Month: November 2012

The Head Butler Holiday Gift Guide: 26 books, music and things you won’t find everywhere (or anywhere)

Jesse Kornbluth, of, hoping to lighten your holiday load.

With winter upon us, the child’s school had a coat drive. We had none to give. Then a package arrived. Coats. My wife had bought them online, on sale, so we could give them away.

I thought: That’s an O. Henry story. And it warmed me. I’m a fool for small gestures, private experiences, little personal moments that could easily be overlooked but which say everything. But the holidays? This year, I’ve lost the beat. Just a few miles from here, the storm erased whole communities. I have a roof and heat and lights and water. I want nothing more. Gifts for loved ones? I picture hungry children and classrooms without books, and I want to be the person who changes that, if only for a few.

But….’tis the season. I say this year, as I do every year, it came too soon. I say I’m not in the mood and won’t be. But here’s a church bazaar. Handel. Our daughter choosing a tree. And this. Always this.

It’s all horribly sappy and completely wonderful, and in the end, I surrender. Maybe that’s the reason I produced a new version of “A Christmas Carol.”

And then there’s this Gift Guide. I am a creature of ritual, and this one’s big for me — I set the bar high, I try to present books, music, movies and products you won’t see in InStyle. But it’s more than that. Creating the Gift Guide is my end-of-year report card. It forces me to look back and consider if what I chose to feature on these screens has enriched your lives as much as it did mine.

These are the choices I affirm. I hope they’re what you might want to give to people you like too much to give Jon Meacham’s dreary biography of Thomas Jefferson, Gillian Flynn’s over-praised “Gone Girl” and the newest releases from graduates of American Idol.


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.

“Maybe You Touched Your Genitals” Liquid Hand Soap

The label features an attractive woman in a crisp white blouse and a neighborly smile shaking hands with a man in a suit.

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto Aranciata, Orange Peels and Honey
Strips of Sicilian orange peel dipped in honey. Insane.

Ready, Steady, Shoot: The Guide to Great Home Video
A 113-page, pocket-sized book that will help you to master the basics. How to hold the camera steady. How many different shots you might want to use, and in what order. How long each shot should last. Invaluable.


Zojirushi Stainless Steel Vacuum Insulated Mug
What is astonishing about the Zojirushi? 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.

Yamaha Micro-Component Music System
We tried cheaper systems. And they were exactly that. The Yahama is all about function: CD player, FM radio, iPod and iPhone dock. It ‘s a legitimate piece of technology. Sitting next to an Apple laptop, it looks very much like a product Apple would make.

Etón American Red Cross Microlink Self-Powered AM/FM/NOAA Weather Radio
Solar powered. With Flashlight and Cell Phone Charger. Because there just might be another storm.

Timex Easy Reader Watch
Esquire: “The simple retro face looks cooler than some watches that cost six times as much.” Under $30.


Phil Spector: A Christmas Gift for You

The best holiday album ever made. $7.29 at Amazon.

Christmas with the Tallis Scholars
Founded in 1973 by Peter Phillips, this English group has released 50 CDs and given 1,600 concerts. Over the decades, the Scholars have become the gold standard of Renaissance music. As this recording proves.


A Christmas Carol

The Charles Dickens masterpiece is 28,000 words. Good luck reading them all to a kid. So I edited it to 13,000 words. Paige Peterson created great illustrations. And we published it as an e-book. Some hate it (and me). Others love it. Starting with our kid.

The Greening of America
The New Yorker issue of September 26, 1970 contained a 70-page, 39,000-word excerpt from “The Greening of America” — the longest book excerpt in its history. A few weeks later, “The Greening of America” was the #1 nonfiction bestseller, dominating the New York Times list for 36 weeks. In hardcover and paperback, Charles Reich’s book eventually sold 2 million copies. All these years later, I edited it and published it as an e-book.


Beautiful Ruins
The best novel I read this year. With a huge cast: the proprietor of a six-room, three-table nothing of a resort in an Italian coastal town only accessible by boat, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, a Hollywood publicist turned producer, a novelist who can’t get beyond the first chapter, an unproduced screenwriter, a singer-comic, an assistant film executive whose boyfriend can be found at strip clubs, and a young American actress named Dee Moray, who was briefly in “Cleopatra” and has come to this nowhere hotel because she’s been told she’s dying of cancer.

