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Video
Whether VHS or DVD, there’s no shortage of new releases to satisfy almost any taste in movies


It’s more than likely that someone on your list now owns a DVD player. DVDs have surpassed the record set by CDs back in the ’80s as the fastest- growing home-entertainment format ever. So, while most of the newly released films listed here are also available on VHS, folks are probably going to prefer the discs: They’re sleeker, and are usually packed with fun extras.

It’s going to be very hard to avoid J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantastic critters this season—so don’t try. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers will be in theaters, and there are two special- edition DVDs available: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Collector’s Gift Set (New Line) and the Extended Edition (New Line). These packages have so many extras, you could peruse them for days and never actually watch the movie itself.

The holidays should be filled with laughter. If someone on your list seems deficient in the joy department, give them Mike Myers’ spy spoof Austin Powers in Goldmember (New Line). This would make a nice twofer with the mother of all such parodies, the elephantine 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale (MGM), with Peter Sellers, David Niven and Woody Allen. If talking alien dogs seem more interesting, there’s the two-disc special edition Men in Black II (Columbia/TriStar). For something more adult, there’s the gloriously raunchy Margaret Cho concert film, Notorious C.H.O. (Wellspring). Finally, there are some classics. Two great ’60s comedies are finally on DVD: Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? (MGM), with Ruth Gordon as the Jewish mother from hell, and Mel Brooks’ The Producers (MGM), on which the hit musical was based. Going way back to the era of World War I is The Best Arbuckle Keaton Collection (Image), a dozen short films starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. This value-priced two-DVD set holds over four hours of first-class yuks.

For the kids, there’s the traditionally animated Lilo & Stitch (Disney), the story of an Elvis- worshipping Hawaiian orphan and a blue alien whatsis; the computer-animated Ice Age (Fox), with three soon-to-be-extinct prehistoric animals helping out a lost human baby; the special effects-laden Stuart Little 2 (Columbia/TriStar), E.B. White’s cute little talking mouse; and Hello Kitty’s Paradise (ADV), a-four-volume DVD collection of the adventures of the two-dimensional, ever-happy Japanese icon. For kids and adults, there’s the collector’s edition of every early Mickey Mouse cartoon on Mickey Mouse in Black and White (Disney), and the first ever full-length animated feature (made using hand-cut silhouettes), Lotte Reiniger’s 1927 masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Milestone/Image).

Know someone who likes action? Jennifer Lopez kicks her abusive hubby’s ass in Enough (Columbia/TriStar). Tom Cruise tries to clear his name in the Sci-Fi thriller Minority Report (DreamWorks). Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung battle demons in the 1992 Hong Kong fantasy The Heroic Trio (Buena Vista). How about cops? Al Pacino finds out that the NYPD isn’t for Boy Scout-types in 1972’s Serpico (Paramount); Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh are undercover narcotics officers in the gritty 1991 drama Rush (MGM); and policewoman Jamie Lee Curtis is stalked by a psycho in 1990’s Blue Steel (MGM).

Independent film isn’t dead yet; these chamber dramas and quirky comedies make nice stocking-stuffers. Indie-film mainstay Catherine Keener radiates sarcasm and dysfunction in Lovely and Amazing (Trimark). An ensemble cast ponders fate in 13 Conversations About One Thing (Columbia/TriStar). Christina Ricci falls in love with a developmentally disabled teen in Pumpkin (MGM). John Sayles dissects greed, race and family in the sly drama Sunshine State (Columbia/TriStar), with Angela Bassett and Edie Falco.

Someone on your list must like films made B.S.W. (the period known to film buffs as Before Star Wars). Two terrific movies about Hollywood are now available in deluxe DVD packages. Singin’ in the Rain (Warner), a musical about the coming of talking pictures, is packaged as a two-disc set loaded with extras. Billy Wilder’s nasty Sunset Blvd. (Paramount) features indelible performances by Gloria Swanson as a faded silent film star and William Holden as a screenwriter-turned-gigolo. Both films have been restored to astonishing image quality. Look for a couple of director William Wyler’s best, Roman Holiday (Paramount), a romantic fairy tale with Audrey Hepburn, and the hard-hitting Counsellor-at-Law (Kino), with John Barrymore as an unscrupulous lawyer. Finally, Ridley Scott—who later made Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise—debuted with The Duellists (Paramount), a visually sumptious drama set during the Napoleonic wars.

Help expand that certain someone’s cultural boundaries—if you can’t give ’em a trip around the world, bring the world to them with a foreign film instead. There’s romance in Italian for Beginners (Buena Vista), a charming comedy from Denmark, and passion in Monsoon Wedding (Universal), a visually sumptious, feel-good hit from India. On the kinky side, Isabelle Huppert is a disturbed pianist with major sex issues in The Piano Teacher (Kino). Two teenage boys travel across Mexico with a beautiful, mysterious older woman in Y Tu Mamá También (MGM)—be sure to get the unrated version with the original ending. Political upheaval in 1960s Congo is dramatized in Lumumba (Zeitgeist). If you liked the George Clooney remake, you’ll love Andrei Tarkovsky’s original 1972 Russian epic Solaris (Criterion). The films of French master Jean-Luc Godard have long been underepresented on video. Contempt (Criterion), from 1963, is a shattering portrait of a disintegrating marriage starring Brigitte Bardot; Band of Outsiders (Criterion) is an off-the-cuff gangster-film hommáge with luminous Anna Karina.

—Shawn Stone


Recordings

The gift of music—sounds like a hit


Alternative, Indie, Underground

Sure, you can take a no-brainer approach to shopping for your alt-indie honey this holiday season and pick up Nirvana’s Nirvana, but if snugglebunny is something more than a left-of-the-dial pos

eur, then he or she is likely to be disappointed—since snookums will already have all of the songs on this exploitive compilation, except “You Know You’re Right,” which (let’s be honest here) isn’t really very good, is it? So if you want an easy pick from a major label, at least get your beloved something that he or she hasn’t heard already, like (say) System of a Down’s math-metal odds and sods collection Steal this Album, or Audioslave’s self-titled disc, which finds Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell doing his thing atop Rage Against the Machine’s instrumental trio.

But if you want to impress, then you’d be better served by grabbing something from the fun and furry indie underground, or at least a major-label release that’s not likely to score platinum. If you’re on a tight budget, then EPs and singles can provide a handy, affordable option. How can you go wrong with a budget item such as Yo La Tengo’s Nuclear War single (a cover of a Sun Ra song, no less) or King Crimson’s Happy With What You Have to Be Happy With (a 33-minute preview to a planned February 2003 full-length) or Wire’s Read and Burn 01 and/or Read and Burn 02, two of the smartest on-beyond-punk releases of the year?

If money’s no object for you, then you can always take the box-set approach. Camper Van Beethoven’s five-disc collection Cigarettes and Carrot Juice: The Santa Cruz Years provides an awesome overview of the most important ’80s band this side of Black Flag. Chris Connelly’s Initials C.C.: Outtakes, Rarities & Personal Favorites Volume One: 1982-2002 provides similarly comprehensive coverage of Scotland’s influential industrial popmeister, who (with Ministry, Revolting Cocks and on his own solo discs) paved the way for the likes of Nine Inch Nails. Or if you want to go whole hog, how about plopping down the $202.48 list price for Throbbing Gristle’s 24 Hours of TG—which is exactly what its title says it is.

