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Books

Pages and pages of ideas for holiday giving

Cookbooks

We have the continued growth of the Rachael Ray empire based on the canard that you need a mere half-hour in which to prepare worthy food; we have a cookbook co-authored by creepy good ol’ boy Jeff Foxworthy. We even have a cookbook devoted to the chlorine-enhanced sweetener Splenda.

So where do you turn to get the best advice on recent cookbooks? Right here. And I actually try out recipes from the books I like best. But my favorite tomes go beyond recipes to give history, sociology and, if the author is really good, compelling anecdotes.

All of which are combined in my favorite food book of the year: Pig Perfect by Peter Kaminsky (Hyperion). He starts out in search of the perfect ham and travels through France and Spain, among other international stops, before rooting through some of this country’s specialty farms and producers. Along the way, we get a history of pork production (explaining why the supermarket stuff is so terrible) and nine excellent recipes. It’s a book so breezily written that you’ll be surprised to discover how much you learn.

Some definitive texts have reappeared. La Bonne Cuisine (10-Speed Press) goes back some 80 years, and long has been considered the classic guide to French cookery—but with the housewife in mind, so it’s less intimidating than Escoffier. This is the first English translation of a book that inspired the likes of Madeleine Kamman, who wrote the intro. More than 1,000 recipes tell you everything you need to know to turn out splendid meals, fancy or plain.

The Italian equivalent may be The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press), a relative youngster at 55 years old. A recent revision is the basis for this translation, which tops out at about 2,000 recipes, all fairly straightforward. Start with your sauces, then move through antipasti, soup, pasta, meat and fish—14 sections in all, with few illustrations, no freewheeling stories, but 1,264 solid pages.

The Cuisines of Spain (10-Speed Press) is brand new, but Teresa Barrenechea’s guide is a thoroughgoing tour of that country and its varied, fascinating approaches to food. Lots of narrative in a weighty book with handsome photos, and more than 250 recipes, many of which came from some of that country’s best chefs. And it’s geared toward home cooking, so fetch out that paella pan.

Another beautiful volume from 10-Speed Press, again aimed at the home cook, is Washoku by Elizabeth Andoh. The title refers to a Japanese approach to balancing all aspects of a meal, including flavor, nutrition and the sheer aesthetics of it. Andoh knows her stuff well enough to balance the book with insights into the life and culture of Japan, so that when you do take one of the 140 recipes, your heart and soul will be in it.

American food writer Mark Bittman wrote the only book (How to Cook Everything) that gives The Joy of Cooking a run for its money; his latest, titled (with similar restraint) The Best Recipes in the World (Broadway Books), presents more than a thousand recipes that clearly originated elsewhere but have been skillfully adapted for use in your home. It’s an excellent companion to his other book (and, for that matter, the many more he’s written) and shares the same amusingly opinionated, easy-to-follow style.

The most impressive attempt I’ve seen to reimagine the way we eat—and, therefore, the way we cook—is The New American Plate Cookbook by the American Institute for Cancer Research (University of California Press). Cut back on the meat! screams the book, yet it does so with charm and wit and a healthy dose of science. A couple of hundred recipes play up the goodness of those grains and beans and such that we know we should be eating, and it looks more than appetizing in the photos. And it works: My version of the curried sweet potato and apple pilaf has become a household staple.

Sometimes you have to get back to basics, and the most basic of foods is bread. Artisan Baking by Maggie Glezer is a new paperback issue (Artisan Press) of a five-year-old book, so if you missed it before it, grab it now. I can’t imagine that there’s anything left out of this award-winning guide, which starts in the wheat fields to explain how even the harvesting and milling have profound effects on the bread. Follow this guide and you’ll be turning out New York-style bialys in no time.

Did you save room for dessert? Chocolate: The Sweet History (Collectors Press) is everything I ever wanted in a guide to that addictive substance. There are recipes, but they’re in the back of this absorbing history of chocolate and the confection industry. Did you know, for instance, that Whitman’s was the first American company to wrap its boxes in cellophane? It’s that detailed, and author Beth Kimmerle kept me reading far longer at a stretch than I would have expected.

