Photograph of a young boy arranging fabric in preparation to sew.I love making anything with my hands. So when my six-year-old son asks, “Can we make me an Ant-Man costume?”, my answer is always going to be an enthusiastic, “Yeah we can!”

There was a time when I would take control of these projects.  I’d Google images of Ant-Man, obsess about the right fabric and approach, until I found myself sitting at the sewing machine alone, while my son had long since moved on to his Legos.

Now I understand that my job is to dump a bag of fabric out on the table and as my son says, “Just stop freaking out so much about it.”  Sure, I help with the sewing machine.  He drives the pedal and I keep my fingers out of the way and try not to sweat the fact that the bobbin tension is completely out of whack.  

Our new laissez-faire family craft time doesn’t mean I’ve stopped seeking out fresh ideas and inspiration for projects.  Martha Stewart’s Favorite Crafts for Kids offers a bonanza of ideas for kids and parents.  I just make sure to check my inner Martha when it’s time to get gluing.

Side by Side by Tsia Carson is a great resource for matching projects that parents and kids can do separately but together.  One particularly endearing kid-project involves embroidering a leaf.  This is a woman who knows about managing expectations!

And when I just want to be inspired, blogger and illustrator Merrilee Liddiard’s Playful is so Anthropologie-beautiful I could weep.  But then I’ll get over it, enjoy watching my son dart about in what only started out as an Ant-Man costume, and “just stop freaking out so much about it.”

Do you stay up at night wondering how much longer the North Korean government can survive or how much their average citizen knows about the world beyond their borders? I do.

It’s not that it's unusual for my reading habits to snowball into mini research projects. The perfect puff pastry, Mormon fundamentalism, abstract expressionists- they’ve all occupied months of my life. But who would want to read deeply about a loathsome totalitarian state with an abhorrent human rights record and a comically absurd dynasty of dictators?  Well I would for one and certainly I'm not alone. Whether you're interested in global issues, survivor stories or political satire that crosses over into reality, when it comes to North Korea, there are countless avenues to explore.

If like me, you're curious to understand what life is like in one of the world's most closed off countries, start with Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.  Her book follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years, providing an extraordinarily comprehensive view of the country and a great meshing of politics and history with moving personal stories.  It also happens to come highly recommended by David Sedaris.

Looking for a little more insight into the Kim family regime? Check out A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress and A Young Dictator’s Rise to Power. It's a first book by film producer Paul Fischer and among the most suspenseful true life thrillers I’ve ever read.  Long as it is, the title only begins to suggest the unbelievable journey this surreal story takes you on. 

Curious to know more? Check out this list for more recommended books and documentaries to further your understanding of North Korea.

Book Jacket: The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan DaumWhen a loved one receives bad news at the doctor’s office, you should squeeze their hand and give them a steely glance that says, “I’m here with you.  We’ll beat this thing.”

Throughout this life, you’re supposed to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to achieve real growth and we all want to grow, right?

If you survive a life-threatening event, you’re expected to live each day thereafter with gratitude and heightened perspective.  

It’s these preassigned responses to human experiences that Meghan Daum challenges in her latest collection of personal essays, The Unspeakable: and Other Subjects of Discussion.  

Covering topics that range from cream of mushroom soup casserole to waking up from a medically induced coma,  Daum’s writing is funny, but not frivolous. I loved her keen recognition of the absurd and her unapologetic honesty. As a fellow Gen Xer, I also relished her many 1970s-80s pop culture references. What I loved most about these essays however, is how moving they were. How they started off so specific and individual and ended with broader truths that left me considering the emotional expectations we have of ourselves.

It’s true that the topics covered in The Unspeakable, aren't the type of thing that people readily talk about.  But they are precisely the type of subjects that lead to the best conversations you have with your closest friend. The kind where you can confess to dreading what you're supposed to be looking forward to; Where you can laugh inappropriately and be completely yourself. Maybe not your most becoming self, but your most human self.

 

Book jacket: Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera2014 is almost over and I’m calling it.  My favorite book of the year was Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. Shortly after I finished it, I sent a Facebook message to the author gushing that her book was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever read. I never do that. Here are 5 reasons why this one stands out to me among the other fantastic books I enjoyed this year:

1.    It’s transportive: While the book’s characters are complex and still linger in my mind, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is the story of a country first and foremost. This book transported me completely to the island of Sri Lanka with a winter craving for coconut milk and curry that traces directly back to the author's delicious descriptions of food.

2.    It’s short:  OK brief doesn't immediately translate to beauty. Munaweera however, does write in a beautifully minimal style, but still manages to tell a sweeping multi-generational story that's lush with detail and emotion without ever feeling rushed.  

3.    It has both a map and a family tree: These are seemingly small details, but ones which I love. It’s hard to keep track of geography and relationships in any family saga and more so when the names are unfamiliar. Wait, where is Jaffna located again? Who was Yasodhara’s grandfather? A quick flip to the front pages and you’re back on track.

4.    It taught me something new: We don’t hear much about Sri Lanka in our news and I certainly knew very little about the country when I picked up this book. Munaweera’s novel really brings to life the complexities of the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war with an intricate story that follows two girls caught on either side of the conflict.

5.    It strikes that perfect balance between devastating heartbreak and beauty:  I was often caught startled by Munaweera’s forthright descriptions of the horrors that accompany war, but was left equally stunned by the beauty of her writing.  In fact, I can't seem to resist a story that breaks my heart and then shows me great beauty. If this formula appeals to you too, here's a list for you!

I’m a flighty and unfaithful reader. I can’t resist the call of a buzzy debut novel or the allure of reading a book set in a country I’m unfamiliar with.  This means that all too often, it takes me years to get around to reading award winning books that I know I’ll probably like. When it comes to reading,  I nearly always prefer to roll the dice than spend my time on a sure thing.  

There are two exceptions to this pattern and their names are Gail Tsukiyama and J. Maarten Troost. Two very different writers, but I never hesitate to read anything by either one.  

 

Book jacket: The Samurai's Garden by Gail TsukiyamaTsukiyama’s writes quiet books set in turbulent times in Japanese and Chinese history. Her stories are reflective and leisurely unravel the struggles of people living in bleak times of war and oppression. Her books could easily be real downers. Instead they’re absolutely beautiful. Tsukiyama is who I turn to for absorbing historical fiction with characters I gradually grow to really care about.

 

Book jacket: The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost

In contrast, J. Maarten Troost writes books that are anything but quiet. He’s fiercely smart and just as fiercely funny. In describing his adventures overseas, Troost offers a perfect balance of earnest curiosity, historical context, and sardonic wit.  Whether living as a slacker on an atoll in the South Pacific or traipsing through China, I’ll follow him anywhere. I’ll even tag along through his new found sobriety because, while I did have my doubts, it turns out he’s still funny off the kava

 

If you’re looking for quiet reflection and history, try Gail Tsukiyama. Start with The Samurai’s Garden, or jump in anywhere. Feeling more boisterous? Check out The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost. Or maybe you feel like rolling the dice on something unknown?  In that case, just ask me.

 

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