There are, of course, some interesting comps and reissues out there that don’t require such stress to be placed upon your wallet plastic. Bloodshoot Records’ Makin’ Singles, Drinkin’ Doubles provides a boss overview (on CD) of this cool alt-country label’s first 100 releases (on 7-inch vinyl). Love and Rockets’ Love and Rockets/ Swing, on the other hand, is a single-artist package that offers a remixed edition of the group’s most successful LP (plus bonus tracks), along with the lost Swing sessions, which have stood mysteriously for 15 years as the Smile of the goth community. On the live front, you can score excellent new discs from two of America’s most compelling concert draws with Clutch’s Live at the Googolplex or Mindless Self Indulgence’s Alienating Our Audience.

There are some interesting new releases for the Anglophiles on your shopping list, too, led by Eliza Carthy’s haunting and lovely Anglicana, a record that puts to shame most traditionally inspired British recordings since the days when Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson and Tyger Hutchings were batting for the same team with Fairport Convention. Gordon Haskell’s Shadows on the Wall is one of the smoothest, coolest original torch-song collections imaginable—offered by a King Crimson alumnus, no less. At the darker end of the spectrum, how about Coil’s Plastic Spider Thing, a record about which the group’s Web site notes, “This work was created as the soundtrack to a ritual sex performance.” Get down with your bad self, sugar doodle!

Lastly, but certainly not leastly, don’t forget about the home team when you’re shopping this month. The Kamikaze Hearts’ recent eponymous CD is an instant classic, as tight a slice of thoughtful Americana as you’re likely to encounter outside of Lucinda Williams’ rumpus room. Bryan Thomas’ Ones and Zeroes is just as thoughtful, mining a more soulful branch of the pop tree than the one you find down in the loam among the Kamikaze Hearts’ exposed roots, and featuring “Shine,” my own vote for best regional song of the year. These are records that deserve to be shared—with your local homies and (more importantly) with your friends in far places, who will be so very impressed with what your own hometown has to offer.

—J. Eric Smith

Jazz

Giving jazz well is about giving the timeless joy of invention that somehow smears decades into an intoxicating, American story. As such, except to the die-hard enthusiast recipient, giving should almost never be about the coolest, latest, most avant-garde, or sexiest CD. It should, rather, resort to the historical guarantees, the lasting catalysts, many available on recent or continued CD reissues. For your cipher, here are five prime cuts:

Originally Released in 1954 on the EmArcy label, Brown and Roach, Inc. is the first of several fertile collaborations between angelic, swinging trumpeter Clifford Brown and stalwart individualist drummer Max Roach. It packs a perfect dose of the rapid-fire spirit of bebop, and the music pushes forward to the hard bop to come. With the aid of Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Richie Powell (Bud Powell’s brother) on piano and George Morrow on bass, this legendary record will get the fondue steaming on the coldest of nights. Listening to these performances, one wonders what might have become of Brown—as a few years later, both Brown and Richie Powell died too young in a tragic car accident.

The balance of the articulately sung literal tune and the devilishly scatted private playfulness of Ella Fitzgerald are legendary. Originally released in January 1976 on the Pablo label, Fitzgerald & Pass . . . Again is the duet record, with Joe Pass eminently striding on guitar and Ella’s prime-time pipes all over the songs. Pass strums and plucks a steady and soulful counterpoint. This record purrs and gallops in good measures, but without drums the rhythmic center is tacit and divine.

In January 1938, Benny Goodman put jazz, hot music, on the cultural center stage for the first time. The performance on Benny Goodman Live at Carnegie Hall: 1938 Complete is not only legendary as a barrier-breaking social-scene shift, but primarily is about how deeply the band were cooking. This is the perfect way to peer into the 1930s without a flux capacitor, and trust me, this music will knock the wind out of any contemporary, newfangled swing. When important history is also a safe, legal and potent drug, I tend to call it good music.

The 1955 live recording Erroll Garner Concert by the Sea is a joy bomb. It grins from ear to ear, from beginning to end, without sacrificing one iota of musical seriousness. Garner, if you’re not aware, is the most overflowing emotive giant of the jazz piano. He couldn’t read music, but he could play circles around nearly anyone. Typical of Garner records in the 1950s, bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil “Move” Best can hardly be heard. But the emphasis of Garner’s keyboard wizardry, coupled with his hallmark mumbling, is surely fine with me.

Grant Green’s The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark: Guitarist Grant Green and pianist Sonny Clark were two of the regular names in the Blue Note stable when these 1961 and 1962 recordings were made. These sessions went unreleased for many years. Most of the tunes are standards and still the type of song you hear today on the Saturday-night bandstand. These performances are approachable, but at no cost to their depth. Both Green and Clark are so lyrical, and the rhythms (Art Blakey and Louis Hayes split the drummer duties) are a swirling treat. This is the perfect soundtrack for an automotive jaunt or any social meal.

Give with confidence.

—Tom Flynn

Folk, Blues, Bluegrass, Celtic

As well as releases in the folk-blues-Celtic-bluegrass world that stay within their stylistic boundaries, 2002 has given us some fine cross-genre efforts as well as some rootsy tributes to pop music. But if you’re shopping for a purist rather than an eclectic listener, plenty of music that sticks to its guns awaits you in local record bins. Here are my picks:

The Blues White Album (Telarc) features a stable of blues heavyweights paying homage to the 1968 Beatles masterpiece, largely written when the Fab Four were in India mediating with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Its 10 cuts feature harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite, chanteuse Maria Muldaur, and guitarists Jim Thackeray, Lucky Peterson, Kenny Neal, Joe Louis Walker and others, backed by G.E Smith on guitar, T-Bone Volk on bass, Peter Re on organ, and Steve Holley on drums. Covering Beatles tunes is an ambitious undertaking—you’ll never improve on the originals—but a blues fan will enjoy the interpretations of these timeless songs.

The late Texas guitarslinger Johnny Copeland’s daughter Shemekia has blossomed into an acclaimed blues singer, bowling over the crowd at the Fleet Blues Fest here last year. Talking to Strangers (Alligator), produced by Dr. John and backed by his smokin’ band on all 15 tracks, is her finest to date and has been called the best blues album of the year. As you might expect, the Night Tripper’s presence gives this a strong New Orleans flavor, but bear in mind that the earliest known blues (Joe Turner’s Blues, circa 1890) was heard in the Crescent City. You can’t miss with this one.

This summer, Billboard magazine signaled the arrival of bluegrass as a major music category by listing the genre’s top 20 CDs. Singer and banjoist Ralph Stanley has been playing this music since 1946, when he and brother Carter first led the Clinch Mountain Boys, and is now its elder statesman. The Very Best of Ralph Stanley (Audium Entertainment) features a compilation of 16 of his finest performances covering the long span of his career.

Another nod to pop is Bluegrass Goes to Town (Rounder). Its 16 tracks feature hits by Elvis, Roy Orbison, Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, the Grateful Dead and the Everly Brothers performed by pickers and crooners such as Alison Krauss, the Cox Family, J.D. Crowe & the New South, Tasty Licks, the Rice Bothers, Tony Trischka and others. Many of these Top 40 songs adapt to the “high lonesome sound” surprisingly well.

The Chieftains deserve much of the credit for putting Celtic music on the modern-day map. Their latest offering, Down the Old Plank Road—The Nashville Sessions (RCA Victor), is yet another tasteful blending of genres in which the band are joined by Lyle Lovett, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Béla Fleck, the Del McCoury Band and others. The Irish supergroup educate as well as entertain in a delightful 14-track curriculum on Celtic music as a direct ancestor of bluegrass and country.

