November 18, 2010


The Kingfisher Illustrated Horse & Pony Encyclopedia. By Sandy Ransford. Kingfisher. $24.99.

A Good Horse. By Jane Smiley. Illustrations by Elaine Clayton. Knopf. $16.99.

Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow—A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix. By Gary Golio. Illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. Clarion. $16.99.

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney. By Howard Sounes. Da Capo. $29.95.

Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book. Edited by Sean Manning. Da Capo. $15.95.

13 Words. By Lemony Snicket. Illustrated by Maira Kalman. Harper. $16.99.

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus. By Chris Plehal. Pictures by James Bernardin. Harper. $16.99.

The Greatest Snowman in the World! By Peter Hannan. Harper. $16.99.

Bon Appétit Desserts. By Barbara Fairchild. Photography by Con Poulos. Andrews McMeel. $40.

     Some books absolutely cry out to be given as gifts – maybe not for just anybody, but for people with specific likes and preferences. And what a great time of year this is to try matching up just the right special book with just the right special person. Know a young horse lover? Get him or her The Kingfisher Illustrated Horse & Pony Encyclopedia, which contains beautiful photographs and excellent information on all things equine: types of horses and ponies, feeding and grooming, health care, training, riding and more. Here is a place to find out about the Akhal-Teke of Turkmenistan, learn how to remove mud and stains from a horse’s or pony’s coat, see how to pick up and clean out a hoof (the pictorial illustrations are very well done), get step-by-step information on putting on a halter, and much more. Everything from proper position when mounted to the basics of arena riding is here, all very clearly explained and shown with appropriate and well-chosen photographs. It would be hard to find a better introductory book for someone thinking of learning to ride and considering owning a horse or pony. But of course The Kingfisher Illustrated Horse & Pony Encyclopedia is nonfiction, so it lacks the drama of a horse-focused novel such as A Good Horse, Jane Smiley’s sequel to The Georges and the Jewels. Horse lovers who are not seriously expecting to become horse owners (and even some who are) will enjoy this equine mystery, which includes many characters from the previous book but can be read on its own. Smiley, herself a horse owner, brings back eighth-grader Abby Lovitt and the horse Black George, who here shows himself such a natural jumper that Abby expects her father to sell him soon. The mystery element of the book involves the young foal Jack, whose mare may have been stolen – and if so, Abby may lose him, too. Set in California in the 1960s, A Good Horse includes coming-of-age elements similar to those in The Georges and the Jewels, such as Abby’s difficulties with her parents’ (especially her mother’s) religious narrow-mindedness – which includes, among other issues, worries about Abby participating in a Shakespeare play. But it is the horses that are the central plot elements here, and Elaine Clayton’s fine chapter-opening illustrations do an excellent job of setting scenes and keeping the equine focus, showing (among many other things) a water jump, rope halter, hay net, saddle bag, stall door, whip, bit, bridle and set of farrier’s tools. Abby’s horse-oriented instincts eventually bring her a happy ending here, and young teenage horse lovers will have a good time being swept up in all the excitement and emotional turmoil.

     No horse interests? How about something in music? For young readers, Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow—A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix is a celebration of a talented child, with splashy mixed-media illustrations reminiscent of graffiti and of some of the art of the 1960s. Gary Golio’s text runs all over the place on pages that are sometimes laid out horizontally, sometimes vertically, providing a visual focus on Javaka Steptoe’s art. Golio writes of young Jimmy (not yet Jimi) strumming a broom to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” of watching a guitar player and “feel[ing] the music tingling in his fingertips,” of developing his own style until “his playing became bold as lightning.” The book is sprinkled with Hendrix quotes – and concludes, quite deliberately for its young audience, on an uplifting and positive note. End pages for adults talk about Hendrix’s death from drugs at age 27, somewhat minimizing the reality of what killed him (“an unfortunate combination of prescription drugs and alcohol”) but noting that “addiction is a curable disease” and even offering as resources some Web links and suggested books. The final five pages of Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow—A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix are as downbeat as the rest of the book is upbeat – parents will need to decide how to balance the elements of Hendrix’s life and music for their children.

