Saturday, November 29, 2014

Holiday Gift Ideas 2014

Someone's beautiful cat posing regally with his Christmas catnip mouse before going crazy. 
And someone's beautiful (grand)mother getting a Ben-knit scarf.
Hi, hi! Do you feel bombarded with holiday irritants, and I'm not part of the solution because I'm here talking about it? I'm sorry! But, as you may know, I'm a real books-and-games kind of person. Which is why that's what I recommend year after year. Speaking of, there are past ideas to browse, if you like:

2014 mid-year book and game recommendations are here and here.

Last year's gift ideas are here. (Those pens were a crazy hit, by the way, even beyond being spirograph-friendly.)

And the year before: here.

Also, there's a games index and holidays + craft index, both in the upper right hand corner of this blog. See them up there? There are lots of ideas there, for things to make and do and get, including pretty much all of our favorite games. But these below are what I'm recommending this year. Either because they're things we're in the thick of enjoying ourselves or because they're things we (or I) am giving this year. Please share your own ideas in the comments. Please. I can't tell you how many fantastic books we've read and games we've played because of your advice. (Note: if you are a child or mother of mine, or a friend named Ava, please stop reading now.)
Cape Cod, Summer 2014.
Acquire. I have been recommending this game for years--it's the first serious European-style strategy game we ever played--but I'm mentioning it again because it turns out we were PLAYING IT WRONG. It's so crazy, because it was still a good game, but it reminded me annoyingly of Monopoly, and now that we play it correctly, it doesn't. It is a brutal, but almost perfect, real-estate investment game that's interesting in part because there are actually multiple winning strategies (playing more cooperatively, say, or playing more wickedly), and so different types of gamers can play well.

I made Ben and Birdy fake-play so I could take a picture. But then we ended up playing.
Tsuro. Everyone here is making fun of me for mentioning this game here, now, because we've had it for years, and I used to be convinced it was boring and stupid. But, uh, maybe it was me, since we discovered this year that it's great: a deceptively simple maze-type game that has a fair amount of evilness built into it. Ben describes it as "A mix of spatial planning and sabotage." Also, it's got a lovely design and doesn't take very long--so if you're being tortured, it will all be over quickly.

"Simple but very strategic," says Ben, shown here kicking somebody or other's ass, because that's what he does.
Quarto is a lot like Gobblet: a streamlined, beautifully made tic-tac-toe-style two-person strategy game that seems stupidly easy until you lose and slap your own forehead and say the f-word. The heirloom-style wooden pieces make it an especially lovely gift. Because it's only a two-person game, we sometimes have Quarto play-offs, and the people waiting their turn play Gobblet or Connect Four in the meantime. Fun!

"It's an exciting mix between battle strategy and fun cartoony art." Ben, on Small World.
Small World. This is our newest--a big, long doozy of a serious strategy game--and we've been playing it a lot. I have to tell you that I don't love it, because it's like Munchkin crossed with Risk, and I love neither of those games. That said, Ben LOVES it with a capital LOVES and it is the game he always picks if he is getting to pick the game we all play. Michael, who also loves Risk, loves it too. If you are needing a new strategy game, this is a good one, since it has, like, a million expansions you can collect.

Anomia Seltzerfest 2014
Anomia Party Edition. As Ben puts it, "Anomia, but more so. The categories are zanier and wackier than before." And that's not even including his friend Ava's homemade category, "Say the word hinkumbooby"! Six brand new decks make for tons of play value, and it's really the ideal party game. The kids and their friends (and sometimes us grown-ups) play it all the time, and it is our most-requested, "Will you bring ___ when you come over?" game.

Qwixx. I mentioned this back in the summer, but it's a game that's turned out to have a ton of staying power. We've played a lot, continuously, and given it to many, many people as a gift. It's easy to learn and easy to play, not stressful, but strangely compelling nonetheless. Also packable and approachable and quick and relatively inexpensive. I love it.

Also from Gamewright, Sushi Go is a great, smallish, stocking-stuffer-y choice that makes a really good introduction to strategy games. It's got a weird preemptive psychological element to it, like the way rock-paper-scissors does if you play too many rounds with the same person, and I love that. Plus the sushi-themed art is adorable and the colors are fantastic.