On Feb. 10, we lost folk legend Dave Van Ronk. “The Mayor of McDougal Street” started out as a Dixieland musician in the 1950s, but when the “trad” jazz movement fizzled out by the end of the decade, Van Ronk turned to the burgeoning folk-music scene as a means to continue on as a musician. The 21-track double CD, Two Sides of Dave Van Ronk (Fantasy), is a pairing of two albums recorded almost 20 years apart. The first of these, In the Tradition, was made in 1963 and was split evenly between solo tracks and songs backed by Dixielanders the Red Onion Jazz Band. The other album, Your Basic Dave Van Ronk, is a 1981 solo effort that explores Van Ronks’s deep songbag of jazz, folk, blues and ragtime. Together they are a worthy remembrance of a huge talent.

Trio Voronezh (Angel) is the self-titled major-label debut of an astounding group of Russians who perform a mix of Russian folk tunes, classical music, jazz standards and more on native folk instruments. Discovered by a record producer in a Frankfurt subway station while playing Bach on the mandolin-like domra, the double-bass balalaika and the bajan, a chromatic button accordion, Vladimir Volochin, Sergei Teleshev, and Valerie Petruchin all began music at age 6 and went on to study at the Conservatory of Voronezh in Russia. Their virtuosity and varied repertoire has won high praise from critics and also gigs at venues like NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion. Trio Voronezh play with such charm and skill you’ll be tempted to keep this one for yourself.

—Glenn Weiser

Classical

This is the stuff I’ve been listening to repeatedly: a highly personal choice that probably would drive classical music purists up the wall. Not a single symphony to be found here, nor is there a complete opera. But each of these discs or sets is utterly fascinating.

Beginning with two CDs from close to home: Dorian Recordings, based in Troy, recently set up its own distribution network and inaugurated it with two spectacular releases. Mozart’s Requiem (Dorian), in Robert Levin’s new version, was recorded in performance at the Troy Music Hall on Sept. 20, 2001, and has a powerful vibrancy that easily places this among the top of the many Requiem recordings. Bernard Labadie conducts Le Violins du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec with fine work by soprano Karina Gauvin, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, tenor John Tessier and bass-baritone Nathan Berg.

Just when you thought Baroque music had achieved a soundalike sameness, along comes a group like Red Priest to upset those expectations. Nightmare in Venice (Dorian) features the recorder wizardry of Piers Adams, who leads a small but feverish ensemble through two Vivaldi concertos (one of them subtitled “The Nightmare”) and works by Purcell and Leclair, among others—but played as you’ve never heard them before, with a full complement of fun. Red Priest’s own dynamic Fantasy on Corelli’s “La Folia” Variations rounds out the disc.

More virtuoso playing comes from violinist Maxim Vengerov (Vengerov Plays Bach, Shchedrin, Ysaÿe, EMI Classics), who treads the difficult realm of unaccompanied works on a collection that features four of Eugene Ysaÿe’s challenging sonatas, a version of Bach’s (putative) Prelude and Fugue in d minor, suspected by some to have started life as a solo violin work, and two pieces by Rodion Shchedrin, including a fascinating Echo Sonata that pays tribute to Bach’s solo sonatas.

For violin—and Heifetz—fanatics, there’s the first-ever issue of his rejected recordings of sonatas by Brahms (No. 1) and Grieg (No. 3), dating from 1936 on Heifetz Rediscovered (RCA Victor). Completing the CD are encore works from 1924, the acoustic-recording days, including showpieces by Wieniawski and Sarasate and even an aural glimpse of Heifetz as a pianist in a version of Valencia by José Padilla.

Another virtuoso who receives a worthy salute is guitarist Andrés Segovia, whose MCA recordings from 1957-69 provides the source for a four-CD collection on Deutsche Grammophon, The Art of Segovia. The first recording of Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un gentilhombre (written for Segovia) brims with life, as do concertos by Ponce and Boccherini. Solo works by Torroba, Mompou and other 20th-century composers nestle with a survey of baroque and classical works, and one of the discs is given to music by Bach, including Segovia’s excellent arrangement of the solo violin Chaconne.

The absolute must-have set of the year is Rzewski Plays Rzewski: Piano Works 1975-1999, Nonesuch’s seven-disc set of Frederic Rzewski playing a generous allotment of his own works for piano. His 36 Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” is a landmark work of the 20th century; here it was recorded in one tiring take that includes Rzewski’s blistering improvised cadenza. The Road is projected to be a many-hours-long piece that you’re supposed to digest in chunks, like a novel; parts I through IV span two discs and are confusing, fascinating, infuriating—great stuff. De Profundis sets a spoken excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s prison letter to Alfred Douglas to music that’s trenchant and effective.

Jerome Moross is best known for his music to the movie The Big Country, but he beat Bernstein to the business of synthesizing jazz and spoken idioms to classical music. By the time he got to his ballet Frankie and Johnny, in 1938, he was well in control of orchestral textures and vocal settings, as this Naxos CD demonstrates. Also included: “Those Everlasting Blues,” a trenchant setting of a short verse, and the 34-minute “Willie the Weeper,” one of the ballet ballads written with lyrist John Latouche. Moross was one of the spiritual children of Charles Ives, himself celebrated in An American Journey (RCA Victor) by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. “Three Places in New England” is Ives at his craggy, dissonant best, and the single-disc survey ranges from the corny sweetness of “The Unanswered Question” to the furor of “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” even throwing in the Fugue from the Symphony No. 4 for good measure. This is music that will strengthen your glands.

So how about something contrastingly sweet? Ever since I picked my way through a few of her piano pieces in a forgotten collection, I’ve been a big fan of Cécile Chaminade, and soprano Anne Sofie von Otter does right by her in a collection of 25 songs that range from the melancholy to the slyly uplifting. Mots d’amour (DG) also includes some short Chaminade works for violin and piano and for two pianos.

Finally, something thoroughly classical. C.P.E. Bach was the most interesting composer of the younger Bach brood, and pianist Mikhail Pletnev brings clarity and warmth to a collection of Sonatas & Rondos (DG). The six sonatas are gems of classical form that nevertheless capture the composer’s variety of textures and sudden changes of mood. It’s the kind of disc that forces itself out of the background music that so much of what we choose to hear inadvertently becomes.

—B.A. Nilsson

Holiday Sounds

The four pillars of Christmas music are the following albums: Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas, Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift to You, Herb Alpert and the Tijuanna Brass’ Christmas Album, and Frank Sinatra’s The Sinatra Christmas Album. You already knew that—you already own them, and so does everyone else. That’s why, if you don’t want to hear “White Christmas” for the millionth time the morning of Dec. 25, you might want to give the gift of new holiday music.

At the top of the list are those guitar-slinging masked men, Los Straitjackets, and their ’Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets (Yep Roc). This album is so packed with holiday cheer, you’ll swear it’s Santa and the elves behind those Mexican wrestling masks the men always don. There are a couple originals, “Christmas in Las Vegas” and “Christmas Weekend,” but the emphasis is on beloved standards. Needless to say, “The Little Drummer Boy” rocks out.

Also on the rock tip is the nifty compilation Maybe This Christmas (Nettwerk). The title tune, an original by Ron Sexsmith, is surprisingly heartfelt, as is the collaboration between Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Phantom Planet’s “Winter Wonderland” is charming, while Ben Folds is his usual smartass self on “Bizzare Christmas Incident.” Too many of these seasonal collections seem thrown together, but Maybe This Christmas flows like bourbon-laced eggnog.

