OOPS. I had my megabanks mixed up in a previous Tweet. Jamie Dimon is not CEO of Citibank.
To set things right, here's Matt Taibbi with a post on the antics of JPMorgan Chase.
Essentially, Jamie Dimon handed Birmingham, Alabama a Chase credit card and then bribed its local officials to run up a gigantic balance, leaving future residents and those residents’ children with the bill. As a result, the citizens of Jefferson County will now be making payments to Chase until the end of time.
B.A. Nilsson, who regularly reviews restaurants, plays, concerts and writes about food for Metroland, has a blog! It's called Words and Music, so do yourself a favor and bookmark it.
In the spirit of the season, when looking back is often more fun than looking ahead, B.A. has excavated a delightful piece about taking his dogs to the mall for a photo with Santa.
My parents forced me into a photo session with Santa when I was four and I have resented them for it ever since. The traditional revenge, of course, is to inflict the punishment on your own children, but I haven't got any. So when the Clifton Country Mall announced its second annual “Pet Day with Santa,” it seemed like a good opportunity to give the brutes a road trip and sooth my damaged sensibilities.
It's more dignified than making the dog wear the Santa hat, isn't it?
While music is a constant in people’s lives, the album era is all but gone and shuffle play has become the intermingled soundtrack to all manner of other activities. Great albums are still being made (or, in some cases, reissued), but they are quite easily missed. Here then are some gift suggestions for your musically inclined friends and family who may have been distracted when these all quietly landed in whatever is left of the marketplace.
At the top of the list is Ry Cooder’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch). Even erstwhile Cooder fans didn’t seem to know about this one. He revitalized and expanded his recording career over the past half-dozen years with a trilogy of albums that found him, for the first time, flexing his muscles as a songwriter. Having been a great interpreter of songs composed over the past century, he learned his lessons well. With this year’s release he’s brought forth a formidable set of protest songs. They’re rich with character; he’s pulling no punches as an armless soldier ponders an empty Christmas, or a high roller wonders how he’ll get by without his maid. Potent stuff, and some richly supple playing with his usual gang of musical cohorts.
With his Yo Miles! Ensemble, Wadada Leo Smith released two double albums (Sky Garden is 2004, Upriver in 2005) devoted to Miles Davis’ ’70s funk-based music. Heart’s Reflections (Cuneiform) is the second with his band Organic. The extended pieces are comprised of far brighter colors than what Davis was creating 40 years ago. It’s a rich tapestry of electric guitars (including the legendary Michael Gregory), keyboards and bass, drums (Pheeroan akLaff), saxophones and a violin on a few, and Smith’s stunning trumpet throughout.
Ray Bonneville’s Bad Man’s Blood (Red House) is a new peak in his 30-year career. Born in Canada and living in Texas, he writes rich vignettes suffused with the stuff of life: love, regret, hope, and loss. One cannot listen to this album’s “River John” and be unmoved. The performances are built around his acoustic guitar, his tapping foot and some judiciously deployed accompaniment by sympathetic players. As with Greg Brown and Chris Smither, Bonneville doesn’t fit easily into categories, being neither folk nor blues, but falling into both those camps, while always delivering with a soulful honesty.
On the reissue front are an important pair by country soul songwriters. Harlan County by Jim Ford (Light in the Attic) was released in 1969. Sly Stone called Ford “the baddest white man on the planet,” and there is quite a tale to read, but suffice to say songs and performances of this caliber were never going to go away. A contemporary reference point of sorts would be the stripped-down approach that Nick Lowe has adopted over the past 20 years of his career. Bobby Charles achieved greater success as a songwriter during his life than did Ford, but he also released a singular classic. Now expanded to a three-disc set, Bobby Charles (Rhino Handmade) contains the perfect original album along with a couple dozen additional numbers, demos and other fully recorded songs. People often already know his songs without knowing his name (“Tennessee Blues,” “Small Town Talk, “Walking to New Orleans,” “See You Later, Alligator”), or may remember his appearance with the Band in their Last Waltz.
Books are magical in general, sure, but there is a special sort of magic packed in the pages of children’s books, where art and poetry and prose swirl together in the unfettered imagination of youth, where the line between fantasy and reality is a wide watercolor swath to splash about in. There is no better gift.