     For parents themselves, a really thick musical gift (600-plus pages) is Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney, Howard Sounes’ exhaustively researched and sometimes exhausting-to-read biography of a musician whose relaxed public image is the opposite of Jimi Hendrix’s – and, Sounes argues, far from the whole story of who and what McCartney is. Sounes shows the singer to be both moodier and more manipulative than most people realize, tracing his roots back to his Liverpudlian birth in 1942, through the Beatles years, and all the way to the present, when Sir James Paul McCartney appears pretty much to have it all. The words “intimate life” in the subtitle are a clue that the focus here will be as much on McCartney’s personal life (romances, family issues, two marriages, relationships within the Beatles and among band members after the breakup, and all that tabloid fodder) as on his music. Interestingly, more than half the book takes place after the end of the Beatles, so the book is packed with post-Beatles tales, like this typical example from 1979: “There was a Beatles reunion that spring in the neighbouring county of Surrey, where Eric Clapton was celebrating his marriage to George’s Harrison’s ex-wife. After being married to George for eight years, Pattie had left the former Beatle in1974 for his close friend, three years after which George married his secretary Olivia Arias. …The guests included the cuckold Harrison, whose friendship with Eric and Pattie had survived the changing of the guard, a testimony to the freewheeling spirit of the decade in which they’d all come to maturity.” This is typical of Sounes’ style: name-packed, gossipy, interpretative but not judgmental, and very detail-oriented. Sounes does not hesitate to say what McCartney and others think about this or that, even though the author could scarcely know their thoughts for sure; but this is not a work of journalism. It is a somewhat analytical, somewhat celebratory celebrity biography – which fans of McCartney will surely find intriguing if they receive it as a gift, even though the book as a whole is a bit much of a muchness.

     A much, much shorter and less ambitious book could make a wonderful gift for a more literary friend. This is Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, which is in fact bound so plainly that it almost looks like a work in progress. But what joy this little book (not much over 200 pages) includes for those who love today’s authors! In tiny little essays, literally just a few pages long apiece, these writers discuss some favorite books that are scarcely surprises and some that are absolutely fascinating picks. In the former category are Joyce Maynard’s choice of the Bible, Sean Manning’s of Ulysses, Philipp Meyer’s of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Karen Joy Fowler’s of The Once and Future King, among others. In the latter are Rabih Alameddine’s selection of The Carpetbaggers, Terrence Holt’s of The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, Eighth Edition, Ed Park’s of Dungeon Masters Guide, and Sarah Manguso’s of Believe It or Not! – and others. Quirky and even odd, some of the picks, but the authors seem quite sincere in naming them and explaining why, with the result that Bound to Last not only provides insight into 30 of today’s writers but also can make the recipient of this gift look at the books the writers choose as their favorites in a new light.

     If Bound to Last were child-oriented, it would likely include an essay by Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler), whose A Series of Unfortunate Events remains popular and has inspired all sorts of imitators, commentators and denigrators. A fascinatingly different sort of Snicket book, 13 Words, could make a great gift for this author’s young fans. Not surprisingly, many of these are scarcely ordinary words: while “bird” and “dog” are two of them, others are “despondent,” “haberdashery,” “panache” and “mezzo-soprano.” The story bounces from absurdity to absurdity, starting with a sad bird whose dog friend leaves him in a room with 11 ladders that are to be painted in 10 colors, continuing with a convertible-driving goat in a spiffy jacket, and ending with a song (sung by the mezzo-soprano, of course) that pulls all 13 apparently unrelated words together. A rather strange book, forthrightly illustrated by Maira Kalman in a way that nicely complements Snicket’s text, 13 Words will be great seasonal (and after-seasonal) fun for the right sort of young recipient.