An NPR Jazz Christmas II With Marian McPartland and Friends (NPR) is exactly as advertised. The ageless McPartland, pianist and host of popular National Public Radio’s Piano Jazz, collaborates with luminaries like guitarist Russell Malone, horn man Roy Hargrove and singer Jeanie Bryson on traditional (and nontraditional) holiday tunes.

Thanks to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, it seems like you can’t swing a dead possum in a music store without hitting a bluegrass collection. O Christmas Tree (Rounder) features Rhonda Vincent, the Cox Family, Jeannie Kendell and the Johnson Mountain Boys. If that’s not enough for you, there’s also Christmas Grass (Koch). While not exactly bluegrass, the Charlie Daniels Band’s A Merry Christmas to All (Blue Hat) has that Southern flavor, while the parody White Trash Christmas (Atlantic) is sure to offend the country-music lovers in your life.

A number of old favorites have new holiday offerings. Carly Simon is back with Christmas Is Almost Here (Rhino). She covers some interesting, lesser-known material, including Willie Nelson’s lovely “Pretty Paper.” And, yes, she’s still doing the the sex-kitten thing for the cover photo. Jesse Colin Young’s Songs for Christmas (Liquid 8/BMG) features some nice guitar playing and Young’s still-affecting voice. The Christmas Jug Band Uncorked (Globe) brings together an all-star cast, including Dan Hicks, Paul Rogers and Norton Buffalo on mostly original songs. Angela Strehli and Maria Muldaur share vocal duties on a great version of “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.” In much the same vein—only harder rocking—is the Tractors’ The Big Night (Boy Rocking/Audium), which also pulses with that boogie beat.

For the kids, there’s the religious-themed Very Veggie Christmas (Chordant), with all your favorite green TV vegetables singing songs of the season.

The Sony empire has a bunch of reissues on the shelves. Jim Nabors Christmas (Columbia/Legacy), from 1972, has TV’s former Gomer Pyle singing the usual songs in his deep bass voice; the disc’s worth buying just for the lime-green cover. For the classically inclined, there’s The Ultimate Classical Christmas Album of All Time (Sony Classical/Legacy), which recycles 1960s recordings by folks like Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade and Jean-Pierre Rampal; and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Joy to the World (Sony Classical/Legacy).

Last—but certainly not least—are a couple of local discs. The McKrells’ Merry Christmas (Draguin) finds the Celtic-music faves in the spirit of the season, though Bing might be frowning down on them for copping their album title from his. Wonderland: A Winter Solstice Celebration (Signature Sounds) finds a diverse collection of artists, including Erin McKeown, Pete Nelson and cellist Matt Haimovitz, performing an eclectic array of music, from Bach to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Partial proceeds go to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

—Shawn Stone

Games
While new releases aren’t as plentiful as usual, quality—not quantity—is what counts at playtime


This year hasn’t seen as many new board-game releases as years past, but many enthusiasts are deeming one of the new ones the best ever published. In Andreas Seyfarth’s Puerto Rico (Rio Grande, 3-5 players, $35), players take turns colonizing the Caribbean island, constructing buildings and producing goods for shipment, and cycling through a series of roles that determine what gets produced, what gets shipped and who gets paid. It’s a delicately balanced masterpiece with a variety of possible winning strategies, not to mention exquisitely designed pieces. The sheer number of those pieces makes setting up a little daunting, but it’s more than worth the effort. Puerto Rico is a 90-minute game that will have you wanting to play again immediately afterward. And again.

Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling, the team behind Tikal and Java, have come out this year with the third title in their early- civilizations series, Mexica (Rio Grande, 2-4 players, $35). As Aztec settlers on the island of Tenochtitlán, players divide the island up into districts by placing canals, and compete for control of those districts by constructing buildings of varying sizes; larger districts earn more points but are harder to maintain control over. As in Tikal and Java, players are presented with a wide selection of things to do each turn, but a limited number of “action points” to do them with. Also as in Tikal and Java, the box, board and pieces are visually stunning.

The same pair are also responsible for Pueblo (Ravensburger, 2-4 players, $40), an abstract building game. Each player has four adobe-beige blocks and five blocks in his own color; players take turns placing these irregularly shaped blocks on the board. The catch is that they must be placed so that as little of a player’s color is visible from the outside of the pile as possible. There’s a “chieftain” pawn making a circuit around the outside of the board, and if he “sees” a player’s color rather than plain adobe, that player gets dinged with points (the object is to have the lowest score). Fans of abstract games are giving this one raves.

If you’re looking for a lighter, less strategically involved game, there’s Reiner Knizia’s Clash of the Gladiators (Rio Grande, 2-5 players, $30). Players control teams of gladiators in a Roman arena, attacking each other and a handful of nasty-tempered animals running loose in the ring. The makeup of each team determines its particular strengths: Swordsmen increase attacking strength, net carriers can immobilize opposing gladiators, shield bearers deflect damage, and so forth. Hits and misses are determined by die rolls. The action is chaotic and very fast. This is a great beer-and-pretzels game, as well as a good step-up for young fans of Stratego.

Franz-Benno Delonge’s TransAmerica (Rio Grande, 2-6 players, $25) is a terrific family game that doubles as a fast-paced strategic game with surprising depth for its simplicity. The action takes place on a map of the United States overlaid by a triangular grid. Each player is secretly dealt five cities, one from each region of the board (north, south, east, west and central), which he must connect with his rail network. Players may place two segments of track each turn; crossing a mountain or river costs double. Once two players’ networks are connected, both can add track anywhere in the combined network. It’s a race to see who can connect his five cities first, and the completion of one set always brings groans from the other players who were just one turn away from finishing themselves.

Out of the Box, which in previous years has almost singlehandedly driven the evolution of party games with Apples to Apples and My Word!, does it again this year with Squint (3-8 players, $20). In turn, players read a secret word off a card, then have to create a picture that will allow the other players to guess it. Sound familiar? The twist is that the player with the secret word doesn’t draw the picture: He has to assemble it from a selection of tiles printed with geometric shapes. Points go to both the correct guesser and the successful picture maker. It’s an ingenious twist that makes the Pictionary principle a little more accessible to those whose artistic skills don’t extend beyond stick figures—in Squint, stick figures are your stock-in-trade.

For kids younger than 8, there’s the adorable Galloping Pigs (Rio Grande, 2-4 players, $10), a simple card game in which players race pigs and try to amass the largest pile of food as a reward. There’s also 3-D Labyrinth (2-4 players, $21), the latest and most simplified game in Ravensburger’s Labyrinth line, which also includes Junior Labyrinth (for ages 5 and up), A-maze-ing Labyrinth (8 and up) and the lamentably out-of-print Master Labyrinth (10 and up). Aimed at kids ages 4 to 8, 3-D Labyrinth replaces wall tiles with chunky raised walls built into the board, and it reduces the shifting-wall mechanic (the basis of the Labyrinth series) to its simplest possible form. And the older children on your list will surely go nuts over Star Wars Epic Duels (Milton Bradley, 2-6 players, $28.50), which lets you pit any of a dozen different characters from the Star Wars films against one another in single combat or free-for-all brawling, Jedi-style. Unique powers combine to create an impressive variety of tricky tactics.

—Keith Ammann

Surf's Up
When you’re looking for a truly unique or exotic gift, the Internet may be your best destination


An article in The New York Times this week coined a new phrase—“Black Monday”—to describe how for online retailers the true start of the holiday buying season is not the Friday after Thanksgiving (typically the day when malls and stores are clogged with shoppers just getting started on their holiday purchasing). No, the bonanza for Internet retailers comes the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, when hordes of workers return to their offices, taking advantage of high-speed company computer networks to surf the Web looking for shopping bargains.

