The Eighth Annual Mindless Diversions Unsolicited Shopping Guide
I’m beginning to realize that I’m no longer in a place where I know what kids want for Christmas. A few years ago, it was *EASY*. They were all somewhere under 12 and that meant some combination of Nerf Guns and/or Legos. Maybe a video game here or there.
But now? Oh, they’re now somewhere under 17 and I don’t know what’s hip, wack, or straight-up booty anymore.
I mean, sure, we can get the Amazon Gift Card (available from Amazon! Apparently there are stores that aren’t Amazon that sell these for more than $25. I don’t understand.) and we can say “hey, we know that you know that we don’t know what’s gnarly so get yourself your own dang present” to the 16 year old.
But for the 12 year old? Well, you have a plethora of choices. There’s the simple and elegant N-Strike Elite Strongarm Blaster. 13 bucks, so you can get two so that he (or she) can give one to a friend to play with. If you say “nah, the kiddo in my life doesn’t need an entry-level nerf gun”, then there’s the N-Strike Elite SurgeFire for about $20 and they can nerf out a crowded room. If, however, they need to nerf someone about 75 feet away, there is the Nerf N-Strike Elite AccuStrike RaptorStrike on sale for $31 (down from $50). And there’s the Nerf N-Strike Elite Triad EX-3 available for around $7 if the kid wants to concealed carry (makes for a good stocking stuffer). (Don’t forget the ammo!)
As for Legos, whooo doggies, there are a ton of choices out there. Do you want something Star Wars themed? The mini Millennium Falcon is under $10. Yoda’s Hut (from Empire) is on sale for under $25. And if money is no object, there is the Iconic X-Wing fighter that is currently 20% off and is *STILL* sixty-four bucks. (It’s a beaut, though.)
Not into Star Wars? More into Batman? Well, there’s the Joker Balloon Escape kit that is on sale for under $10. The “Attack of the Talons” kit gives you not only the Batman and the aforementioned ninjas, but also a batcycle and Ace The Bathound (!) for $16 when it’s 20% off (like it is right now). And if money is no object, holy cow, this Batmobile is *GORGEOUS*. It’s also $140. But, man, it’s gorgeous. And it comes with Polka Dot Man.
James Kerr points out the NASA Spollo Saturn V building kit. “More than a meter high!”, he tells us (that’s a little over a yard). It’s the first kit he got since he was a kid and he said that it was complex to build but very interesting. (Hey, they also have an LED kit for the thrusters that include speakers that play a countdown. Dang, for $70, you’d hope they play Camptown Races.)
Mad Rocket Scientist tells us that his kiddo is getting something from the Lego Boost line. Build a robot and code it using an app on your smartphone. (Man, when I was growing up, the coolest Legos we had were the space sets with the astronauts whose helmets always broke under their little Lego chins.)
May you not step on a brick when you get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Maybe you’re thinking that analog toys are all well and good but you’re in the market for books. I went to Vikram and Maribou and Aaron to ask for book recommendations and they did not disappoint.
Vikram recommends this for the little ones who are old enough to ask about their origin story:
Mommy Laid an Egg by Babette Cole. This is an extremely NSFW children’s book. If you were to follow everything in this book, your sex life would probably be more interesting than mine. The reason I like it is that it just tells kids directly things that there is no reason for them not to know without my having to say it to them. This would be a great gift for unsuspecting parents.
For the little ones who are a little older than that:
The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo. After finishing Charlotte’s Web, I wondered what book to read next. There is only one Charlotte’s Web, and I’m not sure anything should come after Charlotte’s Web, but the Tales of Desperaux would have been a pretty good answer. DiCamillo treats her readers with respect, and it involves some violent imagery and abuse, but it’s all in service of an excellent and timeless story I wouldn’t mind reading again and again.
For adults, Vikram recommends Deep Work by Cal Newport. Newport convincingly writes about what is likely to be rewarded in the new economy and why it is so. hard to get.
Atomickristin mentions that she’s hoping to find These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore under the tree.
I asked Maribou about what she’s read over the last year and she has, apparently, read a *TON*. Whew! So, without further ado, Maribou’s picks and recommendations.