Avian Friends Jigsaw Puzzle. Oh, this puzzle. I have now done it twice this year, on two different vacations, and I loved it both times.
Yes, I'm in my pajamas doing a puzzle with a huge group of children. So?
It's not actually the puzzle I got my family for the upcoming holidays (I got them this one), on account of us having already done it twice, but it's pretty much a perfect puzzle, with exactly the kind of perfect, pretty sections you can pick out and do, and then a nice hard-but-not-impossible border situation.

This is my own actual spread in the book!  That I wrote! About how we think about games! Maybe you should get it so you can really read it! And so you can see the illustration imagining that I have three kids and am married to a kind of hirsute hunk.
I know I keep talking about it, but Unbored Games is such a good gift for both self-entertaining kids and kids who could stand to be more self-entertaining. It has so many ideas for games to play in pairs, in groups, alone, in almost any kind of situation. Active, passive, parlor. I love it. Also, if you don't have it yet, the original Unbored is indispensable and tied with Wreck This Journal for the most-given-ever gift from our household.
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan is a book Birdy loved so profoundly that a) she compared it to Harry Potter *and* Wonder, and b) she has nagged me daily to read it since she finished it. I admit that I have not read it yet, but I am going to because it looks great. Birdy: "It's about a girl who, after a really big loss, sort of puts herself back together." (Even that description kind of makes me feel like crying.)

Sky Maul 2 is the only book I got Ben because I don't think he actually reads literature any more, outside of school, maybe? I'm not sure. I am trying to pick only a dozen things to nag him about at a time, and that's not on the current list. So I got him this Sky Mall parody because it's all of his favorite things: 1) funny, 2) Sky Mall, and 3) not very taxing to read. It really looks hilarious, though.

The Mitten String by Jennifer Rosner. Okay, yes, I just wrote about this and, yes, it's my friend's book. But if you are still lucky enough to be buying picture books for your kids (or any kids), this is such a beauty: a gentle, lovely story about the connection between a deaf mother and her baby, and about a little girl who kind of falls in love with them. Also, sheep, wool, knitting, Jews. Perfection.

A book for the grown-ups: Euphoria by Lily King. I want to be able to tell you that Euphoria reminded me of Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, without you thinking that it's in any way really like it--only that if you have been waiting and waiting to read almost that exact same complicated, deliriously excellent book again, but afresh, this is as close as you're going to get. If I say "1930's anthropologist love triangle," or "based on the real-life journals of Margaret Mead," you're maybe not going to get as excited as you should. Give this to anyone in your life who loves to read.

And another: My Notorious Life. I am giving this delightful novel to more than one adult-type person this year, including my own mother and Ben's friend Ava. Here's the gushing fan message I sent the author: "Oh, Kate Manning, I am reading My Notorious Life, and it so good, so deliciously perfect, that I wake myself in the night to put my headlamp on and read some more. I keep trying to imagine how you wrote it--how you got all that rich and spicy language to sound just right--but mostly I'm just glad you did." It's about a 19th-century midwife-turned-abortionist living in New York City, and it's like a Dickens novel crossed with a Planned Parenthood historical timeline. But better. Also, she wrote me back the nicest note (she reads with a headlamp too!).

Speaking of: My brother's family gave Birdy her own headlamp last year, and it was such a great present that we've since given it to a number of other kids. This headlamp, to be precise.

I love this selling point: "Ambient mode: wide beam with reduced brightness, avoids blinding others in a group situation." So, nobody will be blinded in a group situation. Phew! And speaking of excellent gift ideas we've gleaned from my brother's family, this Swiss Army Knife is another gift we've taken to giving bigger kids, especially if they're campers.
It has a saw, which my kids really require, but which is not the greatest for little kids. Although if you give this knife to a little kid, I suppose they'll already have cut their fingers off anyways by the time they'd be getting around to using the saw. This knife, paired with this little book about whittling, would be the nicest present ever.

I cannot recommend passionately enough that you have a ukelele in your home (or in your car on a long trip), and giving one to a kid for the holidays might be the best way to get it there. We took a book out of the library about learning to play, but this kit has everything you need to start (including the instrument itself) and is reasonably priced.