The Fault in Our Stars

A novel for teenagers about two teens dying of cancer? No. A love story. And a very great one.

The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars
Maurice Dekobra’s name is now almost completely forgotten, but in 1927 he published a novel called “The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars” that sold a million copies in France. Why? His heroine. Lady Diana Wynham is well known for her unabashed amorality. Presented with a list of her lovers, in chronological order, she has only one correction: “Excuse me, but they were contemporaneous.”

Young Man With a Horn
The fictionalized story of Leon Bismarck “Bix” Beiderbecke (1903 – 1931), who rocketed out of Davenport, Iowa with a sound so distinctive his only competition was Louis Armstrong. How it starts: “What I’m going to do now is to write the story of Rick Martin’s life, now that it’s over, now that Rick is washed up and gone, as they say, to his rest.” Could you stop there? I never can.

The Quiche of Death
A retired public relations executive sells her London business and moves to a cottage in the Cotswolds. A murder follows. And a delightful mystery,


God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine

“God’s Hotel” — the term comes from the Hôtel-Dieu, the French charity hospitals of the Middle Ages — reads as much like a memoir as a chronicle of daily life in an unusual hospital, it’s the story of Victoria Sweet, who came to Laguna Honda on a part-time basis for two months, stayed two decades and, along the way, staged a successful “twenty year escape from health care.” It’s an intellectual adventure story; a doctor follows an insight and reconnects with a way of practicing medicine that’s almost totally forgotten.


This Is Not My Hat
“This hat is not mine,” a little fish tells us on the first page. “I stole it.” And why not? It was too small for its owner, a big fish. And the big fish was sleeping, and likely to remain asleep for a long time. “And if he does wake up, he probably won’t notice it’s gone.” Guess what? He wakes up.


All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia
A record of a mother’s dementia. But Alex Witchel’s book is more than a story of a triumphant personality laid low. It’s a guide for those whose parents are disappearing. And it’s a love story. Alex and her mother. Alex and her husband. Very affecting.


Canal House Cooks Every Day
Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer won the lottery. They get to live authentic lives and cook real food and write books that are both creative and simple. These 250 recipes are the proof.

At Home with May and Axel Vervoordt: Recipes for Every Season

The Vervoordts live in a castle. Axel is an art and antiques dealer and a decorator. May cooks. She quotes Virginia Woolf: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Her guests do.


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.


Blake Mills
A major talent, an actual artist, a musician without an upper limit. And, pretty much, a secret.

Leonard Cohen
Just because.

Alabama Shakes

Many reasons. Not least, the way Brittany Howard screams: I don’t care, I can’t pay attention/ I don’t give a fuck about your attention at all…


Delightful Windows

As the weather gets colder and fall draws to a close, I find these incredibly realistic dioramas by Patrick Jacobs a wistful reminder of warmer days.

Each diorama is set into the gallery wall and viewed through a glass window. Some of the scenes are super tiny (3 inches or less) some are slightly larger, but all of them are peaceful, idealized landscapes.

I love the feeling of peeking into another world.

The longer I live in a city, the more I feel like the outside world, nature, is under lock and key, and I feel lucky to catch a glimpse of it.

Have a beautiful Tuesday,

Sarah from Design Flourishes


all images from Patrick Jacobs’ website

via Booooooom

Books by Bloggers

Hello, English Musers!

It’s Hannah B. from Secrets of a Belle back to share some fun things with you again. Since we so often share about what our latest literary finds, today I thought I would share about a set of emerging authors that I realized I’d been spending a lot of time with: bloggers turned authors.

blogger books from secrets of a belle's Hannah B

Here are a few of the books I’ve read in the past year that I highly recommend…

Blog, Inc. by Joy Cho of Oh Joy!

This is what I’ve been reading for the past week. Joy is a super artsy mama from LA. I’ve always adored her style and her work so when she released a book about blogging, I couldn’t resist. It’s full of practical tips, but I’m especially enjoying the Q&As with other well-known bloggers.

Edible Selby by Todd Selby of The Selby

I am a huge fan of The Selby. It’s like having a really great interior design magazine online. (If only all the actual interior design magazines would translate to the web so well.) I’ve got The Selby is in Your Place but, as a foodie, Todd’s new book, Edible Selby, is high on my wishlist. It’s chock-full of some serious eye candy.

