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.)


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


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


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


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.


Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Wishes I’d Ask The Book Genie To Grant Me

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Wishes I’d Ask The Book Genie To Grant Me


I’ve been out of the TTT circuit for a few weeks (months?) as much of my writing time has been devoted to working on my thesis about the inner and outer journeys portrayed in travel writing, but I thought I would hop over to The Broke and the Bookish and just see what I have been missing out on recently. I hadn’t planned on doing an entry for this week, but after just finishing Salman Rushdie’s new novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, the word “genie” in the prompt caught my attention and just bounced around in my mind while I made dinner. (If you haven’t had a chance to pick up a copy of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, head to your closest book store, library or online lending site right now! It’s a great read…although long and mind-bending.)

I’m curious to see where other bloggers go with this prompt, as it can veer off in innumerable ways, but between ponderings of genies (thanks to Rushdie) and my mom’s recent call for family Christmas lists, I’ve compiled a list of bookish things a genie/Santa could USPS to me in Malaysia!

Book Lovers’ Soy Candles– I have had several of these candles, both the full-sized and the tea light collections. While I am not sure what Gatsby’s mansion smelled like, I can attest to Reading at the Café being spot-on. My favorite might be Bookstore, but I do enjoy burning all of them. (We lovingly call these my “study candles” as I always light one when I sit down to work on my thesis. I figure books in the air might help the literary juices flow in my brain…so far it seems to be working!)

Bookopoly- I’ve never been a big fan of Monopoly (the game invented to start fights between siblings), but now that I found a book version, I may have a sing a new tune! I’d probably never play this if I owned it, but it would be fun to take out and look at on occasion!

Bookplate stamp- What a cute idea! I absolutely love recommending/lening books to people and while I don’t really complain if the book never comes back, it might be nice to keep a bit better track of them. I have sticker bookplates, but I always end up using them up (or not using them enough because I don’t want to use them up). A stamp would be the perfect remedy for this little book-problem.

Card Catalog– I don’t know what I would do with it or where I would put it, but I would love to have a card catalog. They’ve got to be around, right? Libraries are switching to having all of their files electronically, so where are those beautiful wooden cabinets going? My place would be the perfect forever-home for one!

Notecards from the Library of Congress– Between my love of books and my obsession with stationery products, this is a must-have item! There is little about this not to love, including the price.

Pandora book charm– My bracelet is almost full (which just means it is time to get a second one), but somehow with all of those charms, I don’t have anything bookish. It might be time for the literature genie to remedy that oversight.      

Quilt- My best friend is a quilter and has promised to make me a book quilt, if only we could find a pattern we loved. When I was in Utah last summer, we went to a handful of quilting/crafting stores looking for a pattern, with no luck. How are there not more bookshelf patterns out there? Do the worlds of quilters and readers not overlap?

Quote pencils- While I am not a huge Harry Potter fan (I know, I know, take away my middle school English-teacher title!), I do love these pencils. Take this idea and use quotes from a variety of American literature (or travel literature) and I’d be all over that. (We’re talking about a genie or a fictional gift-bearing fat man here, so I’m sure this is a doable tweak.)

Tattoo- No pictures yet…just a thought wandering my head…I do have a favorite book quote in mind…time will tell…

Vintage Typewriter­– Last Christmas, we were invited to a holiday party at the home of another Foreign Service officer in KL. We had chatted around the office and at a few events, but I had no idea that he had a degree in poetry and was blown away by his beautiful vintage typewriter collection. While the rest of the party-goers enjoyed the eggnog and mulled cider, I wandered his apartment, fascinated by these beautiful machines, contemplating a new collection of my own. Maybe this is the year to start!

Okay book genie, you’ve got your marching orders. I’ve got ten items of my wish list, but if I had to narrow it down to the traditional genie three, I’d go with: card catalog, start of a vintage typewriter collection and a bookshelf quilt. Abracadabra!

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A Broken Butt Won’t Keep Me Down!

I’m not sporty. My loyal blog readers (all 8 of you!) are aware that my athletic history includes such highlights as logging a few innings in the right field of a junior high softball team, fully coordinated between my socks, outfit and hair scrunchie and getting punched in the face by a participant while coaching Special Olympics. But, as the years continue to roll on by and my love of sprinkle doughnuts doesn’t diminish, going to the gym has become a necessary evil in my life. I’ve always wanted to be a runner- someone who looks forward to pounding out a few miles after a long day or work or who feels energized by an hour on the treadmill. Try, try and try again. It just isn’t happening for me. But I put in my time so that my pants still fit.

