Monday, December 02, 2013

Holiday Gift Thinkings, 2013 edition

Dearests, are you thinking of the holidays, and what you might like to give the beloved children and adults in your life? I know I am. And although I can’t report on the items I’m making, buying, and giving this year (Will the kids like this shirt, these socks, this game, this envelope kit? I don’t know yet, although I can guess!) I can whole-heartedly recommend some of our more recent tried and true favorite things—games, books, activities, and stuff that will surely be beloved. Of course, there is always the master games list (link at right) which is full-to-bursting with dozens of favorites. And there’s kitchen gifts from years past, the grapefruit marmalade that I am required to make every year, peppermint patties, loads of crafts. And these few things below. Please forgive the book repeats. I can’t help myself. And please, please, please add your own suggestions in the comments! What are you excited about  giving?

Do you like my bosom? I thought you might.
game: Love Letter
Love Letter is small, inexpensive, attractive, easy to learn, relatively quick, and like a cross between Hearts, Stratego, and a Jane Austen novel. Just a little deck of cards, really, but with big strategy. Plus, it's totally streamlined and lovely, and comes in a little velvet draw-string bag, which is so wonderful. It’s for 2-4 players, ages 8 and up.

game: Hanabi
This is a heavy-strategy card game that I heard about when someone recommended it to me here, and it’s unique, cooperative, and sleekly, bafflingly excellent. (Thank you!) I asked the kids to describe it, and Birdy said, utterly unhelpfully, “It’s the mind-boggling game of reversed!” “Reversed?” “Yes. Reversed.” And then, like a commercial narrator, “In this wild, logical game, you can look at every hand, except your own!” Ben’s decription: “You try to play cards in a particular order, while giving your teammates advice about their cards, without ever looking at your own. The ultimate goal is to create fireworks for a party.” That’ll have to do. It’s for 2-5 players, ages 8 and up.

game: Snake Oil
This is an Apples to Apples type of party game: players toss out pairs of cards to create a product to match the theme, then they try to “sell” their product, so the judge of each round can decide on a winner. So for example, one time the theme was “couch potato,” and Ben tossed out the cards “oven” and “powder” then sold it as a unique solution to cooking your food ("Just sprinkle oven powder on it!") without getting up. Birdy, on the other hand, sold her own unique laziness solution with the handy defecetory product “poop carpet.” Got it? For 3-10 players, ages 8 and up.

We have gotten better at balancing, Birdy's hair has gotten longer, and the world has gotten less green.
activity: Slack Line
A friend of ours sent me a cryptic email asking if we had “mature trees” in our yard. We did indeed, and a few days later this strange, ratcheted piece of webbing arrived in the mail and we stretched it out behind the house.

We have spent hours on it since, and Birdy and I go out in the morning before school every day. It’s like a wide, wobbly tightrope, and I’ve never felt more unbalanced in my life than trying to learn to stand on it or, even, take a few halting, falling-over, shaky-legged steps. Nonetheless, it is strangely pleasurable, a great core work-out, a wonderfully support-inducing family activity, and—we only know this because we saw kids using one at our local college—it’s actually possible to get good at it.

activity: Spirograph
I am very particular about my Spirograph recommendations. Here’s what I think you should do: go to ebay, and type in the year you think the kit you used as a kid was made. So, for me, that’s “Spirograph 1973.” It will most likely cost less than a new set, and, more importantly, because you will have profound and immediate hypotrochoid flashbacks, you will sit and draw with your kids for hours and hours, which is really all they ever wanted.

To further my particularity:

these are really the only pens worth using with the Spirograph, and they’re beautifully packaged and not even as expensive as they might be (sounds like fainter praise than I intended).

