I wrote 752 words of my novel after the pain set in today.
I’m a writer. Getting the words down, advancing the project, is everything to me, my joy, my vocation, my activism, my chance to pay it back and pay it forward, everything. Today about 11:15 AM I felt a “bad pain day” starting to kick in. Sometimes the pain hits crippling levels instantly but today, like many days, I could tell I would have about 30 minutes before it got really severe, maybe 60. I have strong painkillers for bad days, but the problem is they also affect my mind, make me drowsy, loopy, punchy, hazy, a cycling mixture of altered states that make thinking unclear, like thinking through a stage-blindfold like actors use for plays, which you can see through but the world is dim and grainy from the fabric mesh. And I really, really, wanted to write today. And here’s where the teamwork starts, the kind of teamwork that keeps working even when there may not be a team to see.
First I scarfed some leftovers to take the meds I need to take with food, the weaker meds that only partly dull the pain but leave my mind clear to keep working. And while those were kicking in, and while I was still strong enough to walk, I put on the breadmaker on a timer and took some frozen fish out to thaw, so dinner would be easy in the evening when my bash’mates (housemates) got home from work and they’d be free to spend less time cooking and more with me. Note the teamwork at work already in our household, planning to have things on hand like kitchen timers and frozen fish to free us up to deal with pain days. Then I assembled my working nest on the sofa, my pile of blankets each of which has a story that makes me (a present from my Mom, a souvenir from a group trip to Iceland, my Mars blanket which matches the Jupiter one I gave a friend who’s off working on mapping Venus now…), which were all folded together from the last time I had needed them and friends had gathered them together. Next I made a pot of the energizing pain-killing ginseng-oolong tea (gift from another friend) that helps both pain and concentration, and hooked up the electric mini-blanket which yet another friend dashed out to buy me at a convention a couple years ago when the pain was really bad, which I’ve used dozens of times since, every time getting a little more done (whether it’s writing or just email or just rest) thanks to still benefiting from that past act of teamwork. Notice, my support team is seven already even though I haven’t yet interacted with anyone, because past help, and planning help creates a teamwork that helps me make the most out of the few minutes and little strength I do have to get things done before/around the pain. Teamwork that makes me an inch more powerful when I need to be.
I then tell my soon-to-leave-for-his-laboratory housemate it’s a bad pain day and he quickly, perfectly talks through the day plan, when he’ll be available to help or help distract me and when he won’t (x-ray beam experiments wait for no one!), so I know exactly what I can expect as I plan out my day, and how much strength to exhaust on writing and how much I need to save for basic things like being strong enough to make it back to bed at bedtime. I settle in to work, but also pull up a group chat with some friends and tell them it’s a pain day. Now I write, with periods of concentration alternating with patches when the pain flares and my concentration fades and I can’t keep it up. But when I can’t there are my friends discussing free speech and cat memes and our tabletop campaign and the likely human impact of cryptocapitalism, and I can read along and send sporadic happy faces even if I don’t have brain enough to do much more. And it helps, distracts, helps me fight off the tears, because the hardest part of pushing through like this, of sticking with the weak meds, are the frequent points when the pain flares, and shatters my attention, and I’m staring at the ceiling furious that this—this stupid weakness! Pain! this time vampire! this inner entropy!—is stopping me. But when that happens I can pull up chat, and read along, and fight off the rage and grief that make the kind of rage grief loop that sucks me down. And there’s more teamwork than that. When it’s bad I also think about friends, friends who aren’t here. I think about fellow author friends who are also chronic pain sufferers, our conversations, walking along the street, in a cafe, a hotel gym, vivid memories of talking with people who understand, sharing our strategies, how we all fight it together, even when we’re fighting it alone. I think about the books that they finished and smile, and know they think about the ones I’ve done and smile, together. And as the pain waves come I think about other friends, other warm times, encouragement I know they’d give if they were here, will give when they are here which won’t be long. And then I realize that the pain has faded, and the water in the corners of my eyes is easing up, and I plunge in again. For ten minutes or so, before the next pain waive rises again, but ten minutes may mean thirty more words, and—as the Romans say—that is not nothing. So after a long afternoon I have 752 words, and they’re not perfect words, I’ll have to polish them (especially pacing) tomorrow, but they’re good words, especially that one bit where the geometry was tricky, and I’ve laid one more paving stone in this long path toward my everything. Through teamwork, twenty people’s teamwork, more, even if through most of today I was alone. Because being supported sometimes, somewhere, once, carries over, makes me stronger, more powerful, more able to judge how much to push, and try. Support carries forward over time. And tomorrow or the next day it will be worse and I will need the strong drugs and to sacrifice those hours to semiconsciousness. But today, a few days here and there throughout the year, I had the little extra strength to write 752 words, good words of a good novel. And I wanted to share that, share how powerful these good, small acts of support feel from the other side, and what they help us—the many of us who really need them—do.
