December is here, and in a great many heads, this month brings thoughts of giving gifts.
Each year, I get a significant number of phone calls, e-mails and personal contacts, which start out by announcing that someone's husband, sister, boss, etc. is an arts lover, and ends by requesting suggestions of what arts-related item would be welcomed as a holiday present.
The problem with these requests, from my point of view, is that I usually don't know the intended recipient of the gift. For example, if you give one person a DVD disc of a film by a little-known French filmmaker, he'll be your friend for life, while a different person would throw it in the trash without ever trying to watch it, and would consider you an idiot for having wasted the time and money to give it to him.
My best advice is that you begin by deciding in advance approximately what you're willing and able to spend. Second, you should seek to know what kind of things the recipient enjoys doing. Then, do your best to analyze the recipient's ability to use anything you might give him or her.
If someone is a dance lover, so you give him tickets to a ballet, you ought to have an idea of whether he would have transportation to the theater, and whether he would be unwilling or unable to go alone, or to find a companion, if you gave him two tickets. I often suggest that givers consider giving a ticket to an event, plus the promise that you will drive him to the event and attend with him.
That's great if your receiver is alone, or is used to following up on his interests by himself. Giving an artistic experience to a person who is part of a couple, whether a married couple or a pair of friends who are inseparable, is probably not wise, if the experience doesn't include his partner.
If you give someone a compact disc, performed by his favorite singer, you ought to determine in advance whether he has equipment to play your disc, or if he will have no way to get the music from it.
If your intended receiver has the money to attend pretty much what he likes, he might prefer that you made a donation to support an organization which he enjoys. If he would love to have a recording or a ticket or a book or a film, and he cannot afford to enjoy his tastes as much as he would like, then he might be hurt, that you decided to give the gift to an organization, rather than to him.
Clearly, the secret of successful gift giving is knowing what the intended recipient wants, what he likes, what he needs, and what he already owns. I do assure you, however, that if you make a thoughtful attempt, especially if you share briefly with him how you arrived at the gift you have given him, he will almost assuredly be delighted by your thoughtfulness, regardless of how much he likes the gift.
If I may make another suggestion, while I'm on the subject, you might want to consider how open your recipient is to new or unexpected events. If someone is an orchestra conductor, for example, the gift suggestion which immediately springs to mind would be a recording of music, or a biography of a successful musician, etc.
But, I know several orchestra conductors, who are fanatical baseball fans, and I know one who saves his sanity, when under stress, by reading detective novels. Very few people only enjoy one aspect of life, and if you introduce someone to something which he finds new and wonderful, he may be very grateful.
The ''out of left field'' gift comes with a risk, but the possibility of enormous return, and you have to weigh whether you're willing and/or able to take a risk, in your relationship.
So, now you have an idea of my thinking, when it comes to gift giving. Rather than prattle on for the rest of the column, in the same vein, I want to suggest some possible gifts which are books.
Books don't break. They're easy to wrap, and easy to mail. They always fit their owner. If you give someone a book and he doesn't like it, at least you have paid him the compliment of believing that he could read, and that he would like to exercise his mind. Your confidence can be a very generous gift, indeed.
I can't talk about every category of gift imaginable. Let's talk books.
The War Within
If you want to give a book which is contemporary and which makes vastly clearer, an element of our present way of life, I might suggest ''The War Within,'' by Bob Woodward.
Before discussing the book, please realize that there is a totally different book with the exact same title. The other book, which has been made into a major motion picture, is about a young man of Middle Eastern origins, who is falsely arrested on suspicion of terrorism, and who becomes a terrorist, as a result. That book has nothing to do with this one, beyond the shared title.
Woodward is a contemporary journalist and associate editor of the Washington Post, who is probably best known as half of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team who broke the Watergate Scandal, back in the 1970s.
The author has a gift for getting inside information about major government activities, and getting enough evidence that he can print names and numbers without risk of lawsuits or worse things which can happen, when someone tells things the government might not want the public to know.
It's very difficult to argue with why the government wants to keep secrets. Sometimes those secrets should be kept secret, while at other times, the survival of our whole way of life depends on the journalists who devote their lives to learning those secrets and sharing them with us. There is a very fine line between being a responsible journalist and weakening our country with those who mean us harm.
And worse, for the past 25 years, our culture has added the concept of ''spin'' to the already confused and difficult subject of understanding the government.
If someone in government makes a simple slip of the tongue, there are people standing by to make it appear that he made the statement on purpose, and to suggest that he had some evil reason for doing it.
There are people who devote their lives to making it look, when someone slips on a well-polished floor, as though that person is drunk, or perhaps on drugs, or who might have some horrible illness which will soon progress to making them unable to fulfill their duties as we need them fulfilled.
