On Facebook and the blogs and in the zip code where we used to live — the zip code where you knew it was December because mail was delivered on Sunday — people are trying to come to terms with The Thing That Happened and not quite succeeding. They compulsively read the news, devour economic forecasts, worry about their children’s future. I don’t have to open their emails to know the subject is fear.
In our new neighborhood, which is 14% white, my neighbors don’t have careers, they have jobs. There are no juice bars; women sell fruit drinks on the street. You don’t hear Krishna Das spilling out of open windows. But there’s excitement in the air — my neighbors are about to celebrate the birth of their Savior.
No wall separates our old and new neighborhood. The low-income apartment house on the next block bears the name of the deceased owner of the Carlyle Hotel. A stylish friend is on the board of the East Harlem School, where middle school students help prepare vegetarian lunches and there are no locks on the lockers. I run into my rock star friend at Costco. In New York, we’re in it together.
In my tiny family, this doesn’t feel like a holiday to Go Big. It does feel like a time to conserve resources, and support causes that soon might not get much love from the government. For us, that’s Planned Parenthood and a Holiday Toy Drive for homeless kids and The Center for Reproductive Rights and the NAACP and the ACLU and The Southern Poverty Law Center and Moms Clean Air Force and Reach Out and Read and a food bank, any food bank.
I created this year’s holiday gift guide with our priorities — and, I’d bet, the priorities of many readers — in mind. The first priority is Useful Pleasure; there’s not a gift that will be quickly irrelevant on the list. Another is Value; there’s luxury here, but few big ticket items. And there’s an emphasis on small, affordable gifts that can bring Good Cheer, so the guide starts with Stocking Stuffers — 13 of them. Have at it… and bless us, every one.
Louise Fili: Perfetto Pencils
Louise Fili defines style in logos for restaurants, high-end food products and more. Think Williams-Sonoma, Sarabeth’s, Tiffany & Co., Paperless Post. For a decade, she designed the covers of Pantheon Books. She’s in the Art Directors Hall of Fame. Her signature is design that updates the classics of an earlier period. Her Perfetto pencil case and pencils is typical: very clean, very precise, very bold design. And inside a sturdy case: twelve double-sided, two-color pencils. In several flavors. For $10.64.
iKlear: Apple’s cleaning solution for iPhones, iPads, iMacs
iKlear is the cleaning product used — the only cleaning product used — at the Genius Bar and in the Apple repair shop for iPhones, iPads and iMacs. For the simple reason Apple chooses anything: This ammonia-and-alcohol-free cleaner is the best. But NOT for eyeglasses! Repeat: NOT for eyeglasses!
What to buy? Start with the Cleaning Kit: It comes with the spray fluid, cleaning cloths, travel-sized cleaning cloths and a dozen Travel Singles.
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. Well, sometimes I put coffee in at 10 PM — and it’s still steaming when I open it at my work desk the next day at 8 AM.’’
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.
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.
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.
A friend known for his strong opinions started taking Mental Clarity once a day. He reported back: “A number of situations have occurred — both work and play — that would have had me up the wall, but I’ve just shrugged my way through them. After one incident, I noted how unstressed (de-stressed) my reaction was. So there’s a rousing testimonial.”
Mental Clarity contains Brahmi, which is said to “improve capacity for attention and focus, improve the ability to withstand emotional stress, reduce nervousness and anxiety and improve immune system function.” And it has Ashwaghandha, which is said to improve memory and “protect the brain against brain cell deterioration.” In short, Ayurvedic medicine.
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 $23 at Amazon. The women’s model has a bit more style and costs a few dollars more. Unfair, but still a crazy bargain.
Kneipp Bath Oils
In 1886, Sebastian Kneipp wrote a book, “My Water Cure.” The book had enormous appeal to Europeans who sensed that our daily stresses can accumulate and cause physical and spiritual disease — and the way back to health was not Freud’s “talking cure” but lifestyle changes. “Inactivity weakens, exercise strengthens, excess harms,” he said. And so he proposed a three-pronged road to health: a healthy diet, fresh air and physical activity, rest.