Still unemployed (I got my official rejection letter for one embassy position yesterday morning), I’ve got a bit of time on my hands. With no excuse to not put in a couple of extra hours a week, I decided that mornings would be the best bet. I could drive Thad to work, hit the gym (which at an embassy short on space, is actually a workout hallway- the cardio machines lined up one behind another down the edge of a long corridor, meaning when a few people are running, it looks like a strange treadmill chase is taking place, with lots of sweat but no actual forward progress) and then head home to shower and get ready for a day of doing whatever it is I am going to do to kill my free hours at this point. I did this several times early last week and it was a great way to get my day up and moving, rather than lounging in my pink owl-patterned pajamas until 11 each day.

Friday morning, I rolled out of bed, had a bowl of corn flakes and threw on my running shorts and tank top with a few minutes to spare. Hair in a high and tight ponytail (best to keep it from sticking to my neck in the gazillion percent humidity of KL), I headed downstairs, shoes in hand, to wait for Thad to finish suiting up. From there, I’m not exactly sure what happened. I wasn’t in any hurry, so there was no skittering or rushing, but somehow, on the last set of steps (our house is five levels!) my socked foot slipped on the marble flooring and from there I stood no chance of righting myself. Down I went! I clearly remember thinking “Don’t hit your head!” as I knew that marble flooring would not gently pillow my noggin, but in my efforts to not crack my skull, I bounced straight on my bum. Three times. I came to a rest in an oozing pile at the bottom of the stairs, huddled on my side, holding aching butt.

Needless to say, one cannot take that spill and walk away with impunity. A bruised forearm, scraped elbow, and oh yes, a fractured tailbone were my housewarming gifts in KL.

But, I’m not going to let a cracked bum keep me from going out and about. Earlier this week, a handful of ladies in the embassy community took me to Chinatown where there is an amazing store called Peter Hoe’s. It’s the kind of place that Penny from The Big Bang Theory would shop to decorate her apartment- lots of bright colors and fun patterns. Luckily, the day I went there, I didn’t have much money on me, so I only came home with one big basket, rather than the pile of goodies I would have liked to have made my own.

Nothing tops the evening out, in terms of uniqueness, that we had last night though- happy hour at a bar set up on a helipad in downtown KL. The owners haul a bunch of outdoor furniture on to this helicopter landing site on the 25th floor of an office building, selling food and drinks to anyone willing to brave the locale. No nets. No fences. Just a thick yellow “do not cross” line and a few bouncers who enforce the rule of the line. (See more photos at fellow FS/KL bloggers site:

It’s going to be a few weeks before sitting doesn’t send zinging pain into my rear, but I’m not going to let that stop my wanderings in this new city. Two years are going to fly by and, in the wise words of Aerosmith, I don’t want to miss a thing!

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Visiting Chengdu’s Very Own SUPER-lative

Travel by superlatives- it is the way to go. As we’ve wandered the world, sometimes with just backpacks filled with the essentials and other times with shipments of all our worldly goods, we’ve always loved seeking to the biggest, the longest, and the farthest of all our destinations. In Cambodia we visited the world’s largest religious monument – Angkor Wat.  In Argentina we slowly made our way across Avenida 9 de Julio, the world’s widest avenue. (It took several changes of the light to make it from one sidewalk to the next, but luckily the city has built-in pit stops in the center!) And don’t forget our own American superlatives such as General Sherman, the world’s largest single tree, in the Redwood forest or the world’s largest museum complex- the Smithsonian.

But, when it comes to “-ests” of the world, don’t count out China. After all, it is home to more people than any other country on Earth. The Chinese government loves its superlative sites.  We’ve been to Urumqi- the city in the world farthest from an ocean, Le Shan- home of the world’s largest sitting Buddha, and of course, the Great Wall- the world’s longest fortification.  (Oh, and don’t forget our visit to the Macau Tower a few years ago, where Thad and John T. decided it was a good idea to bungee jump off of what was then the world’s highest bungee point.) Heck, just this week China took home another superlative title, although this one a bit less pride-inducing- Chinese airports are the most delayed of any in the world. With less than 19% of Beijing’s flights leaving on time, the record is dismal, but not at all surprising to those of us who depend on those Air China flights through the capital to get in and out of the country.

Chengdu, not wanting to be left in the superlative dust, just premiered their own “-est” attraction. On June 28, the doors officially opened on the world’s largest building-The Global Center.

It is massive!

Some of us have lovingly given it the nickname The Death Star, as it is nearly as big as George Lucas’ moon-sized space station.

