Things have been quiet (read: busy) but it’s time to start counting down the days to Christmas. First up, a gift guide.
You’ve probably done most of your shopping already (or not. This is a no-judgement zone). But if you’re anything like me, you’re always looking for something else to round out your list. Despite my Kindle love (and I am, in fact a convert – one of these days I’ll write about my Kindle love and the library), there’s nothing like a book as a gift. Easy to wrap, lasts forever, doesn’t take up much room, and can be purchased at a cozy bookstore, which is almost never overrun with holiday craziness (or online. I admit to that, too. And if you haven’t joined Amazon Prime (2 day shipping!) now is the time to sign up for a free trial.) Here then, is my list of great gift books for 2013. (Links are affiliate links).
For your cousin who just got married and is learning to seriously cook with the fancy knives and brand new KitchenAid Mixer she has recently acquired:
Why: This book is a modern classic for a reason. Judy Rodgers, who passed away this year, has written a cookbook that is not only a collection of (excellent) recipes, but is also a book that’s interesting enough to read cover to cover and a true primer on technique. This book will make her a better cook – worthy of all those fancy pots.
For your husband, who follows the stock market for fun and actually reads corporations’ annual reports as if they were magazines:
Why: To quote my husband (who happens to read annual reports for fun): “You’re getting the collected wisdom of America’s greatest investor in real time.” (He also wanted me to point out that you can print these for free off the Berkshire Hathaway website.)
For your college roommate, who has been going through a tough time and could use a laugh and some empathy:
Why: Anyone who reads her genius blog knows that Allie Brosh is a wonder – she manages to be both poignant and hysterically funny at the same time. The book is a collection of some of her best cartoons and some new material, but it’s all fresh and hilarious and so, so true.
For your gay BFF, who follows pop culture like it’s going out of style and will never leave New York because of Broadway:
Why: This is the best cookbook I’ve bought this year, maybe in many years. The recipes are fresh and exciting – evoking the city that inspired them with beautiful photographs. It’s a great book for the armchair traveler, but it’s also a great book for the cook – the flavor combinations are often surprising and always delicious.
For your curly-haired rosy-cheeked toddler, who learned animal noises before he learned any actual words and thinks every dog he meets is a friend:
Why: with cute pictures of real dogs, a lilting, fun rhyme, and some basic pop up characteristics, this book is sure to be a hit. It also teaches opposites (big dog, little dog, neat dog, sloppy), and some preliminary counting. In our house, it’s a great favorite, accompanied by cries of “Doggie!’ and “aGEN”.
For your precocious six year old daughter, who is balancing right on the cusp of kidhood, and is just now finding secrets to keep (and the ability to write them down):
Why: Gaiman gets overlooked by the lit fiction set who are all busy reading Donna Tartt and Jhumpa Lahiri, but this is a gem of a book. Part horror story, part fairy tale, part psychological insight – you’ll want to read it and then have someone to discuss it with. Plus, it’s short, so you have plenty of time to read it before next month’s meeting – even with all the holiday madness.
Why: Who doesn’t love Bill Bryson? Funny and smart, he’s an excellent tour guide and dispenser of trivia. This book covers baseball, gangsters, airplanes, the stock market – all with Bryson’s trademark wit.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m an eager reader, but when it comes to how I spend my precious reading time, my tastes tend towards the fiction end of the spectrum (though I generally make exceptions for Bill Bryson). Occasionally, I will pick up a nonfiction book just to get with the zeitgeist, and understand what all those Slate Articles and Facebook statuses are about, even if I’d rather be reading P.D. James. Here are three that I found worth my time.
The Expectation: Sandberg is the COO of a major Internet Company – what does SHE know about my struggles as a working mother? And what if I don’t want to lean in? I thought this would read as out of touch and entitled, the corporate version of GOOP, and many blog posts and articles backed up this expectation.
The Reality: Sandberg totally acknowledges all of the naysayers – she knows that she was lucky in her mentors and her opportunities, though her luck was augmented by hard work and seizing the opportunities that came along. Her anecdotes deal with the struggles faced by working women who are invested in both their families and careers – she doesn’t get into the nitty gritty of childcare, but who cares? It’s neither helpful nor interesting to me to know that my friend L, who lives in Texas, has a full-time nanny, but M., in New Hampshire uses a home-based daycare. We all have to work out our own child care situations. She recognizes that many women do want to make the choice to lean out, but she wants to ensure that it’s a choice, and not something women feel like they need to do. There’s a call to make structural changes in the workplace, but also some practical, real world tips on negotiating and being assertive, even for the peons, like me. I ended up wishing I could have lunch with Sandberg and call her up to seek advice every time I have to make a decision at work.
The Expectation: We’ve all heard it all about French women – they’re chicer than we are, thinner than we are, better cooks than
we are, sexier than we are – now they’re better mothers, too. I’ve spent a lot of time in France and do appreciate many aspects of French culture (including the absolutely darling children’s clothes), but I was prepared to be deeply annoyed by French exceptionalism in this book.