Design*Sponge at Home by Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge (& the podcast “After the Jump”)

I think Grace Bonney is a role model to a lot of bloggers, and I’m no different. I was especially excited last Christmas to receive this book in my stocking. It’s full of a lot of the inspiring interiors that have been featured on Design*Sponge as well as a bunch of How-To’s.

A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette

I’ve long been a fan of Molly’s blog so I was anxious to read this book when it came out a couple of years ago. There’s only one word for it: this book is beautiful. It’s a series of personal stories woven together with scrumptious recipes. It will make you laugh, make you cry, and then it will make you want to click over to Molly’s blog and catch up on all the things that have happened since the book’s release. She becomes like a close friend.

(Two Fun Facts: She’s writing another book, and she just had a baby!)

The Bucolic Plague by Josh Kilmer-Purcell of Beekman 1802

You may have seen Brent and Josh competing in CBS’s Amazing Race recently or over on Cooking Channel. Well, this book tells the beginning of their story. It will make you laugh out loud! I will admit, I picked up for cover, bought it for the Martha references, and now will forever be a fan of the fabulous Beekman Boys!

The Black Apple Paper Doll Primer by Emily Winfield Martin of The Black Apple

This is just super fun. Did you ever wish for paper dolls for Christmas? Well, I did, so I was excited to run across this last year when we were in Chicago. I’ve been a fan of Emily’s since I was in college, and I just adore her art. This book is full of lovely characters you’ll want to get to know.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Are there any bloggers you want to write a book?

Until next week,
Hannah B. 

Dance like nobody’s watching

Hello English Muse readers! Karen from A Simple Cup of Tea once again. It has been a while since I posted here. Life has become incredibly busy and I’ve let it bog me down a bit.

But then I came across these pictures of Steve Martin completely and utterly going for it, shaking like there’s no tomorrow.

It made me think of this song from the Tangled soundtrack. It is one of the few songs that make me happy every. single. time. I just cannot sit still and I have to shake it and truly dance like nobody’s watching.

Have you ever tried that? Just going for it without worrying or thinking about what people think about your dance moves? It is the best feeling ever.

I hope you lovely people had a great weekend. Here’s to a fab start of the week!


Photo credit: here

Someset Maugham called it his best book. Why I love it: An unfaithful woman doesn’t get branded with the scarlet A.

Jesse Kornbluth, of, looking back to a book that’s refreshingly non-judgmental.

His parents were known as “Beauty and the Beast.” Once someone asked the lovely Mrs. Maugham how she remained faithful to her ugly little husband. “He never hurts my feelings,” she said. She was equally tender to her youngest son, William. When he was just eight years old, she died. Seventy years later, William Somerset Maugham was still saying, “I shall never get over her death. I shall never get over it.”

Two years later, his father died, and Willie Maugham, who had lived so long in Paris that he spoke no English, was shipped back to relatives in the English countryside. He had a club foot. And a stammer. He wanted to be a writer; he was persuaded to go to medical school. When he was 23, he produced a novel. It was a huge success. Medicine was forgotten.

By 1930, when “Cakes and Ale” hit the bookstores, Maugham had published “Of Human Bondage” and “The Moon and Sixpence” and a book of innovative spy stories about Willie Ashenden, his alter-ego and favorite narrator. He was the highest-paid, most famous writer in the world. No mystery why — his books were chatty and easy to read. They went down smooth and whole, like oysters. Once consumed, they presented no bulk. This was deliberate; Maugham had gone to school on de Maupassant and Chekhov, practiced writing stories that had no adjectives and, with considerable sweat, forged a prose style that read like conversation. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Maugham was not known as a bomb-thrower, but “Cakes and Ale” in 1930 changed that. The novel was a scandal. Not for the sex. For literary reasons — it starts with a vicious portrait of “Roy Kear,” a popular writer of second-rate novels clearly modeled on a then-noted English writer. The odd thing: Kear is important only for getting the story started, he couldn’t be a more minor character.

Kear, in any event, gets things going by leaving a message for Willie Ashenden, now a moderately successful, extremely observant writer. Good manners require Ashenden to accept an invitation for lunch. There, to his surprise, Kear turns the conversation to Edward Driffield, the venerable English novelist (Maugham modeled him on Thomas Hardy) who wrote so many deadly boring books over so many decades that he is regarded as a master.

