December 12, 2004

The Brainwash holiday gift guide

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

Some people are already finished their holiday shopping. You know the type–list made in February, presents purchased by October, package mailed by Thanksgiving. They probably even hit the after-Christmas sales to stock up for next year, rather than buying last-last-minute gifts for friends they’ve put off until after the holiday.

For the rest of us–those of us who can be found running around the mall with a wild look in our eyes on December 24–here are some gift-giving suggestions. Many of them are particularly well suited to the conservative or libertarian on your list. Most of these ideas are books. Books are easy to wrap, easy to ship–and shouldn’t people be reading more, anyway? (They are one of those gifts that make the gift-giver feel very noble.)

Let’s begin with two topics just about everyone loves–history and conspiracy history. These days, it seems that if people are reading, they’re reading history. But don’t get them yet another book about the Founding Fathers. Someone else is bound to have purchased the latest presidential biography for them anyway. How about a handsome print instead? A framed copy of Washington Crossing the Delaware, for example, might please the history buff on your list. Or how about Danny Danziger and John Gillingham’s recent 1215: The Year of Magna Carta? Your recipient can learn about one of the most important documents of freedom, one that preceded the American revolution by centuries.

Don’t bother buying The Da Vinci Code this season–everyone who wants to has already read it. But do think about the just-released, dense biography Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind by Charles Nicholl.

Those more interested in literary history rarely tire of reading about one of Western civilization’s greatest achievements–Shakespeare. Two highly regarded books on the bard of Avon have been published this year. Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is an original reading of the man’s life. In Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber gives a critical look at all 38 plays. And one of the most beloved of writers to conservatives, the comic genius P.G. Wodehouse, is the subject of a new biography, by Robert McCrum.

Who among us doesn’t know a lawyer, or at least a budding lawyer? If your lawyer is in need of relaxation after billing 250 hours last month, get him Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders by John Mortimer. Rumpole is a British barrister and the subject of over a hundred comic stories so far. This newest details his very first case. If, on the other hand, your budding lawyer craves ever more legal ideas, get him Scalia Dissents, a collection of the iconoclastic Supreme Court justice’s most worthy opinions, edited by Kevin A. Ring.

There is much recent fiction written by authors on the right, broadly speaking. The literary event of the season, of course, is Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons an expose of college life, and its focus on sex at the expense of scholarship. The always-amusing Christopher Buckley’s Florence of Arabia is a send-up of Middle East policy–what could be more timely? And Mark Helprin, sometime Wall Street Journal columnist and lover of beauty, has published his first short story collection in some time, The Pacific and Other Stories.

But perhaps you’re looking for fiction for that libertarian–or libertine–on your list. The Inner Circle is T.C. Boyle’s well-reviewed novel about the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. And John Updike is back with another book about sex in the suburbs, this one titled Villages.

A cookbook is always a fine choice for anyone who doesn’t cringe at the idea of cooking. Get them a tome by one of two anti-establishment figures. Nigella Lawson is a British girl who loves to eat. So her Feast: Food to Celebrate Life is bound to be good. And one book I’ve been looking forward to for months, strictly for literary purposes, is Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking. Bourdain is the bad boy of American cookery and the author of the must-read restaurant tell-all Kitchen Confidential. But be forewarned: Bourdain has opinions and isn’t afraid to share them. Anyone who prefers boneless meat in Daube Provencal, for example, is a “poor deluded bastard.” For something a little more traditional, try Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine: Recipes and Reminiscences from the Inn at Little Washington, and let them cook food from one of the country’s best restaurants. Whether they would want to attempt the Inn’s infamous (and incredible) Seven Deadly Sins dessert is another story, however.

Complete sets of anything always make nice gifts. This season two gift sets particularly stand out: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes and The Complete Aubrey and Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian. Even better are complete collections of cartoons. Fantagraphics is issuing the complete Peanuts comic strips in two books per year for the next dozen years. This year you can read the strips from 1950 to 1954. And perhaps this year’s most enjoyable book is The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, a study of the century through cartoon. The entire catalogue of the magazine’s art is included on CD-ROM.

I never complain when someone brings beauty into my life. Give them some beautiful prose with Bob Dylan’s uniformly lauded autobiography, Chronicles, Volume I. Give them something beautiful to look at–and think about–with Umberto Eco’s History of Beauty, a gorgeous book with full-color reproductions on every page, and Eco’s thoughts on the fascinating subject. Give them some beautiful music, appropriate to the season. A new recording of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise has just been released, with the tenor Ian Bostridge accompanied by Leif Ove Andsnes on piano.

Or you could be practical. The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus is something most wordsmiths must be drooling over. In addition to the thesaurus, it includes authors like Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Michael Dirda, and Simon Winchester writing amusing essays on words that particularly interest them. The Experts’ Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do by Samantha Ettus features real experts giving great advice on a range of subjects. Debbi Fields teaches how to bake chocolate chip cookies, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger teaches how to read a newspaper, and Howie Mandel teaches how to tell a joke. (Okay, perhaps not all the essayists are experts after all.)

Let’s face it–when you buy a child a gift, you’re partly buying for the parents, too. So why not get something they all will enjoy? Ricky Gervais, the genius behind the British comedy The Office has written a children’s book, Flanimals. Even better, you have to order from Canada or Great Britain to get it. Or you could really splurge, and purchase the 26 discs of Faerie Tale Theatre on DVD. Remember this 1980s children’s series hosted by Shelley Duvall? With episodes directed by Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola and actors like Jeff Goldblum and Malcolm McDowell playing Big Bad Wolfs, it is impossible to go wrong. Parents will love the nostalgia, children will love the stories.

And if you really want to impress someone this Christmas, your choice is obvious: the Criterion Collection gift set. Available only on, it includes every Criterion DVD, minus the out-of-print titles. That’s 241 movies on 282 discs, all of the highest quality. After all, how you could give a gift this Christmas that didn’t have a “Certificate of Authenticity”?

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is