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Going for Original
It’s not as hard as you think to skip the mall and get one-of-a-kind gifts

You don’t want to go there. In fact, just last year you told yourself “never again,” but even so, you will end up there. It happens every December: A week before the consumerist blowout known as Christmas, you find yourself making a mad dash to the mall where you will trek the endless plain of the parking lot (a trip that is more time consuming than baking sugar cookies from scratch), and once inside you will merge with the plodding crowd like a lemming until you find the perfect, not-really-oh-who-cares-just-get-me-outta-here gift. One that will be purchased by about a kazillion other stressed-out shoppers—all of them, like you, being too frantic to think about such intangibles as supporting the local economy, expressing individualism, or depriving corporate retailers of the extra shillings that are likely to wind up in the paycheck of a slick lobbying firm petitioning local officials for socially unconscionable advantages for said corporate retailer. But at least it comes gift-wrapped.

There are other options, though, and one of them is to consider handcrafted goods from the terrifically talented artisans living and working in a community near you. There are more of them than you might realize, and they produce remarkable products in all manner of materials, techniques and styles. And for sheer economic value, handmade items (often surprisingly inexpensive) tend to appreciate over time—and you can’t say that about the mass-produced gewgaw you stumbled over in the aisle bin at your nearby big box. In addition, all the artisans listed below welcome special orders and will customize their work to your personal specifications.

Oak & Acorn Ancient Metalcrafts in Valley Falls offers a line of home and hearth items that can make a striking and useful addition to domiciles from any era. Blacksmith David Crowther and his artist wife, Sarah Ritchie, forge attractively (and efficiently) primitive implements such as ladles, candlesticks, key chains, wall hooks, napkin rings, and medieval flatware (perfect for barbecues) out of super-durable “mild steel.” (“It’s the equivalent of modern-day iron,” explains Crowther.) Their standing candelabras can only be described as wicked cool, and their “fire tools,” including a fearsome-looking tremmel hook for cooking over an open fire (ideal for campers), are likely to serve as conversation pieces as well as kitchen aids—many of the pieces utilize Celtic spiral and leaf designs. The Crowthers also make goods for medievalist buffs, including “iron” arm bands, and wood-grip swords and daggers that are sure to send any Lord of the Rings fan into a swoon. Prices range from $10 for a spiral napkin ring to $300 for a custom-made sword. You can contact them by e-mail, at www.oakandacorn.com, or by phone, 753-9592.

“Tiffany” earrings and pendant necklaces by jewelry designer Dana Rudolph are being offered for a limited time in the gift shop at the Albany Institute of History and Art—giving new meaning to the concept of a one-of-a-kind gift. Specially commissioned to commemorate the museum’s current Lamps of Tiffany exhibit, Rudolph’s brilliantly colored creations are fashioned from shards of authentic Tiffany opalescent stained glass (provided by the Neustadt Museum of Tiffany Art in New York City) in art nouveau-style forms set with sterling wire and accented by seed pearls and gemstone beads. “My inspiration comes from the iridescence in each piece of glass,” says Rudolph. Meanwhile her gemstone jewelry and other local-artist-made gifts (from cards to handbags) are available at Dana Rudolph & Company (209 River St., Troy), along with a huge selection of beads and other materials for custom-design orders, and tools and supplies for any DIY beaders and jewelers on your list. The Tiffany pieces range from $48 to $85; the Museum Shop at the Albany Institute of History and Art (125 Washington Ave., Albany, 463-4478) is open Wednesday through Sunday.

Certified Framing & Gallery in Loudonville (475 Albany Shaker Road, 438-9471) is owned by artist Jill Baucon, a former watercolorist who does French (hand-painted) matting that adds a beautifully artistic highlight to engravings and other prints. She also specializes in custom-made “shadowbox” frames for textiles (wonderful for christening gowns and other sentimental clothing items, as well as sports memorabilia), in addition to 18-carat gold framing: Gild a treasured photograph with one these creations, and you’ll be giving the memory of a lifetime. The gallery carries hand-blown glass ornaments, beaded silver jewelry, hand-forged vases and candlesticks in pewter, iron and wire, and other home-décor items in original designs, along with 19th-century Bartlett print engravings. Manager and painter Robin Guthridge offers reproduction Hudson River School paintings or original paintings of regional landscapes by request (in oil or pastel). Prices range from “expensive” for French matting, to “very expensive” for gold framing. The personalized service is gratis. Christmas orders are taken until Dec. 22.

Destiny Threads (257 Delaware Ave., Delmar, 478-9467) supports indigenous artists from around the world (and around the region), and stocks many never-before-imported items brought in by owners Larry and Susan Marcus’ globetrotting contacts. Among the singular offerings are fiber items distinguished by native weaving techniques, such as Asian and African baskets made of bamboo and other reeds, grasses and roots, and jackets, vests, scarves, rugs, quilts, pillows, hangings and satchels woven from alpaca, lama, angora, goat and sheep. Here are three recommendations out of dozens of possibilities: Fascinating Peruvian dolls ($45) in traditional dress that incorporate scraps of recently excavated, pre-Columbian cloth (“Peruvians are the most wonderful weavers,” opines Susan). Indestructible, cheerfully colorful carryalls woven out of recycled strapping tape by Zulu tribespeople ($25). And intriguingly gnarly (but smooth to the skin) barnacle bracelets from Vietnam ($6). For an all-purpose stocking stuffer, there’s a variety of bead-weave chokers ($5) in unisex styles. Or perhaps a native mask, an exotic puzzle or a lithographic vellum-shade lamp; and if you really want to go big, a handmade, pure-silk ensemble. You might like to know that the congenial owners will gladly share the interesting stories behind their highly unusual inventory.

You wouldn’t know it from local department stores, but the Capital Region is chock-a-block with talented potters. One of them is Nancy Niefeld, owner of Two Spruce Studio (175 Jay St., Schenectady, 393-5011). Niefeld’s stoneware dinnerware (from soup tureens to casseroles) is 100-percent homemade, including the glazes, and completely functional (that means cookable and washable). In addition to her warm, earthy pottery, Niefeld offers a line of Judaica (from Yiddish cups to seder plates), and a line of decorative raku (Japanese-influenced) pots, lamps, vases and clocks (from $6 for a mini-pot to $225 for a large table lamp). For the holiday season, the studio is hosting an original-design handicrafts gift show, featuring dozens of artisans from the Capital Region Designer Crafts Council, in conjunction with the Schenectady Museum. “Handmade things bring pleasure and comfort,” affirms Niefeld. The show will encompass clothing, wall hangings and purses in a variety of materials; woodworks, including cutting boards; and jewelry and toys. Extended holiday hours are Monday through Friday until 8 PM, Saturday and Sunday until 5 PM; Dec. 24 until 4 PM.

The Winter Ceramics Show and Sale at Firlefanz Gallery (292 Lark St., Albany, 436-9498) is another gift-themed showcase, featuring more than 30 potters, artists and jewelry makers, and including ceramicist extraordinaire Liz Vigoda—who makes functional works of arts in the form of bowls, platters, goblets and candlesticks. Trained in London and inspired by folk-art forms from around the world, Vigoda’s colorful stoneware is distinguished by its beautifully painted patterns and highly skilled execution. Her latest line consists of decorative raku works in shimmery metallic colors. Vigoda’s production pottery averages $30; one-of-kind ceramics average around $300.

The above are just the barest indication of the talented crafters to be found ’round these parts; for another judiciously selected sampling, try the Departure Museum Shop at the Albany International Airport (Colonie, 242-2540) This small but jam-packed gallery carries special collections of regionally made jewelry, pottery, textiles and artworks, any and all of which can be combined in a staff-assisted, customized gift basket “for business or pleasure” ($100-$200). And attention last-minute shoppers: Departure will be open until 6 PM on Christmas Eve.

—Ann Morrow

Video
Gifts of movies (and old TV shows) on DVD make for quick, painless shopping—and they’re more affordable than ever

Something wonderful has happened. Videos — specifically, DVDs—are now so cheap that most qualify as stocking stuffers. Five years ago you could buy a lousy pan-and-scan VHS copy of a movie like Chinatown for $25. Now, you can get a beautiful widescreen DVD of the same film for $10. So don’t stint—who knows who long it will last?

Of course, there are plenty of high-end box sets available, too. After years of stalling, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have finally allowed the release of The Indiana Jones Collection (Paramount). This 4-disc set includes the three Indy flicks so far, plus a bonus disc with documentaries and other goodies. And no, the films are not available separately. This is also the case with The James Bond Collection, Vols. 2 and 3 (MGM)—if you want the rest of the Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan films, you’ll have to put up with a lot of Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton. For something more esoteric but fascinating, there’s The Lon Chaney Collection (TCM Archives). This includes three of the legendary silent star’s films (The Ace of Hearts, Laugh Clown Laugh, and The Unknown, a masterpiece of perversity with a new score by the Alloy Orchestra), plus a superb documentary by historian-preservationist Kevin Brownlow and a reconstruction of the lost film London After Midnight.

It turns out that endless reruns haven’t dampened the enthusiasm of sitcom fans for DVD sets. Otherwise, why would Friends: The First Five Seasons (Warner) be available? Vintage stuff is coming out too, whether anyone likes it or not. In the case of Green Acres: Season One (MGM), I like it. Living in bucolic Hooterville, the main characters on this ’60s classic are a brainy pig, a lawyer who fancies himself a farmer, a ditzy blonde who proves smarter than everyone else, and a gallery of canny yokels; the plots consistently push the limits of absurdity. SciFi junkies may enjoy the digitally remastered Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Epic Series (Universal), with TV icon Lorne Greene. Like the Matrix trilogy, it’s about a race of machines that want to destroy what’s left of humanity—but the costumes, sadly, are not as cool. Connoisseurs of the weird will want Space Ghost: Coast to Coast (Warner), which includes dozens of episodes of the long-running Cartoon Network “talk show” and lots of silly extras. Watching smug celebrities ignored or abused by has-been animated characters from a lousy ’60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon is pure pleasure.

