Written word to the rescue
The Best Recipes in the World
By Mark Bittman
Broadway Books, $29.95/hardcover
Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World is the culmination of a 30-year dream of the New York Times food columnist who calls himself "The Minimalist" (The Minimalist Cooks at Home, The Minimalist Entertains). A few years back, Bittman published his opus, How to Cook Everything, a fat yellow monster of a book; this year, it's 1,000 international dishes to cook at home, including grilled octopus from Greece, Indian samosas, soups from Korea and Russia, and classics from France and Italy. Bittman's encyclopedic approach includes appendixes that list model menus, a slim source section for ordering ingredients, and, count them, three indexes. -- Kathryn Eastburn
Vegetable Love: A Book for Cooks
By Barbara Kafka
Artisan Books, $35/hardcover
Vegetable Love is a sparkling and eccentric ode to "vegetables delicious alone, or with pasta, seafood, poultry, meat and more." Kafka wastes no words appeasing veggie-traumatized readers. "This is a book about pleasure," she points out in the introduction, "not a moral tract." The book is organized by geographic locations: Vegetables of the New World (avocados, corn, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, American root vegetables, peppers), Vegetables of the Mediterranean Basin, Europe and the Arab World (asparagus, beets, chard, carrots, parsnips, celery, fennel, fava beans, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower, cabbages), and Vegetables of Asia and Africa. The history is buoyantly told, the recipes interesting and frequently offbeat. Especially useful is a cook's guide of basic techniques in the back. -- Kathryn Eastburn
France the Beautiful Cookbook: Authentic Recipes from the Regions of France
By the Scotto Sisters and Gilles Pudlowski
Those who prefer to look at and drool over their cookbooks, rather than actually use them in the kitchen, are advised to stop in the doorway vestibule of Borders, where I recently saw France the Beautiful Cookbook: Authentic Recipes from the Regions of France for $9.99. According to the foreword, there are two faces of French food: the domain of olive oil, located approximately in the south, and the domain of butter in the north. This logic, and the accompanying sumptuous photos of dairy farms, bakeries and olive groves, kick off a visual journey from first courses, through shellfish and fish, to poultry and game, to meat, vegetables and, of course, dessert, to soothe your inner Francophile. -- Kathryn Eastburn
The Complete New Yorker: 1925-2005
Edited by David Remnick
Random House, $100/DVD set
Be afraid. Be very afraid. You could spend the rest of your life clicking and flipping through 80 years' worth of The New Yorker on the new boxed DVD set The Complete New Yorker: 1925-2005. It comes in a handsome cardboard display set with a printed introduction by editor David Remnick. That the introduction is not removable from the case proves the only design flaw in this mind-blowing collection. There are 4,109 complete issues included on eight DVDs; that's a half million pages. Go to thenewyorkerstore.com for a walk-through that will show you the infinite number of search functions, including, searching by cover, author, department, year or issue. The older issues even are slightly yellowed at the page edges, and the ads are all there in the colors and design trends of the era. Find Janet Flanner's profile of Adolf Hitler and his strange dining habits, Jon Lee Anderson's letter from Iraq, "The Bombing of Baghdad," a gallery of Richard Avedon portraits or eight decades of Talk of the Town entries. The posted price is $100, but the set is $70 on the New Yorker Web site and $61.11 on amazon.com. Takes up 750 MB of hard drive space and comes with 24-hour Web support and updating potential for a new disk and revised index each year. Are you listening, Santa? -- Kathryn Eastburn
The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
By Sean Wilentz
W.W. Norton, $35/hardcover
David McCullough might be the reigning seducer of men's minds, and Doris Kearns Goodwin takes the cake when it comes to bringing history to life, but it seems unlikely anyone will write as cogent and compelling a study of American democracy as Princeton professor Sean Wilentz. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln is his elegant and richly detailed story of how American democracy came about, and at 1,000 pages, it will keep Dad quiet all winter long. -- John Freeman
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
By John le Carr'
Walker & Company, $19/hardcover
The Great Game might be over -- at least in Europe -- but John le Carr's novel about it, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is beginning to look eternal, especially in this newly reissued hardcover format, which just begs to be smuggled to a safe home. -- John Freeman
Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation
By Robert Littell
Le Carr might be the master of the spy novel, but Robert Littell certainly is its most literary practitioner. Legends is his latest "novel of dissimulation," and it involves a former CIA agent-turned-private detective who, like Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity, begins to question who exactly he is -- or was -- for all those years. -- John Freeman
By Zadie Smith
If you buy one novel this year, make it Zadie Smith's hilarious, ribald, funny and potently barbed On Beauty. It's the story of a white college professor, his black conservative rival and the dust-up that ensues when their families become entangled on a college campus that bears a striking resemblance to Harvard University, where Smith taught recently. -- John Freeman
Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq
Feminist Press at CUNY, $14.95/paperback
An anguished news follower probably will take to Baghdad Burning, the memoir of an Iraqi woman's account of the fall of Baghdad. Assembled from blogs posted on the Web under the name Riverbend, the book brings home the impact of this war on Iraqis in a way no camera has yet. In January 2004, the author writes: "We spent the first two and a half months of 2003 taping windows, securing homes, stocking on food, water and medications, digging wells and wondering if we would make it through the year." -- John Freeman
Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millennial South
By Hal Crowther
LSU Press, $26.95/hardcover
Imagine if H.L. Mencken was mixed from less Vermouth and more sour mash, and you wind up with Hal Crowther, the South's best-kept secret since Krispy Kreme went national. In Gather at the River, his latest collection of essays, Crowther takes on literature (Faulkner) and religion (in the form of the Branch Davidians), and celebrates the "mothballing" of the two Southern politicians still steeped in Confederate nostalgia: Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond. -- John Freeman
Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs and Some Other Things
By Dave Eggers
A generation ago, Kurt Vonnegut got slackers and wastrels to pick up a book. Now Dave Eggers has moved into that role. Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs and Some Other Things ' is his latest anthology-cum-valentine for kids who believe short fiction should be more fun to read. He's right, and the tales in here by Kelly Link, Jonathan Safran Foer and George Saunders show just how that can be done. -- John Freeman
By Simon Wood
If the baby boomers' nostalgia came through in muscle cars, Generations X and Y have turned their memory fetish on vintage sneakers. What else explains why young men and women plunk down hundreds of dollars for shoes they wore at age 7? Sneaker Freaker is a handy little guide to the ins-and-outs of this odd, not-so-little world, complete with photos, graphics and interviews with sneaker freaks from Singapore to South Central. -- John Freeman
Snowstruck: In the Grip of
By Jill Fredston
Unlike many Alaskans, who see an avalanche and run, Jill Fredston seeks them out. She even purposefully triggers snow slides with explosives and films the ensuing messes: just to see what makes them tick. Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches is her fascinating and terrifically written account of this odd avocation. It will make you glad someone else calls this work. -- John Freeman
By Zoran Zivkovic
Dalkey Archive, $13.95/paperback
As Hidden Camera opens, its undertaker hero finds a note slipped under his door inviting him to the premiere of a movie. At the cinema, the lights go down to reveal a shot of him, eating his lunch, the day before. Thus begins one of the strangest and most alluring novels to come out this year, a Truman Show for existentialists and hopefully the book that will bring Serbian novelist Zoran Zivkovic's name into wider circulation. -- John Freeman
Watchmen (Absolute Edition)
By Alan Moore
DC Universe, $75/hardcover
The Watchmen recently was named by Time magazine as one of the most 100 enduring works of literature over the last 80 years. This Watchmen, a gigantic compilation of the series featuring partially insane hero Rorschach, explains why, and shows that comics are underestimated as a storytelling form. -- John Freeman
Let My People Go Surfing: The
Education of a Reluctant Businessman
By Yvon Chouinard
Yvon Chouinard's first stab at design was a climbing axe. His first mail-order catalog was a one-page mimeograph sent out to die-hard climbers around the world. That was in 1964. Today, his Patagonia is a world leader in outdoor gear, and Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman tells the inspiring story of how that happened, and what Chouinard learned along the way. Like the fact that 25 recycled soda-pop bottles can be used to make one of his trademark fleece jackets. Radical! -- John Freeman