And year after year wonderful new offerings from contemporary authors and illustrators hold their own against beloved classics, tempting us to dive in from the bookstore shelves. Here are a few of this year’s best bets.
For a stunning bit of seasonal mischief, check out Red Sled from author-illustrator Lita Judge (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $16.99). In the exuberant, almost wordless tale, woodland animals take a child’s sled, left outside, for a whirlwind nighttime ride. The expressive animals in Judge’s bold pencil and watercolor illustrations punctuate the still panoramas with a series of “Whoops” and “Alley-oops” that are a delight to read aloud.
Walter Wick’s award-winning Can You See What I See Series has a new addition with Can You See What I See: Toyland Express (Cartwheel Books, $13.99). Wicks’ spectacular photographs—some of which were recently on display at Canajoharie’s Arkell Museum—are accompanied by rhyming seek-and-find picture puzzles, follows an unpainted wooden train and other toys from the toymakers workshop into the grand world of the toyshop, to birthday party, to playroom, attic and beyond. As always, Wick’s puzzles engage eagle-eye readers, but the exquisitely detailed images and beautiful story are treat enough in themselves.
One of our absolute favorites for young readers and pre-readers this year for its perfect simplicity is Press Here ($14.99, Chronicle Books), from French designer Hervé Tullet, (whose minimalist Game of . . . book series is equally pure and innovative). Press Here takes the seemingly instinctual childhood urge to press buttons, and makes absolute magic with it—no batteries required. Start by pressing the yellow dot on the cover, then turn the page and follow the instructions: Tilt the book, shake the pages, tap five times. The result is an entirely print-and-paper sort of interactivity that challenges the imagination in surprisingly magical ways.
Millions of people are already in love with Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, the star of the similarly titled animated short from Saturday Night Live alum Jenny Slate and author-animator Dean Fleischer. The big world of the endearing little shell with shoes and one googly eye became a viral Internet sensation, but Marcel is no passing meme. Marcel has now become the star of a quirky picture book, which was storyboarded by the authors, shot by a c cinematographer David Erickson and, finally, rendered in brilliant photorealistic oils by Amy Lind. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About Me (Razorbill, $18.99) is arguably even more charming and inspired than the source, and kids and adults love the awkward, imaginative shell, whose answer to his own question, “Guess why I smile all the time,” is simply, “Because it’s worth it.”
For the older set, Wonderstruck (Scholastic, $29.99) is the latest offering from Caldacott Award-winning, genre-twisting author-illustrator Brian Selznick. Like in his earlier The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the cinematic adaptation of which is currently wowing moviegoers, Selznick has revolutionized storytelling with a magical intermingling of text and pictures, which serve, not to only illustrate the story, but to be part of the storytelling itself. Wonderstruck presents the tales of two characters set 50 years apart. Ben’s story is told in words, Rose’s in pictures, and the two intertwine effortlessly and affectingly through 600 pages in what promises to be another classic from the truly visionary Selznick.
In another curious blend of illustration and story, The Myserious Benedict Society is at it again, with The Mysterious Benedict Society: Mr. Benedict's Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious Conundrums (Little Brown, $12.99), the puzzling companion to the best-selling series from Trenton Lee Stewart and Diana Sudyka. But this one is chockablock mindbending puzzles, brainteasers and riddles that will put you to the test along with your favorite Society members.
And as a true classic, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, acclaimed author Leonard Marcus has released the beautiful The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth (Knoph, $29.99), which weaves interviews with the author and illustrator, excerpts from Juster’s notes, literary commentary and historical tidbits unobtrusively but illuminatingly throughout the beloved story. Milo’s adventures into the Lands Beyond represent youth fiction at its best, an instant and enduring classic. The anniversary edition honors the original and offers new morsels for fans of all ages to appreciate.
If you followed my suggestion last year and purchased the 103-CD Jascha Heifetz box set, your investment is now appreciating. The set is out of print and its price is climbing. All the more reason to consider the forthcoming Arthur Rubinstein: The Complete Album Collection. With 144 CDs, packaged in miniatures of their original LP releases, two DVDs and a hardcover book, it’s selling on Amazon right now for $259, a price that surely will climb by the Jan. 31 release date. Its predecessor, a Complete Rubinstein in jewel boxes, was released for $1,600, and the expense of producing the set pretty much killed the RCA Red Seal division. Evidently the original jackets approach is more economical.