The time between a film’s theatrical release and its DVD availability keeps shrinking. Thus, many of this year’s best films are already available for holiday gifting. The sleeper hit Whale Rider (Newmarket), from New Zealand, is the story of a brave, strong Maori girl and her attempts to gain acceptance from her grandfather. The stunningly shot Winged Migration (Columbia TriStar) is a documentary chronicling the migratory paths of birds all over the world. Audiences loved Bend It Like Beckham (Fox), an English culture-clash comedy about a daughter of Indian immigrants who would rather play football (read: soccer) than get married. Audiences ignored Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor in Down With Love (Fox), but that was their loss—this modern reworking of Doris Day sex comedies is smart and funny. While the Academy will forget both Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (Columbia TriStar) and The Italian Job (Paramount) at Oscar time, both films are worth a look: the former for its crazy-bordering-on-avant-garde editing, and the latter for some terrific ensemble performances.

If it’s something older than last week you’re looking for, you might start with the original The Italian Job (Paramount). This 1969 oddity stars Michael Caine as horny thief, Noël Coward as a criminal mastermind and Benny Hill as a perverted computer programmer; the only things this bizarre caper comedy has in common with the remake are those snazzy Mini Coopers. Boris Karloff had his last great role in Peter Bogdanovich’s first film, Targets (Paramount). Part Hollywood satire and part anti-gun sniper drama, Targets remains powerful. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (New Line) is now available in a remastered edition, as is the still-impressive yet goofy ’50s giant lizard flick The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Warner). You may know Conrad Veidt from Casablanca, but he gave one of his greatest performances in the gothic tragedy The Man Who Laughs (Kino) as a cruelly disfigured clown. (Veidt’s makeup in the film prefigures Batman’s Joker.) Other new releases include Meryl Streep as the anti-nuke whistleblower Silkwood (MGM), and Morgan Freeman’s career-making turn as a vicious pimp in 1985’s Street Smart (MGM).

Someone you know prefers rarities and/or classics? Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald star in Rouben Mamoulian’s witty musical romp Love Me Tonight (Kino). Peter Weller is (essentially) William S. Burroughs in David Cronenberg’s creepy Naked Lunch (Criterion). Roman Polanski’s first feature, the taut psychosexual drama Knife in the Water (Criterion), has been fully restored, with new English subtitles by the director himself. Finally, if you thought Kill Bill Vol. 1 was bloody, check out Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive Trilogy (Kino). It’s a little bit violent.

Finally, there is a cornucopia of animated films to choose from. The anime drama Millennium Actress (Dreamworks) wraps an obsessive love story inside a history of Japanese cinema. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Columbia TriStar) is a dark, entertaining film based on the noirish TV hit about a bounty hunter on Mars. Film historians and animation buffs usually point to Sleeping Beauty (Buena Vista) as the last great Walt Disney feature; it’s available in a deluxe 2-disc set. Finally, the folks at Warner Bros. are offering up the 4-disc Looney Tunes Golden Collection (Warner). While the cartoon selection is a little puzzling, the restored films and the intriguing extras make the set a must-have.

—Shawn Stone

Recordings
The gift of music—sounds like a hit

Alternative/Indie

Nothing brings out the holiday spirit in my heart more than a slab or three of ass-whuppin’ rock & roll, so let’s begin this alt/indie buying guide with a few of 2003’s best crunchy nuggets. First off, Scandinavian Leather by Turbonegro (Epitaph), everybody’s favorite denim-clad rockin’ Norsemen. If singing along to “I Want Everything” and “Gimme Some” doesn’t fuel your gift jones, then nothing will. On the domestic front, Electric Six’s Fire (Beggars XL) is a great, greasy ball of militant disco rock, guaranteed to make you squeal as you open the box containing your new pair of jackboots.

On a slightly less self-conscious and ridiculous note, Neurosis & Jarboe (Neurot) is an extraordinarily powerful collaboration between the former Swans vocalist and the Bay Area’s favorite industrial sons. (Well, besides Survival Research Laboratories, anyway). Stripping industrial music all the way back down its computer-generated roots, Germany’s Kraftwerk made a welcome return this year with Tour De France Soundtracks (Astralwerks), a full-length disc that (belatedly) follows up on the promise of the 1983 single “Tour De France.” It sounds exactly the way you’d expect Kraftwerk to sound, and it makes it very clear how indebted today’s techno/electronica artists are to their Teutonic forebears.

Speaking of techno/electronica artists, the best of the bunch have a new compilation out this year: The Chemical Brothers’ Singles 93-0-3 (Astralwerks) collects 11 dance floor classics, appending two great new cuts (“Get Yourself High” and the Flaming Lips-fortified “The Golden Path”) and an entire bonus disc of live, rare and unreleased material. Another crucial holiday compilation is Robert Wyatt’s Solar Flares Burn for You (Cuneiform), a collection of BBC tapes, soundtracks and newer works that serves as the perfect companion piece to Cuckooland, Wyatt’s first full-length release of new material since 1997’s magnificent Shleep.

Other nice holiday compilations include Love and Rockets’ Sorted (Beggars Banquet), worth the price of purchase for completists just to get the excellent and hard-to-find B-side “Holiday on the Moon,” and The Best of Guided By Voices: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates (Matador), which collects 32 lo-fi gems from Robert Pollard and friends. Duran Duran’s The Singles 81-85 (Capitol) is a nicely excessive score for your ’80s-loving chums: it contains 13 discs (!), each one a replica of an original single release.

On a more current note, No Doubt are in the bins this month with The Singles 1992-2003 (Interscope)—jeez, whatever happened to creativity in naming compilations?—which features a pedestrian remake of Talk Talk’s lovely “It’s My Life.” Here’s a tip: Skip the remake and pick up both Essential and Introducing (EMI), two new collections by Talk Talk themselves. “It’s My Life” is on Essential, but Introducing does a better job of showing off Mark Hollis’ dreamier, later material. And while I’m on the topic of covers, can I make a “do not buy” recommendation? Limp Bizkit’s desecration of “Behind Blue Eyes” has supplanted Lenny Kravitz’ despoiling of “American Woman” in my book as the worst popular cover in modern rock history. Please don’t buy this record. The sooner we stop encouraging Fred Durst, the sooner he will just go away. Please. I implore you. Do it for the children.

And after you’ve ripped the Limp Bizkit records out of the childrens’ sticky digits, think about putting Television’s Marquee Moon (Elektra) and Adventure (now freshly remixed with bonus tracks, on Elektra/Rhino) into their grubby little paws instead. Then take them back and enjoy them yourself. Keep Collider’s excellent WCYF (Sona) for yourself right from the git-go, though, since this EP of smart, excellent, enthusiastic songs features language that’s a tad on the blue side, although the music is so infectious that your kids will sneak it onto the stereo and dance like idiots as soon as you leave it alone in the house with them.

Three of Collider’s four members cut their teeth in the Albany music market (with Skyscape, Hanslick Rebellion, Pavlov’s Dogs, Struction and Fanbelt, among others), so this is a good time to remind you not to ignore the home team when you’re out spending too much money this month. My favorite local records of the year include Small Axe’s typically crunchy Ride to the Bottom (HoeX), Gay Tastee’s scabrous and raw Gayest Hits (HoeX), knotworking’s lovely The Garden Below (One Mad Son) and The Kamikaze Hearts’ latest self-titled disc (self-released), the one with the lions on the cover. All four of these discs are guaranteed to make your out-of-town friends think that you live in a way cool musical community (which you do, stupid) when they find them under their trees in Boise or Bismarck or Burlington or Butte.

And, finally, if you have no idea what your intended likes when it comes to music, then why not grab them a copy of Ween’s latest album, Quebec (Sanctuary)? It covers so much territory that there’s bound to be something they like on it, and something they hate on it—but that’s better than giving them something that they end up hating from beginning to end, right? Right! And, rest assured, they’d hate anything by Limp Bizkit that you gave them, so be sure not to make that holiday faux pas this year, please and thanks.

—J. Eric Smith

Way Indie

While the major labels are dwindling in number as they either swallow or join one another, it’s nice to know that some of the best music being issued is on tiny labels, falling through the cracks for all but those willing to seek and find. Our consumer culture prefers that we stay together in neat generational groups, but come all ye faithful and free yourselves from the yoke of demographic branding. Here follows an assortment of treasures new and old.

One of the surprise returns has been Arthur Lee. After a stint in prison, he’s touring with a drive and determination missing from the early years with his band Love. In 1968, Love’s third album languished in the commercial fringes as the band self-destructed. Lee has been performing Forever Changes in its entirety, with a supple band augmented by an eight-piece string and horn section. The Forever Changes Concert (Snapper Music), celebrates an important work as well as Lee’s own reemergence. The album’s 11 tracks are augmented by another six Love tunes, including “August,” the powerful opening track from Love’s final album for Elektra. A companion DVD also documents this same 2002 London Royal Festival Hall concert.

For nearly two decades, the Green Pajamas have created a string of rollicking psychedelic-infused pop rock. A furious gentility and whip-smart songs have built this Seattle band a devoted following. Newly issued is a best-of collection, Through Glass Colored Roses (Hidden Agenda). From the newly recorded version of their incessantly pulsing “Kim the Waitress” to the undulating landscape of “Tomorrow Will Bring Rain,” thoughtfully crafted songs are matched to perfectly apt arrangements.

Before Jack Palance had his 11th-hour comeback, affording him an opportunity to demonstrate his ease with one-armed push ups on the live television broadcast of the Academy Awards, he had a brief dalliance with the Nashville music scene. His sole release, Palance, appeared briefly on Warner Bros. in 1969. It’s now on CD thanks to the adventurous folks at the Water label. Three of the 11 tracks are originals, including the delightfully warped “Meanest Guy That Ever Lived,” which builds on the myth of his tough-guy screen roles.

The trio Vril are what happens when avant-garde musicians decide to become a surf band. And while you’re trying to pronounce their name you can mull over the title of their debut disc, Effigies in Cork (ReR USA). Full of humor and fractured invention, Vril are drummer Chris Cutler, bassist Bob Drake and guitarist Lukas Simonis. Their moniker actually comes from the Victorian author Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, also noted for having originated the opening line “It was a dark and stormy night.”

And while we’re on the subject of band names, the trio After That It’s All Gravy (who include Kim Rancourt, erstwhile member of When People Were Shorter and Lived Near the Water) have brought forth Band on the Run (Smack Shire), their own take on the 1974 album by Paul McCartney & Wings. It is here reimagined as a mixture of sound sculpture, dadaist cut-and-paste and populist hijinks filtered through simple studio gadgetry. It succeeds by becoming its own work, no mean feat when the template is so ingrained in our mass consciousness.

