Holidays 2010: Ten Great Books, CDs, DVDs, Things

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By Jesse Kornbluth

Published: Nov 29, 2010

Category: Beyond Classification

This time of year, anyone with a web site that sells things is decking the halls and making a big push for sales, hoping to clear the shelves before Mommy has to kiss Santa Claus.

And here I am, thinking about what the holidays will be like for America’s 14.8 million unemployed.   I feel so stupid. It’s not like you are unemployed. You might be worried, you might be scared shitless, but if you’re here looking at the beautiful decorating ideas of Madeleine Castaing, you have a pretty good idea that you’ll eat dinner tonight.   If I take my lead from a great many people in my trade, I can only conclude that the smart move is to distance myself from what’s happening. Because there’s no need to feel concerned for those 14.8 million unemployed — they’re invisible. Ignored by the media. Scorned by politicians. And, for the rich….collateral damage.   But I still see hungry children.   I’ll spare you the Dickens imagery. Because I finally understood something. If you’re hanging around this site, you have the kind of family and friends who value unusual gifts. Not, however, uniformly pricey gifts. (There is, for example, a crocodile Birkin bag going for $52,500 — on ebay!) Mostly, what you’ll find here are affordable books, low-cost music, movies that cost less to buy than to see at the gazillion-plex.   Which means that, if you stay away from crocodile and rubies and buy small but meaningful gifts here, you’ll be able to cover everyone on your list — and have money left over to give to a food bank or children’s home or, if you live in New York, Stockings With Care.   I feel better now. And ready to help. Shall we start with children first?  


>The Snowman

A boy in rural England builds a snowman. At midnight, as the boy looks out his window, the snowman lights up. The boy runs outside. He invites the snowman to tour his home. Then the snowman takes his hand. And off they fly, over England, over water, to the North Pole. There, Santa gives the boy a scarf. The boy and the snowman fly home. As the boy is going inside, the snowman waves — a wave of goodbye. The boy rushes into his arms and hugs him. The next morning, the snowman’s just a few lumps of coal and an old hat. Did that magical night really happen? The boy reaches into his pocket and finds the scarf. He drops to his knees and, almost as an offering, places it by the snowman’s hat. Fantastic story. Amazing animation. The most beautiful song. This 22-minute film is the very definition of perfection. For kids 3 and up. [I’m reminded that the book is just as exceptional, and ideal for kids 4 to 8.]

> The Red Balloon


 — an only child — is lonely. A red balloon follows him around and becomes his best friend. The balloon gets him in trouble at school. Boys gang up on Pascal and burst his balloon. Then a flock of balloons shows up and takes Pascal flying over Paris. For adults, that signifies the liberation of art and imagination. For kids, “The Red Balloon” is a film set in reality. And that is the magic of the movie — it hits kids at their level. A level where anything is possible. Where magic is afoot every day. For kids ages 3 to adult. 

>The Polar Express

Forget the movie, which was — I can’t resist — a trainwreck. Don’t fall for the fancy gift-boxed edition. Just get the book. Why? The illustrations, to be sure. But the story is even better: On Christmas Eve, a father tells his son that there’s no Santa Claus. Later that night, a train packed with children stops in front of a boy’s house. He hops on and travels to the North Pole, where Santa offers him the first toy of Christmas. The boy chooses a reindeer’s bell. On the way home, he loses it. How he finds it and what that means — that’s when you reach for the Kleenex. And when you and your child share a heightened sense of belief. For kids 4 and up.   >Blackie, The Horse Who Stood Still Chris Cerf and Paige Peterson collaborated on a whimsical, mostly true, rhyming story about a horse that wouldn’t play the game: Most colts are frisky but Blackie was not/ Blackie liked standing still! Yes, he liked it a lot!/“What’s the hurry?” thought Blackie. “There’s so much to see/Standing here in the shade of a juniper tree…. Peterson’s illustrations make this a book that kids will want to look at while a parent reads. Ages 6-12.  



