Friday, December 04, 2009

Angels We Have Heard on High

Can you believe we're already seven sausage slices into December? What? You don't have a salami advent? Us either. Alas.

But boy am I getting into the holiday spirit. Which you will see over at if you read only about the eggnog cheesecake bars and skip the whole lice episode. Or kale slaw! I know! Festive or what? The column seems fixed now over there, so hopefully it will be updating regularly.

Meanwhile, I don't always understand the way it works, this receiving of gifts, but I wanted to thank you. I asked about great websites for kids, and your suggestions have been utterly fabulous. "Wow," Ben said. "These people really *know* me." I feel the same way. Already he's played Bookworm on popcap, a bunch of games on that sweet Orsinal site, something on the Vancouver 2010 site, and some strange car-crash thing on the edheads site. He has many more suggestions book-marked too--oh, and he completed the dance-mat typing lessons on the BBC, which we all loved. It's been so great to look with him at these tried-and-true favorites of yours. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

In return, I am offering a holiday gift-book round-up. Some of these are books that I have mentioned so many times that you'd think I'd be over them by now--but I'm not, apparently.

For instance

LinkI know. I have been talking about Children Just Like Me for, like, a hundred years. But it's such an incredible book, the way it shows kids from over the world--their schools and houses of worship, their homes and pets and favorite toys and meals--and it prompts loads of conversation about sameness and difference, about privilege and hardship, without ever bonking you over the head with a moral hammer. We still read it all the time, and it would make a great gift for any child up to the age of 10 or 11 or so. But I'm warning you: the kids in the book are so beautiful that you will be a little bit heartbroken.

Okay. Jame's Herriot's Treasury for Children is another book that I can't say enough good things about. Did you ever read his vet books for grown-ups? You might think you don't want to hear about this tweedy English guy pushing his gloved hand into the yonis of various birthing farm animals, but actually, you do. Nevertheless, this is a collection of his gentlest, least gynecological vet stories, and they're beautifully illustrated. Plus, a) there's a Christmas story about a cat and, b) you get to read the dialogue in a heavy cockney accent. You know. If you want to. We have given it as a present to many children, and everybody loves it.

Now, Christmas Tapestry I have to mention because we read it every year, and every year it makes me cry, and every year the kids say, "Oh, Mama, this book makes you cry every year!" and yes, it does. It's kind of heavy--we used to edit it a little when the kids were younger--because it refers briefly to the Holocaust (though not in very specific terms), but it is the most devastating and romantic fantasy about restoration and reunion that I can imagine. Also, a good mix of Jewish and Christian stories.

Okay, those are my recommendations for children. Though I also wanted to mention a few chapter books. The Children of Noisy Village, which Beck once recommended to me right here, and which we loved: it's by Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking), and it's a collection of rustic little tales of old-fashioned daily life in Sweden; think Little House on the Prairie, only with less death defiance and more lutefisk. Also The Great Brain series, which I loved and devoured as a ten-year-old, and then ten-year-old Ben loved and devoured 30 years later (annoyingly, they don't seem to exist as a boxed set). And The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton, which my ten-year-old mother loved and devoured and then, many, many decades later, her ten-year-old grandson loved and devoured (annoyingly, these also don't seem to exist as a boxed set in this country, though I was able to order one from the UK to send my nephews in Geneva. Shhhh.).

Those are my picks for kids. And for grown-ups:

My mother and I love, love, loved the novel Brooklyn, though my father did not. Maybe it's more of a women's kind of book? But Colm Toibin is a devastatingly fantastic writer, and I have loved all of his books. This one is worth reading if only for the most harrowing sea crossing you can imagine. Also, because it too is like Little House on the Prairie, only set in an Irish immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1950s. If you can picture.

But maybe you wanted to give that special someone not a novel but a book of odd, melancholy drawings. Principles of Uncertainty, by the incomparable Maira Kalman, is one of the strangest and most beautiful books I have ever held in my hands. She is heartbroken and filled with gratitude all the time--a stranger's earnest fur hat can bring her to tears--and her grief-filled joy is always pitch-perfect. Always. I am giving this as a gift.

