Perfect holiday gift: Where’d you go, Bernadette (review)

Where’d you go, Bernadette
Maria Semple
Little Brown

Chick lit plots and characters are like so many cut-out cookies, after a while. You’ve got the caterpillar career girl, the stuck-up (but oh-so-handsome) object of her affections. The mishaps. Enter heart-of-gold True Love to sweep her off her feet. The same can be said of YA fiction, except you substitute “misfit” for “career” and throw in some parent angst and maybe a little bullying. Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette defies both categories. It could be chick lit, could be YA–but what I’m certain of is that the story is inventive and fun. The New York Times called it “divinely funny”, John Green, “A moving, smart page-turner,” and both were spot-on. where'd you go Bernadette

Bernadette, an LA transplant living in Seattle, was once America’s girl-architect phenom. Now she’s all but agoraphobic, living in an historic home for wayward girls she’s tried to thought about making into a home for her family. Bernadette has been hiding from the world for twenty years and thinks she likes it that way. (Her feuds with the stay-at-home moms at her daughter’s exclusive school and her rage at all things Seattle might lead the reader to come to another conclusion about her happiness, however.) Daughter Bee was dearly conceived and barely survived a life-threatening heart defect at birth; her first few years were touch and go. Bee is a gifted young woman with a heart of gold and a wit that’s sharp; she has soared through her first eight years of school and is on her way to Choate. Dad and husband Elgin Fox is a whiz at Microsoft and rarely at home. (If Semple is to be believed, I did learn that the Microsoft culture is creepy.)

There is conflict aplenty in Where’d you go. A battle royale with a neighbor–actually make that two neighbors; Bernadette has issues with people. An admin (that’s an administrative assistant in Microsoft speak) who’s also a home-wrecker. A house that has boarded off rooms and blackberry vines growing up through the floorboards. Top it all off with a trip to Antarctica that no one in the family really wants to take except Bee. Oh, and did I mention Bernadette that does her shopping and appointment making via a virtual assistant from Delhi, India named Manjula?

Now these unconventional characters also deal with some pretty serious matters and when Bernadette disappears (that’s the “where’d you go” part) I was a bit worried that the novel would take a U-turn and end up in A Lesson For Modern Times territory.

But no worries. It’s madcap. It’s zany. And you’ll smile the whole way through this read, I guarantee.

As the shopper rushed home with her treasures: Bailey & James Boutique

Bailey & James Boutique
51 1/2 Bridge Street, Rockford

This time of year I daydream about an idyllic Christmas shopping experience that is a far-stretch from mall shopping: pretty store fronts, quaint little shops, lighted trees, carols in floating on the breeze. Throw in a few fluffy snowflakes and I’ve got a perfect evening, something a little Norman Rockwell with a dash of Chicago boutique. Yesterday that daydream came alive for a couple hours–minus the snowflakes (we’re having a rec0rd-breaking “heat” wave in Michigan this December!).

Shop owner Amber Kneibel opened Bailey & James Boutique  several months ago  hoping to “create a space that is fun, warm, and welcoming”  and where customers would feel like family. Nestled in downtown Rockford, the cozy shop combines a homey atmosphere with some very classy gift items (most created by local Michigan artisans) and vintage decor pieces. Amber says, “Our vintage pieces are heavily sourced from the 50 and 60’s. We embrace color, the farm chic movement, and we adore those that make handmade goodies right here in the mitten!” I had no problem leaving the store with a few unique gifts for some special people on my list: a guitar string bracelet, a hand-stamped wine bottle charm for gift giving (maybe!), and a cute little something-something for a Special Gal who (rumor has it!) just might get a sparkly ring for her left hand this holiday season. Nothing makes me a more satisfied shopper than to leave a store with gifts my loved ones won’t see in every other store in the mall.

Bailey & James Boutique
Bailey & James Boutique

 I attended a private event Amber held for local bloggers–something I think other small shop owners would be smart to do. The quiet afternoon hours gave Amber time to talk to each blogger, answer questions, and share her love of All Things Pretty. Small businesses often take root and grow when friends and fans share the love. Smart business woman, this Amber!

And Bailey. Don’t get me started. A dog rescued from a dog fighting ring, this sweet girl gives each customer a gentle (and very polite) welcome. I was so wrapped up in hearing Amber tell Bailey’s story (and also a little teary) that I didn’t even get a photo of the shop’s namesake.

