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Page 9 of 11

Johnny Cash

It seemed a little callous of American to announce the release of a just-in-time-for-Christmas memorial package before the Man in Black was even cold in the ground. But according to label mastermind Rick Ruben, he and Cash started compiling the box set before Johnny kicked the bucket. Four of the five CDs are never-before-heard recordings, including an unreleased spiritual record, My Mother's Hymn Book, and heaps of covers from the late American Recordings era. The 104-page hardcover book (!) contains Cash's commentary on each song and rare photos from his estate. And even the set's low points (like the slightly comic rendition of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" as a duet with Clash vocalist Joe Strummer) will surely be cherished by Cash's devoted minions.

BOOKS

Footsteps in the Fog

Alfred Hitchcock treasured Northern California enough to make his home in Santa Cruz and to shoot Vertigo (his most personal film) and bits and pieces of several other classics all around the Bay Area. ("It was fog and rain and then sunshine," said Hitch's production designer, Robert Boyle. "A moody, strange area ... it intrigued him.") This book, by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal, employs the same Hitchcockian fascination and obsession in examining Sir Alfred's local ties. A wealth of stills and contemporary photographs details the exact Bay Area locations Hitchcock employed in his tales of suspense, from Grace Cathedral to a Fairmont Hotel parapet, and the text yields many a little-known nugget (Hitch ostensibly invented the mimosa over brunch at Jack's). Essential gifting for the local movie filbert.

Patricia Unterman's San Francisco Food Lover's Guide, Third Edition

There's more to the Culinary Capital of the West than cafes and restaurants, which is why the Food Lover's Guide is such an indispensable gift for any serious local nosher. Each chapter focuses on a different San Francisco neighborhood or Bay Area region, offering recommendations for the best local bars, bakeries, soda fountains, delicatessens, produce markets, butchers, fishmongers, and cookware stores -- as well as good places to go for a sit-down meal. The brand-new edition, published by Ten Speed Press, is thoroughly updated, reflecting the chronic vagaries of the food biz, and the neighborhood maps are easy to read. Bonus: the month-by-month table of seasonal produce at the front of the book, a handy reference when you're wending your way through the Alemany Farmers' Market.

New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Fourth Edition

Anyone coming upon this hefty slab of wood pulp might reasonably mistake it for a dense, dry reference work for the trivially inclined. But in his wide-ranging analyses of film figures past and present, San Francisco's David Thomson serves up the most challenging and elegantly parsed film writing since Pauline Kael. Each of the book's 1,300 entries is a polished and wonderfully opinionated gem, from Bette Davis ("a curdled cocktail, her lips ashine with greasepaint") to Paul Newman ("his smirking good looks always seemed more appropriate to glossy advertisements than to good movies") to Arnold Schwarzenegger ("how beautifully he coincides with, and climaxes, the movies' passion for mechanical men"). Three hundred new portraits have been written for this new edition, the first since 1994. A must for any movie lover.

From Bush to Bush: The Lazlo Toth Letters

Don Novello is like a 6-year-old genius. The San Francisco writer/comedian's new book is an uproarious smart-ass collection of letters he sent to people in power -- from Al Gore to Bob Dole, from Kim Jong Il to Queen Elizabeth -- under this pseudonym. Rotating between wicked wit, biting sarcasm, sophomoric silliness, and absolute absurdity, the letters offer outlandish suggestions and ask wry questions, preying upon Western society's frustrating bureaucracy. Toth proposes a new immigration policy to California Gov. Pete Wilson, asks Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Richard Meyers if it's safe to eat air-strike-slain Afghani goats, and seeks permission from the San Diego Zoo to bring his dogs. But the true coup here is the form letters Toth receives back, most of which don't respond to his concerns at all. The Lazlo Letters are laugh-out-loud funny: zany but brainy reality comedy.

Dating Game

If anything, the holiday season means guilty pleasures, and Danielle Steel's 57th novel is perhaps this season's guiltiest. The romance queen tackles the singles' scene, round two, as Paris, her 47-year-old protagonist, finds herself alone after her husband suddenly demands a divorce. Steel's up to her usual tricks: uncomplicated sentences, unforgiving repetition, and an uncreative story. But it's this very simplicity that renders her books such delicious mindless chowder. Her characters rarely demonstrate idiosyncratic depth or irony, which actually makes them widely accessible and easily identifiable. Steel even turns comic when Paris decides to relocate to San Francisco and encounters a string of dating disasters: a drunkard, a widower, and a much-too-young Frenchman. Although the stale metaphors ("She wasn't ready to cross that bridge yet") and trite dialogue ("I don't want to do this unless you do") jump like frogs from the pages, Dating Game is an unapologetic, savory escape.

From Our House to Yours

Do you like mac 'n' cheese? Do you like helping others? If you answered "yes" to both, read on. Not only does this collection of delicious comfort-food recipes, put together by well-known chefs and cookbook authors, make a fabulous holiday gift, but the publisher, Chronicle Books, is donating half of the proceeds to Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit that delivers hot meals to elderly San Franciscans. In the spirit of Meals on Wheels, many of the recipes include instructions for packaging and shipping your culinary creations to distant friends and family. $20; to order contact Jessica Sweedler at Meals on Wheels, 920-1111.

More Like Wrestling: A Novel

Former Vibe magazine editor-in-chief and frequent VH-1 hip hop pundit Danyel Smith delivers a touching first novel with this semi-autobiographical chronicle of the lives of two young African-American sisters growing up in Oakland during the 1980s. As they deal with an abusive step father, an absent mother, and a drug and gang culture beginning to take hold of their friends, Paige and Pinch find they often have only each other to turn to. A Bay Area native, Smith gives a true-to-life glimpse of being a teen in Oakland and struggling with the changing social landscape around her.

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