The Man Behind the Microchip:
Robert Noyce and the Invention of
By Leslie Berlin
Oxford University Press,
As co-founder of the integrated circuit, Robert Noyce has a finger on every computer, car, cell phone and video game available today. In The Man Behind the Microchip, Leslie Berlin opens up the circuit board of his life and shows what made him run -- and charm the world. -- John Freeman
Rome: From the Ground Up
By James H.S. McGregor
Harvard University Press,
Rome, home to organized chaos in its streets and squares, was not a planned city, but a group of cities that gradually became one. In Rome: From the Ground Up, James H.S. McGregor describes how this happened in prose so clear you'd think it came from one of Roma's many springs. -- John Freeman
Across the Bridge of Sighs: More
By Jane Turner Rylands
"Winter settles down in Venice like it means to make friends and stay forever," writes Jane Turner Rylands in Across the Bridge of Sighs, her latest collection of vignettes about her adopted home. Read this in your lap by a fire and you will get all the melancholic chill of Italy's most romantic city, with none of the sticker shock.
-- John Freeman
Philip Marlowe's Guide to Life
By Raymond Chandler
As Marty Asher reminds us in his introduction to Philip Marlowe's Guide to Life, Raymond Chandler's dashingly dour hero was a champion of the aphorism. Chandler has collected these bon mots in a little book that is small enough to fit into a gentleman's suit pocket, and worth its weight in chuckles. "They say lust makes a man old, but keeps a woman young," goes one. "They say a lot of nonsense." On marriage, Marlowe is sanguine as a hangover: "For two people in a hundred it's wonderful." -- John Freeman
The Language of Saxophones
By Kamau Da'ood
City Lights, $10.95/paperback
Long before poetry slams became the literary equivalent of monster-truck rallies, City Lights Press was at the heart of the San Francisco poetry renaissance, putting out volumes by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, the true founders of the so-called spoken word movement. All of these writers appeared in the Pocket Poet series, which could fit in a jean pocket and made a perfect companion for cross-country jaunts. The series lives on, and the latest addition is Kamau Da'ood's The Language of Saxophones, a book so hip and full of soul, even Miles Davis would have treated it with respect. -- John Freeman
Tommy Dorsey: His Life and Times
By Peter J. Levinson
Da Capo, $27.50/hardcover
2005 marks the centennial of trombonist Tommy Dorsey's birth, and in honor of this, Peter J. Levinson has put together the first comprehensive biography of the jazz great in over 30 years. Tommy Dorsey: His Life and Times chronicles the young performer's rise from a childhood in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania to his hiring of Frank Sinatra in 1939 to his show for CBS in the '50s. -- John Freeman
Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology
of War and Mediation
By Steven C. Caton
Hill & Wang, $26/hardcover
Thirty-five years ago, Steven C. Caton traveled to a rugged part of Yemen to study its poetry and, a few misunderstandings later, found himself jailed as an American spy. In his thoughtful and gripping memoir, Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation, he revisits that time -- and, eventually in 2003, the country -- to find out what went wrong. -- John Freeman
Trail of Feathers
By Robert Rivard
In 1998, San Antonio Express news reporter Philip True disappeared while backpacking through Mexico. Robert Rivard's Trail of Feathers tells the sad and grimly compelling tale of how True's editor tracked down his grave and set out to bring his killers to justice. Read it, and never again will you go into the wild unprepared. -- John Freeman
The Undiscovered Country: Poetry
in the Age of Tin
By William Logan
Columbia University Press,
Sharp writing about poetry can be as delightful as verse itself, a fact William Logan has been proving for years. The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin is his latest assortment of tirades, puffs, rants and ebullitions about the lyrical art, and no book out this fall will make you want to roll up your sleeves and get down in poetry's sawdust quite like it. -- John Freeman
The Private Journals of Edvard
Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour
Out of the Earth
Edited and translated by J. Gill
University of Wisconsin Press,
One needn't spend too much time contemplating Edvard Munch's "The Scream" to realize the Danish painter had some issues. His recently discovered journals, We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth, bear some of these demons out, often with unexpected humor. One evening at a caf, Munch remembers a paramour saying to him: "You remember you talked / about dreaming that you kissed me / and that your kiss / Devoured Death's cold lips" / Yes I say / You know you -- there / was maybe something / in that." -- John Freeman