Why the big fuss over Jonathan Franzen’s much praised, much debated novel?  The people. Not the characters. The people. Men and women we come to know and care about, not because they’re so admirable but because they’re so real. A great deal happens in 562 pages, but I think the book boils down to this — the challenge of building a functional romantic partnership when you’re carrying the legacy of your flawed family and your country’s dishonest and exploitative culture. Again, I suspect this challenge isn’t unique to Patty and Walter Berglund. It’s mine, for sure. And, just maybe, yours.    >Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman The nominal topic here — how the film of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” came to be made, and why Audrey Hepburn was so crucial to that effort — concerns a book I don’t much like and a film I’ve never watched all the way through. The cool thing: you don’t have to care about any of that to love this book. You just have to like dish (and who doesn’t. You have to be interested in how things really work — in this case, how, in a time of prudery and censorship, two smart producers, one savvy director and a sharp screenwriter figured out how to take “a novel with no second act, a nameless gay protagonist, a motiveless drama and an unhappy ending and turn it into a Hollywood movie.” And you have to be interested in a book that has an idea at the center of the narrative — how Audrey Hepburn, a “good girl princess” as pure as Doris Day, helped to change the American distaste for “bad girls” with a single movie. And, just as much, with “a little black dress” that even the least mouseburger of a secretary could afford.   >Spies of the Balkans Once again Alan Furst serves up everything I hope to find in fiction and never expect to see in a thriller. I come away with fresh knowledge about pre-war Europe. And, without fail, Furst forces me to ponder a question that no other novelist consistently flings in my face: If an “enemy” were about to invade — and, very possibly, overrun — your country, what would you do? Here we meet a new hero, Costa Zannis. Who do you go to when Jews, smuggled out of Germany, are coming through the Balkans on their way to freedom in Turkey? Costa. Who can help the British extract one of their scientists from occupied Paris? Costa. Who dares to launch a romance with the gorgeous wife of the richest man in Salonika? Costa. This policeman in Salonika — he’s one great character.   Canal House Cookbooks A few years ago, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton — professional foodies — decided to devote themselves to “good work and good ideas relating to the world of food.” They set up a studio near New Hope, Pennsylvania and began to self-publish exquisite seasonal cookbooks for the home cook. They shop at farm stands. They cook on ordinary stoves. And, best of all, their books are ruthlessly edited. Curated, really — each book presents fewer than 70 recipes.


>The Hare With Amber Eyes This book has, as they say in show biz, everything. The highest echelons of Society in pre-World War I Paris. Nazi thugs and Austrian collaborators. A gay heir who takes refuge in Japan. Style. Seduction. Rothschild-level wealth. Two centuries of anti-Semitism. And 264 pieces of netsuke, the pocket-sized ivory-or-wood sculpture first made in Japan in the 17th century. It is on these netsuke that Edmund de Waal hangs his tale — or, rather, searches for it. Decades after he apprenticed as a potter in Japan, he has returned to research his mentor. In the afternoons, he makes pots. And, one afternoon a week, he visits his great-uncle Iggie, who owns a large vitrine, in which he displays his netsuke collection. An unlikely thriller, beautifully written.   >The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith The New York Times and I rarely agree when it comes to year-end “best” lists, but here is Joan Schenkar’s radically original Highsmith biography on both lists. Why? Well, it starts like this: She wasn’t nice. She was rarely polite. And no one who knew her well would have called her a generous woman. Why would you even think of reading almost 700 pages about such a monster? Because Highsmith wrote a half dozen books — among them Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and a wonderfully sexy, though never graphic, lesbian novel called The Price of Salt — that will be read as long as readers like fiction that equally thrills and chills. Or maybe just because this was a train wreck of a life — and you just can’t turn away.   > Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book was, for me, the biggest eye-opener of the year. Their book takes us, in just 274 brisk pages, through seven scientific issues that called for decisive government regulation and didn’t get it, sometimes for decades, because a few scientists sprinkled doubt-dust in the offices of regulators, politicians and journalists. Suddenly these seven issue had two sides. And Congress and regulatory agencies often decided: Better not to do anything until we know more. How did this happen over and over again? Because some of the scientific “experts”who were on the payroll of tobacco companies in the anti-smoking fight, for example, turn out to be the very same scientists now working for oil and coal companies to create confusion about global warming.


