'If you have a flexible attitude, you can help people quite easily.'
- Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki


Holiday Giving 2014

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Dec 18, 2014
Category: Beyond Classification

PEOPLE, GET READY: The Holiday Ham
Because if you’re in this mode, you are running out of time….

People are more important than things.

One of the ways we express that is to buy things for people.

This holiday season, I’ve made two changes that will make buying things simpler, cheaper and, I hope, actually pleasant.

First, there are many more suggestions, especially in the category of “stocking stuffers.” You might do well to linger there. “Stocking stuffers” help you a) expand your circle of giving, b) save money and c) give more to charity,

Second, veterans will experience déjà vu. Of the 67 selections, 27 have appeared on my holiday lists in the past. That’s because no new stuff has come along that I love more than this stuff. And, of course, if it’s new to you, it’s new.

The Marketing Department wants me to remind you about the super-simple Head Butler business model: You buy stuff on Amazon, I get commission. On everything you buy. That’s right: Go to Amazon from any BUY link on HeadButler.com and Butler gets commission on every purchase you make during that session — not just the book you clicked on, but also a Marc Jacobs tote, an 85″ flat screen, or whatever. I know some of you have moral and political objections to Amazon. Me too. But it’s still the best customer experience.


Perfetto Pencils
Because these Louise Fili pencils are both high art and inexpensive, this box is my favorite present. In a world of vulgar design and banal products, these pencils, in the striking box, are a spirit lifter, a friendship enhancer, a thoughtful gesture.

La Roche Anthelios Sunscreen
What’s so great about Anthelios with Mexoryl? Dr. Vincent DeLeo (Chairman, Department of Dermatology, Founding Director, Skin of Color Center, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt and Beth Israel): “This product gives us almost perfect protection against sunshine.” And Mexoryl is convenient: It doesn’t degrade in sunlight. One application, and you may be good for 24 hours — even if you swim or exercise.

Timex Easy Reader Watch
In a list of “best watches,” Esquire rates the Timex #1: “It works just as well from the workday to the weekend. Not to mention the simple retro face looks cooler than some watches that cost six times as much.” And for a closing argument, this: The men’s watch costs about $25 at Amazon. Women pay $28. Yeah, life ain’t fair.

“Maybe You Touched Your Genitals” Hand Soap
On a long shelf in a Vegas gift shop were liquid hand soaps and sanitizers. They had “fresh meadow scent.” They were “fortified with Aloe Vera.” Mostly, they had terrific labels. This one made sense for the guest bath — though you could make a case for “Bitch Slap Those Germs” Hand Sanitizer.

Power to the People: Devices for the Wired Life
We don’t forget to charge phones and iPads the night before we travel. But our batteries drain like sieves. This is preventable. The solution for power-poor devices? More devices.

Mental Clarity
Warning: Herbal supplements aren’t regulated, and high standards depend on the conscience of the people who own those companies. But…I trust Banyan Botanicals. And since I starting taking Mental Clarity, I’ve been unusually calm. I’m dealing with situations with less of the hysteria and desperation that used to afflict me when I didn’t get my way. A placebo? Maybe. But it still works.

Egyptian Magic
If there’s a skin problem this stuff can’t deal with, I can’t find it. We swab it on the kid’s wounds at night; in the morning, she’s well on the return trip to flawless. Burns, scrapes, skin irritations, diaper rash, sunburns, eczema, psoriasis — it’s the go-to cream. Dry skin? The Magic. Etc.

Pu-erh Tea
Alice Waters says this tea lowered her cholesterol. Others say it promotes weight loss (the health claim is that it dissolves fat cells) lowers blood pressure and calms the nerves. Pu-erh, one of the higher grades of tea grown in Yunnan province, has been fermented, aged, then pressed into an inch-thick circle. A conversation-starter.

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 more do you want from a notebook?

Zojirushi Stainless Steel Vacuum Insulated Thermos
Hot stays hot. Cold stays cold. What is astonishing about the Zojirushi is how long hot stays hot and how long cold stays cold. Fill it with 16 ounces of steaming coffee in the morning, and six hours later, you can still burn your lips. Put ice cubes in a cold drink, and, six hours later, there’s still ice. Stylish? It’s a sleek 9.5 inches.

Clarins Beauty Flash Balm
My wife had her beauty regimen down to a streamlined, highly effective routine. It called for no commercial products — until this. Why? A salesclerk told her that all the celebrity make-up artists use Clarins Beauty Flash Balm. And as someone noted on a message board, “It’s like eight hours of sleep in a tube.”


