Family Game Review: Mysterium (and Amazon Prime Day reminder!)

As you read this, we’re on our second day of camping. One game we’re bringing with us (because we camp in yurts. Yurt with tables. Daily life is rustic enough without getting tents involved, thanks) is Mysterium (Amazon Associates link), which my 15-year-old son got for his birthday.

But first: It’s Amazon Prime Day! If you’re scooping up some deals on Amazon today or any day, please please consider using my link! (My link is also always at the top of my home page, and on my Facebook page.) I make a commission from sales made through my link, and this makes up a significant part of my family’s income.

I also earn a bounty if you sign up for Amazon Prime. You can get a free 30-day trial, which gives you access to free, fast shipping on many items, special prices on many items (especially today!), free streaming of many excellent (and many terrible) movies and shows, free music streaming and photo storage, free Kindle books, savings on subscriptions, and a ton of other stuff — pretty much everything you could possibly need in life except for love, sex, God, and gin. And warm bread.

Okay, now for the game review for Mysterium.

 

It’s a little pricey, but tons of fun, beautifully designed, and sturdy. It’s sort of like Clue, in that you have to make educated guesses about murder suspects, the crime scene, and the weapon — except in Mysterium, you’re helping the dead victim remember who his murderer is. You get clues from a ghost, who can’t remember much about his own murder, and who can only communicate with you for a short time (there is a sand timer involved, and each round moves a clock ahead an hour until your time is up).

The ghost (who sets the game up ahead of time, and who controls the play, sort of like a dungeonmaster) can’t speak except in knocks, so he deals out “vision cards” to the players, who act as mediums, cooperating to solve the mystery.

The catch is, these vision cards are deliberately baffling and subjective, and the players must use their imagination and intuition to figure out which information is important and which is just atmospheric red herrings.

They can also agree or disagree (using “clairvoyance tokens”) with the other players’ guesses, and they advance in play if they agree with guesses that turn out correct.

It’s a cooperative game, all-win or all-lose.

If all the mediums correctly guess the correct suspects, location, and weapon before time runs out, they all advance to the climactic final round. If not, the ghost despairs and fades away without revealing the final clues to his murder.

The game itself is gorgeous, very artfully crafted with clever and entertaining details. (These rather blurry photos don’t convey all the detail and vividness of the actual game components, which are printed on thick, glossy board.)

The pawns are crystal balls, and the play surface, a spectral mansion, is constructed in bits as the play proceeds. A skilled “ghost” can add to the thrills and suspense by hamming it up and adding drama and tension to the play

(for instance, by cawing eerily as he removes the cardboard crows that perch on the wall to signify vision cards that must be discarded).

Since the vision cards are intentionally dreamlike and subjective, you can replay the game many times in different ways

(and, of course, there are expansion packs). You can even download an app which plays unnerving background music to the game, to increase the sense of urgency and unease.

(For the nervous parent: The game deals with ghosts and creepy things, but it’s not occult or demonic, just spooky. Sensitive children might be frightened by the spookiness, but it doesn’t actually show gore or death. It’s more like Edward Gorey meets surrealism.)

You can play with two to seven players. We played last night with two adults and kids ages 16, 15, 12, 10, and 8. You could easily allow a younger child to play as your partner and help you figure out visions — which might even be actually helpful, since overthinking can be an impediment.

The game took about an hour from start to finish, including setup time. It would make a good party game, because players can get the hang of it pretty quickly, as long as one person is already familiar with the rules and is motivated to do the prep work as the ghost. I, frankly, would not be able to juggle enough ideas at one time to be an effective ghost, but some of my kids are great in this role.

And now another reminder that today is Amazon Prime Day. Do use my link! Thanks so much!

Understated greats: Jesse Winchester

Why has no one told me about singer and songwriter Jesse Winchester? I heard an excerpt of an interview with him on American Routes yesterday, and whoooo, what an interesting guy.

Here’s the song that really knocked me back a few paces. “Isn’t that so” from Third Down 110 to Go (1972):

I don’t think these lyrics are as flip and breezy as they seem at first. Is he really advocating for following the “line of least resistance,” or is he making a quiet accusation? Either way, it’s a heck of a song.

Winchester also wrote songs for Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, Anne Murray, Reba McEntire, the Everly Brothers, Lyle Lovett, and Emmylou Harris, among others. I have endless admiration for folks who write and perform short songs. Say what you came to say and then move along!

The American Routes interviewer says,

[I]n your life there’s seems to be this back and forth between your southern sensibilities in growing up and then migration for various things. You went off to college in Massachusetts. That had to have been kind of culture shock if you were growing up around North Mississippi and Memphis I would think.

And Winchester answers:

Nick, you put the nail on the head, buddy. It was a shock to me. It was the first time I came across people who put sugar in their cornbread, and I was so disappointed in them.

Ha. A very thoughtful guy, but with a pervasive humility and quiet sense of humor. He moved to Canada to avoid the draft in Vietnam (a choice I understand better now that I have teenage boys and a president I trust not at all), and launched his career there. He says in the interview:

I remember a quotation from Peter Ustinov, who was one of my favorite actors. He said there’s no national anthem that sets my toe a-tappin’ and I know what he meant. It’s a very dicey issue — nationalism. I’m not sure where I stand on it. Who am I? I don’t know. I like certain things about living in the south and certain things about living in the north. It’s just, viva la difference.

He didn’t return to the US to tour until 1977, after President Carter extended amnesty to draft dodgers who changed their citizenship.

Here’s “Step By Step” from Let the Rough Side Drag (1976). This song will be familiar to viewers of The Wire:

and (skipping forward several decades) a song recorded shortly before he died of bladder cancer in 2014, just a few years after he had been treated and cured of cancer of the esophagus in 2011:
“All That We Have Is Now:”

 

From the album A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. I’m thrilled to discover a new-to-me singer/songwriter. If you’re already in the know, which Jesse Winchester album do you recommend?