Poo-Dough poop mold. Oh man, what can I say? My kids are going to get a kick out of something like this for about one more second, and then it's going to be all laundry money and calendars for the rest of their lives. I couldn't resist. Stocking stuffer. It's just what it looks like.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Gratitude and Holiday Recipes

Oh, man. You guys. Thank you for your comments here last week. The fact that some of us have been on this journey together for 8, 9, 10, 11 years? It kills me. It does. I also loved the advice not to quit my day job. I have seriously gotten tons of mileage out of that. 

I'm putting together a little holiday gift guide--mostly the usual, an assortment of books and games--that I am hoping to publish soon. In the meantime, here are a few links to holiday favorites:

I realize that I have never posted a turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potato, or pecan pie recipe here. And those are all things I make every year. Every single year. Like, all the years, every last one. But here's the sweet potato dish I always make. It's an old Gourmet recipe, and it's excellent. The apricots keep it just barely this side of cloying.

Also, if you're making vanilla extract as a holiday gift, now's the time to start.

Happy everything. xoxo

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

This is Adolescence: 14

This is fourteen.

Fourteen stands in the bathroom doorway with a smear of foam above his lip and a razor in his hand, chatting into your bedroom. You remind yourself to pay attention. In four years he will be gone. You put a finger in your book to keep your spot while your manchild fills the doorway with his tall, talking self. You remind yourself to listen to what he's actually saying, not just to the fact of his little lemon-drop voice getting buried in gravel. Fourteen is confessing how he kind of still wants to have a job like in Richard Scarry’s Busytown. He wants to work in a paper factory or a fabric mill or inside the enormous cross-sected engine room of a ship. “I mean,” he says, “Believe me. I know those are all totally crushing jobs in real life. But still.”

Fourteen watches The Possession, The Shining, The Birds with buoyant delight, but looks on with frank, exaggerated horror when you pluck your chin hairs in the bathroom mirror. You can tell from his expression that every revolting thing in the world has been concentrated in the lower part of your face. When you catch his disgusted eye in the mirror, he reshapes his mouth into an apologetic smile. You stick up your middle finger and he laughs, leaves the room noisily beat-boxing.

Fourteen picks up a banjo to accompany his sister on guitar. He bends over her math homework, his long hair hanging into the long-division problem he is patiently explaining. He says to her, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Great. Now I have to wash all over again because you pet me.” When she snatches her hand back from the cat’s damp fur, you remind her that it wasn’t really the cat complaining, and Fourteen says, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Yes it was.”

Fourteen is full of sudden domestic judgments. “Does the kitchen sponge have to be so gross?” (Yes.) “The recycling smells.” (Indeed.) “Didn’t our floors used to be nice and shiny?” (They did!) Coming in from his monthly lawn mowing, Fourteen manages to communicate more overheatedness than a supernova. He flops on the couch, conspicuously fanning himself, and asks, breathless and, it would appear, having a small stroke, if you wouldn’t mind getting him a glass of ice water. You bring him the water, then can’t help yourself. “Fourteen,” you say, “it’s, like, ten square feet of mowing. I think you’ll be okay.” “You’re welcome,” Fourteen says. You’d love to stay and argue, but you have to rush out and buy him pants, pants, and more pants. The getting of pants is your new full-time job. If you listen hard in the night, you can hear his legs growing.

Speaking of the night: Fourteen no longer looks like a baby while he sleeps. For years, even as his limbs stretched and dangled, his dreaming face regressed to the contours of infancy: downy cheeks, pearl of nose, the pink, pouched lips of a nursling. But now that it’s been kiln-fired, the face has taken this opportunity to chisel out its jutting new edges: brow and jaw, nose and chin. Like a Neanderthal crossed with a peach.

Fourteen sits on a stool with a wooden spoon in one hand and a fork in the other, eating buttered noodles right from the pot. Fourteen and three friends eat two pounds of bacon in four minutes. Fourteen is a bottomless pit, and you secretly love this, although you don’t know why. Probably because feeding him is your idiom for loving. As is grabbing his face in your two hands and kissing his reluctant cheeks, breathing in his fleeting scalp.