Coyote Moon, by Maria Gianferrar, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
This author and illustrator have teamed up several times, and this is my favorite of their collaborations. Not only is it visually stunning and verbally deft, it’s also truthful about hunting without being overly visually impactful, which would have been *perfect* for me as a kid. I also love how the night time pictures do such a good job of being extremely well-detailed and extremely dark. It’s hard to manage both of those at once, and most illustrators can’t.
Extraordinary Jane, by Hannah E. Harrison
I suspect that this may be the most adorable book in the world. A wee white dog who lives in a circus tries her best to figure out where she fits in among all her talented (and very charmingly drawn) animal and human friends. Heart-meltingly cute without being saccharine in the slightest. Also the circus jokes made me laugh out loud a couple of times.
Herodotus the Hedgehog, by Jean-Luc Buquet
The most winsome exploration of the via negativa I have ever come across. I would have been very fortunate to have found this book at age five, or so. (It also does a good job of communicating the diversity of religious practices.)
The Lulu series, by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Priscilla Lamont
These are actually beginning chapter books but they’re very very illustrated and the illustrations are extremely cute, so I’m shoe-horning them in to the picture book category. Lulu is my new favorite children’s book protagonist, right up there with Ramona Quimby on the chaos moppet list. (Let’s face it, almost all the children’s book protagonists on my favorites list are chaos moppets…) Basically she runs around saving animals, driving her extremely loving parents and grandmother up a wall, enlisting her long-suffering cousin/BFF in all kinds of questionable practices…. and making everything better for everyone along the way. Like most adorable child-tornadoes, her big heart and willingness to make amends are very important parts of her personality. Plus each story is about a super-adorable animal that very much needs rescuing, but that acts like an actual ANIMAL, not a prop! When I was five to seven, I would have read this entire series to shreds.
Books for Tweeners
Bandette, vol. 1: Presto!, by Paul Tobin, illustrated by Colleen Coover, and its two sequels
I think these books were marketed to adults, but I’d recommend them to ages nine and up. There’s a tiny bit of romance but nothing scandalous whatsoever. Basically they are the sort of stylish, playful, adventurous bande dessinees that I remember greatly enjoying as a kid. Bandette’s a thief! She has an organization of street kids! But there are real bad guys that she enjoys taking out every bit as much as she enjoys thieving! You get the idea.
Betty Before X, by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renee Watson
I was deeply moved by this story, a lightly fictionalized version of Ms. Shabazz’s mother’s life as a young teenager, long before she met her famous husband… and Renee Watson’s touch elevates the writing to the point where I could not possibly have loved this book more. Didactic at times, but not in the obnoxious way – and I do love me a good didactic novel for the young’uns.
The Witch Boy, by Molly Ostertag
In Aster’s world, boys grow up to be shapeshifters and girls grow up to be witches. Except Aster is obsessed with witchery and shows no signs of shifting. The obvious real-world parallels do not get in the way of a cracking good story. Beautifully drawn as well: the characters’ faces carry a huge amount of emotional information. A gripping graphic novel I’d recommend especially for 9-12 year olds.
Cross Stitch Antique Style Samplers, by Jane Greenoff
This is a book that anyone who loves samplers – either as a hobby or an aesthetic – will enjoy. Lots of history and beautiful historical examples mixed in with fun charts that are incredibly well-made, and the whole thing is laid out splendidly. I expect I’ll eventually get around to making some of these, but even if I don’t (Jaybird has something against samplers, for some reason), I’ll enjoy returning to the book for purely eye-candy reasons.
Your Cabin in the Woods, by Conrad Meinecke
This is a collection of classic, well-illustrated how-to books by Meinecke, beautifully reproduced and in hardcovers, such that the result makes a good present, much sturdier than if you had to go find the floppy-covered originals second hand. They are sort of about how to build cabins and sort of about how to be a stand-up person and sort of about the natural world and our relationship to it. I mean, they really are about building cabins! Given unlimited free time, I could probably revivify enough childhood skills to use these books to *actually build* a cabin that I would enjoy spending time in. But those other two things are equally important, albeit much less directy addressed. And this book makes me deeply happy.
