Like a mug of hot cocoa after an afternoon of sledding, sometimes a good Christmas gift isn't quite complete without a second one that enhances the pleasures of the first. With that, here are six excellent presents paired with gateway drugs that may lead your loved ones to further learnings, bingeings, and delights.
Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann ($25, Random House)
The Irish-American author's fifth book, which just won the National Book Award for the best novel of 2009, chronicles a large and disparate cast of characters somehow united by Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. In a city and an era marked by moral decay, McCann captures the urban experience in all its messy and exhilarating tangles of grief, struggle, and ingenuity.
Further research: Man on Wire (Magnolia Home Entertainment, $19.98)
While Philippe Petit isn't mentioned by name in McCann's novel, scenes of his acrobatic feat show what it takes to restore a sense of dumbstruck humility to one of the world's great cities. James Marsh's Oscar-winning documentary transforms Petit's sensational stunt into a suspenseful crime caper with a cathartic, awe-inspiring finale.
Design + dismay
Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli (Pantheon, $29.95)
Is a man shaped by his aesthetic and philosophical beliefs, or the people who challenge them? Mazzucchelli's first graphic novel, released earlier this year, examines this question in both the form and content of Asterios Polyp, the story of a middle-aged architect whose pretentious opinions are upended after a lightning bolt sets fire to his rigid, unwavering existence. As the author boldly tests the limits of his medium (coding his characters with different colors and artistic styles), Polyp's journey feels both epic (the book is partially inspired by The Odyssey) and painstakingly intimate.
Further research: My Architect: A Son's Journey (New Yorker Films, $29.95)
Asterios Polyp's alienating pompousness seems all the more honest in the face of Nathaniel Kahn's Oscar-nominated 2003 documentary. Kahn is one of two children conceived out of wedlock (to two different mistresses) by the legendary architect Louis Kahn, who died in 1974. Nathaniel, who spent his childhood living in the same Philadelphia suburb as all of his half-siblings, interviews both newfound family members and other architectural demigods (I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry) in order to learn more of his elusive, driven, and absent father.
Brooding + boozing
Season 2 of Mad Men (Lions Gate DVD, $49.98)
The one persistent complaint about AMC's zeitgeisty drama is that it's "too slow," a gripe Mad Men's magisterial second season doesn't do much to dispel. But if Matthew Weiner's show is ostensibly about the true identity of its suave adman protagonist, Donald Draper (the superb Jon Hamm), its primary function thus far is to expose the expanding political, racial, and sexual fissures that led a country toward its last cultural revolution. Thanks to simmering performances by January Jones and Elizabeth Moss, Mad Men's second season brought the practical struggles of women at home and in the workplace to the foreground with smoldering energy.
Further research: A bottle of Eagle Rare bourbon ($27.99)