There’s got to be some sort of economic corollary that explains how gains in worker productivity since the advent of the Internet have been negated by work time lost when bored workers amuse themselves by surfing the Web. But we’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the Internet shoppers referred to in the Times article. They’re not frittering away precious work time on personal endeavors; they’re so busy slaving away for the Man that they have no time to actually leave their offices and shop in real stores (known as “brick and mortar” retailers in e-commerce lingo).

Yes, convenience is the main reason many people do their holiday shopping online. You point. You click. You enter your credit-card digits. Packages then start to appear in the mailbox, as if by magic, before you have time to realize how deep in the hole you are. Another downside to shopping online: It’s much like shopping out of a catalogue. Objects in pictures sometimes bear little resemblance to real life. The father of a friend of mine recently purchased a vintage sports car for cheap on eBay. As we watched the truck trailer—which had driven all the way from California—pull into the driveway with the never-before seen 1970 MGB-GT, our excitement lay in not knowing what kind of shape the car would actually be in: bad deal or a veritable steal?

So if you rely on the ability to inspect your potential purchases in person, before you buy—or if you’re looking for the standard sweaters, books and music CDs to give to your loved ones this year—head on out to your local, preferably independent, stores. The true advantage of shopping on the Web lies not its convenience but in its specialty: Internet shops that wouldn’t have lasted a day as physical, rent-paying stores have sprouted all over the Web. If you’re looking for something a little more unusual to give this year—a present that your loved one would never stumble across in a million storefront windows—the Internet may be your best bet. The following is a guide to shopping on the Internet when your recipients appreciate gifts that range from the hard-to-find to the obscure.

For the kitsch lover

Since the introduction of online auction sites, droves of Americans from Sacramento suburbs to Tacoma trailer parks have cleaned out their attics and garages and thought, “I could get something for this on eBay.” The result: The Internet is a veritable treasure trove of virtually useless yet wonderfully esoteric items, from scarce mint copies of Liberace by Candlelight vinyl LPs to black velvet paintings of cartoonish big-eyed children. If the bidding process on the auction sites turns you off, a multitude of kitsch galleries and online antiques stores will serve you well (your best bet is to check out an online shopping directory like the one found on Yahoo’s site or at www.reference. com/Dir/Shopping).

For the fashionista

Salvation Army thrift stores haven’t been good shopping in years. Since the shabby-chic look became the rage, hipsters have picked clean every second-hand clothing store for miles around, searching out corduroy Levis, wide-collared ’70s swinger shirts and tees with cute slogans (ironic to the wearer) like “I lost my wages in Las Vegas” and “Ithaca is Gorges.” If you want to get your loved one a much-coveted clothing item like, say, a Billy Beer iron-on patch or a John Deere mesh farmer cap, plenty of online clothing sites (www.monstervintage.com, for instance) will spare you the effort of a frustrating bulk-bin search.

For the collector

The Internet is made for people like my friend Bob, a Star Wars fanatic who once owned, at the same time, an actual Storm Trooper suit from the Empire Strikes Back movie and a life-sized replica of Han Solo frozen in suspended animation—both of which he purchased on the Internet. For Star Trek geeks to Titanic freaks, the Web has changed the lives of collectors, allowing them instantaneous contact with the world over who share their interests. If you’re going to buy an item on an auction or antiques site, whether it be a vintage pinball machine or a Betty Boop bathroom fixture, it helps if you can sneak a peek first to see what your collector-friend already has.

For the expat

Having a Danish mother, I know that nothing tugs at the expatriate’s heartstrings more than a glimpse of the homeland. The best present you could give your Italian grandmother or Serbian grandfather is a reminder of their home country. Better yet, make that reminiscence edible: Many sites allow you to order imported foodstuffs, from canned Norwegian fish balls to Belgian foie gras. It’s not necessary that your intended recipient left their heart in a foreign land. For instance, one Web site (www.phillypretzels.com), offers gift packages of cheese steaks, hoagies and soft pretzels from the snacking capital of the Northeast, helpfully noting that their Philadelphia cheese steaks are “fully cooked and simply have to be reheated by the recipient.”

While the potential downsides (scams, e-mail spam and inferior products) may be enough to keep some people from shopping on the Web, Internet fraud seems to be the rare exception to the rule these days. The Web shopper’s greatest enemy, instead, is procrastination. If you enjoy last-minute Christmas Eve shopping, beware: The last day shoppers at many online stores can order goods to be delivered by Christmas is Dec. 21.

—Kirsten Ferguson

Books
What are words for? Giving, of course

Curiosities

Since the first Bibles were cranked out, the world of printing has diversified in ways as multifarious as the pool of human authors. Here then are a few that relate to one another primarily by means of production and utilization of the English language, presented by order of the size of their subjects, from smallest to largest.

The Devil’s Details by Chuck Zerby (Invisible Cities Press, 160 pages, $24) is subtitled A History of Footnotes (which is, of course, then footnoted itself). Noel Coward once claimed that “having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.” Zerby counters with the observation that it’s “just as likely to bring to the door a welcome visitor, perhaps handsome or pretty, sometimes garrulous but often pleasantly sociable.” Throughout this spirited book he balances sly humor with scholarly insight.

Edited by Erich Hoyt and Ted Schultz, Insect Lives: Stories of Mystery and Romance From a Hidden World is now available in paperback (Harvard University Press, 368 pages, $18.95). Assembled with vaudevillian flair, the short selections are culled from the writings of poets and scientists, as well as the Bible. Highlights include an entomologist at a dinner party giving a fine accounting of a bee sting, and a respectful analysis of the impressive running speed of cockroaches (they’ve got six legs, but run using alternating sets of three, two on one side, one on the other—who knew!?).

45 RPM (Princeton Architectural Press, 240 pages, $16.95) offers a stunning full-color visual history of the 7-inch record, all in actual size. Editor Spencer Drate enlisted five designers to write essays to introduce each section, one devoted to each decade in the second half of the 20th century. The book makes no attempt at being comprehensive; rather it’s a survey of each era’s prevailing trends.

By the time Jann Wenner launched Rolling Stone in November 1967, Paul Williams already had been publishing Crawdaddy! magazine for over a year. The Crawdaddy! Book (Hal Leonard, 318 pages, $18.95) draws from the first 19 issues, after which Williams departed. While the layout leaves something to be desired, such was the case with the original periodical as well. This was the era before rock criticism had been formalized, and such rocking thinkers as Peter Guralnick, Richard Meltzer and Jon Landau expounded freely with little regard for length, devoting sometimes a half-dozen pages to the implications of a single album’s release.

Oliver Trager spent a decade and a half on the trail of Lord Buckley. Dead since 1960, Buckley is responsible for bringing hip semantics to the mainstream (or at least the parts of the mainstream that were paying attention at the time). Dig Infinity! (Welcome Rain Publishers, 404 pages, $30) is an oral history with an accompanying CD of a dozen of his pieces. The shifting voice format sometimes makes the book feel like a driverless car careening down the roadway, but a portrait does emerge from the varied vantage points. Buckley could be exasperating to friends and associates in his quest to keep his art flourishing no matter what. But, oh, to have been in attendance at any of the venues where he held court on all manner of enterprise, reshaping history to meet his own needs to connect with some sort of human continuum. He’d sometimes end a performance with a thought that could serve as his epitaph: “It has been a most precious pleasure to have temporarily strolled in the garden of your affection.”

