In American Writers at Home (Library of America, $50), J.D. McClatchy and Erica Lennard bring the reader on a virtual tour of the private homes and the personal spaces of some of the most centrally canonical writers of American lit.: Hemingway, Wharton, Twain, Hawthorne (whose notes to himself are still visible on his windowpane) and Faulkner (who mapped out his plots on his wall), among them. (And for you stuffy types, we can promise that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are nowhere—absolutely nowhere—to be found in this book.)

—John Rodat

Music

Listen to some music? Read a book? Well nothing calls out for multitasking like putting on some music and reading a book. And if the book is about music, all the better, as one need not feel that one’s senses are at cross purposes. And no matter the genre of interest, there is a book to be had on the topic.

When the 33 1/3 series (Continuum, $9.95 each) brought forth their first titles last year, it seemed too good to last. Well, there’ve been two more batches this year, bringing the total number up to 16 100- to 150-page books, each devoted to a particular album. Two that best describe the breadth of this project are both titled Let It Be. Steve Matteo’s chronicles the making of the Beatles record, and Colin Meloy’s is a portrait of his own musical awakening as a teenager. The publisher further excites the mix by drawing upon known music writers (Matteo) and well-chosen observers (Meloy leads the band the Decemberists).

The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Simon & Schuster, $29.95) marks the first update of this hefty reference tome since 1992. Nearly a thousand pages of entries, and while the cover touts the contents as covering “More Than 10,000 of the Best Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop and Soul Records,” you will also find assorted jazz (Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday), country (Hank Williams, George Jones), blues (B.B. King, Jimmy Reed) and various other performers (The Klezmatics, Milton Nascimento, Tito Puente). An excellent source of information and possible launching pad for discussions and arguments (What? No Soft Machine? And a section on the early-out-of-the-gate outspoken rock & roll hater Frank Sinatra?)

Another reference book serves as a fine tour guide as well. World Music: The Basics by Richard Nidel (Routledge, $16.95) is a worthy companion for anyone already a fan of the music from a particular corner of the world, but it’s also a superb entry point for the novice. It narrows down the dizzying array out there into specific geographic regions and styles, suggesting representative artists and titles in each.

Two more books have joined the library of day-by-day chronicles: The Kinks: All Day and All of the Night by Doug Hinman (Backbeat, $24.95) and The Beach Boys by Keith Badman (Backbeat, $29.95). Both are chock full of rare photos and ephemera and manage to create a dramatic arc by simply presenting the facts, as they occurred, one after another. The highs, the lows, the artistic breakthroughs and the litigation, it all rolls forth with the nonjudgmental fury of a truckload of data careening down the highway.

In case you thought there were no more books on the Beatles possible, here’s one no one would have seen coming: Postcards From the Boys by Ringo Starr (Chronicle, $24.95). As the title suggests, this is an entire book of postcards Ringo received from his bandmates. Some of the most mundane (such as George writing from vacation to confirm Christmas dinner plans) are what give a more honest glimpse than any outsider, regardless of how well researched or florid the prose, ever could.

With Bob Dylan’s self-penned Chronicles stacked and displayed prominently at major booksellers across the land, it’d be easy to miss the important third volume in Paul Williams’ mammoth Bob Dylan Performing Artist series (Omnibus Press, $29.95). Subtitled “Mind Out of Time,” this picks up in 1986 and continues on through Love and Theft and the incessant touring before and since. Williams is one the preeminent Dylan scholars, and has been considering and writing about his work for four decades. (One of the book’s appendices is devoted to a list of the 148 performances Williams has seen Dylan do since 1963.)

For sheer colorful dazzle there’s Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion by Paul Grushkin and Dennis King (Chronicle, $60). With more than 1,500 color reproductions, contemporary trends in music posters are covered in their vast array. Covering everything from DIY aesthetics to well-schooled traditionalists, the book tries to reconcile how imagery can convey music and also how any one particular poster can attract someone’s attention amid the jumble of the 21st century (these are, after all, advertisements).

—David Greenberger

Cooking

Before I move its recipes into my kitchen, I like to enjoy a new cookbook for its narrative power and, if appropriate, its illustrations. Most of the books on this list have those added attractions, but not the first.

That’s because The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl (Houghton Mifflin, $40), is first and foremost a recipe book. It offers more than a thousand recipes culled from Gourmet magazine’s 60-plus years of existence, with many celebrated chefs and food writers as those recipes’ sources. And Reichl herself, whose prose is always engaging, introduces each chapter. Although it has the thoroughness of guides like The Joy of Cooking and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (both of which I find indispensable), it wanders into fancier territory, with chapters on ethnic cookery grouped by country of origin and a style that will challenge the home cook to go beyond what seems safe and simple—and do so successfully.

Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook was as handsome and challenging a tome as I’ve ever seen. He’s topped that one with Bouchon (Artisan, $50), celebrating the French bistro cooking that’s practiced at his restaurant of the same name. The secret seems to be lots of butter and heavy cream, and if you’re OK with that, you’ll find the roquefort-and-leek quiche to be the best quiche you’ve ever baked or tasted. Also along the way you’ll enjoy such essays as “The Importance of Onion Soup,” “The Importance of Brown Butter” and “The Importance of the Egg,” all written in an easily digested style.

Although Frank Stitt’s Southern Table (Artisan, $40) describes recipes used at his Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala., the techniques reflect Stitt’s own background first at French restaurants in San Francisco and then as an Alice Waters disciple before training in Provence. So you’ll learn about fried okra and flounder with lady-pea succotash, but you’ll also pick up a lot of valuable insight into the ingredients through truly continental eyes. And try the seven-layer coconut cake. It knocked ’em dead here at Thanksgiving.

Every year seems to bring a new Charlie Trotter book, and this year’s—Workin’: More Kitchen Sessions With Charlie Trotter (Ten-Speed Press, $40)—takes its title from a Miles Davis album and is both a companion to a PBS series and also a creative look at vegetable components, from artichokes and corn through squash and tomatoes, each getting a half-dozen recipes exploring the item in combo with meats, fish and other accompaniments. And with cheese and dessert courses at the end. Not surprisingly, they’re often a bear to make—the chilled spring-pea soup with mussel, elephant garlic and fiddlehead fern-stuffed red onions says it all—but they’ll open your mind and palate to new ways of working with food.

Marcella and Victor Hazan reviewed an Olive Garden a couple of years ago, and the surprise was that they found anything good to say about it at all. But Marcella did, graciously acknowledging that at least one of the several dishes she tried merited praise. One of her complaints was that, with so many thousands of Italian recipes available, they had to make up stuff with no Italian basis at all. In her book Marcella Says . . . (HarperCollins, $30), we get concentrated doses of such wisdom—and hers is a voice worth heeding. She’s a longtime teacher who brings an experienced voice to the 120 recipes gathered herein, each with that extra bit of explanation that makes the process—and the flavor—come alive.

I’m a sucker for high-end restaurant books, and Geronimo (Ten-Speed Press, $50) is a beauty. The restaurant is in Santa Fe, and the book combines the talents of owner Cliff Skoglund, chef Eric DiStefano and photographer Peter Vitale with the spirit of Mark Miller as we tour the dishes that have made Geronimo the most popular restaurant in New Mexico (according to Zagat). These are ingredient- and procedure-intensive recipes, but a dish like pan-braised sweetbreads with savory green apple polenta makes the work worthwhile. And the photography alone will inspire you.

The southwest becomes one portion of the broad palette covered by Foods of the Americas by Fernando and Marlene Divina (Ten-Speed Press, $40). It offers contemporary takes on traditional Native American fare on all sides of the border(s). Caldo, for instance, a stew with roasted peppers, endures as a Mexican dish, while salmon grilled in seaweed (or leek tops) hails from the Pacific Northwest with possible Aztec roots (the dollop of caviar served on top gives it a contemporary twist). The chapters are divided by courses and ingredients, and each includes an evocative essay about food and the Native American culture.

I’m a year-round grilling enthusiast, and have been known to brush the snow off my Weber for a midwinter burger. Raichlen’s Indoor! Grilling (Workman, $19) says I don’t have to, and it emphasizes Steven Raichlen’s enthusiasm with that mid-title exclamation point. He’s right, though. Whether you use a contact grill (like those George Foreman machines), a grill pan, a freestanding or built-in grill or even a grill over your fireplace, there’s some place in your house where you can sizzle your food. And the recipes—nearly 300 of them—include such unusual items as gazpacho (with several smoked components), pork or lamb burgers, cumin-crusted chicken with cucumber-cream sauce and many more, each with advice on the preparing the dish with your particular grill.

Let’s get back to basics. Aroma. By Mandy Aftel and Daniel Patterson (Artisan, $30). Your most basic perception of food comes from its aroma, which is also a key taste component. So the authors provide a look at the use of essential oils and other flavor- (and aroma-) rich ingredients. There are recipes both for foodstuffs and for fragrances themselves (how about a chocolate and saffron moisturizing oil, or a coffee cologne?). The section on tarragon, for example, describes the herb itself, then gives recipes for a tarragon bath oil, tarragon-marinated beets with frisée and radishes and seared scallops with tarragon sabayon. It’s fun as a straight read, alive with suggestions.

Finally: dessert. It’s been named the best chocolate store in New York, and now the Chocolate Bar is a cookbook (by Matt Lewis and Alison Nelson, Running Press, $25). Well, way more than a cookbook. It’s a chocolate lifestyle book that begins with such instruction as “Refuse to cut ‘small’ cake, brownie, or pie slices. What is the point?” and goes on from there with a delightful cascade of recipes, stories, funny photos, toothsome photos and lots of amusing perspectives on the world of chocolate—the history of which is even explored within. I’ve already promised the family that I’ll make the chocolate fudge layer cake for Christmas, but I may have to take an immediate shot at the brownies, keeping in mind some of the book’s advice: “Icing on a brownie is disturbing and unnecessary. Are you trying to hide a dry, tasteless square?” I couldn’t have put it better.

