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The holidays are upon us and that means the unforeseen and unexpected need for gifts for people who you wouldn’t normally give anything to much less hang out with–as in your boss, a just-paroled relative or your ex.  With that in mind I’d like to make a blanket gift recommendation in the form of a bottle of bubbly.  That’s right, a gift bottle of sparkling wine (or better yet Champagne) says “happy holidays” or “I kind of like you” or even “hasta luego” like no other.  And let’s face it, if the recipient of your generosity doesn’t appreciate a bottle of bubbly they probably have issues and you wouldn’t want to hang out with them anyway.  Ah such a magic time of the year!

Speaking of the holidays, I have a holiday ritual that I’ve maintained for many years (it’s a birthday ritual too).  It’s nothing remotely exotic or strange and in fact it’s really quite simple: I always give myself a Christmas or birthday present.  My thinking is that other people don’t know what you really want for Christmas or your birthday and if you let them know with any lack of subtlety it will only serve to annoy the hell of out them.  So to preserve the peace, maintain sanity and to just make yourself fell all warm and fuzzy inside, buy that little special something for yourself.  For me these delightfully self-inflicted gifts tend to be books because there’s really nothing like diving into a good read.  Here’s a half dozen of my favorites.  All are guaranteed to please.

1. Kitchen Confidential, Antony Bourdain: Long before his exit from the food channel and entry into the lifestyle travel universe Tony Bourdain was an accomplished chef at Les Halles in New York.  Kitchen Confidential is a personal memoir of his ascent from CIA grad to that restaurant with all the stops in between.  Aside from a great read this book should absolutely be required reading for anyone hallucinating opening their own restaurant or considering attending a culinary school.  The term “reality check” doesn’t even begin to do it justice.  The chapters “A Day in the Life” which profiles the insane schedule of a chef on a typical Friday and “The Level of Discourse” which breaks down the complex and monumentally obscene pirate dialect of the kitchen are must reads.

2. A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage: I’ve given away over a dozen copies of this book and it should be on every beverage professional’s shelf.  There are only six chapters in the book: beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee and Coca-Cola.  Standage, a contributor to the Economist, offers a unique perspective of world history and the great civilizations in the context of these six beverages.  Read and enjoy.

3. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson: Many are the times I’ve been on a flight and been shushed or on the business end of ugly glares because of my repeated snorting, laughing and loud guffaws while reading a Bryson book.  The Thunderbolt Kid is my favorite among them all.  It’s a gentle, funny and completely irreverent memoir of the author growing up in Des Moines in the 50’s and ‘60’s.  Delightful.

4.  Coming to My Senses, Alyssa Harad: Harad’s beautifully written book details her love affair with perfume and gives us a glimpse into the unique and complex world of scent.  After reading it I’ve come to believe that the perfume world has much to teach us in the wine world.  Coming to My Senses is a good start.  This my favorite book of 2012–highly recommended.

5. Cooking with Fernet Branca, James Hamilton Patterson: A completely skewed and wickedly funny novel that defies description.  And yes, it does have recipes calling for Fernet including one called “Alien Pie.” I will say no more.

6. The James Bond series, Ian Fleming: The recent release of Skyfall with Daniel Craig breathed new life into the now fifty-year-old run of James Bond movies.  But before Sean Connery ever uttered, “Bond, James Bond” to Ursula Andress or some other galactic babe on the big screen there were 14 books detailing the exploits of the world’s most famous MI6 spy. If you’ve just seen the movies, not read the books and always wondered what the big deal was all about you’re definitely missing out.  Fleming created the spy novel genre and owned it until his premature death in 1964 at the age of 56.  All the Bond books clock in at under 250 pages so they make great airline reads and the precision and detail of Fleming’s writing, especially with food and drink, are simply a joy.  From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball are my favorites.  Suggestion: go on eBay and pick up a complete set of all the books in the old original Signet paperbacks from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. It’s surprisingly inexpensive.  And remember, it’s vodka and always shaken and not stirred.

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