Myself, I leave you with the largest book of this lot, devoted to the largest and heaviest in this assemblage of subjects. Steinway by Ronald Ratcliffe (Chronicle Books, 216 pages, $60) is as lavish as its namesake. This hefty tome affords a glimpse through the whole of the company’s history, and is published in conjunction with the piano maker’s 150th anniversary. Early ads, ephemera and photos of gloriously filigreed models fill the large pages with eye-popping splendor. The book makes me want to curl up on the carpet underneath a grand piano, reveling in the sheer wonder of its graceful bulk and resonance, just as I did as a very young boy, while my mother played her Steinway every day.

—David Greenberger

Children’s

Growing up in a large family, Christmas was, for me, a raucous holiday. And yet, the single event that took precedence over everything else occurred on Christmas Eve. At some point, well after all the relatives had gathered for a prepresent-opening visit, my father would collect our dog-eared assortment of holiday books, gather me—his youngest—up in his arms, and begin reading. As his florid tongue rolled over the traditional tales of Saint Nicholas, and also of a babe born in a stable, I and my older siblings—some of whom had become parents scant years after I was born—became silent, mesmerized by the cadences of familiar, yet spellbinding, words of stories read on this same night year after year.

Here are some new stories that can be added to your family’s annual holiday reading and, equally important, to nightly bedtime storytelling throughout the year:

Merry Christmas, Princess Dinosaur! by Jill Kastner, (Greenwillow Books, $15.99)—sort of like a cute brachiosaurus version of Olivia, Princess Dinosaur spreads love and good cheer, never thinking of herself. Fantastical, bright illustrations add to the joyous nature of this book.

Frederick and His Friends: Four Favorite Fables by Leo Lionni, (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95). OK, so it’s not exactly holiday in theme, but any story by Lionni is magical, with subtexts about humility and cooperation that surely befit the season. This special collection includes Swimmy, Fish Is Fish, Frederick and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse, and includes a CD recording of each story, so you can enjoy them on your way over the river and through the woods . . .

Twas the Night Before Christmas, or Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas, illustrated by Matt Tavares (Candlewick Press, $16). The traditional favorite, which was first published in the Troy Sentinel in 1823, is presented in a handsome, charcoal-illustrated version that looks as if it’s been handed down lovingly from a favorite grandparent.

Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve, by Jan Brett (G.P. Putnam and Sons, $16.99). Author Brett has forsaken her formulaic—and redundant—retelling of the same story, different article of clothing (The Hat, The Mitten) with Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve, a wonderfully realized story depicting the majesty of winter and the miracle of the season.

Under the Christmas Tree, by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (HarperCollins Publishers, $15.99). Twenty-three holiday poems and haikus from Correta Scott King Award-winning poet Grimes, detailing everything from holiday baking with Gram to sledding on trash-can lids, are showcased with extremely personal, radiant illustrations by Nelson. A treasure for any family that loves literature.

Dear Santa, Please Come to the 19th Floor, by Yin, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet, (Philomel Books, $16.99). A decidedly different take on the season, Dear Santa takes place in a tenement house that, despite the poverty of its inhabitants, is a true community of love and faith. Can dreams survive when hope is dashed, and can Santa navigate the inner city?

The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke, read by Simon Jones (Random House Books on Tape, $28). Best-selling author Cornelia Funke takes listeners to the magical underworld of Venice, Italy, where orphans Prosper and Bo, on the run from their cruel aunt and uncle, take refuge with the mysterious title character. An evocative way to spend an evening trimming the tree, or just gazing into a cozy fire.

Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas, by Elise Primavera, (Silver Whistle Harcourt, $16). A follow-up to the delightful Auntie Claus, this edition has young Christopher Kringle expressing doubts about, well, Santa. That is, until Auntie Claus—a sort of Mame doused in a lot of joie de noel—takes over and concocts a marvelous plan to convince Chris otherwise. Imaginative and brilliantly illustrated, this is a must!

Farfallina & Marcel, by Holly Keller (Greenwillow Books, $15.99). Things change and creatures grow up—can a caterpillar and a gosling remain friends throughout? A beautifully illustrated story of friendship.

Eloise Takes a Bawth, by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight (Simon & Schuster, $17.95). Originally catalogued by Harper & Row in 1964, this delightful story has resurfaced—the details of the mystery of this missing gem are in question. As the editors note, “Only Eloise knows the real story and she’s not talking.” A terrific orgy of wordplay and fun as only Thompson knew how to deliver.

Another Perfect Day, by Ross MacDonald (Roaring Book Press, $15.95). How bad can life be for the chief flavor tester for the World’s Best Ice Cream Company? Well . . . MacDonald’s book will capture the imagination of little dreamers, and his retro-style illustrations will remind sophisticated parents of a sort of Thin Man for the younger set.

Please, Baby, Please, by Spike Lee & Tonya Lewis Lee, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Simon & Schuster, $16.95). In the vein of No, David, No!, this adorably illustrated volume will amuse kids who recognize the various situations in which mom and dad implore them, please, baby, please!, to hurry up or to eat their peas . . .

—Laura Leon

Pop Music

See that black cardboard tower standing like a cenotaph at bookstores all over? That’s the sign that holiday book-buying is in full swing. When it comes to rock books, death sells. And biographies of young rock stars sell especially well. Journals (Riverhead Books, $29.95) is the ultimate voyeuristic look into the morbid, funny, enigmatic, contradictory mind of rock-god suicide Kurt Cobain. The journal, a compendium of the 20 spiral notebooks that Cobain managed to hold on to through many moves and travels, is being greeted like manna from heaven by Nirvana fans, even though many of them are ambivalent about the ethics of surveying scribbled inner thoughts that were never meant for publication. Still, Cobain’s opinions on the Seattle music scene and the detested generation that made him a superstar are proving irresistible, and for many fans, the sight of the songwriter’s handwritten lyrics alone are worth the price of admission—especially considering the high quality of the book’s color photo scans, which reproduce his diary pages right down to the spiral imprints. Praise is also being given to designer Chip Kidd’s stark dust jacket and authentic-looking Mead notebook hardcover.

The other dead rock star making a splash on bookshelves this year is Jeff Buckley. Fittingly enough for the hauntingly photogenic vocalist, A Wished-For Song: A Portrait of Jeff Buckley (Hot Leonard Corporation, $30) is an anthology of full-color photographs—340, to be exact. Album-cover photographer Merri Cyr accompanied Buckley’s meteoric career from his early solo shows in New York City to his final gigs before his death by drowning in 1997, and she augments her resonant photos with recollections from friends and members of his inner circle. Rolling Stone hails the book as “Ravishing portraits of a singular, much-missed singer.”

The year’s hot dead band? The Dead. A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead (Broadway Books, $30) is second only to Journals on the sales charts, and author Dennis McNally is one of the reasons. A respected biographer (Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America), McNally was the band’s official historian and publicist for more than 20 years, so if anyone knows the real deal, it’s him—a fact that’s confirmed by the surviving band members’ glowing endorsements of this 600-page saga. Exhaustively researched and chock-full of never-before-revealed intimacies, A Long Strange Trip eschews the gory, druggy details to chronicle the cosmic phenomena of the band and their fans from a positive perspective. “Entertaining and well-written,” opines Publisher’s Weekly.