The Finer Things, by Christiane Lemieux
A whopping sourcebook of stuff, all the most beautiful furniture, textiles, light fixtures, floor coverings, tiles, etc etc etc etc that Lemieux, a famous interior designer, thinks people should know about. Also some history and theory of these things. Extraordinarily well-organized and entirely sumptuous. Something for anyone with a materialist bent (like me!) to wallow around in gleefully … and given that it’s 36 bucks on Amazon at the moment, it’s WAYYYY more affordable than many of the objects the person who will enjoy it would also be delighted to receive.
Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer
This book and the two sequels (a fourth title in the series will be forthcoming) by Campbell-Award winning author and University of Chicago historian Ada Palmer are simply my absolute favorite science fiction novels of the last five years. Grand, sweeping philosophical tomes that also have greatly compelling – and twisty – plots. Compulsively readable but also delightfully chewy. I hope people are reading them a hundred years from now.
DC Comics Bombshells, Vol. 1: Enlisted (and lots more volumes) by Marguerite Bennett, art by various hands
In one of those weird twists that happen in comics, one of the most engaging DC lines *ever* is an alternate WW2 history featuring female superheroes (versions of both male and female regular-timeline heroes) fighting Nazis…. based on a line of collectible pin-up style figurines. Basically, I think anything Marguerite Bennett lays hands on turns out golden? I don’t know. Anyway, this series is my current favorite way to relax, everything hangs together plotwise, the characters are fabulous, and the artists have been consistently excellent. Incredibly playful but with real heart, and the ability to be solemn when needed.
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey
A dumb idea that the US govt truly had: to import hippos and use ’em as domestic livestock. Sarah Gailey’s move: to write a bloody romp of a western-ish novella based in a world where the government followed through on that idea… so basically you have a bunch of hoppers (like cowboys, only hippo-riders) moving around a world that is very much like that of Mark Twain’s novels…. only far more violent and with somewhat of a 21st-century-non-male wish-fulfillment perspective. I’d say “well, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but it sure is mine,” except that literally everyone I know who has read it, loved it, even people who were complete skeptics going in. So maybe it *is* (nearly) everyone’s cup of tea? I mean, HIPPOS!!!! Hippos and *riverboats*. C’mon.
He’s also looking forward to Alternate Routes, the new Tim Powers Urban Fantasy about the ghosts of the Los Angeles freeway system. (Looks like if you’re getting tired of waiting for the next Harry Dresden book, you should pick up this one.)
Em Carpenter takes us to the kitchen and says that the Instant Pot is worth looking at. (I’ve always been wary of pressure cookers… I heard a lot of horror stories when I was a kid. These 3rd Generation ones look awesome, though and they’ve addressed all of the things that made me freak out a little.) She also points us to Spurtles. Holy cow. Those look useful! (I make a lot of Kraft Dinner and the tricky part is always the spoon cleanup afterwards.)
Andrew says that best gift he’s gotten in years was my Cuisinart counter top oven/broiler/air fryer. “Use that thing almost daily and it solves the problem of reheating breaded food and carry out as the air fryer puts it right back to its original crispy goodness.”
Sam points us to the OXO 9-Cup Coffee Maker. Pricey, but a perfect gift for the person who has everything but needs 9 cups of coffee. (We’ve all been there.)
You might only need one cup of coffee. Kuerig has you covered there.
A quick jaunt to the bedroom and Will points out the Zinus king-sized mattress. Sure, it’s not as nice as the nicest mattresses, but for under $300 (for a KING!), it doesn’t have to be. Good enough is good enough!
In springtime, you’ll want the nice cotton sheets to help you get through the warmer months, but, in wintertime? The best sheets in the world are the flannel ones. I like the dark plaid sheets because I have a million cats and they all have dark hair (and if you’re going to be spilling drinks in bed, you’re not going to want the white or light-colored sheets).
As for movies that came out this year, the go-to Christmas Present is always the Superhero movie. It’s safe. This year, we had an embarrassment of riches:
Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp were the two movies that weren’t The Infinity Gauntlet. (Or, I guess the movie is called Avengers: Infinity War. But, to me, it’ll always be The Infinity Gauntlet. Hey, buy it with the comic book and tell the kids “the book was better!”) . If they’re somewhat more interested in a deconstruction of Superhero tropes, there’s always Deadpool 2. Wait, don’t get Deadpool for the kids.