Fourteen is lazy in the best possible way. One day you and he lure the cat into bed with treats, then spend the glorious start of the weekend in leisurely conversation about Friskies Party Mix. “If they were human treats, which flavor would you pick?” He shows you the package and you pick Meow Luau. He picks Mixed Grill, then asks which you would pick if they were still cat treats but you had to eat them. You both pick Cheezy Craze. The cat snores softly, draped over your four shins. An hour passes. “This,” Fourteen sighs happily, “is a classic Friday afternoon.”

Also in the worst possible way. You have been arguing for fourteen years about his teeth and whether they really need so much brushing. “Fine,” you say evenly, one night. “Don’t brush them. They’re your teeth.” Oh god!” Fourteen says, his indignant voice like a deep-dug hole. “Mama! Jesus. That’s brutal! You still have to make me.”

Fourteen scrambles into his enormous boots to take a walk when you invite him. The oak leaves on the ground are thick as leather, and they fill you with joy and sadness. In four years he’ll be gone. These are the same oak leaves that Fourteen crunched through when he was a chubby, staggering toddler, proud in his brown lace-up shoes and knee-deep in autumn. “I feel like we’re just walking through the leaves, and the calendar pages are flying off, and we’re already walking through the leaves again,” you say, and Fourteen says, “I know, right? Even I’m starting to feel like that.” He bolts away to look at something, then smiles at you from a patch of sunlight. And it’s not so different from when he was two: all you can do is be there, open-armed and always, in case he turns. In case he runs back. 

This is the fourth episode of This is Adolescence, an essay series conceived by Lindsey Mead and Allison Slater Tate, and which I'm just completely thrilled to be a part of. Please read the lovely first trio of installments, each of which made me remember a detail of my recent past so acutely that I had to write it in my journal: 11 here, 12 here, and 13 here. And coming up: 15, 16, 17, and 18, god help us.

Unbored Games Winners!

Huzzah! Thank you so much for playing along, and for your kind words, and for your indulgence of my adolescent humor. The winners are:

Sarah C. from New Orleans
Amy S.
Jenny F, hurling yourself into the hopefuls.

Please email me your address. More give-aways coming soon!


Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Unbored Games Give-Away!

So, as I have mentioned, first I insinuated myself into the Unbored book series, and now I get to do a give-away here of Unbored Games. Life is, despite the hideous election results, totally grand.

That's me, all the way at the bottom left, looking dauntedly at the amazingly creative ways the art folks signed the books. I just wrote my name, like a schmo, but I was so happy to be there. Also, the Unbored team is almost weirdly attractive.
I'm crazy excited about this give-away for a couple of reasons.

1) Bloomsbury is generously donating three copies of the book to this particular cause, the cause being readers of this blog who want the book. That means you have a guaranteed 1 in 3 chance of winning! Okay, it doesn't mean that. But still.

2) I am a big fan of Unbored, and of games, making this second book in the series just completely perfect for people like me (and hopefully you) plus the essay I contributed

3) I actually got to meet Joshua Glenn and a bunch of the crazily talented creatives at a book event on Saturday, and they were so much fun, and Josh and my Michael even share the worst and most hideously small-hearted phobia that I am not at liberty to share here, but that makes me love them both all the more.

So please enter! Just write a comment in the comments saying you'd like to enter and you will be entered. (Sorry. I did it again. Gross molesting passive voice. "You will be entered by me" was worse though, and then "I will enter you" was even worse than that. Sorry.) You have to live in the U.S., also, sorry. Sorry sorry sorry. I'm having that kind of day. Sorry.

Two other things:

Ben's latest stop-motion claymation is up on youtube (speaking of Unbored, which is where he learned how.) Please watch it. It's very, very short, but it does have a notably distinct narrative arc. Also, please note and admire his correct usage of "its." Atta boy.

I have a new piece at the NYT Motherlode blog, and I'd love it if you went over there to read it! (Sorry.)

Thanks, friends. And thank you for being such a bright spot in the bleak November ick of this particular day. xoxo
Gratuitous cat belly.