***
Photo of Jesse Winchester by robbiesaurus (Flickr: Jesse Winchester) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Old movie review: ATTACK THE BLOCK is perfect

Here’s my review of Attack the Block, a sci-fi thriller from 2011, from the producers of Shaun of the Dead. The review is from 2013. I apologize for re-running two posts in a row. It’s been a difficult couple of days, and I would appreciate prayers if you’ve got ’em! Thanks. 

Here’s the set-up:  a gang of no-good inner city kids terrorizes the neighborhood, mugging a young woman at knifepoint.  But before they’re through with her, something streaks down from space and crashes into a car.  They don’t quite know what it is, but it’s aggressive, and they kill it.  Full of swagger and machismo, they drag the corpse of whatever-it-is to the most secure place they know:  the apartment of a local drug dealer.  They think all they need to do is figure out the best way to cash in on their luck and success. But things are about to get more complicated.

Here’s the trailer:

As British filmmakers seem more free to do, they cast actors who look like real people.  If this had been an American film, the teenage girls lounging in their bedroom would have all been professionally made up and dressed like models.  But in this movie, some of the girls knew what to do with their hair, and some of them didn’t — just like real girls.  Ditto for the apartment interiors:  none of them looked like stage sets with a few messy areas thrown in stimulate gritty realism.  They just looked like actual crummy apartments.

And ditto for the characters themselves.  There was a refreshing lack of stock characters.  In an American movie, you could have pegged, within five minutes, which characters were going to live and which would die.  You would be able to tell that the privileged, white, pothead poseur with the fabulous head of hair was going to get it, because he deserves it, because he’s driving his daddy’s fancy car and so on.  But — spoiler — all that happens in this movie is he gets hit in the nose with a baseball bat because he’s not paying attention, and it’s kind of funny.

In the course of the film, the ringleader, Moses, undergoes a small but pivotal transformation:  he discovers how to channel his natural toughness and charisma from something desperate into something valuable.  He begins with a stunted moral code — that we’re responsible for ourselves and for the people on our block, and that’s it — and emerges as a true hero . . . or at least as a young man who has the makings of a real man.

Moses and his followers aren’t presented as rough diamonds or noble savages whose morals poignantly and ironically transcend that of the bourgeois upright citizen (although I was afraid that that’s where the movie was headed).  They really are bad kids doing bad things — some of them with no parents to guide them, but some of them just looking for a thrill.  At the same time, their little gang (with its armory of fireworks and cavalry of mopeds) really does have a moral code.  For comparison, we see what true evil does look like, when the drug dealer, High Hat, commands his second to head unarmed into peril. Moses’ friends, on the other hand, are constantly on the phone with each other (with the pathetic detail that they’re constantly fretting about how many minutes or texts they have left), and they never doubt for a minute that they will come to each others’ rescue.

At one point, when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse, Moses admits of the dark suspicion that the aliens invading the block are just another plague inflicted on them by the authorities to keep the black man down — just like drug addiction and AIDS.  Everyone stews with this for a moment.  And then they all laugh, just because it just sounds kind of stupid.  And yet later, when the true heroes of the day are being carted off to jail, someone remarks something like, “Aw, you guys are always arresting the wrong people!”  And yup, it’s true.  There’s no grand, cohesive injustice against the poor and downtrodden; but they do get downtrodden — just like life.  The film deftly avoids Being About Something, which makes it all the more compelling when it is true to life.

Is Attack the Block free from formula?  Not at all.  It’s a pretty standard issue sci-fi action thriller flick.  And yet it does something brilliant:  all of the characters have clearly been raised on standard issue sci fi action thriller flicks and video games.  That is part of the subtext, such as it is, of this movie:  these are kids who have been raised by TV, and don’t even realize that there’s more to life than the thrills and platitudes they’ve seen.   They are clearly imitating what they’ve seen a thousand times on screen.   And yet their behavior completely appropriate, because they really are being chased by horrible, ravenous aliens down dark streets and smoky hallways!  This layer of removal, as the kids imitate fiction, makes it possible for the filmmakers to deliver thrills and chills, without sacrificing any of the realism that makes you care about the characters.

All around, Attack the Block is an entertaining, solid, nicely crafted little movie that gave me something to think about, without getting all thinky about it.

This movie is not meant for kids.  It uses profanity freely (although that becomes something of an inside joke later in the script), it’s intense and scary, it has a few quick scenes of gross-out gore, and it shows lots of people doing drugs.  But if you are an older teen or an adult who can tell the difference between a movie that shows certain behaviors and a movie that condones and promotes certain behaviors, then you might really enjoy Attack the Block.  (There is no sexual content to this film, unless it slipped by me somewhere in the heavy accents.  They do take some getting used to!)

 

I got the displaced person blues

What are you watching, reading, and listening to these days? Here’s mine for the week. Apparently I have the blues of some kind or other, what do you know about that.

***

Watching:
Peter Gunn,
a jazz-powered, noir, private eye TV show from the late 50’s.

I’m only watching with half an eyeball, if that, but every time I do look up, the framing of every single shot is gor-ge-ous. Worth watching just for that. All the flossy mists, lurid lips, hard streets, velvet shadows, sinister dimples, lonely lampposts, glossy fenders, and echoing gunshots your noirish little heart desires; and you certainly don’t care about any of the characters, so there’s no emotional cost. Although I kind of like Mother.

Also, this show is where this music comes from (by Henry Mancini):

Now you know something! Peter Gunn is now streaming on Amazon.

***

Reading:
“The Displaced Person” by Flannery O’Connor.

I came across this long short story in an anthology (originally part of the collection A Good Man Is Hard To Find, 1955) and I’m scratching my head over why this story is not getting more play right now among Catholics who welcome refugees. It’s just as well, because, despite the obvious parallels to current concerns, literal refugees is not really what the story is about. (The Paris Review notes that O’Connor herself was highly allergic to “topical” stories.)