With a Facebook feed full of links to online articles about the city’s newest addition from friends and family, what choice did I have but to venture and out see this incredible structure for myself?

Saturday morning was the day! Thad and I took the subway out there, meaning we got to enjoy the panic that is a line change at Tianfu Square. (No matter the time of day or the time span between trains, people get off one line and sprint to the other. I was nearly trampled by a tiny woman fully decked out in neon and sporting three-inch heels as I made my way up the stairs between lines, only to stand next to her for five minutes as we all waited for the blue line train to arrive.) The metro system has a stop directly below the Global Center, making our initial scouting trip to the building an easy one.

After rising from the subway tunnel like a Morlock, into the midday brightness (not sunshine, as I’ve not metro-ed myself to the countryside), and blindly blinked as my eyes adjusted to glare of the orb from above, I looked up to see a colossal building, covered in glass, with each corner flipped up like a wave, echoing the traditional Chinese architecture seen on Buddhist temples throughout the country.

I’ll give you this Chengdu- it is impressive!

Making a beeline across the scorching hot, white tile that makes up the courtyard in front of the Center, we initially tried to enter through a giant door that we soon realized went the office spaces in the upper regions of the building, so we skittered on down the square until we found the revolving doors that breezed us on into the mall section of this city-sized creation. Inside, we were greeted with an expanse of marble (looking?) flooring, buffed to a high shine that would make even the most demanding butler proud.  Choosing between the never-ending escalator that went directly to the fourth floor or a visit to the indoor water park, we opted to start at the latter. I couldn’t wait to see the park that boasts daily sunrises and sunsets on the world’s largest LED screen.

Off to the far side of the Death Sta…er, Global Center, we go!

As we made our way through the amateur photographers camping inside the front doors with cameras that weigh nearly as much as I do propped on hefty tripods, it didn’t take long to realize that while the building was open, it wasn’t OPEN. We passed storefront after storefront advertising what *would* be there in the near future. There will be a Lotte’s Department Store; there will be an H&M; there will be a bookstore (fingers crossed on that one!); there will be an IMAX theater.

But what IS there? A Toys ‘R Us and an overpriced Vietnamese restaurant. Oh yes, there are also a lot of exposed wires sticking out of the glossy marble floor and more than one puddle of standing water on upper floors of the expansive shopping center.

After passing “coming soon” signs in the display windows of nearly every store in the building, we reached the indoor water park- which looked amazing! The Rainbow Bright colored slides twisted and turned from huge heights, the spiraling tube-rides beckoned in reds and purples and the sandy beach was just waiting have the wave pool crash over it in set intervals that would make Old Faithful green with jealously.

Theoretically, the park looks fantastic! But, my realistic side says I’ll never spend a day there, clad in my polka-dot swimsuit, enjoying water world fun on a chilly late autumn afternoon. It looked bright and shiny and new on Saturday, but once the doors open and the masses arrive, all splendors will soon fade away as toddlers without diapers turn the beach into a giant litter box and a culture with infinitesimal personal space bubbles takes up every square inch of play space.

One of my favorite parts of the not-yet-open water park was not in the recreation area at all, but rather on the outskirts where cabanas will be home to a variety of snack stands and souvenir stores. One little restaurant advertised itself as having all manner of casseroles available. Because, what doesn’t say “a day at the beach” like a nice, creamy casserole?

In its quest for a superlative of its own, Chengdu has gone above and beyond in the world of architecture. The city has created a building like no other. (Seriously. No other.) As its galactic destiny comes to fruition over the coming months, I plan to make another trek out there to see it is all its glory. I probably won’t be buying much and I definitely won’t be swimming, but I will go wander the lustrous marble floors and enjoy knowing I’ve added yet another superlative to my own travels.

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A bit about the Global Center (aka: Chengdu’s very own Death Star):

— 6 times the size of the Pentagon

— 500m x 400m, and 122m tall at its highest point

— 400,000 sq. meters of retail space, 800,000 sq. meters of office space

— 2 Intercontinental hotels are supposed to open, with about 450,000 sq. meters of hotel space, and over 1,000 rooms

— The Ocean Park area occupies 250,000 sq. meters, with more than 400m of “ocean coast line,” and  5,000 sq. meters of man-made sand

— LED screen that measures 150m x 40m, the world’s largest

“Streets” Are Where It Is At- Literally!

We’re doing it wrong.

