“The greatest work of art is to love someone."
- The Letters of Vincent van Gogh


The 2015 Holiday Gift Guide

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 30, 2015
Category: Beyond Classification

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This year feels different. Charleston, Paris, any place where a guy with a gun and a grudge makes a play for a Guinness World Record — the avalanche of death cascades. Only the naïve don’t get the new new normal: Safety is a thing of the past. We’re all “soft targets” now.

Danger sometimes terrifies, sometimes excites. But what it most reliably does is sharpen the senses. Food, the arts, love — over the last few months, they’ve become more vivid for me. Have you noticed this too?

La Rochefoucauld wrote, “No one can look long at the sun or death.” This is especially true in holiday season. So this year’s holiday guide is short on instruction and self-improvement, long on pleasure. And another thing: I’ve served up a lot of inexpensive gifts — a Timex watch for $17, the Kindle edition of my novel for $2.08, an exquisite box of Italian pencils for $10. I do this for two reasons. First, so you can indulge the desire to be generous to many people. The second reason is much more important to me now that I live in a neighborhood where the line of hungry and poor people at food pantries and soup kitchens is longer each day: I want to be more generous — and I want to help you be more generous — to charities and causes.

FYI: It often happens that I haven’t reviewed a single book on The New York Times list of 100 Notable Books. This year we agree on two: Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin and Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Now to the guide….

HeadButler.com: The 100 Essentials
Yes, my book. Because it saves me the trouble of listing anything from the greatest hits (2004-2014) here. (I know this is unreasonable. So I cheated and listed a few. But only a few.) Because it will help you decide what to give and who to give it to. And, if I may say so, because the book is a good gift all by itself.
Read about it here.
Buy the paperback from Amazon here.
Buy the Kindle edition here.

A Christmas Carol

Not the 28,000-word original, the one that no one reads aloud to the end. This is the reader-and-kid-friendly 13,000-word edition that I abridged and Paige Peterson illustrated. You’ll never miss those 15,000 words.

Phil Spector: A Christmas Gift for You
Phil Spector is a killer and a sleaze, but as a writer and producer, he was magic, both with black groups (The Ronettes, Crystals, Ben E. King and more) and white (The Righteous Brothers). This is simply the best holiday album ever made.

Christmas with the Tallis Scholars
In the great choral pieces of the Renaissance, we find magnificent voices blending together to sing, in harmony, their praise to the Almighty. Today, we hear that holy music, delivered intact, in the recordings of The Tallis Scholars.

Portable Phone Chargers
The AmazonBasics Portable Power Bank, which is about the same size as a Samsung Galaxy S3 and just a smidge thicker, is a veritable tower of power. Plug it in at night — it takes 6 to 8 hours to reach full charge — and you can use it to charge an iPhone (4-5 times), Nexus (4.1 times), Galaxy S5 (2.6 times), the Galaxy Note III (2.3 times) or an iPad (once.) Not bad for $24.99.

Perfetto Pencils
Louise Fili’s pencil case and pencils makes me think of the Italy of the 1930s and 1940s. It’s very clean, very precise, very bold design: a sturdy case, with twelve double-sided, two-color pencils. $10.88. Want multi-colors? Here.

Egyptian Magic
The ingredients are olive oil, bee’s wax, honey, bee pollen, royal jelly and bee propolis. And — so it says — “divine love.” With the exception of the last “ingredient,” you could whip it up yourself. But you couldn’t improve on the original. What does it heal? Burns, scrapes, skin irritations, diaper rash, sunburns, eczema, psoriasis — and more.

Pu-erh Tea
It looks like a cow pie. More interesting: It may have health benefits. It also has taste benefits. Milk and sweetener are superfluous — this is a rich brew that delivers a modest caffeine hit along with a welcome hint of natural sweetness. Alice Waters drinks Pu-erh tea. And swears by it. “My cholesterol went down 100 points since I started drinking this,” she says.

Proraso Shaving Cream
Proraso was formulated by a venerable company in Florence in 1948. More often than not, the man who used it dispensed a small amount in a bowl and applied it with a brush. That’s no longer common, but don’t let the absence of a shaving ritual stop you. The ingredients remain unchanged. All natural, of course. With additives: eucalyptus, menthol and, recently aloe.

Anthelios Sunscreen with Mexoryl
Anthelios costs more than creams that protect against sunburn. The thing is, those creams don’t offer long-lasting protection against Ultraviolet-A rays (UV-A). And UV-A doesn’t cause sunburn — it causes cancer. Me, I’d rather pay more now and dramatically reduce the chance that our daughter, my wife and I get skin cancer.