Fleeing Hitler’s onslaught and ending up in a rural Southern dairy farm, the displaced Polish family are not only foreign, but their foreignness threatens the right order of things — even though the familiar order wasn’t satisfactory.

This passage is killer: Mrs. McIntyre, the self-righteous wife of a barely adequate but firmly established tenant farmer, waits for the displaced persons to arrive and recalls seeing a newsreel showing

a small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up sticking out, a hand raised clutching nothing.

She wonders whether anyone coming from such disorderly barbarity can even be fully human — and never mind that the Guizacs were the victims, not the aggressors:

Watching from her vantage point, Mrs. Shortley had the sudden intuition that the Gobblehooks [her best guess at how to pronounce “Guizacs”], like rats with typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others? The width and breadth of this question nearly shook her. Her stomach trembled as if there had been a slight quake in the heart of the mountain and automatically she moved down from her elevation and went forward to be introduced to them, as if she meant to find out at once what they were capable of.

That’s the question. What might these displaced people be capable of? Mrs. McIntyre ends up being displaced herself, fully engaged in a cataclysmic body heap of her own, as she flees the farm in outrage; and the Guizacs become a door for upheaval of everyone’s idea of order, ushering in terrifying change.

O’Connor is a hair heavy handed with the Christ imagery — Christ as Displaced Person, but also as the ultimate displacer of persons — but it’s still a fascinating read with many threads.I don’t know why this story doesn’t get anthologized more.

***

Listening to:

Chris Thomas King. We showed O Brother, Where Art Thou to the kids the other day, and they ate it up. So good. Here’s one of the quieter numbers, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” with some heartbreaking guitar

Here’s King’s “Come on in my kitchen” from The Red Mud Sessions album.

Hey, anyone can shout into a can for ten bucks. Great singers can put it across quietly. In a different vein, here’s “Death Letter Blues”

I guess I have a soft spot in my heart for someone who’s always complaining. I got the displaced person’s blues.

***
Flannery O’Connor photo by Will via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Too much time online? Here’s an extension that’s helping me get control

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This is not a paid endorsement; I’m just passing along something that’s working for me.

I spend way too much time on social media, especially Facebook. Some of my friends suggested tips like “Just uninstall it!” or “Try spending more time outside!” My problem is that I truly need to be on social media to promote my blog and podcast, to interact with readers, and to get a sense of what people are interested in. I also use social media as a way of keeping up with the news, with culture and entertainment, and with spiritual reading. And, most of all, I like social media, because it lets me to spend time with friends and family, and to admire their pretty babies and show off mine, and to see and hear any number of things that make my life richer and nicer. AND BABY HIPPO VIDEOS!

So if I just quit, or cut it down to fifteen minutes a day, my life would change drastically for the worse. And it’s not always obvious when my work ends and my goof-off time begins; and anyway, goof-off time isn’t always a bad thing. I needed something that would help me get control without cutting me off altogether.

After scoping out dozens of apps and extensions, I tried out StayFocusd, which is a free extension for Chrome. It has done everything I was hoping it would do. I set it to let me be on Facebook for a certain number of minutes every day. (You can set it to block any site, or parts of any site; but Facebook is my main problem.)

A tiny angry eyeball is now on the top of my browser. When the Facebook tab is open, the eyeball is red;

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and if I click on the eyeball, it shows me a counter counting down how much time I have left.

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When I have a different tab open, the eyeball turns a less-threatening blue, and the counter stops.

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If the Facebook tab is open for a long time without any activity (as often happens, because I get pulled away from the computer by some kid emergency), it asks me if I’m still there, and pauses the counter until I answer it.

It gives you rather sassy messages designed to make you feel guilty if you try to access blocked sites after your time has run out:

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If you have time left and set it to increase your allotted time, it tries to dissuade you:

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and if you click “OK,” it tries again:

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It also praises you for decreasing your allotted time:

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It has a lot of features that I am not using, such as restricting which days and which hours of the day I can access sites; blocking sites altogether; requiring a difficult challenge before I can change any settings; and sensing up to five differently-timed warning messages when your time is close to running out. There is also “The Nuclear Option,” which “will block sites for the number of hours you indicate, independent of your Active Days or Active Hours. There is no way to cancel this once you activate it.”

Useful if you have a big deadline and can’t afford to goof off at all. You can also block just certain subsets of sites, like just logins or just images.

You can choose more than one site to time, but the timer keeps track of time spent on all timed sites (so you can’t give yourself, say, an hour on Twitter and an hour on Facebook; but you can set the timer for two hours and use it as you will). It says the guy is working on making an option for different timers for different sites.

StayFocusd doesn’t work on other browsers or on iPhones or iPads, but there is a paid app called Freedom that does. I haven’t tried it, so can’t review it; but if you use StayFocusd, you get a code for 40% off Freedom.

Now you know everything I know! It’s ideal combination of good technical design and a good understanding of human psychology. It’s easy to use, and has anticipated every way that people can cheat (as well as ways that people accidentally restrict themselves more than they meant to).

Every time I notice the little eyeball, I remember that I’m being timed, and I have to decide whether or not to keep using Facebook. It puts external controls on my behavior, but it also helps me remember to control myself, by doing things like deliberately leaving my devices behind when I move from room to room, not checking Facebook first thing when I get up or when I get home, and so on. Eventually, I’d like to establish such good habits of self-control that I won’t need an external controller, because it will have become so obvious that life is better without tons and tons of Facebook.

The first week, I gave myself more than enough time, and I aimed to change my behavior so that I had unused minutes at the end of the day. (Some days I succeeded, and some days I didn’t.) The second week, having gotten used to a few good habits, I decreased my allotted time, and I may do that again next week.