Or did you want to give a book of poetry? True, the white cover is not showing up very excitingly here, but Evidence by Mary Oliver is full of her stunning, grateful observations of love and the natural world, along with the the kinds of lines ("Tell me / what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?" is not in this book, but it could be) that have been changing lives for as long as she's been writing.

Or do you know someone who loves to cook? Local Flavors is a cookbook that I read cover to cover, like a novel. It is beautiful to look at, and full of fresh, delicious farmer's market recipes that are so sparklingly good you won't even miss the bacon. Also: grape chiffon pie. I just love her for having that recipe.

Please feel free to add more in the comments here about what you've been reading/loving/giving as gifts, book-wise. I am always so thrilled about your advice.

Meanwhile, I hope you are thriving and louse-free. xoxo


  1. I'm giving "Gladstone's Games to Go" to all my fellow moms - it's a collection of word games, coin games, paper & pencil games with variations for harder or easier games, depending on the ages of the players. Excellent for travels! Keep it in the glove compartment.

    Also, "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" by Dicamillo will break your heart in the most life-affirming way possible.

  2. We're giving "Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day" to several people because we love it so.

  3. First that "Advent Sausage" is KILLING me with it's awesomeness. Next year...

    Books! I LOVE book talk!

    We too have Children Just Like Me, and my daughters have been pouring over it for years.

    Our family Christmas favorites are "Night Tree" by Eve Bunting, "The Nativity" by Julia Vivas (the illustrations really make this book special), and any of the Sabuda pop-ups.

    Good books that I've read lately... The Book Thief was amazing, Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime was charming (loved the main character), both of Amanda Blake Soule's books filled my heart with longing to craft.... Right now I'm reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett and I'm not far enough along to recommend it, but it seems promising...

    Now, I'm off to check out your latest recipes.

  4. I'm reading the Little House books to my 5-year-old daughter for the first time right now; I'm going directly to Amazon after this comment to look up The Children of Noisy Village, so thank you!

    May I add to your list one of my favorites? I love love LOVE the Melendy Family books by Elizabeth Enright. I loved 'em as an 8-year-old and I love them as an adult. They're about a family of four kids just before and during WWII (though the war only figures into the story in the most incidental of ways--a scrap drive, their dad being away in the city more often) who start out in NYC and wind up living in the "country" in upstate New York. The stories are full of stories about going to art museums and the opera and having tea with an eccentric old family friend who was kidnapped by gypsies as a girl, moving to a new place, building a dam in the stream on their property to make a swimming hole, learning how to can jam and vegetables, putting on elaborate shows together with neighborhood kids, finding old treasures in the cellar, collecting moths, etc. Hmm, reading back over my list that doesn't sound so exciting but the books are so well-written, they have always made me long for a life without television because those kids had SO MUCH FUN without one. I am guessing that Ben and Birdy both would love these books.

  5. Do you know the Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig. Lots of whimsy and wit with a dash of melancholy thrown in for good measure. Sure you could find on Amazon. Think would translate internationally although some of his cartoons are very Australian in nature (eg "The Ramming of the Shears" is a very tongue in cheek pisstake of the famous Australian painting "Shearing of the Rams"). Hmmm "pisstake" is a very Australian term too. Not sure what a US version would be..."taking the piss" means sending up or lambasting (is that the word???)...having a joke at someones expense and playing around with an original and re-doing in another form for a laugh. I am really bad at this translation thing I think I will stop now - just to say I cant recommend Leunig highly enough for a laugh and a tear and a tug at the heart and a question in the soul.

  6. Oh, Maira Kalman. *SIGH* She wrote Fireboat about Sept. 11 and it is one of my all time favorites. I read it to my own kids and my first grade kids each year. Talk about a book that makes you cry! Phew!

  7. Oh, I cringe and writhe at the thought of lice. My niece gave them to my son when he was two. And he, in turn, gave them to me. One of the reasons I homeschooled for the first two years was so my children could avoid lice.
    As they say, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." I've taken to putting a drop or two of tea tree oil in their hair every morning before sending them off to school. Lice don't like the smell anymore than my kids do. It masks their nice human scalp scent. It's working so far, knock on wood.

  8. Must read:
    Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives

    by David Eagleman

    We heard it on the wonderful NPR show RadioLab, where they featured several of the brief stories read by Jeffrey Tambor. Seriously awesome.