If you’re, instead, looking for something for a DC fan, you won’t be getting them the execrable live-action stuff, but animated films that were surprisingly good.
The Death of Superman tells the now-classic “Spoiler In The Title” Superman vs. Doomsday story (and keep an eye out for the upcoming Reign of the Supermen that tells the story of what fills the vacuum after Superman’s death). If they’re more into Batman, Batman Ninja is absurd and over-the-top and pretty much even crazier than what you might expect given the title (it involves time travel). Gotham by Gaslight is an Elseworlds story that plops Batman down in Victorian London to help investigate the Jack the Ripper killings (restrained and tasteful by comparison). And if you’re into deconstruction but you want it to be of DC rather than Marvel, Teen Titans Go! To The Movies is goofy, slapstick, funny, and, perhaps most importantly, appropriate for kids (say what you will about Deadpool, he *AIN’T* appropriate for kids in any way, shape, or form).
Now, perhaps you are one who says “I AM SO FREAKING SICK OF SUPERHERO MOVIES!”
For the action fan, I wholeheartedly recommend the Mission Impossible films. Anything after 2 is worth watching and Fallout is the most recent film in the series. Great characters, great action, witty dialog. If you want pure action, it’s what you’re looking for.
If you want something more cerebral, Annihilation is from the guy who did Ex Machina. It’s a movie that you can argue about afterwards. You’re going to *NEED* to argue about it afterwards.
The question of whether or not Han Solo killed Boba Fett was definitively answered by Solo: A Star Wars Story. (You can make that joke to the person to whom you give the Blu-Ray.)
If the main thing you want to give is Oscar Bait, I haven’t seen the new “A Star Is Born” but, hey, it’s got Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in it and Rotten Tomatoes gave it 90%.
My favorite movie from this year was a movie that I went into thinking that it was a buddy movie and walked out of thinking “holy crap, that was a horror flick”. Upgrade. Great action, nice body horror, some plot twists that don’t go anywhere at all, and a big finish that will have you telling other people to watch it too (so you can argue about it with them).
Now, when it comes to music, I usually say something like “wait, it’s 2018!” and realize that I don’t really buy albums that much anymore and the stuff I listen to is pretty much the same stuff I listened to 20 years ago. (Have you listened to Lenny Kravitz recently? Mama Said holds up!)
I *DID* find a song that I liked a whole lot called “Nevermind” by Dennis Lloyd but it’s apparently only available on imported CDs? Like, Now That’s What I Call Music 57 from the UK or Coco Beach Ibiza, Vol. 7 (Compiled by Danielle Diaz) from Germany. Like, I want a whole album by that guy.
So I realize that I suck at this and I go to Chris for help and, once again, he delivered.
You’re going to find *SOMETHING* you like in here. I promise.
Marlon Williams – Make Way for Love
Dude has a golden voice, and is a seriously good song writer (and makes funny videos too; see this 2017 single for a sample of each all of that). This album was largely made in response to the breakup of his relationship with fellow New Zealander Aldous Harding, and is full of gems like “What’s Chasing You” and “Come to Me.”
Superorganism – Superorganism
Weird and fun (and a blast live) indie pop. “Everybody Wants to Be Famous” will be stuck in your head for weeks. They are the hip new thing, but genuinely entertaining.
Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo
Seriously groovy, trippy funk and soul from Houston. Watch their live performance on KEXP and then try not to buy the album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyWhFB9ijzA
Mick Jenkins – Pieces of a Man (this is for mp3s, he doesn’t seem to have an physical cd that you can buy — ed.)
Jenkins is an amazing rapper and writer, and this album has 17 damn good tracks. I’m partial to “Soft Porn” and “Smoking Song” (with Badbadnotgood). A handful of songs produced by Black Milk, who also released his own very good album this year, Fever.
Lucy Dacus – Historian
This kid is 22, but already an amazing songwriter. “Night Shift” might be a perfectly constructed song, and the whole album is made up of reflective gems.