You Had Me at Woof> : How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness

I’m no dog person. Julie Klam is — and her passion more than makes up for my disdain. Did she love her first adopted dog? Literally: “I thought about him every minute we were apart, brought him everywhere the law allowed, fed him everything I ate, carried him up to my sleeping loft every night and tucked him under the covers, his head on the pillows next to mine. All my energy was put toward making him happy. It was the best relationship I’ve ever been in.” Soon she got into dog rescue and became — her words — “the dog mutterer.”

>Lit: A Memoir If you read “The Liar’s Club,” you know Mary Karr is one sassy Texan. In this memoir, she marries a tall, Harvard-educated poet, has a son, and, right there, when it looks if she has everything, she starts downing a bottle of Jack Daniels a day. It isn’t as if she doesn’t recognize the trouble she’s in. Alcohol flows through her family history — her father, she’s written, could start a fight sitting alone on the front porch. “Lit” is about many things: the resolution of her relationship with her mother and father, her struggle for recognition as a writer, her inability to unfreeze her marriage. But mostly it’s about alcohol and faith — about an intellectually arrogant woman who’s too proud to surrender and too smart to believe. And she does both. Magnificently.   >Life Keith Richards. Wild man. Broken tooth, skull ring, earring, kohl eyes — he’s Cpt. Jack Sparrow’s father, lurching though life as if it’s a pirate movie, ready to unsheath his knife for any reason, or none. Got some blow, some smack, a case of Jack Daniels? Having a party? Dial Keith. Surprise: his book is much better than even the greatest Rolling Stones fan dared to hope. And in this 547-page memoir he wrote with James Fox, he serves up irresistible stories like his guitar riffs — in your face, nasty, confrontational, rich, smart, and, in the end, unforgettable.  


>Christmas with the Tallis Scholars  Founded in 1973 by Peter Phillips, this English group has released 50 CDs and given 1,600 concerts. Over the decades, the Scholars have become the gold standard of Renaissance music — I hear them every chance I get, and I am always transported. I’m hardly alone; several generations of music-lovers around the world have learned about Renaissance music’s gorgeous arcs of flowing sound from the Tallis Scholars.   >Peter Wolf

What if a CD came along with every track a winner? What if, as you listened, you could imagine playing this music for decades — cranking it high in the car, using it as background music for parties, letting it keep you company as you work? And even better, what if you knew that this CD would never get the attention it deserved and you would have whatever status accrues to the cool kid with the secret treasure? 

>Elvis Presley: Ultimate Gospel I met a woman who had been diagnosed with multiple cancers in 2007. She was sent home — without treatment —- by a major cancer center that saw nothing for her ahead but death, and soon. And yet here she was, three years later, beaming and vibrant. Clearly, this woman was doing something that had, at least for a while, pushed death into a corner. “Do you have a spiritual practice?” I asked. She said, “I sit in the sun. And I listen to Elvis Presley’s gospel music. “I said: “Huh?” “Try it,” she suggested. So I did. I had not thought — I had not known — of Elvis as a spiritual force. But I read that he loathed being called “The King,” because, as he said, “There only one, and that’s Jesus.” Okay, point taken. And then there is the music…

