Holiday Books to Inform, Delight, Amuse, Inspire and More

Cookbooks make a great holiday gift for almost everyone, from the student setting out into a first apartment, to newlyweds, to anyone who wants to learn more about cooking, to skilled cooks, to those who need to come up with food for family, friends, and holidays. I used to be a member of the James Beard House in New York. This non-profit offers members the opportunity to enjoy the efforts of some of the best chefs in the country, who cook right in James Beard’s own kitchen. When you are eating in his home, you feel his presence. It is a unique experience and one that I’ll never forget.  In the Essential James Beard: 450 Recipes That Shaped the Tradition of American Cooking (St. Martins Press 2012) you’ll get that “up close and personal” feeling with the recipes that have been chosen to delight serious cooks, everywhere.  Unlike so many iconic cookbooks, this one has a little bit of everything, from appetizers to desserts, compiled for a dozen James Beard Cookbooks by the James Beard Estate and Mr. Beard’s longtime editor John Ferrone, who acted as editorial consultant. The thing that I really like about this book is that the James Beard recipes are impressive, but, unlike other iconic cookbooks such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, they are do-able even if you’re not terribly skilled at cooking. Some of the recipes, such as Sardines With Mint, might not be for everyone’s palate, but An easy Sauteed Trout (you can substitute another fish) is a perfectly easy and tasty weekenday main dish. Another James Beard recipe, Perfect Roast Chicken, takes the ordinary, and makes it special (but easy) with bacon, lemon and tarragon. These are just a few tiny examples of what you’ll find. If you’re just beginning to discover the joy of cooking, this book belongs on your bookshelf. If you’re an experienced cook, Beard’s recipes will inspire you to use your talents and re-imagine some of what he offers, your own way. The book is a hefty 380 pages, so many the decision not to include photos was simply economic, but I do wish there were some illustrative photos, if only of the James Beard House!

It is hard not to really like It’s Hard Not To Hate You by Valerie Frankel (St. Martin’s Press, 2011 in paperback 2012).   Frankel has a distinctive “voice” that feels personal and yet, serious. A departure from her novels such as Four of A Kind, this book is about the author, and her challenges in real life dealing with toxic feelings and people that surround her.  It takes a lot of courage to write about yourself instead of fictionalizing your feelings, and I give her high marks for boldness and honesty. But the book also takes the reader on Frankel’s continuing journey to make life easier, more successful and more importantly, more satisfying.  Happiness means different things to different people and the author has had her share of difficulties. But in the end, she realizes that only she can make the changes that give her peace and satisfaction.  Readers can simply follow Frankel as she does battle with anger,despair and annoying people, but they may also relate to her feelings. Who hasn’t been dissed by someone doing a “Williamsburg” (in other words, completely ignoring you because to them you’re not even “worthy” of recognition–I am using the term all the time now), or feeling green with envy, or feeling frustrated with someone who has some control over you (e.g. a boss, an editor, a spouse?  Frankel lays all of her issues out, using Brooklyn Heights (an area I know extremely well) as the backdrop.  In It’s Hard Not To Hate You Frankel herself mentions that she doesn’t feel so successful, but I love Frankel’s writing. As a writer who would love Frankel’s talent, I am somewhat jealous of her many published books, but I am sure if i met her, I would still like her! Can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Although I’m hardly an avid cook, but I love recipe books, especially big,. fat meaty ones like Taste of Home Best Loved Recipes 1485 Favorites from the World’s #1 Food & Entertaining Magazine (Readers Digest 2012). The book has 928 pages and is hard bound, including lots of color photos. The sheer size and scope of the recipes makes drool-worthy armchair chef reading, even if all you do in reality is reheat prepared foods or order in.  The table of contents lays out a dizzing array of recipes from appetizers to soups, sandwiches or potlucks, dinner parties, brunch, and every conceivable occasion in-between.  But as I waded through the recipes, I realized that a lot of these sound delicious, but they are not for the time-pressed or the health conscious. Many take some time to prepare. For the busy person who comes home tired and hungry, recipes with a number of different steps, not to mention the sheer amount of bowls and implements left to wash, aren’t realistic for a weekday dinner for most families. Some do use slow cookers. Another issue is that many of the recipes are are not heart healthy. With obesity on the rise, while many of the recipes are delectable prize winners, too many items are “cheesy”  and “creamy” or use a lot of sugar. That’s not a bad thing in small doses,or for a dinner party treat, but certainly not for daily consumption. Those who are lactose intolerant, those with gluten allergies, or those trying to limit their fat and sugar intake, will find some recipes that are appealing, but maybe not enough. Still, as a holiday gift idea, the book might be an investment in ideas for holiday treats and special dinners.