—B.A. Nilsson

Children’s

Growing up in a large family, Christmas was, for me, a raucous holiday. And yet, the single event that took precedence over everything else occurred on Christmas Eve. At some point, well after all the relatives had gathered for a prepresent-opening visit, my father would collect our dog-eared assortment of holiday books, gather me—his youngest—up in his arms, and begin reading. As his florid tongue, displaying odd remnants bequethed him by his Irish mother, rolled over the traditional tales of Saint Nicholas and also of a babe born in a stable, I and my older siblings—some of whom had become parents scant years after I was born—became silent, mesmerized by the cadences of familiar yet spellbinding words of stories read on this very night, year after year. All of us would fall silent before my father’s reading, which transported each of us to times from distant and not so distant pasts, and bound us to each other.

The following new titles are worthy stories that can be added both to your family’s annual holiday reading or, equally important, to nightly bedtime storytelling.

Merry Christmas, Princess Dinosaur! by Jill Kastner (Greenwillow Books, $15.99) is sort of like a cute bracchiosaurus version of Olivia. Princess Dinosaur spreads love and good cheer, never thinking of herself. Fantastical, bright illustrations add to the joyous nature of this book.

Frederick and His Friends: Four Favorite Fables by Leo Lionni (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95). OK, so it’s not exactly holiday in theme, but any story by Leo Lionni is magical, with subtexts about humility and cooperation that surely befit the season. This special collection includes “Swimmy,” “Fish Is Fish” and “Frederick and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse,” and includes a CD recording of each story, so you can enjoy them on your way over the river and through the woods.

Twas the Night Before Christmas, or Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas, illustrated by Matt Tavares (Candlewick Press, $16). The traditional favorite, first published in the Troy Sentinel in 1823, is presented in a handsome, charcoal-illustrated version that looks as if it’s been handed down lovingly from a favorite grandparent.

In Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve, (G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, $16.99), author Jan Brett has forsaken her formulaic—and redundant—retelling of the same story, different article of clothing (The Hat, The Mitten) with a wonderfully realized story depicting the majesty of winter and the miracle of the season.

Under the Christmas Tree, by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (HarperCollins Publishers, $15.99), features 23 holiday poems and haikus from Correta Scott King Award-winning poet Grimes, detailing everything from holiday baking with Gram to sledding on trash can lids, all showcased with personal, radiant illustrations by Nelson. A true treasure for any family that loves literature.

Dear Santa, Please Come to the 19th Floor, by Yin, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet (Philomel Books, $16.99). A decidedly different take on the season, Dear Santa takes place in a tenement house that, despite the poverty of its inhabitants, is a true community of love and faith. Can dreams exist and survive when hope is dashed, and can Santa navigate the inner city?

In The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke, read by Simon Jones (Random House Books on Tape, $28), best-selling author Funke takes listeners to the magical underworld of Venice, where orphans Prosper and Bo, on the run from their cruel aunt and uncle, take refuge with the mysterious title character. An evocative way to spend an evening trimming the tree, or just gazing into a cozy fire.

Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas, by Elise Primavera (Silver Whistle Harcourt, $16) is a follow-up to the delightful Auntie Claus. This edition has young Christopher Kringle expressing doubts about, well, Santa. That is, until Auntie Claus—a sort of Mame doused in a lot of joie de noel—takes over and concocts a marvelous plan to convince Chris otherwise. Incredibly imaginative and brilliantly illustrated, this is a must!

Things change and creatures grow up—can a caterpillar and a gosling remain friends throughout? Farfallina & Marcel, by Holly Keller (Greenwillow Books, $15.99) is a beautifully illustrated story of friendship.

Eloise Takes a Bawth, by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight (Simon & Schuster, $17.95). Originally catalogued by Harper & Row in 1964, this delightful story has resurfaced—though the details of the mystery of this missing gem are in question. As the editors note, “Only Eloise knows the real story and she’s not talking.” A terrific orgy of wordplay and fun as only Kay Thompson knew how to deliver.

How bad can life be for the Chief Flavor Tester for the World’s Best Ice Cream Company? Well . . . Ross MacDonald’s Another Perfect Day (Roaring Book Press, $15.95) will capture the imagination of little dreamers, and his retro-style illustrations will remind sophisticated parents of a sort of Thin Man for the younger set.

Finally, Please, Baby, Please, by Spike Lee & Tonya Lewis Lee, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Simon & Schuster, $16.95). In the vein of No, David, No!, this adorably illustrated volume will amuse kids who recognize the various situations in which mom and dad implore them—please, baby, please!—to hurry up or to eat their peas.

—Laura Leon

2004 Gift Guide Home


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