Santa’s Book Shopping List 2017

The request has come in for some shopping suggestions for those of you looking for a literary gift or two for your bookish friends/family members this holiday season. And, of course, I am more than happy to oblige. When it comes to books, I’m always ready to talk shop (and just shop!). I’ve sorted and resorted this list a handful of times this morning, but my peppermint hot chocolate is starting to cool and my snowman sugar cookie is now headless, so it is time to pick a format and stick with it, so rather than sorting mainly by genre, I’m going to give my recommendations by family member, but then because I couldn’t stick with five books per category, I have some bonus genre-based picks at the end.  (Yes, it feels a bit stereotypical and not all moms like the same stuff, but find the heading that fits best with your Secret Santa’s personality and start from there.)

Dads

Artemis by Andy Weir

Endurance: A Year in Space by Scott Kelly

Origin by Dan Brown

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Themis Files (Books 1 and 2) by Sylvain Neuvel

Moms

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

Something Like Happy by Eva Woods

The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

Adult Siblings

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathon Lethem

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Sting-Ray Afternoons by Steve Rushin

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Nieces/Nephews

She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

This is How It Happened by Paula Stokes

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Friends

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Option B by Sheryl Sandburg

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

Other Fiction Standouts of 2017

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Other Non-fiction Standouts of 2017

Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Word by Word by Kory Stamper

Of course, I’m always happy to give more personalized recommendations. Just give me an idea of the person you’re shopping for in the comments and I’ll get back to you with a couple of selections. (How can I make being a personal book shopper a full-time, paying gig?)

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy New Year, and just an overall “happy” to everyone. Read more and be kind. That is all.

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I May Become a Real Snorkeler Yet!

Growing up, my house was full of books, magazines and newspapers. I was surrounded by letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters and novels. Every opportunity to be an early reader was presented to me, but did I go for it? Nope. Why not? Because I also came from a house of teachers and I knew what their job was. It was to teach kids, at a school. So, why learn to read on my own when it was the teacher’s job to pass that information along? I figured just like it was Mr. Roger’s job to take me to the crayon and toilet bowl-making factories and it was the mailman’s job to deliver music catalogs filled with buy 8, get one free deals (plus a million of those postage stamp-like stickers of all of the cassette tapes available that I could lick and stick to everything in the house), it was my first grade teacher’s job to teach me to read. With this idea firmly planted in my head, my mom tied my shoes (I was a bit behind the curve on shoe-tying it would seem and Velcro had not yet hit the shoe scene), packed my Tupperware bowl of Lucky Charms in my Sesame Street lunchbox and delivered me to my first day at Van Buren Elementary School. Eight hours later, with straggling shoelaces, a milk-film lined plastic container nestled next to my Big Bird thermos, I walked out the side door of that same building literate. (Okay, literate in a first grade sense.) Yes, it took just one day for me to go from being a non-reader to a reader. Apparently, I had more book sense that I had let on, but I wasn’t going to show it until the teacher had done her job. (Someone give that woman a raise!)

Jump ahead two decades.

After years of half-hearted attempts to learn to drive a manual transmission vehicle, I was in my early twenties and still couldn’t get my husband’s truck out of the driveway if there had been an emergency. Driving the back roads around Marsing, I could eventually jerk the truck into first gear, get it moving and finally find some rhythm as I shifted upwards to normal driving speeds. That was all well and good when it was just some coyotes and pheasants as spectators, but add in even a single other car and my little bit of stick-shift confidence went flying out the window of the stalled pickup. I’d basically given up ever driving a manual vehicle anywhere witness-able by human beings, when, in the market for a new car, I fell in love with one of the new VW Beetles. (I guess that dates me a bit, as the “new” Beetles have since had yet another make-over!) With no skills to speak of, I bought a stick shift car, which I couldn’t drive home the twenty freeway miles to my house. Since we had gone car shopping in Thad’s stick shift truck, he couldn’t take the new car home either. With the pile of car sale papers adding up and my hand cramping from signing and initialing every detail known to man, I made a call to my sister, who drove an automatic, but could drive a manual, to come pick up my new car and deliver it to my house, with me following her in her car. With my shiny black Beetle safely in the driveway of my house, I had forced myself into a situation where I HAD to learn to drive it- for real. The next day, out I headed, across town to the court house for my license and registration, only killing the engine at every stop sign and railroad crossing, embarrassingly waving “so sorry” waves to the line of cars building behind me at each intersection and painfully lurching into parking spaces as I ran my new-car errands. But, by the time Thad got home from work that night, I was a near-master of the stick-shift. (Well, of my car’s stick-shift. It didn’t take me long to discover that his truck, the one I had frustratingly been learning on in fits and starts over the last few years, was one of the most persnickety transmissions I’d ever drive.)