TaoTronics Dimmable LED Desk Lamp
The footprint is small. The design is sleek. It looks chic and expensive. has a one-touch, 3-level dimmer and an I’m-leaving-the-room “escape timer” that turns the light off after an hour. The bulb is estimated to last 40,000 hours. The arm is adjustable. It uses 75% less electricity than an old-fashioned lamp. It folds for easy transport. It’s no heavier than a small bag of feathers. It costs $26.99.

Zojirushi Stainless Steel Vacuum Insulated Mug
Reader review: ‘I bought one of these on your recommendation and I can’t stop telling people what a great buy You say this keeps coffee/tea hot for 6 hours. Sometimes I put coffee in at 10 PM and it is still steaming when I open it at my work desk the next day at 8 AM.’’

“i knit, therefore I am,” says Lucy Nathanson. And does she ever. In winter: hats, cowls, infinity scarves and the occasional labor-intensive sweater. (Samples: here.) In warm weather: organic cottons. (Samples: here.) Special orders? Ask.

Mental Clarity
Reader Review: “I ordered Mental Clarity when I was felled by flu and feeling sure that I’d never be able to do my nonprofit’s annual fundraising appeal nor in fact ever write anything useful ever again. There seemed to be a Black Dog factor in the brain fog, along with the sneezing & coughing. Lo, what to write came clear and the Black Dog disappeared. If the appeal goes well, I’ll have to credit your finding Mental Clarity.”

Unicorn Pepper Mill
The mill is made of easy-to-wipe-clean plastic. Black plastic; like the Model T, you don’t get a choice of color. There’s a large, easy-to-open hole near the top that allows you to fill the cylinder with peppercorns. You adjust the grind on the bottom with a simple thumbscrew. Then you grind. Batteries? Oh, please.

Timex Easy Reader Watch
Esquire rates the Timex #1: “”The simple retro face looks cooler than some watches that cost six times as much.” The Easy Reader Timex for men, with a 10-year battery, costs $17 at Amazon. The women’s model has a bit more style and costs a few dollars more. Unfair, but still a crazy bargain.

Yamaha Micro Component System
Reader Review: “The Yamaha system is the best I’ve ever heard, and easy for a low-tech person such as myself to install. When my high-tech brother visited and said ‘What’s this?’ and popped his iPhone in to test it, his only comment was ‘Wow!’”

Moleskine Notebooks
The leather-like cover takes more wear than you’ll ever give it. The elastic band is useful both to keep the notebook closed and to mark your place. There’s an inner pocket to hold business cards, receipts and small photographs. The spine is sewn, not glued, so the cover lies flat when it’s opened. The paper is acid-free. What’s not to love?

To call it “the Danish ‘West Wing’” — but with a female President — doesn’t begin to describe it. Stephen King beat the drums for it, calling “Borgen” the best show of 2012. I’d go further: “Borgen” is some of the smartest TV ever made. Can you stream it? No. You have to buy it. Trust me on this: If you buy season 1, you’ll go right on to 2 and 3.

V Is for Vegetables: Inspired Recipes & Techniques for Home Cooks — from Artichokes to Zucchini
A great many cooks have adopted the vegetables-at-the-center-of-the-plate religion, with animal protein as a side dish, garnish, afterthought — or non-presence. (They ignore what the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki noted: “You have to kill vegetables too.”) Michael Anthony hasn’t surrendered to the Meme of Vegetables. He includes fish and meat recipes “because that’s the way I eat.” He just happens to like to eat vegetables more: “I am a cheerleader saying, ‘Hey, you can do this. Give it a try.’ I tell readers, ‘Set yourself up like this in the kitchen and you’ll be able to cook this quicker.’”

Old Filth
No one really knows Edward Feathers. He’s held it all in. Only when his wife dies does he become unmoored enough “to flick open shutters on the past.” And because Gardam knows everything about this man’s life — every hidden event, every unspoken longing — what she delivers in 289 pages is an unimaginably satisfying and involving book. “Old Filth” is like no other recent novel I can name; it reads as much like exhaustively researched biography as brilliantly paced fiction.

Married Sex: a Love Story
From the New York Times review: “Kornbluth’s debut novel, about a happy marriage interrupted by a ménage à trois, could easily have coasted on its promise of titillation. Instead it is a skillfully written, lighthearted and clever story that manages to be steamy but never salacious… Kornbluth has a screenwriter’s ear for witty banter, and the novel hinges on the charming voice of its narrator.” Ok, it’s not a Times Notable Book, but the paperback is only $9.53. The Kindle is a giveaway at $2.08, but if even only a few of you buy it at that price, Amazon will charge more, so…..