Goodbye, Babylon (Dust to Digital) is six CDs containing 135 songs, thematically united by a focus on the sacred, along with 25 sermons. They’re culled from 78s dating back to 1902. It’s accompanied by a fully annotated 192-page book, and all housed in a specially fabricated cedar box. These recordings showcase string bands, gospel quartets, jug-band reveries, guitar evangelists and sacred harp choirs. The well-known (such as Blind Willie Johnson) and the lesser-known (Arizona Dranes) artists mingle with perfect and varied flow. Far from merely documenting, the set is sequenced with the flourish of a great radio program.

Coming slightly forward in time, we land upon the reissue of Bob Thompson’s Speed of Sound (Dionysus). A contemporary of Esquivel’s, Thompson was based in Hollywood. This 1960 album was his orchestral tribute to the era’s varied modes of transport, from rockets to speedboats to Vespa scooters. This was also the dawning of the stereo age, so actual sound effects frame the compositions as they embark on their symphonic sweep.

And what would the Christmas holiday be without regular folks dreaming up lyrics, and sending them in the mail along with a check so that chain-smoking third-tier studio musicians can churn them into songs with barely a run-through before recording? Offset the ubiquitous corporate directives of the season by reveling in Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four?: The American Song-Poem Christmas (Bar None). While the business side of the send-us-your-lyrics operations may have bordered on or even stood waist deep in old Scam Creek, the songs are fueled with such undeniable verve by the “customer’s” words that you can’t help but be moved by the dreams and hopes of these invisible American citizens.

—David Greenberger

Box Sets

I can’t be a one-man New York Times and review 30-plus box sets, but I can recommend select music boxes, a killer DVD and a very cool reissue (with built-in obsolescence).

The biggest box of the year, pound for pound and dollar for dollar, is Bob Dylan Revisited: The Remasters, a $250 (that’s list price) Columbia offering that assembles, upgrades and subtly modifies the packaging of 15 Dylan albums in a hefty, essential box. Not all disks are crucial; Infidels, Street-Legal and Nashville Skyline don’t ring my bells like the mid-’60s trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Still, the sound is a revelation, particularly in the rhythm section. I can’t wait to put together a fresh stereo system so I can hear the 5.1 surround mixes of three of these: Blonde, Slow Train Coming and Love and Theft. Is this worth it? Try to get it at discount, for sure. But overall, Dylan has never sounded better, and albums that once sounded murky assume a different cast here.

Like the Dylan box, Cash Unearthed is essential. It puts together 64 previously unreleased outtakes from Cash’s tenure with American Recordings, the label run by Beastie Boys guru Rick Rubin, along with a 15-track compilation of the official Cash American Recordings. It’s beautiful and somber and magisterial, and the music is paradigmatic Americana, particularly the CD of hymns Cash learned from his mother. It lists for $75, but I got it for $52.99 at Best Buy.

The prettiest box of the year is Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime, a three-disk, one-DVD collection of the smartest band of the ’80s. The packaging is erotic, playful and cerebral, like the band themselves, and the presentation boasts by far the most imaginative artistry of the year. Leave it to the Heads to enlist pretentious novelist Rick Moody for an essay, as well as ubiquitous Rolling Stone oracle David Fricke. The music, complete with the requisite previously unreleased tracks, is as provocative as it ever was—and the packaging matches it gorgeously. Hats off to Rhino for investing in something so idiosyncratic and disarming (and hard to shelve). Amazon has it for $47.99; check out Best Buy, too.

More new wave comes your way in proper archivist fashion in the Buzzcocks’ Inventory, a minibox featuring replicas of 14 45-rpm picture sleeves memorializing the band’s singles. Nothing extra here; no text, either, and precious little information. But it’s a cool package. The “singles” are as difficult to handle as the originals, and just as attractive. The Capitol box should sell for about $50.

Another Capitol package is a guilty pleasure: Duran Duran’s The Singles 81-85. This puts together all their singles, remixes and all, in nifty sleeves with “hidden” messages guiding you to computer links that let you in even deeper into the timelessly mediagenic Duran World.

On the jazz tip, check out the Mosaic Select line from limited-edition jazz audiophile label Mosaic. These three-CD boxes sell for around $40. The first six span underrated genius trombonist Grachan Moncur (Jackie McLean’s best collaborator) and underrated genius pianist Randy Weston. I’ve been listening to the Carmell Jones Select, memorializing a great West Coast trumpeter whose forays with tenor saxophonist Harold Land on Pacific Records breathed lilt and breeziness into bebop. These will be commercially available after Mosaic sells out of their first pressings (Check out www.mosaicrecords.com. Call 203-327-7111 or write to: Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford CT 06902.)

On the DVD tip, don’t miss the Led Zeppelin DVD Atlantic released early this year as a companion to Zep’s How the West Was Won, a great, live double CD. Not only does the DVD serve up an amazing 1970 Albert Hall concert, it features promos, a weird Danish radio performance and other remarkable ‘70s footage. I wish I’d seen Zep; performances by Page and Plant, and a better one by Plant himself, didn’t measure up.

Finally, a weird one-off: Code Blue, a Rhino Handmade available only online. Code Blue, a power trio headed by ex-Motel Dean Chamberlain, made one album, in 1980, for Warner Bros. The vinyl came wrapped in blue cellophane and was damn good, particularly “Whisper/Touch,” “Face to Face” and “Paint by Numbers.” Boutique Internet label Handmade has reissued the original album, along with 12 bonus tracks including live cuts and remixes. Except for the occasional excursion into reggae, Code Blue hasn’t dated. This is definitive, super-cool new-wave cool. (Only 2,500 copies are available. Click onto www.rhinohandmade.com and order one at $19.98; it’s worth it.)

—Carlo Wolff

Folk/Blues/Bluegrass/Celtic

Scratching your head trying to think of CDs for a folk, blues, bluegrass, or Celtic music fan? Relax—a recent trawl through some local record bins has netted a copious catch of fine new releases to tell you about, all in the St. Nick of time for your holiday shopping.

Because the earliest mention of a Delta bluesman dates from 1903, when W. C. Handy met an unidentified slide guitarist in Tutwiler, Miss., 2003 has been designated the Year of the Blues by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation. Martin Scorsese’s 7-installment PBS-TV series The Blues—A Musical Journey capped the YOTB commemoration, and Hippo has put out a killer 5-CD set, Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues—A Musical Journey (Hippo) as a companion to the series. Its 121 tracks chronicle the history of the genre from the first-ever recorded blues, Mamie Smith’s 1920 Crazy Blues, right up through contemporary greats Bonnie Raitt, Keb Mo, and others. Virtually the entire pantheon of blues immortals is represented on this landmark compilation: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, B.B. King, etc. The liner notes by scholar Larry Hoffman detail a brief history of the blues, and are a valuable bonus to the set.

Also blues-noteworthy is Rory Block’s latest release, Last Fair Deal (Telarc). In addition to the traditional acoustic blues she is known for, the Chatham chanteuse offers original songs in the prewar blues style. In these 14 tracks her guitar work is polished and her vocals are on the money as she takes you down home.

Humorously titled as a nod to the various operatic tenor trios, The Three Pickers (Rounder) brings together bluegrass icons Doc Watson (guitar), Earl Scruggs (banjo), and Ricky Skaggs (mandolin) and their respective bands in a 25-track North Carolina concert PBS filmed for its Great Performances series. The three perform as a trio, where they are joined by fiddler Alison Krause for three numbers, and then take turns heading up their bands for an evening of bluegrass standards, fiddle tunes, and old-time Appalachian songs.

Tony Rice—The Bluegrass Guitar Collection (Rounder) is a perfect choice for a six-string aficionado. In this anthology of 21 instrumentals that Rice has recorded with various outfits over his 30-year career, the North Carolina flatpicking champ is joined by a veritable who’s who of bluegrass heavyweights including David Grisman, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Norman Blake, Vassar Clemens, Bela Fleck, and brothers Wyatt and Larry. The music ranges from traditional fiddle tunes like Soldier’s Joy and Stoney Point to newfangled jazzgrass compositions. To boot, Rice owns one of the best-sounding vintage flattops in the world, a 1935 Martin D-28 formerly played by bluegrass guitar trailblazer Clarence White, and the combination of the tone of the instrument and Rice’s virtuosity is dazzling.

The more popular Celtic music gets, the harder it is to find the traditional kind. That’s why The Road Less Traveled (Shanachie) by Danu, a crack Irish band based in County Waterford who take their name from the ancient Celtic earth goddess, is such a treat. The septet consists of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh on vocals, Donchad Gough on Uilleann pipes and bodran, Tom Dorley on flute and whistle, his brother Eammon Dorley on bouzouki, Benny McCarthy on accordion and melodeon, Oisin McAuley on fiddle, and Donal Clancy on guitar. Split between vivacious dance tunes and Amhlaoibh’s alto singing, these 12 tracks are a purist’s delight.

In the wake of huge success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack CD, Irish supergroup the Chieftans recently went to Nashville and blended their traditional stylings with bluegrass and country artists there in a crossover album. Cape Breton fiddle whiz Natalie MacMaster has done much the same with her latest release, the 13-track Blueprint (Rounder). Joined by bluegrassers Alison Brown, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, she mingles the music of both sides of the pond with gratifying results. Here you’ll find old Cape Breton tunes like “Devil and the Dirk” and “The Ewe With the Crooked Horn” alongside not-so-traditional melodic outings such as “Appropriate Dipstick” and “Bela’s Tune.”

“Without Lonnie Donnegan, there wouldn’t have been a British music scene at all,” declared Van Morrison. This year we lost the founder of British skiffle, who, by playing American folk songs on an acoustic guitar and having the audacity to add a bass and drums, inspired the young John Lennon and Paul McCartney to form the Quarrymen and later set the world afire. The 25 tracks of Puttin’ On the Style (Sanctuary) cover the period from 1956, when his single “Rock Island Line” outsold Elvis in England, to 1962. On the day Lennon and McCartney first met, Paul sang the title song to John, and when you listen to Donnegan’s tenor singing you can immediately hear the influence it had on Lennon’s vocals. This is a must have for the folk fan and a worthy tribute to a musical pioneer.

