Archive for November, 2008

Charm-i-days idea #2: Emily Dickinson poetry

November 24, 2008

A new illustrated collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is presumably for kids but would feather anyone’s bookshelf.

Isabelle Arsenault's Dickinson ... hope on shoulder

Isabelle Arsenault's Emily

Hope’s all the rage these days after our recent election, but Emily Dickinson got there first. One of our greatest poets, Dickinson’s reputation as America’s favorite quirky hermit sometimes overshadows her genius. This new collection, My Letter to the World and Other Poems, presents a few of her rightfully well-known poems with drop-dead gorgeous illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault.

While hope (that “thing with feathers”) is perched on Dickinson’s shoulder in the cover illustration, many of the poems she wrote describing her feelings toward death and isolation are featured in this collection as well, which is part of a series that pairs classic poems with contemporary illustrations. Arsenault’s paintings complement the poetry beautifully, and it’s hard to avoid words like “haunting” and “dreamy” when describing them.

So yes, the illustrations are haunting and dreamy, but they also contain a good bit of whimsy (you have to peer through the death imagery to get it, which is just as Dickinson would have liked it).

Taking a Dickinson seminar in grad school, I discovered that her initial poems were prettied up a bit by her first editor. It was nice of him to publish her and all (which isn’t quite how they say things in grad school), but by trying to make her what he deemed presentable, he put her work in packages that she didn’t really intend. Paired with these illustrations, the poems have another context entirely.

In fact, some of her verses seem even more riddle-like in this presentation. Illustrations that accompany one of the poems recast Dickinson in her trademark white dress as more of a tumbling teacup:  “I cannot live with You — / It would be Life — / And Life is over there — / Behind the Shelf.”

One of my favorites opens the book: “There’s a certain slant of light, / On winter afternoons – / That oppresses, like the heft / Of cathedral tunes.” The first time I read that poem as a child, I was astounded that someone understood my hidden melancholy. So even though the aforementioned “haunting”-ness may not make this book the very merriest of holiday gifts, the hope is there, too – and the smart kid on your list will appreciate the nuance.

My Letter to the World and Other Poems, (Visions in Poetry), $9.95

Charm-i-days idea #1: Zingerman’s treats

November 22, 2008

Try some sugar and spice. And by that I mean from brown muscovado sugar from Mauritius and smoked paprika from Spain.

The charming Zingerman's bread lady

Mmm ... Zingerman's bread

Holiday food gifts have moved so far beyond fruitcake that even fruitcake is going to be trendy again one day. If anyone on your list has a sophisticated palate and likes to dabble in a kitchen now and then, head straight to Zingerman’s online store. Acclaimed by everyone from Mario Batali to Jeffrey Steingarten, this Michigan food shop and deli makes amazing breads and desserts and is a trustworthy source for all kinds of other goodies.

Just pick and choose based on the taste of whichever lucky person you have in mind – even with a selection of random items, you can’t go wrong. How about some light muscovado sugar and a tin of smoked paprika that magically transforms soups and meats? Or a bottle of aged balsamic vinegar and a jar of wild Italian cherries? Throw in a jar of licorice jam or a chocolate-hazelnut spread that leaves Nutella in the cocoa dust.

The breads you can order online come with instructions for reheating, and I recommend starting with either the chocolate sourdough or the paesano loaf. Zingerman’s also offers gift baskets and unusual clubs, like bacon of the month or the rare olive oil club. I could go on and on, but it’s much more fun to just go look at their site.

The economy being what it is, culinary delights seem like more of an indulgence than ever – and a comforting one at that.

Brown sugar from Mauritius, $4
Pimenton de la Vera Paprika – dulce, $7
Hazelnut & chocolate spread, $22
Licorice Jam, $17.00
So many more delights, prices vary

Happy Charm-i-days to you

November 19, 2008

Ignoring my inner grinch … or making lemonade out of eggnog lattes.



A couple of weeks ago while I was running errands, I found myself surrounded by holiday decorations and piped-in Christmas music. I automatically initiated my annual cranky interior monologue: an embarrassing, Andy-Rooney-style rant about stores these days, putting out their holiday goods unthinkably early, grasping at every dollar they can and commercializing-slash-ruining every last-gasping day of the year. But I got tired of hearing my monologue as soon as it started, and I decided to embrace the holidays instead. After all, avoiding early holiday onset is impossible: eggnog lattes are on the menu, and wreaths are on the street lights.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to decorate early. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend it feels like Christmas morning every time I see an aisle display of plastic reindeer. But it does mean that I’m going to enjoy the trappings when I see them instead of complaining to myself about our crass, mad world.

So today, I’m rolling out my Charm-i-days gift guide, one seize-the-holiday idea at a time for presents that will create charming experiences and won’t break the bank.

Before the gift guide unveiling …

If you’re craving a more meaningful holiday this year and don’t want to spend senselessly, consider reading Bill McKibben’s Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas – even if his budgetary suggestion is too grinch-like for you, he presents convincing reasons to rethink how we celebrate.

And remember that for some of us, the day after Thanksgiving is Buy Nothing Day.

Hundred Dollar Holiday, $12
Deciding not to complain about early onset
holiday, free

Joy of banishing

November 19, 2008

The Charm-o-Matic doesn’t cost a dime … and getting rid of clutter is priceless.

A happy shelf

A happy shelf

Even though the Charm-o-Matic does sometimes exhibit fondness for certain kinds of material possessions, the point is to look deeply and fully appreciate what’s around us.

If you’ve been hit by the financial crisis and know that it isn’t responsible to spend even a few dollars here and there (they do add up, after all), you can put the Charm-o-Matic in motion by retrofitting your perspective on what you already own.

One of my favorite hobbies is getting rid of things. I realize that some people enjoy dancing and painting, but it’s clearing out closets, storage boxes and drawers that thrills me. Part of the pleasure lies in the power of banishing things you don’t absolutely love. The outcome is delightful, too – streamlining makes room to more thoroughly enjoy your favorite things. Such liberation and focus is delicious. I get delirious, I tell you.

Think of it: Those two extra vases you never use – gone to Goodwill. That pile of sweaters you haven’t worn since the blizzard of ’84 – nevermore. The books on your shelves that you didn’t rock your world and that you’ll never read again – off to the used bookstore with them.

You are the curator of your life, and that includes your possessions. Is anything weighing your down? Thank it very much and send it on its way. It’s that easy. Then, focus on what makes you happy – trinkets or objet d’art that give you positive feelings.

Maybe you have a childhood keepsake tucked away somewhere that you could bring into the open. Or maybe some beautiful vase holds fun memories, but it’s stuffed in the back of the pantry because your counter is too cluttered. Or maybe the clutter-free counter space itself is what you need.

Releasing old things you don’t need or want frees up all kinds of space for great new surprises – physical, metaphysical and somewhere in between.