Written through the pain, and posted without proofreading or editing because I think a sample of the raw thoughts might be valuable in itself, 6/18/2019
NOTE: This post now has two, long substantive comments from me (as well as others from friends and a great poem) so I strongly recommend reading the comment thread, and I’ll likely eventually turn the comments into a follow-up post. (Though not until this bout of pain has stopped. 6/21/2019)
The Will to Battle, volume three of the Terra Ignota series, is released today in the US and UK simultaneously. The audiobook also comes out today. I’m putting up this quick post to let Ex Urbe readers know that it’s out, and rush to get hold of it, and as a place to put links to both reviews and to interviews and guest posts with Ada that might be of interest.
Off to Italy again. This seems like a good time to share a link to a video of an illustrated talk Ada gave at the Lumen Christi institute in Chicago in February. It’s a fascinating overview of the place of San Marco in Florence, with lots of excellent pictures. It’s like an audio version of an Ex Urbe post, with Fra Angelico, the meaning of blue, the Magi, the Medici, Savonarola, confraternities, and the complexities of Renaissance religious and artistic patronage.
And here’s one of the pictures mentioned but not shown in the presentation, a nine panel illustration by Filippo Dolcaiati “The History of Antonio Rinaldeschi.” It depicts the real historical fate of Rinaldeschi, who became drunk while gambling and threw manure at an icon of the Virgin Mary. A fascinating incident for demonstrating the functions of confraternities, and for demonstrating how seriously the people of Florence took the protection offered by saints and icons.
The long wait is over at last, and Too Like the Lightning came out yesterday! This is just a simple little links round-up post by Jo. Too Like the Lightning is available right now as a hardback book and as an e-book in multiple formats, and the audiobook was also just released — and here’s the audiobook cover, which makes me think we’re very lucky indeed with the main cover.
First, unrelated to the book, on Lawrence Schoen’s Eating Authors Ada has an essay about “Her Favorite Ever Meal”which, naturally, was in Florence…
Meanwhile Ada’s been guest blogging about it all over:
Separately, in case anyone missed it, I also had a shorter piece up on Tor.com on December 1st, an obituary honoring Japan’s Folklore Chronicler Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015), a great folktale collector, war historian and manga author. Even if you aren’t interested in manga/anime, I recommend glancing at it to learn about his powerful contributions to anthropology, folklore preservation, and post-WWII peace efforts. Meanwhile…
Too Much Shakespeare?
