{Gift Guide} 7 Delightful Design Gifts

Deck the halls and homes of your family and friends–GIVE them these delightful design gifts recommended by FOF gurus.

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Helen Kenney Poore is an FOF interior design guru and owner of The Scented Garden, a gift store located in St. Michaels, Maryland.

1. Karen Adams Calendar Giftbox, $59 ($29 for refill)

“A unique gift for the person who has everything is the Karen Adams hand-painted calendar. Just remember who you gave the set to, because next year you can give them the refill. They’re already sold out in my store.”
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Kristin Drohan is an FOF interior design guru and an interior designer whose work has been featured in The Washington Post, House Trends Magazine, New England Home, and New York Spaces. She also has her own furniture collection.

2. Personalized Trays, Platters and Ice Buckets from Clairebella, Starting at $38
“I love that these can be personalized with colors, patterns, and monograms.”
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Barbara Mangini is the blogger behind My Dog-Eared Pages, a collection of musings on art, fashion, and interior designs.

3. Harry Stooshinoff Landscape Paintings, starting at $45

“I am a quite a fan of this Canadian artist. He’s been selling his work for over 30 years. His small landscapes are created on heavy, acid-free artist’s paper, using a quick pencil sketch on location then followed by bold, intuitive swashes of acrylics. I love the idea of hanging several together as a grouping.”

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4. Turkish Towel Peshtemals from Bathstyle, starting at $22

“A peshtemal is a towel traditionally used in Turkish baths. The colors correspond to different regions in Turkey. I’ve always loved them because they absorb water fast and dry quickly. They take up less space and are also great for the pool, boat and the beach. These are 100% cotton produced on looms in Turkey.”

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Lisa Porter is the mastermind behind The Lisa Porter Collection, a blog featuring eye-popping designs, inspiring interiors and carefully-vetted businesses.

5. Beautiful Gardens of Kentucky by Jon Carloftis ($40)
“This year I’ll be gifting Beautiful Gardens of Kentucky by famed New York City garden designer Jon Carloftis. I have had the pleasure of meeting Jon and his incredible family–what I admire most about this southern gentleman is his desire to give back. He’s beyond generous with his talent and time devoting much of it towards local garden clubs and charitable organizations. Anyone who loves to garden will love this book.”

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Julia Reed is the creative director of Taigan, a meticulously-curated online boutique featuring unique products and gifts. She has been a contributing editor  to numerous publications including VogueConde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and is the author of: The House on First Street, My New Orleans Story; Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, And Other Southern Delicacies: An Entertaining Life (With Recipes); and Queen Of The Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena.

6. Small Apothecary Jar from And George, $47
“It is so versatile. Fill it with festive red-and-white peppermints or use it as a receptacle for roasted pecans or little cheese biscuits on the bar when entertaining. It would also be fabulous in a bathroom filled with small soaps or bath salts such as these.”

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7. Set of White Mugs from And George, $60
“I adore both the delicacy and color of these tea mugs. Throw in a canister of your favorite tea and this pretty handwoven silver tea strainer and it’s a great gift.”

Enter to win a gorgeous hand-painted calendar by Karen Adams by leaving a comment below.

One FOF will win.
(See all our past winners, here.)
(See official rules, here.)
Contest closes December 17, 2011 at midnight E.S.T.

{Gift Guide} 15 Wonderful, Wearable gifts.

What would an FOF stylist buy this year . . . for herself? Our FOF Fashion gurus have the gorgeous–but affordable–answers. Fifteen fab gifts, (almost) all under $100–all FOF approved.

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FOF Style Guru Glenyse Thompson is a personal home and wardrobe stylist and the creator of Styleosophy.

1. Brass Sea Necklace from Lilah Gabriel, $235
“Worn with with a crisp white shirt, a t-shirt or a black dress, this beautiful piece would be a stand-out! It’s saying so much you wouldn’t need any other jewelry.”

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2. Songs from the Heart Dress, $68.
“I look for items that are wearable in a variety of climates, unique and inexpensive. My first request would be a comfy, customized dress from Kelans Art Couture. Send Kelans your measurements and they sew the dress to fit you exactly. You can even choose the fabric color.”

