This time of year, there is little pleasure greater than cozying up with a good book. The problem is, of course, that there is a lot to do. There is Chanukah shopping, cooking and entertaining, there is readying fireplaces (remember to clean out the chimney), airing out the sheepskins and tartan blankets from the back of the linen closet, as well as the sheer amount of time it takes just to bundle up. No joke – a jauntily tied scarf takes time to perfect. In honor, both of the desire to wind down with a book, and the lack of time so curiously endemic to our time, I rounded up some books that instantly deliver winter warmth, cheer, satisfaction and some knowledge and can also be successfully dipped into for an instant transport into a different world. Get your cocoa and read on!
The first book is a gorgeous coffee table book – perfect for gifting, even more perfect for keeping. Heirloom Modern (Rizzoli; 207 pages; $50), by the sisters Hollister and Porter Hovey, is an implicit rebuke to an Ikea world. Don’t, as I did, take the title too literally. I read it to gather inspiration for my home, for some new ideas and assumed that the book contained a prescription for making heirlooms, well, modern. It’s actually better than that. It’s a personal and quixotic journey into a home and history; familial, cultural, a bit religious, perhaps, that is quite different than mine and than our readers.
Still, I was inspired to take a different approach to my own stuff. Instead of hiding our Judaica, I thought, why not celebrate them? The luscious photographs, close-ups of tablescapes, vintage suitcases and needlepoints, by Porter Hovey, are transportive. The Hoveys dare us to celebrate our stuff, instead of hiding it away.
Yes, I know you have a lovely cherry wood or mahogany glass fronted cabinet in your dining room, perfect to display your collection of silver Kiddush cups. And I’m not suggesting you get rid of the cabinet (or the silver). Instead, try temporarily switching things up. Display that quirky collection of pottery that your Aunt Janet bequeathed to you.
Here’s another idea: rather than hanging that framed family photo, the posed one where you all match, above the staircase, why not collect a few small photos, perhaps the black and white photograph from your grandparents’ wedding and clear half of a shelf from your book case to display the lot of them? Or use your havdalah set as a bookend. Whatever you are moved to try (or not try), Heirloom Modern is a celebration of stuff. Not new, fancy designer stuff that you’ll want to buy, but the type of stuff you and your extended family already own. If you don’t, I’m sure there’s a flea market near you.
A painless and simple initiation into a world or culture not your own, I’ve always thought, is through a sub culture that you are familiar with or interested in at least. Like sports? Read about baseball culture in Japan and you are sure to absorb a lot about Japanese culture and history as well.
I have many friends and neighbors of Russian origin and find many aspects of Russian culture both intriguing and appealing. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing (Crown, 352 pages; $26), by Anya Von Bremzen, is the perfect entrée, no pun intended. Von Bremzen, a noted cookbook author and food writer, volleys between the present and the recent and further past, Bolsheviks and Romanovs via food memories so sensory, so strong and so Russian in its excess, in its dough, in its pathos, as to create nostalgia for something I have never experienced.
Dip into Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking when you want to read about parties and mother-daughter relationships and, a particular favorite of mine, cooking catastrophes. A chapter at the end contains recipes for the Soviet, post-Soviet, and inspired-by-Soviet cooking.
My last pick is neither warm, nor cozy, yet it is a book that can be picked up, referred to, and put back down. It is an entrée to a world that all of us surely wish did not exist, and yet it is both an important and an accessible book. The book is by a postcard collector, Salo Aizenberg, and the book, Hatemail: Anti-Semitism on Picture Postcards (University of Nebraska Press; 237 pages; $31.95) is relevant to a movement that is growing and gaining momentum.