Finally, the handsome book for your favorite foodie. Boulevard: The Cookbook (10-Speed Press, who else?) celebrates San Francisco’s Boulevard, the restaurant, with a gorgeous book that shares 75 recipes for finished plates—sides and everything—covering a range of meats and fish and vegetables as anchors. They’re detailed, they’re difficult, but the photos are so mouth-watering that you’ll have to give them a try. Bon appetit!

—B.A. Nilsson

Not From the Best-Seller List

© 2005 East Bay Express

Giving best sellers as gifts is fun, but it’s fascist. Sure, it’s easy. But so is donning a uniform. And sure, it feels like tapping into a hot trend. But so does cheering a dictator. Sure, since books are cerebral they seem to be deeper, more personalized gifts than mattress pads, say, or trowels. But really, when everyone at the office is talking about Blink, isn’t that a bit totalitarian? How is reading the exact same words at the exact same time as all your friends not like marching in lockstep?

Fifty thousand books are published every year in America. That means fifty thousand authors boned up on something or other so that you wouldn’t have to, and spent whatever time it took to spin 50,000 riffs on 50,000 topics. Yet you only hear of about 10 or 20 books a month. As sleighbells jingle this year, break the chains. Give those 49,760 also-rans a chance. Because wouldn’t your loved ones really rather read about reincarnation and tequila than about boy wizards and not thinking of an elephant?

For the hypochondriac on your list, Peter Steele’s Doctor on Everest (Raincoast, $16.95) and Jonathan Kaplan’s Contact Wounds (Grove, $24) make even fistulas seem picayune. As a doctor on an Everest-climbing expedition, Steele treated hemorrhaging retinas, broken bones, and hypothermia. An injection isn’t an injection until you’ve had one on ice—or at 28,000 feet. South African surgeon Kaplan headed a combat-zone hospital in Angola, land of a hundred thousand land-mine victims. He describes blasted flesh with elegiac precision.

It takes more than just one jarhead to bring a war home. Embedded with U.S. battalions on the blazing frontlines in Fallujah, ex-Marine Bing West leaves no grenade unturned in No True Glory (Bantam, $25). Having served with the Army Waterborne, novelist Christian Bauman plumbed his own past to write Voodoo Lounge (Touchstone, $14), a depth-charge of a love story set during the U.S. invasion of Haiti. And San Francisco poet Alan Kaufman plumbed his years in the Israel Defense Force for his gorgeously gritty novel, Matches (Back Bay, $13.95). “There’s no feeling in the world more exciting than making a combat assault on an enemy target by helicopter,” muses Sgt. Maj. Eric Haney in his memoir Inside Delta Force (Bantam, $14), about the elite counterterrorist unit bent on finding out what makes bombers tick.

Nostalgia gets a little less dorky than usual with Melanie Rehak’s informative ode to Nancy Drew, Girl Sleuth (Harcourt, $25); TV scriptwriter William Froug’s funny-cynical memoir How I Escaped From Gilligan’s Island (Popular, $29.95); and France’s all-time best-selling children’s novel, Nicholas (Phaidon, $19.95), first published in 1959 and now available in English—in which Asterix creator René Goscinny conjures a school- ditching, soccer-loving, cigar- smoking scamp.

Who doesn’t love someone who loves gloating over America’s shame? Score big with that person with Slavery in New York (New Press, $25), compiled by that city’s historical society, because yes, people were property there for 300 years. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and Duke University history professor John Hope Franklin started fighting for civil rights in 1934, spurred by a Tennessee lynching; his autobiography Mirror to America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25) shows where we’ve been.

Science kills, but you can’t live without it. Mark Essig’s Edison & the Electric Chair (Walker, $15) tracks the nuts and bolts behind the death penalty; Diana Preston’s Before the Fallout (Walker, $27) follows radium from Marie Curie to Hiroshima.