The Reality: There was some French exceptionalism, I’m not going to lie, but the book read as a little more “anthropological study” and and a little less “how to” guide than I expected. There were some fascinating descriptions of the French approach to education (based on the 18th century philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for more on Rousseau and how that worked in practice, I’d also recommend reading How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate.) There’s also an in-depth look at the French child-care system (forget what I said above about not being interested in other people’s child care arrangements!) which reinforced some of my own experiences (we love day care). And finally, while all of the descriptions weren’t things I’d want to adopt into my family (I don’t really think babies SHOULD be sleeping through the night at 3 weeks old), or can’t (my kids will not adapt to a 4-times-a-day eating plan), there are some concrete tips that make our family life more pleasant (broccoli as a first course – GENIUS). It’s definitely worth a read.
The Expectation: I didn’t have much of an expectation on this one. I never read Dear Sugar and never read Rumpus. I had heard about Cheryl Strayed, but only because my book club wanted to read her best selling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage), and I was not interested at all. I mean, the only thing more boring than actually hiking is reading about it. (Besides, I already read that book. When Bill Bryson wrote it.) This was available through my library’s e-media portal, and since I’m a fan of Dan Savage and a longtime Dear Abby reader, I figured, why not?
The Reality: I loved this book. It was beautiful. It was advice, sure, but it was advice that read like my favorite short stories. Searing and heartfelt and full of pain and so much love for the advice seekers. It was life-affirming. I sobbed through most of the book and promptly ordered a copy for a friend of mine who was going through a difficult time in her life. And then, a newfound Strayed devotee, I ordered a copy of Wild (though I admit that I haven’t read it yet. There are multiple P.D. James books on my Kindle!)
The Nuni has just joined the summer reading program at the library, and she is SUPER excited. This is the first summer she can really read, and she is taking all sorts of delight in sitting down with a huge stack of books and racing through them (she is naturally picking the easiest of her easy readers), all the while exclaiming in a loud voice, “I LOVE READING.” This whole process of course leads to the ultimate goal- she can write the titles down on her list, take it to the library and get a sticker.
It’s a preliminary step in what I hope will be a lifetime love of reading. And summer seems like the perfect time to embark on a reading program for adults as well. My perfect summer involves long hours by the beach or the pool or on an adirondack chair out on the porch with my nose in a good book. Not just any book makes for good summer reading. Summer reading should be gripping, enjoyable, light. This is not the season for tackling Bleak House, or brushing up your knowledge of Russian agricultural theory. The below list includes some of my favorite fun books that are perfect for summer reading.
(Note: Links are affiliate links. Feel free to get these from the library. Or support the site with click throughs.)
In the Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin sets out to spend a year increasing her personal happiness. Being a Yale graduate and a former lawyer (and oh, could I relate), she started with the only logical path: research. Followed by lots of notecards and to-do lists. And a STRATEGY. Each month Rubin focused on one step or building block to her happiness, beginning with energy and moving through marriage, family, career, fun, and spirituality, among others. Each month she created “resolutions” or habits she hoped to build, and the successive months built upon the work she had done the previous month. Through the book, she described not only her own personal happiness quest, but also snippets of her research, her methodology, and stories she got from readers of her companion blog (set up during The “career” month.)
Now, I will say that the book is not without its flaws. The genre of stunt nonfiction (“I spent a year doing xyz”, possibly most famous in Julie Powell’s Julie/Julia project, which was turned first into a book and then into a movie) is growing a little tired. How many of us plebes have an entire year to devote to a specific and esoteric pursuit? Also Rubin, with her ivy league education and Upper Westside Manhattan existence hardly seems like someone who should be happiness-challenged. Still, Rubin candidly addresses both of these issuess, and admits that her journey may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Despite the faults, I found this book to be inspiring. The idea of happiness as something measurable and achievable was one that resonated with me, particularly this spring. And the advice Rubin gives about achieving happiness is fairly universal and also concrete. “Get more sleep.” “Build connections.” And reading about the effects her project had on her life inspired me to seek happiness as a personal goal in my own way. Of course, not all of Rubin’s specific goals are applicable to me. I’m far to anxious to read disaster narratives (part of the “contemplating eternity” month), and keeping an empty shelf in my house is just not an efficient use of space. Even her methodologies don’t really work for me. I fully admit that I decided to embark upon my own happiness project, came up with resolutions, printed up charts, and promptly ignored it after a week. Apparently I’m not a chart kind of girl. I kind of knew that. One of the pieces of advice that Rubin gives is “What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you — and vice versa.” Wise words to remember.
Still, the book is still affecting me and making me think. In addition to her personal resolutions and goals, Rubin comes up with some “Secrets of Adulthood” and “Splendid Truths” which do seem to have a broad application. When I’m making choices, I think about how the choices will make me happy or not. I remember that even when I feel like holing up at home (which does, sometimes, make me happy), I’m better served by building connections and relationships, even as an introvert. I remember that my environment does affect my mood, and that if I have a headache, an ibuprofen really will help (a “secret of adulthood.”) I think about how my attitude is affecting my family (“One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”) and I try to stop and notice those moments that are what happiness is made of.
The Happiness Project didn’t fix my grief. It’s not literary prozac. I’m still sad a lot. But it helped me look for my inner core of happiness. To choose the sunshine. To let springtime in.
I'm Kate, and between my day job and my home job, life is pretty full. Look around to find some of the recipes, projects, stories and tips that keep me sane on the domestic front. Read more about me here and feel free to email me with any questions or feedback!