  9. I just finished listening to Brooklyn (the audiobook), and yes, that sea crossing was quite a doozy. I loved all of it until the end, so maybe I should have read those last few pages rather than listened to. Everyone seems to adore the ending, but not being able to "see" when the ending was coming up made it too sad for me.

    Colm Toibin though. Love him. He can even make Irish lit theory an interesting read.

  10. Teafortwo6:43 AM

    I remember getting "Children Like Me" at my school's book sale (for 50 cents or so) right before Finn was born. There was a stretch where it was the only book he wanted to hear. I think Erdene is my favorite, though Houda might be a close second. Very compelling stories. Thanks for the other suggestions. I asked for an Amazon gift card for Christmas, so more books from this list should be in my future. Advent Sausage, eh? Very interesting.

  11. Anonymous8:58 AM

    Out of curiosity, why cockney? James Herriot was from Scotland, and the books take place in the Yorkshire Dales. Cockney is an inner-city London accent.

  12. Pete & Pickles by Berkley Breathed. (Remember that guy? Opus, Bloom County...) It's a great children's book and we've given it to a few friends as well.

  13. Oh god Catherine, I laughed so hard at the photos of the cheesecake making. Especially the Jack Daniels shot. Awesome.

    I've always been a realistic optimist. Is that like a cheerful pessimist?

  14. Oh no, the lice! I am waiting, grimly, for the lice experience to happen to me. My oldest child started kindergarten this year and I just know it's only a matter of time.

    Catherine, reading your eggnog cheesecake column reminded me that I have to tell you, yesterday I Googled your O magazine essay from the other year, about the creche and your miscarriage, so I could read it again this holiday season and cry all over again. Such gorgeous writing, such a sad story with a sweet Birdy ending. Wanted you to know I'm still thinking of you at this time of year, and hoping for happier memories for you and your family.

  15. Thank you! I love book reviews!!

  16. Anonymous10:20 AM

    Sorry to hear about the lice episode. The Robi Comb is great for clearing up any lingering problems and preventing recurrence. Good luck!

  17. I love Patricia Polacco, too. And her stories always choke me up, all of them!

  18. Thank YOU for the book lists, nothing is better in winter than snuggling up with a great book. I also have to add that I tried your upside down cranberry cake recipe from last year and it is FABULOUS and beautiful. So just in case you ever think the *vintage* recipes are looked over, think again!! I still use them!

  19. How terrible is it that everyone is sharing all of their profound literary findings, and I'm currently and somewhat shamefully filling my bits of alone time with "Scar Tissue", a biography of Anthony Kiedis? Oh well, I have "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and "The Glass Castle" waiting for me...maybe that will make up for it. ;)

    Happy everything you celebrate to all!

  20. I just read Slumdog Millionaire, and I know, I know, everyone is going to say it's a great movie. I haven't seen the movie since I usually only see movies months or years after they have left the theatres. BUT Slumdog Millionaire is a very excellent read. I highly recommend it.

  21. Anonymous2:19 PM

    Thank you Catherine, and thank you all, for book recommendations--I just love them.

    I've got a couple:

    Amy Hest has a couple of picture book stories (age 2-5ish) "You can do it, Sam!" or "In the Rain with Baby Duck." I just love her.

    Cynthia Rylant is a lovely writer. Her picture book "In November" captures so beautiful that crisp, nip in the air of autumn just before winter sets in. She also wrote "The Storm" which is a short chapter book (5 chapters?). Her "Poppleton" books (early readers) are also a lot of fun.

    If you want a good cry, "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey" (I'd say ages 4 to 10) is the ticket. My kids don't cry, only I do. It's beautiful.
    Also, we have some of Milne's poems on CD read by Miranda Richardson, and "King John's Christmas" is just hysterical, especially when she reads it with her English accent.

    Oh, that reminds me. Anonymous--why cockney? I'm guessing just because it's so fun. My husband breaks into cockney at random moments, like "Let me see what you 'ave in this 'ere diaper, lad--Whot! It's a whopping poop!"

    --Cathy K

  22. I love these recommendations! Wishlisting some, library hold-listing others I want to peruse before adding them to the permanent collection.

