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