Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Day 2 Of Non-Oprah's Favorite Things

(This is part 2 of a 4 part series. Part 1 is here.) You are obviously an above-average person, since you are here and reading this, and your friends and family are likely just as smart. What should you buy your smart family and friends? Today's guest bloggers have lots of great ideas:

Sue - Gifts For Smart Kids and Their Adult Equivalents.
You know that feeling you get when you're in a science centre or really cool museum? That feeling of geeky joy that too often gets quashed the second you step into the museum's over-priced gift shop? It's that feeling I most like to have wash over me on Christmas morning--knowing that Santa went out of his way to put his Edison Elf on my case. And so, I give to you 10ish gifts designed to make you either feel clever or marvel at the cleverness of others.

Reindeer Hexbug Nano in a Christmas ornament

 Glow in the Dark Hexbug Nano
$8.95: My daughter got a Hexbug Nano in the mail last year from her uncle. "Piffle," I thought when I saw it in the package. "What does this 50-something, childless, Philosophy professor know of the workings of the 5-yr-old mind?" We then took the little critter out of its package and let it loose on our kitchen floor. It was by far the most fun we had as a family with a gift last Christmas. Mind you, the Hexbug effect is heightened if you or someone you know is able to feel terror and glee simultaneously. I still marvel at the pocket engineering that went into its creation. Why, if it topples over, it somehow can figure out how to right itself. Priced for the stocking-stuffer budget, the Hexbug Nano is a must have for anyone on your list. Hexbug also sells a slightly more expensive larvae but, truth be told, the very thought of it crawling across my floor creeps me right out.

Air Swimmwers (clownfish and shark) with a compelling YouTube sales pitch:

I want the shark. I want to give the shark to my husband for Christmas and have it wake us all up on Christmas morning. I then want to set the shark loose in my library at the start of term and maybe again just before exam time. I want to get a close look at the shark to figure out how in Sam Hell it works and then I want to shake hands with the incredibly cool people who invented a floating, menacing air-shark that one could, theoretically, let loose in an academic library just before exam time. Well done, geeky practical jokers. Well done.

Human Planet DVD set  $49.98 This became the number one item on my Christmas wish list after I saw this short and compelling video promotional piece. With visuals like that, what's not to love? And since the macro lens I'd love for my camera is waaaaay over our holiday budget, I'd be perfectly happy just kicking back and looking at and learning from the pros. We've all but worn out our Planet Earth dvds; the entire family is smitten with this BBC franchise. Really, you can't go wrong with any one of these sets whether your recipient is young or old. 

Got a crafty kid on your hands? Why not let her make her own kaleidescope?  $14.99
Or, for just a few more smackeroos, you can give the gift of light in its full spectrum: ScienceWiz Projects with Light Kit ($19.99) shows you how to conduct 8 separate light-based experiments at home. Sure, you could likely figure out how to do all this stuff for free by being resourceful and searching the Internet for instructions for each of these projects, but that doesn't make for a great present opening moment on Christmas day, does it?

What kind of librarian would I be if I didn't include a book on this list? And who doesn't marvel at the craftsmanship of a well-made pop-up book? If you have never given or received a Robert Sabuda book, now's the time to do so. His latest, co-designed with Matthew Reinhart, is Encyclopedia Mythologica: Dragons And Monsters Pop-up.  I own Sabuda's Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. I've got a few others in my collection. All are stunning. 

St. Basil's Cathedral 3-D Puzzle

Art! Architecture! Geography! Spatial skills! OK, fine. I just think it would be really fun to build St. Basil's Cathedral as a puzzle. I get that not everyone enjoys doing puzzles. If you are that person then please pass this along to me if someone gives it to you this Christmas.

Star-gazing 70mm telescope
I really,really, really wish someone had given me one of these when I was a kid--even if it only ended up collecting dust after just a few months of half-hearted use. For some reason, I can't shake just how cool it would feel to step out on the back porch with your mom or dad and look up at the stars. Ah, but this is not an inexpensive gift, which means you would have to pick your recipient wisely.

