The papers and mailboxes are full of invitations to join a gruesome ritual to turn what should be the pleasant experience of buying gifts for people we love, or even just like, into joyless, manic drudgery.
One way to avoid this, at least for the brighter recipients on your list, is to give books. For the more than quarter-century I’ve been writing a book column, I always offer my suggestions at this time of year. But what makes something a good "gift" book? Who knows? Possibly it’s something a little more expensive, or possibly something that flatters the taste or talents of the recipients, or maybe it’s just something you’re sure they’ll like. The only thing I suggest does not make a thoughtful gift is something that will be read once and tossed, like a pop-lit novel.
That said, today I have what I believe are a couple of real winners. The first has strong Greenwich ties. As you may know, under its new regime, the Bruce Museum has become a real player as a venue for great art, with exhibitions such as “Reclaimed” in 2008, paintings from the collection of the great Dutch art dealer and collector Jacques Goudstikker (1897-1940) which had been stolen by the Nazis and reclaimed by his daughter-in-law after horrendous difficulties. As with other Bruce exhibitions, such as a later one on French portrait art in the 20th century, Yale University Press joined in producing a handsome and informative "art book" based specifically on the exhibition.
Well, we have another: through early next year the Bruce Museum is hosting an exhibition of the Maida and George Abrams’ Collection of “Drawings by Rembrandt, His Students, and Circle” which is also the title of this beautiful book by Bruce Museum’s own Peter Sutton along with William W. Robinson, curator of drawings at Harvard’s art gallery.
Remember: this is Rembrandt! Mr. Sutton calls him “one of the most inventive and versatile artists who ever lived … a keen observer of human emotions and their transmission through gesture and expression.” What makes these drawings so fascinating (and as drawings they can be enjoyed in book form almost as well in the original, whereas large paintings are inevitably somewhat diminished when reduced to a manageable page) is that with even minimal reflection one can follow the great artist’s creative process - one key to the ‘great masters’ is that they worked hard at their craft; no tossing of splodges of paint for them!
So not only would Drawings by Rembrandt, His Students and His Circle be an elegant and flattering gift on its own, how about this as a suggestion for a Christmas/Hanukkah/ Kwanzaa treat: get him or her the book, go to lunch on the Avenue, and then nip down to the Bruce Museum and see the exhibition - you have until Jan. 8, 2012.
My other gift suggestion plays to the refrain that a good cookbook is a pretty sure-fire hit. I recommend Essential Pepin by Jacques Pepin for your consideration. Pepin was born in 1935 in the handsome little Cathedral city of Bourg-en-Bresse where his parents had a restaurant (it’s 40-plus miles from France’s second city Lyon), and came to this country, where he picked up an M.A. degree from Columbia plus a reputation as a serious chef both in top-drawer restaurants and on television (he did a memorable PBS series with his friend, the late Julia Child). He now lives up the Sound in Madison, CT, and is probably regarded as one of the greats of the cooking world — marked by talent, comprehensible recipes, and an absence of the gimmicks that seem to accompany a lot of "celebrity" chefs.
Essential Pepin is a big book, sensibly organized from soup to desserts, and includes recipes as simple as how to roast a really good turkey (and make a good stuffing) and then use the left-overs imaginatively, or as fancy (but doable by any competent cook!) as making a Grand Marnier soufflé — and saving money by making your own orange liqueur instead of using the pricey stuff — or a baked Alaska. As a bonus for people who like such things, this handsome book also comes with an instructional DVD in which le grand Jacques himself demonstrates “all the techniques that cooks need to know.”
Perhaps Pepin could even persuade the recipient to skip a repetition of the November turkey and go with “roast stuffed goose … the classic main course for Christmas in France.” He not only tells you how to roast a goose — only inept cooking supports the myth that roast goose is ‘greasy ‘ — and gives a recipe for a rich, almost pate-like, stuffing to complement the richer flavor of goose than of turkey. Speaking of turkey, though, if you accept the suggestion to give special books, you can skip the horrors of holiday shopping, stay home, have a nice hot turkey sandwich and watch the news reports of stampedes and tramplings.