It’s been a good year for great pianist. Martha Argerich turned 70 and was celebrated by EMI with three multi-disc sets: Solos & Duos (6 CDs), Concertos (4 CDs) and Chamber Music (8 CDs), much of it drawn from her Lugano Festival collections—to which was added another excellent installment, Live From Lugano 2010, which includes Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 and a charming quintet by Granados among its three discs.
Gould, Glenn: In Concert 1951-1960 (West Hill) is an elusive six-CD set that features a fascinating array of broadcast recordings, including yet another Goldberg Variations and such other Bach works as the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and the Keyboard Concertos 1 and 5; also works by Beethoven, Schoenberg and others.
You can see Gabriela Montero in concert at the Troy Music Hall in early May in a recital featuring her amazing improvisations. There’s a healthy taste of them, along with a number of neglected Latin works, on Solatino (EMI).
A couple of young violinists made a splash this year. Ray Chen performed at Union College in the same program as his self-titled debut recording (Sony Classical), featuring sonatas by Franck and Tartini (“Devil’s Trill”). And even without the brooding, GQ-esque cover photos of the handsome fiddler, Charlie Siem should be selling CDs on the basis of talent. His self-titled collection of short pieces (Warner Classics) includes works by virtuoso violinist-composers Wieniawski, Kreisler, Paganini and Sarasate, and features Bazzini’s finger-busting “Round of the Goblins.” His recording of concertos by Bruch (No. 1), Wieniawski (No. 1) and Ole Bull on Warner Classics affirms his place in the realms of interpretive skill.
The incredibly prolific and fascinating Jordi Savall continued to release recordings old and new. Among the latter: The Sublime Port: Voices of Istanbul, a follow-up to last year’s Istanbul, this time exploring the multinational realm of song over the centuries with an appropriately multinational ensemble. Rereleases included Mozart’s Requiem and five discs of the five books of Marin Marais’s Pieces de Viol, reminding us of Savall’s million-selling success with the soundtrack recording of the film Tous les matins du monde (all on AliaVox).
Two of the 20th century’s bad boys of classical music were Conlon Nancarrow and George Antheil. Ensemble Modern tackled Nancarrow with As Fast as Possible (Wergo), collecting a number of transcriptions of his tough, fascinating pieces for player piano, among other works.
Antheil’s horribly neglected one-act opera The Brothers, his version of the story of Cain and Abel, got a good recording in Germany (cpo), while his four fascinating, widely varied violin sonatas (including one for solo violin) were nicely recorded by violinist Mark Fewer and pianist John Novacek (Azica).
What’s the Mahler news this year? Valery Gergiev’s symphonies cycle with the London Symphony finished with the release of Nos. 5 and 9 (LSO Live), as hot-blooded and dynamically rugged as the rest of the set. Meanwhile, Simon Rattle returned to the Symphony No. 2, this time with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) and soprano Kate Royal and mezzo Magdalena Kozena. It features a far more expansive reading of the first movement than he’s given before, but Rattle makes it make sense.
In other vocal recommendations, Nikolaus Harnoncourt tackled Brahms’s German Requiem with soprano Genia Kühmeier, baritone Thomas Hampson, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir (Sony Classical) in version that’s deliberate of tempo but filled with excitement in a showcase of what a good recording should sound like.
Another favorite Requiem is that of Gabriel Fauré, newly recorded by Paavo Järvi in his new position of Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris (EMI). With baritone Matthias Goerne and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, it’s a lovely performance of the full orchestral version, and the disc is filled out with such Fauré rarities as Super Flumina Babylonis and Cantique de Jean Racine.
Fauré’s chamber music also gets its due in a new five-disc Virgin Classics set featuring the Capuçon brothers, Renaud (violin) and Gautier (cello), the Quatour Ebène and others. Here are the two violin sonatas, the two cello sonatas, a piano trio, a string quartet, the two piano quartets and the slightly forbidding piano quintets.