The Fated Sky: Astrology in History
By Benson Bobrick
Simon & Schuster, $26/hardcover
It was only recently that astrology and astronomy were separated. Piece by piece, Bobrick puts them back together again in The Fated Sky: Astrology in History, a lively and compelling history of our fascination with the heavens, and what they have said about life here on Earth. -- John Freeman
For the kids
The Other Side
By Istvan Banyai
Chronicle Books, $15.95/hardcover
Illustrator Istvan Banyai has proven himself (with his classics Zoom and Re-Zoom) as one of those rare folks who can create children's books that beg to be examined repeatedly. His latest, The Other Side, is no exception. Like his other works, it features very few words, and the book relies entirely on Banyai's clever illustrations and multiple points of view to draw the reader (or, in this case, the observer) in. The Other Side examines opposites, allowing children to see what's on the other side of any number of things: a door, a zoo cage, a theater curtain, a shoreline. It's as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. Good for ages 4 through 8. -- Kara Luger
Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs
Illustrated by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart
This is a gift-giver's dream come true: Satisfy both the parents and the child in one fell swoop. The topic of dinosaurs make any kid giddy, while adults swoon over the masterpieces that pop-up icon Robert Sabuda creates. This time, Sabuda's working with the equally impressive Matthew Reinhart. While the information provided is pretty limited -- Encyclopedia Prehistorica doesn't function as a good research resource --the deft paper engineering makes up for it, as dinosaurs tower in all their 3-D glory. Great for kids ages 5 through 9. -- Kara Luger
Winter Lights: A Season in Poems & Quilts
Illustrated by Anna Grossnickle Hines
Finding a really lovely holiday book is harder than you'd think. Most tend to run along the lines of ho-hum, though quite a few are just horribly illustrated and/or so sugary sweet as to induce a diabetic coma. Anna Grossnickle Hines nails it with her beautiful holiday picture book Winter Lights: A Season in Poems & Quilts. The season is celebrated using quilts as a motif, each colorful and cozy, while introducing the holiday it represents: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Chinese New Year and the feast of Santa Lucia. Cheery, cozy and all-inclusive? Sounds like a winner. For kids ages 6 through 9. -- Kara Luger
Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You
By Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi
Simon & Schuster, $24.95/hardcover
This fancy field guide functions as a companion to the amazing Spiderwick Chronicles series for young readers. As the story goes, three siblings, Jared, Simon and Mallory Grace, find their great-great uncle Arthur Spiderwick's long-lost book, detailing the creatures and beings thought by others to be, well, make-believe. This is his book, and fans finally can look through it for themselves to see what denizens live in the Invisible World. Gorgeously rendered by illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi, the book is rather lovely to look at -- and fun to read, thanks to Holly Black. Elves, boggarts, nixies, knockers and dragons -- they're all here, even if you can't find them around your house. Also great for Harry Potter fans and kids ages 6 through 11. -- Kara Luger
Stuff their stockings with DVDs
By Aaron Retka
Veronica Mars: The Complete First
Warner Home Video, $59.98
Ah, Veronica Mars. Never has a show about rape, murder, possible incest, race and class relations, and teenage skullduggery been so funny. Now in its second season, it's also hands-down the best show on television, with Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) solving crimes, exchanging quips and lookin' awfully nice while attending high school in wealthy Orange County. Think you're hearing echoes of other hourlong teen dramas? Creator Rob Thomas was the mastermind behind Dawson's Creek, after all. Still, VM's creatives have a deft and delicate touch, unraveling a mystery each week while developing season- and series-long arcs -- with no Lost-style letdowns. The show is widely adored among the television elite and duly has drawn such guest stars as Charisma Carpenter, Alyson Hannigan, Steve Guttenberg, Joey Lauren Adams, Kevin Smith and, er, Paris Hilton, as a suitably vapid rich hussy. It's an unbelievable rarity that something this smart gets to stick around in a TV world populated by lowest common denominators, and even rarer that it wins rabid fans equally as smart. Grab this gift and count those on your list among them.