America does many things well, but shopping organization is an area in which we lack. In Idaho, if I am looking for a particular item, say a plumbing part, I’d have to go to Home Depot, but then when I don’t find my needed part there, I have to get back in my car and check Lowe’s, D&B, Plumbers ‘R Us (I’m sure this store exists somewhere!), crisscrossing town until I find the store with my niche plumbing gewgaw. (Plumbing may have been a bad choice for this example, as I know exactly nothing about anything plumbing related, but I thought a household-fix item would hold more credibility than say a cute purse or the perfect pair of summer sandals.)

Suburban Stateside shopping is set up in a much more “all-in-one” fashion, where I can go to Target and get the latest best seller, as well as a case of Diet Mountain Dew for Thad, then with just a quick walk up the strip mall, I can stop in and get a wedding gift from Bed, Bath and Beyond, some brightly colored throw pillows at Cost Plus World Market and wrap up my wanderings with some cute shorts and a tank top from Old Navy.  At this point, my arms are full of bags that may or may not all fit in my trunk and it is time to hop in the car and head home. This is great for checking a lot of items off a list (although that list probably only had “Diet Mountain Dew” on it, which means this set-up is also great for spending way more of my paycheck than I had intended), but it is not great for comparison shopping.

In China, on the other hand, when it comes to a varied shopping list and convenience, you are just plumb out of luck. But, if you are looking for a selection, shopping is a breeze.  It’s all about the “streets.”

Want a dog? Go to Pet Street. You can get a pup, a kitten, a baby chinchilla or even a pot-bellied pig. (I was tempted!)

Need a bank safe? Go to Safe Street. (I regularly pass this area of town and am always amazed at the number of stores selling safe after safe. What are people keeping in them?!)

Need a Halloween costume? Go to Costume Street.( You can buy off the rack or get your Jem, from Jem and the Holograms, costume custom made.)

Need dishes and chopsticks? Go to Restaurant Street. (Also available: Lazy Susans, waitress uniforms, weird blown-glass centerpieces and baskets- lots and lots of baskets.)

Need a light fixture? Go to Lamp Street. (The lamp section of Chengdu is very close to my house, so I frequent it often. Since my house is decked out in very locally-styled light fixtures, all with about a million lights each, I am often there buying another bag full of less-than-long-lasting bulbs.)

My “street directory” could go on and on, rivaling the New York City Yellow Pages.  In China, shopping is just a matter of knowing which small area of town your item in found in and then once you are there, you’ve got more selection than you could ever want!

Usually, I get overwhelmed with the choices and walk away without actually making a purchase. This happened last summer when I was looking to buy an electric scooter. We went to Scooter Street and walked up and down the length of it- twice. Having too many bike options in my head to act, I headed home to ponder my next move. The following Saturday, we again went to Scooter Street (luckily it isn’t too far from our apartment) and walked the entire row. This time I actually test drove some scooters (on the sidewalk, of course!), making sure they were both stylish and equipped with a powerful horn. I actually narrowed down the options to about three, but couldn’t pull the purchasing trigger. It took a third trip to the street the following day to decide upon and bring home my newest form of transportation.  (If you’ve not seen pictures, check them out here!)

Streets. They really are the way to organize a shopping trip if it is in search of one particular item that you go. All it takes is a quick explanation of what you want to a taxi driver and before you know it you are down a hidden alley, facing a multitude of stores, all stocked with the single item you want.

What are you in need of? Yarn? A purse? Or even a plumbing part? Chengdu has a street for you!

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A Venn Diagram Foiled…

Venn diagrams are awesome! I used to make my students create them to compare and sort an array of different things, from vocabulary words to literary character traits to ideas for writing essays. So, as I wandered the grocery store last week, in my mind I thought about how I could make a Venn diagram to describe the similarities and differences between shopping in an American grocery store and shopping in a Chinese one. (I often write blog posts in my head when I am out and about in town. My daily taxi ride home seems to be a hotbed for blog ideas, some of which turn out to be great, but others of which turn out to be mere ramblings about excessive horn honking or women wearing control-top pantyhose with shorts so short I can see the control top. I should get a cute “blog” notebook and carry it around with me everywhere I go so I can record these brilliant insights bring them home and form them into coherent written thoughts!)

But, back to Venn diagrams and the supermarket.

My plan was to draw up a cute little overlapping set of circles (probably in well-coordinated colors like pink and blue so the center was a lovely purple) and fill them with shopping habits. It didn’t take long though, before I ran into a major roadblock with my diagram- my circles never crossed!