It’s been an odd experience, but I have been watching pretty-much no media that isn’t Shakespeare for 2 years. I’ve made exceptions for the kinds of ubiquitous media (i.e. Star Wars) which are bare minimums for keeping current in nerd culture, but between my transition to Chicago and looming novel revisions there hasn’t been time for anything else. It’s fascinating observing what that’s done to my brain, shifting my entertainment expectations. I’ve joked a couple times that, “Now when I try other TV it just isn’t as good as Shakespeare,” but it’s more complex than that, and there are certainly sections of Shakespeare–a bad, un-funny production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, or the second half of Timon of Athens–which do not shine in contrast with today’s best TV. I discuss most of my observations in my Tor essay, but my main observations are these:
First, people don’t say very much in current TV, at least in drama. Lots of screen time is devoted to vistas, establishing shots, standing there looking cool, and to gazing dramatically at one another. A giant, long-awaited confrontation or confession scene will still often only involve ten or fifteen lines of dialog at most, leaving my Shakespeare-saturated brain demanding, “Tell him more! Tell her more! Tell me more! Ask questions! Explain your reasoning! Say what you really think!” It’s amazing to me how many conflicts in the few TV dramas I have watched recently are caused by Character A facing Character B and announcing “I want X” and Character B responding, “I oppose X so now we’re enemies,” and the viewer knows the real reasons both characters want these things and that if Character A would just tell Character B her/his thought process they would reach a compromise, but they don’t because they don’t explain, and don’t ask. I think such scenes are aiming at sympathetic tragedy, the viewer realizing that all the strife to come is the result of a misunderstanding, and making it easy for the viewer to sympathize with both sides. Over and over, five minutes’ more conversation would mean no one has to die. With the exception of Othello, Hamlet and some moments in the comedies, Shakespeare’s characters generally explain their why in addition to their what, but Shakespeare then makes the conflicts insoluble all the way down, so the tragedy feels grand and fated, not just a product of accident and misunderstanding. An interesting shift in storytelling technique, and possibly in how we think about conflict. In general, though, it means that I feel I know the characters a lot less well in modern TV than I do in Shakespeare, where they have unpacked their thoughts at length. The silence and dramatic gazes are partly in service of giving the audience a chance to gaze at CG backgrounds and beautiful TV stars–not generally a goal in Shakespeare productions–but I wonder whether it also facilitates the practices of fan culture and fan fiction, defining the characters less well and leaving more of a blank slate for the viewer to imagine the details of personality and motivation, to make the character their own.
My second observation is this: Shakespeare’s Histories are so good! So so good! Even the ones people say aren’t very good are good! My Tor essay explains more, and how to get a hold of them, but I cannot overstate how good the (frustratingly hard to find) Jane Howell productions of Henry VI and Richard III are!
And since they are hard to get a hold of, I want to discuss a few aspects of the Jane Howell productions here, not going on about the acting (absolutely stunning!) or the script and plot of the plays themselves (how can these be considered among his weaker plays?!?!) but about the powerful staging and production choices of this unique performance of the three parts of Henry VI plus Richard III, the four consecutive plays performed and filmed (as they should be!) as a single unit.
How Great is Jane Howell’s Henry!
I talked in my essay about the Borgias about how sometimes historical TV can have a conflict between communication and accuracy, in which showing things precisely as they were won’t necessarily communicate successfully to the audience. Another impediment to accuracy is budget, at least in earlier decades when TV did not have the opulent effects and costume budgets that recent historical dramas have enjoyed. Working on a BBC budget in 1982-3, Jane Howell and her team absolutely understood the choice between accuracy and communication, and chose communication.
The costumes are not accurate in materials and construction, but are incredibly accurate in what they get across.
For the costumes of court, the patterns are period but the fabrics, instead of being budget-breaking silks and velvets, are over the top, layering brightly patterned floral upholstery-type fabrics one upon another in an overwhelming way-too-much mass of opulence. The effect is more effective at communicating than accurate period costume would be, since with accurate stuff we would sit back gazing, “Ooooh, pretty… I wish I lived in an era when people wore beautiful clothes,” but instead these costumes communicate a sharper message, “Wow, those are way too much, too opulent… this court life is too lavish and corrupt, it needs to change.” We feel the right things, the foreshadowing of instability and radical transformation, even if these costumes don’t belong in any history textbook.
For the armor, the production uses padded armor, almost like one wears for combat sports, brightly painted with the coats of arms of the different sides.
It makes it easy to keep people straight, and see at a glance which nobles are related to which other nobles (like the many cousins of the French royal house above), while keeping everything within budget. And the armor evolves over time, more complex helmets and metal studded surfaces coming in only in the final stages of the Wars of the Roses, invoking the real advances in armor technology that happened in those decades, more effectively than the real armor would since a modern eye is untrained in the subtleties of armor design.