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3. JazJewelz Abalone and Brass Necklace, $27
“Easily create a complete outfit when you pair the heart dress with a serious statement necklace. Jazjewlz repurposed materials to create this stand-out (and very affordable) piece. Also love their Blue Tagua Nut Necklace.”

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FOF Style Guru Susan Hersh is a Ford model and the host and executive producer of Meet The Experts.

4. Bernardo Packable Down Vest, $78.00
“Lightweight, warm (without being bulky) and universally flattering. This is a great gift for anyone who runs around doing errands (i.e. everyone). Comes in bright, lush colors as well as neutrals.”

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5. Echo Touch Tech Gloves, Starting at $32
“Brilliantly designed to work with touch screens, so you don’t have to take your gloves off to futz with your iphone! Comes in 30 different styles, from fair isle, to cashmere, to ‘cheetah.'”

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FOF Style Guru Terry Gibralter is the Sr. Vice President and Creative Director at Grey advertising as well as a fashion stylist and the creator of these clever work accessories.

6. Audrey Necklace from MoMa Store, $98.
“Vintage-inspired and perfect for the holidays and beyond. I’ve bought many well-priced pieces at MoMA and they never fail to garner lots of attention.  People always seem surprised when I say where they’re from–even more so when I tell them the price!”

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7. Helene Berman Faux Fur Collar $46
“A cool addition to a fitted sweater, a sheath dress or a narrow coat. Love the great price and the fact that its faux!  Found it on The Outnet, one of the designer discount sites I check every day.”

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8. Sumana Dress from Anthropologie, $198
“Checks two of my common shopping boxes: (1) colorful and (2) slightly ethnic. I love the boho print, and I can see it over velvet skinny jeans or leggings, or on an island getaway if I get lucky enough to have one.”

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FOF Style Guru Lovey Dash is a Beverly Hills-based personal stylist.

9. “Lovable” flat from Nine West, (starting at $42)
“I’m madly in love with this deal of the century. Why buy Prada when I can have these ballet slippers for $42$?”

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10. Monica di Creddo Tropicalia Ring ($74) and Tropicalia Rose Ring ($84)
“Move over Dior. Love these rings–especially the Swarovkski Crystal baguettes. I would like two, please!”
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FOF Linda Cohen owns her own consulting business specializing in retail merchandising.

11. Michael Kors Leather Wrap Bracelet, $75
“I wear a lot of black in the winter so I like accessories that add color and texture This Michael Kors bracelet gives you just the right amount of sophisticated “bling” for the holiday season as well as any vacation or warm weather climate.”

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12. Calypso St. Barth Sari Scarf, Kipour Scarf and Lady Scarf ($135 each)
“Scarves that you can wear 12 months of the year (with jeans or to work) are perfect gifts. I like the weight of this scarf as well as the print and beads–bohemian and chic.”

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13. Ann Taylor Icicle Beaded Scarf, $68
“Subtle ‘bling’ you can wear with a cashmere sweater and pants, jeans and a tee-shirt our any winter coat.”

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14. Ann Taylor Golden Lace Long Necklace with Chains, $98
“This Gatsbyish necklace has the most magnificent 1920s feel. It’s capable of taking your favorite jeans, blouse and heels to an even more fabulous place. Add it to any holiday dress and use the 2″ extender, because some pieces just look sexier and richer when you leave them long.”

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FOF Style Guru Sherrie Mathieson is a celebrated costume designer and stylist who has worked with everyone from Susan Sarandon to Brooke Shields. She is the author of two guides to finding great style after 50, Forever Cool and Steal this Style.

15. Recycled Rubber Bracelets from Made with Love, $28 for a set of 18
“These are fun, inexpensive and come in 8 stylish colors. (I love the orange.) Best of all, the profits go to L’Empire des Enfants, a center for homeless children from the streets of Dakar, Senegal.”

Enter to win a stunning statement necklace from Lilah Gabriel by leaving a comment below.

