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.