The book was an instant bestseller. In 1891, products followed. Pure, of course. Bath oils, of course, used in water at exact temperatures — Kneipp was so German — in baths that lasted no more than 20 minutes. Each has a specific purpose, though we, being Americans, choose whatever colored bottle appeals that day. Eucalyptus bath oil “relieves physical fatigue.” Juniper bath oil “counters stress.” Lavender oil “soothes the skin and restores calm.”
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?
Clarins Beauty Flash Balm
A salesclerk told me that “all the celebrity make-up artists” use Clarins Beauty Flash Balm. As someone noted on a message board, “It’s like eight hours of sleep in a tube.” Sold!
Maybe You Touched Your Genitals Liquid Hand Soap
What do you do in a casino when you don’t gamble and you’re with a gang of kids?
You go to the gift shop.
At Caesars Palace this particular emporium was a combination candy store and joke shop. The kids went for the candy. I drifted over to the jokes. And there I found liquid hand soaps and sanitizers — especially “Maybe You Touched Your Genitals” Hand Soap, which features an attractive woman in a crisp white blouse and a neighborly smile shaking hands with a man in a suit.
Never Too Hungover: Hangover Prevention Drink
This is a “hangover prevention drink” described as “the official drink before you drink.”
Why it works (according to the company): “The primary cause of a hangover is a toxin called acetaldehyde, which is produced in large quantities by the liver when alcohol is ingested.”
How you take it: one 3.5 ounce bottle per 4 drinks, best taken before or while drinking, but not more than 2 a day. You can drink it straight or in a drink. And it doesn’t hurt to drink several glasses of water before you go to sleep.
Does it work? It can’t hurt.
A boy in rural England builds a snowman. At midnight, as the boy looks out his window, the snowman lights up. The boy runs outside. He invites the snowman to tour his home. Then the snowman takes his hand. And off they fly, over England, over water, to the North Pole, where Santa gives the boy a scarf. The boy and the snowman fly home. As the boy is going inside, the snowman waves — a wave of goodbye. The boy rushes into his arms and hugs him. The next morning, the snowman’s just a few lumps of coal and an old hat. Did that magical night really happen? Fantastic story. Amazing animation. The most beautiful song. This 22-minute film is the very definition of perfection. For kids 3 and up.
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. Your kids won’t miss those 15,000 words. And neither will you.
The Polar Express
The essential gift of the season for kids and the adults who love them. The story: 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 the 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.
The Book with No Pictures
A book for 5-to-8-year-old children.
A book for 5-to-8-year-old children with no pictures.
A huge bestseller.
FOR THE HOME
TaoTronics Dimmable LED Desk Lamp
The footprint is small. The design is sleek. It looks chic and expensive. It 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 $19.99.
Janis Joplin said, “What you settle for is who you are.” Her implicit point: Don’t settle.
The Diptyque candle, though not cheap, is a good buy. Because it lasts much longer than most other candles — between 50-60 hours. Because once it fills a room with scent, you can blow it out and the room will continue to be gently perfumed for hours. Because when it’s burned out, you’ve got a vase for short-stemmed flowers.
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.
Mayorga 100% Organic Cubano Coffee
This Dark Roast is good enough for espresso, more than good enough for that all-important first cup of the day, as well as all the mugs required to fuel my daily quota of words. Balzac had it right: “Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.” And 2 pounds of beans for $17? Crazy!
Alice Waters drinks Pu-erh tea. And swears by it. “My cholesterol went down 100 points since I started drinking this,” she says. ”It was extreme.” Pu-erh is one of the higher grades of tea grown in Yunnan province. It’s fermented, aged, then pressed into an inch-thick circle. It has an earthy aroma. But not unpleasantly so.
A FUN MOVIE
The Castle” is not only the funniest Australian comedy ever made — but then, how many Australian comedies can you name? — it’s one of the most amusing comedies anyone’s made in the past few years.
“The Castle” is inspired by the old saw: “A man’s home is his castle.” That is the view of Darryl Kerrigan, an Aussie laborer who lives in a house so close to an airport that planes seem to be crash-landing on his head. Who would want such real estate? As it happens, the airport would — it needs to expand. And so Darryl is offered a tidy sum of money to move.