I took this photo this very night, while I was frying tofu in a sticky hoisin glaze! Seriously.
kitchen gear: deBuyer Mineral B Frypan
This is less something I want you to get for someone else, and more something I think you should try to acquire for yourself, whether through direct purchase or elaborate hinting is totally up to you. I have been trying to wean myself off of nonstick for years, and this pan has been a huge (literally and figuratively) solution for me.
It's an iron pan and, thus, requires some seasoning and finessing. But then. Then! I am showing you a photograph of me cooking tofu in it, because you know how non-stick something has to be for viable tofu cooking. Over time it gets ugly and brown and perfect, and you will never look back.

puzzle: Gum Wrappers
I know I’ve recommended the candy version of this puzzle before. What can I say? White Mountain puzzles are my absolute favorite: relatively inexpensive, hard but not too hard, and with great nostalgic themes that captivate even the most reluctant passersby (except my father).

book: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
If you’re a grown-up expecting a gift from me, this is what you’re getting (or already got). It’s a novel about a teenager who steals a painting after surviving a terrorist attack in New York during which his mother dies. The first 50 pages read like a cross between From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Towering Inferno, while the remaining 800 pages read like a cross between Oliver, a Sotheby’s catalogue, and a Slavic mafia story. It’s so deliciously epic, I hoped it might never end, and then it did, and I was devastated. (My dad and I spent all of Thanksgiving whispering about it in the kitchen, since my mother hasn’t read it yet.)
A friend of ours sent this comedic encyclopedia to Ben for his birthday (the same friend who sent us the Slack Line because, Hello, Sugar Mama!) and we have been laughing ever since. This is a gift for the teen and older set (R-rated), and it’s worth buying just for the finiteness-themed entry on “universe,” which includes such delights as this “quote” from Carl Sagan: “While the cosmos is neither vast, nor filled with any discernible wonder, I personally find its tidiness comforting.”

book/game: The Miniature Book of Miniature Golf
You're going to think this looks so stupid. I don't know what to say. Except that Ben got it, and we've had a strangely vast amount of fun playing it. It's a book, but it's really a mini mini golf game, complete with clubs and balls. So stupid and fun. Ben famously said once, while we were playing after dinner, "There is literally nothing I'd rather be doing right now. And I'm using literally the right way."

For younger children:

book: Children Just Like Me by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley
We know these kids so well, it’s as if my own children have grown up with them: Erdine from Mongolia, who lives in a yurt; Celina from Brazil, with her fascinatingly widely-spaced toes, and the baffling fact that she’s not afraid of snakes. The kids are from all over the world, profiled through meticulously thoughtful photography and journalism: we see their families and homes and schools, their houses of worship, favorite toys and meals, their friends and clothing and pets. It all combines to give you a vivid sense of their differences (and of global economic injustice) even as it reminds you that so much of childhood is universally experienced: all kids want to play and learn and find meaning; all kids want want to feel loved and safe and hopeful. 

book: James Herriot’s Treasury for Children
For animal-loving children who might want to read (or be read) the delightful tales of an English country vet, but who might not be ready for the whole arm-in-up-to-the-shoulder bovine-vagina obstetric interludes of the regular James Herriot books, this is the perfect introduction: stunningly illustrated, with tender, vividly realistic watercolors of sweet-faced animals and wild Yorkshire landscapes, and filled with the kinds of (true) stories children love, about miraculously cured dogs, lost-and-found lambs, cats adopted in the nick of time. Overall, it’s just a beautiful and timeless collection—the kind of book that puts the treasure in treasury—and we’ve given it as a gift countless times.

book: Amos and Boris by William Steig
A favorite from my own childhood, the book became and has remained a favorite in our household as well. If you know Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, then you’re already familiar with William Steig’s delightfully watery illustrations and refreshingly literate text. This book is no exception, and it is a joy in every way. Amos, a seaside mouse filled with an explorer’s curiosity, builds a boat and sails away. A whale-assisted rescue ensues (that’s Boris) and what follows is a touchingly profound story about unlikely friendship and lifelong loyalty.

book: Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

A child and his or her father go out at night, in the deep winter woods near their farm, to see if they can spot any owls. And, towards the book’s end, they spot one. That’s it—but John Shoenherr’s wintery, realistic illustrations are so exquisitely moonlit and lovely, and the story is so profoundly quiet and reverent, that a deep feeling of peace has always descended over us each of the million times we’ve read it. 