Air Hogs Hawk Eye Radio Control Video Camera Helicopter 
My husband really, really, really wishes someone had got something like this for him when he was a kid. Now, he's just waiting for the perfect moment to give one to our daughter. I'm thinking next year or the one following. Did I mention that it not only flies, but it also takes pictures and/or video footage from on high. Oh, brave new world...

Ta-da! If any of you need my shipping address, don't hesitate to ask.
(Sue blogs at Mouse-Traps and The Moon, is a children's academic librarian, lives in Fredericton, and has a six year old daughter.)

Kate - Gifts For People Who Love History
Henry VIII Disappearing Wives Mug,

$12.95, The Unemployed Philosophers Guild
Useful AND decorative! Bonus: While you're drinking your coffee and trying to face your day, this will remind you that no matter what happens, you will probably not be beheaded. So it could be worse.

Magnetic Monarchs, £6.50, National Portrait Gallery
Who doesn't want all the British monarchs, in order, on their refrigerator? Who? (Okay, you could also break them apart into individual magnets. YOU could. I am too rigid for that.)

Historical Figure Cloth Ornaments, £4-7 each, The Christmas Company
Monarchs (including all the Tudors)! Pirates! Shakespeare! These are really nice quality, and if you start giving a friend one or two each year, you won't have to think about what to get them again for a decade.

Simon Schama: A History of Britain DVD set, $59.98 (though currently on sale), Amazon
This epic series will take you from 3000 BC up to 1965, and Schama is the perfect guide. It's educational but also fascinating and pretty entertaining.

World War II: A Day by Day History 2012 calendar, $12.95, Calendars.com
My mother and I found this while on a trip a few months ago and I insisted she buy it for Dad immediately. When she told him that his daughter had picked out a present for him, his immediate response was, I kid you not, "Hitler or Stalin?" Dad and I are a barrel of laughs. ANYWAY. The photographs on this calendar are really beautiful, and I love the little daily history entries.

Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir, $28 (though currently on sale), Amazon
Alison Weir is one of the best pop historians writing today, as far as writing accessible and entertaining books that also have their facts straight. I'd recommend any of her books, but this is the newest, and would be great for fans of The Tudors or The Other Boleyn Girl who want to get the real story of Anne Boleyn's sister.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman,

$19.99 (though currently on sale), Amazon
This is, hands down, the best historical novel I have ever read. It's long but definitely worth it.

American Revolution Jigsaw Puzzle, $14.95, White Mountain Puzzles
This is intricate, educational, attractive, and SO much more fun to put together than a puzzle of a bunch of flowers or something. They have puzzles for several other historical topics as well, so browse around the site. (Bonus: This company is local to me, so I'm happy to give them some visibility! They only ship to the US, but it looks like Amazon.ca carries their products.)

Chinese Calligraphy Scarf,

$60, Metropolitan Museum Shop
Scarves are sort of a cliched gift, I guess, but they work for a reason, and this one is based on a 13th century Chinese scroll! Awesome! Perfect for your friend who's into Asian history or art.

BBC History Magazine subscription (Price depends on location.)
This is Britain's best-selling history magazine for a reason, and magazine subscriptions make nice gifts because they keep arriving all year. This magazine focuses on British history but has good international coverage, as well.
(Kate lives in New England, where she reads, knits, watches too much TV, and writes for a bunch of sites, including Vampire-Diaries.net, TheTelevixen.com, and her personal blog.)

Allison - Book Recommendations (and I've purchased four books off this list for hard-to-shop-for people on my list, so heads-up. - Beck.)

For pre-adolescent boys:

End of Days by Eric Walters or The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch or pretty much anything with 'Plague' or 'Inferno' or 'Doom' or 'Death' or 'Buckets of Blood and Inordinate Amounts of Promised Adrenaline-Fueling Gobs of Violence and Cataclysm'. Or, as my eleven-year-old son says, "you had me at 'series of mysterious deaths leading to a deadly cat-and-mouse game!'" What can I say? He's my kid.