This could be a real boon for Lent.

Do you have a problem spending too much time online? Have you gotten control of your habit? What has helped you? I’m especially interested in hearing from folks whose work and leisure online activities overlap, as mine do.

 

6 animated kid’s shows I’ll sit and watch myself

Here are six animated shows my kids are always happy to watch. Not only do I not object, I’ll sit and watch it with them, because they’re genuinely entertaining, and the creators knew what they were about. We get our TV through DVDs, or by streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Shaun the Sheep

Shaun the Sheep belongs in a category with The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, and the heyday of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Miraculously evocative stop-motion animation by Aardman, the folks who made Wallace and Gromit, it serves up the clever and ridiculous adventures of a band of thrill-seeking, British sheep who never get tired of outwitting (and sometimes colluding with) poor Bitzer, the faithful, scrupulous working dog, who, with his knit cap, his terry cloth wristband, and his everlasting to-do list, manages the farm and fruitlessly strives to please the irascible farmer. There’s always a mild rebellion afoot, mainly consisting in eating all the pastries, ordering pizza, and putting underwear on their head.

In this episode, Bitzer loses control of a bottle of glue:

There’s plenty of pure slapstick (complete with special theme music for those times when you’re getting beat up by pigs, and those times when you’re balancing on top of a runaway rolling object) and well-conceived stock characters (the winsome lamb Timmy; the ponderously ravenous Shirley; the trio of malicious pigs; the dreaded visiting niece; some unnervingly canny crows, and the occasional curious alien); but the show also allows itself some fleeting peeks into the characters’ interior lives. In one animated filler between episodes, Bitzer in human mode throws a stick, and then, becoming pure dog, bounds after it. And then he tries to take it away from himself, but growls and resists, because he is a dog. Brilliant, impeccably crafted, immensely satisfying. No words, but the sheep bleat, Bitzer whimpers and barks, and the farmer mumbles, rants, and hollers their way through unmistakable dialogue.

Four seasons, originally on CBBC, available on Amazon Prime.

***

Puffin Rock

Just a little lullabye of a show. There’s a tiny paradise on Puffin Rock, a wild island off the coast of Ireland, where the puffins, little Oona and her baby brother Baba, explore their little world, make friends, have some mild adventures, and always end up safe and happy. Here’s a taste:

Narrated by the cozy, corduroy voice of Chris O’Dowd (Roy of The IT Crowd), the show is pretty and atmospheric, giving you the sense you’ve put your head out the window to feel the breeze and smell the salt air. Gentle and lovely, with child voice acting that doesn’t grate or irritate.

Two seasons, 26 episodes, available for streaming on Netflix.

***

Ronja the Robber’s Daughter

Amazon Prime original series. We’ve seen the first two episodes of this new Studio Ghibli anime series (released January 2017), set in Medieval Scandanavia(ish), based on a 1981 book by Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren, and directed by Goro(son of Hayao) Miyazaki, narrated by Gillian Anderson.

I’m into it so far, with some reservations. Unlike my kids, I’m not a huge anime fan, but the ickier aspects (some sentimentality around children, weird pacing, sometimes jerkily animated facial expressions) aren’t overwhelming in this show. The animation is mixed, sometimes blocky, sometimes brilliant; some of the watercolored scenes are gorgeously atmospheric, and the sound effects go a long way to creating an arresting, believable world. It’s offbeat and funny enough that I’m invested in watching the rest of the series.

I just about died watching the robber and his band of toothless, muscled henchmen trying to coax their adored baby girl to eat her cereal; and I got a real chill from the harpies swirling around the castle while the mother labors to give birth to Ronja. Here’s that scene (not in English, though, sorry! The Netflix series is dubbed into English):

The mother is a huge pain in the neck, and I hope she gets taken down a few pegs, or just fades out of the story. Looking forward to getting back to this show.

***

Pingu

Sweet and hilarious adventures of a penguin named Pingu, his baby sister Pinga, his erratic friend the seal, his affectionate but stodgy father, and his loving but harried penguin mother. The show is done in appealingly fingerprinty claymation, and the dialogue is inspired gibberish. Pingu acts exactly like every little boy I’ve ever met. He has spectacular ideas that backfire on him; he tries to evade his pesky little sister, but deep down he loves her passionately; and when he’s bored, he just staggers around making noise and hitting stuff.

He does dumb stuff and then repents, and his parents bug out and then forgive him. Real, warm family and community relationships played out deftly without sentimentality. Entertaining and endearing.

160 five-minute episodes (1986 to 2000), originally from Switzerland, now available on Amazon Prime

***

Batman: The Animated Series

A lovingly-designed homage to 1940’s noir, a complete feast for the eyes, with real suspense and actual stories. The creators of this series put together a “writer’s bible”, including guidelines like “The humor in our version of Batman should arise naturally from the larger than life characters and never tongue-in-cheek campiness … Dry lines in tough situations and occasional comments about the outlandishness of costumed villains is certainly within the realistic context of our vision of Batman.” And the Joker makes jokes, but he is scary.

No Robin, no partnering with the police, no origin stories. Batman is grim and strong, and doesn’t lean too much on gadgets. When it’s funny, it’s really pretty funny (as in “Almost Got ‘Im”). Each episode has three acts, with a set-up, story development and increased tension, and then climax and resolution. Did I mention how it looks? It looks so good. I’ll share the opening sequence, because it’s a work of love and captures the show so well.

This show, true to its style, includes truly sinister people, nail-biters and cliff hangers, and female characters in skin-tight clothes, so caveat viewer. If you watch any animated Batman, let it be this one.

Five seasons, (1992-1995), now available on Amazon Prime

***

Sarah and Duck

This British animated show is made by people who really, really remember what it’s like to be a six-year-old. The matter-of-fact Sarah, a polite problem-solver, is accompanied by her slightly less patient friend, Duck, as they navigate adventures like becoming queen of the ducks, cheering up friends, going for a ride on the sea bus, and baking with ingredients that talk back.