At the Corner of Bleecker and Blues (Rykodisc) is a creatively conceived album that revisits the heyday of the Greenwich Village folk scene during the 1950s and ’60s, when you could drop into venues like the Gaslight or Gerde’s Folk City and catch white urban folksingers or rediscovered blues artists from down South. The 16 tracks of this collection feature famous singers like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly (whose “Where Did You Stay Last Night,” included here, was covered by Nirvana), and Ramblin’ Jack Eliot as well as lesser-known performers such as Barbara Dane and the Kossoy Sisters.

—Glenn Weiser

Classical

Many of my favorite CDs of the year feature unusual takes on familiar music. In the case of the Casals Festivals at Prades (Music & Arts), these are unusually romantic takes on standard-repertory pieces, a compelling antidote to the rigors left in the historically informed performance wake. Recorded from 1953-60 during an annual summer music festival, this budget-priced 13-disc set features the septuagenarian cellist and conductor Pablo Casals in concert with friends old and new. Youngsters like pianist William Kapell and violinist Yehudi Menuhin perform alongside such venerable stars as pianist Alfred Cortot (who’d pretty much lost it by then), in repertory heavy on Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Brahms.

Casals paved the way for the cello’s solo instrument status, and long before that instrument’s glamour sank into the morass of Yo-Yo Ma’s soulless playing, Leonard Rose was a keeper of the flame. Matt Haimovitz, one of Rose’s most celebrated students, is joined by pianist Itamar Golan in The Rose Album (Oxingale), a glorious program featuring Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata along with works by Chopin, Schumann, Popper and contemporary composer Robert Stern, all of them richly brought to life by dynamic artists.

Violinist-conductor Andrew Manze takes the historically informed approach to wonderfully ear-pleasing places, as his recording of Corelli: Violin Sonatas, Op. 5 (Harmonia Mundi) demonstrates. With harpsichordist Richard Egarr, he breathes new life into these significant works. And don’t overlook Manze’s more recent Night Music (Harmonia Mundi), a Mozart collection with the English Concert that gives Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and A Musical Joke more vibrant readings than they’ve had in years.

Another violinist always worth listening to is Hilary Hahn, whose recent collaboration with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (Jeffrey Kahane conducting) produced a set of four Bach Concertos (DG). This is fiery, hell-bent-for-leather fiddling, finding the passionate heart of the music and reminding us how much fun these pieces can be. For unconventional fiddling, Gidon Kremer can be trusted to lead us to strange places. With his string ensemble Kremerata Baltica, he recorded Leonid Desyatnikov’s The Russian Seasons (Nonesuch), a work played by the same group a couple of years ago at Union College. Scored for the same forces as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the work adds a soprano (Julia Korpacheva) for the texts (and tunes) drawn from Russian folksong sources. Rounding out the disc is Alexander Raskatov’s orchestral reworking of Tchaikovsky’s Seasons for solo piano.

Nonesuch also gave us a recent trio of Kronos Quartet CDs, each disc comprising a single work running about half an hour—too much to combine on one disc, and too awkward to spread across two. It’s best this way, though, because each of these works deserves to be heard alone. Harry Partch’s USA Highball is a 1943 account of Partch’s hobo journey from California to Chicago. Originally scored for voice and a guitar adapted to produce the microtonal pitches Partch required, it was arranged for voice and string quartet by Ben Johnston. The idiomatic vocal line, with much pitch-specific speaking, is ably performed by David Barron.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw is soloist in Berg’s Lyric Suite, a heartwrenching tribute to the married Berg’s infatuation with another woman. Written in 1926, it is filled with hidden mementos to his beloved, and the final movement, a setting of a Baudelaire text, is given a vocal interpretation the composer himself suppressed. Latvian composer Pteris Vasks wrote his String Quartet No. 4 in 1999 on a commission for the Kronos Quartet; the third CD is a brilliant performance of this wrenching, five-movement work

Frederic Rzewski’s Which Side Are You On? (Cantaloupe) sets the coal miner’s lament for solo piano as one of four North American Ballads; they fill out a CD performed by pianist Lisa Moore (from the Bang on a Can ensemble) of Rzewski’s work, the central work being his 1992 realization of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, in which the pianist is called upon to give voice to the text and provide a variety of percussive effects. It’s a tour de force, and Moore proves more than capable.

In a romantic vein, Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony and Piano Concerto in C-Sharp Minor are two splendid examples of one of this country’s better talents. The symphony, with quotes from four Irish tunes, was a response to Dvorák ’s New World symphony, but celebrating Beach’s own heritage. Although a Germanic, large-scale lushness threatens to overtake these pieces, they’re important (and tuneful!) parts of our musical heritage, here performed by the Nashville Symphony under Kenneth Schermerhorn, with pianist Alan Feinberg.

Enrique Granados, born the same year as Beach, celebrated his native Spain with idiomatic works, three of which are captured stunningly in a farewell CD by pianist Alicia de Larrocha—recorded almost a decade ago and finally released. Granados’ Escenas románticas is of six contrasting movements, and seems to escape the rhythms of Spain more than the other two works presented here: Bocetos and Cuentos de la juventud.

Each new generation of software gives audio engineers spiffier tools for restoring historic recordings, but you need good sources. We’re in danger of seeing the same things endlessly reprocessed. How nice, then, that RCA could pluck from its vaults the Sept. 24, 1955, Carnegie Hall recital by Jussi Bjöerling, a portion of which was previously available only on LP. Bjöerling ReDiscovered gives us the complete concert (minus some applause) complete with a selection of Scandinavian songs (lots of Sibelius and Grieg) as well as warhorse arias by Bizet, Puccini and Massenet and lieder by Schubert, Strauss, Beethoven and others. It may not be prime Bjöerling, but the vigor and beauty of his voice are undimmed.

Finally, here’s your number-one holiday gift: Red Priest’s Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Dorian). Not just another Four Seasons, but the most outrageously wonderful version since Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s, hewing so imaginatively to Vivaldi’s verse that you’ll swear you hear the barking dogs and bagpipes and all the other effects the music summons. Recorder virtuoso Piers Adams plays most of the solo violin lines in an impossible-to-believe show of skill, and just wait for the surprise vacation you get in the middle of winter. Corelli’s Christmas Concerto rounds out the recording.

—B.A. Nilsson

Holiday Music

You may be wondering why holiday CDs would make good gifts. Well, that’s an easy one: so your near and dear ones can listen to something other than the same Harry Connick Jr. album during their holiday meal.

The folks that brought you Maybe This Christmas last year are back with Maybe This Christmas Too? (Nettwerk America). It’s an enjoyably weird mix of left-of-the-dial artists (like Rufus Wainwright and Badly Drawn Boy), with a few chart heavyweights (notably Dave Matthews and Avril Lavigne) thrown in for good measure. The tone is all over the place, ranging from gloomy to peppy. While Rilo Kiley’s “Xmas Cake” and Lisa Hannigan’s “Silent Night” are perfect for the slit-your-wrists-on-Christmas set, Guster’s “Donde Esta Santa Claus?” and Barenaked Ladies’ “Green Christmas” are as jolly as the fat old elf himself. Ultimately, the album’s worth buying just for the Flaming Lips’ indescribably weird “White Christmas.”

For something considerably more mainstream, there is American Idol: The Great Holiday Classics (RCA). All your contest favorites—Clay and Ruben, Tamyra, Justin and Kelly—sing all your holiday favorites. The only thing missing is Simon; it would have been a nice touch if he had contributed a monologue as Santa, in which St. Nick berates the elves for being talentless and lazy.

There’s a new release in almost every genre. Country fans may enjoy Kenny Chesney’s All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan (BNA). Aside from the comic novelty of the title tune, Chesney delivers a standard mix of religious carols and pop favorites (and the one Christmas standard from the genre, Willie Nelson’s great “Pretty Paper”). For older country fans, there’s Andy Griffith’s The Christmas Guest (Sparrow). Griffith tells holiday stories (fine) and sings carols (considerably less than fine). Gospel superstar BeBe Winans offers My Christmas Prayer (Sony). Windham Hill superstar Jim Brickman wants you to experience Peace (Windham Hill). Finally, pop-soul diva Whitney Houston just wants you to stop obsessing over her troubled personal life and get into the Christmas spirit with One Wish: The Holiday Album (Arista). No, Houston can’t hit those soaring high notes anymore, but she can still sing; for the Whitney completist, the disc includes the song “Who Would Imagine a King” from her not-so-recent film The Preacher’s Wife.

Know someone into pop tarts? Hilary Duff, who muscled out Snow White, the Little Mermaid and Pocahontas to reign as the undisputed queen of the Disney empire, takes listeners down Santa Claus Lane (Buena Vista). Selections include “When the Snow Comes Down in Tinseltown.” (I wonder if this is sly allusion to the old saying “when hell freezes over?” Probably not.) Then there’s the sweetheart of Murder Inc., Ashanti, who lets us share Ashanti’s Christmas (Def Jam). This would probably be a more enjoyable experience if she refrained from singing.

For the geezer-rock fans on your list, two new discs stand out. The Moody Blues, apparently trying to avoid being holiday-specific, have given us December (Polydor). It’s a mix of standards old (John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas”) and older (“White Christmas”), along with some gloomy, classical-inspired, vaguely medieval music of the kind only the Moody Blues can deliver. Ian Anderson—unapologetic agnostic and outspoken foe of organized religion—offers up The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (Varese). It’s half instrumental, and includes a mix of traditional carols and new songs; Anderson pairs a remake of his “A Christmas Song” with its equally caustic new sequel, “Another Christmas Song.” Anderson’s voice may be frayed, but the music sounds great.

Among the usual avalanche of reissues and repackages, we have Sony to thank for the best and worse. The former would be Johnny Mathis’ 1958 classic Merry Christmas (Columbia Legacy), which has been reissued with a couple of bonus tracks. This album has the bizarre yet fascinating quality of a bug sealed in amber. For one thing, there’s his space-alien crooner voice at its most perfect. For another, there’s his weird phrasing: The way Mathis enunciates “pumpkin pie” in “Sleigh Ride” ranks with Dennis Hopper’s multisyllable mutilation of the word “fucker” in the film Blue Velvet as among the weirdest pronunciations of the last half-century. Then there’s Mitch Miller’s exquisitely kitschy production, carefully crafted down to the last syrupy violin. Buy it for everyone. The worst, however, without any competition, is Elmo & Patsy’s Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer (Epic Legacy). Anyone who would want this novelty relic of the late ’70s shouldn’t really be on your gift list anyway.