The Queen’s Gambit
My favorite book. A reader agrees: “I don’t read mysteries. I don’t read thrillers. I’m a Barbara Pym kind of reader, who likes books in which the big events are cups of tea. But I got “The Queens Gambit” out of the library and couldn’t put it down. I gave it to my husband, who definitely does read thrillers, and he gulped it down in a day.

James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime
“She cannot be satisfied. She will not let him alone. She removes her clothes and calls to him. Once that night and twice the next morning he complies and in the faint darkness between lies awake, the lights of Dijon faint on the ceiling, the boulevards still. It’s a bitter night. Flats of rain are passing. Heavy drops ring in the gutter outside their window, but they are in a dovecote, they are pigeons between the eaves. The rain is falling all around them. Deep in feathers, breathing softly, they lie.”

The Tender Bar

J.R. Moehringer’s father, a noted disc jockey, was out of his mother’s life before J.R. was old enough to remember that he was ever around. (“My father was a man of many talents, but his one true genius was disappearing.”) His mother, suddenly poor, moves into her family’s house in Manhasset, Long Island.
In that house: J.R.’s mother, grandmother, aunt and five female cousins. Also in that house: Uncle Charlie, a bartender at Dickens, a Manhasset establishment beloved by locals who appreciate liquor in quantity — “every third drink free” — and strong opinions, served with a twist. A boy needs a father. If he doesn’t have one, he needs some kind of man in his life. Or men, because it can indeed take a village.

Atlas of Remote Islands (Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will)
The author disdains any island you can easily get to. The more remote the destination, the more enthusiastic she is for it. Like Peter I Island in the Antarctic — until the late 1990s, fewer people had visited it than had set foot on the moon. A one-of-a-kind treat.

Levels of the Game
This is an account of a single match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in the semifinals at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills. But as the title suggests, a game — any game, at any degree of competition — is not just about competence. How you play is a revelation of character; how you play is who you are. Many tennis buffs think this is the best book ever written about the sport.

Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas
We’re talking about a genuine hero — and not just because he is regarded, almost universally, as the greatest mid-century football player. Unitas is thrilling to read about, and to think about, because his struggle took place in the open, in real time, with the outcome uncertain and physical pain guaranteed. Unitas never complained. He never made apologies. He had a job to do, and it was his responsibility to get it done. And he did it. thrillingly.

Fashion Lives: Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis
Mallis was the Executive Director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America from 1991 to 2001. She created Fashion Week, which generated a fortune for the city, before moving on to IMG Fashion and her own fashion and design consultancy. Why no reality TV show? Producers found her “too nice.” But in this format, a friend talking to 19 designers, photographers and editors produces revelations.

Carolyne Roehm: At Home in the Garden

This unapologetic Valentine to one of world’s most spectacular gardens is a 304-page, huge (11” by 14”), 7.4 pound object. At Roehm’s home, there are three formal gardens, rose gardens, parterre gardens, pool gardens, and topiary rising to the heavens like Brancusi’s Endless Column. You get the idea. In her words: “a garden that threatened to give Versailles a run for its money.”

Otis Redding
Otis Redding was one of those Olympians who are fantastically good at everything. He could shout. He could dance. He had a straightforward, honest, high-testosterone presence — he was, as one of his hits had it, a “love man.” Watching footage of him performing is a revelation. Who wrote the book of love? This man. Also worth buying: this and this.

Josh Ritter
The best rock CD made for grown-ups this year. And I’m not alone in thinking that. One song here has 1 million hits on Spotify.

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
The duets of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell were recorded in forever ago 1967. What songs were on that CD? Oh, just classics: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “You’re All I Need to Get By.” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You.” Yours for a ridiculous $4.99.

Don Henley: Cass County
Henley’s new CD, which draws on the Americana of his East Texas upbringing, captures the textures, environments, dreams and cultural imperatives of this landscape and framed them in a redefined modernism. Is it country? All 16 songs have a natural poignancy that stirs the spirit. You’ll hear a pedal steel guitar on most tracks, a melancholy underpinning that weaves a tapestry of elegance and yearning.

Krishna Das
I don’t have the slightest clue what he’s singing about — the Hindu names of God, mostly — but my ears like the way he’s made chanting accessible to my hopelessly western ears. I start my day with these 12 minutes (below). Yes, that’s achoir singing “I Want To Know What Love Is.”


