Friday, November 27, 2009

Holidays ‘09: Ten Books No One Else Will Suggest

By Jesse Kornbluth

Come now the holidays, and --- if we can stop thinking about the bad news that surrounds us --- maybe we can make these few weeks an island of caring and kindness. In another universe, we might express those tender feelings directly, but that feels so icky to most of us that we’d rather limit emotion to the small card scotch-taped to a gift. In that case, let’s buy gifts that matter. 

Pema Chödrön (formerly known as Deirdre Blomfield-Brown).
Books matter. (So do music and movies and products,  which I will deal with next week.) Not most of the books on the bestseller list --- they’re product, carefully calculated to build franchises for writers capable of cranking out a new book every year. Those books are just fine. Ok, they’re fine for someone. But not for you. And not for the people you care about.

The whole and entire point of HeadButler.com is to identify books you won’t hear about in every Conde Nast magazine and online gift guide. Then it’s to explain those books so you can buy them with some confidence they’re what you want. And, finally, it’s to hope that my recommendations hit the target, and that the recipients are delighted with their gift and with you, that you are pleased as punch with yourself, and that, somewhere in that process, the name of HeadButler.com is mentioned and that I get the gift not only of gratitude but a growing readership. (Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?)
 
One great advantage to this list: I don’t have to limit myself to 2009. Why? Because almost everything ever published is available on Amazon. Or, if you prefer, at an independent bookstore.

The Fabulous Sylvester

If you know disco at all, Sylvester James was the singer with the church-bred voice that ranged from a rich baritone to the stratosphere. "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real" --- for me, that was the big hit. Talk about propulsion! Anticipation! Heat! It's not the silly lyrics ("And the music's in me/And I feel real hot/Then you kiss me there/And it feels real good") that burn into you, it's Sylvester's gospel refrain --- "Woooh, I feel real, I feel real, I feel real, I feel real."

And he was. He was a man and he was a woman, but most of all, he was a lover of an idea: that the world could be a place “where race and gender no longer divide us and we love whom, when and how we want”. This biography is complete and compassionate, inspiring and haunting, and it’s as good a gift for bigots as it is for those whose ideals of brotherhood include freaks, drag queens, football players and MBAs.
Canal House Cooking Volume No. 1
Canal House Cooking Volume No. 2

In a brick studio in Lambertville, New Jersey, two distinguished foodies have launched a self-published series of seasonal cookbooks. Their mantra: “home cooking by home cooks for the home cook.”

Those words cut through the frou-frou of modern cookery like a spoonful of quince sherbet between courses at dinner. No. 1 is for summer, No. 2 is holiday cooking (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s) and more. Both are simple and straightforward; both are in heavy rotation in our kitchen.  
 
Shining City

Seth Greenland’s novel was published in 2008, and nothing funnier has crossed my desk since. Consider: A pimp dies --- heart attack, hot tub --- in Los Angeles. He has one asset: a dry cleaning store called Shining City. His brother --- heavily in dent, wife’s business failing, his company moving to China --- inherits it. And only then learns it’s a front for a prostitution service. Will he and his wife take over the business?

Or rather: How much do they think they need to make before they quit?
The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin

Think James Bond, only he’s a master thief. Or Cary Grant, stealing jewels on the Riviera, never breaking a sweat or soiling a shirt.

That is Arsene Lupin. In the most famous of the Arsene Lupin stories, he breaks into a Baron's residence, takes nothing, but leaves a card for his unwitting host: “Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine.” Have friends and family who are gaga for France? Or who like superheroes – okay: super villains --- who use their smarts for wicked sport? Or who are just plain snobs? This is so for them.

Pema Chödrön

Deirdre Blomfield-Brown went to the posh Miss Porter's School and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. She married, moved to New Mexico, became a teacher, had two children. Nothing spectacular occurred to her -- until the day in 1972 when her husband announced that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce. As so often happens in that moment, her life "fell apart."

But then she found Buddhism; now she’s probably the best-known American -- man or woman -- writer on Tibetan Buddhism. Pema Chödrön may be a Buddhist scholar, but she doesn't talk or write like one. she rarely uses technical terms. She comes across like your smart, no bullshit next-door neighbor. And she pierces all your armor. Is there a commercial for Buddhism in these pages? Only a small one --- she doesn't preach. There is a larger one for meditation. It is not, however, the most urgent commercial. That message? Be kinder to yourself. And then let your kindness flood the world.

Churchill

Before Paul Johnson revered Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, he revered Winston Churchill. Now the distinguished British historian has produced a slim (166-page) biography of Churchill that casts him as the greatest hero of the 20th century. Your recipient may not agree, but this is undeniable --- here is a great portrait of a real leader. Mere politicians shrink by comparison.
 
A Really Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson, a writer who makes reading the most fun you can think of with your clothes on, has done me --- and you, and every curious kid burdened by a dull textbook or a brain-dead science teacher --- a huge favor.

He’s taken the greatest hits of his Big Book on the history of the world, trimmed the history so the text is mostly stories, and added illustrations that are variously helpful and amusing. The result: a book that a curious 9-year-old can get something out of, a 12-year-old can read like a novel, and an adult can devour, blessing Bryson all the while for explaining the history of life on earth in such reader-friendly prose.
 
Everybody Was So Young

Who doesn’t love to read about the rich, the young, the beautiful? Well, how about the Murphys? Late each morning in the summer of 1922, Gerald Murphy went outside his home in Antibes and created something never seen before --- a beach! --- by raking the seaweed and stones. For this, he is said to have invented the idea of the Riviera as a summer destination. He also created a chic retreat for friends like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Stravinsky, Picasso (who was in love with Sara), Cocteau --- the A-list of the ‘20s.  A divine read, and even better for getting below the surface to the talented, damaged people behind those bold-faced names.
 
And There Was Light

Jacques Lusseyran was eight years old. He was totally blind. And he was completely happy. Then the Germans rolled over France. At 17, he decided to organize his friends into a resistance unit. Wisely, they appointed him head of recruiting --- his hearing made him a great judge of character. Later he and his friends started an underground paper; it would become France-Soir, the most important daily newspaper in Paris. And that’s just the start of an amazing story of courage and grace.
 
Sharon Olds

Parents, lovers/husbands, children. Sharon Olds deals mostly --- I could almost say: deals only --- with the big topics. At least, the big topics if you have parents, husbands/lovers and kids. And she deals with them so directly, so bluntly, that it may come as a surprise to those who do not know her writing that she is a poet, and, for my money, the best we have.

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