The simple, big-headed characters came straight off your kid’s artwork on his fridge; and the plot lines and characters will ring true to anyone who’s listened to an imaginative kid tell a story. Weird and charming, devoid of sassiness and preching, it gives a very relatable model of considerate friendship. In this clip, Sarah and Duck fill in for the Bread Man:

Character include the daft scarf lady and her long-suffering handbag, a family of squeaky, cheerful shallots, and the moon. The music is also top notch.

Two seasons, originally on CBeebies, available for streaming on Netflix.

***

Next time: Shows that I will watch with half an eyeball while I’m working, and that I won’t mind too much if my kids watch.

 

 

50 Gifts our 10 kids loved, the 2016 list!

We have ten kids, ages eighteen to almost two. We buy . . . . a lot  . . . .of gifts. Here’s a list of fifty that our kids tried and liked this past year. They’re mostly under $50, and are in order from cheapest to most expensive, so it’s a little book-heavy in the beginning.

I’d also like to apologize for the graphic.

Most of these items are from Amazon. I’m an Amazon Affiliate, and all of the Amazon links in this post have my code embedded, so I earn a small percentage of the sale price, which is how we buy more presents for ten kids next year, and on and on it goes.

Here is my Amazon Affiliate link:

 

Simcha’s Amazon Link!

Please consider bookmarking it and using it every time you buy from Amazon! Thanks a million.

Here’s the first list of fifty from a few years ago, and here’s a list of twenty-five more the next year. And here are this years gift ideas:

1. Orthodox icon suncatchers and nightlights, $3.50 – $6

You can see a few in the window of my dining room here:

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Jesus’ beard is sparkly! They are plastic and vividly colored. I want them in every window of the house.

2.Stretchy tattoo choker necklace, $3.99

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Apparently these are back in style? My daughter wore one to the senior prom, along with hot pink Doc Martens (see below). (I wore my grandmother’s pearls to my prom, if anyone’s wondering.)

3.Nixon decal, $4

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“I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies!” Possibly specific to the needs of my family. For the right person, it could be the best $4 you ever spent. When people ask how my kids deal with being one of the few Catholics in a giant public school, this sums it up pretty well.

4.The Mysterious Benedict Society, about $5.

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This book came highly recommended by trusted friends for kids grade four and up, and it lived up to the hype. Original, exciting, and the author actually wrote it with care and wit, rather than just assembling a plot with the right keywords. Kids and I both enjoyed it. It’s part one of a series of four.

5.Betsy-Tacy collection, $5.99

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Another book my friends have been lauding forever. My first-grader just adores this series, which has ten books total. I admit I haven’t read it yet, but my daughter doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, so I respect her opinion.

6.Hanging glass egg vase, $6.99

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This is the one of two items on this list that I haven’t actually bought yet, but it’s on my list — in this case, on my wish list. If someone gets it for me, I plan to grow ivy in it. Ivy will grow easily in water. I need green in the house to tide me over until spring!

7.Bubble motion tumbler, $7.50
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This was a gift for the six-year-old, but everyone loves it, from the baby on up. Those orderly little drops, marching up and down the steps, hurrying or strolling, as you choose. Endlessly fascinating, miraculously never mixing. (There are any number of liquid motion toys to choose from. Great for babies, older kids who need calming down, or adults who need calming down. I once spotted a few of these toys in the waiting room at the washing machine repair shop, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t mind waiting.)

8.Feasts of Our Lord and Our Lady coloring book, and A Feast of Saints coloring book, $7.95

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Matthew Alderman’s new offerings this year. Alderman’s style is so fresh and inviting, reminiscent of Trina Schart Hyman, who drew heavily on heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, nodded at the pre-raphaelites, and then opened the window to let some air in. Great stuff. Kids (and others) soak in knowledge as they color.

9.Oreo teether, $7.97

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Corrie got this last Christmas, when she was teething hard, so it became known as the Corrie-o. The little ridges are perfect for sore gums. It’s bigger than a real Oreo, so not a choking hazard. Super cute, still a favorite after a year of gnawing.

10.Babies DVD, about $9
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How I adore this movie. It shows, without comment, everyday scenes from the lives of four babies, from just before they’re born until they’re learning how to stand. The families live in San Francisco, Tokyo, the Mongolian steppe, and Namibia, and their lives vary widely, but some things are always the same. Sweetness and a little melancholy, but mostly sweetness. I always feel restored after watching this short, gentle, agenda-free movie, and the kids love it.

11.Mighty Jack, about $9

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Ben Hatke’s first installment in a new graphic novel series. It’s a reimagining of Jack and the Beanstalk, and it’s wonderful. You care about the main character right away; Hatke is generous with understated details that tell you what you need to know about the world they live in; and I have no idea what is going to happen next. Some serious themes — serious money troubles, danger, a younger sister who is autistic, and a difficult friendship — but suitable for kids age 7 and up, if they’re not highly sensitive.

12.The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, about $10

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We loved The Pirates! Band of Misfits movie so much (made by the same folks who make the excellent Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep), and recently discovered that it was based on a series of books that are even odder and nuttier than the movie. These books do include some bawdy jokes and some violent details, but I feel that the most inapwo-pwo stuff goes over the little kids’ heads, and it’s just edgy enough to give the older kids a little thrill, without crossing any lines.

13.Slingshot rocket, about $10

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Light foam, low-tech, lots of fun until the three rockets get lost. The feral 8-year-old daughter had a blast with it.

14.Garden fairies scratch book, about $10

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Sturdy, spiral-bound (so you can open it up flat to work). Scratch away the black to reveal rainbow swirls and glittery colors underneath. Sweet little poems, pictures to copy if you like, and blank pages for sketching, besides the scratch-off pages. Many themes available, from  outer space to mermaids to Jurassic creatures.