For anyone who's remotely like me:
The Newsflesh Trilogy. I love zombies. I can't get enough of zombies. But I don't read just any zombie books. They have to be well-written books with great characters and engaging plots that just happen to contain zombies. If the people in them don't actually HAVE any brains worth eating, I'm outta there. These books are fabulous, and topical - they take place in a near future in which bloggers are prime players in the news. In this future, two vaccines (which cured cancer and the common cold) have combined to generate a virus which is dormant in everyone, but results in zombification after death, with the added bonus that anyone can also undergo 'amplification' at any moment and zombify spontaneously. Also, everyone names their kids George or Georgia (after George Romero) or Buffy. Wait, that makes it sound stupid but it's actually not. Of course, the third book isn't out yet, so you can only give them the first two books and then they might actually try to eat your brain when they realize they have to wait until June 2012 for the third, so maybe wait until next year.

For - well, I don't know who, because even though I loved this book, every single person I've given it to has HATED it, so really I just want someone to give it to someone and report back to me if anyone else in the world besides me likes it:
The Magicians by Lev Grossman: A fair number of people have called it Harry Potter for grown-ups, and then a bunch of other people got really mad about that, and you know you don't want to mess with the Harry Potter people, but come on - dude doesn't know he's magic and then finds out he's magic and goes to a secret magic school. It doesn't take a genius. After that, it's much less quaint and adolescent than H.P. "Friendship, love, sex, booze and boredom", with MAGIC - doesn't that sound cool? AND, and, also, a beloved series of fantasy novels and then the magical land turns out to be REAL? Come ON. Seriously. I can't be the only one feeling it. And if it doesn't work for you, just start replacing all the names with Harry, Ron and Hermione. That should be good for at least a few cheap laughs.

For the literalists on your list (I don't recommend trying to say that out loud):

John Dies at the End or The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had to: at first I thought "what kind of idiot came up with these titles?" but then I thought, maybe some people just need to know what they're getting into. Both books present themselves as rather weightless smartass hipster inside jokes, but both, particularly the second, have some real moments of wisdom, clarity and poignancy. Plus, in John Dies at the End, there's a meat monster. And a song called Camel Holocaust. Also, because it kind of fits in this category but not quite, and because it's one of my top five books of all time, I strongly counsel you to buy a copy of Bel Canto by Ann Patchett for everyone you know. It tells you in the opening chapter pretty much exactly how it's going to end, and yet you will still be riven by its beauty and devastated when it's over, partly just because it's over.

For people who are just too damned happy all the time:
Songs in Ordinary Timeby Mary McGarry Morris, or Broken by Daniel Clay: both brilliantly written studies of more or less ordinary people caught in horrible situations with miniscule nuggets of black humour and fleeting moments of snatched comfort, but no tiresome redemption to spoil the mostly unrelieved misery. Kind of like being stuck in grade four with all the school bullies in your class, a completely ineffectual teacher, and no hope of advancement.
For people who like to read mysteries but still want to feel smart:
Anything by Fred Vargas: She's not only a woman named Fred, but she's French and also a 'renowned archaeologist and vociferous political campaigner' - so this is obviously some sophisticated stuff she's got going on. The books are fantastic - mysteries tangled up with philosophy, legend, culture, and the profound sadness of the human condition. And the protagonist, Commissaire Adamsberg, is this absent-minded yet penetratingly insightful Columbo-like figure -- if you knew him in real life you'd be constantly tempted to stick your fist down his throat, but in fiction he's absolutely charming.