And now jump ahead one more decade.

This last week was the Chinese New Year (happy year of the snake!), which means the Consulate was closed and it was time to get a little sunshine. For years I’ve seen pictures on the internet of huts perched on stilts above gorgeous, clear, blue seas. A little research said that many of these rooms could be found in the Maldives, and a bit more hunting turned up a direct flight from Chengdu to Male, meaning pollution-free skies, equatorial sunshine, silky soft sand beaches and a rainbow of tropical fish were a mere six hours away. There was only one problem with that plan though- I can’t swim. (Okay, two problems, the second being that I am pasty white and genetically am never meant to live anywhere near the Equator, but that is a dilemma for another day…maybe bidding day.)

On a secluded island, fifty miles from the capital city and only reachable by seaplane, snorkeling is one of the top holiday activities. But, as I said, I am no swimmer. Bless their hearts, my parents did their duty in this realm. They enrolled me in summer after summer of Caldwell Recreation’s swim classes at the public pool. With three kids and an always full summer schedule, we were always enrolled in the first course of the summer, starting in early June, and the first classes of the day. While this made sense from a parental-point of view, I have to say that for a reluctant swimmer, facing that early morning, not yet sun-warmed pool was no easy task. But, summer after summer I went to those classes for a few weeks and summer after summer I hated putting my head under the water, I hated jumping off the diving board and I hated flailing around in a pool that I’m pretty sure had more “p” than “ool.” When it was clear I wasn’t making much headway in the skills department, my parents took me to private lessons. This was better, in that it was in the afternoons and in a private backyard pool, and I am sure I made more progress in that summer than I did in my multitude of public sessions, but still, floating is the only water skill I really possess. In case of a water emergency, my plan has always been to float on my back or doggy paddle until help arrives. I think it is a solid plan.

But, when faced with a week-long vacation on the above mentioned tropical island, I figured it was probably time to pull out that stubborn streak that was the impetus behind waiting until day one of first grade to read or purchasing a car I couldn’t actually drive to force me in to learning how to operate a manual transmission. Armed with flippers, goggles and a snorkel and a bungalow with a private staircase leading directly into the sea, it was time to swim.

I would like to claim that I bailed into the water, swam with the fishes (in a good way!) and could now be mistaken for a big white fish, but my first attempt at snorkeling was not quite that smooth. With Thad as my personal lifeguard, I flipper-ed and masked up and painstakingly crawled down to the ocean, step by step. Once I had eased into the water, I clung to the railing like a barnacle, sure I was going to be swept out to sea and never seen again. (All this before my hair was even wet!) Getting comfortable with the lack of touchable bottom, I put my goggled head under the water, only to instantly hyperventilate. While my brain logically knew air was coming through the tube that broke the surface, my lungs freaked out and I was pretty sure I was going to die, while still in barnacle-mode.

Slowly, but surely, over the next hour, I ventured away from my railing, floundering from hut to hut like someone who was raised far from any ocean. (Southern Idaho anyone?) As my confidence grew, we were able to eventually leave behind the security of the railings and head out into the coral, visiting fish in their own homes. It was a bit surreal, being inside the world’s biggest aquarium! As I pulled myself waterlogged and sunburned self back up onto the deck of our bungalow (avoiding the two crabs who lived there all week as well), I wouldn’t claim myself to be a snorkeling champion but I was comfortable and confident and ready to not only see new parts of the reef around our island, but I was already pondering possible snorkeling destinations for our next R&R.