But you can be sure I’ll be back–and probably fairly soon. (Like this week?!) I didn’t get a print that would look perfect in my kitchen …


*this post is not sponsored by Bailey & James Boutique, nor was my opinion solicited. All opinions are entirely my own.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Call me crazy, but I wait until December to start my Christmas shopping. Who can even think about Christmas gifts in September when we haven’t yet had a flake of snow, or (even worse!) in July when thoughts should be turned to sun and sand? To really feel the spirit, I need the air brisk, lamp poles decorated with greens, and holiday muzak blaring. A little hustle and bustle never hurt anyone, she said blithely.

My favorite: Jane Eyre
My favorite: Jane Eyre

But what to buy the booklovers on your list when even bookstores seem to offer only to-be-expected booklights, book totes, and bookmarks with maybe a reading journal thrown in for good measure? I found two companies whose products sent me over the moon–and I can’t imagine the bibliophiles in your life wouldn’t be just as pleased as I was.

The first (and probably the easiest to order from for this holiday season since they’re based in the U.S.) is *Litographs. What’s unique about this company is that the graphics on their posters, totes, and T-shirts are created out of the actual text of the work. And it’s those T-shirts that caught my eye–as their website says, it may be “the best shirt I’ve ever worn”. How fun to have passages of my favorite Jane Eyre perched right on my shoulders and wrapped around my heart. Nothing more romantic than that!  The simple graphics reflect the titles which include famous works of British and American literature, as well as plays, poetry, mysteries–just

Yes, please, Louisa May Alcott!
Yes, please, Louisa May Alcott!

about every genre is represented. The process of making the T-shirts and prints is amazing; you can watch a video here. There’s even a pretty extensive line of temporary tatoos. Go figure! To make your shopping even more of a no-brainer, Litographs is a socially responsible company that partners with the International Book Bank, donating one book to a community in need for every shirt, tote, or print sold.

The other company I’ve loved browsing is *Bookishly. Because they’re located in England, shipping might take up to four weeks. (The website is very clear that “next day shipping” applies only to buyers in the U.K.) But  be sure to remember this site for the next gift-giving holiday or a birthday or anniversary or retirement or … okay, for me just about any event would be a good time to receive one of Bookishly’s goodies. This site features a wider range of products, including prints, jewelry, greeting cards, and journals. I’m not much for jewelry, and I don’t send much snail mail, but the prints really caught my eye. The quotations are printed on the pages of vintage books, usually titles that somehow compliment the quote. For instance, the quote by poet Sarah WIlliams “I have loved the stars too fondly” is printed on a page of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Jane Austen’s “You must be the best judge of your own happiness” from Emma is stamped on a page from the novel. Be still my beating heart! Each print comes framed, but “glass-free so you can really feel the old page.” (And get a whiff of that old book smell, too!)

While I’d usually say the best gift for the reader in your life is one of the books on their wishlist that they so kindly printed out for you, a gift from Litographs or Bookishly would be a close second–and a much more of a surprise under the tree.


*this post is not sponsored by either company, nor was my opinion solicited. I came across the products much like you do–surfing the net on a Saturday morning with coffee in hand. I share the links only because the products are unique and would make great gifts.

Deck the Halls, or It Wouldn’t Be Christmas Without …

Of course it’s the Christmas tree that is the centerpiece of any holiday decorating.  I’ve always been partial to Douglas or Frasier firs, with their dusty green, waxy boughs. And since we live near a local green grocer that has a gorgeous selection of trees, we’ve always done it the Christmas Story way, not the Christmas Vacation way. Unfortunately, with our pet menagerie, I fought needle drop every time the lab walked by the tree and wagged her tail or one of the cats swatted at some pretty bulb that caught her eye. Seriously– I’d keep the vacuum out so I could easily sweep up pine needles from the carpet three times a day. This year we took the plunge and bought a gorgeous artificial tree—Christmas heresy to some, I know, but I’m decidedly less Grinchy about the tree this year. In addition to the tree, nothing says “Deck the halls” with Christmas memories  than these lovelies.

