Tuesday, December 23, 2014

No Need to Hit the Panic Button Yet

"A beautiful way to say". . . . Riiiight
I've known Sister Mary Murderous for years now. She's organized and meticulous, so I didn't panic when she mentioned last Friday she had pretty much completed her holiday shopping. It's when my not-so-well-organized husband told me he's done that I started getting very nervous about not being finished myself.

Fellow how-the-heck-did-we-get-ourselves-into-this-last-minute-predicament shoppers, it's not down to the wire yet, but we do need to get cracking. Let's muster our self-discipline and seriousness of purpose. No more starting to do online research into a gift for little Susie and getting side-tracked somehow into winter bird irruptions in North America, because that leads to wondering what a Bohemian Waxwing looks like, and before you know it, you're looking at a map of the Czech Republic, which has nothing to do with a Christmas present for 10-year-old Susie.

Okay. I'm going to tell you about some gifts I'm giving this year and share some strategies in case you're running out of time to shop.

Don't get sidetracked by looking up "Antsy Pants"
My husband is one of those people who is easy to shop for once you've figured out the hopeless gifts––clothes––and the sure bets based on his interests––movies, post-World War II history, sports, science, and rock 'n roll. Past presents for the man whose favorite movie is 1947's Out of the Past include a subscription to Netflix tucked into Foster Hirsch's The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. He enjoyed that book and Eddie Muller's jauntier Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. Another hit was nonfiction about American workers in all walks of life, oral historian Studs Terkel's Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. It was published in 1974, and many of the jobs it describes are greatly changed or no longer exist; however, existential questions involving what it means to work at your job remain the same, people are still people, and this book is wonderful.

The book I'm giving Hubby this Christmas is Rock Covers, by Jon Kirby, Robbie Busch, and Julius Widemann, published earlier this month by Taschen. Time Magazine describes this 550-page book as "inclusive a selection of great, influential, bizarre, unsettling and, quite often, downright eye-popping rock and roll album covers that any fan is ever likely to find in one place." The more than 750 covers range from Robert Mapplethorpe's photograph for Patti Smith's Horses to the surreal collage designed by artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth from a Paul McCartney ink drawing for the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I can't wait to see my husband open it––and to look at all these album covers from rock 'n roll.

Note: Do not get distracted by investigating the Kitten Covers (here), which substitute kittens (what else?) for people on albums such as Nirvana's Nevermind, the Clash's London Calling, and Tom Waits's Swordfishtrombones. We could get even further off the tracks by checking into the possibility of animals other than kittens on covers, but we won't do that, will we? People, we're at the serious task of completing our holiday shopping.

Say you have a crime fiction-loving friend, but you're unsure what he or she has read. Think in terms of combinations. You can buy a vintage book cheap at a used bookstore, and then give it with something else. For example, an old Agatha Christie featuring Jane Marple, such as A Murder Is Announced, could be gift wrapped with some knitting needles and gorgeous yarn for a winter scarf. (Staff at yarn shops are always friendly and will be happy to help you add a simple how-to pamphlet if your mystery lover doesn't yet know how to knit. Trust me, anyone can knit a beautiful scarf.) Give Jim Thompson's gritty The Killer Inside Me with a lovely mirror or a bottle of really good hard stuff. Michael Innes's 1938 Lament for a Maker needs a bottle of Scotch, but Dashiell Hammett's charming The Thin Man needs martini glasses and fixings. Combine a Lord Peter Wimsey book by Dorothy L. Sayers (it's hard to go wrong with Murder Must Advertise or The Nine Tailors) with a tea pot and/or tea.

Gift wrap a tin of hot chocolate and a pretty mug or a box of chocolates with a fun Golden-Age classic (i.e., Anthony Berkeley Cox's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca or Behold, Here's Poison!, or Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel or Overture to Death). Give a book with the movie made from it (Robert Bloch's Psycho, Stephen King's The Shining) or present a book with something appropriately useful (a Simenon book with a bottle of French perfume; Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train and a nice pair of gloves; John Dickson Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides or another locked-room mystery and a lockable box for jewelry or other treasures; Dorothy L. Sayers's Have His Carcase and a Swiss Army knife; Halloween, by Curtis Richards and John Carpenter, and a chain saw). Or pick any old mystery and add a jig-saw puzzle. You get the picture.

You should be able to find the following books in a local bookstore so you can meet the Christmas deadline without ordering online and paying for one-day shipping.