Some may call it stubbornness or pigheadedness, but I’d rather put a positive spin on it and say that once I set my mind to something, I’ll make it happen. That might mean making sure my first grade teacher gets a chance to do her job properly or that I don’t learn to drive a stick-shift until it becomes necessary for the car I want, but once I see the purpose in learning something new, I’m all over it, just like those clingy barnacles!

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Moaning About Moon Cakes

In America, around Christmas and the winter holidays, there are always endless jokes about the ubiquitous, yet terrible tradition that is fruitcake. (I will admit from the start, I have never actually tasted a piece of fruitcake. A look at its heavy brown pastry, dotted with candied fruit brings to mind a slab of concrete with large pebbles strewn throughout. Not appetizing in the least.) And while fruitcake may be a uniquely western thing, terrible pastries at a time of celebration are apparently a global phenomenon.

Here in China, the bane of my fall season is a not-so-lovely little treat called the moon cake.

Moon cake shops start to pop up in early September, seemingly overnight. What was once an empty storefront will suddenly be bursting at the seams with fancy, silk-lined boxes of moon cakes, selling for hundreds and even thousands of RMB. Usually these fly-by-night stores also have a variety of bin-cakes, some wrapped, some not, selling on an individual basis. (It is the Chinese version of WinCo Supermarket bins, down to the fact that people dig through them barehanded. I didn’t dare buy goods out of the open grocery store bins in Idaho and I don’t dare do it here!)

These omnipresent snacks are a part of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival. This fall celebration is a popular harvest festival recognized by the Chinese government as an official holiday, meaning all official businesses are closed, schools are closed and many people go on vacation for an entire week. (It’s like a national spring break, but in the fall, and minus the uber-drunk, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini-clad college students.

Mid-Autumn Festival dates back over 3,000 years to the ancient times of moon worship in China’s Shang Dynasty. I’m pretty sure some of those original moon cakes are still floating around this place, as they don’t seem to have, or need, expiration dates. (Chinese version of the Twinkie?) While it is also sometimes referred to as the Moon Cake Festival, this is less common, but, it does make me think that maybe we should rechristen Christmas and Fruitcake Festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, which is usually around late September or early October on the Western calendar. It is a date that parallels the autumnal equinox of the solar calendar, when the moon is supposedly at its fullest and roundest. The traditional food of this festival is the moon cake, of which there are many different varieties, and yet none that I want to eat. Whether it is the type with an entire cooked egg yolk in the middle or the one made of five different nuts, none of them are appealing. And this is coming from someone who has a deeply-ingrained love of pastries. Last week, I got two care packages from the States, one from my best friend Shannon and the other from by parents. Both boxes had a variety of goodies inside, but the one place their overlapped was in their containment of chocolate pudding pies. (Together, they could make one of the best Venn Diagrams known to man!) So I am no slouch when it comes to the consumption of sweet treats, but when I bite through the thick breading that makes up the outer layer of the goodie, only to find I have a mouth full of mashed red bean paste, I don’t consider that a win in my book

In the Middle Kingdom, Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important holidays of the year; a time when, traditionally, farmers would celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season. Customarily on this day, Chinese family members and friends will gather together to admire the bright mid-autumn harvest moon and eat moon cakes under the moon. (As much as I dislike the dense, hockey-puck-like pastries, they really are all the rage here! I even bought a small package of them for my ayi as a thank-you for her wonderful housekeeping skills

With Mid-Autumn Festival right around the bend and moon cakes on every corner, I’ll be on a mini-blogging hiatus as I head to Bangkok for a week of CLO Training, (I need to find out how to CLO better!) and then on to the wedding of a good friend in Guizhou. I’ll be back with tales of Thailand and continued adventures while In Search of the End of the Sidewalk after Columbus Day.

Until then, 中秋节快乐!Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Colorful moon cakes for my ayi