Die Laughing: Killer Jokes for Newly Old Folks
William Novak is serious about jokes. He’s the co-author of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” still in print after 35 years. And now that he’s getting older — “I was born in 1948, which brings up an important question: How much longer can I still pretend to be middle-aged?” — he’s turned his attention to his generation. Sample: “An elderly gentleman, well dressed, nicely groomed, and rather handsome, walks into an upscale cocktail lounge. He sits down next to an elegant woman of a certain age and orders a drink. Turning toward her, he says, ‘So tell me, do I come here often?’”
Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag, plus Fake Birkin Bags
There was a waiting list for Birkin bags — at $12,000 to $200,000 — but when Michael Tonello moved to Europe, he discovered a way to jump the line at Hermès. And then he re-sold the bags. For a profit. And then he wrote a very funny book. And now I’ve found — on Amazon — fake Birkin bags for as little as $95. What a world!
COFFEE TABLE BOOKS
Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats
When we tell our family stories, most of us can’t go back more than three or four generations before we’re talking about an ancestor who crossed an ocean. Not so the owners of England’s legendary “piles.” Just consider the cover of “Great Houses Modern Aristocrats” — the young couple on the cover are Nicholas and Dinah Ashley-Cooper (and son Anthony), the 12th Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury, seated in the library of St. Giles House in Dorset, under a portrait of the first Earl. Great photos, but what kept me going through house after house — there are 16 — are the stories of the owners.
The World of Madeleine Castaing
As World War II ended, Madame Castaing opened her first boutique in Paris. Never had there been a shop like this. For one thing, it did not look like a store — it was a series of rooms that looked as if someone lived in them. And no two rooms were alike. Indeed, no single room had an identifying theme or style. English Regency tables, Swedish chairs, a Russian couch — her rooms didn’t make statements, they told stories.
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 book.
L’Artisan Nuit de Tubereuse Eau de Parfum
Years ago my wife declared allegiance to L’Artisan Nuit de Tubereuse Eau de Parfum.
My mother liked it, so I started getting it for her.
Recently I went to Barney’s and bought a bottle for my mother at $166 (with tax: $178) and another for my wife. On a whim, I checked Amazon. All L’Artisan Perfumes — not just Tuberose — are $60 on Amazon. I returned the gifts to Barneys, replaced them at Amazon. I feel smart. You can too.
Clarisonic Facial Sonic Cleansing System
A doctor friend — a distinguished doctor, at that — advised us to get this. “This isn’t just good, it’s not just useful,” he said. “It’s magic.”
That’s literal truth. How do I know? My wife uses it twice a day. And, in a fire, she’d grab the Clarisonic Pro before she looked for the cat. (Okay, we have no cat. But you get the point.)
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.
T3 Bespoke Ionic Ceramic Tourmaline Hair Dryer
A high-powered woman in media — you’ve seen her hair — wrote me to praise this dryer. I may be a man, but I can listen; I ordered one right away. And it came to pass that my wife became insanely happy at 6:30 AM. I asked her: “It feels gentle, and yet it dries my hair faster. I was told I would never have another bad hair day, and I haven’t. I don’t understand how it works, but it is easier to get my hair to do what I want it to do. The only conclusion is magic.” Actually, it’s not magic. It’s “100% crushed Tourmaline jewels.”
MADE BY HAND
“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. Her slogan: “all styles for all ages, genders & personalities.” (Samples: here.) Special orders? Ask.
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.
Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home Cooking Triumphs
“Small Victories” is a book that asks to be loved for the best possible reason — it loves you first. Julia Turshen has personality to spare, and she doesn’t hold back. Her book is a collection of the foods she likes to cook, stories about those recipes, life lessons learned from cooking, and “small victories” — little tricks and home truths that make easy recipes easier and better.
Turshen becomes your new best friend very quickly, mostly because she is so… reassuring. “If you can make spaghetti, you can also make rice, quinoa, or soba noodles,” she writes. “If you know how to grill a hamburger, you know how to grill anything.” And this, above all: “Stress makes food taste bad.”
V Is for Vegetables: Inspired Recipes & Techniques for Home Cooks — from Artichokes to Zucchini
This vegetable cookbook from Michael Anthony and Dorothy Kalins is like no other. First, in its format — as the subtitle suggests, it’s organized like an encyclopedia, with lovely illustrations and helpful pictures. Second, in its simplicity. These are recipes that require no esoteric ingredients or elaborate preparation — this is gourmet home cooking. Most original of all is the point-of-view. 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. 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.’