Universal Studios, $29.98
Joss Whedon's Firefly-based feature-length sci-fi Western may have performed less than admirably at the box office, but the good news is that the higher-ups at Universal rushed the film into DVD format, hoping for a post-release renaissance. Set to come out on Dec. 20, Serenity's poised to do well on DVD, with the geeks at TheForce.net naming it the best sci-fi movie ever, and with Whedon's hordes of adoring fans following him -- justifiably -- to whatever project he does. With a relatively obscure ensemble cast including Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Serenity is the kind of sci-fi movie no one makes anymore. It's about people, rather than 'splosion after 'splosion. Have a Klingon on your gift list? Or a Buffy fan? Or a general aficionado of touchingly human space movies in which people curse in Chinese, strap dead bodies to their spaceships and say, "I ain't had nothin' twixt my nethers didn't run on batteries"? This is a no-brainer, kids. Pre-order it online and have it for the holidays.
Born to Run 30th anniversary
There are people who love Bruce Springsteen with all their hearts, and then there are people who pretend not to. The latter, who feign boredom and physically prevent their toes from tapping to "Thunder Road" in order to maintain anti-hoi polloi street cred, universally should be issued this three-disc set this holiday season. It's the first time since Born to Run's original release that the eight seminal tracks have been remastered, but the gems of this box set are the 48-page book of photos and the two DVDs of rare footage, including the entire infamous and oft-mythologized 1975 Hammersmith concert in London. Another disc includes behind-the-scenes and making-of footage, as well as interviews with E Street Band members and contemporary concert coverage. It's sure to be a Jersey kinda Christmas.
Bullet in a Bible
Last year, Green Day made the leap from snot-nosed punkers to total relevancy, and they did it behind American Idiot, a rock opera-ish concept album that neatly sums up the apt malaise of angst-agers everywhere. Bullet in a Bible features footage from two sold-out shows in front of 130,000 insane fans in Milton Keynes, England, as well as documentary shenanigans (mainly in, well, bars). Fans of Green Day's music will dig the punk, natch, but the DVD is most interesting for the patter, the stage antics and the evidence of the band's maturation into a fully hatched stadium act, complete with pyrotechnics, extended jam sequences and Stones-worthy staging. Long gone are the Green Day of old, with their filthy stickered guitars and juvenile -- if spot-on -- musings. A group of intelligent, adult punks who know their fans, the band is pertinent now in a way they never were, and equally as iconoclastic.
We'd be remiss this year to not mention the best album -- let's put that in caps: The Best Album -- of 2005, Fiona Apple's rightfully touted magnum opus, Extraordinary Machine. Prefaced by the gossipy dealings of a dubious grassroots movement, FreeFiona.com, Extraordinary Machine's release was eagerly anticipated and hyped in such a way as to almost certainly disappoint. But, Oh my God. Ms. Apple comes through. Produced by hip-hop guru Mike Elizondo, and with an appearance by Roots drummer ?uestlove, Extraordinary Machine is a testament to Fiona's talent and each of her variously brainy, gutsy, gimlet-eyed, pissed-off and dejected selves. From the lilting, Garland-esque title track to her balls-out piano-pounding and the line, "I have too been playing with 52 cards," Apple's songwriting has matured and jelled into something truly and totally astounding. The album also is available on DualDisc, with the reverse side offering videos and live performances. Give this to each and every person you love this holiday season. Seriously.