The set too makes virtue of economy. The four films are shot on a single set, a large, colorful, wooden playground, like a kids’ play castle, with turrets, doorways, ladders, climbing nets and connecting bridges, all brightly painted, cheerful reds, yellows, blues. It makes the first battles feel intentionally light and playful, like children playing at knights and kings.
This sets up the viewer’s expectations of a “battle” as light and playful, as the first few conflicts have nothing but wrestling, or a little bit of stage blood smeared across a heroic cheek. But the Wars of the Roses are all about things getting worse, the violence escalating, the destruction mounting. The fourth battle has more blood, more victims. We see bodies. The fifth battle, the sixth, more bodies, gore smeared across young flesh, screams, fire. The violence is still just twenty actors on a wooden set but it feels viscerally more horrible because it escalated from something so light, and is thus more upsetting than many realistic high-budget battle scenes. And the set changes, or rather doesn’t changes. It gets bloodsmeared, smashed by invaders, charred, stained. And they don’t clean it. Scene by scene we watch England ruined:
Like the battles, because the set was so stylized to begin with, its transformation–the ruins and desolation–fells far more absolute and thus far more compelling than if we saw realistic battle effects on real countryside. England has been ruined by these selfish wars, economically, culturally, populations wiped out, and all the unspoken suffering of peasants and townsfolk is present in those charred and blackened sets without adding a word. And then when the wars are finally over, and there is peace, and Richard starts the conflict up again… the horror of it, war coming back again, is so heartbreaking.
Economy also becomes a virtue in–believe it or not–casting, as Jane Howell reuses actors in multiple roles, but not just for efficiency’s sake. She cultivates intertextuality, reusing actors as characters who echo, or ironically reverse, or otherwise connect to their other parts. Here’s one concise example: Henry VI Part 1 begins with three messengers arriving with bad news from France. First Messenger reports that Henry V’s conquests in France have suffered heavy losses, many cities taken by rebelling French, all because the nobility of England are divided into many factions, arguing with each other, unable to unite to send support and direction to the English forces in France. And this herald of the dire consequences of weak rule and factionalism is the actor who (seven hours later) will be Edward IV, the weak and imprudent son of York who will be thrust to the throne by this same factionalism and cause the worst of the civil wars because of his rashness. Then Second Messenger enters with more bad news from France, of enemies uniting, the various French powers drawing together on the far shore–and this actor will be York’s second son, Clarence, who will eventually be a linchpin of that deadly alliance of the French King with Margaret and Warwick which will such a terrible force against war-scarred England. Enter Third Messenger, to tell of a fierce battle between the French and the valiant English Lord Talbot, a small and unhandsome knight but terrifying in battle, who makes a fierce last stand against the overwhelming force, “Hundreds he sent to Hell, and none durst stand him;/ Here, there, and every where, enraged he flew:/ The French exclaim’d, the devil was in arms!” This messenger will eventually be Richard III, and here is describing his own hellish ferocity, and foretelling his own death, which–eleven hours later–precisely matches the details of this first description.
One last detail about the production which is
Henry VI Part 1 begins with the funeral of Henry V, and the Jane Howell version begins with a song (not in Shakespeare’s text) which is a prayer to the ghost of King Henry. The text is period, pre-Shakespeare in fact, probably dating from the reign of Edward IV or Richard III (see a slightly useful reference), and an amazing example of what I have talked about when discussing the Medieval concept of “Grace” and the court of Heaven, how saints were thought of as residents of a royal court, full of “Grace” which (from Latin, gratias) can be translated as “political influence” i.e. having the ear of the King (God/Christ) or Queen (Mary) and the ability to persuade them to help a poor petitioner, just as nobles could persuade earthly monarchs. Look at this text, how it seeks to remind ghostly Henry
Oh Gracious king, so full of virtue
The flower of knighthood, ne’er defiled
Now pray for us to Christ Jesu
And to his mother Mary mild.