Park Avenue Potluck: Recipes from New York’s Savviest Hostesses
“I design every menu according to what the men will eat,” a Park Avenue hostess says. She’s a smart one. The C-level husband labors all day to keep his family in a zillion dollar co-op and a country “cottage” — if “New York’s savviest hostesses” are going to make their men go to dinner parties, better believe they’ll focus on their care and feeding.
So what we have here is a book of recipes that a Manhattan hostess could actually cook — has, in fact, actually cooked. Like a local club cookbook. If you happen to live in a neighborhood where everyone’s rich, accomplished and fit.
“Night Work” and “Night Life”
A rare event: two thrillers I could finish and admire. They’re by David C. Taylor, and they must be read in this order: Night Life, then Night Work. The continuing character is Michael Cassidy, a New York cop whose father is a rich theater producer who lives on Park Avenue and whose godfather is a Mafia don. Cassidy went to good schools, has no reason to be a cop. Which makes him independent, principled, mouthy. In the first book, we’re in the McCarthy years. In the second, Castro is coming to power. In both, you turn pages quickly.
My Mrs. Brown
Billy Norwich has written a novel about a simple, decent woman who lives in a neat, small house in a drab town in Rhode Island. Her dream: to buy an unaffordable ($8,000) Oscar de la Renta suit. There is something about Mrs. Brown and about Billy Norwich’s writing that is quietly extraordinary, and although there were pages when everything seemed just a little too neat, I never found myself putting the book down. I did find myself crying. As you may.
My Name Is Lucy Barton
The way Lucy tells the story of the nine weeks she spent in a Manhattan hospital “many years ago” turns her bedridden, passive time there into something more urgent. Ann Patchett: “I believed in the voice so completely I forgot I was reading a story. I felt like I was being pulled aside by a friend who was saying, ‘Look, there’s something I have to tell you.’”
Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s only novel was rejected by Italy’s most distinguished publishers, so he died in 1957 without learning that “The Leopard” would become the best selling novel in Italian history — the Sicilian “Gone With the Wind” — and that it would be named by The Observer as one of “the 10 best historical novels” and that Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film adaptation would win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Don Fabrizio — modeled after the author’s great-grandfather — is an aristocrat, but not a snob. The first sentence of the novel is a prayer said at the end of the daily service in the chapel of his palace: “Nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Now, and in the hour of our death. Amen.” A few pages later, a dead soldier is found in the garden, and, like Don Fabrizio, we understand what this means: Garibaldi’s revolution has reached his island. The world of Don Fabrizio’s ancestors is coming to an end.
Georgia: A novel of Georgia O’Keeffe
This uniquely American chronicle — told by O’Keeffe — starts with the importance of a good story and a killer bod. Does that sound uncannily like the techniques used to make careers for women a century later? Yes, and to degree that may shock purists, this is a book about Branding and Marketing, the first two commandments of success in the art world and our world. A book about you, perhaps, if you’re female and have a man in your life who wants the best for you and knows how you can get it. And, in the end, a book about a talent so fierce it crushed pretty much everything in its path — a rare story of artistic triumph.
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.
The New York Times review begins: “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.” The book is now a year old. And in a year you haven’t read it? What are you waiting for — the movie? Shame!
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!’ Great system, great price for a boatload of features. Had to thank you!”
Filson Duffle Bags
Filson products last a lifetime. And if they break, Filson replaces them. Spread the price over 20 years, and anything from Filson is a bargain. Because the Tin Cloth is virtually bulletproof. Certainly waterproof. Rustproof brass zipper and storm flap closure. Two inner pockets. Rugged handles and shoulder strap.
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. 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.”
So what’s the fuss about? A 22-ounce, oil finish, cotton twill bag. Trim and tabs in tougher-than-your-beard bridle leather. An industrial strength brass zipper. A detachable strap. And room for stuff: 2 full length interior open pockets; 1 interior business card pocket; 1 interior calculator/cell phone pocket; 2 full width exterior open side pockets; 2 small exterior end utility pockets. Translation: It will hold a 15-inch MacBook Pro, a power adapter, a notebook and a Kindle – in other words, your life.
ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF
HeadButler.com: The 100 Essentials
I read through a decade of Butler reviews, 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.
Want more choices? Here are 10 de-stressers.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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