Shops and Gifts

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

Cannery Wine Cellars.
James Sanders
Cannery Wine Cellars.
Lark in the Morning.
James Sanders
Lark in the Morning.

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 Gameis 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.

GIFTS WITHOUT MALLS

"I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown" tour

The $75-a-head price tag may seem excessive to those used to paying $5 for a lunch special with egg roll. But Shirley Fong-Torres' exhaustive, four-hour walk through Chinatown's best kitchens and markets is well worth the cost. The tour starts with a Chinese breakfast of rice porridge at legendary hole-in-the-wall Sam Wo's. Fong-Torres then leads tour groups through a sidewalk dim sum nosh, a Chinese kitchenware outlet, takeout restaurants, and a couple of produce and grocery stores, authoritatively explaining ingredients, preparation, and customs at each stop. The peregrination concludes with a sit-down lunch at an upscale Chinatown eatery, ending when, as Fong-Torres puts it, "somebody explodes." Every Saturday and some Sundays, $75 per person, 981-8989, www.wokwiz.com

Coast Starlight to Seattle or L.A.

Train travel is lazy and convivial and absolutely romantic -- the polar opposite, in other words, of air travel. And one of the best ways for a local to experience its tranquil pleasures is to hop Amtrak's northbound or southbound Coast Starlight out of Emeryville. Settle into the observation car, order a cocktail, and enjoy the scenery -- and such scenery! Heading north you'll see the snow-topped peaks and verdant forests of Oregon and Washington; the southbound route features long and lovely stretches of Pacific coastline. Stops include Olympia, Portland, Klamath Falls, and Santa Barbara, and among the onboard attractions are wine tastings, nature programs, feature films, and Happy Hour in the lounge car. The ideal gift for a terminally anxious friend. (800) 872-7245; www.amtrak.com/trains/coaststarlight

Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey used to be associated with private eyes, stewbums, and similar noir types, a skid row alternative to the scotch and bourbon of respectable folk. Then Anchor Brewing, the Potrero Hill purveyors of delectable steam beer, branched into the art and science of grain distillery and restored rye to its rightful pedestal. Rye, after all, was the first whiskey produced in the United States, and Anchor's Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey is crafted the old-fashioned way, in a small copper-pot still from a mash of 100 percent rye malt. Aged for three years in handmade, carefully charred oak barrels and bottled undiluted, it makes a rich, smooth (and, at $114 per bottle, expensive) gift for a libation-loving friend.

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