One FOF will win.
(See all our past winners, here.)
(See official rules, here.)
Contest closes December 14, 2011 at midnight E.S.T.

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{Gift Guide} The 8 Top Toys for Tots

Want a gift that the kids will play with long past Christmas morning? Here are 8 toys and games to GIVE this season, recommended by FOFs who are serious about play.

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FOF Sarah Baldwin spent 20 years as an elementary school teacher before opening Bella Luna Toys in 2002, an online shop specializing in Waldorf toys. The Waldorf method emphasizes the role of imagination in learning, and the toys are designed to do the same, from modeling clay and “dress up silks” to a gorgeous wooden dollhouse fit for faeries. Sarah blogs about parenting, education and play at Moon Child.

1. Waldorf Rocker Board, $129.95
“Rocker Boards are extremely popular in Waldorf classrooms for their developmental benefits and great open-ended play value. They can ‘become’ a boat, a bridge, a slide or a cradle. They also help develop a child’s sense of balance and core strength, but kids just know they are fun!”

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2. Play Silks from Sarah’s Silks, $14.50
“Large squares of colored silk were a staple in my classroom. It may not look like a ‘toy,’  but children play with them in so many ways! They become capes, headdresses, belts, skirts or a baby blanket for a favorite dolly. A blue silk can become a pond or a lake for a child’s small toys; a green silk may become a grassy meadow. The possibilities are endless!”

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3. Modeling Beeswax, $21.95
“Sweet-smelling, colored beeswax makes an ideal modeling medium for children. It never dries out and is reusable. After warming up the wax in your hands, it becomes pliable and can be molded into people, animals, trees, butterflies–you name it! As it cools, it hardens, but can later be warmed up again, and molded into new forms.”

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4. Twig Studio Wooden Doll House, $299.95
“With multiple levels and a variety of charming details, it makes a home for a dollhouse family, or a hideaway for gnomes, fairies and wooden animals. It also comes in a smaller version.”

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FOF Mara Kaplan is a mom and an advocate for children with special needs.  Her consulting company, Let Kids Play, makes sure playgrounds and toys are accessible and fun for all kids. You can find more recommendations on her blog, LetKidsPlay.

5. Tegu Blocks, $110 and up
“These beautifully-made wooden blocks have magnets in them, making it easier for a child to build without knocking the blocks down accidentally. Perfect for children working on fine motor skills. Plus, Tegu donates a portion of their proceeds to plant trees in Honduras or fund a day of school for a child in Tegucigalpa.”

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6. Green Toys’ Sandwich Shop or Pizza Maker, $22.04
“Sandwich Shop and Pizza Maker are the newest additions to Green Toys’ eco-friendly line. Each toy comes with over 15 realistic pieces, made in the USA from food-safe, 100-percent recycled plastic milk containers. While serving you lunch, your child is working on writing, memory, speech, and many other cognitive skills.”

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7. Brain Noodles, $14
“Brain Noodles are fluffy, fiber stems that resemble jumbo pipe cleaners. They bend and twist anyway you want, are easy to hold and manipulate, and provide a unique sensory feel which many children love. Your child can make simple or complex sculptures without making a huge mess.”

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8. Rubbabu Toys, $11.95 and up
“Rubbabu makes vehicles, balls, shapes and blocks that children can easily grip and catch. All made from 100-percent biodegradable, all-natural rubber. They also bounce! Perfect for improving motor skills and hand-eye coordination.”

Enter to win a Waldorf Rocker Board by leaving a comment below.

One FOF will win.
(See all our past winners, here.)
(See official rules, here.)
Contest closes December 18, 2011 at midnight E.S.T.

{Gift Guide} 13 Fave Food Gifts

Ho ho ho…ly cow, holiday time is here. Are all the foodies on your list accounted for? FOF Food Gurus recommend the tastiest treats to GIVE gourmands.

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FOF Jill Silverman Hough is a food and wine writer, culinary instructor, and the author of the 100 Perfect Pairings cookbooks.