15.Galaxy infinity scarf, $11.95

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My fashion-minded ten-year old would wear this every day if we let her (which we do). Pair it with the TARDIS hat (which she does) and and maybe the TARDIS dress, and you have a themed ensemble. The scarf is a stretchy rayon, machine washable.

16.Baby smartphone, $12.65

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This toy distracts the baby from your actual smartphone for maybe ten minutes. Worth every second. I like B. Toys because they make sounds, but they are intentionally soft; and they have an off switch. This one has held up well, and doesn’t gobble batteries too badly. Also records your voice, so the older kids are always pranking each other.

17.Little Dalek action figure, about $12.95

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Shiny and detailed. Perpetuate the Doctor Who obsession for another year. PER-PET-U-ATE!!!!

18.Wooden ball rattle, $12.99

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The large wooden balls are linked with elastic, so you can wear it like a bracelet, or you can roll and twist them to make all kinds of lovely clusters of color. Each ball is painted a slightly different shade, it’s pleasantly heavy, and it makes a soft clacking sound.  Fine, I bought it for myself, and sometimes I let the baby play with it. We’ve had good luck with this brand, Manhattan Toy.

19.Dragon scale leggings, $12.99

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We looked at a lot of mermaid-print leggings, but realized that our kids are more the dragon type. Snarrrrl. These come in a few different colors.

20.Krakitten T-shirt, $13

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I’ll let this magnificent garment speak for itself. Comes in a few different colors.

21.TARDIS hat, $14.88

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Aized about as expected, even on the inside. The pom pom on top is generously poofy.

22.Calico Critters Triplets, $14.99; Triple bunk bed, about $10

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Whenever my kids put Calico Critters on the list, I grumble and complain about how stupid and pointless and expensive they are; and then I start shopping, and then I go, “AWWWWWWW.” They really are adorable. These are very small toys, so not great for kids who lose stuff; but they are sturdy and sweet, and come in dozens of different species. We also have the pool and sandbox set.

23.Headband kit, $14.85

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I actually resisted buying this kit, because it seemed dumb (ALEX toys are hit or miss) but one kid desired it greatly. It turned out to be quite good. The headbands haven’t broken after a year of use, which is almost a miracle; and she had a surprising amount of fun making different combinations.

24.One Potato, Two Potato, about $15

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My current favorite read-aloud. This book has an unusual focus for a children’s book:  a very old couple, so poor they have to share everything, including a chair, a blanket, and the one last potato in the garden — or so they think.  A simple and hilarious story of unexplained magic, but so much to unpack about what you really need in life.  The illustrations are understated but extraordinary.

25.CowCow dresses, about $18 Something for everyone!

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My ten-year-old daughter worked to earn her very own ice cream and candy dress, but maybe you’d prefer beetles, constellations,  or cute ghosties. More varieties, some of them truly bizarre, than you can shake a stick at. These dresses are on the short side for adults of average height, but work fine for shorter folks. They come with or without sleeves, and are made of a stretchy rayon material.

26.Butterfly wings, about $18

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Flap flap flap! Always in style.

27.Hanging glow lamp, $18.99

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Oh, I lied, this is another thing I haven’t bought yet, but friends say it’s lovely. I’m a sucker for little worlds under a dome, and I love how this comes with a hanging hook. Friends say it’s brighter than you might expect. We recently redid the little girls’ room with two sets of bunk beds, so we may be investing in individual lighting for individual preferences.These come in three different colors, and you can get either the rabbit thing, or a plump little bird.

28.Melissa and Doug 12″ baby doll, about $19

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A sturdy favorite. Here is Corrie on her first birthday, getting to know her new baby.

29.Tinkerbell learn ballet DVD, about $20.

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By far the nicest instructional ballet video I’ve ever seen. The music is pleasant, there are no bizarre mascots or intrusive animation, the teacher seems to actually like kids, and you will learn some true, basic ballet. We put a broomstick between two chair backs to make the required barre.

30.Hooded cloak, about $20

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Exactly what the kid was hoping for. It’s not real velvet, obviously, but it’s held up well. Comes in many colors.

31.Werewolf Deluxe game, about $20. Good for ages reasonably-alert-10 to adult.

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The premise is that, when night falls in the village, a werewolf comes out and kills someone; and everyone else has to figure out who the werewolf is and what to do about it. Everyone closes his eyes, and the leader instructs one person at a time to wake up, take a look at the card that reveals his role (werewolf, bodyguard, witch, villager, etc.), and then go back to sleep. There are several rounds of play, in which the players anonymously decide to kill, save, protect, or silence each other.

Then everyone has to vote on whom to lynch. Players are eliminated one at a time, and it becomes more and more evident who is killing everyone, who is being framed, and who is lying through their teeth (and, in my case, who forgot the rules and accidentally blabbed too much information).
32.Airzooka air gun, about $20  

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More low-tech fun. Aim, pull, and release. Shoots a harmless blast of air, enough to make your hair blow back, and makes a satisfying “choonk” noise, too. 

33.Twirled Paper book and kit by Klutz, $20; Refill of  Quilling paper, 720 strips, about $10

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Quilling is making a comeback! A lovely, old-fashioned craft where you roll up thin strips of paper, loosely or tightly, then pinch them into various shapes. No end of possibilities here. You can make free-standing 3-D ornaments, glue the paper to eggs, make cards, or even jewelry. A very pleasant way to spend time. My nine-year-old needed a little help to get started, but she caught on fast.

34.Parachute hammock, about $24

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An excellent hammock for the price. I wish I had had a hammock the last ten times I was pregnant! Heavenly. These sturdy, easy-to-use hammock straps, about $16, were a good investment, too.

35.Lenox ballerina jewelry box, $25.