Sick of the red, blue, and white? Young historian Diarmaid Ferriter’s The Transformation of Ireland (Overlook, $37.50) strides from starvation to U2 in nearly 900 pages. Wistful eyes gaze into eternity from the pages of Mei Mei (Chronicle, $35), Berkeley photographer Richard Bowen’s masterful assemblage of portraits taken in Chinese orphanages; Amy Tan wrote its introduction. Rifles, an abandoned missile base, ice-fishermen, and babes on snowy streets bring our ex-enemy alive in Andrew Moore’s stunning coffee-table volume Russia (Chronicle, $40). Soy-sauce cheesecake, gropers attacking elevator operators, a mom who strangles her 7-year-old because he won’t go to school: Compiled from Japanese newspapers by Mark Schreiber, Tabloid Tokyo (Kodansha, $12.95) bares the city’s underbelly.

Hook-up hunters home for the holidays? In The Obscene Chronicles (Outstanding!, $24.95), Michael Edwards, Adam Steele, and Roger Cameron are as explicit as only ex-frat guys can be about threesome etiquette, extracting chewing gum from pubes, and ill-timed irritable-bowel-syndrome attacks. For those who prefer pimpin’, Tariq “King Flex” Nasheed advises playaz to hit on cosmetic-counter clerks, never spend more than $20 on a first date, and wear mink, not macramé, in The Mack Within (Riverhead, $13).

Hailing humankind’s eternal romance with photosynthesis, Tom Turner’s Garden History (Spon, $44.95) is fabulously detailed, and Olive Percival’s The Children’s Garden Book (University of California, $24.95) is a charming array of previously unpublished blueprints for garden design—and an ascent into an enchanted old flax-and-sundial world; Percival died in 1945.

This world might be in tatters—but is there another one? Wraiths roam a high school and shipyard in The Ghost Stories of Alameda (Spellbinding Tales, $9), produced by the Alameda Society for Paranormal Research. Lifelong psychic Terry Iacuzzo can see your future, but remembers her past in Small Mediums at Large (Perigee, $14.95), a wrenching memoir, and kids remember stuff that happened before they were born in Life Before Life (St. Martin’s, $23.95), a scientific investigation of reincarnation by University of Virginia child psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker. Chicken sacrifice, blood sucking, and lucky mojo make an impression on ungullible religion reporter Christine Wicker, whose Not in Kansas Anymore (Harper San Francisco, $24.95) evinces that magic is alive in America.

At war or in love, Shakespeare’s sweet princes and sniveling moneylenders never go out of style. In Shadowplay (Public Affairs, $26.95), Clare Asquith reads between those iambic lines to find secret cries of political protest, written at risk in an age of terror and torture (she starts by recounting a priest’s disembowelment) that was a far cry from the Renaissance Faire. Interpretations, synopses, tons of backstory, and reviews of relevant CDs and films make Andrew Dickson’s The Rough Guide to Shakespeare (Rough Guides, $23.99) indispensable. Forgeries, etymologies, and other trivia along with a built-in bookmark make David Crystal and Ben Crystal’s The Shakespeare Miscellany (Overlook, $14.95) a fun Bardic bathroom companion.

For a very jolly holiday, photographer Douglas Menuez’ dreamy Heaven, Earth, Tequila (Waterside, $39.95) is an homage to an elixir and the Jaliscans who make and drink it, while the pictures of pot, smiley-face bongs, and stoner celebs in Tim Pilcher’s Spliffs 2 (Quick American, $12.95) are so lush and bright you’ll think you inhaled.

All these and so many more await beyond the big tall separation-wall of best-sellerdom. Don’t shop as a sheep would if sheep could shop. For every post-holiday tête-à-tête about Freak onomics, another fifty thousand are waiting to happen about hemorrhaging retinas. And rifles. And cosmetic clerks.

—Anneli Rufus

Music

Genres, trends, creative processes, barnstorming egos, wounded hearts, high ideals, and dark secrets—welcome to the latest crop of music-themed books.