     And let us not forget specifically seasonal giftable books. Some would be winners at any time of year, such as Chris Plehal’s Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus, based on one of the most famous American newspaper editorials of all time. With that editorial as the narrative’s foundation, and illustrations in which James Bernardin makes all the big-headed, huge-eyed kids look like adorable dolls or lifelike puppets, the book tells a fictionalized story of little Virginia and the doubts raised in her mind by “Charlotte, the meanest, bossiest, snootiest girl in town.” The distraught Virginia decides to write to the newspaper after getting no satisfaction from library research or from talking to a street-corner Santa who is collecting for the poor and has given up his coat to someone who needed it more. Virginia’s father tells her, “‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so,’” so Virginia writes the paper to ask whether Santa Claus is real – and after some behind-the-scenes newspaper drama involving a hard-nosed editor and “Scraggly Santa” (the kind-hearted one who gave away his coat), the famous editorial appears. Its words, plus a surprising and magical gift, make Virginia very happy indeed – and will make readers of this book joyous as well. Plehal takes plenty of liberties with the tale (for one thing, the editorial appeared on September 21, 1897, so the weather was not cold and snowy, as it is in the book), but they are all in a good cause and help make Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus a wonderful winter gift.

     Yet it is not necessary to believe in Santa Claus, or celebrate Christmas, to find delightful winter presents – such as The Greatest Snowman in the World! Peter Hanna’s book is a lark from start to finish, featuring Charles Chinchilla (whose mouth makes up most of his body) and his best friends, Elvis Wormly and Babs McBoid, all of them determined to create the snowman of the book’s title. Everything that Hanna writes – and draws – goes deliciously wrong, starting with a huge snow mound that Babs pronounces “the WORST snowman in the world” and continuing as Charles (who absolutely refuses to give in to negative thinking) assembles materials for a nose, hair, a beard, X-ray eyes, antennae, and lots of additional feet and other appendages. What results is a hilarious-looking snow monstrosity with parts and pieces sticking out every which way – and which then starts to melt, so the three friends disassemble their work to put it in the freezer. Using Elvis. Who assumes the shape of a slingshot. And everything becomes a complete mess – except for the surprise happy ending, in which it turns out that the real greatest snowman in the world is one the friends make not out of ice but out of ice cream.

     And if that puts the gift-giver in you in mind of desserts, by all means consider – for a very, very special person – making a gift of the aptly subtitled “cookbook for all things sweet and wonderful,” Bon Appétit Desserts. This is an absolute delight from start to finish – you can gain five pounds just by thumbing through it and gazing at the pictures. “Mouth-watering” barely begins to describe these luscious-looking, beautifully photographed sweet treats, which are rated from one whisk (“very easy to make…perfect for the novice”) to four (“showstopping…for the expert baker”). Clear, easy-to-understand definitions of dessert ingredients (explaining, for instance, just what cornstarch is and why white chocolate “is technically not chocolate”) are complemented by a list of useful dessert-making equipment, from ramekins to cake pans to spice grinders and much more. Then comes a well-illustrated section on techniques for making the perfect dessert – and then the recipes. Oh, the recipes! Cakes and pies, custards and cookies, brownies and candy, frozen desserts and fruit desserts – they all look absolutely splendid and are very clearly described, from ingredient lists to detailed instructions on what to do and what to watch out for. Page after page is filled with helpful hints and information: the benefits of using room-temperature eggs, a good place to buy pliable plastic decorating sheets called transfers, good wines to go with cake (“make sure that what’s in the glass is as sweet if not sweeter than what’s on the plate”), and much, much, much more. This is an amazingly interesting cookbook, including many very unusual desserts as well as excellent recipes for many common ones, and the end-of-book source list for baking and decorating supplies, ingredients, gadgets and more (including both phone numbers and Web sites) is, in and of itself, a simply superb offering. You won’t find a more delicious gift for the holidays than this one, and you can be sure that any food-loving recipient will thank you for Bon Appétit Desserts throughout the holiday season and for a long time to come. A really long time: the book runs nearly 700 oversize pages and weighs six pounds – heavy enough to use in exercises to help take off some of the weight that overindulgence in the wonderful recipes is quite capable of putting on.

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