01/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Sane Holiday Gift Guide: Great Books/CDs/DVDs, Made By People For People, Most Under $20

Wearing Wall Street pinstripes, The Cat in the Hat showed up in mid-September and wrecked the joint. Now we've got this awful mess to clean up --- and holiday giving to confront.

I refuse to contribute to the gloom by suggesting that you scribble gift cards for free backrubs to your loved ones.

I say: Rise above it. Carry on. Joy to the world.

Okay, a tempered joy --- with few exceptions, nothing on my gift list costs more than $20.

And yet, for me, everything on this list is precious.

Huh? Most of them are books, DVDs, CDs.

But that doesn't mean I'm commending the new releases --- the books you see on the display racks in the front of stores, the DVDs of Hollywood's latest, the music that's top of the pops.

And I don't pass over those titles in order to commend books that help you deal with the economic crisis, lose weight or be a better person in just 250 pages. There are no Holocaust movies here. And no just-in-time-for-the-holidays boxed sets of fill-in-the-superstar.

I'm suggesting stuff that will, I believe, delight and excite your recipients out of all proportion to your cost --- and not because some fancy pants "cultural concierge" says it's better. The reason to consider this stuff is that it's real. Made by people for people. With the mark of the hand and the beat of the heart. In a culture crying for authenticity, that should make your loved ones feel more alive --- and glad to be.

So my idea for giving in this beleaguered season is to find at least one honest-to-goodness great thing for each person on my list. Something that he/she won't get five times over. Something that conveys, better than a mix tape, that I made the effort to look beyond the big hits and best sellers. Something that isn't mired in these hard times, but amuses and even inspires. In a word, these....

Novel of the Year
Shining City. Seth Greenland's comic triumph begins: "Julian Ripps was too fat to be reclining in a hot tub between a pair of naked women, unless he was very rich or they were prostitutes. He wasn't, but they were." The rest is just that smart. And funny.

Best French Drollery
The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin. Maurice LeBlanc's wonderful cad breaks into a Baron's residence, takes nothing, but leaves a card for his unwitting host: "Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine."

Best Espionage Thriller
The Spies of Warsaw. No one leaps from one building to the next in Alan Furst's World War II thrillers. But the buildings are exactly as they really were, and the characters are credible --- only the situation is dire.

Best Classic Thriller
The Queen's Gambit. Girl. Genius. Orphan. Chess player. A thriller? Like "Rocky". Only better. Because Walter Tevis was a world-class storyteller.

Surprisingly Practical Cookbook
Park Avenue Potluck: Recipes from New York's Savviest Hostesses. Don't look for recipes with caviar --- these women are far more practical.

Armchair Travel
The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific. A slacker takes a job in paradise. You know it isn't....

Best French Travel
Quiet Corners of Paris. Not in the tour guides, the French keep these for themselves.

Gadget of the Year
Swiss Army Knife with 2 GB Memory. The classic gets a high-tech twist. Because a memory stick is at least as useful as scissors.

Best iPod Helper
Shure E3c Sound Isolating Stereo Headphones. The iPod's one flaw is its earphones. These put you inside the music.

Best Espresso
Sant' Eustachio beans, from the legendary Rome cafe. Too expensive for every day, but sublime for special times.

Best Fair Trade Coffee
Peace Coffee. Organic. Shade grown. Roasted with love in Minneapolis. Shockingly reasonable price, especially in quantity.

Best Art Reproductions
Discovery Editions. Audubon, Bierstadt, Bodmer, and Olmsted & Vaux, in editions so brilliant they really can pass as originals. Key pieces are discounted by 20% for the holidays; sales benefit a not-for-profit partner.

CD of the Year
For Emma, Forever Ago. Bon Iver --- Justin Vernon's tiny group --- has taken his delicate songs and put just enough color on them to render them gorgeous, unforgettable, necessary.

World Music CD of the Year
Umalali. It's not Caribbean. It's not African. It's the soul of the Garifuna women of Belize, and it moves the heart as well as the feet.

Modern Classic
The Animal Years. Stephen King thought this was the best CD he'd heard in half a decade I agreed. Then I stopped listening to Josh Ritter --- I'd overplayed him. When I returned, I thought King had it just right.

Superior Blues
Hoodoo Man Blues. Junior Wells was buried in a royal blue suit and wide-brimmed hat, flanked by harmonicas and a pint of Tanqueray. And that's pretty much how he played the blues.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Byrds (yes, The Byrds). 1967. "Ooo ee ride me high, tomorrow's the day my bride's gonna come..."

All Time Best Ever
Astral Weeks. Van Morrison. Recorded in four days. Jazzy, introspective, poetic --- it's a one-off. And everyone who owns it knows how important it is to his/her head.

Dirty Dancing
Masters of Chicha, Vol. 1. The educated class in Peru hates this music. It's made by nobodies, played in bars, fit only for dancing. Yeah, it's all of those things.

Beyond Cool
Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud. Miles Davis recorded the soundtrack for Louis Malle's first film. Is he playing or breathing?

Holiday Music
Christmas with the Tallis Scholars. The most glorious of all English vocal groups.

Best Comedy with Music
Local Hero. Burt Lancaster sends Peter Riegert to outsmart some yokels in Scotland. Think he succeeds? With Mark Knopfler's music, this is as close to flawless as movies get.

Best Family Comedy
The Castle. If you lived next to an airport and they wanted to buy your home, wouldn't you sell? It takes a special man not to. A very foolish, funny man. And then again, maybe a very wise man.

Best Mini-Series
State of Play. Six hours of British TV. It gets stronger and stronger as you're propelled to a climax you won't see coming. Just remade as a 2-hour Hollywood feature. Think the movie will be better?

Best Documentary
Dominick Dunne: After the Party. The Vanity Fair writer loves to convict the rich and the accused. Now he prosecutes himself. Surprising, devastating, triumphant.

Best Holiday Animation
The Snowman. It's simple, beautifully done, and touching. The music is sublime. Children get it. Adults get it much more. Maybe we need it more....

And speaking of needing more...if these don't do it, there are 819 reviews in the archives. Just don't get lost and miss the holidays.

[Cross-posted from]