  Umalali: The Garifuna Women’s Project  In the 1700s, West African slaves were shipwrecked on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. They intermarried with Arawak Indians and lived peacefully until the English forced them into exile on a small, resource-poor island off Honduras. They moved to the mainland, where their identity has blurred over the centuries. Now there are just 11,500 Garifunans living in Belize — and the Garifunan language, which is taught in only one village there, has been designated by the United Nations as among the "masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity." History bypassed these women long ago; theirs is the life of eternal duties, ancient rhythms and primal emotions. Photographed in cotton dresses against sand and sea, they look wise. And they look beautiful — beautiful because of what they know.   Noirin Ni Riain Noirin Ni Riain — in America, she’d be Noreen O’Ryan — is not much known outside Ireland. There’s a reason. As a child, she learned 1,000 traditional Irish songs in a style that’s hundreds of years old. She made her first recordings with the choir of Benedictine monks at the Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, Ireland in 1979. The monks were, in essence, her record company. Her music comes across time, from a place out of time. Her voice is of this earth, and not. (The title of the CD means "voice from a cloud.") There is no arguing with it — this music is truth, beyond judgment. And this is the most wonderful thing about it: There’s no negativity. Noirin Ni Riain may knock you to the floor, but she will never fail to lift your heart to the heavens.   >Bach Cello Suites It seems hard to believe that these six masterpieces, written around 1720, went almost completely unperformed until almost 1900. They weren’t “lost.” They were just regarded as études — as exercises. And then, in 1879, 13-year-old Pablo Casals was browsing through scores in an old music shop near the harbor in Barcelona and “found” them. Life is now infinitely richer. For inspiration, consolation or mediation, they are, as Casals said, “the essence of music.”   >Krishna Das Jeffrey Kagel sang his heart out. Or, more correctly, he sang his heart open and morphed into Krishna Das. In 1973, he returned to America, thinking he’d spend his life making devotional music. Not that he was a great singer. As he says: “I have very limited capabilities on almost every level. And musically, I’m very limited in what I can do. I have a nice voice. And the voice is actually a medium for that flow, that presence. But still, from a musical point of view, it’s limited.” In the mid-‘80s, he began leading kirtan in public. In spiritual circles, he was an immediate sensation. By 2009, Krishna Das had recorded 11 CDs. He’d sold 300,000 copies. He was the rock star of spiritual music — but he was trapped in the New Age category that’s so easy to mock. Maybe it was time to return to his roots as a Long Island rock-and-roller, go electric, and — after forty years of chanting the names of god in a language his countrymen couldn’t understand — sing in English, which he has described as “historically, the language of my suffering and unhappiness.” So he did. Like this:


>Mulatu Astatke Mulatu Astatke grew up in Ethiopia but went abroad to study jazz in America. He was influenced by Miles Davis and John Coltrane — and by the organist Jimmy Smith. What he brought back to Ethiopia was a blend of soul and jazz. Which he then proceeded to blend, once more, with traditional Ethiopian music.The result is easy to listen to and hard to describe. The horns play cool jazz figures; you could almost mistake them for clarinets. But under that is a groove that could have been created by Booker T and the MGs. And connecting the two are some Ethiopian chords that sound exotic, space-changing, hypnotic. Think desert cha cha. Cuba goes to Memphis. Desert trance music. Like nothing you have ever heard before.   >Teddy Thompson I’m wild about his music. My wife is wild about the music and the extravagantly handsome, cool, ironic singer-songwriter. I applaud my wife’s crushette — I sometimes call her "the future Mrs. Thompson" — on Teddy because it shows great taste. From the beginning, his signature style has been self-deprecation, with despair lurking. Almost all of his songs are about romance: needing it, resenting the need, doing everything he can to screw it up, desperately trying to put the pieces back together. But don’t get the idea he’s Leonard Cohen, Jr. — Teddy Thompson is the wittiest songwriter since Randy Newman, and it’s impossible to listen to his songs without joining him in the joke.  


>The Wailers: Catch a Fire

Yeah, you’ve got the greatest hits. But do you have the greatest album? Not until you have this. “Catch A Fire” — their debut album, long before they turned into Bob Marley and the Wailers — offered sweet seduction songs. Angry political songs: “ No chains around my feet/But I’m not free/I know I am bound here in captivity…” And the spooky Rasta dreamscape, “Midnight Ravers,” with its devastating opening condemnation (“You can’t tell the women from the men/ ’cause they’re dressed in the same pollution”) and its Book of Revelations vision: “I see ten thousand chariots/And they coming without horses/The riders — they cover their face/So you couldn’t make them out in smoky place.” Rarely has music been better matched to lyrics. 