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With eight daughters, we’ve tried a number of jewelry boxes. A number. This one is by far the sturdiest, but it still looks delicate and dainty. The ballerina still pops up, the music still plays, the hinges still function, and the box is still a box. Pretty, silver-satin quilted design. Plays “Fur Elise.”

36.Godzilla hands, about $25

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I don’t know what to say about this. We have these. They are by far the most luxurious Godzilla hands we’ve ever owned.

37.Ramona complete collection, $27.50

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A much-desired gift. For the right kid, a boxed set of every single one of their favorite character’s stories is a wonderful prize. Ramona really holds up all these decades later.

38.Blowfish tea set, about $30

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Quirky but elegant!  A very good product for the price. This is a full-sized, functional tea set for two, not a toy.

39.Toddler slide, $31

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Probably the most-used piece of furniture in our entire house. This lived in our living room for at least five months, and saved my sanity while Miss Insano clambered up and threw herself down hundreds and hundreds of times. Folds for storage.

40.Legend of Zelda stained glass backpack, about $34

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Just a light nylon backpack, but it was what the kid wanted. It’s a little roomier than it appears, and the pattern is actually more vibrant than the picture shows.

41.Long Ballerina Tutu, $36

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This is the absolute last untested item on this list! We’ve bought many items from The Little Dress-Up Shop, and have always been completely delighted, so I’m confident that this sweet, poofy ballerina skirt with rosebuds will be well-received.

42.Portable Bluetooth speaker,
about $37

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Exactly what we needed. It works with my kid’s phones, and lets them blast music while slaving away in the dirty dish mines or cleaning up the yard after the last raccoon garbage party. Easy to use, and a good value for the price.

43.White bird mobile, about $38

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Marketed as a baby mobile, but it’s a real work of art, and very large. A cloud of white birds in constant, gentle motion. We got this for our fourteen-year-old, and it really transforms a space.

44.Darth Vader Skechers, about $40

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These are adult sized, in case your kids grow out of kid’s shoes before their brains grow out of a love for Star Wars, which of course could never happen.

45.Punk tartan purse, $41

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Sturdy and awesome, lots of zippers, buckles, and studs, perfect for that one punk kid who needs a place to keep all her black lipstick. Has an adjustable shoulder strap and shiny black insides.

46.Dark Prince sword, $43

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It wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one sword. This one is long, shiny and seriously heavy. Not sharp, but you definitely could kill someone if you tried. Not meant for heavy fighting, but good for stage or costumes or just swaggering around with a big-ass sword.

47.Stilts, about $45 a pair

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Greatest inspiration I’ve had all year. We now have two sets (they come rated for different weights), and they are adjustable. First kid went from zero skill to wobbling across the floor in a few minutes, and now she can jump, run backwards, spin, and do all kinds of terrifying stunts. Good exercise, good for improving balance, and great for building confidence. Excelsior!

48.Hot pink Doc Martens, $75

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For the prom! For everyday wear! For making yourself awesome from the ground up. A million colors, all shiny and rugged and BACK IN STYLE. Aw yiss.

49.Casio Keyboard, $129.95

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A very serviceable electric keyboard for people learning to play. Comes with a stand and headset, so you can practice without driving your sister crazy, assuming that’s your goal.

50.15-foot Trampoline and enclosure with basketball hoop, $329

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Yes, this is the second trampoline we’ve bought. We finally destroyed the mat of the first one, and after several unsuccesful attempts to replace it (we kept buying the wrong size, the wrong spring size, etc. etc.) we just threw in the towel and bought a new one, upgrading to fifteen feet. I know all about the horrible stories of mangled faces and splintered tibias, but we are still a trampoline family all the way.

Baby loves it. Kids love playing with the baby on it. It’s instant entertainment at birthday parties, with or without water balloons and a sprinkler or Easter dresses.

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Grouchy or sullen teens discover that life is worth living after taking out their troubles on the trampoline. And it’s a perfect spot for stargazing or sunbathing or lying down while the kids run around you, blissfully under the illusion that you are playing with them.

You really need a trampoline. (And if you happen to have a spare trampoline frame, you can wrap some chicken wire around it and make a garden fence, or maybe a chicken coop.)

****

Okay! That’s it for this year. Happy shopping! Thanks again for using my link when you shop on Amazon.

Reading, watching, listening to …

I’m reading …

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris

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Sedaris is the master of the short, comic, grotesque personal essay.  Are his rambling ideas connected, or is he just really good at making it seem like they are? I don’t know, but I die of envy. A little David Sedaris goes a long way, though, and the essays in this collection are not quite as tight and sharp as some of his other works – but still, very funny stuff, enough to make me snort while I’m reading in bed.  An excerpt from “What I Learned”:

It’s been interesting to walk around campus this afternoon, as when I went to Princeton, things were completely different. This chapel, for instance—I remember when it was just a clearing, cordoned off with sharp sticks. Prayer was compulsory back then, and you couldn’t just fake it by moving your lips; you had to know the words, and really mean them. I’m dating myself, but this was before Jesus Christ. We worshipped a God named Sashatiba, who had five eyes, including one right here, on the Adam’s apple. None of us ever met him, but word had it that he might appear at any moment, so we were always at the ready. Whatever you do, don’t look at his neck, I used to tell myself.

It gets a little more R-rated than that in other essays; caveat lector.

 

I’m watching …

Disney Animated Shorts on Netflix streaming.  An overall entertaining collection with good animation, including:

“John Henry,”
“Lorenzo,”
“The Little Matchgirl,”
“How To Hook Up Your Home Theater,”
“Tick Tock Tale,”
“Prep & Landing: Operation Secret Santa,”
“The Ballad Of Nessie,”
“Tangled Ever After,”
“Paperman,”
“Get A Horse!”
“Feast,”
“Frozen Fever” which even the kids thought was kind of weird. Adorable animated snot monsters? Sure, why not.