  1. I always love your gift, craft and game ideas. Keep them coming! I checked out your master game list while planning Hannukah purchases this year and chose three games. We LOVE Settlers of Catan (simultaneously calling it "The Misery of Ireland" when our hands are full of bricks and no wheat.) Dixit appeals to our creative side. But Dutch Blitz has yet to be played, because we discovered that instead of adding another fast paced card game to our collection, we had purchased a specialized card set for a game played in my husband's family for decades: Pounce. An addendum to your master list might save others the unneeded purchase.

    1. Oh, okay! Will do. I had know idea.

  2. Another great list! I've just finished Life After Life (another rec of yours from a while ago), and I really loved it. I found the ending a little perplexing, but I loved it, so thanks! Do you know Patricia Polacco's books? They are picture books for kids (but I love them as an adult), and they are often based on her own life growing up. She does the illustrations, too, and they are beautiful. A good one for the holiday season (that is both a Hanukkah and a Christmas book) is The Trees of the Dancing Goats. But she's written 55 books, and many of them are real treasures.

    1. The kids make fun of me every year when I read The Christmas Tapestry and burst into tears over their reunion (which I read in a heavy Yiddish accent). She is indeed lovely! xo

  3. melissa10:41 PM

    I eagerly await this list each holiday season! And I have to write our support for "Love Letters," even though the little velvet bag makes it look like it might be something else entirely. My girls, 9 and 11, have been playing it almost daily since one got it as a gift a week ago. Friends, parents, grandparents -- all who enter here are talked into trying to woo the princess. They're starting to take it quite seriously. If they were older, I'd expect the trash talk to be even more intense. We must also thank you for the recommendations for Dixit and Ticket to Ride -- our other all-ages favorites. Happy holidays to you and yours, with admiration and appreciation.

    1. Anonymous4:03 AM

      Catherine, we bought Love Letter after you wrote about it recently, and we love it! My 8-year-old son is very impressed by the Princess's bosom, so much so that he comments on it Every Time We Play ;) oh and the Countess has a pretty good one too...

  4. The shirt. Oh, the shirt. And your writing. And my mouth is watering due to the mere reminder that I am making those pork sliders for the first time tomorrow while at work.
    And the horror of my grammar is just for sillies but after a Monday this is how my brain works.

    1. Pork sliders! Report back.

    2. They were amazing. My husband grew up in NC and loves pork in many, nay ALL forms. As we live in the middle of nowhere near the border and I could not find Hawaiian rolls, I used handmade totillas from the local grocery. It was incredible! The hubs and guest seemed to be in a food pleasure fog.
      Only minus: We had leftovers that were practically solid when cool. Note to self: serve for more people next time so I can pretend it is more healthy. Ha!

  5. Lori in Texas11:15 AM

    If you made a calendar out of the police blotter illustrations, I would totally buy it. Why doesn't my town have such charming minor criminals?

  6. Anonymous11:19 AM

    I can't believe my luck! My husband just said that a total luxury present for him would be a cast iron pan that he could commit to making non-stick (he has other cast iron pans that aren't non-stick because of something he did or didn't do that I don't really get). But the link won't work for me, so I copied the name in Amazon. Can you tell me what size the pan is that you are recommending? I know that the answer really is "what size does he want," but I just don't know and think he just wants a medium to big pan that would cook about that same amount of tofu. --Cathy K

    1. Cathy, I fixed the link--thanks for the heads up! The pan I'm recommending is the 14-inch, which is great for everything huge, and can hold a full pound of tofu. The 12-inch might be a more versatile size, though. . .

    2. Anonymous10:28 AM

      Thank you! By the way, your love of the slack line reminded me--if you ever get a swing from your Sugar Mama and get someone to tie it to a rope secured high up and in between the two big trees--it is the most amazing swinging experience. You swing out much farther than any swing on a traditional swing set and, like with the slack line, kids no matter their age will get so much enjoyment from the simple pleasure of it. Happy holidays! --Cathy K

  7. Jennifer11:43 AM

    Thank you so much for this fantastic list of gift ideas! I will search for spirograph on ebay immediately.