1. Olive Oils from The Olive Press (starting at $18) in this adorable dachshund cruet set from Velocity Art and Designs, $40
“I’ve tasted lots of different olive oils from lots of different producers and this is hands-down my favorite. The individual olive flavors (arbequena, ascolano, etc.) really come through. Their citrus olive oils are the absolute best, with lots of true flavor and little of the bitterness that sometimes accompanies. The dog-lover in your life might especially like this cute dachshund cruet.”

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2. Salami of the Month Club from Olympic Provisions, $135
“You get one salami delivered each month, for an entire year. I’ve tasted their salami nola, saucisson d’Arles, saucisson d’Alsace, and saucisson sec and loved ‘em all–subtle yet complex flavors, the textures are deliciously creamy and chewy.”

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3. Sweets from Poco Dolce, starting at $16
“Sometimes when trendy chocolatiers get creative it’s just too much savory seasonings and/or not great chocolate. But, with Poco Dolce, a small-batch artisanal producer based in San Francisco, the chocolate itself is really good and the flavors are creative, but subtle. I particularly liked their olive oil bar with its soft, sexy texture and can hardly stop eating their toffee tiles.”

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4. Happy Goat Caramels, starting at $6.99
“Caramels are so hot these days that there are a million to choose from. But these have that slight goat-cheese flavor that makes them uniquely delicious – like dulce de leche in a candy wrapper. There are several flavors – I particularly like the vanilla bean and winter spice. I also like their Scotch caramel sauce, which is wonderfully boozy.”

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FOF Julia della Croce is one of America’s foremost authorities on Italian food, with over 13 cookbooks bearing her name. She is also author of the food blog, Fork Tales.

5. Fabbri “Amarena” cherries, $12.99 (8 oz) to $69.95 (7 lb, 10 oz) also available at select Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table stores
“The most superb cherries you’ll ever eat, and they come in a beautiful, opaline jar. The company that makes them was started in 1905 in Bologna by the current owner’s great grandmother.”

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6. Signed copies of Julia’s cookbooks with personalized messages, $15-$35

“I ship them in time for the holidays and offer both my cookbooks in print, or out-of-print, hard-to-find books–as long as they last.”

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7. Livestock for a family in need, starting at $10 for a share

“Heifer International lets you give gifts of livestock, such as baby goats and chickens, to needy families all over the world. In many poor countries owning livestock can mean having the ability to provide eggs or milk to a family or being able to sell the extra to pay for other staples, medicine or clothing. Gifts of livestock can also reproduce, so provide very long-lasting resources. There’s little in the way of middlemen here–your money really goes directly to the people they say it does.”

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8. Harbor Candy, $5.95 (Tea Infused Chocolates) to $54 (Grande Sampler)
“The Harbor Candy Shop, Ogunquit, Maine, is one of the best candy stores in the U.S. My husband and I go to Ogunquit every August, and this amazing shop is one of the reasons. Superb quality; handmade candies and chocolates are made on the premises. My favorites are the caramallows and the orange slices in chocolate. My daughter loves their beautiful marzipan and my husband brings the crystalized ginger home every August for his boss’s wife.”

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Cathy Wheelbarrow is an FOF food guru and brilliant mind behind the fabulous cooking blog,
Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen

9. Canal House Cookbooks, $10-$19.95
“Away from the clamor of food with foam and exotic ingredients, Christopher Hershheimer and Melissa Hamilton have created an oasis of food sanity in their Canal House series. These are elegant cookbooks with simple, exceptional recipes. The first six books in the series were curated seasonally, and beginning with January, the next grouping will be by cuisine, with Italian food up first. A perfect cookbook or series for any cook.”

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10. The Food52 Cookbook, $19.92
“Okay, I’ve got two recipes in this book, but that’s not the only reason I’m suggesting it.  The Food52 Cookbook from Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs collects the best of food52.com’s recipes, gathered from home cooks everywhere. There are cakes and cookies, main dishes, sandwiches, cocktails and more. And every recipe has been tested, so you can be sure you’ll end up with great results.”

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11. Handmade Marshmallows from Eat Boutique, $24.95
“A sweet treat, all ready to float on a cup of hot cocoa that first snow day. Eat Boutique has many lovely food gifts gathered from artisan cooks around the country.”