Finally, local favorites the Emerson Quartet are newly arrived on Sony Classical. Their debut there is a revisit of Mozart’s three Prussian Quartets, his last works in this form. Typically with the Emersons, they avoid the sentimentality that can creep into pieces like this, and instead give us music that’s crisp and scintillating and ageless.
When you’re not dealing in gas cards and chocolate-covered pretzels, holiday gift giving requires an intimate understanding of the passions and interests that constitute your loved ones. Because of this, shopping for books can quickly become a fool’s errand in bookshelf decoration if that tome’s contents don’t equal its pretty cover art.
Best-selling science writer James Gleick may have inadvertandly solved this Christmas quandry by publishing a book on perhaps the most universal subject: information itself. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is far from a dry romp through raw data; it’s an insightful history of how humans have attempted to capture and catalog the thoughts and expressions that constitute our very lives, leading up to the present moment where information saturation has become an inescapable facet of society.
Facebook, of course, has been one of the primary forums for info addicts. Author Lou Beach approached the social networking site as a type of artistic opportunity, though, using his profile as an outlet for flash fiction. 420 Characters is a collection of the miniature narratives he posted to his wall, interspersed with gorgeous collages. A byproduct of the pace at which all this text is moving around us these days is, paradoxically, chronic boredom. Who among you hasn’t compulsively refreshed a website (say, Facebook) only to find that the world hasn’t generated any novelty in the last 30 seconds? Boredom is at the heart of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumous novel The Pale King. While its rough structure (even for DFW) makes this one most suitable to the author’s committed fans, the ideas Wallace was working on at the time of his unfortunate death were incredibly salient and arguably optomistic. Through the work-a-day lives of IRS employees, he seems to suggest that boredom and data overload can actually be a window to joy and transcendence.
Another big, ambitious novel worth considering for a reader so-inclined is Japanese best-seller Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. The title is a sly riff on the year George Orwell immortalized as the dawn of a new age. The question Murakami inserts is in the mind of a woman named Aomame, who begins to notice mundane evidence that the Tokyo in which she lives is actually a parallel reality. In the style of Murakami’s great surrealist mysteries, 1Q84 features enough twists of logic to make you start questioning the concrete nature of your own world. You’d probably pinch yourself in an attempt to wake up if you found thousands of rubber duckies washed up on the beach. This isn’t an episode from Murakami, though; it’s the event that tips off Donovan Hohn’s journalistic odyssey Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. That title alone probably wouldn’t fit in a Facebook post but will give the most creative fiction writers a run for their money.
Of those fiction writers, a number of them have new books this year. Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides explores a triangle of college students obsessing over the romance of a Jane Austen novel, while the ironic world of the early ’80s swirls around them in The Marriage Plot. A 1950s ocean liner bound for England is the setting for Michael Ondaatje’s latest, The Cat’s Table, as an 11-year-old boy embarks on a coming-of-age journey that mirrors that of the vessel he explores. Ava Bigtree faces some of these same themes, only at her parents’ gator-wrestling Everglades theme park in Karen Russell’s celebrated debut novel Swamplandia! Colson Whitehead has received plenty of press (not to mention sales) for his popular, if unlikely, zombie novel Zone One. There’s a reason for this. Post-apocalypse is explored in a different, slightly ambivalent way in Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers. A sort of rapture has struck a small American town, spiriting some of the virtuous and criminal away with an equal hand, leaving the leftovers to make sense of it all.
He doesn’t use the term post-apocalypse, but author Michael Lewis does attempt to make sense of our new fallen society in Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. With global economies in collapse, Lewis begins his analysis of formerly wealthy nations (like our own) from the financial perspective but hones in on the cultural dimension of this shift. Yes, the outlook is bleak, but humorists have always been our saving grace in such times. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life is Charles Shields’ authoritative biography of one of our culture’s greatest. Funny and insightful, this one also scores local points, as Vonnegut may be Glenville’s most famous former resident.
We tend to have a knee jerk opposition to electronic toys in our house, favoring puppets and kazoos over Let’s Rock Elmo. But we are perfectly willing to acquiesce that good electronic toys can engage kiddos in open-ended play, and prepare them for a techcentric world—without making parents rip their eyes out and stick beans in their ears.