For those who prefer living legends over the infamously departed, there’s always the paperback reissue of On the Road With Bob Dylan (Three Rivers Press, $14), an insider expose by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who describes himself as the troubadour’s “gofer, confessor, sycophant, scapegoat, fan, and, occasionally, journalist.” This gonzo, psychedelic travelogue (a fave with hardcore Bob fans) follows Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, and capturing sideline personalities such as Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, and Arlo Guthrie along the way. “Still . . . the best insider account of Dylan’s offbeat, weird underground medicine show,” says Rolling Stone.

Unlike rock stars, rock technology can be deathless, which is certainly the case for the synthesizer. In Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (Harvard University Press, $29.95) authors Frank Trocco, Trevor Pinch and Robert Moog tell for the first time how Moog, an engineering student and avant-garde musician in 1960s California, created a revolutionary sound through electronics. Analog Days explores the impact of the radically new instrument from its experimental early days to its rise to stardom in Switched-On Bach to its ubiquitous influence on pop culture. This reportedly “thrilling read” includes interviews with musicians Brian Eno, Pete Townsend and Keith Emerson.

Looking for an unusual stocking stuffer? Then take a flip through The Cartoon Music Book (Chicago Review Press, $19.95), a compilation of essays, interviews and opinions edited by Leonard Maltin and ranging from the Golden Era of Hollywood cartoons (recalled by Warner Bros. composer Carl Stallings) to the era of edgy TV cartoons (represented by Rugrats composer Mark Mothersbaugh). As rock critic Neil Strauss puts it: “Just try watching a classic Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny cartoon with the sound off and see how flat the jokes fall.” Although the rock connection in this scholarly-yet-colorful anthology is limited, the staff at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza report that Cartoon Music is the sleeper hit of the season.

—Ann Morrow

Politics

For the reader whose holiday spirit can be nurtured with books on current events, politics and history, there are many options this season. One political book loaded with eye candy is Bill Maher’s When You Ride Alone, You Ride With bin Laden (New Millenium Press, $27.95). In this coffee-table book, Maher (of Politically Incorrect fame) has altered American propaganda posters from World Wars I and II to reflect the messages our government should be saying today as we fight our War on Terrorism. The book’s critiques of the status quo call for more discussion to “Understand Why We Are Hated,” and for more common sense in airline security (“Perform Intelligent Searches”).

Aside from the still-swelling tide of titles on Islam and the ramifications of Sept. 11 on bookshelves, there has been a score of socially and politically critical books just in time to keep your family dissident and/or anarchist brooding throughout the holidays. In Silencing Political Dissent (Seven Stories Press, $9.95), Nancy Ching takes an incisive look at the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act and how the hastily passed legislation has essentially trampled civil liberties while giving the executive branch vast, unchecked power to spy on the American people. The book features a foreward by historian Howard Zinn.

Another Open Media book is Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media (Seven Stories Press, $9.95) by Robert W. McChesney, John Nichols and Barbara Ehrenreich. The book explains how much of the U.S. media is consolidated in the hands of a few large companies, resulting in journalism biased toward the agenda of corporate ownership. Our Media calls for more local control of media, chronicles the rise of grassroots media activism, and concludes with suggestions for change.

Charles Derbner, professor of sociology and political science at Boston College, has written People Before Profit: The New Globalization in an Age of Terror, Big Money, and Economic Crisis (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95). Derbner says that by promoting local democracy and culture, making businesses socially accountable, and creating a framework for peace and stability, the supposedly inevitable process of globalization can be stopped. The author puts forward his ideas in a manner accessible to readers who are not yet familiar with the intricacies of the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization.

Two former directors of the National Security Council’s counterterrorism department, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, began writing The Age of Sacred Terror (Random House, $25.95) a year before Sept. 11 to sound the alarm for a nation that had not recognized the greatest threat of its time—the rise of al Qaeda. The book maintained its initial goals—to provide the insights in order to understand an enemy unlike any in living memory—but after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the book took a new focus: to understand how America let its defenses down, and how to keep it from happening again.

Roughly two years since President George W. Bush took office, there are a few words that can still make a Democrat’s blood boil: dimpled chad, Florida, Nader. That last buzzword can be further deplored, or explored, in Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon (Perseus Publishing, $26), the first biography of the enigmatic gadfly since 1975. Author Justin Martin delves into Ralph Nader’s history as a tireless advocate for the consumer before giving a behind-the-scenes story of his controversial presidential campaign and ongoing feud with Al Gore.

From the robbed to the thief, R.M. Dworkin presents a collection of eights essays in A Badly Flawed Election: Debating Bush V. Gore, the Supreme Court, and American Democracy (New Press, $26.95). The articles presented by Dworkin are taken from the work of constitutional scholars, historians and political scientists representing both sides of the debate. Scrutinizing the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision beyond right or wrong based on the rule of law, A Badly Flawed Election examines the outcome that Bush v. Gore will have on democratic participation in the future.

Considering how much food you will consume this holiday season, and the guilt that gorging may incur, why not pass the buck? Really, it wasn’t your fault. Blame it on the food industry! In Marion Nestle’s in-depth expose, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press, $29.95), the author links our nation’s obesity problem to the fact that the United States manufactures enough calories to meet the needs of every man, woman, and child twice over.

Muckraking—it’s got a special place in the heart of every journalist. And Greg Palast, who reports for the BBC and writes for the London Observer, has made a living out of doing just that. In his latest book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: An Investigative Reporter Exposes the Truth about Globalization, Corporate Cons, and High Finance Fraudsters (Pluto Press, $25), readers unfamiliar with Palast’s work get a slice of the journalist’s award-winning investigative reporting.

—Travis Durfee

Cookbooks

We’re all so much healthier! Despite those wacky Atkins-diet advocates, busily starving themselves into temporary emaciation, the number of healthy-cuisine cookbooks has continued to improve. Chief among them are vegetarian cookbooks, lately offering so much variety that you’d be hard-pressed to remember you’re missing meat.

Mollie Katzen is the avatar of meatless cooking. Her original Moosewood Cookbook set a standard she continues to improve with her latest, Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café (Hyperion), which is all about breakfast. From the simplest steps, like How to Fry an Egg (she notes that you can add portability by wrapping it in a salsa-enhanced tortilla) to more complicated items like Polenta Waffles with Berries, the 350 recipes included herein are so transparently described that you’ll achieve virtuosity in no time.

Charmain Solomon’s Complete Vegetarian Cookbook (10-Speed Press) opens with a luscious photo of mushroom caps stuffed with guacamole. This begins the Western Influence section, in which traditional vichyssoise gets an addition of puréed peas, and desserts include a cheerful raspberry mousse. The Eastern Influence brings together Asian recipes and traditions, with a long look at rice, braised-vegetable dishes and stir-fries aplenty. Recipes can get complicated, but the results I sampled were outstanding.

As the name suggests, The Passionate Vegetarian (Workman) is so full of recipes and information that it bids fair to be the Joy of Cooking, vegetarian division. In over 1,110 pages, author Crescent Dragonwagon provides a kind of oral history of meatless cuisine, in that rare book that provides vegan and other variations. And it satisfies my principal cookbook requirement: that it be engagingly chatty as well. Seasonings and techniques are borrowed from all the world’s cuisines.

Any guy who gets arrested for eating a dandelion in Manhattan’s Central Park has good credentials for a start, and Steve Brill continues to lead foraging tours through the parks of New York City and its suburbs. The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook (Harvard Common Press) takes you into your own backyard, teaching you to identify what’s there and use more of it than you ever thought possible. Lots of food-preparation info, and you’ll never look at burdock and pokeweed the same.