The Snowman
I usually insist there is no such thing as “perfect.” the exception: “The Snowman,” a 23-minute animated film adapted in 1982 from the book by Raymond Briggs.

The Book with No Pictures
Let the video tell the story. Or ask any 5-to-8 year-old.

Black Beauty
It’s the sixth-bestselling book in English. As the horse tells his story, animals are just people in other forms. They think, feel, speak. And their personalities are a sophisticated combination of temperament and circumstance.

M.C. Escher Pop-Ups
Twenty years from now, someone will make a breakthrough in the arts, technology or design, and remark, “Well, when I was a kid, there was this book….”

Roald Dahl
“Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy,” Dahl said. In book after book, the message is nastier — adults are mean and stupid, and kids must learn to defeat them. And you wonder why kids love these books?

The Thief of Always
Scary? Yes….but there’s almost no book more satisfying for a 9-to-11-year-old kid to read aloud with a parent.

William Steig
“Shrek” — yes, William Steig wrote and illustrated the book that led to the movie that became the marketing. His books aren’t like other books for kids, and that’s not because of their style — Steig didn’t think about people as others did. He believed: “People are basically good and beautiful, and neurosis is the biggest obstacle to peace and happiness.”

This Is Not My Hat
The New York Times chose “I Want My Hat Back” as the Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year. It was a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book: the best book for beginning readers. When our daughter was 10, she loved it. So did the adults who plucked it from our coffee table. Not bad for a 40-page book with 120 words.

The Polar Express
On Christmas Eve, a father tells his son that there’s no Santa Claus. Later that night, a train packed with children stops in front of a boy’s house. He hops on and travels to the North Pole, where Santa offers him the first toy of Christmas. The boy chooses a reindeer’s bell. On the way home, he loses it. How he finds it and what that means — that’s where you reach for the Kleenex.

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens and Jesse Kornbluth: Is that a crazy byline, or what? But books change over time, and over 170 years, “A Christmas Carol” has changed more than most. Like: it bored my daughter. So I began to work on the text. My goal wasn’t to rewrite Dickens, just to update the language, trim the dialogue, cut the extraneous characters — to reduce the book to its essence, which is the story. (Would Dickens approve? Yes. When he performed ‘A Christmas Carol’ — and he performed it 127 times — he used a trimmed-down version.)


“Borgen” is shorthand for “the castle,” home of the Danish Parliament and the government’s executive offices. It’s where Birgitte Nyborg — in the series, Denmark’s first female prime minister — spends every waking hour, trying to keep the support of her modest majority and move the country forward. It’s not an easy task, and it’s not her only task. She’s married, with two children, and her husband and her kids also need attention. Want to hear 600 minutes of Danish? More than you could possibly imagine.

The State Within
“The State Within” makes conspiracy TV shows like “Homeland” and “24” look like the simplistic black-and-white propaganda they are — this is a wonderfully bracing salute to the viewer’s intelligence (yours). Then there’s the after-effect. For a few days after watching two episodes a night, I was living in a “State Within” world — I questioned every news story, imagined the machinations behind it. Not a bad thing.


Phil Spector: A Christmas Gift for You
Read through the reviews, check the books and rock bards. Everyone says the same thing: the…. best… holiday… record… ever… made.

A John Waters Christmas
Of course you know John Waters — he’s the film director from Baltimore. The one with the sinister moustache. The one who makes those hideously campy and upsetting movies: “Desperate Living,” “Female Trouble,” “Hairspray,” “Pink Flamingos” and “Polyester.” He’s a sick puppy. And proud of it. Here’s the proof.


Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace
We are surrounded by stupid, and the rich seem to think they live in another country entirely, and there are few visible signs that the good guys have a shot of winning. “Small victories” seem like the only victories we’re likely to experience. Which isn’t awful. Small victories are local. We can see them. Touch them. Lamott‘s pieces suggest that small victories. And you believe her.

Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki
How wise was this Zen master?
“In reflecting on our problems, we should include ourselves.”
“Once you say ‘sex,’ everything is sex.”
To a carpenter who seemed to have achieved self-realization: “Yes, you could call that enlightenment — and how’s your work coming?”
To a vegan: “You have to kill vegetables too.”


A Village Lost and Found: Scenes in Our Village
Brian May, once the lead guitarist of Queen, has taken a lifelong interest in stereoscopic photography and produced a picture-and-text book that is at once a historical chronicle and a work of art. “A Village Lost and Found: Scenes in Our Village” comes in a slipcase; in a separate folder, you get a 3-D viewer that May and his collaborator, Elena Vidal, created for this project.