—Shawn Stone

Games
This year’s new releases provide solid brain workouts, and the occasional giggle

Repeat after me: Marcel-André Casasola Merkle.

This name isn’t just the most entertaining Franco-Italo-German name you’ll ever get to pronounce. It’s the name of the man who’s responsible for two of the best games of 2003—which, amazingly, are not even remotely similar.

Attika (Rio Grande, 2-4 players, $30), so hot off the presses you can still smell the shrinkwrap, is an ingenious, addictive and really sharp- looking civilization-building game set in ancient Greece. Using the resources sparsely distributed around the island, players try to be the first to place all 30 buildings or to create a continuous chain of buildings linking two of the temples situated at the far corners of the island. Certain buildings allow you to place certain other buildings for free, but watch out: Your opponents will be trying to take away your opportunities to do so. It rewards brains, but it’s not a brain-burner, like some strategy games. Just the opposite: It moves so briskly that you’ll want to play grudge match after grudge match.

Meanwhile, Attribute (Lookout, 3-8 players, $10) is something you don’t come across too often: a beautifully brainless word game. It’s similar in concept to Apples to Apples, the best party game of the ‘90s (still available, by the way, with several expansion card sets), and it generates the same slap-happy atmosphere. Each player holds a hand of cards printed with adjectives. At the start of each turn, one player picks a “theme”—a person, place or thing. Meanwhile, everyone draws sheep tokens (yes, sheep) telling them how to play their cards that turn. If a player draws a white sheep, he must play, face down, an adjective card that fits the theme. If he draws a black sheep, he has to play against the theme. Finally, on a signal, all the players turn their cards over and slap their hands on other people’s cards. If you pick a white-sheep player’s card, you and he both get points. If you pick a black-sheep player’s card, you both lose points. “What were you thinking?” is a loud and frequent refrain.

Did someone on your list love Clue when she was a kid? Now that she’s an adult, she’ll enjoy Mystery of the Abbey by Bruno Faidutti (Days of Wonder, 3-6 players, $45). Someone has killed Brother Adelmo, and it’s up to you and your fellow friars to root out the culprit. Gather your witnesses’ statements—was the killer fat or thin, hooded or bareheaded, bearded or shaven? Interview your colleagues for data that will help you deduce the murderer’s identity, but be aware that while you’re busy doing that, the other players may be snooping around in your cell for clues. Oh, and everyone’s investigation gets put on hold when it’s time for Mass.

For people who don’t like their quiet contemplation disturbed by murderous monks, Looney Labs offers Zendo (3-6 players, $40). One player assumes the role of master; the rest are his students. The master draws a rule from the card deck, then assembles colorful plastic pyramids into arrangements called koans (after the riddle-parables of Zen Buddhism). Koans that fit the rule are said to have “Buddha-nature” and are marked with white stones; koans that don’t fit the rule lack Buddha-nature and are marked with black stones. The students then put together their own koans and try to guess whether they have Buddha-nature or not. The student who discovers the Buddha-nature rule becomes the new master. Incidentally, the plastic pyramids included in Zendo, called “Icehouse” pieces, can be used to play a variety of other games as well; rules are available at www.wunderland.com/icehouse. (I have it on good authority that those pyramids are really difficult to manufacture, which explains Zendo’s price tag.)

Speaking of pyramids . . . readers of previous years’ gift guides will be familiar with Reiner Knizia, the Energizer Bunny of the German game-design industry. This year he presents us with Amun-Re (Rio Grande, 3-5 players, $35), a meaty strategy game set on the banks of the Nile. Playing rival lords in ancient Egypt, players compete to expand their landholdings and build glorious temples and tombs. The catch is, you’ve got to have wealth to earn wealth, and your early decisions will ripple through the entire game. To win, you’ll have to manage your resources carefully, first bootstrapping your way into sustainability, then expanding enough to generate a surplus you can build with, being careful not to overextend yourself. It also doesn’t hurt to get in good with the sun god (by, you guessed it, sacrificing some of your wealth).

Finally, for a really fast-moving strategy game, there’s Paris Paris (Rio Grande, 2-4 players, $25) by Michael Schacht, author of another quick-playing strategy gem, Web of Power. Five tour-bus routes crisscross the city of Paris, and the players are businesspeople trying to get a piece of the action, setting up their establishments near famous landmarks and waiting for the tourists to roll by. Naturellement, competition is fierce for the choicest spots, and a competitor might just muscle you out. On top of that, every player holds a secret interest in one of the tour lines and can make a killing if, at the end of the game, he’s got his buses going past enough of his storefronts. Once you get the hang of shuffling the pieces, you can play a full game of this in just 20 minutes—but you won’t want to play just once. Paris Paris hasn’t been nicknamed la Pipe de Craque for nothing.

—Keith Ammann

Books
What are words for? Giving, of course

Literature and Biography

When it comes to finding a book for the adventurous readers of fiction in your family, you can’t beat Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff. Since two of the major characters have multiple personalities, you get fascinating complications of plot, an unexpected and rich humor, and one of the most extraordinary road trips you’ll ever read—assuming that you borrow the book back to enjoy it yourself. For your older relatives who yearn for an old-fashioned depth of character and the elegance of language, you can’t do better than Shirley Hazzard’s magisterial The Great Fire, a novel about the vast losses of war and the potential grace of love. Hazzard is a witty writer whose social observations are as acute as Jane Austen’s, and the novel contains more interesting individuals than books three times as long. The central characters are fascinating, and the relationship between Helen and her brother Ben is one of the most moving in literature. This is a novel for mature readers, people familiar with suffering, evil and loss, who have moved beyond cynicism or despair and have not abandoned hope.

This season has an abundance of good books for those who prefer to read about actual people rather than fictional characters. And you get two lives instead of one in the Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle by Lois W. Banner. It’s difficult to say whether this is an intricate biography of two famous anthropologists who happen to be bisexual and happen to have had a love affair, or whether it’s a social and cultural history of sexual attitudes and experiments which just happens to focus on two very interesting women. In any case, this is certainly the gift for that friend who likes to make observations about the way we live and who relishes intellectual gossip. Beware, it’s a long book and your friend is likely to be talking to you about it for days. To those readers who like sexy gossip and can do without so much intellectual paraphernalia, you can give Grande Horizontales by Virginia Rounding. Yes, it’s about Parisian courtesans. The author has chosen to write on four of these horizontales: Marie Duplessis, Cora Pearl, La Paiva and La Présidente. You may have heard rumors about one of these women: Marie Duplessis’ life was converted to fiction by one of her former lovers, Alexandre Dumas, the younger, when he wrote La Dame aux camélias, the novel which made him famous; and later, Giuseppe Verdi turned her story into the gorgeous La Traviata. As for the real Marie, she died of TB at 23.

For the engineer who thinks novels are a waste of time and who hasn’t much interest in people anyway, there are numerous accessible books about science, and some of them may stimulate his interest in personality as well. Jack Repcheck has written The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth’s Antiquity.

Here’s the true story of the almost forgotten Scotsman who proved that the Earth is millions of years old and not the mere 6,000 calculated by biblical scholars. Hutton was a figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, but his name is far less known than those of his kinsmen David Hume, Adam Smith, or James Watt, and this book is also the story of those remarkable times. If your engineer friend is a bit of a loner and, let’s face it, somewhat crabby, then your gift should certainly be James Gleick’s Isaac Newton. Gleick’s little biography is more than a chronicle of Newton’s life and thought, it’s also a character study of the man, and he surely was a crabby man. This biography deftly sketches not only the life but the secretive and at times downright odd mental pursuits of the man, as well as the intellectual currents in which he lived.

Many fine books have appeared recently about the country’s founders, for in these suddenly dimmed years, commandeered by a sly and intellectually weak president, by arrogant Republicans and craven Democrats, we long for those giants of the past. So, for that politically active and now somewhat embittered friend I recommend Gore Vidal’s Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. Vidal, always an acerbic wit, has fortunately not mellowed in his old age, and this work is delightfully sharp, pungent, acid. It’s rather short, especially considering the ground it covers, but deft and to the point. I confess I’ve always found Ben Franklin more interesting than any other figure of his time. Washington, Jefferson, Adams—they had the privilege of class and education. But Ben Franklin was a self-made man who earned each of his pennies and educated himself by reading and by getting together with his friends—workmen like himself—to discuss and debate issues. He, developed a successful business, performed scientific experiments, invented things, helped compose the Declaration of Independence; during the Revolution he secured help from France—and without that help we would have lost—and he took part in the Constitutional Convention. Walter Isaacson has it all in readable style in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.

—Gene Mirabelli

Art

In an attempt to overthrow—or at least challenge—the traditional holiday art triumvirate of Norman Rockwell, Currier & Ives and Shoebox Greetings, we suggest loading up the space under the tannenbaum with fine-arts themed books. They’re awful purty, they’ll make even the most cretinous slob of a relative appear cultured (and provide you with reading material when stuck in their rec rooms downing eggnog and Rice Krispie squares), and, well, honestly, we’re hoping that you take this as a hint when purchasing gifts for you favorite alternative-media journalist.

You can always begin by combing the bargain bins at the bookstores: A quick perusal reveals coffee-table books with full-color plates of the big-shots and dorm-room faves—on a recent binge we found Klimt, DaVinci, Dali and Escher—and all on the cheap. But if you’re looking for something a little less obvious and you’ve got a little more disposable green (or if you really, really love that firebrand of a scribe), we’ll suggest a handful of thought-provoking pairings.

How about A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol (Phaidon, $39.95) coupled with one or more of the All-American Ads (Taschen, $39.99) series? The former is a chronicle, in photographs, of the hip and hectic doings of the pop-art demigod during 1964-65. See Andy stand, wan and deadpan, next to Mick Jagger, Phillip Johnson and Salvador Dali in a variety of party settings you couldn’t have gotten into for money; the latter, a collection of print-advertisement reproductions grouped by decade, from the 1920s to the 1970s. The ads, as Warhol knew, stood as potent artworks in themselves, but there’s a sociological value to the books as well—if you can tell a man by his vices, what might be revealed by charting the evolution of a nation’s consumerist yearnings?