Jacob Banks – Village
Banks’ voice is so incredible I’d listen to him sing his grocery list. “Unknown (To You”), “Chainsmoking,” “Love Ain’t Enough,” ‘Be Good To Me,” and “Slow Up,” and “Witness” are really good.
Skyzoo – In Celebration of Us
Best hip hop album of the year. (Frigging) fire.
Young Galaxy – Down Time (another mp3 only — ed.)
Infectious indie pop.
Pan Amsterdam – The Pocket Watch (mp3 — ed.)
Damn good, heavily political hip hop.
Mark Kozelek – Mark Kozelek
Extremely Mark Kozelek.
Gnod – Chapel Perlious
Yonatan Gat – Universalists
Man, I don’t know what this crazy ass shit is, but it’s good. Wikipedia says he’s an “experimental guitarist,” which I suppose is true in the sense that it could mean any number of things, including what this album is.
Girl Names – Primitive Desire (mp3 only again — ed.)
Lulu Gainsbourg – T’es qui la
Not unlike his father’s stuff, very smooth French indie rock.
Jase Hartley – Dreams of an American Heathen
Really good self-reflective rap.
Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp – Savage Forms
Energetic jazz-ish pop, or something. Eight tracks that will just make you feel good.
Yo La Tengo – There’s a Riot Going On
I mean, it’s Yo La Tengo, so it’s good.
Sons of Kemet – Your Queen Is a Reptile
There is new jazz being made, especially by London kids, and it’s good. The kids are alright, man. They’re alright. I think I’ve listened to this album about 1,000 times this year.
Dirty Projectors – Lamp Lit Prose
Man, that dude is good.
First Aid Kit – Ruins
Swedish pop folk music, with some at times genuinely beautiful tunes.
Onyx Collective – Lower East Suite Part Three
Like I said, there’s jazz being made, this time in NYC, and it’s good.
Tenderlonious – The Shakedown
Look, more jazz! This of the particularly funky variety, led by a flute.
Trace Mountains – A Partner to Lean On (mp3 — ed.)
Almost tentative, and ultimately compelling folk rock.
Ashley Henry and the Re: Ensemble – Easter (mp3 — ed.)
Remember when I said there’s jazz? This just a taste (it’s an EP), but it is so promising.
Tatu Ronkko – Spheres (mp3 — ed.)
This is something like jazz. The dude’s a Finnish percussionist who creates all sorts of weird sounds and rhythms.
Deaf Wish – Lithium Zion
Tell me this isn’t early 90s grunge that you only hear on college radio.
77:78 – Jellies
Psychedelic pop rock.
Here Lies a Man – You Will Know Nothing
Best review I saw of this album read, “the heavy psych band Here Lies Man, whose goal is to the answer the question: ‘What if Black Sabbath played Afrobeat?'”
Dabrye – Three/Three
Old school hip hop.
You’re probably going to want to listen to these songs. Em recommends the Bose wireless soundsport earbuds. “Perfect unshakable Bluetooth connection, great sound and they don’t fall out of my ears.”
For matters sartorial, Saul recomends stuff that would never occur to me (mostly because it doesn’t really come in 3X) but he points to this wool-blended jacket from Engineered Garments (look good, stay warm). For the shoes, he points to these neat Golden Goose Blue Superstar sneakers and these Royal Blue sneaks from Maison Margiela.
Atomickristin hopes for some of the cool knee-highs from Sock It to Me.
Now, when I look for a shirt, there are four things that I look for.
First: Is it the right size? Because, if it ain’t, it doesn’t matter, does it? The second is that it’s cotton. The third is that I prefer the shirt to have a nice pattern or print on it. Plain old blue or white isn’t enough. Let’s make it plaid. Maybe make it denim. Or floral! The fourth thing that I like is for there to be a breast pocket that can hold a CD. Hey, sometimes I need to take CDs/DVDs from building to building and a good pocket means that you don’t have to find a sleeve or case.
So when I find a shirt like this one? I’m down. It’s not fashion, per se, but when you wear a shirt with a good color and you know it’s going to stay tucked in, it can be the difference between “rumpled” and “slob”.