The World of Madeleine Castaing
She was French, but you can’t really say she was a French decorator. In one of her rooms, you could be in Russia, in another room London. Most of the time, the mood she created was timeless, poetic, a fantasy. Madame was as idiosyncratic as her antiques — her lips were flaming red, her eyelashes were pasted on, and she wore a wig that announced itself as a fake because she kept it on with a black elastic chin strap. And as she had for decades, she would dress to match her upholstery.


Act One
The best Broadway memoir. Ever.


The Foreign Correspondent
Alan Furst is a master of a genre that is pretty much his own invention: historical fiction set in a thriller frame. Like most of his books, this one’s set in Europe on the eve of World War II. It’s brilliantly researched, artfully plotted and written like crisp journalism — that’s a hat trick.

Peter Temple’s books are thrillers with violent crimes as the problem to be solved and cops as the characters who must solve them. In our country, that’s the province of genre specialists, writers who favor simple plots, cardboard dialogue and lots of white space on the page. Temple, in comparison, is Dostoevsky.

The Day of the Jackal
Frederick Forsyth, a British journalist short of money, wrote the 140,000-word thriller in just 35 days. Since its publication in 1971, it has sold untold millions of copies, been translated into 30 languages and was the basis for a movie I’ll never get tired of.

The Secret Place
How good is Tana French: Cold Cases is good. Very bleeding good for a guy like me: working-class Dub, first in my family to go for a Leaving Cert instead of an apprenticeship. I was out of uniform by twenty-six, out of the General Detective Unit and into Vice by twenty-eight. Into Cold Cases the week I turned thirty, hoping there was no word put in, scared there was. I’m thirty-two now. Time to keep moving up. Cold Cases is good. Murder is better.


Alice Munro: Dear Life
This was the book of the year for me. These stories are about the lives of little people. We see them on the street, and, if we are curious, we wonder about their lives. Alice Munro does our homework for us — she inhabits those lives. Her judgments are sure. And tough. And spot on.

The Stories of John Cheever
Cheever wrote many of these stories in the storage room of his New York apartment. In the morning, he’d dress as if he were going to an office, but he rode the elevator down to the basement, where he’d hang up his suit pants and start writing. Some days he’d get all the way to the end of a story; every night, he’d kill a bottle of liquor. Ah, the 1950s….

Last Night
James Salter’s best book of stories. And that is saying something.


Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will
Judith Schalansky disdains any island you can easily get to. The more remote the destination, the more enthusiastic she is for it. Here you visit the world’s 50 loneliest places, in lovely two-page spreads, with geographical information and curious histories on the left, and, on the right, a map of the hapless land mass set on a deceptively peaceful blue background.


Edith Wharton: House of Mirth
The reason “House of Mirth” is studied in English class is because it is a brilliantly written dissection of a society we like to think has disappeared. How dreary. And how…wrong. The reason to read it is because only the particulars have changed. The essential questions of the drama are as interesting now as they were compelling then: What will happen to Lily Bart? Will Selden rescue her? Or will rich married men ruin her? And if she is ruined, what will happen to her then?

Fifth Business
In 1960, Robertson Davies conjured a Christmas scene in a small town in Canada. One ordinary thing happens: A boy throws a snowball with a rock inside at his friend Dunstan “Corky” Ramsey at 5:58 in the afternoon on December 27, 1908. It misses Ramsey — and hits Mrs. Dempster, wife of the Baptist parson, in the back of the head. She is extremely pregnant, and, when she falls, she goes into labor….

The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin
In the most famous of the Arsene Lupin stories, he breaks into a Baron’s residence, takes nothing, but leaves a card for his unwitting host: “Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine.”


Old Filth
Jane Gardam didn’t start writing until she was 43 and the youngest of her three children was off to school. Now 85, she has published 25 books. She’s the only writer to have won the Whitbread for best novel twice. She’s been nominated for the Booker. Among Those Who Know in England, she’s a very big deal.

The Queen’s Gambit
From Reader Mail: “It was 11 PM and I was exhausted, but started reading. By 2 AM, I disciplined myself to put it down, crashed, and was up at six to get another hour in before work deadlines. Throughout the day, I read it at stoplights, walking from one room to another and at every other available moment, so that by 2 PM I’d read it all. I didn’t know about this book and without you would have missed one of the most exquisite novels I’ve ever read. Thank you.”
My Review: Most days, this is my favorite book.

Farmer’s Son
A ranting, scornful, ignorant father — a bastard worthy of Faulkner — and his smart, beaten son. Marriage, fatherhood, success on the farm; none of this means anything. Bobby’s never right, Garrett’s never wrong. A classic theme.


Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic
Do these questions interest you: How did “a thousand years of civic self-government” come to an end? Why did the Romans tire of virtue and lose themselves in circuses and spectacles? How did “the first republic ever to rise to a position of world power” lose its way?” Yes, this book is relevant.


The Tender Bar
J.R. Moehringer’s father was out of his life before J.R. was old enough to remember that he was ever around. 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. And Uncle Charlie, a bartender at a Manhasset establishment beloved by locals who appreciate liquor in quantity. Well, 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…


The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook
The new Zagat guide rates Gramercy Tavern as New York’s second most popular restaurant. It is, says Zagat, “about as perfect as a restaurant can get.” Gramercy Tavern has now produced its first cookbook. The book tells the history of the restaurant and profiles many of the people who work here. The stories inspire. Really, this book is a drug — it gets you high and makes you dream. Yes, but can you cook from it? I tested it on two of our most sophisticated friends. His comment: “I can think of four houses in this country where I have eaten this well.”

Park Avenue Potluck: Recipes from New York’s Savviest Hostesses
The Old Rich — people who made their money before last week — are tight. So most of these recipes are dreamy for parties: easy, affordable, and so good for buffets on nights when The Help is off.


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.


Carlo Scarpa
Such a beautiful book. Such an interesting human. When Frank Lloyd Wright visited Venice, many wanted to be his tour guide. Wright had no use for them. “Which one of you is Scarpa?” he demanded.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout
This book glows in the dark. Literally. And that’s just the start of the charm and beauty and high intelligence of an oversized book that mixes text and art, documents and narrative, to tell a story that starts with the story of the Curies and then radiates outward. Like a non-fiction graphic novel? Sure, if the non-fiction graphic novel had been drawn by Matisse and Warhol and researched and written by Joan Didion.


The Filson Briefcase
In a sea of products that look good but quickly fall apart, the Filson briefcase is so well designed and so well made it could be the last briefcase you’ll ever buy. At $248, that makes it a bargain. What if it glitches down the pike? Clinton Filson’s original pledge still applies: “We guarantee every item purchased from us. No more, no less. Your satisfaction is the sole purpose of our transaction.”


Ascenseur pour l’échafaud
This soundtrack, recorded in a single, champagne-fueled session, is one of the greatest jazz soundtracks in film — some say the greatest. Miles Davis’ trumpet couldn’t be more evocative: mostly slow and breathy, thoughtful and tender, lonely and okay about it. In a word: cool. The quintessence of cool.

J.J. Cale
The titles suggest simplicity: “Call the Doctor,” “Crazy Mama,” “Don’t Go to Strangers.” But the songs aren’t at all simple — they defy categorization. Country, blues, jazz, shuffle, Okie rock: Cale’s music cuts across genres. The common thread: you have to tap your feet.

Manu Chao
In Italy, “Me Gustas Tu” was a summer theme song, an irresistible melody and a killer rhythm. And the lyrics? Goofy. Mano Chao simply listed all the things he loved: travel, the wind, the sea, running, marijuana, Colombia — and you/ How smart is Manu Chao? So smart he casts himself as a goofball who makes fun music for everyone, even as he shakes his fist at oppressors.

The Traveling Wilburys
George Harrison had been in a band. He wasn’t looking to start another. But in 1988 he had a solo CD coming out. He had a song that could be a hit single. He needed one more. Back then, Harrison was living in Los Angeles and hanging out with Bob Dylan. And Tom Petty. And Jeff Lynne. And Roy Orbison. As Harrison dashed off a song, he got an idea: “I thought, ‘I’m not gonna just sing it myself, I’ve got Roy Orbison standing there — I’m gonna write a bit for Roy to sing.’ And then it progressed…


Etta James
Her producer liked “triangle” songs, and he found a great one for Etta’s debut. The set-up: Etta watching her lover marry another woman. The refrain: “I was losing the man that I loved, and all I could do was cry.” Etta needed only one take. When she was finished, she was crying — and so were some of the engineers.

Bryan Ferry
Love songs. But not “My wife is my best friend” love. More like lust and longing so intense it redlines into love. Obsessive love. Love on two bottles of Krug and maybe a puff of Mendocino’s best. Love that jets you out of this vale of struggle and anxiety into elegance and glory. Love that makes you a “slave” to love.


The Conformist
Bernardo Bertolucci — known to most moviegoers for his Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor” and his down-and-dirty “Last Tango in Paris” — made “The Conformist” at 29. It is a young man’s film, drenched in ambition. It is also Bertolucci’s greatest film. Indeed, it is one of the ten greatest films I’ve ever seen.

