Monday, November 30, 2015

Gift Guide 2015

Thank goodness I'm not sentimental, or these little faces would really kill me!
My loves. I want to say the obvious, before launching into the catalogue of things to buy, buy BUY! and it's this: touch a match to some candles, set out a bowl of nuts and a nutcracker, put on some croonery Christmas carols, write a check to Planned Parenthood and Partners in Health, and participate as little as you like in the consumer end of things. We have actually stopped giving the kids birthday things (we give them experiences instead, like concert tickets or ziplining), but we still wrap up material gifts at the holidays. But I am all for not doing that. Or for making everything yourself. Or for whatever tradition you can come up with that distills the spirit of the season back to light in the darkness rather than a black hole where your wallet used to be. 

But. For buying things, here's a little culled list of ideas for games and books and other happy-making things that will ideally either have remarkable longevity or get nice and used up (rather than languishing unloved in your life and home).

Last year's gift ideas are here.

The year before, here

And the year before that, here.

As always, the master list of games is here.

For starters: Animal Upon Animal, Small and Yet Great!

Our coffee table continues to be covered in white paper, and this continues to be a great thing.
You are going to think this is a German little-kid game that's been awkwardly translated, and you are going to be right. But oh, it is so strangely wonderful. I first laid eyes on it in a Facebook post by Jessica Lahey (who also wrote a fantastic piece about games for the Atlantic), and it has been a favorite ever since: a simple, maddening, tiny, aesthetically divine, fabulous stacking game. There are other versions of this game, including the original big one, and we've never played any of them because this one is so perfect. I keep it in a little mint tin in my bag, and it is our go-to restaurant game for that awkward stretch of time when the chicken wings still haven't come out.

A brand-new favorite is Rolling America, which is like a slightly more complex version of the always-terrific Qwixx, but with similar game play and materials. You roll dice and fill in numbers (the whole country/state thing is kind of a red herring, in terms of strategy), and you need to put certain numbers next to others, and no two whatevers can be next to something else, and men with knitted woolen ties can't sit next to women drinking tea, so how would you arrange the luncheon buffet? No, it's not like the GREs. It's just dice and numbers. And it's an excellent game. 
If you play on a dirty carpet in bad light, it will look more like this.
Plus, relatively simple, inexpensive, quick to play, and portable. LOVE it.

I lifted this photo from BoardGameGeek.
Splendor was our new big game of 2015. We played it a lot. It's kind of a classic accumulate-resources-to-get-more-resources game, as many strategy games are, but it's a lot faster, easier, and quicker to learn than, say, my beloved Agricola or Catan. Plus, there's a jewel theme, which is appealing, and the jewel chips are weighted in a lovely way that makes the game feel well-crafted. I have to paste this, though, from their own description, because what? "As a wealthy Renaissance merchant, acquire mines and transportation, hire artisans and woo the nobility. Create the most fantastic jewelry to become the best-known merchant of them all! Acquire precious stones to trade them for development cards. Use development cards to acquire more gem stones. Use your gems and gold to create the most fantastic jewelry, and appeal to the nobles to gain the prestige you need to win." Who knew!

Next up, a pair of games that we got last Christmas, and that we play regularly. We are learning about ourselves, as a game-playing family, that the more attractive a game is, the more we want to play it. Call us shallow design snobs, but there it is.
Machi Koro is an awesome city-building card game that I'm pretty sure one of *you* recommended to us! (Thank you.) I'm linking to the deluxe edition here because it includes both the Harbor and Millionaire's Row expansions, which we have and love, but you could also give the original, which is smaller and less expensive, and then you can save the expansions to give separately when birthdays come around! Right? 

It also happens to have really great graphics and colors. It's your kind of classic--say it with me--get-resources-so-you-can-get-more-resources game, and, as with most good games, every time we play, the wheel in my brain turns another notch, and I think: Aha! That's how you play! 

Takenoko is a full-on game, with awesome panda graphics, Catan-style tiles, a cool die, and colorful wooden pieces. 