For, um, undecided:

I'm never the one who puts the really funny things on Facebook. I'm always the one who sees them when other people put them up. This is how I came across my first comics from The Oatmeal. The ones I saw were mostly about spelling and grammar, like ten words you need to stop misspelling, and they were all FREAKING AWESOME. So when I was in the bookstore and I saw 5 Very Good Reasons for to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (and Other Useful Guides), I picked up a copy on impulse for the ultra-erudite pair on my list - my brother-in-law and his wife. Then I got it home and started flipping through it. Eep. There were the ones nobody puts on Facebook. There was crudeness and filth. There were (nsfw! - Beck) dead hookers. So I thought maybe I'd give it to my Dad instead. Then my husband found it. I explained my dilemma. He started flipping through it and waving extra-funny pages in my face, while I said yeah, I said IT WAS FUNNY, that's WHY I BOUGHT it, but.... then I saw (nsfw! again! - Beck) this one and laughed myself into an asthma attack. Now we're getting one for everyone we know. Merry Christmas, Nana and Grandpa!

(Allison blogs at Bibliomama, has two kids, lives in Ottawa, and can say pillow and egg in five languages.)

Coming up tomorrow: gifts for actual children and not fur-children!


  1. Allison: "If the people in them don't actually HAVE any brains worth eating, I'm outta there." Best sentence EVER.

    Kate: The Wives of Henry the VIII mug both invites and repels me. BTW, I'm pretty sure I've bought puzzles by that company (White Mountain) at Zellers here in Canada.

    Beck: thanks for doing this. I had so much fun putting my list together and I am certain to spend way over budget this Christmas b/c of this project.

  2. Aaaaand I now have two new girl crushes. Floating sharks! Fellow Robert Sabuda lovers! Morbid mugs and puzzles! I am smitten.

  3. Just ordered the floating shark for 8YO. Or maybe it was for me. I'll decide later.

  4. AIR SHARK!!

    I must buy at least a dozen of these, right now, for everyone I know.

    I bought my husband a remote control helicopter last year and it was the Best. Gift. Ever. So I heartily endorse that as an idea. ;)

    Also I now have a whole bunch of books to add to my wish list.

    Well done, ladies! Great suggestions!

  5. Beck - are you and your friends getting a cut from the sites whose products you're promoting? B/c you definitely should.

  6. I want to give Sue that shark.

    I want that disappearing wives mug for ME.

    I want to know under what circumstances I would need to punch a dolphin in the mouth. They seem so cute and harmless!

  7. I now have an uncontrollable urge to go and read The Magician and find out if I hate it or love it. Also...The Oatmeal...Love.

  8. the magicians is on my list--it was recommended to me!

    I also wanted to post this link, which i just heard about, and which seems like a SPLENDID idea:


  9. I am a commercial-free blogger-that is, I've never received goods, money or services in exchange for blogging. If, however, the good folks at Mastermind Toys would like to send me a Clown Fish free of charge in exchange for all this advertising, I say "bring it on." As for the shark, I ordered one this morning. How could I not?

  10. Heh. I just posted as my other self. That Sue is also the other Sue up top. I am, ahem, multifaceted.

  11. SUE - I saw that shark in a Wireless catalog but didn't order it because of the insane shipping cost to Canada. Mastermind Toys shipping is FREE. FREE!!! FREE!!!!!!!!

  12. I'm also commercial-free; the only things I've received from blogging are a sense of satisfaction and carpel tunnel syndrome.

    HOWEVER, I would not turn down any of the fine items I suggested on my list anyway, should any of the retailers in question want to reward me (I'm looking at you, Lush. The only thing better than one melting massage bar is, say, a case of them).

  13. This is a treasure trove. I'm looking forward to reading the Penman historical novel...and I will be back to study this in more detail after Thanksgiving!


  14. Allison: I know. FREE! And b/c it is FREE I spent a cool hundred there just this morning. Hexbugs for ALL the teachers.

  15. These posts are being done just for fun and not because anyone was in any way renumerated. But I WOULD cheerfully take one of those flying sharks too, thank you.

  16. I want the Chinese calligraphy scarf and I don't know why.
    Sue, I think, might be related to some of the people I need to shop for, so half my work is done.
    And I just made my new year's reading list from Allison's list- go me!

  17. I think I want everything on this list.

  18. The history calendar is a must-have calendar. I can't find one at Calendar Club Australia.