December 20, 2007


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Books for giving, books for reading
Selections on and off the beaten path
Reviewed by Lisa Parsons and Amy Diaz

You already know about the Stephen Colbert book, the Ken Follett, the latest Sue Grafton and all that. We’re here to let you know about some of the less celebrated, but just as giftable, books.

You’ll buy them for a friend and wind up reading them yourself.

For the person who needs some holiday spirit: How to Spell Chanukah and other Holiday Dilemmas, edited by Emily Franklin (2007, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 247 pages) Writers (18 of them) write stories that have Chanukah connections but universal themes — childhood memories, attempts to keep tradition alive, building new traditions, etc. Some of the stories are funnier than others (Tova Mirvis’ latke tale “Chanukah Glutton”). One is told in cartoon. Many have surprising sentimentality. All speak, in some way, to the struggle between the past and the future and the ways in which we find meaning in celebrations that have become, at least in part, divorced from their original religious significance.

For the hippie: One Red Paperclip Or, How an Ordinary Man Achieved His Dream with the Help of a Simple Office Supply, by Kyle MacDonald (2007, Three Rivers Press, 310 pages) Starting with a paperclip and craigslist, MacDonald keeps making trades, for a fish pen, for a door knob, for a camping stove and eventually for a house in Kipling, a town in Saskatchewan. Naturally, the story is about the journey (MacDonald starts out a man adrift) as much as the trades. The uplifting tone can be a bit much but a recycling-happy barter-junkie will love it.

For the hippie who’s now cooking for himself: One-Dish Vegetarian Meals, by Robin Robertson (2007, Harvard Common Press, 200 pages) Help your vegetarian friends and relatives stay well fed with meals such as pesto lasagna Bandiera, Rotelle with Spicy Pumpkin Sauce, Rice with Sage-Infused White Bean Sauce or Louisiana Bayou Chili. The one-dish nature of the meals makes some of the recipes particularly easy to put together — perfect for weeknight cooking whether you’re vegetarian or just looking to get some more greens into your diet.

For the person who talks about chucking it all and backpacking the world: First Big Crush: The Down and Dirty on Making Great Wine Down Under, by Eric Arnold (2007, Scribner, 246 pages) If you’re going to hit the road, first get a book deal. Arnold gets one to write about his experiences making wine in New Zealand and the result is a fun book with a chummy tone and a lot of information about the nitty gritty (and boy, is it gritty) of the wine business. For all those who can’t run away to the vineyards, this book explains what life is like there — the precision that goes into cultivating the vines and the back-breaking labor required for each sip of that sauvignon blanc.

For the person who complains about the scarcity of authentic Chinese restaurants: Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, by Fuchsia Dunlop (2007, WW Norton & Company, 304 pages) The book’s jacket compares Hunan to Tuscany, a land of hearty peasant-style cooking; the recipes explain why — dishes of sumptuous duck and chicken, fragrant soups and lots and lots of chilis. The region is known for its spice. Between the heat and the heartiness, these recipes, such as beef with cumin, Chairman Mao’s red-braised pork or spare rib and corn soup, seem perfect for a winter’s day in New Hampshire. The accompanying stories and photos create a book that is pretty enough to sit on the coffee table but just begs to be used.

For the wine-lover who likes gossip: The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, by Julia Flynn Siler (2007, Gotham Books, 452 pages) Don’t get into business with your brother — that’s one message in this engrossing book that follows the Mondavi family from father Cesare (an Italian immigrant and the first to get the family into wine) to his grandchildren, who represent the most recent generation of Mondavis in the American wine business. The Mondavis, particularly Robert, helped to revolutionize the California wine industry, helping it to earn international respect. But the family suffered two major upheavals and countless squabbles and eventually the business bearing Robert Mondavi’s name was sold to an international company. The book features both sudsy details on the family story and loads of information on California wine and how it changed from being known as cheap jug wine to being known for producing some of the world’s best bottles.

For the person hosting next year’s holiday dinner: Roasting: Meat, Fish, Vegetables, Sauces and More, by Sonia Stevenson (2007, Ryland Peters & Small, 144 pages) Whether it’s turkey (with lemon and herb stuffing, page 66), spareribs (marinated and glazed, page 110), pork loin (with rosemary, Madeira and orange, page 106) or leg of lamb (with lemon and anchovy sauce, page 98), this book can tell you how to roast it and dress it. Get it to the right relative and it could mean no more dry birds on Thanksgiving, and maybe good meals for the rest of the winter. The book also includes recipes for sauces and stuffings and the basics of roasting, helping you figure out what tools to use and how to adjust according to what’s being roasted.