“Feast,” which premiered before Big Hero 6, is just wonderful, especially if you have a dog. Very beautifully rendered, sweet, deft, and funny. Also, I appreciate the fact that Pixar consistently says, “Psst, babies don’t actually ruin everything!”  (It’s not about kids, it’s about a dog (well, really it’s about love, like all Pixar films); but it shows a happy family as the natural progress of love.)

We have a bunch of pukey kids at home, and these are keeping them happy, but they are skipping past the little introductions before each short.

For Halloween, the little kids watched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which features actual Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr.  Benny, 3, was almost overcome with terror; the rest of us watched with one eyeball and let the other eyeball rest. This movie is a bit of a puzzle for us, as my husband and I are both convinced that we only show it to the kids because the other one desires it. I don’t even like Abbott and Costello, so I guess that settles that. Why would you watch Abbott and Costello instead of the Three Stooges? Other than Lon Chaney, Jr.?

The older kids were too worn out to deal with the scary DVD we rented, Diabolique, so we watched Army of Darkness again.  Still funny. But the next day we went to Mass and I told my son I was going to write the grandparents’ names in the Book of the Dead, “UM, I mean ‘Book of the Deceased.’”

This is the kind of thing that gets us quietly taken off the LifeTeen email tree.*

*Not really. They are very  nice.

 

I’m listening to …

a bunch o’ Sibelius, because it’s his birthday, and I’ve had just about enough. I do like singing hymns set to “Finlandia,” though, unless the words they choose are “This is my song.”

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

And God is like, “That’s your song, eh? That’s your song? Check yo’ Unitarian privilege, mah people!”

What, are you saying God is racist? That’s just weird.

I’m reading, I’m watching, I’m listening to . . .

I’m reading . . . 

Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith.  

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Fourth in the Arkady Renko series that began with the brilliant Gorky Park, about which I said this:

Maybe because it was so popular when it came out, or maybe because the author’s name is so snazzy, I somehow assumed that it was a trashy beach book, or some kind of dated, two-bit thriller.  Boy, was I wrong.  This is the real deal — real literature, a genuinely great novel.  Almost Dostoevskian at times.

The characters are so real.  Their sorrows and loves are so real.  The places are so real.  My memories of passages I read are as strong as memories of places I’ve actually, physically visited.  The plot is insanely complicated, but it’s never outside the realm of what might, actually possibly happen to someone who is as unlucky, as talented, as driven, and as flawed, and as Russian as Moscow homicide investigator Arkady Renko.

Havana Bay is not quite on the same level as Gorky Park (so far Polar Star comes closest. I can’t remember the last time I felt so cold while reading a book), and I don’t think I’m just imagining it when the plot feels a little wobbly; but it’s still good writing. I came across this passage last night:

Bugai had kept retreating and Arkady had kept advancing until he stepped on a pencil that broke with a sharp crack. The vice consul jumped and looked not as cool as a jellyfish anymore, more like an egg yolk at the sight of a fork. His nervousness reminded Arkady that he had killed a man; whether in self-defense or not, killing someone was a violent act and not likely to attract new friends.

This tone of melanchony wiseassery is pretty typical. Love that: like an egg yolk at the sight of a fork. Ha.

***

I’m watching . . . 

The IT Crowd. If you don’t like very broad British comedy, then avert your eyes. It’s a spoof of the nerdliest nerds navigating office life and trying to have a social life.Northanger Abbey it ain’t. There is a lot of naughty language, poo jokes, sex  jokes, screaming, etc. Just funny enough, sometimes hilarious. Honestly, it’s not something I’d sit and watch avidly, but it’s pretty good for when you’re blitzed and just want something making amusing noises while you sip your glass of Chateau de There There, The Kids Are In Bed Now. And I kind of love the opening credits:

Bonus: Roy, the tall Irish doofus, also does the voice of the narrator for Puffin Rock. It’s a comforting brown corduroy kind of voice, just right.

***

I’m listening to . . .

Son Little’s self-titled new album, which my dear husband bought for me as a surprise. I’m listening to it now.

Here’s “Lay Down,” which I could listen to on a loop all day (video is PG):

On the label’s website, it says, “For Son Little, studio time is a joy, where every good idea leads to four more.”
I’ve mentioned Son Little before. The many-layered production of these songs is a delight, but the real pleasure is in his voice, where there is both brass and velvet and deep dark earth. Best new music I’ve heard in years and years.

I’m reading, I’m watching, I’m listening to …

I’m reading . . .

A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958).

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It turns out that the bland title has prevented anyone else in my house from picking this book up, and they had no idea it’s a Catholic science fiction adventure novel about a biochemist Jesuit who is on an alien planet collecting information about a society of super intelligent lizard-like creatures who do not sin and who have no apparent need for God, and what do we think about that? In his down time, he works on solving an arcane ethical dilemma posited in Finnegan’s Wake.

Confronted with a profound scientific riddle and ethical quandary, Father Ruiz-Sanchez soon finds himself torn between the teachings of his faith, the teachings of his science, and the inner promptings of his humanity. There is only one solution: He must accept an ancient and unforgivable heresy–and risk the futures of both worlds . . .

Crazy, man. I’ve read this book before, but thanks to my Swiss cheese memory, I have no idea how it ends. The writing is snappy and entertaining. Recommended so far, for a bright middle schooler or high schooler on up.

***

I’m watching . . . 

Puffin Rock, which premiered in January of this year. Everyone should be watching Puffin Rock. It’s on Netflix streaming, and it will help you remember that it’s a good world, really.

Sweet as can be. I don’t even mind when the song gets stuck in my head. Made by the same people who made “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea.”

***

I’m listening to . . .

the irreplaceable Jean Redpath. Here she is singing “Lady Mary Anne”

just in case you wanted to cry about stuff.

***

How about you? Share your micro-reviews here!