Have kids or grandkids around 8 to 10 years of age yourself or looking for a family gift for someone who does? This one is for you. A couple of years ago, writers Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen came up with an antidote to boredom and a way to get kids off their electronic devices––for a break, at least. One of my friends loved their Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun. Now there's Unbored Games: Serious Fun for Everyone (Bloomsbury USA, October 2014), which combines informative how-to's with entertaining things to do. Activities such as geocaching, board-game hacking, code-cracking, and classic science experiments are combined with "best-of" lists, trivia, and Q&A's with experts. These lavishly illustrated books are highly rated by reviewers and deserve a place on a shelf––or in your favorite 10-year-old's backpack.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco, May 2014) takes a look at America's rural poor, specifically, those in Tenmile, Montana, and the cultural issues of the 1980s as Carter was leaving office and Reagan was stepping in. Henderson wrote the Super Bowl commercial "Halftime in America" narrated by Clint Eastwood, and his first novel involves Pete Snow, a long-haired social worker better at helping others than himself, a half-feral 11-year-old boy named Benjamin Pearl, and Ben's dad, "Tribulation-ready, Race War-ready" survivalist Jeremiah Pearl. If your gift recipient likes the bleak worldview, moral ambiguity, and flawed characters found in books by Daniel Woodrell (Winter's Bone) or Pete Dexter (The Paperboy), he or she would probably like this beautifully written novel, which made the New York Times list of 100 notable 2014 books.

I'm giving Marlon James's novel, which is making many favorite-books-of-the-year lists, including mine, to an avid-reader friend who had the sort of year that, in the retelling, makes you unsure whether to laugh or cry. It's not an easy read at the beginning because writer James doesn't let you wade in, he just dumps you headfirst into events (the first bit is written by a ghost), and while you're trying to get up to speed on what's been happening, you're dealing with the multiple narrators' dialects, free associations, and the whole shebang.

Ask yourself before you buy it, "Does my recipient have the patience to fall under a spell?" I hope the answer is yes, because the acclimation process itself is pleasurably head-spinning (don't worry, there's no need to write anything down, it all becomes clear through a process kinda like passive osmosis), and after you're acclimated, the book is mesmerizing. A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Hardcover, October 2014) is a fictionalized treatment of the 1976 attempted assassination of Jamaican Reggae singer Bob Marley (never mentioned by name). The 700-pager spans decades, hops continents, and features many characters, ranging from drug dealers and assassins to journalists, politicians, and ghosts. I'd suggest an accompaniment of Jamaican rum or something else Jamaican if you live in Colorado or Washington State, but really, this imaginative book is a gift that makes it on its own.

One of my young relatives will soon move into an apartment with friends. They all love good food, which means they'll need a good general cookbook. One of the best is The New Best Recipe by Cooks Illustrated Magazine. I recently bought it for myself after reading Powell's Books staffer Suzanne G.'s review, "If I have to pick one book, I want it to be the book that explains in detail how it tested multiple versions of each recipe, what the results were, why the authors picked the one they decided was best, and what variations they suggest. At a thousand fully-explained recipes, this dictionary-size reference book is the first one I consult for everything from eggplant Parmesan to steamed mussels to carrot cake. Much more authoritative than Googling, it's the Consumer Reports of classic recipes." Yeah, I agree, it's great, and it can be someone's only or most-used cookbook.

Someone on your gift list like my sister, who has a sweet tooth and loves to bake? I'm oohing and aahhing over Zoe Nathan's scrumptuous-looking Huckleberry: Recipes, Stories, and Secrets from Our Kitchen (Chronicle, September 2014). The Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe is one of Santa Monica's favorite breakfast places, and its recipes cover both the sweet and savory sides. Right now I would kill for a piece of what's on the cover and a good cup of coffee.

Let's finish up with one last gift suggestion, so we can finish our coffee and get to the bookstore. A friend on my gift list is an environmentalist who loves the desert country of north-central New Mexico. One year I gave her Edward Abbey's comic-adventure masterpiece, The Monkey Wrench Gang (Harper Perennial, September 2014; first published 1975), featuring Vietnam veteran George Washington Hayduke III, who returns to the desert to find it threatened by industrial development. He joins forces with a motley crew to fight it.

This year I'm giving her a book of nonfiction: Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt, February 2014). Kolbert is a New Yorker staff writer who consulted scientists in a variety of disciplines, such as botany, geology, and wildlife biology. She uses thirteen chapters, focusing on individuals from a dozen species, to explore the disquieting story of their threatened extinction. This is nonfiction at its suspenseful best. With its wittiness, historical perspective, and field reporting, it reads like a novel. It's a depressing, but ultimately inspiring book. I highly recommend it for the science- or natural history-lover on your list.

Okay, folks, it's off to the bookstore. Good luck, and happy holiday shopping!


  1. Wow, great suggestions! I especially like the idea of combining a book with another gift. I was telling my husband about this idea and mentioned giving The Thin Man with martini glasses. He answered "or a small dog . . . "

    1. Yeeesss! Obviously, your husband is a natural at the whole idea of gift giving. Given that the dog Asta changes sex and breeds from book to movie (a female Schnauzer becomes a male Fox terrier), why not keep up the tradition if you give a dog with THE THIN MAN and change the dog's size, too? What gift recipient wouldn't enjoy a playful St. Bernard along with the book?