It turns out that, as a boy of 15, Ashenden was befriended by Edward Driffield and his first wife, Rosie. Roy Kear is writing an adoring biography of Driffield; he’d love Ashenden to share those memories. Instead, Ashenden drifts down memory lane and tells us the story no one knows — the truth about the Driffield marriage.

Ashenden’s memories seem to be a chronicle of small-town snobbery. In the countryside where young Ashenden (and Maugham) spends school vacations, the Driffields are not respectable. Edward is a writer, thus automatically suspect. And Rosie — well, she has a past. Young Ashenden is aware of their checkered reputation, but he is hungrier for adult friendship than he is for social propriety. The Driffields become his second family — until they suddenly bolt, leaving debts and questions behind them.

Years pass. Ashenden is now a medical student in London. He runs into Rosie; their friendship resumes. But Ashenden is now twenty — he understands that although Rosie seems to love her husband, she is repeatedly unfaithful to him. And, soon enough, he becomes her lover. One of them, anyway, for Ashenden must confront an idea that few men can handle: women’s right to sexual freedom.

Roy Kear can’t. Here he is, pumping Willie Ashenden:

“I suppose she was awful.”
“I don’t recollect that.”
“She must have been dreadfully common. She was a barmaid, wasn’t she?”
“I wonder why the devil he married her. I’ve always been given to understand that she was extremely unfaithful to him.”
“Do you remember at all what she was like?”
“Yes, very distinctly,” I smiled. “She was sweet.”

Not what Kear wants to hear. Much later Ashenden spells it out for him:

“She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love.”
“Do you call that love?”
“Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone, it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn’t lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artles

Whew! That’s a long way from bike rides in the country, even further from lunch with Roy Kear in a London club. And although “Cakes and Ale” is a relatively short novel — it’s a crisp 300 pages — there are many more twists in it. I won’t spoil them for you.

It’s been fashionable for decades to dismiss Maugham as a mere storyteller, as if the ability to tell stories is a second-rate gift. But unless you are a snootball critic, stories are what you read fiction for. In “Cakes and Ale,” Maugham juggles half a dozen characters without breaking a sweat. The novel seems formless and weightless, a tale told by a friend over drinks. You cannot imagine how hard it is to do this.

Of all his books, Maugham considered “Cakes and Ale” his favorite. Read it and you’ll see why.

The most adorable antihero

Once upon a time there was a clumsy dragon who was chosen to save the world. It’s just a shame he wasn’t very good at it.

Last year I had the privilege of being introduced to one of the most adorable, flawed, fun middle-grade fiction characters I had ever met: Crispin Scales, a dragon.

The first thing I loved about this story was that its bumbling dragon-hero seemed to go backward. In most hero stories and fantasy epics, we watch the ordinary become extraordinary. Four ordinary school children cross a magic threshold and wind up becoming kings and queens of Narnia. A nerd is bitten by a radioactive spider and starts wearing lycra and climbing walls. A hobbit goes on a journey and returns home with a ring of formidable power.

But what if the story went the other way? What if the story began with a dragon, and a royal dragon at that, one destined for greatness? And then: what if that dragon ultimately lost everything and became, well, just like us?

There is a series of ‘Crispin’ books. I read the first two in their draft format, and couldn’t put them down. Neither, apparently, could the more-than 50 children on whom the stories were tested. The first book, Crispin Scales and the Golden Pearl by Ruby Blessing, was released last month. I can’t wait to buy my own copy. Go here to take a look at the funny and magical world of Crispin for yourself.

Yours truly,
Naomi xo

Thanksgiving Week

Hello, English Muse Readers!

It is the most *wonderful* time of the year, don’t you think? From November 1st to January One, I am in heaven! I love the scents of the season, the colors, the twinkle-lights, the style. I love giving gifts, I love seeing family, mailing copious amounts of cards, and I love to make ridiculous paper crafts to hang all around our house. And this year, I am also particularly thankful for all the interweb friends I’ve been meeting here on English Muse (Thanks, Tina!), on Secrets of a Belle, and in Twitterland.

A peek at what is keeping me inspired this Thanksgiving holiday.

Thanks to each and every one of you for being so nice and friendly! I wish you & yours the very best! I’d love to hear what Thanksgiving festivities are happening in your ‘neck of the woods.’ If you’re interested in what I’m doing (or if you need help preparing to baste your first turkey or stock your first bar), pop on over and say *hello!* 

As always & very sincerely yours,
Hannah B.

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