In all thy works wast never wild
But full of grace and charity,
Merciful ever to man and child.
Now, sweet King Henry, pray for me.
Oh crowned king, with scepter in hand,
Most mighty conqueror I thee call,
For thou hast conquered, I understand,
A heavenly kingdom imperial,
Where joy aboundeth and grace perpetual,
In presence of the One In Three.
Now of thy grace make me a part,
And, sweet King Henry, pray for me.
Powerful. But even more powerful is the context Jane Howell places it in. This text is not a prayer to Henry V. It is a prayer to Henry VI. Best guess (I haven’t worked in depth on the sources) it would have been written by a supporter after Henry’s death, used secretly under his Yorkish successors, a prayer to the spirit of the famously pious, mild and charitable king, whose conquests are spiritual not Earthly, to be sung or chanted by a former supporter still trapped on the imperfect Earth. Jane Howell places the song at the beginning of Henry VI, foretelling the end, and has it sung by the actor who plays King Henry himself, who is thus singing his own dirge, addressed as a plea of help to his lost, heroic father. Of course, we who just watched the main Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2, Henry V) know that our roguish Prince Hal cannot be described by “in all thy works wast never wild”. This dirge is young King Henry VI’s prayer to the imagined spirit of the father he never knew, a hope for heavenly aid from a pious ghostly king which will not exist until he himself dies and becomes it. Amazing.
And ALL the acting is SO INCREDIBLY BRILLIANT. Especially Richard. And everyone else. And Richard.
Those are just my thoughts on the production, which I really cannot praise enough. For more general discussion of the Henriad itself (and ways to get to see it) see the Tor.com essay.
FYI sadly the easiest way (though it isn’t easy at all!) to get the Jane Howell productions is to buy the complete DVD boxset, hard to get anywhere but Amazon or from the BBC direct) but (if you’re in the US) it requires a Region Free DVD Player as well. Still, it’s a good price for 37 plays, and includes many other treasures including Jane Howell’s Titus Andronicus, and many other great productions and fantastic actors including Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Jonathan Pryce, Zoë Wanamaker, Robert Hardy and others, plus you get to see all the weird plays like Troilus & Cressida that no one puts on. (And Jack Birkett as Thersides is amazing!) Alternately, you can get the individual plays in a special educational-use region 1 DVD format for $39.99 each (alas) from Ambrose Video, an educational video supplier, but getting all four of the Jane Howell sequence costs practically as much as getting the full boxset and the region free DVD player, so you may as well get the box to enjoy the other 33 plays, unless your priority is to have a copy you can lend to friends who don’t have a special player. Jane Howell’s brilliant Richard III also appears in the $70 Region 1 BBC Shakespeare Histories boxset, along with the BBC Histories’ excellent Richard II and okay Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V, but the boxset contains only those five plays, skipping the three parts of Henry VI, clearly because the boxset was edited by Iago, who wants to keep us all from having nice things). Thus the most affordable way to have a full region 1 set is to get the Histories box for your two Richards, and the three Ambrose Video discs of Henry VI, which gives you all eight, though I recommend topping it off with (my recommended productions) the magnificent Globe Henry IV Part 1, Part 2, and Henry V, more lively and powerful than the ones in the Histories box.
Final note: Yes, I will give Descartes his day in the Skepticism series soon, I promise, just as soon as I’ve prepped my talk on “Renaissance Biographies of Classical Philosophers” and completed a few more work obligations. Happily the supply of hypothetical pastries is infinite.
Visitors to the site today, and over the next few days, will notice that our beautiful e-porphyry facade has been stripped away, revealing the bare gray e-plaster beneath. ExUrbe.com is undergoing rennovations, switching to new hosting, which will enable faster loading loading times, patch various cracks in the e-structure, and get us away from some old e-construction materials which would definitely have caused structural instability over the next years. You will already notice the faster loading times, though the short-term cost of the present bare bones appearance, and the temporary absence of the Picture of the Day and most of the navigation menu. I and my web-architect are on the job, so thank you for your patience.