CDs that keep on giving
By Alan Sculley
The Children Of Nuggets: Original
Artyfacts from the Second Psyche
delic Era, 1976-1995
The original Nuggets (expanded from a 27-song set to a four-CD box set in 1998) remains the bible of 1960s psychedelic and garage rock. It was followed by a worthy sequel, Nuggets II.
The Children of Nuggets, as the title suggests, seeks to highlight bands that were inspired by the groups on the original Nuggets set. For the most part, this four-CD set completes that mission with enviable results, unearthing tracks from dozens of bands that came and went with little notice, while also including better-known acts, such as The Soft Boys, the Bangles, Hoodoo Gurus, The Smithereens, The Fleshtones and Flamin' Groovies.
The set isn't perfect. It should've been limited to the 1980s (and most of the tracks come from that period, anyway). Also, some worthy acts are omitted. (Anyone remember Game Theory, the Incredible Casuals and Dumptruck?)
Still, these are small complaints. The Children Of Nuggets is an entertaining, enlightening and worthy successor to the other Nuggets collections.
To Joel's credit, he doesn't take the obvious path with this four-CD/one-DVD set.
Instead of making the studio versions of his many hits the backbone of My Lives, Joel instead follows his development using many unreleased demos and alternate takes of songs, live versions of hits and worthy album cuts that might not be familiar to casual fans. This approach especially makes sense since the hits already are available on three greatest hits CDs.
Even though Joel draws from his back pages, My Lives includes plenty of fine songs and provides a good overview of his career. What's more, hearing alternative versions of some songs (such as the reggae-fied version of "Only The Good Die Young"), live cuts (a version of "You May Be Right" with Elton John) and a full concert from the "River of Dreams" tour on the DVD are special treats.
Cash already is the subject of several box sets and numerous hits collections. But The Legend stands as the most essential of the bunch.
Covering 1955 to 2002, The Legend omits Cash's final decade of recording with Rick Rubin's American Recordings (that period is covered in great fashion on the box set Unearthed), but otherwise touches all the bases needed to provide an overview of Cash's amazing career.
This makes The Legend an excellent introduction to Cash and a fine entre into other box sets (such as Unearthed and 2000's Love, God, Murder) that examine other dimensions of his career in detail.
The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing: Centennial Collection
Sentimental, yes, but also demanding, Dorsey shows his drive for excellence on this release.
The set devotes one disc to his work as a trombonist in other bands, a second disc to his standout studio performances as a bandleader, and an entire third disc to live performances, many of which feature a young Frank Sinatra on vocals and Buddy Rich on drums during a fertile 1940-42 period. (The Dorsey/Sinatra years are explored further on a separate two-CD set, The Essential Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.)
The spirited, yet precise, performances, captured particularly on discs two and three of The Sentimental Gentleman Of Swing, amply demonstrate why Dorsey is seen as a giant of the big-band swing era.
Just Say Sire: The Sire Records Story
One of the coolest mini-major labels ever, Seymour Stein's Sire Records has been home to some of the best and most innovative rock acts of the past 30 years. The big names (Madonna, the Ramones and Talking Heads, to name a few) all are represented on this four-disc set, as are many worthy lesser-known Sire acts, such as Madness, The Undertones and Aztec Camera.
Prince Of Darkness
Yes, there was life after Black Sabbath for Ozzy -- at least until the '90s, when his output grew more sporadic and less appealing. The set features key album tracks, but fans will want Prince Of Darkness for its wealth of demos and live cuts, a full disc of collaborations, and another disc featuring covers of some of Osbourne's favorite songs.
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