Those interested in the nation’s less-highbrow preoccupations might also get a kick out of The National Enquirer: Thirty Years of Unforgettable Images (Miramax, $45). From the famous—and campaign-sinking—snapshot of Gary Hart and Donna Rice engaged in “monkey business,” to Willie Nelson unwinding with one of his treasured “handrolled, herbal cigarettes” to a rogue’s gallery of naked and/or recently busted celebs, the photography in this collection is sure to elicit a response. (As documented in more than one photo, the attempts to capture these images certainly did—remember, to be a successful paparazzo, you’ve gotta be faster than Charlie Sheen.) Offset this well- established and sometimes unseemly market in photos with a lesser-known and only occasionally unseemly variant: 25 Under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers (powerHouse, $24.95) gives you just what it promises to, and the results are revealing in an altogether different way than the aforementioned tome. As quoted in the preface, Susan Sontag has said, “To photograph is to confer importance . . .” This collection is compelling not only for the compositional skills on display, but for its insight on to what the young artists find worthy of documenting. (Charlie Sheen is entirely unrepresented here.)

Still in the Worthy of Documentation category, there are number of books available this season commemorating the architecture of the New York City skyline in some way: One of the most interesting, Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City (Doubleday, $26), examines what could be called the personal dialectic (or trialectic) underlying that skyline. In 1924, two architects—former friends and business partners—each set out to construct the tallest building in Manhattan. The competition between them was fierce, and was only furthered when former governor Al Smith joined the fray. It’s artistry, ego, ambition and Empire State all over. An even more fantastic foray into the architectural world can be found in A. G. Rizzoli: Architect of Magnificent Visions (Harry N. Abrams, $17.50), which tells the tale of visionary artist Achilles Rizzoli, a mid-20th-century draftsman employed in an architectural firm. Rizzoli’s private, obsessive-compulsive renderings of utopian cities are staggering in their complexity and passion. His plans were symbolic representations of the people in his life (his fortresslike mother, for example); his island complex, named Yield to Total Elation, a highly personal paradise.

If outsider architects are too far afield, try a new look at an unquestioned superstar. Van Gogh is often spoken of as if he landed on this planet; the force of his dedication invoked in almost biblical terms. However, the artist wasn’t formed in a vacuum, and Van Gogh’s Imaginary Museum: Exploring the Artist’s Inner World (Harry N. Abrams, $49.95) investigates the inspirations and influences that informed Van Gogh’s approach and worldview—from the painters Hals to Hiroshige, from Dickens to Zola, from the writings of the radical anticleric Michelet to the nautical romances of hack writer Loti. Van Gogh was involved in a conversation, however obscure; this is the transcription. And, because you can’t tell the players without a program, here are the Cliff’s Notes: The Mini Art Book (Phaidon, $9.95), which gives you examples of the work of more than 500 painters and sculptors, from antiquity to yesterday, in a handy 5-by-6.5-inch primer.

And, finally, because we’re both broad-minded and still a little juvenile, the funny books: The Boondocks Treasury: a Right to Be Hostile (Three Rivers Press, $16.95) offers up a compendium of our favorite cartoon team, “radical scholar” Huey Freeman and his little brother, “hardcore knucklehead” Riley. Race relations, social theory, political fire—this is funny shit, yo. On a less overtly politicized front, check Mutts: the Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell (Harry N. Abrams, $45), it’s Krazy Kat meets the Buddha. Any comic strip that can pull plaudits from Art Spiegelman, Jules Pfeiffer and Alice Sebold is doing something right.

—John Rodat

Music

Try reading about the visual arts while you’re taking in works at a gallery and you’re liable to trip over a sculpture. Read about dance, movies, or theater while those temporal arts are rolling themselves out and you’ll miss the show. Music, on the other hand, allows itself to be placed in a variety of settings ranging from foreground to background. Somewhere on that scale it’s quite easy to read about music while it whistles its happy tune.

Since books are an adjunct, elucidating and following the music, most of what is covered tends to focus on already known quantities. From thriving artists to faded stars, trends and genres to instruments and equipment, it’s all in a book, or will be soon.

For the first time in its long and colorful life, there is now a book devoted exclusively to yodeling. Subtitled The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, Bart Plantenga’s Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo (Routledge, $19.95) follows this Swiss mountain tradition into the wide range of genres it has come to inhabit. The butt of many jokes on several continents, it has outlived many a trend already and will no doubt survive all that may follow (after the nuclear catastrophe it’ll be just the cockroaches and yodeling left to inherit the Earth).

The past several decades of rock music are examined in contrasting voices in a pair of new books. With its need to cover everything from fusion to punk and singer-songwriters to disco, Frank Moriarty’s Seventies Rock: The Decade of Creative Chaos (Taylor Trade, $18) prattles on like a child breathlessly recounting a movie he saw, while hopping about needing to get to the bathroom. Milk It! (DaCapo, $17.95) collects a dozen years’ worth of writing by Jim DeRogatis, who fearlessly skewers or praises, depending on what is deserved. He’s at his juiciest when recounting his disastrous tenure with Rolling Stone, as well as when he lays into star-kissing New York Times scribe Neil Strauss.

Bruce Springsteen finds his shelf expanded with a new work and a new edition (not unlike what occurs with the release of a greatest hits set or this year’s Essential Springsteen). Dave Marsh’s Two Hearts (Routledge, $24.95) combines his two earlier bios, Born to Run and its follow-up, Glory Days, into one 30-plus year history of his career. A rather unexpected appearance is Robert Coles’ Bruce Springsteen’s America (Random House, $23.95), subtitled The People Listening, A Poet Singing. The child psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Children of Crisis celebrates the ways in which popular culture connects people to one another.

Jimi Hendrix, who already has been poked and examined from nearly every conceivable angle (including being bioed in a glossy hardcover comic book), is the subject of two new large-format books. Voodoo Child (Thunder’s Mouth Press, $23.95) is David Stubbs’ entry into the ever-growing field of “the stories behind every song” publications. Sometimes they’re not really stories, so much as accountings of their genesis in the recording studio, but what the heck, there’s full color on every page. Jimi Hendrix—Musician by Keith Shadwick (Backbeat Books, $39.95) also boasts plenty of color, but benefits from superior design and the comprehensive depth of the fully articulated text.

The Rolling Stones’ self-serving coffee-table book is being well- covered everywhere else, so I’d direct attention to a couple other entries. The Rolling Stones Off the Record by Mark Paytress (Omnibus Press, $29.95) creates a historical portrait of the band by drawing upon diverse and far-flung interviews and articles. (The same publisher previously did a couple volumes on The Beatles.) Love You Live, Rolling Stones (Fanfare, $35) takes their story and puts it in the hands of the fans. Compiled by Marilou Regan, it’s a beautifully designed book focusing on the Stones as a performing entity and contains remembrances, anecdotes, artwork and photos by fans from around the globe.

Writing a biography of the notoriously private and cantankerous Van Morrison requires an incredible force of will, something Clinton Heylin has mustered to bring forth Can You Feel the Silence (Chicago Review Press, $28). He made up for the absence of any direct contact with Van (not counting the litigious volleys aimed at the author by Morrison’s representatives) with hefty research and hundreds of interviews. Furthermore, his critical assessment of the man’s work makes the climbs to the peaks and the descents into the valleys all the more dramatic.

Ten years ago, Richard Smith curated the exhibition Five Decades of Fender for the Fullerton Museum in California. It was also assembled into a lavish book that is now available in paperback. Fender: The Sound Heard ‘Round the World (Hal Leonard, $29.95) moves from Leo Fender’s boyhood fascination with electronics to the dawning and flourishing of rock & roll. Rich with patent drawings, early advertisements, and a plethora of photographs showing every line they made. American Blues Guitar: An Illustrated History (Hal Leonard, $27.95) by Rick Batey moves chronologically, from acoustic and resonator guitars to the dawning and flourishing of the full range of electric models. Most instruments include thumbnail descriptions of their more well-known players (such as Jimmy Reed and his various Kays, Albert King and the Gibson Flying V, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and his Stratocaster).

Newly published in its fourth edition, The Harvard Dictionary of Music (Harvard University Press, $39.95) contains some of the finest descriptions of everything from the note A to the genre Zydeco. Originally focused largely on European classical traditions, it has grown to encompass a range of music from around the world. You’ll now even find carefully measured descriptions for hiphop, rap, funk (listed, accurately, as “Funk(y)”), turntablism and music video.

For the stocking stuffer or Secret Santa end of the buying spectrum, there’s the impressive new 33 1/3 series from Continuum Books. Priced at $9.95 each, every volume is devoted to a particular album. Rather than charting the making of each work (generally covered elsewhere already), they offer extended essays that examine, depending on the predilection of the author, everything from the surrounding cultural context to the ethereal nature of emotional ties to musical creations. The six published thus far cover Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis (written by former Del Fuego and current Ph.D. Warren Zanes), Love’s Forever Changes, Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, Neil Young’s Harvest, and The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder (by Pernice Brothers frontman Joe Pernice).

—David Greenberger

Politics

Well, it’s been a busy year politically speaking, what with the occupation and all, and the shelves are flooded with a plethora of books—some criticizing, others praising—our military intervention in Iraq. There are far too many titles to list here. Just know that in your attempts to silence politically polar friends or family members, ammo can be found at the local book house.

For those conditioning a young cosmopolitan, or for those playing catch-up, there’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Politics of Oil (Alpha, $18.95). On top of a healthy serving of neat little tidbits (“Drill Bits” in this books) and factoids (“Petro-Facts”), this Idiot’s Guide lays out mankind’s addiction to the viscous black sauce, and how the relationship between our nation’s dependence on Texas Tea determines U.S. energy, environmental and security policies.

A more broad-based look at life in the United States and how it has changed over the past two years is laid out by George Soros in his book The Bubble of American Supremacy (BBS, $24.95). Soros, an international investment fund manager and global philanthropist, compares the Bush administration’s pursuit of U.S. supremacy—through strong-market capitalism and the rule of law and order backed by our moral authority—to a stock market’s boom-bust phenomenon. Soros goes beyond mere Bush-bashing to lay out his vision for the country: one built on fair trade and multilateral decision making.