UPDATE: Progress has restored much of our porphyry, but the photo album and other features are still under reconstruction. We’ll keep at it, but meanwhile bug reports are welcome in the comments. Thank you.
Announcing a new page on Ex Urbe (in the Food section), an international Gelato Atlas, listing gelato locations in many cities and countries around the world. It includes my own reviews and suggestions and reviews posted by Ex Urbe readers. Hopefully this will help everyone find good gelato near you!
Meanwhile, we have only a few days to go before the opening of the new Thor movie. I will be sure to post a plot-so-far summary before the movie opens, so people who will enjoy it can have a refresher of my “unbiased” interpretation of what’s “really” going on in the Marvel movieverse, to enhance your viewing experiences.
My “unbiased” review of the new movie will follow, and after that I intend to start a new history and philosophy series comparable to the Machiavelli one, plus a couple more installments of Spot the Saint.
But first, some site updates to help things run more smoothly.
Also, I have noticed the site is loading slowly and having periodic errors where it says it’s unavailable, or that it has a database error. I wanted to create a poll to ask readers how often this has affected you (so I could use that to decide whether to switch to a new hosting service) but attempting to create a poll made the website crash and shut down (not a good sign for my hosting service). I would be grateful if readers could respond to this post to let me know if you have experienced bugs with Ex Urbe not loading properly, or other site issues, so I can know if the problem is a big one. Also, please let me know if you have read regularly and not experienced any problems, since that too is helpful to know. If the problem is causing people serious inconvenience then I will switch to a new hosting service soon – if it is not too bad, then I will wait until a few other deadlines are off my plate and then switch over. Thank you.
Two quick announcements, then something fun to share.
First, comments were disabled for a little while. Now they are enabled again. Apologies to everyone who wanted to discuss Beccaria – I hope you still want to discuss him, and now you can.
Second, people have been reporting trouble subscribing by RSS. I have investigated, and it seems that, while Firefox, Explorer etc. are fine, Chrome won’t do RSS (for this site or any site) unless you install a Chrome extension for RSS. Googling “Chrome extension RSS” will supply a variety of equally viable methods. However, for those who are struggling with RSS and can’t get it working, I have created a mailing list which you can register for in the right-hand sidebar. Whenever I make a new post I will e-mail the list to alert people. I recommend, however, that you use RSS instead of the mailing list if you can, because RSS will definitely alert you without, whereas the mailing list is hampered by my ability to remember to do it.
Meanwhile, I will take this opportunity to present another of my favorite objects in the Florentine Museum of the History of Science (aka. Museo Galileo): the Noon Cannon. This is a strange variant on a sundial. A tiny cannon, well under a foot long, is mounted outside, ideally in the gardens of a grand estate. It is fixed in place on a stone slab, with a lens positioned above it. At precisely noon each day, the lens focuses sunlight onto the canon, heating up the powder charge and making it go off. If every morning you load the cannon with a little bit of gunpowder, then you will be reliably alerted to noon by the sound of a small explosion from your garden. The effect is sort-of like a water clock except, instead of tranquil trickling and the tap of wood on stone, there is a ka-boom.
I think the specimen in the museum is probably from the Eighteenth Century, possibly the Seventeenth, but I can’t remember off the top of my head. Of course, no one in our era can see a Noon Cannon and not instantly think of its potential uses in an old-fashioned murder mystery. Simply put shot in the Noon Cannon along with its daily charge, lure the victim to the garden at the specified time, and you can be miles away having an alibi while the Noon Cannon does the rest. “The Colonel put real shot in the Noon Cannon? How dastardly!” The killer could even mess with the lens to make it fire at an unexpected time, then play around with other sources of a substitute noise, a hunting rifle or a champagne cork to simulate the 12 PM shot… it writes itself…
I was racing from my office to the gym yesterday, struggling not to spill orange goo on my 18th century reenactment overcoat while wolfing down instant microwave mac & cheese with my reusable pocket eco-spork, when I finally faced up to the reality that the November demands of academia & inevitable autumn illness were not going to give me a chance to finish the next chapter of my Machiavelli series this week, or even next. But since the holidays are coming, I thought I might share some quick gift suggestions which I’ve accumulated this year. These are all items I either own, or have gotten for friends, or both, with, I hope, enough variety to make for a fun read, and possibly to fill some corners under your trees.