The perennials are back. The Beatles are well-represented with, at the top of the list, a new biography by Bob Spitz. The Beatles (Little Brown, $29.95), eight years in the making, runs more than 900 pages. Myths are laid bare, inaccuracies corrected; and new shadings make this the new standard bearer. Continuing his all-encompassing series, Bruce Spizer’s The Beatles Solo on Apple (498 Productions, $50) is a five-pound feast and presents in full color every sleeve and label, many print ads, and plenty of history and facts. Yoko Ono has edited a sweet collection of essays and anecdotes, Memories of John Lennon (Harper Collins, $24.95). It includes those who never met him (a sprawling entry from Jello Biafra, one line from Dennis Hopper), those who’d you expect (Chuck Berry, Donovan, Elton John), and some lesser-knowns who had meaningful vantage points (session drummer Andy Newmark).

Dead for as long as the Fab Four have been disbanded, Jimi Hendrix continues to be a figure whose musical powers remain undiminished. Room Full of Mirrors (Hyperion, $24.95) is a new examination of his life by Charles Cross. This is an apt title, as Hendrix was a man of many contradictions, and there was a profound divide between his pubic and private lives.

As befits his moniker, The King (Black Dog, $75) is not only the largest book on Elvis Presley, but is one of the largest books currently available, period. The only other books this big are atlases. At 15 by 17 inches, it’s big enough for an infant to roll around on, though the embedded rhinestones spelling out the title may chafe their tender skin. Making optimum use of the scale, the photos—especially of Elvis performing—practically leap out into the room. Elvis by the Presleys (Crown, $24.95) ties in with a recent television documentary. Its strength is in the straightforward presentation of some of the more mundane artifacts from his life. There are images of such things as his slot car from the 1960s (as well as unopened packages of spare parts), a look at the inside of his guitar case, a handwritten football play, and a boot with the mud he personally acquired, still on it. By focusing on such nonspectacular items, it creates a human-scaled portrait of the man.

Forever Young: Photographs of Bob Dylan (DaCapo, $29.95) is a book of previously unpublished images by Douglas R. Gilbert. He was on assignment for Look magazine and spent a week with Dylan in Woodstock, Greenwich Village and at the Newport Folk Festival. The buzz was growing, but this was just before he broke out big-time. Editors decided he looked too unkempt for a family publication and never used any of these, not even the one of him watching Dean Martin on television! 20 Years of Isis (Chrome Dreams, $19.95) is the second volume collected from the longest running magazine devoted to Bob Dylan. Fan-based but scholarly, it finds refreshing angles and corners otherwise missed or ignored by mainstream media. Minutiae at their most delicious. Wicked Messenger (Seven Stories, $16.95) is Mike Marqusee’s examination of the culture and politics of the ’60s that was the environment in which Dylan ascended to popularity. This is an expanded, revised and retitled version of Chimes of Freedom from a couple years ago.

Musicians writing their own books can be a dubious matter, but there are some rare exceptions, now including Nick Mason. His Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd (Chronicle, $29.95) is a friendly and straightforward narrative woven through a dazzling array of imagery from his archives. One need not even be a fan to admire the stunning range of style and design that the band both sprung from and pushed to new heights.

Peter Guralnick’s new book on the life and music of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie (Little Brown, $27.95) demonstrates again that the journeys that this author takes to understand the human impulses to sing and perform make for some of the finest literature on the subject. He makes it clear that, while Elvis caught the world’s attention, it’s the less celebrated Cooke who influenced most of the singing that came after him.

If he had done nothing more than coin the phrase “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends,” Tom Waits would be worthy of consideration. Add to that 30 years of recorded works, and it’s time to sit down with Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader (Thunder’s Mouth, $16.95). Editor Mac Montandon has combed through 30 years of interviews and articles, piecing together nearly 400 pages that move forward with the rhythmic kick and stagger of a Waits album.