A Late Quartet
$4.99 buys you a powerful story, great music and one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s best performances. The story: Christopher Walken, cellist in the Fugue String Quartet, has just confirmed his darkest suspicion — the trembling in his hand is the first sign of Parkinson’s. Rather than hang on, he wants to retire. You’ll be surprised how deeply you will care about these questions and these people.


Clarisonic Skin Care System
How good is it? This good: You may never need to visit a dermatologist again. You may never need a facial again. [Which is why, for the price of two or three facials, you can call the Clarisonic a bargain.] Why it is so great? Because it doesn’t scrub. It cleanses — a sonic frequency of more than 300 movements per second works on your skin to clean it, then smooth it.


Yamaha Micro Component Stereo 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!’ Great system, great price for a boatload of features.’ Had to thank you!”


Capresso Burr Coffee Grinder
For decades I used a cheapo grinder. They don’t exactly grind — they batter the beans and chip them into uneven bits. Worse, they run fast, so they heat the beans, which is exactly what you don’t want, particularly if, like me, you run the machine for a full minute for a finer grind. If you’re serious about coffee, you want what the pros use: a burr grinder. It runs at a slower speed, it generates less heat. The burrs create uniform grounds. Who could care? Well, me.


HeadButler.com: The 100 Essentials
It was time. Also probably time for a coffee mug and a t-shirt. What stops me? I just can’t imagine running into someone on the street wearing my logo. But a book — this I could do. So I read through a decade of Butlers, picked the best 200, pared that list to 150, walked around the block, took a shot of bourbon for courage, and came up with 100 of my favorite pieces on books, movies and music. You know how I like short books? This isn’t: 242 pages, almost 80,000 words. A bargain, if you divide the price by the word count.

Short takes

The start of a great New Year’s Eve: Garland Jeffreys at Joe’s Pub

The last great show of 2014 kicks off at 7 PM on New Year’s Eve, when Garland Jeffreys torches Joe’s Pub. I see him every chance I get, for good reason — he’s a great artist and a total showman. All right-thinking people should own his classic The King of In Between. And if you don’t know that his early hit — “Wild in the Streets” — is # 7 on the Village Voice list of “60 All-Time Best Songs About New York City,” consider Joe’s Pub your Adult Education. 7 PM, New Year’s Eve, Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette Street, $50. For tickets, 212-539-8778 or click here.

Looks good, then…disappears

Virginia P’an was “the first woman Vice President at American Express Bank, the first female Advisor to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the first woman worldwide to manage investment portfolios in excess of 7 billion dollars, and the first female Chinese-American professional on Wall Street.” Now she’s the founder of Yumi EcoSolution, which aspires to be “the premier eco-friendly products company for the 21st century.” The Yumi focus is on disposable plates and utensils. Here’s P’an’s pitch: “Plastics use up to 8% of all oil consumed worldwide, plastics make up 15% of all solid waste in landfills, plastics can be harmful to our health, plastics can last 1,000 years or more after they are thrown away.” In stark contrast, her Yumi products — made from corn starch and other plant-based materials — “require only 10% of the energy it takes to make paper and only 16% of the energy it takes to make plastic.” When you’re done with Yumi plates, cups and utensils? Use them for compost. In 180 days, it’s as if they never existed. Yumi, P’an says, is “the throwaway that goes away.” Start here.

New York Babysitter: If our kid were younger, Louisa would be The One

It feels as if I’ve known Louisa Oreskes more years than she’s been on the planet. And I can’t believe she’s now 18 and a senior at the Bronx High School of Science. Her babysitting history: “I love kids and have a lot of experience with kids of all ages. I’m available weekdays 4-7 PM, flexible on weekends. I live on the Upper West Side and mainly work in that neighborhood, but weekend nights I’ll go anywhere in Manhattan. I have references.” If our small person hadn’t outgrown the need for babysitters — and, some days, her need for parents — Louisa would be my 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices. Contact her at oreskesl@bxscience.edu

Brandy Clark: ‘You were lyin’ there with nothing on/ But a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde’

You were lyin’ there with nothing on
But a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde
I can’t believe you’d do that on our bed
I got a pistol and I got a bullet
And a pissed off finger just’a itchin’ to pull it
The only thing keepin’ me from losin’ my head is…

I hate stripes and orange ain’t my color
And if I squeeze that trigger tonight
I’ll be wearin’ one or the other
There’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion
The only thing savin’ your life
Is that I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes

If you watch it, you will download it.