Nov 28, 2012

by English Muse

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…



This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 28th, 2012 at 8:05 am. It is filed under Jesse's Book Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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

  1. Tina says:


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