  >Winter’s Bone When I saw "Winter’s Bone" in a theater six months ago, I was convinced it was the best movie I’d see this year. Other reviewers agreed. Audiences? This was a low-budget film, playing mostly in art houses in major cities — how many people saw it? Now "Winter’s Bone" is a DVD, and, however it comes into your home, I’m hopeful that many more of you will be able to experience it. The story is simple — good thrillers usually are. Ree’s father, Jessup Dolly, was busted a while back for cooking methamphetamine. To make bond, he put up his family’s house and 300 acres of virgin timber. Now his court date is a week away — and he’s nowhere to be found. The local lawman comes out to warn Ree that the Dollys are in danger of losing their home. See where it goes from here?  

>My Neighbor Totoro No matter how old you are, no matter how sophisticated you may think you are, this is a fantastic film experience, an 86-minute swath of gorgeousness with a message as beautiful as its images. And the trick of it is…..there’s no trick.This is a movie rooted in the very ordinary. When the film begins, it’s 1958. Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, eight and four years old, are driving with their father to their new home in the country. Dad’s a professor in the city, but their mother has tuberculosis and is recovering in a rural hospital, and they want to be near her. In a Disney movie, the first few scenes of the film would dazzle. Not here. The girls help their dad move in. They explore their new house and the fields and forest around it. They are, in a word, grounded. But this grounding is deceptive. Magic is afoot…  

A middle-aged love story. With infidelity on the part of the wife. Oh, and she isn’t a despicable slut. “Dodsworth was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1937, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay. It only won for Art Direction. The story, adapted from a Sinclair Lewis novel, is a simple one: Samuel Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a rich Midwestern industrialist who sells his business and sets out to “enjoy life.” His wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) couldn’t agree more — her daughter is just married, and the thought of growing old appalls her. She wants to be chic, she wants “to live.” She is, in short, a bomb waiting to explode. And does…

  >Get Carter Forget about charming, urbane Michael Caine. This is the brutal Caine, in a film voted best thriller in all of English movies. Caine is Jack Carter, a gangster from the North of England who has become successful enough to make it with an outfit in London. Then his brother — apparently a pleasant, un-connected Northern lad — is found dead. The police find nothing curious. Carter suspects otherwise. And so he heads to the bleak North to visit…well, let’s call them "old friends." Bet the tough guys on your list haven’t seen this 1971 classic.     >Local Hero This 1983 comedy is the best film made by Bill Forsyth, sadly unknown even to movie buffs. An oil executive in Houston (Peter Riegert) is sent to a small town on the Scottish coast by his eccentric boss (Burt Lancaster) to buy up everything in sight. Then the oil company will build a giant refinery. Riches are soon on everyone’s mind — in Houston and in Scotland. But the plot is the least of it. “Local Hero” is, first and foremost, a study in character: direct, straight-ahead American and some Scots whose humor is as dry as a 30-year-old single malt. The joke’s on the American. And it takes him the entire movie to get it. With a glorious soundtrack by Mark Knopfler.     >McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman’s best movie? Certainly his most beautiful one. Warren Beatty (McCabe), a small-time gambler with more dreams than brains, comes to the tiny community of Presbyterian Church to open a bar and bordello. It is his great good fortune to run into Julie Christie (Mrs. Miller), an opium-smoking prostitute who actually knows how to run a whorehouse. They join forces, get successful, have an awkward romance. A corporation decides to buy them out. Christie’s in favor of the deal — she understands the power of Big Business — but Beattie fancies himself a negotiator. So the corporation dispatches three gunmen to kill him. With Leonard Cohen songs.     >State of Play

When was the last time you watched six hours of anything and found yourself moving closer to the edge of your seat as it moved toward its conclusion? “State of Play” — the BBC series, not the stinker of an American movie — starts simply. Sonia Baker falls to her death in the London subway station. Did she fall? Commit suicide? Or was she… pushed? That’s the last simple question in the mini-series. For, that same day, a kid gets killed in another part of London. No connection. Not possible, really — Sonia Baker was a young research assistant to Steven Collins, chairman of the prestigious Energy Select Committee. The kid? A nobody. At the newspaper, investigative reporter Cal McCaffrey and his colleagues start to dig. Great dialogue, great acting, great surprises.  