Looking for a little pick me up for a travel lover? Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales From Great Fiction Writers, Edited by Dan George (Lonely Planet 2012), was just published this month. It’s a collection of original travel stories told by 32 well known and somewhat famous fiction writers, including: Isabel Allende, Peter Matthiessen, Alexander McCall Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, Téa Obreht, and DBC Pierre. Like many compilations, not all the stories in this collection personally appealed to me, but since they are all short stories, you can just pass on one, and move on to the next.  In case some of the authors aren’t familiar to you, there is a brief bio on each. Some are better than others, but But in the end, it is the story that matters, and how it is recounted, not who tells it. Perhaps your family trips to the shore, or to Disneyland, are tame in comparison to a trip by Stefan Merrill Block about Shakespeare in Fairbanks,Alaska, or a visit (by Joyce Carol Oates) to San Quentin, and lots of interesting tales of travel and travel mishaps, but you’ll enjoy these writer’s adventures from a safe distance, through the pages of this paperback.

I forgot that I had a copy of I Used to Know That- Stuff You Forgot From School, by Caroline Taggart ( The Reader’s Digest Association Inc. 2009).  It’s not a new book, and even more sadly, it languished in my “to read” pile for a long while before I realized I’d never reviewed it in my book review column.  But when I finally found it in my queue pile a few days ago and started to read it, I realized that this little book is not only amusing to graze through, but it actually does have a lot of practical information that most of us had in our heads at one time earlier in life, but didn’t use (or didn’t use often) and so, we forgot it.  Quick!  Tell me the first president that actually occupied the White House? (it was John Adams, in 1800). Quick!  What is aliteration? (when a number of words in quick succession begin with the same letter or the same letter is repeated). The author picks up the best bits of math, science, literature, history, english, geography and general studies. You may be amazed (or somewhat chagrined) that you can’t immediate remember some of this invaluable information, but no worries– the book brings it all back. This is a really fun gift idea and a good reference book to have at the ready on your own desk.  Wish there was a second volume with even more things I can’t remember!

Vanity Fare A Novel of Lattes, Literature and Love by Megan Caldwell (Harper Collins *late December, 2012) is a cute, feel-good chick lit novel about Molly Hagen, a recent divorcee who needs to find the money to keep her young son satisfied, and pay the rent. She lands a job as a copywriter for a new bakery, and comes up with a clever marketing idea. While she doesn’t feel completely secure in her abilities to do the job, she forges ahead because she has to.  She soon finds out that coming up with a concept, and executing it, is only half the task. The other is dealing with the “crusty” (pun intended) but attractive British Pastry chef and his business partner. Molly find both of these men equally “tasty” along with the bakery items she is promoting.  She spends time drinking lattes and learning about life, love and career. A happy ending (after some predictable angst) is in store, of course. There are also recipes that relate to the various chapters in the book and they are tasty (for real).  It is a cute read for your winter vacation, or for a frosty Winter weekend.

Kitchy souvenirs come home in overhead compartments, luggage racks and suitcases every day of the year.  It appears that Americans, in particular, can’t get enough of these tacky trinket. In Crap Souvenirs compiled by Doug Lansky Perigee, 2012) the author spent 2 1/2 years of his life working his way around the world, after which he become a very young syndicated columnist with his “Vagabond” column reaching more than 10 million readers in 40 major newspaper. As a writer, it’s hard not to be jealous.  But Crap Souvenirs, The Ultimate Kitsch Collection,  really does make a great gag-ish gift for the hard-to-buy-for people on your list. This little, full color paperback offers a world tour of the type of souvenirs you see and wonder: “what kind of warped mind created this and what kind of crazy person spends good money for it?”   From a bottle opener featuring Belgiam’s famous Mannekin Pis boy, to a “redneck bottle opener” in wood featuring false teeth, you can’t get enough when you start to flip through the pages. My favorite might be monkey poop chocolates from Japan. Who could resist such a thoughtful gift?!!  The book won’t take you long to flip through, but it’s great “bathroom reading” after you’ve amused yourself. Or re-gift it to someone else. They may be momentarily annoyed, but they’ll love the book!