''The War Within'' has a subtitle: ''A Secret White House History, 2006-08.'' It focuses on the central advisors, surrounding president George W. Bush, and especially on their role in how the War in Iraq was being fought.
Especially, the book explains where the idea came from for the 30,000-person ''surge'' in American troops, who supported it and who opposed it, why, and what were the results of that policy.
Woodward is a clear and easy-to-read writer, but he doesn't water down his subject. What made the book so impressive to me is that he doesn't attempt to make government figures appear to be buffoons, nor villains.
Most people do the things they do because they believe it is the right thing to do. Television news is so often full of name calling and grandstanding, it's become virtually impossible to stomach. Woodward explains with considerable evidence and analysis what he thought each government leader was trying to do, and why he believes that was working or not.
Perhaps the most negative thing which comes out of the book is that President Bush emerges as a person who is very comfortable with his gut reactions to things, and who energetically discourages anyone who might think he should reconsider what he intends to do, based upon reasoning and evidence, even though he often says he doesn't do so.
I feel I understand things of great significance much better than I did before. If you want to give someone the gift of understanding, this would be a good choice.
''The War Within'' has 468 pages of text, in hard cover edition. It was published by Simon & Schuster, and sells new for $32. Find it with ISBN number 1-4165-5897-7.
IN SPITE OF MYSELF
Chances are good that you're acquainted with at least some of the performances of actor Christopher Plummer. On stage, he has played roles which have ranged from King Lear and G.B. Shaw's Julius Caesar, to Juan Pizzaro, the Spanish conqueror who claimed Peru for Spain and even Hitler, in ''The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.''
His films have ranged from the master thief in ''The Pink Panther'' to the noble Captain von Trapp, who led his many children into the Alps to escape from the Nazis, in ''The Sound of Music.''
If you've been to the Robert H. Jackson Center, and watched the television drama ''Nuremberg,'' which they show there, Plummer portrays the British prosecutor at the war crimes tribunal.
Plummer has often appeared in leading roles, on Broadway, around the world, and at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in his native Canada.
If your gift recipient loves the theater of films, there's a good chance he would enjoy reading the actor's recently-published memoir, which he has titled ''In Spite of Myself.''
A week from tomorrow, Plummer will celebrate his 80th birthday. His long and very chatty book describes, not a well-planned and carefully examined career as a performing artist, but essentially a life with many advantages, which have enabled him to stroll, and occasionally stagger, to some genuine artistic masterpieces.
The actor is good looking and essentially healthy. Both characteristics are vital in a career in which survival often means going days without sleep, surviving for long periods with little or no income, and other activities which can kill a weaker person.
Born in Toronto, he grew up in Montreal, in a household where he learned both English and French from the cradle. His great grandfather was the third Prime Minister of Canada. He grew up, surrounded by thousands of books, and by people who actually read them and talked about them, who took him to plays and concerts and lectures.
He was introduced from a very early age to the people who actually make things happen in the world, and he was raised without exposure to whiners, nor blamers nor the people who teach children to fail, because the horrible condition of the world justifies failure. He readily admits, he didn't work his way up from the streets to a career in acting, he worked his way down from a rich man's drawing room.
His book can be annoying to read. He quotes too much poetry, often poetry which has very little to do with the subject he's discussing. He slips into French and occasionally Latin and other languages to little gain and much distraction.
On the other hand, he has worked with some of the most famous and important people in the history of the theater. He is very frank about his weaknesses and his failures. For example, he clearly states that he never talked once with his only daughter, actress Amanda Plummer, from her age of eight, at which time he separated from her mother, actress and singer Tammy Grimes, until his daughter was headlining plays, in roles he envied and admired. They were often nominated for the same awards.
As for ''The Sound of Music,'' which is probably his most famous role, Plummer has given many interviews, in which he has discussed what little artistic value he thought the film had, and calling the film ''S & M,'' and ''The Sound of Mucus.'' In the book, he explains that he was self-conscious that he had to sing, claiming he had never sung previously, even in the shower, and stating some of the difficulties he experienced while he was working on the film.
By the way, he has nothing but praise and admiration for Julie Andrews, whose energetic acting and beautiful singing made the film into the classic it has become. According to him, they are still friends.
In his career, Plummer has worked with Katharine Cornell, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Tyrone Guthrie, Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave, and Natalie Wood, to name just a very few.
If you love acting and the theater, it's a book you'll greatly enjoy. ''In Spite of Myself'' was published by Alfred A. Knopf. It has 648 pages, in hard bound edition, and sells new for $29.95. Search for it with ISBN number 978-0-679-42162-7.