You are growing bamboo to feed a giant panda, and it's got a little of the Catan juggling-goals flavor, but definitely refracted through, like, the cheerful feeling of Totoro. That is, it is appealing to younger players, and while there are a number of rules, it is not hideously impossible to learn. Plus: totally adorable.

I have gotten in the habit of getting our family a White Mountain puzzle every year, and this time it's the junk-food one. As far as I'm concerned, White Mountain makes the perfect puzzle: fun themes, interlocking pieces, and plenty of individual areas for people to work on in the kind of parallel-play puzzle-doing apart togetherness that I love. I won't put this under the tree. My mom and I will open it (and some other things, like bottles of wine) on Christmas eve. 

I mentioned them over the summer, I know, but these watercolors would make a perfect holiday gift. They're compact and of very high quality: the hues are as vivid or washed as you want them to be, and the colors themselves are simply thrilling. We use them all the time. The pad you see in the picture above is the fabulous Poppin Jumbo Writing Pad that used to be called "The Analog Tablet," which made me laugh. I have given this pad as a gift to at least a dozen kids, including my own, and everybody loves it. The paper is thick and white and square, and edged attractively in green and blue. Plus, the pad is just so appealingly thick and chunky. 

I am also rementioning this wonderful coloring book. The whole series is great (we got this one too), and the pages are sturdy enough to handle the paints. This would be fun to get, no matter who you were, except if you were my dad, so I won't be getting it for him.

I also got my kids some ridiculously expensive pencils this year.

They're Blackwings, and our friend Corn, who I trust in all things, made me feel like we had to have to them. Putting pencils in the kids' stockings reminds me of Ben's fourth birthday, when our friend Daniel asked him if anything special had happened yet and Ben said, with his excited little eyes glittering, "Well, Daniel. Yes. I got juice without any water in it!" "Juice without any water in it!" Daniel said. "You are living the dream."

Okay, are you ready for the slightly more random portion of the gift guide? It's these four things, and then after that, some not-random books. 
This weird plastic stuff: Fix That Thing Mouldable Glue. I confess to having an ulterior motive in putting it in the kids' stockings this year: there are some broken things I'm hoping they'll repair, including a shower handle, a pair of kitchen scissors, and a window latch. Merry Christmas! (But it really looks cool--like Silly Putty, only purposeful.)

This Swedish Fireknife, but sign the waiver first, okay? Because this is not for the faint of heart. We gave it to a friend for his eleventh birthday (after clearing it with his parents, I swear), and he did manage to give himself a small(ish) cut. So. There's that. But he loves it, and I love it as a gift for older kids because it is so real and useful, and the fire starting--which involves striking a steel with the knife--requires practice but is so incredibly cool. We are giving it to Birdy for Christmas, along with this book. (Read the reviews and it will become clear that, in the Venn diagram, this is where I overlap with conservative survivalists.)

This bubble bath, which I mentioned last week too. It's something we actually had when I was a child, so it's true that the aromatic nostalgia factor is high for me. Still, it is gorgeous. Not at all car-freshenery. Just clean, real, pure foresty heaven, and a little goes a long way. I got a few bottles to give as adult gifts (why does that sound like porn?), and I can't think of anyone who wouldn't want it.

This cider syrup. Okay, yes, our dear friends make it, so are we biased? 

Cider makers! (aka "Ava's parents.")
No we are not. I would love it no matter what--for cocktails, for waffles, for braising pork and glazing ham. It is my go-to sweetener for savory dishes, and the New York Times wrote, praising it highly, "The depth of flavor that can be teased from apples is evident in a dark cider syrup that suggests caramel."

And a couple of books, below, but for other books that would make great gifts (or to read yourself while you're hiding out from the holidays), including the fabulous new children's classic, Rad American Women A to Z, please see this post. Note: I am starting to think that All My Puny Sorrows may be the best novel I have ever read. Oh, and The Green Road--get it for yourself and/or anybody who is lucky enough not to have read it yet. Oh, oh, and The Last September. Okay. I'm moving onto the giftier books now, I swear.

Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York, which, coincidentally, our cider-making friends gave us last year. The book is a lot like the blog: photographs of vibrant, wacky, beautiful, struggling people, with provocative, funny, life-affirming captions that make you think and laugh and--listen closely!--that creak open your heart a few notches. Plus, it is lovely to sit with your children and a real book, rather than calling everyone to gather round a device. This is also a great book to give teenagers, who can find themselves in a strange vortex of difficulty, with respect to gifts: halfway between LEGO and scotch. It is edgily wholesome in all the right ways.

Okay, this which I'm pasting from an earlier post: the latest Unbored book: Unbored Adventure, which I had the deep honor of contributing to, and which Birdy has named "The best Unbored book yet!" (Huge praise.) This is a chock-a-block book, filled with crazy, thoughtful, well-tested ideas that range from the immediately doable to the profoundly inspirational and aspirational. Birdy read the book cover to cover, then promptly spent the day sewing something called a "Ditty Bag," which thrilled her no end. "What are you going to do next from it?" I asked her, and she looked thoughtful, then said, "Purify drinking water using nesting bowls and evaporation." We have already given many copies of this as gifts, sometimes accompanied by an adventurous accessory, like a headlamp or a Swiss Army Knife or the Swedish Fireknife above.

We (i.e. I) got Ben 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School and 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. These are crazily attractive little hardback books that are simply full of interesting stuff. Plus, again, for the halfway-between-LEGO-and-scotch crowd, just perfect. Or, I'm hoping. Because I haven't given them yet. But we saw them for sale at the MIT gift shop, so I have a good feeling about them. There are more in the series, too, depending on the interests of your person: cooking, business, law. Oh my god, are they all written by men? I think they are. Sigh. Sexist gift alert. #bastards

Last year, I gave Birdy Just Between Us: A No-Stress No-Rules Journal for Girls and Their Moms, not sure if it mightn't be too gimmicky to be her exact cuppa--and she has absolutely loved it. We both did. Do still. Basically, you each answer the same questions or set of prompts, and it's a way to communicate and share that's totally low-key and free-form. Sometimes we sit together and fill it out; sometimes we leave it on the other person's pillow to find and respond to--from the basic "Favorite Word," "Favorite Book," kinds of questions, to the meatier, "Something I'd do if I knew I'd never fail" or "I believe in." I think it would be a good gift for kids 8 and up. I'm not sure why it's gendered like this, but there it is.

Happy, merry, all of it, all the time. xo


  1. Thank you so much for all of your gift suggestions. I have used *many* of them over the years and always look forward to the next list.

    My in-laws care for my 93-year old grandmother-in-law, and the White Mountain puzzles have been a huge success for birthdays and Christmas gifts. My MIL and her mom can knock one out in a couple of days, and it's something they enjoy doing together. Colorku was a big hit as well. Thank you!

  2. This is the post that I bookmark and refer to many times throughout the year. Last year we got Owl Moon and this year I'm getting 3 of the Mama/daughter journals. :) And the halfway between lego and scotch comment had me howling and your babies pic made me oooo and awww a lot. (#bastards was perfect, btw) I may get Colorku this year too. Love to you Catherine and the babies and to Michael. Enjoy the season.

    1. Thank you, dear Jen. xo

    2. Oo yes owl moon is my go to new baby book now!

  3. I love your gift guides. Love them.

  4. A little gift from me to you. (I hope you like it, I think you will!). I have a subscription to Real Simple, and recently my husband said that he had read the advice column in it a few times, and he really appreciated how well the author wrote. (He loved the comment about it's what you do after you make a mistake that matters). And when he told me that I told him it was YOU! You know, the Catherine Newman of Ben and Birdy that I love and have told him all about! So one day, when we are visiting family who live in Hadley (we live in Florida), I hope that we happen to run into you and then I will probably have to hug you. If that ever happens I hope you don't mind -- and I''ll be sure to warn you first! Thanks again for all you do and for being who you are.