More substantive both in form and size, but no less colorful or cute, is Hello Kitty Hello Art! Works of Art Inspired by Sanrio Characters Complied by Roger Gastman (Abrams, 2012). By now, practically everyone on the planet is familiar with the iconic Hello Kitty face, but Sanrio has spawned plenty of other comic book style characters.  These have been re-imagined in 64 color pages by 80 contemporary artistsm  in various media, including canvas, spray paint, watercolor and ink, aerosol and acrylics on wood, mixed media, oil on panel, and silk screen and yes, even candy. I sheepishly admit, I’m not an anime or comic book savvy writer, but the sheer variety of designs and characters are almost like a Rorschach test that will get your own imagination pumping. Some of the art is sweet and tart, such as the Sanrio Dream by Junko Mizuno (the only artist I recognized by name), with Hello Kitty in a dream sequence with a bunch of other sweet little pastel characters, but under a “branch” of scary looking bats.  My favorite might be the Hello Kitty Jelly Bellys on Panel by Jason Mecier called Dokidoki Yummychums that are figures of McDonald’s type fries, hamburger and drinks that wink, smile and look, well…sort of yummy in a crazy way.!   At the back of the book there is also an interesting interview with tattoo artists Grant Cobb and Charlie Roberts, along with a gallery of tattoo art and artists.  This book will delight teens and everyone else who loves anime and cartoons, or just fun, art! with a Srp. of $40.00, it’s a perfect gift for the holidays.

Have you ever seen mega-yachts moored in a chic harbor in an exotic locale and wondered what kind of person owns such a vessel?   Have you ever dreamed of dining in the main salon, or perhaps at the stern, on a beautifully appointed table? Even if the odds of your owning a mega yacht or even being a guest on board are slim, you can still get a insight into what it’s like to live and work on-board, and you can even dine like a yacht owner, if you have the book Menus and Memoirs of  Yacht Chef, by Marianne J. Gardner ( 2011). The self-published, spiral bound book is not just interesting for the variety of recipes it offer, but also for the travel-inspired menus and stories from the author’s 20 years of professional cooking about yachts. The recipes are easy enough for a home chef to follow, and the front of the book includes all sorts of basic cooking “how-tos” plus some really nice spice mixes you can pre-prepare and keep at home, but the parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the descriptions of the yachts and cruising destinations, and the author’s descriptions of the owner’s provisioning preferences, the work on the boat, and information about the owner and guests.  It really does give you a peek into a world most of us will never experience. At a suggested retail price of $39.99, I wish the book had been a bound, not just a spiral bound, but still, the contents make for great reading and a great gift. Nicely done.

Americans are fascinated by the French. Love them or loathe them, French people exude a certain mystery for us, from their style, to how they dine, think, and live. Harriet Welty Rochefort is an American who married a Frenchmen and by default, thinks she has figured out what makes the French tick (from an American point of view).  I didn’t read her first book, French Toast, but I just finished Joie de Vivre, Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French  (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012). The idea is a cute one and the author is an adept writer, but I couldn’t stop thinking that Ms. Welty expresses her French experience through very myopic eyes.  She is, after all, not just an American, but one who lived in Iowa  as a young woman, and who traveled to France right out of school and never returned to America.  Instead of growing up and getting “polished” in an urban center of the United State such New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago where she would really see how life is in the “big cities,” she married and stayed in France, living outside of the City proper.  When the author observes  the things that make French people so unique and full of “Joie de Vivre” she seems to forget  that sophisticated Americans do many of the same things, the same way as the French she is so enchanted with.  I just kept thinking that she didn’t have a holistic view of life in America, since she really never lived here as an adult woman.  Americans come off as boorish oafs who have no fun, can’t take a joke, and never stop in a cafe for coffee, or dress just because it makes them nice to look at. It’s just, untrue (and a bit obnoxious)!  While Welty has some interesting observations of “us vs them” I am also fairly certain from my own observations in Paris, that not every French man, woman or child really lives, thinks and loves the way she depicts.  Large urban centers, including Paris, have plenty of harried, anxiety prone people who balance too many things, don’t take enough time for themselves, and hardly ever prepare multi-course feasts for their families and for dinner parties. Some certainly may do so, but saying that makes the French full of “Joie de Vivre” is as silly as saying all New York Women wear stilettos even when they have to run for a cab.

About Advicesisters

Alison Blackman Dunham aka. “Advice Sister Alison” and “The Advice Sisters” is a writer, photographer, online advisor, and lifestyles consultant. She has built her reputation offering readers a unique perspective on life, in print, in person and through the camera lens. Her focus is on advice, beauty, fashion, lifestyles, relationships and things that help make life easier, more successful and more fun. Please follow Alison on Twitter @advicesisters and check out her other web (advice-related) sites: &

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