Thankfully, I seem to have blocked the whole family-holiday-convergence thing from my memory. It's like childbirth. If you don't remember, you readily agree to host it the next year. It isn't until the first family argument breaks out that you suddenly remember the agony of these things. By then, of course, it is too late and you are condemned.
I did, however, get a good laugh this year perusing actress Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP Gift Guide while killing time in a doctor's office a couple of weeks back. (And this is why you really should never leave home without your current book tucked in a bag somewhere.) My reaction to her gift suggestion of a $100 slingshot by artist Christopher Jarrat can only be summed up as thus....
I couldn't help but notice that about the only item Ms. Paltrow could come up with in the price range of us mere mortals was an LL Bean tote bag. Now don't misunderstand me, I am a huge LL Bean fan (their kids' long underwear simply cannot be beat for quality and price), but the f*cking tote bag? That ugly-ass thing?
Needless to say, after I dried my tears of laughter I did get to thinking about some of MY favorite things from 2013. Unlike Ms. Paltrow, I won't be getting any kickbacks for sharing some of them with you, so you can rest assured I share with the true spirit of Christmas in my heart (or something like that...whatev).
1. Poems by Heart App (Penguin)
This little app for your phone or tablet - released by Penguin Books last spring - is one of the cutest things I've seen in a long time. The app is designed to help you memorize poetry. Admittedly, I am not a huge poetry reader as many of you are well aware (ahem). But there are some poems I either once had memorized back in my school days or have always wanted to memorize and Poems by Heart helps you do just that.
The app is free and comes pre-loaded with four poems to get you started. If you'd like to try other poems (have a favorite?) you can peruse Penguin's in-app library and purchase others for .99 cents. The app takes you through the memorization process step by step, providing a male or female narrator (your choice) to read you the poem so that you can catch the cadence. As your skills progress you can even record yourself reciting the poem.
So while I conquered Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky in a mere twenty minutes, if you run into me on the street don't be surprised if you hear me reciting Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade to anyone who will listen.
2. Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell
Young Adult literature hasn't been endearing to me in a long, long time. Eleanor & Park brought back the magic and reminded me that very good YA still exists. If it hasn't been eaten by vampire and dystopian fan-fic knockoffs, that is.
3. National Geographic
Yes, a good old-fashioned subscription to National Geographic is still one of my favorite things. Of course these days National Geographic also includes a digital subscription in addition to the magazine that faithfully arrives in your mailbox each month. I mean, have you seen the sheer gorgeousness of their photos on an iPad screen? The beauty is amazing, not to mention the videos and online content available in the digital version. For a mere twenty dollars a year you get the actual magazine hard-copy, the digital subscription, plus access to all of National Geographic's online archives. Talk about bang for your buck.
4. Elizabeth Fremantle
Have you heard of her yet? If not, allow me to introduce you to the author who wrote the best historical fiction debut of 2013. Her novel Queen's Gambit - the first in a proposed trilogy - was one of the smartest to hit the genre in years.
Published by Simon & Schuster, Fremantle's re-telling of Henry VIII's last wife Katherine Parr does everything right: it offers insight and wit while deftly sidestepping the ubiquitous fashion-show and bedroom antics that seem to have infiltrated the genre in recent years.
I still love Audible. It's purchase by Amazon back in 2008 has actually enhanced this audiobook lover's haven. With steeply discounted audio narration available for so many of your Kindle books and Whispersync technology allowing you to seamlessly switch between reading and listening within the same book, what's not to love? The monthly plans start at $14.95 (yikes, the price has gone up since I first signed up for ten bucks a month) for one book each month but you can always choose from the more ambitious plans. Being traditional, I stick to the one-a-month gig and supplement with downloads from my local library as needed.
6. The Son, by Philipp Meyer
2013 was the year The Western (yes, I used caps there) made a comeback and thousands of readers discovered just how powerful a well-written novel in this genre can be. Philipp Meyer tells the story of a filthy rich cattle-baron Texas family by using different points of view from successive generations. Meyer gave us the good, the bad, and the downright ugly side of the Texas frontier (and human nature) and proved that The Western isn't dead just yet.
7. Low-end Tablets
The entry of lower-end tablets to electronic's market may seem like an odd entry. But after years of having to switch between a Kindle e-reader and a Nook (the proprietorship of each, while understandable, was driving me crazy) or trying to read either Kindle or Nook books on a heavier iPad, the advent of the lower priced tablets was a boon.
Enter the 7-inch, less-than-a-pound tablet that sells for less than $100. Do I care if the gaming graphics suck? Hell no. Because I put exactly three (count them, three) apps on this little baby. The Kindle app. The Nook app. The Audible app. Bingo, I had myself a sleek, light-weight little tablet dedicated ONLY to my books. All for less than the price of just one of Amazon or B&N's e-readers. All in one spot. All easy to access. Mine even has blue-tooth so I can keep listening to my audiobooks with my wireless headset. So take that, e-reader sellers.
8. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Without a doubt, this novel by Kate Atkinson was my favorite audiobook of 2013. In fact, I've often wondered if I would have loved the print version of this compelling story of Ursula Todd, born on a snowy 1910 night in the English countryside (over and over again) as much as I loved the voice of narrator Fenella Woolgar. Alas, I'm happy to never know.
9. Penguin Book iPad Case
Available on Etsy for a wide range of electronic devices (and in several different colors), these cases are delightful. Made of hard plastic, they cover the back side of your device and garner more comments from people than you might imagine. And did I mention you can choose your own book title and author?
10. Paperback Book Cover
Another Etsy find, I've been a fan of the WeeBeeStitchn shop for quite some time and own two of her suede embroidered book covers that I absolutely love to death. The designs vary so sometimes you have to wait for one pop up that you especially like or you can email the shop owner, I'm sure, to request something. She makes them in all different sizes - including e-reader covers - but I love the small paperback cover.
So that's it. Out with the old and in with the new, as they say. Stay tuned for an update of some changes you can expect around here for 2014. Oh, and Happy New Year everyone. May it be filled with books.