Short takes

Friends & Family: Some Recent Books I’d Like Even I Didn’t Know The People

Roberta Kaplan and Lisa Dickey: ‘Then Comes Marriage: United States V. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA’
When her wife died, the IRS required Edie Windsor to pay $360,000 in estate taxes. As Windsor has said, if her spouse had been named “Theo” rather than “Thea” she would not have had to pay a nickel. Why was she billed? Because the marriage was legal in Canada but not in New York, where they lived. And why was that? Because the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — signed into law by Bill Clinton — prohibited the federal government from recognizing any same-sex marriages. And why is DOMA gone? Because Roberta Kaplan, Edie Windsor’s genius lawyer, sued on narrow grounds. My friend Lisa Dickey co-authored Kaplan’s book, which will be catnip for lawyers and anyone who loves justice.
To buy the book from Amazon, click here.
For the Kindle edition, click here.

Elizabeth Benedict: ‘Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession’
Short hair, long story. Long hair, ditto. And there are also revealing stories here about Hindu Bengali hair, Hasidic hair, gray hair, pubic hair. And Elizabeth Benedict’s hair: “The older I get, the more attention I pay to my hair, and faced with a scalp full of gray roots, the last thing I intend to do is let nature take her course.” Elizabeth Benedict, author of five novels and “The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers,” has been a Guest Butler. I can attest: Women will find humor, insight and poignancy here.
To buy the book from Amazon, click here.
For the Kindle edition, click here.

Ernest Beyl: ‘Sketches From A North Beach Journal’
Ernest Beyl, a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, has spent decades among the city’s more exotic citizens. Now he’s profiled its whores, poets, kooks, journalists, strippers, musicians, artists and beatniks in a book that will enrich any visit to San Francisco. Among the profiles: Carol Doda, who danced topless, sporting massive silicone breasts. Says Beyl: “It’s invigorating to live in a city where one of the most prominent citizens was a topless dancer.”
To buy the book from Amazon, click here.

Cara Nicoletti: ‘Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books’
Cara Nicolletti “comes from a long line of butchers.” (Her illustrator is the aptly named Marion Bolognesi). She’s also a reader. Combining her interests, she digs into favorite books, extracts their meals — like the garlic soup from “Pride and Prejudice” and the cherry pie from “In Cold Blood” — and produces recipes that recreate them. I can’t help saying it: a delicious book.
To buy the book from Amazon, click here.
For the Kindle edition, click here.

Susan Cheever: ‘Drinking in America: Our Secret History’
We are a nation of drinkers — maybe of drunks. The Mayflower was awash in beer, then ran short, forcing a landing in Massachusetts. The colonists, Cheever estimates, spent 25% of their income on liquor. By 1820, Americans drank three times as much as they do today. Cheever: “The interesting truth, untaught in most schools and unacknowledged in most written history, is that a glass of beer, a bottle of rum, a keg of hard cider, a flask of whiskey, or even a dry martini was often the silent, powerful third party to many decisions that shaped the American story from the 17th century to the present.”
To buy the book from Amazon, click here.
For the Kindle edition, click here.

Car Seat Headrest: Way ahead of the curve

Biting my clothes to keep from screaming
taking pills to keep from dreaming
I want to break something important
I want to kick my dad in the shins

I was referring to the present in past tense
it was the only way that I could survive it
I want to close my head in the car door
I want to sing this song like I’m dying

heavy boots on my throat, I need
I need something soon I need something soon….

For The New Yorker (yes, The New Yorker) on Car Seat Headrest, click here.

To buy the CD from Amazon, click here.
To buy the MP3 download, click here.
For the tour schedule, click here.

When the dead are still alive for us: “Best Man”

I know Owen Lewis as a psychiatrist (not mine) and a professor at Columbia. His poetry comes as late-breaking news, and the subject of “Best Man” even more so: 23 poems about his brother Jason, who died in 1980, age 23. These poems are blunt, colloquial, rooted in real events. Jason steals Owen’s prescription pad. Owen breaks the phone Jason called on. Jason’s body is “Found After Three Days… Your face running off your cheeks, in rivulets.” But “Best Man” is much more than reportage. In the end, Owen Lewis takes his brother’s years of self-destruction and their inability to connect and turns them into a kind of conversation. And the reader comes to understand how the accomplished healer and his lost brother are rendered… well, not equal, but definitely brothers. The Edward Hirsch lines that begin the book couldn’t be more appropriate: “Look closely and you will see/ Almost everyone carrying bags/ Of cement on their shoulders.” [To buy the paperback of “Best Man” from Amazon, click here.]

Take once a day, in season: Josh Ritter, “Homecoming”

From his new CD, Sermon on the Rocks.

I feel a change in the weather
I feel a change in me
The days are getting shorter
And the birds begin to leave
Even me, who’s been so long alone
I’m headed home…