Yes, I could overlap with words like “food,” but that’s a 6th graders way out and would never have flown in my classroom, so there is no way it could go here. While there food at each supermarket, the food items are vastly different. For instance, my local Idaho Albertson’s, never have I seen live fish jumping out of their aquariums, flopping on the market floor and never once did I see bottle after bottle, shelf after shelf and aisle after aisle of high priced baijiu liquor displayed in fancy red boxes. But, on the other hand, in China, I’m never forced to choose between twenty-odd types of sandwich bread just to make a PB&J or have to discern the difference between a hundred different boxes of cereal.

I also considered putting grocery carts in my central Venn section, but again, a little more thought pushed them out of the running as well. Grocery carts- It seems easy enough, and yes, they exist in both countries, but Chinese grocery carts are made with some serious maneuverability in mind. Rather than having two set wheels and two free ones, the carts here have all four wheels able to go in any direction, meaning pushing a cart can make you look a bit like Bambi when he walks on ice for the first time. It is easy to get splayed out on the slick floor of the supermarket, holding on to the cart handle for dear (deer!) life.  And, as the cart gets fuller (and heavier) the exaggerated movements it takes to keep the basket on course becomes only more hyperbolic.

Even payment can’t fall into the pretty purple at the heart of my Venn diagram. China, at least western China, is still very much a cash economy. There is no easy swipe of the debit card or quick signature on the credit card slip to have you on your way. Nope. Here, cash is still king. It’s not all a bad thing though. There is an advantage to grocery shopping in cash only. Going into the store, I know exactly how much money is in my wallet and there can be no giving in to the temptation to buy a box of doughnuts or a bag of Cheetos, as funds are limited to what came with me from home. (Although, if I somehow stumbled across a box of doughnuts, I’d probably just dump the million-year shelf-life milk out of my crazy cart and make room for the sugary goodness of chocolate and sprinkles!)

With three China years under my belt, there are still times that supermarkets here overwhelm me and send me straight out the door with nothing to show for my trip. I can only imagine what a Chinese person on vacation in the US would think if they walked into a Costco where food is sold by the case lot, carts are upgraded for flatbed trolleys and it’s nearly impossible to get out of the store for under $100! Their mental diagram would have no more middle ground than the one planned out in my brain as I swerved and skidded up First Ring Road in my taxi last Friday.




Cyber Monday Mania

I don’t know how Santa and his minions did it before the advent of the World Wide Web. With a belly full of Thanksgiving goodness, maybe he braved the possibility of pepper spray to fill his giant velvet bag full of the year’s best gifts. I am sure the reindeer would provide more than adequate entertainment as he queued up hours before a store’s opening just check off handfuls of “nice list” names.

Not having the patience of a saint, Santa Claus or any other mythical being, I opted out of Black Friday madness, choosing to spend the wee-hours of it curled up with a biography of Mao Zedong’s personal physician and the daylight hours devouring Thanksgiving, round two, at Thad’s cousin’s home.

While I was glad that I wasn’t trampled trying to buy low-priced electronics or crushed searching for Elmo’s most recent noise-making reincarnation, I soon realized that while my list was made, I’d checked it twice for those whom I deemed naughty and nice, that was as far as my planning had gone.  In recent years, a fertility explosion has left Thad and I with eleven nieces and nephews, not to mention parents, siblings, in-laws and friends to expand my holiday shopping experience.

Have no fear, the internet is here! Black Friday may be chaos and utterly overwhelming, but Cyber-Monday is right up my alley. While Xu Laoshi droned on about why Chinese characters look nicest when they fit in a perfect square, I planned my evening shopping spree.

Once home, it didn’t take long for my slacks and blouse to be replaced by cozy penguin-covered fleece pajama pants and an oversized purple Raven’s t-shirt. Soon, with a throw-blanket over my legs, a computer on my lap and my debit card leaned neatly up against the screen, I was ready to help the economy grow!

Pondering completed between (and maybe a bit during) classes, I was ready to shop. Within a few hours, I had checked most of the names off my list, fabulous presents on ordered and on their way.  Since we are flying this holiday season, the majority of gifts are being shipped to my Nampa-based concierge. As a three-year old, she doesn’t receive massive amounts of mail, so I figured having her collect my packages was the way to go. (Wrapping is not included in her services, as she is easily distracted by such worthy pastimes as that tart of a cartoon character Strawberry Shortcake and can’t fit extra chores in to her already packed schedule.)

My Christmas shopping is by no means complete, but thanks to Al Gore and his expedient invention, the internet, I have a respectable start. Cyber-Monday was a success in the Ross mo-partment. I think now we are ready to move on to World Wide Web Wednesday and e-Friday!