Go for rumpled!
If you’re looking for something fun to wear to the gym and you know that there is that one guy there who has the Three Wolf Moon shirt? Get yourself a Three Kitten Moon Shirt and hope that he’s there the next time you go.
If you’re buying for a lovely lady in your life, I saw this awesome Vintage Women Coats Solid Turtleneck with Big Pockets and thought “holy cow, I need to get that for Maribou”. (Don’t tell her.)
If you’re looking for something that you can wear out line dancing, I cannot recommend this Skulls, Roses, and Revolvers embroidered Western shirt enough. It’s not cotton though. (So I guess I can recommend it enough.) It’ll look good, even if it feels synthetic.
If you are looking for something 100% cotton that you can wear out on the town that has the cowboy aesthetic, is embroidered, but is a bit more understated than Skulls, Roses, and Revolvers, this White Rose Western shirt is actually in good taste. (And you can get it monogrammed!)
If, however, you’ve decided to just say “heck with it”, you can’t go wrong with a “I’m Into Fitness… Fitness Pizza In My Mouth!” t-shirt.
Last, and not least, there are Video Games that came out this year.
I am pretty sure that there’s going to be a Steam Sale on Christmas Day itself so you can’t go wrong with a Steam Gift Card.
But there were some pretty awesome video games that came out for consoles this year and they’re worth taking into consideration.
First off is Red Dead Redemption 2. The main criticism I have of the game is that there is too much to do and I want to do too many things at once. I want to go hunting. I want to go fishing. I want to play dominoes. I want to play poker. I want to make money. I want to find treasure. I want to find dinosaur bones. I want to collect cigarette cards. I want to explore the landscape. I want to steal and sell wagons to my fence. I want to pay off my $235 bounty so I can visit the west side of the map. I want to get a scoped rifle. I want to have my scoped rifle engraved.
Too many things to do and not enough time in which to do them. Absolutely amazing. Everything you’ve heard is true (and then some). It’s offensive, it’s violent, it’s beautiful, and it’s surprisingly sad. It’s a game with heart.
Spider-Man is a PS4 exclusive and, golly, it’s a reason to get the console. What the Batman Arkham games did for Gotham, Spider-Man does for NYC. It’s a game that has fun superheroics, fun villains, fun challenges, and does the amazing trick of making it *FUN* to do nothing but travel from one side of the map to the other.
If you have an Xbox One and want an Xbox exclusive, Cuphead is an absolutely amazing run and gun game. It’s difficult, though. Like, “unforgiving” levels of difficult. Like “The Dark Souls of Run and Gun” difficult. If you can handle that, it’s absolutely amazing and incredibly rewarding to play. When you finally figure out how to beat that one boss? You’ll crow so loudly they’ll hear you from upstairs. (This is a download code. There is a physical kinda version but, as far as I can tell, it’s also a download code but the physical thing they give you is a cell from the game. It’s also, like, $90 instead of $20. So just get the download code.)
If you’re buying a game for someone with a Switch, Super Smash Brothers Ultimate is something that you probably already have pre-ordered, but, if you don’t, there it is.
Of course, the reason for the holidays has little (if anything) to do with giving (or getting) presents but it’s always nice to give a loved one a gift that says “hey, I was thinking about you.”
And with that in mind… hey. I’ve been thinking about you. From us and ours to you and yours, Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, Non-Denominational Generic Good Wishes, Happy Hanukkah, Good Festivus, Joyous Kwanzaa, and, of course, Merry Christmas.
I hope that you found something above that you’d want to give to a loved one. In addition to all of the above, I still recommend everything we recommended in Unsolicited Shopping Guides of the past (especially that showerhead that we recommended last year!!! Links to previous guides at the top of the post!) and want you (yes, you!) to put your recommendations in comments. The gifts that you’d most want to give your loved ones and the gifts that you’d most want to receive? We want to hear about them because you never know who is currently pulling their hair out looking for the perfect gift that you already know all about.
We want to hear from you!
(Featured Image is Ebenezer Scrooge’s gravestone by Howard Lake. Used under a Creative Commons license.)