    My Christmassy "always cry" book is O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. Any version of the gentle, wry story makes me sniffly yet happy, but I'm linking the delicately illustrated version my mom gave me when I was a teen.

    For the sci fi fans among us, I suggest Connie Willis's Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. This lady loves Christmas. She bends holiday realities in an occasionally twisted but usually cozy and gleeful way.

  23. Steph7:52 AM

    The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wells. I absolutely loved this book. I couldn't put it down once I started reading it. Great book.

  24. Anonymous8:07 AM

    Thank you for all of the recommendations. My 7 year old wants to be a vet, so James Henriott's collection should be perfect.

    My favorite little book (for small kids up to 4?) is Sometimes I like to Curl up in a Ball by Vicki Churchill and Charles Fuge. I question the age range because I love it sooooo. Whenever I finish reading this simple board book I have a sense of completeness of understanding and a hormonal rush like I've just been nursing. Really it's sweet :
    Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Wonderful Kwanzaa!!!
    Happy Holidays :o)

  25. Anonymous9:35 AM

    Catherine, one you get rid of the louse you might want to try a product called Fairytales Hair. It is a lice repellent system of shampoo, conditioner and hairspray that is made from pure rosemary oil and repels lice. (Knock wood) My whole neighborhood uses it and we have never had lice despite a big problem at the school. I love spraying the kids heads with the hairspray before school like "money in the bank" as you like to say! This stuff is great and you can order it off their website. The product is organic and clinically studied. I love the stuff!!!!

  26. I would highly recommend anything by Barbara Kingsolver for adults. What a talented, well-researched writer she is! Also, I'm getting the new Cake Wrecks book for our gift exchange. Hilarious! Thanks for the recommendations, by the way.

  27. The Principles of Uncertainty is one of my favorite books ever.

    I love her kids books too: around here Ohlala: Max in Love is our most read of hers.

    and, nice to her the plug for Dave Eagleman's book...he is a relative and the book is really great!

    Happy Holidays!

  28. Lice! My nephew (who stays with me often) has had them a couple of times now, my kids have had them once, and I've had them three times (once as a kid, once in my 20s [thanks, little sisters], and once in my 30s [thanks, nephew])! Torture. Let me just say that's one time I'm thankful I have "white people hair" instead of "Indian hair": my kids' and nephew's hair is so thick, those lice combs just pull their hair right out, so you have no choice but to do the chimpanzee thing. I imagine it's similar for African and Asian hair. Still, I decided if I ever get lice again, I'm just shaving my head bald.

    On books, I have been reading Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, a really great novel about two Cree brothers in World War I. My kids (boys, 6 and 8) loved the whole Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, which sets Greek myths in the present in a really cool way (I don't know about you, but I loved the D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths as a kid, and these take me back to that book). The other series that they really like right now is the Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan, which has all kinds of action, but the female characters are a little less than compelling: these are overwhelmingly boy books. My 8 year old devoured all the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and the Calvin and Hobbes collections. He has now written a 50 page christmas list in homage to Calvin.

    Happy holidays, everyone!

  29. Teafortwo10:15 AM

    @Who do you want to be: "Pete and Pickles" is the sweetest book. We have it out from the library right now and renewed it specifically to read to friends this week whose dogs are named Petey and Pickles. Italian Love Songs for everyone this season!

  30. Thanks for the book reviews and the recipes and your generous writings. Of course we *know* Ben, we've been reading about him for like, eight years. Amazing.

    I also loved the Glass Castle, like one of your other commenters. And Momma Zen by Karen Maezen Miller (a mother and zen teacher) is a great help with so much truth in each page.

  31. I recently discovered "We're God's dream" by bishop Desdmond Tutu, and I've already given it out to three people. I love it, as I love the picture of your sweet smiling children. They're precious.

  32. Anonymous1:11 PM

    i believe shampooing with lavender soap (dr bronners) would help repell lice. saw it in an aromatherapy book.

  33. Hi, How are you? I came across your Blog and I really enjoyed reading it! I found it very interesting! I'm a new blogger so I'd like to invite you to have a look at my blog and feel welcome to give me any kind of feedback and comments on my posts! :) I would really appreciate it! Thanks for sharing information and yr experiences! I wish you all the best! Kind Regards ;)

  34. Dale in Denver5:59 PM

    I find it hard to believe Electra Maven really read *anything* on Catherine's blog. A Brazillian girl, living in Austrailia, writing a blog about internet advertising. Hmmmm, I can see how that ties in nicely with Catherine's writing. ha!