Dream a Little Dream of Me: The Life of Cass Elliot (Chicago Review, $24.95) by Eddi Fiegel follows the unhappy adolescence of Ellen Cohen into her successful (but still largely unhappy) life in the Mamas & Papas as Mama Cass, and her early death a few years later at the age of 32. She was friends with Keith Moon, who was also exuberant in public but troubled in private. Instant Party (Chrome Dreams, $19.95) creates a multifaceted and complex portrait of the man as author Alan Clayson looked through as many windows as possible.

Paul Zollo’s Conversations With Tom Petty (Omnibus, $24.95) delivers exactly what the title promises. While this is not a biography, the interviews do explore the trajectory of his life and career. Gram Parsons has been the subject of a biography previously, but Grievous Angel (Thunder’s Mouth, $15.95) is a collaborative work by Jessica Hundley and Gram’s daughter Polly Parsons. The narrative intersperses interviews with musicians, both contemporaries and followers, along with photos and other mementos. Kevin Chong’s Neil Young Nation (Greystone, $16.95) finds the author, on the verge of turning 30, more or less following the route Young took some 40 years prior as he embarked on his musical career. By turns travelogue, cultural critique, and biography, it’s anchored by the author’s love of Young’s music and a desire to understand his place in the world.

33 1/3, the series of paperbacks devoted to individual classic albums, has just added another six to its impressive list. These include the Band’s Music From Big Pink, which is actually a novella by John Niven, as well as more traditional examinations of Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Bowie’s Low, MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing (Continuum, $9.95 each).

Guided By Voices, A Brief History (Black Cat, $16) by James Greer has a subtitle suitably mirroring the syntactical proclivities of Robert Pollard, the now-defunct band’s leader: “Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll.” Spin: 20 Years of Alternative Music (Three Rivers, $19.95) jumps through the decades like a hopped-up channel surfer, capturing the cultural sprawl that passed by during their watch, rendered in an appropriately vivid spray of color and fonts. They also turn the camera on themselves, mocking dozens on their own cover choices and reveling in some of their more arch stands by including letters from disgruntled readers.

Jazz (Chronicle, $40) is a stunning array of Jim Marshall’s photographs. From iconic images of Monk to a pensive performance shot of Elmo Hope, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks grinning at one another, and Eric Dolphy lost in his thoughts backstage, they all radiate warmth. Kansas City Jazz, (Oxford, $32) by Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix, not only explores one of the key cities that gave rise to jazz, but is a look at the changing fortunes and circumstances of a once-powerful metropolitan center. For younger readers, there’s Jazz A-B-Z (Candlewick, $24.95), a beautifully designed introduction to 26 jazz artists, in the form of an album of 78s. It moves along on the bebop cadences of the poetic narrative by Wynton Marsalis and the illustrations by Paul Rogers, and is completed by carefully distilled biographical entries by Lincoln Center jazz archivist Phil Schaap.

Ken Emerson, having written numerous books on American popular music, has turned to the famous Brill Building with Always Magic in the Air (Viking. $25.95). The numerous duos (Leiber-Stoller, Bacharach-David, Mann-Weil, Goffin-King, Pomus-Shuman, etc.) were the final flowering of songwriters as separate entities before the ’60s saw the dawning of performers as self-contained units, covering all the bases themselves (sometimes to their detriment). The American Songbook (Black Dog, $34.95) by Ken Bloom celebrates 75 years of American singers, songwriters and their songs. Grand in scale, it’s rich with photos and ephemera, bios, data, reminiscences, and anecdotes.

Finally, two books that are rife with a central ingredient to rock & roll: attitude. The Rock Snob’s Dictionary (Broadway, $12.95), by David Kamp and Steven Daly, is filled with brief descriptions of the reference points that pop up regularly in the writings of music critics and the party chatter of high-fallutin’ collectors. It covers everything from Rickenbacker guitars to vocoders, Americana to Tropicalia, and David Ackles to the Zombies. Lovers, Buggers & Thieves (Headpress, $19.95) is delightfully sprawling and makes no apologies for its argument-inducing stances. One chapter is accurately titled “Satan Yawns in the Garden of Eden: Led Zeppelin vs. Iron Butterfly,” and its author ends his intro by writing, “I’ve now come to accept the contradictions I feel about these smoke breathing metal dinosaurs clanking around in the junkyard of my mind.” Say amen and ladle yourself another mug of the spiked eggnog.