The photography I have enjoyed sharing on this blog requires a practical, small, portable camera, not easily damaged but quick to use and that takes very good pictures. After trying many models and doing a lot of research, I can enthusiastically recommend my current camera, a Nikon COOLPIX S9300, which is the top of the COOLPIX camera line, with very high resolution and an astounding zoom. The 16x zoom is much too powerful to actually be usable unless you set the camera down or use a tripod, but even at half-way-zoomed I could get amazing detail on faraway bits of cathedrals and fortresses. It eats up its batteries, so you need two, but is a great pocket camera.
The most exciting, and unusual, of the numerous tablets on the gift market this year has to be an authentic reconstruction of a Roman period wax writing tablet. A standard technology used throughout the ancient and medieval worlds, this affordable alternative to papyrus or vellum worked by scratching text into a wax surface with a stylus, which could then be wiped smooth and re-used. Standard for letter-writing and short-term note-taking. Through this cutting-edge ancient technology, your friends and loved ones can enjoy the miraculous gift of writing, then erasing it, then writing again on the same surface! Wonders will never cease!
In order to avoid the life-threatening condition known as “gelato withdrawal” I rely upon my dear and trusty DeLonghi GM6000 Home Gelato Maker. I have been making gelato with it not quite every day for many months now. It is a little loud but whips up a batch in 3o to 45 minutes and many of the best recipes (yogurt gelato, lemon sorbet, chocolate) require practically no preparation. It came with a very good basic recipe book, and for some reason is currently $250 instead of $400+ on Amazon. Also, Amazon allows you to subscribe to chocolate, I repeat, subscribe to chocolate, so fresh chocolate powder is delivered to your house for free on a periodic basis to restock your gelato-making needs. There is now no excuse for not having gelato.
Books are often hit-or-miss holiday gifts, since we all love them, but we all have a to-read list a mile long (I must state here the maxim: “Never give a book to a grad student if they didn’t request it.”) But just the right book can be just the right thing. This year my three book recommendations are the Unnecessarily Interesting Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an astonishingly exciting and even more astonishingly true account of the life and adventures of the Renaissance goldsmith/sculptor/arms-master/duelist/murderer who should’ve been the protagonist of Assassins’ Creed III, and by far the most exciting account of an historical figure’s life I’ve ever read; my manga pick of the year which has to be the long-awaited release of Shigeru Mizuki’s classic Gegege no Kitaro, a post-WWII collection of classic Japanese oral tradition ghost stories framed around an adorably morbid little zombie boy, packed with folklore and second really only to Astro Boy in its seminal position in mid-20th-century manga (English release finally available for pre-order!); or, the meta-book gift ideal for any bibliophile already weighed down by too many books, Petrarch’s Four Dialogues for Scholars, featuring excerpts from his “Remedies against fortune” which advise the reader on how to avoid pride and hubris over owning a lot of books. That’s right, it’s a book about having too many books. Witty, delightful and bilingual, it is a quick and entertaining read, a rich and rewarding reread, and also features dialogues to prevent hubris if you have a graduate degree, multiple graduate degrees, or are a published author.
In DVD recommendations I prefer to focus on things you have likely not heard recommended elsewhere. Thus this year’s three pics are: The Secret of Kells, a gorgeous animated film based on the manuscript illuminations of the Book of Kells; the stunning and sadly under-publicized anime film Summer Wars, which is as beautiful, wholesome and delight-filled as a Miyazaki movie but with an action plot; and Borgia: Faith and Fear, by far the superior (and sadly the more obscure) of the two Borgia TV series that were produced last year. Like all recent over-dramatic historical TV series it makes sex and violence a centerpiece, but they’re the Borgias so it should be nasty, and it does a good job making the sex and violence feel authentically period, while also having the right combination of historical accuracy and storytelling to make it entertaining. We hope someday there will be a season 2.