  35. Anonymous11:54 PM

    Catherine! I adore you, and love you, and adore you! There, I've said it! I had to write it fast and get it out, before I read any other comments here, in case there are 10 other readers showering you with their love and adoration, and lest I feel shy to add to the mix!

    It's me, 2kidslife, in New Jersey.

    (I still have not done the putting my name registered thing..)

    I just read your latke post, and I just wanted to say have a very lovely rest of 2009, and thank you for continuing to share your thoughts and recipes and world with us! (okay, even I am still secretly weeping into my hanky that your writing about your family is over, sniff, sniff)

    You remind me to soak up every moment. Appreciate. Thank you.

    Hugs from down here, a few states down from you.

  36. Just letting you know that I tried the crunchy oven fries and my family LOVED them. Except for my 5 year old, who doesn't love anything.

    You talk (um, write) about chipotle puree . . . do you make this, or can I find it in a jar somewhere?? Thanks for another great recipe!

    (My verification word is "hohsossi" . . . if I make the chipotle dip, will it be a little hoh - sossi? ;-)

  37. Anonymous11:34 PM

    Sorry, grew up on a farm reading Herriot, and laughed at your comments!! Us Farm kids didn't think twice about the yonis stories, but I find myself also laughing trying to read the stories to my kids, I will look into the collection!!


  38. I know you don't know me from "a bar of soap" (I remember your mom is from England too so hopefully this make sense?)

    Anyway, I just wanted to say a heartfelt thank you. I read every one of your blogs on babycenter, I read your benandbirdy blog religiously and I can't tell you how many copies of your book I have bought for friends and family. I am a new mom and I gotta tell you, your blog got me through the past few months. Those damn patronizing baby books were driving me bananas, acting all perfect and making me feel like a moldy piece of cheese! Now I'm learning to concentrate on what's really important, and try and smile at the madness of it all at the same time.

    PS: I'm an atrocious cook (domestically challenged is an understatement) but I'm going to try some of your recipes... wish me luck!

  39. SO many wonderful books here!!

    My daughter's 2nd grade class just finished an author study of Patricia Polacco -- all these "big kids" who "only read chapter books" were very touched by her wonderful books. My daughter loved 'Luba nd the Wren' and read it over and over.

    I got 'Children Just Like Me' based on the recommendations here and my daughter didn't put it down for days. Had to return it to the library, sadly. I'll definitely be buying it. Thanks so much!

  40. Catherine! You mentioned me and it took me nearly a month to comment. I suck.

    But how I love the Children Of Noisy Village. AND Children Just Like Me, which has been the foundation of my littles' geography work this year as we homeschool.

    I give everyone copies of my dad's first book of poetry, really. Because a) it's beautiful and b) my dad wrote it and I keep hoping I'll look more talent just through genetics.

  41. Anonymous9:44 AM

    Beck and Catherine--We got Children of Noisy Village out from library a week or so ago and are LOVING it! I resisted getting it the first time it was mentioned a while ago because of the connection to Pippi. My kids loved Pippi, but I found it a little exhausting. But this one is so not Pippi. It's a perfect little read. And we are reading it after we've had a storm and right before Christmas (just like in the book!) What a gift that recommendation was. Thank you.
    --Cathy K

  42. Some of my favorite books:

    "Middlesex" by Jeffery Eugenides. My absolute all-time favorite book. Please read it.

    Anything by Augusten Burroughs. He's a genius and a great writer.

    Anything by Jhumpa Lahiri. She'll make you want to become Indian.

    "America's Boy" by Wade Rouse. I admit I have an odd interest in memoirs from gay men.

    And one more gay man: David Sedaris.

    Have fun!

  43. Catherine, just thought you'd like to know, my daughter made your borscht in Yemen just the other night. She's always looking for stovetop dinners, as they do not have an oven. Her blog is here:, although she is not talking about cooking per se.

    I checked out the Christmas Tapestry from our library to see if it might be a good book for my granddaughter next Christmas. I was crying in the parking lot. Its not just you!

    Thank you for all that you share.