    1. That really is a gift! Thank you, Kelly.

  5. Well, as an architect with two little architects in the making, I for one am psyched about that book recommendation. And as a "cookie artist" and puzzle lover, can I shamelessly self promote to you my jigsaw puzzles made from pictures of my cookie art? I've got a Christmas one that isn't huge, and a Spring one that is. Now I want to send you one. But I don't want to creep you out. Decisions, decisions.

  6. The last time we went camping, a cranky storekeep in New Hampshire said, "Try going back a hundred years" to my husband when he asked if they had any flint for starting a campfire without a match. Enter the Swedish Fireknife! Thank you for the awesome gift ideas (again)!

  7. Oh my gosh, so many things went into my cart - but the Rad Women went on my Titlewave list for work, because we need that in our library!

  8. How do you find the coolest things?
    I am always picturing your home as this hive of happy, nutty, productivity and collaboration.

  9. Thank you, love the gift guide as usual. Also love the front page of the new website (I can't get rid of this weird teal bar!). Catastrophic happiness is on it's way to my door. Doesn't that sound perfect?

  10. Going to check out the Swedish Fireknife, Just Between Us, and White Mountain puzzles. The cider syrup looks like something I would love, too. Thanks for the suggestions!

  11. OK. seriously I just purchased EVERY SINGLE THING on your list. Except for the board games. we are, sadly, not a board game crew, with the exception of speed chess and backgammon. (even the sushi game i embarrassingly needed help with last summer never made it into any sort of rotation). However, every book and knife and bath product you listed is now purchased. does that make me the loseringest mother of all loser mothers? anyhoo - i love you so and of course have been waiting for your gift list for weeks now!! xoxox

  12. Your gift guides complete me. Seriously. Thank you so much. Also; GAH, those cider people are so freaking beautiful! And I'm kicking myself because I saw that cider in a store in Watertown MA last week and thought about buying it but then didn't (suitcase, int'l flight, etc) but if I had KNOWN they were your friends, I wouldn't have passed by! Next time. xo

  13. I wait for this every year! Thank you so much for taking the time to write your thoughts here. I have younger children and love reading about your approach to the older ones. Happy holidays to you and yours.

  14. Glad you liked Machi Koro and Takenoko! We recently acquired the Millionaire's Row expansion, but prefer the previous expansion, at least for now. Our family is divided into the word game people (think Bananagrams et al.) and the strategy game people (Small World, Dominion, etc.). The word game people really like "Word on the Street," a fun game of capture-the-letter that can involve teams of any size (or two players) and all age levels. Thanks for your gift recommendations--several items are already purchased for under our tree this year.

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  16. I LOVE Splendor too!!! Machi Koro is loved at our house too. A few more games to put on your wish list....

    Lanterns -- It's a colorful tile-laying game. Easy to learn, and has been a hit with everyone we've taught it to. They go out and buy a copy too!

    Morels -- gorgeous artwork, two player card game collecting sets of mushrooms.

    And Istanbul -- worker placement game, collecting rubies, with an interesting game mechanic for how you move your workers around the board.

  17. Serving as another echo to say you are a seriously talented gift-collector. (I refuse to say curator any more, but in this case it might be the actual correct word.)

    I appreciated the photo caption about dirty carpet. That's a childhood memory for me, all the flotsam that would imprint in my knees with carpet fibers from having played games all day on the rug.

    I have a tiny zippered make-up bag with dominoes from the dollar store in my purse for the late-wings incidents, but they've seen better days, so I can't wait to replace them with the animals.

    Thank you!

  18. Danielle H4:12 PM

    I am the president of the Catherine Newman fan club! I read The Snow Child that you recommended a few years ago and made as many friends as I could read it also. Eowyn Ivey has a new book coming out next year. Yay! Keep recommending awesome stuff!

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