For the armchair museum-goer: 30,000 Years of Art: The story of human creativity across time and space (2007, Phaidon Press, 1,064 pages) Big huge heavy gifty book, but only costs around $30 (it looks like a lot more). Shows artworks in chronological order, starting with 28,000-year-old cave paintings. Pictures are large enough so you can really appreciate the art. There’s an index and a glossary of terms, helping to keep the material perfectly accessible to lay readers; the text guides you with insight into the art and the artists’ lives. Includes a timeline showing which forms of art were prevalent when.

For the person who already has subscriptions to People, Variety and Premiere magazines: Inside Inside, by James Lipton (2007, Dutton, 513 pages) On the first page, Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton quotes The Canterbury Tales and mentions the Oxford American Dictionary and David Copperfield. On the next two pages (after a lengthy rumination on book beginnings) he mentions Martin Scorsese’s discussion of Russian director Lev Kulshov, and Steven Spielberg. Which is to say that Inside Inside can be tough going if you set out to read it from beginning to end. Open anywhere in the middle, however, and you’ll get entertaining stories from Lipton’s early years in acting or juicy anecdotes from his experiences on Inside the Actors Studio, the Bravo television show in which he conducts lengthy interviews with Hollywood actors. Even if you’ve only ever seen a snippet of the show, you can hear Lipton’s voice in every line.

For the person who sits staring at the Christmas tree and pondering the nature of consciousness: I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter (2007, Basic Books, 412 pages) Hofstadter revisits the themes that won him 1980’s nonfiction Pulitzer for Godel, Escher, Bach — recursion and identity. And the nature of reality. If you are totally intrigued by the infinity of two mirrors facing each other or a big letter A that’s composed of 1,000 tiny letters A, each of which is composed of 1,000 tinier letters A, ad infinitum, then here’s your book.

For Grinch-o-philes: How the Grinch Stole Christmas: A 50th-Anniversary Retrospective (2007, Random House, 85 pages) Get this: Dr. Seuss is the Grinch. According to Charles D. Cohen, “the world’s foremost Seuss scholar” (and a dentist by trade), Seuss modeled the Grinch after himself — a man who had it in him to see the true meaning of Christmas, but who was feeling disgruntled and alienated from his fellow humans. But what was bothering Seuss was people’s over-materialistic approach to Christmas. This volume contains a copy of the story (reading it makes you appreciate Boris Karloff’s voice work) plus analysis by Cohen, who sketches Seuss’s career, shows us precursors of the Grinch in Seuss’s earlier work, and describes how the Grinch moved to television. He also quotes a stepdaughter as saying she thought the Grinch was Seuss on a bad day and the Cat in the Hat was Seuss on a good day. A fine prelude to the upcoming CGI film of Horton Hears a Who.

For the perpetual student or the flag-waver: The Real History of the American Revolution: A New Look at the Past, by Alan Axelrod (2007, Sterling Publishing, 371 pages) Any bibliophile will be attracted to this wonderfully hefty but accessible book bursting with color images, pointed side notes, clever section headings (“As Tyrants Go, Was King George III All That Bad?”) and the heady aroma of dead trees and ink. Despite a couple distractions — no map when it would’ve helped, a seeming conflict between dates in one spot (turned out to be logical enough) —this book is really enjoyable. It includes political cartoons from the period. And a picture of a chamber pot in which King George’s face is painted at the bottom — suddenly all the crass knick-knacks you see at Spencer’s gifts seem like part of a long tradition. This would be fine for a teenaged scholar but even better as the secret pleasure of a curious adult who wants to dive into American history without too many ten-dollar words. It looks and feels like they started with a high-quality ninth-grade textbook and developed it into a not-your-father’s-Oldsmobile.

For the outsider: The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, by Lemony Snicket, illustrations by Lisa Brown (2007, MacSweeney’s, 44 pages) It’s a Hannukah fable that applies to so many more situations in life. Poor little Hannukah latke is in danger of being lost in the grey goo of Christmas. Perhaps well-meaning, perhaps oblivious or selfish, the Christmas celebrators begin to co-opt the little latke. The Christmas lights want to call the latke “hash browns” and serve it with Christmas ham. The candy cane offers to write a Christmas carol about the latke. The pine tree thinks the latke should be a Christmas present. No, latke says, I’m about Hannukah, not Christmas, and those are two different things. “If you say one thing and keep being told that you mean something else, it can make you want to scream,” goes the story, which ends well and tells the latkes of the world to never stop speaking their truth.