Truffle butter. Truffle butter. Truffle butter. Eat the Truffle Butter. There are many kinds and I cannot say which is best since I haven’t tried them all, but it is out-of-this-world stuff. Have it on bread, or melt it over fresh pasta, or a white meat, like chicken. But pasta is always best.
Italian cold cuts are another treat which I mourn on returning to the New World. While many grocery stores in the US now carry prosciutto, pancetta and even bresaola, the delicacy I miss most intensely is the cured spiced lard which melts across your tongue like butter. Lardo Toscano or Lardo di Colonnata I have yet to reliably find, but a good Spanish Lardo can be ordered from Boccalone, and other good salumi from Murray’s cheese.
One of the most enthusiastically-received gifts I’ve ever given was “Professor Doctor Sweetie-Pie’s European Adventures”, a glossy photo book of my research travels which made my Mom bounce and cheer and which she has read over and over for many a moon. Many companies allow one to create these things, but I did mine through Shutterfly, and while they’re a little pricey they really can be a big hit.
Pants are an essential but oft-neglected clothing item, allowed to languish in boringness while shirts and jackets receive all the stylish decoration and superhero logos. I derive constant joy and frequent compliments from my habit of sewing decorative trim down the side seams of my jeans and other pants, making them with an hour’s effort into something distinctive and fun. The trims I use come from CelticTrims.com, and can also be added to all sorts of other simple things to make them excellent.
As a frequent flier, I was always frustrated by the fact that I could no longer carry a pocket cutting tool to open plastic packaging etc. without risk of confiscation. For others with the same problem, small round-tipped metal scissors like these are pretty-universally allowed on planes.
In the kitchen I continue to swear by my Leifheit Garlic Slicer and use it pretty-much every day to turn cloves of garlic into luscious quick-cooking petals of deliciousness.
For travel, I can also recommend a folding travel backpack like this one, which folds almost as small as a reusable compact shopping bag but is much more practical since it’s a backpack. I usually travel with one and stick it in my pocket when heading out to wander a town, so I can easily carry any shopping. It’s also useful for when one leaves with one bag but inevitably can’t fit new acquisitions into it for the return.
We are all drowning in eco-products, making it hard to tell which ones are actually useful. I have had several happy years now with my credit card cutlery, little flat plastic silverware that fits inside a credit card slot in your wallet, providing a fork and spoon/knife. I would estimate that in three years or so they have prevented me from using about thirty plastic forks, but more valuably, they have often provided me with a fork when one would otherwise not be available, and the spoon is firm enough to act as a slicing tool for cheese or fruit.
A trick I learned from my father when thinking of stocking stuffers is that one can often achieve smiles by returning to those items which were exciting when we were ten, and are still exciting even though grown-ups aren’t supposed to be excited by them anymore. For example, yes you can have little colorful umbrellas in your drinks every day, that’s what being a grown-up means! Also, remember those little capsules that you put in water and then there’s a colorful sponge that expands out of it shaped like a whale or a dinosaur? Well they’re still just as fun now as they were in the science museum gift shop when you were barely tall enough to peer over the display case.
Life without olive oil is not worth considering. Now that I no longer have access to Italy directly, I have been doing a survey of the best olive oils stocked in the US. For a basic one, even carried by some grocery stores, I have been very impressed by California Olive Ranch, which is now my new default oil. For something more extraordinary, The Olive Tap produces incredible infused oils and vinegars, and I can particuarly recommend their out-of-this-world Tangerine Balsamic (I am not a tangerine fan but this is the best thing to put on a salad I have ever, ever, ever tasted!), and their Blood Orange Olive Oil. For imported Italian oils I have enjoyed Ottavio Private Reserve, but can’t find a good online source.
And when in doubt, there are 10,000 things you want on ThinkGeek.com. Just don’t buy them all.