  8. For today only the Donna Tartt book is $2.99 for Kindle. Since I've forever loved her book The Secret History, I bought The Goldfinch as a little pre-Christmas present for myself.

  9. The Goldfinch is on my list (for, er, myself!). Also, we've just begun to transcend the mind-numbing Uno-genre games and are playing games with strategy. This is very exciting. My babies are 6 and 8 and your posts, stories, recommendations make me not *so* sad that ultimately, everyone is growing up.

  10. The family game my kids are getting this year is Telestrations. And I'm making this simple costume for my youngest; seriously, the sewing could not be simpler:

    Happy Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas, Yule, and Kwanzaa!

  11. Julie3:09 PM

    Just ordered a used copy of "Children Like Me" from Amazon. I think my 6yo daughter will love it! Thanks for the tip!

  12. Oh, my goodness. I haven't even read the whole post, and I want to marry you more than ever. You are my true love. You have a window into the soul of my Spirograph nostalgia (ultrafine Sharpies work well too, and sometimes they are on a good sale at Staples, though they are otherwise prohibitively expensive). Bless you!
    On another note, Ben + pink might be completely mainstream soon. I have been noticing so many boys and men wearing pink (and I'm not talking Wall Street buttondowns, I mean Harlem sneakers and Midtown puffy jackets) lately. Who invented these blue/pink rules anyway?

  13. Jennifer W-K7:09 PM

    I bought The Goldfinch two weeks ago as a gift to myself to read over the Christmas break, but I keep sneaking pages here and there! The Secret History is one of my top faves so I'm excited about this one.

  14. Catherine! That is the exact Spirograph set that is in my house now with dead pens that I've been trying to figure out how to replace! I'd only been able to make it work with weird black ballpoints from the Chinese takeout place. Thank you for solving my problem . . .

  15. Anonymous1:40 PM

    OMG! I had completely forgotten about Spirograph! Also, I had forgotten about decoupage (had to look-up how to spell that!) until I saw your suggested puzzle. I had wood decoupaged purse that I did with candy-wrappers when I was like 8. My daughter is only 3.5 but going to buy her Operation for Christmas and play with it myself until she is old enough. I know there is no mention of Operation here, but I loved trying to pull out the bones and stuff without a "red-nose buzz".

  16. Anonymous1:41 PM

    I came here today for exactly this kind of post. Thank you!

  17. Thank you! We are total Gubs lovers now, and I have ordered Snake Oil for the kiddos. And I am thinking the mini golf game will make a great add-on gift for my impossible-to-buy-for father! Thank you.

  18. OMG! Over 10 years ago when I was pregnant I read your column religiously. Then you stopped and I followed you somewhere else. Then, over the course of moving half way across the country I forgot.
    Now I have 3(!!!!) newly pregnant friends and I sent them the link to your old column and I discovered your writing still exists.
    I should be working, but instead I'm binging on your blog and ecstatic you're just as real and funny and poignant as ever.

  19. Just read The Goldfinch and it was GOOD. Of course you just read it, too. We are book soul sisters, enjoying the same ones. Also enjoyed Life After Life thanks to you.

  20. Catherine, have you read The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert? I think you'll love it. I read it so slowly to savour it (which is not like me) and was bereft when I finished. Gorgeous book.

  21. We got the very tender Children Just Like Me book for my girls and we are all very much enjoying looking at it! Have you ever seen this book? (Un)fashion by Maira and Tibor Kalman?

    There is a section at the end of some death portraits which requires a bit of discretion, but i think you and your family would love it. Thanks for all your advice, Catherine! I always take it to heart.

  22. Anonymous4:13 PM

    Agricola. I was almost defeated by the 12 page, tiny print rule book, but we persevered and LOVE IT!!! My son and I are playing it every day...thank you; you have long been a source of inspiration for me.
    Happy New Year from Eastern Oregon!