—David Greenberger

Current Affairs

If it’s the season to be merry and jolly, then it’s not the season to be giving books on politics or economics. It seems the only people still writing on current affairs are maddened Cassandras, driven crazy because things are turning out as badly as they said they would, and clowns like Al Franken or Bill Maher. However, there are a few excellent books out there, and among them is George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq. Packer, a hawkish liberal, reports on the bureaucratic maneuvers that led up to the invasion, and shows the horrific consequences of the endlessly bungled war and its lethal aftermath. His is a dramatic and personal account. For the larger, more Olympian view, look into The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, by award winning journalist Robert Fisk. At 1,000-plus pages, it has all the historical breadth and depth you can ask for. On the other hand, considering that these are holiday gift books, you may want to put aside Iraq and turn to David McCullough’s 1776. That was a great year, and McCullough is just the writer to present it in the most informative and dramatic way.

If you know somebody whose blood circulates only when reading about how bad life is and how really awful it’s going to be, there’s a book for that person, too. Social commentator James Kunstler has written The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. The scarcity of fuel and the effects of climate change are only two of the many catastrophes coming together to change for the worse the way we live, or so says Kunstler, an apocalyptic writer who makes Malthus look like a starry-eyed optimist.

When it comes to economics, the jolly gift giver can safely choose Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Economics is usually a dismal science, but economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner have teamed up to produce a lively little book that detonates a number of commonly held beliefs about the world. “If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work,” says this book, and it dramatizes that premise in a number of very entertaining ways. Another little book, but with a totally different view of life, is Class Matters by correspondents of The New York Times. (The work originally appeared as a series in the Times.) Economics is an extension of politics, but this book shows without bias how class—money, education, profession and social standing—work in our “classless” society. If you have a friend who hasn’t noticed that the globe is now one big economic whole, then an excellent primer, if you can stand the breathless writing, is Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. On the other hand, a refreshing return to the past might be more soothing, in which case hunt up Ron Chernow’s superb Alexander Hamilton, the engaging story of our first economist.

—Gene Mirabelli

Children’s

Having promised my mother to pick up something for her at Wal-Mart, I threw caution to the wind and decided to quickly check out the toy section, on the off chance that something might catch my eye as appropriate for my kids or their friends. Good God, what was I thinking? Row upon row of depressingly plastic and garish packaging met my eye. Even the “learning toys” section, featuring mostly computerized or battery-operated gizmos, seemed drastically devoid of anything resembling life, imagination, creativity . . . fun.

Especially grotesque were the Baby Einstein-type items, which proudly proclaim how much they help with your little one’s development, in much the same way a totalitarian government might pride itself on how well it turns out worker bees. Have we, as a society, really forgotten that plugging in a DVD of Miro-inspired cartoons is not nearly as effective, in terms of one’s cognitive, emotional and social development (not to mention quality one-on-one time), as reading?

In hopes that the dear readers of Metroland understand the importance (and joy!) of reading, here are a handful of suggestions for this year’s recommended books for gift giving this holiday season:

Hanukkah, Schmanukkah! by Esme Raji Codell, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion Books for Children, $16.99). With all due respect, I have to say that, too often, I find children’s books about Hanukkah to be, well, joyless in narrative and somber in illustrations. One gets the sense that a parent, about to read one of these tomes to his or her kids at bedtime, must preface the whole production with something like, “OK, so now you’re going to learn something.” A fabulous exception is Hanukkah, Schmanukka!, which takes a Hebraic turn on A Christmas Carol and in so doing, provides a marvelously entertaining story as well as a reverent look at history, from the time of the Maccabees to the tenements of immigrants in the New World. Author Codell reminds us that good things happen from a little remembering, and this indeed is a book worth remembering at gift-giving time.