While tablet computers have a ways to evolve yet, their multitouch interface is an amazingly accessible introduction to the nearly limitless world of computers for the younger set, and kid-friendly apps abound. While we hesitate to recommend a “toy” with a price point that starts at $500, we do recommend crayola’s iPad-compatible Crayola ColorStudio HD ($29.99) if you already have a tablet, or will be tucking one under the tree. ColorStudio HD comes with an iPad stylus that looks like a Crayola marker, but which unlocks the accompanying ColorStudio app’s “paper,” coloring pages, music and animation. Little digital artists can mimic a variety of media—crayons, paints, pencils, markers and more. The app can differentiate between the stylus and tiny fingers to encourage creative manipulation, and kiddos can save and e-mail their creations straight to Grandma. Of course, the virtual version doesn’t replace real finger paints and markers, but it’s a great introduction to digital art, and—parental bonus—it’s mess-free. Although you might want to consider encasing your iPad in an Otterbox ($79.99), which will render it nearly indestructible, before you hand it over to the kids.
And while you may still fumble with the DVD remote, your budding computer programmer will likely take off running with SmartLab Toys’ ReCon 6.0 Programmable Rover ($69.99). At first look, this little guy resembles a bevy of other toy robot buddies. This charming little rover has the potential to dance, navigate courses, deliver a treat to a pet or a personalized message to a family member, even carry a soda or guard a bedroom. But tech-savvy kids need to unlock that potential by actually programming ReCon themselves. The accompanying manual is an engaging intro to computer programming that starts out simple; the more advanced robot tricks motivate kids to keep learning.
Legos meet Light Brite with Laser Pegs, an award-winning glowing construction toy available in a variety of different sets starting at $25. Once a single Laser Peg is connected to the power source, each block added to the ensuing creation feeds the next piece low-voltage current, which illuminates each peg with colorful LED lights. While model kits are available, the pegs themselves encourage the exploration of color and light and the construction of whatever you can imagine.
Of course, when it comes to toys, endurance says a lot about quality and fun, and what’s old-school to you is still new to a kid. Colorforms 60th Anniversary Edition ($49.99) is a rerelease of the original set that launched the beloved brand back in 1951 and earned a place in the Toy Hall of Fame. With 350 bold geometric stick-ons, a reversible two-sided playboard, and a bit of Colorforms history packaged in a spiral-bound book, it’s a nostalgic gift for adults and still a huge hit with kids.
Books and games remain go-to gifts for us, and a handful of top game manufacturers—including Colorforms creator University Games—have teamed up with classic children’s-book brands to create lines of fun, beautifully designed learning games featuring favorite storybook characters. University Games has partnered with Eric Carle and Mo Williams in a series of games based on Don’t Let the Chicken Ride the Bus and the colorful creatures from the Wonderful World of Eric Carle. You Hoo Can You Moo ($10.99) is a favorite in our house. Similarly, Briar Patch has a line of Goodnight Moon and Madeline games, and I Can Do That! Games has teamed up with Richard Scary’s Busytown, Curious George and Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat I Can Do That ($19.99) challenges kids to tackle feats as whimsical and wacky as the cat himself. Bundle a fun new game with a classic book and you’ve got the best of both worlds.
And just about as classic as it gets, eeboo’s Sidewalk Games ($8.50) is a clever packaging of traditional games including Skelly, a coin rolling game, London Calling, a fusion of hangman shuffleboard, and Potsy, a strategic sort of hopscotch. The set includes a rolling coin, sidewalk chalk and a book full of rules, game history and facts about the region of each game’s origin. Not all the games are well-suited to an upstate New York winter, but you can roll coins in the kitchen or paint a canvas Potsy court to ward off cabin fever in the living room with old-school flair.
And, of course, kids will forever delight in the enduring simplicity of wooden blocks, a bag of old scarves, homemade play dough, a tin can drum and a wax-paper comb or a shoebox full of tissue paper, buttons, paint chips and glue. Or give parents and kids alike the gift of a winter outing with theater tickets, museum memberships, or a velvet sack full of arcade tokens.