Famous chef and famous restaurant cookbooks also are flourishing, although I tend to prefer those that don’t rely on television exposure. American cooking was forever changed 30 years ago by Alice Waters, and she, it turns out, was very influenced by The French Menu Cookbook and Simple French Food, two of the titles written in the 1970s by Richard Olney, an American painter living for many years in France. While pursuing his artistic career, he also fell in with Lulu Peyraud, whose one-of-a-kind cooking was documented in Olney’s 1994 book Lulu’s Provençal Table. It has returned to print (10-Speed Press), and the recipes—and there are more than 150, covering a vast array of foodstuffs—hardly matter. It’s the approach. The style, the technique. Catch the spirit of this book and it will change the way you cook forever.

But you’ll want it to look like the recipes in Lumière (10-Speed Press), chef Rob Feenie’s debut cookbook, named for his Vancouver restaurant, where he brings together flavors and techniques from around the world. Four seasonal sections present menu ideas that run heavily to vegetarian items; an emphasis on seafood also is welcome. Recipes range from the simple to the fantastic—I defy you to easily assemble what’s needed to prepare his braised sweetbreads with truffled green lentils—but the presentation is clear, and the easier recipes really are easy. Also presented is a style of dining that includes the vegetarian thrust previously noted as well as an emphasis on soups, cheeses and intensely flavored desserts that you otherwise might not think to try at home. There’s a bit of the Charlie Trotter-esque ultra-exotic about some of this, but, as with Trotter’s daunting recipes, these are blueprints from which the home cook easily can veer.

Let’s go shopping, exhorts an early chapter in Cary Neff’s Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks), and because Neff designs meals at the Miraval health resort, he authoritatively takes us through the supermarket aisles to begin the lowfat journey to healthy food with bold flavors. In trying out his recipes, it’s embarrassing to realize my own dependence on adding fat to the food I prepare, and Neff’s sauces are excellent cures for that. Although big on vegetables, it’s not a vegetarian cookbook—even meat eaters have healthy options in here. Gorgeous photography and nice design complete the book.

San Francisco is the City of Three Thousand Restaurants; out of one of the favorites comes The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers (W.W. Norton), whose narrative asides are every bit as fascinating as the recipes. She put in the requisite apprenticeship in France, absorbed the great meals and classical techniques, and imparts them with a voice that’s friendly and captivating, rare qualities in a cookbook writer. Her salads alone are worth the price of the book (try the shredded radicchio with anchovy vinaigrette, bread crumbs and sieved egg), but it’s page after page (547 in all) of recipes sweeping you through the courses—with good wine suggestions by Gerald Asher throughout.

I’ve saved my absolute favorites for last. Lois Ellen Frank’s Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations (10-Speed Press) seemed at first to be a self-consciously annoying “gone native” kind of a deal, but the narrative and recipes quickly proved it to be a fresh approach to familiar ingredients. Blue corn gnocchi with guajillo chile sauce made it to my holiday table last month, and the posole terrine follows shortly. Excellent use of chiles, beans, squash, corn—and the red chile piñon-crusted lamb chops are out of this world.

You don’t need a hearth to appreciate The Magic of Fire by William Rubel (10-Speed Press), but you’ll long for one once you peruse this book of very old-fashioned recipes (and some newfangled) all designed for fireplace cooking, adaptable, in many cases, to a charcoal grill. It can be as simple as roasted onions (coated with salt, sage and olive oil) or evocative as chicken in a pot, which turns into a garlicky stew. Along with the expected meats are grilled vegetables, breads, even coffee-making techniques. Which is good, because this is a beautiful coffee-table book.

—B.A. Nilsson

Gifts of Conscience
Ideas for keeping your holiday offerings environmentally green and worker-friendly

Tis the season for gifting. We reaffirm our ties to one another through the exchange of gifts. Year-end holiday gifting also provides a major boost to the U.S. economy, as billions of dollars of goods change hands. Unfortunately, much of this year-end buying spree involves things for people that they don’t need or want, with a heap of trash and pollution trailing out behind. The holiday shop-til-you-drop mantra can overwhelm reason and lead to impulsive purchases that often do more to create personal debt and waste than foster goodwill. Holiday gift seekers have some real power in their dollars that can provide presents for loved ones while at the same time positively affecting things like trade practices and our environment.

If you’d like to make your gifting more environmentally benign, and see that more of the money you spend gets into the hands of those producing the goods you purchase, here are some suggestions worth a moment’s thought.

Give the gift of energy efficiency. A compact fluorescent bulb is a gift that will keep on giving for years. It provides light and cuts utility costs. By reducing energy use, a gift of an energy-efficient light bulb will do more for reducing greenhouse gas emissions than the Bush energy plan. While these bulbs can be found in most area stores that sell bulbs, check out the good folks at Real Goods (www.realgoods.com) for a wide selection of bulbs and other potential energy efficiency gifts. Conserve energy!

Give the gift of fair trade. Fair trade is when the person who originally produced the gift gets a better cut of the price that you pay for it in the marketplace. Fair-trade coffees and teas can be found among the offerings in a growing number of stores that sell specialty coffees and teas in the area. Perhaps the widest selection of fair-trade coffees and teas can be found at the Ten Thousand Villages store in Stuyvesant Plaza. In this well-stocked store you can also find a lively variety of reasonably priced crafts from around the planet that are sold through fair-trade practices. The store’s mission is to provide a “fair income to Third World people by marketing their handicrafts and telling their stories in North America.” Support fair trade!

Give a gift that wasn’t made in a sweatshop. To find out why there is a boycott of Gap clothes this holiday season, click to www.behindthe label.org. Avoiding the purchase of a product produced in a sweatshop may help change wages and working conditions for others in the world. Don’t buy sweatshop goods!

Give the gift of organic food. Good food is a great gift. Organic food not only nourishes its consumer, it also nourishes the land from which it was grown and supports family farms. At the Honest Weight Food Co-op, at 484 Central Ave. in Albany, you can find all kinds of organic foods, from dried goods to fresh produce, that can make nutritious edible gifts. You can mix up a collection of nuts and dried fruits from the bulk aisle, bag some shade-grown fair-trade coffee, pick up some Endangered Species Chocolate Bars and even find organic pomegranates. Buy organic!

Give the gift of a good used book. I’ve been buying recycled books as gifts for years. Dove and Hudson, Old Books at the corner of Dove Street and Hudson Avenue in Albany provides a wide array of used books in great shape, well organized for searching and at very reasonable prices. You might also want to glean through the Bryn Mawr Book Shop at 215 Lark St., Albany for pre-owned literary gifts before it closes its doors for the last time. Support local book recyclers!

Give a gift without a lot of wrapping. I wrap most of the gifts I give in paper grocery bags. I cut the bag down one side and cut out the bottom. This leaves a flat sheet of brown paper that I use inside out. Paint and pens add color. Regardless of the paper you use, be sure to separate it out for your local paper recycling program after it’s been torn from its purpose. Save ribbons and other packaging decorations for future reuse. Recycle!

Give a gift of yourself. Some of the best gifts I’ve been given were things that people made. While it may be a little late to be building a workshop in the basement, simple things like a framed photo or poem can be highly valued gifts. A handmade card with a heartfelt handwritten note inside can be produced without elaborate equipment or cost. Of course, the greatest gift you can give is your time. Share it!

And may your holidays be environmentally green, fairly traded and nutritiously healthy, and may they help bring about worldwide peace!

—Tom Nattell


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