Show Way, by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $16.99). What a glorious, multigenerational history of a family amid a backdrop of the history of black people in America is Show Way. Like the patchwork quilt that its protagonists work to show the way, the story provides a rich tapestry of meanings within meanings, and the many roads that lead to freedom. This is a particularly rich book to read aloud.

Wizardology: The Book of the Secrets of Merlin, Being a True Account of Wizards, Their Ways and Many Wonderful Powers, as told by Master Merlin (Candlewick Press, $19.99). The imaginations at Candlewick Press continue to outdo themselves, following up the insanely fantastical books Egyptology and Dragonology with Wizardology. Ripe with folklore and good old-fashioned story telling, and full of delightful pull-out tabs and booklets and what-have-you featuring potions and warnings, etc., this is a magical book that should have your budding Merlin occupied and fascinated for hours on end. Professor Dumbledore would approve.

Where Did They Hide My Presents? by Alan Katz, illustrated by David Catrow (Margaret K. McElderry Books, $15.95). Tired of hearing the same old Christmas carols over and over? Try singing them with the new, oh-so irreverent words penned by Alan Katz in Where Did They Hide My Presents? What kid won’t delight in singing, to the tune of “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Dance, they told me/I’m the Sugarplum; A Nutcracker fairy and I feel so dumb/I hope I don’t fall down and land on my bum. . . .” There’s a hint of Dr. Seuss in these ditties, and that’s never a bad thing.

Jazz ABZ, by Wynton Marsalis, illustrated by Paul Rogers (Candlewick Press, $24.99). OK, so maybe you want your kids to have a greater appreciation of music than, say, putting silly rhymes to holiday chestnuts. If your family’s got a yen for jazz, there can be no finer selection that Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz ABZ, which includes biographical sketches of greats like Coleman Hawkins, Art Blakey, Jelly Roll Morton, etc., but features a corncupia of poem styles (list poem, word play, meter play, preached poem, etc.) and illustrations that foster a dizzying array of visual styles, all of which speak to the incredible richness and diversity of this musical style. Heck, forget what the kids want—I’m keeping this baby for myself.

Beyond the Great Mountains, a Visual Poem about China, by Ed Young (Chronicle Books, $17.95). Like Jazz ABZ, the visual style of this book contributes greatly to the evocation of mood and substance. The paper-collage illustrations combine to convey the many aspects of China and form a poetic picture of that land’s mystery and enchantment.

Snowmen at Christmas, by Caralyn Buehner, illustrated by Mark Buehner (Dial Books for Young Readers, $16.99). Ultravivid illustrations depicting what snow people do when we’re not looking enhance this adorable story about, well, what snow people do when we’re not looking.

Times Square, A New York State Number Book, by Ann E. Burg, illustrated by Maureen K. Brookfield (Sleeping Bear Press, $16.95). Who knew that milk is the official state beverage, or that there are 108 stitches in a baseball (as opposed to 88 in a softball), or that the New York state quarter features 11 stars because this state was the 11th to join the Union? So many factoids, so much history, so well presented—that’s Times Square, a book that should make its way to any child’s shelves, no matter where he or she resides.

Who’s Under That Hat? by David A. Carter (Red Wagon Books, $13.95). A terrific option for very little aspiring readers, Who’s Under that Hat? features charming riddles whose punchlines are found under a series of flaps. Expect repeated presentations of this bound-to-be-favorite.

The Gift of Nothing, by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown and Company, $14.99). Don’t let the sparseness of its illustrations deceive you: The Gift of Nothing glories in the play of words and confounded expectations. Take, for instance, the meaning of nothing, and how, when looked at another way, it can mean everything. . . . But I’m giving away the plot. A real charmer for all ages.

Winter’s Tale, by Robert Sabuda (Little Simon, $26.95). Hands down, the winner for the absolute most beautiful book this year, Winter’s Tale features spectacular pop-up “illustrations” featuring all manner of wildlife, amid a backdrop of simple, elegant text.

 

 

 

—Laura Leon

 

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