For those of you who can’t get enough Bush-bashing, there’s always Molly Ivins’ and Lou Dubose’s Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America (Random House, $24.95) or the I Hate Republicans Reader: Why the GOP Is Totally Wrong About Everything (Thunder’s Mouth Press, $14.95). In their second book on a familiar subject, Ivins and Dubose lay out what will be the president’s legacy—his horrendous tax cuts, shoddy environmental record and bully-like foreign policy. The authors go to great lengths to show how Bush’s decisions have affected average Americans, as in the Doug Jones average, not the Dow Jones average. The I Hate Republicans Reader was compiled for all who believe that the GOP is full of “insufferable stinkers” or merely that they are “small-minded, selfish, arrogant, power-mad, murderous little twits and nerds.” This collection of essays and excerpts from I.F. Stone, Hunter S. Thompson, Barbara Ehrenreich and Eric Schlosser covers decades of grand old party gaffes.

In The Blood Bankers (Four Wall Eight Windows, $26.95), James S. Henry, an investigative journalist and one of Nader’s original Raiders, questions how the $3 trillion loaned to developing nations from the West over the past 30 years has led to a Third World debt crisis and an ever greater gap between rich and poor countries. The questionable ethics of the West’s eagerness to invest in less-than-promising endeavors come under strong scrutiny.

Speaking of ethics: Is it ethical for private medical and insurance companies to sell your personal medical records without your consent? No. OK, on to something a little less pressing: What effect does hyperbole in the marketplace (like how there’s no “small” at Starbuck’s, only “tall” or “grande”) have on the American psyche? Well, Jamie Court’s Corporateering (Tarcher Putnam, $24.95) describes how money isn’t all that corporations steal—they’re also after your personal freedoms, privacy and security.

It is the year 2003. Multinational corporations can patent genes from crops that farmers have cultivated for generations; starving Third World nations refuse genetically modified food for fear that it is poisonous; scientists claim that the media have blown these dangers out of proportion; and green activists vandalize laboratories and fields where scientists are conducting their research. In Food, Inc. (Simon & Schuster, $24) Peter Pringle, who’s written for The New York Times, Washington Post and Atlantic Monthly, among others, explains how an industry with great potential to feed and nourish millions has turned into a global mess.

In Enemy Aliens (New Press, $24.95), Georgetown law professor and Nation correspondent David Cole documents the detention of more than 5,000 foreign nationals by the U.S. government since Sept. 11, 2001, and explains how their basic constitutional rights were denied in the name of wartime expediency. Cole, who’s represented a number of these individuals in court, documents how this process began with the Patriot Act, and how the legislation’s provisions will further the government’s encroachment on basic civil rights.

Seven Stories Press offers a plethora of cheap, pocket-sized books covering a range of progressive thought; most can be picked up for less than $15. Some of its newer titles include Artists in Times of War ($7.96), by Howard Zinn, Censored 2004 ($11.43)—a collection of Project Censored’s top 25 suppressed stories of 2004, and Zacarias, My Brother ($11.48), Abd Samad Moussaoui’s account of her brother’s break with his family and involvement with Muslim fundamentalists in London.

—Travis Durfee

Cookbooks

Why are we still reading cookbooks at this point? We’ve covered all the basics. Our omelettes are second to none, our sauces taste like nectar. We’re dab hands at sauté work. We can braise with the best of ’em. And still the cascade of cookbooks continues. For me, they’re a continuing source of inspiration and, yes, education. I’m rarely interested in what this or that celebrity has to say about food, and I’m especially wary of the glut of Food Network celebs. The best of the books that have appeared this year remain food-centered, and are more than mere recipe lists.

Getting back to basics is never more necessary than with food, where raw materials need to be of the best quality. That’s where Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating (Houghton Mifflin) comes in handy. Zingerman’s began as a specialty food store in Ann Arbor, Mich., and has grown into a 300-employee business with a bustling mail-order side. Co-founder Ari Weinzeig packs into this nearly 500-page tome all the secrets he’s learned about food buying, so you’ll be reminded of such things as the differences among types of balsamic vinegar (I’ve once and for all been persuaded to stop buying cheap), what makes a good loaf of bread (Weinzeig is an enthusiast of, among other components, dark crusts), how to differentiate among types of rice and kinds of cheese, and the list goes on and on. Also included are a hundred recipes, so you’ll also come away from this book with the best corned-beef sandwich recipe, much simpler than you’d ever guess.

For an overall approach to cooking, start with The Way We Cook by Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven (Houghton Mifflin). It’s subtitled “Recipes From the New American Kitchen,” and follows on the authors’ successful 20-year column in The Boston Globe. They boast of having reduced the amount of time and effort their recipes demand, but they still have you working from good ingredients with sound techniques. Stefado, for example, is a Greek beef stew featuring onions and vinegar, and the recipe epitomizes the simple, direct approach of this book. A few pounds of beef chuck become a tender, aromatic meal, the flavors set off by parsley and tomatoes and a garnish of feta cheese. The 250 recipes feature illustrations where helpful, and the writing style couldn’t be more accessible.

Paul Bertolli was the chef at Chez Panisse; he’s now co-owner of Oakland’s acclaimed Oliveto. In Cooking by Hand (Clarkson Potter), he covers some of Zingerman’s ground, with 14 pages on balsamic vinegar alone. It’s a decidedly Italian approach he takes, guiding you through pasta making and prosciutto curing, but he takes the time to go way behind the scenes and describe such components as flour right down to the process of milling. The nearly 150 recipes range from simple salads to a wildly complicated ragout, but all of them are presented in a style that makes it less a matter of rote and more of creativity.

Much as he did in the book Think Like a Chef, Tom Colicchio approaches his recent Craft of Cooking (Clarkson Potter) with a voice that encourages the home cook to explore more sophisticated processes than you’ll find in, say, The Joy of Cooking. Which is not to malign that classic, but rather to note that the best ingredients respond well to processes that may require extra time and attention. “Simple food doesn’t mean simplistic,” Colicchio maintains. “It requires a healthy dose of skill and hard work.” The book is sectioned by course, and further sectioned by cooking technique, so there are chapters on sautéing, braising, marinating, and so forth. What makes the book most compelling are the accompanying essays, offering an inspiring philosophy that should propel even the most reluctant home cook to try something new.

Travel from the home to the professional kitchen with The New American Chef by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page (John Wiley & Sons), writers who earlier ventured into the restaurant business in Becoming a Chef and Dining Out. The thesis in their new book is that 10 influential cuisines—Chinese, French, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Moroccan, Spanish, Thai and Vietnamese—impart important lessons in dealing with food and cooking, and each cuisine has several noted chefs offering insights and sharing recipes. The comparisons are dramatic.

From the professional kitchen, journey back to the home: Cooking at Home With the Culinary Institute of America (John Wiley & Sons) takes the techniques described in The Professional Chef, which is the CIA’s textbook, and adapts them to your kitchen. Get the theory grounding that allows you to create anything, really. Start with ingredients and knife technique, learn such basics as mirepoix and choice of herbs, review cooking techniques and then go anywhere, aided by the many recipes included herein. Each subsequent section (soups, poultry, meat, fish, pasta, vegetables, etc.) is preceded by a “techniques” chapter, which sets the groundwork for the recipes that follow.

Some of my most enjoyable cooking sprees are holiday meals, and that’s no surprise, according to Sheila Lukins Celebrate! (Workman). This 480-page tome starts with a New Year’s Day breakfast and travels the calendar through Christmas, with imaginative stops along the way for such events as an Academy Awards party and Midsummer Night’s feast. Lukins co-authored The Silver Palate and The New Basics, and her new book is just as lively—organizing the 350 recipes into four-dozen menus, some of which even go so far as to suggest accompanying music. A Memorial Day barbecue turns red, white and blue; the First Summer Tomatoes warrant a meal of their own, and there’s even, during one of those holiday-lull times of the year, a Celebrate Morocco Dinner (Moorish Carrot Soup, Lamb Tagine, Orange Flower Sorbet).

How did the meals we enjoy originate? Some of them can be traced at least as far back as Elizabethan times, and that’s what Shakespeare’s Kitchen by Francine Segan (Random House) does in a very readable style. Segan reminds us that the arriving Pilgrims were of Shakespeare’s time, “and they brought their cookbooks from England.” Although there’s no tie-in with food mentioned in the plays, the recipes (all gleaned from those antique cookbooks) are livened with quotes from the Bard. And they’re updated for ease of home preparation, so you’ll be serving up the Cauliflower Chowder or Lobster with Pistachio Stuffing and Seville Orange Butter in no time. And the book is simply great fun to read.

Baking is my own bête noire, and I’m grateful for any reasoned explanations. It’s brilliantly explained in Jeffrey Alford’s and Naomi Duguid’s Home Baking (Artisan). They’re the authors of the wonderful Hot Sour Salty Sweet, and now they give us another fanatically researched book that takes us into homes across six continents. More than 200 recipes range from breads to pastries to unusual cakes, and the oversized, well-photographed work manages to pack New York-style calzones, Breton butter cakes, Vietnamese peanut cookies and olive panini into the same volume.

Finally, parting is Bittersweet (Artisan). Author Alice Medrich opened the store Cocolat in San Francisco 30 years ago, and this book is the culmination of her work. Which means that it’s more than the 125 recipes contained within: It’s also essays and in-the-trenches tips (“What to do when ganache breaks”), along with a tour of the many, many varieties of chocolate available and where and why you should use which. Your year-end assignment: Collect them all, then invite me to dinner.

—B.A. Nilsson

Children’s

Can it be that time of year again—already? I’ll skip my usual preface about how books make the absolute bestest gifts for anybody, everybody, on your list, but especially for children (like how I slipped that in, anyway?), and get right to the best of this year’s bunch.

And no, Madonna’s new book has not made the cut.

In the past, I’ve lauded Jan Brett’s magical, folky illustrations while lamenting her too-formulaic, predictable approach to storytelling. I mean, it is a minor miracle that The Mitten and The Hat were not followed up by The Scarf or The Sock. Something must have jolted her into a new spurt of creativity, because her latest, On Noah’s Ark (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $16.99), is a stunning rendition of the classic Genesis story, replete with her best, liveliest illustrations in years.