  1. Crèche. I have the same crèche we had when I was growing up. (We called it a manger scene back
    then, though.) It isn’t a fancy imported olive wood nativity from the Holy Land or a trendy Willow Tree crèche—nope, I can remember when my mom drove to Montgomery Wards catalogue department in Akron to pick it up. The figures are plaster, some with facial features slightly askew (“hand painted in Italy” says the box). The human cast of characters is pretty standard, but it’s the dog with ears and tail standing at attention and the 3-legged lambs (those spindly little plaster legs don’t stand up to any dropping or mis-packing) I love most. When I was little I’d spend hours rearranging what was a kind of Christmas dollhouse to me.
  1. Garland. Nothing says celebration to me like a droopy, loopy garlands and I’ve loved them even before the pennant craze I see on Etsy and Pinterest. I have a felt and burlap “Merry Christmas” across the sliding door to the deck, a wooden “Let it snow” with snowmen, hearts, and snowflakes over the kitchen sink, and a pine cone garland draped on the bookcase. Our house is small, but that’s okay since I can deck each room on the main floor with a garland.
  1. Snowmen. They’re kind of my thing. Of course we have some snowmen ornaments on the tree, but it’s my snowman collection that is dear to me—and even better, since they’re not just for Christmas, I can leave them out through January. A few tin snowmen, a wooden snowman or two, a soft little fleece guy—those tiny mittens and carrot noses and twig arms and neck scarves make me smile every time.
  1. Train. Two months ago my dad died. In his salad days he was a model railroader and his O-gauge railroad ran along the entire wall of the basement with hills and tunnels and turnarounds. The countryside and cityscapes were populated with billboards, stores, and cars remembered from his childhood. Dad even wore an engineer’s cap sometimes when he was out and about. But since neither my brother or I had the time, space, or expertise to carry on Dad’s hobby, my step-mom sold most of the collectibles to a dealer. But not before I took a Lionel locomotive, green boxcar, and red caboose for under my Christmas tree. And there it runs, much to the chagrin of our beagle dog who thinks it’s a mad marauder from the hinterland, come to pillage our hearth and home.
  1. Books. Most of you know when my children were young (before my life as a teacher), I worked in a children’s book store. Each year I’d buy a new Christmas book and add it to the pile in a gold wicker basket. Each year I’d haul out that basket and I think even as teens the kids would page through their favorites. Now it’s waiting for grandbabies to be old enough to love those stories.
  1. Sled. When I was five we moved to a small little white ranch at the top of a hill. That Christmas there was a sled under the tree—a beautifully restored Flexible Flyer that had been my dad’s as a boy, now repainted red and white, with re-varnished side rails, stenciled with L A U R I E. I’m not about to take it for a slide anymore, but I do attach some greens and a big red bow and that old girl decks my front stoop each year.

So there you have it–when it’s Christmas in our house, you can be sure I’ll deck the halls with these Christmas memories. What can’t your home be without during the holidays?

A favorite at Christmas: Christmas from the Heart of the Home (review)

The stockings are hung (although sadly, there’s no chimney), the candles lit, and creche arranged–it’s the most wonderful time of the year! And every year for the past twenty-something, I’ve added Susan Branch’s Christmas From the Heart of the Home to the stack of holiday books on my coffee table. Branch inks and watercolors every inch of every page so that reading her Heart of the Home books is like reading her journal.

The book is everything I want at Christmas: a little whimsy, a lotta charm, family and friends, and homey goodness. And it’s my favorite book  Christmas book for the home. This little gem has some great recipes, from appetizers (chicken pate and Christmas oysters, anyone?) to a traditionalfavorite Christmas book Christmas turkey (or goose if you’re brave enough!), along with delicious sweet goodies and holiday beverages (spiked and not).

One of my family Christmas cookie favorites is something we call butter nut balls. Branch’s Mary’s Mother’s Snowballs are similar–except that the dough is wrapped around a Hershey’s kiss. My daughter insisted we include these little treasures in our cookie baking next week. Eaten still slightly warm they are to die for. Seriously.

But Christmas From the Heart of the Home is much more than a recipe book. I find myself turning the pages of this favorite for ideas to Deck the Halls—lots of candles, garlands of pine, and Christmas trees everywhere (even the kitchen!). Or how about taping Christmas cards around a doorway (I do!). The pages dedicated to the Magic of Snow are probably best understood by those of us who live in northern climes (Branch on Martha’s Vineyard, me in the Great Lakes)—the greatest love-hate story of them all. And throughout, those family memories and traditions, all delightfully illustrated and painted to size.

Need a Christmas treat for yourself? Check out Susan Branch’s blog, store, and news about anything from the Heart of the Home. I, of course, especially love her books. I usually get myself a little somethin’ somethin’ after the holidays, and I think this year it will be Autumn From the Heart of the Home, because, let’s face it–after Christmas, northern Falls are the best. (Sadly, Christmas From the Heart of the Home is out-of-print, but I found plenty of copies on ebay)

So whether my Christmas is lean or lush (and it’s been both over the years, believe me) I can depend on Christmas From the Heart of the Home to reassure me that heart and home are truly what matter most.