  >Tell No One A French thriller — pardon my prejudice, but that should be enough to make you curious. Guillaume Canet’s  adaptation of a Harlan Coben novel won César Awards for its director and its leading actor, François Cluzet. Its plot device seems simple enough: A man whose wife was murdered died eight years previously suddenly starts receiving e-mail messages containing real-time videos of her that appear to have been shot days before. All the messages are marked, "Tell no one." Are they real? Is she alive?  


>The Conformist Bernardo Bertolucci made “The Conformist" at 29. It is a young man’s film, drenched in ambition. It is also Bertolucci’s greatest film. Indeed, it is one of the ten greatest films I’ve ever seen. Consider: What kind of man gets himself in such a pickle that — on his honeymoon — he’s given a gun and asked to kill a professor he’s always admired? A man afraid of –– and attracted to — Fascism. A man with a tangled view of sex. Just watch the famous dance hall scene:  



>Anthelios XL SPF 50+ Sunscreen What’s so great about Anthelios with Mexoryl? Dr. Vincent DeLeo, Chairman, Department of Dermatology, Founding Director, Skin of Color Center, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt and Beth Israel: “It produces a product which gives us almost perfect protection against sunshine." Dr. Darrell Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University: Mexoryl “is the No. 1 individual ingredient in terms of protection from Ultraviolet A radiation." Get the idea: It’s just a lot better than American products.   >Bucky Balls >

Imagine BBs with such enormous magnetism that you have to pull hard to separate them. That’s Bucky Balls. For the very nervous, they’re expensive rosary beads. For everyone else, they’re an invitation to create. Necklaces. Bracelets. Geometric shapes. The first morning, our daughter made a watch. Cool.   >Clarisonic Pro Care Skin System Still the one. Why it is so great? Because it doesn’t scrub. It cleanses — a sonic frequency of more than 300 movements per second works on your skin to clean it, then smooth it. How you use it: Wet the brush head with warm water and cleanser, power it up, and gently move the brush in circular movements across the face. Clarisonic recommends 20 seconds on the forehead, 20 seconds on the nose and mouth and 10 seconds on each cheek. When finished, rinse the brush. You can, with good eyesight, see the proof that something really happened — down the drain go dead skin cells and dirt. The good news: The Clarisonic handle is waterproof. You can use it in the shower. The unit beeps when it’s time to move to another area of the face, so you don’t need to watch a clock. It seems to help rosacea and acne. You don’t need to buy special products   >Egyptian Magic The ingredients are olive oil, bees wax, honey, bee pollen, royal jelly and bee propolis. And — so it says — “divine love”.With the exception of the last “ingredient," you could whip it up yourself. But you couldn’t improve on the original. We swab it on the kid’s wounds at night; in the morning, she’s well on the return trip to flawless. Burns, scrapes, skin irritations, diaper rash, sunburns, eczema, psoriasis — it’s the go-to cream. Dry skin? When an exceptional moisturizer is needed, we open the Magic. Some use it on their hair, as a conditioner. As an anti-wrinkle cream, it’s a comparative bargain. After surgery, it’s said to reduce scarring. If there’s a skin problem this stuff can’t deal with, I can’t find it.   >Flip Video The Flip could not be simpler. You turn it on, and it’s ready to start filming in two seconds. You press the red button once to record and once to stop. You press Play to review the video, and the Trash button to delete a clip.If the Flip has none of the “features” that serious videomakers require, that’s a large part of its charm. When you’re ready to shift your video onto your computer, no cable is needed — a flip-out USB arm plugs directly into your computer. (The software automatically loads onto your computer.) If you want to watch on your TV, a cable’s included. And it’s cheap: $100. More memory, more gigs: $200.

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