For the computer geek in your family, there’s e.Encyclopedia (DK, $39.99), which rightfully dubs itself the ultimate online learning resource. This tome covers more than 600 subject areas with connections to more than 1,000 links. It’s a gorgeous, in-color reference, much like an “old-fashioned” encyclopedia, but with the added Web links, this is something that will make your kids want to learn.

There are two incredible pop-up books that bear attention. The whatta-mouthful Jay Young’s Amazing Pop-Up Science Flea Circus (Sterling Publishing Co., $19.95) lets kids perform their own show (Tightrope walk of fear! Dive of death! Living cannon ball!) and, in the meantime, learn all about various aspects of science. Even more dazzling, with its 3-D effects, is The Ancient Egypt Pop-Up Book (Universe Publishing, $29.95), which surprises with scale reproductions of King Kafra’s pyramid, a shaduf, the Rhind Papyrus, and, of course, a pretty scary mummy.

While we’re talking historic, The Legend of Saint Nicholas (Margaret K. McElderry Books, $19.95) offers up the biography of the title character, with respect and joy, against an illustrated backdrop reminiscent of Byzantine art and early religious tapestries. This is that rare book whose canny blend of the sacred and the secular makes it a unique addition to the annual holiday season must-reads.

For the littlest tykes, try Winter Walk (HarperFestival, $5.99), whose cadences and rhymes remind one, perhaps a little too much, of Jack Ezra Keats’ classic The Big Snow. Then there’s Tails (Harcourt, Inc., $12.95), which is a fun survey of different types of animal tails, complete with pull tabs, scratch-and-sniff scents and flaps, making story time a collaborative event.

The legendary Maurice Sendak has teamed up with Angels in America’s Tony Kushner for Brundibar (Michael DiCapua Books, $19.95), a thinly veiled social commentary posing as fairy tale. The heavy- handedness (characters sport yellow stars on their worn clothing) can be forgiven since this is a solid story with brilliant illustrations sure to send the imagination—of both child and adult—soaring.

“For Beatrice—When we met, you were pretty, and I was lonely. Now, I am pretty lonely.” Fans of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events will recognize the familiarly mordant tone of the author’s dedications. The series’ 10th volume, The Slippery Slope (HarperCollins Publishers, $10.99), threatens to approach, in sheer weight, the last Harry Potter, but Snicket proves that he is maintaining his form, providing sly, dark humor—the pure antidote to too many sugarplums.

Those pesky preteen girls in your life could benefit from less Britney and more books like Celia Rees’ Pirates! (Bloomsbury, $16.95), which follows the adventures of two 18th-century girls—one rich, the other a slave—as they stow away on a slave ship. Rees deftly blends romance and thrills into a story that’s just as much about young women breaking the mold that society and the times have set for them.

From the author of The Night Before Christmas, Mary Engelbreit, comes Queen of Christmas (HarperCollins Publishers, $15.99), about the busy adventures of the hyper- organizational type, little Ann Estelle. By the way, she is the queen referred to above. Will Ann Estelle be able to get beyond the list of what makes an excellent Christmas, and really enjoy the season?

A new family favorite for us is A Lucky Dog: Owney, U.S. Rail Mail Mascot (Great Plains Press, $15.95). A true story, this details the life of a dog who traveled for years on mail boats and trains around the world—beginning with Albany-New York City runs on the Delaware & Hudson. Owney’s collar bore a tag that read “Owney belongs to the postal workers of Albany, New York. Please return him.” And who can resist a book that is dedicated to stray dogs and warm places everywhere?

Finally, Kathy Jakobsen’s anniversary edition of My New York (Little, Brown, $18.95) includes 23 new paintings and seven foldout scenes. Everything in this book, a love letter to the world’s greatest metropolis, will make your little ones long to take a family trip and explore—which could be part of a larger holiday gathering, and which, of course, speaks to another one of those greatest gifts, time together.

—Laura Leon

Shop Till The Prices Drop
You don’t have to be rich to be a star gift-giver

Television shows that allow us, as viewers, to vicariously wallow in the wealth of others seem to be all the rage these days. Take a tour through palatial pop-star pads on MTV Cribs, or discover from gangly heiress Paris Hilton on the Fox show The Simple Life that some overprivileged brats consider poolside basking to be an occupation. Better yet, on MTV’s Rich Girls, we learn that Park Avenue ultra-rich teenager Ally Hilfiger (daughter of designer Tommy Hilfiger) and her best friend Jaime not only blow dad’s money on cargo-pant couture with reckless abandon, they also rationalize their excesses (as they did on one recent episode) by postulating about noble things they must have done in past lives to deserve their current good fortune. We already knew that the rich lead better lives than the rest of us; who knew they got to do so guilt-free? (A better question: How do I know all this? It’s not like I actually watch these shows.)

Which brings us to holiday shopping time. Rich kids like Ally and Jaime may shrug off their prodigious shopping receipts (and deguilt their spending by saying they’re helping to support the stores, as if Prada were a 501(c)(3) ). But the rest of us may want something else entirely from our shopping experience: a bargain. During the December gift-buying frenzy, when merchants must maximize their sales in order to subsidize the more lackluster times of the year, bargains can be hard to find. Especially in the well-known chain stores, which are all but guaranteed a steady stream of holiday shoppers, who are helpless to the lure of pink and orange Gap sweaters or to the orgy of entertainment media at Borders.

Despite the odds against us, we ventured into downtown Saratoga Springs, a town not known for its many bargains, in search of good holiday gift deals. A quick jaunt through the city’s four main chain stores—Eddie Bauer, Banana Republic, the Gap and Borders, all located on Broadway—unveiled little in the way of bargains. One of my female friends had tipped me off that the Gap was selling men’s boxers in various shades of camouflage for a rock- bottom price of $4.99, but alas, the cool cammies were nowhere to be found, replaced instead by more typical checks, stripes and plaids at $10 a pop. At Eddie Bauer, the post-9/11 survival mentality must be informing the marketing decisions, because the store’s center aisle contained a display of gift-packaged utility items like flashlights, tape measures and even an Altoid-box sized “survival kit” containing matches, some sugar and a tea bag. In the absence of any apparent deals on the store’s clothes, I was eyeing the bright-yellow tape measures until my male companion scoffed at them in disgust. Perhaps only a very unhandy person such as myself would consider purchasing a tape measure at Eddie Bauer. Perhaps that’s the point.

Five seconds in Banana Republic: all it took to realize that no bargains were to be had there. The Republic’s more upscale take on the preppy-functional apparel found in the Gap (yet featuring decidedly darker color palettes) doesn’t come cheap. It is possible to land some deals at Borders, mainly when the book-music-DVD retailer holds promotional sales at various times throughout the year. Right now? No deals. Unless, of course, you know someone who wants a copy of Patrick Swayze’s 1984 fantasy-survival flick Red Dawn, in which a gang of high school football players battle invading Communists (thought it was cool when I saw it at age 13; not so sure how it would stand up now). If you do know someone who might appreciate a copy of Red Dawn along with Escape From New York and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti masterpiece A Fistful of Dollars, head to Borders’ bargain-DVD bin (three for $25).

My inspiration for bargain holiday shopping came from my friend’s father, who recently purchased, at a Glens Falls liquor discount store, a case of red wine ranked in the high 80s by Wine Spectator (considered “very good” on their scale of 100) for less than $5 a bottle. What a good idea, I thought: For a fiver, one could take care of every alcohol-imbibing friend, co-worker and distant relative with a giftworthy wine that costs less than a sandwich. So I headed to Winesellers (358 Broadway) and spoke to Renee Hough, the helpful owner. Although I quickly realized that my desire to find a decent $5 bottle of wine was a tad unrealistic, at least in a proper wine store, she pointed me in the direction of a Chilean wine by 2 Brothers called Big Tattoo Red. Priced at $8.99, the wine has been getting lots of press lately (most recently on Good Morning America) for being a great deal. Not only is the wine’s quality up to par; proceeds from each purchase support cancer research (the disease that took the life of the winery owners’ mother). I think we just found our first bargain.

Vintage stores always offer the promise of value: Not only will you often pay less for a vintage item than you would for its brand-new equivalent, your gift recipient will also gain immeasurably in style. So I wandered through Reruns, at 1 Phila St., a store that stocks vintage housewares and clothing with an emphasis on style: 1960s chrome lamps, kitschy ceramic figurines, funky art, bowling shirts, mod leather jackets. Stuart Armstrong, the owner, told me that the store’s most popular items hail from the 1960s and 1970s, as he pointed out a designer Lucite ice bucket from the 1970s with a Bloomingdale’s “bloomies” imprint. The store also contains an array of older items from the 1930s and earlier. I gravitated to the cool bar supplies: a vintage stainless-steel shaker set for $14. As Stuart held up a 1960s black-velvet women’s hat bordered with feathers, also for $14, I was sold.

Next door, the Lyrical Ballad bookstore (7 Phila St.) offered a wealth of gift-giving possibilities. The store is filled with used and rare books that cover a whole spectrum of interests, but I headed to the shelves of hardcover first editions: the best gift for readers who like to hold onto their books, since coveted first editions retain more of their value over time (or actually gain in value). Here I found a first edition of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible for $7.50 amid copies of Shame by Salman Rushdie and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Good deal. By giving someone a first-edition used book you’re not being cheap, you’re offering an investment. At Last Vestige, a used CD and record store at 437 Broadway, I found plenty of bargains. If you know what kind of music your gift-recipient listens to, you can’t go wrong there—from Iggy Pop’s new album Skull Ring ($8) to Aretha Franklin’s Queen of Soul, The Atlantic Recordings box set for $36. If you’re one of those people who has a problem giving (or getting) used music, there’s also new and shrink-wrapped stuff to be found. Personally, I have no problem with gifts of used CDs. When it comes to finding cool music, a score is a score.

Finally, we went to the Saratoga Army Navy Store (510 Broadway), where I knew we could put Eddie Bauer’s tiny $8 “survival kit” to shame. Sure enough, amid the pepper spray, the canteens and the Green Beret bobblehead dolls, I found an array of survival-gear items, perfect for the person on your list who would like to feel better prepared. Among the canteens, knives and blankets: a trusty looking “survival aid kit,” featuring fire-starter flint, compass, waterproof matchbox and nylon cord. Cost: $2.29.

—Kirsten Ferguson


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