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12. Picot Platter from Anthropologie, $98
“This lace-patterned, perfectly white serving dish will make your holiday cookies look even more delicious.”

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Meridith Ford Goldman is an FOF food guru, food writer and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution dining critic.

13. An adopted olive tree from Nudo, in Italy, $109
“You can choose from dozens of olive groves, pick the type of tree you think your recipient would prefer and then they’ll reap the rewards all year long–Nudo sends olive oil from their tree to their doorstep.”

Enter to win this adorable dachshund cruet set by leaving a comment below.

One FOF will win.
(See all our past winners, here.)
(See official rules, here.)
Contest closes December 14, 2011 at midnight E.S.T.

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{Gift Guide} 7 books to wrap up this holiday season

Can’t get a read on what your friends and family want for the holidays? Here’s the ultimate list of books to GIVE this holiday season brought to you by FOF book critic Linda Wolfe, the award-winning author of 10 books and a 12-year veteran of the National Book Critics Circle.

Then comment below for a chance to RECEIVE one of Linda’s top picks–“Then Again,” Diane Keaton’s new memoir. (Three FOFs will win.)

FOR CELEBRITY MEMOIR BUFFS:


“Then Again” by Diane Keaton. Random House. 291 pages

Keaton’s memoir, “Then Again,” is not just her story, it’s her mother’s as well. Dorothy Keaton Hall, who died at the age of eighty-six, left behind her eighty-five journals and scrapbooks that Keaton never bothered to read while her mother was alive. But in 2008, after her mother’s death, she began ploughing through them, in the process discovering things about her mother she never knew – among them her mother’s thwarted ambitions and her early fear of memory loss.

Keaton uses Dorothy’s diaries as a scaffolding from which to explore and recount her own life: her girlhood insecurities and her adult strengths, her stunning career, her love affairs with Woody Allen, Al Pacino and Warren Beatty, and her late-in-life realization that despite the persona she’d cultivated as a woman who, like Garbo, preferred being alone, her life felt empty without children. At the age of 50, she adopted two of them, and became as engaged a mother as her own had been.

The book is a bit scattered – as one might expect a book of Keaton’s to be – with hasty entries and more thoughtful ones, reflections that are to the point, and others that are vague and puzzling. It’s really rather like a scrapbook itself, a collection of observations, reflections, and images, rather than a straightforward memoir. But it’s charming, just like its author. We learn that this famous beauty was so critical of her body that she became bulimic, stuffing herself with favorite foods only to void them right after consumption. It’s also poignant. We learn how sad it makes Keaton feel to consider the difference between her own life and that of her mother: starting in her fifties, after her children grew up and left her with an empty nest, Dorothy endured years of loneliness, whereas Keaton in her fifties has been able to come “out of isolation into a kind of family-of-man scenario, complete with an extended family, new friends and much needed ordinary activities.”
The book is an homage to her mother, a tribute to her own children, and an affirmation of woman’s ability to keep growing throughout life.

“Bossypants” by Tina Fey. Little Brown, 277 pp.

Tina Fey, creator and star of TV’s “30 Rock” and former head writer and occasional star on “Saturday Night Live,” has written not a memoir, exactly, but a collection of chronological essays about important periods of her life – including the one where she gets her first period. Her mother gives her a starter’s kit: some sanitary napkins, panty liners, and two pamphlets, one for a girl to read, the other for her mother to read and discuss with her. That 10-year-old Fey’s mother hasn’t bothered to read her pamphlet but just turned it over to her daughter isn’t half the fun here; what’s funnier is that Fey remains totally unprepared for her first bleed, and doesn’t even recognize what is happening to her when her underthings turn red. “I knew from commercials that one’s menstrual period was a blue liquid you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads to test their absorbency,” she writes. This wasn’t blue, so…I ignored it for a few hours.”

If you don’t find this funny, you’d best stop reading. Period. (Pun intended.)
The book contains Nora Ephron-like tips for women entering the male-controlled work world: “No pigtails. No tube tops.” And “You’re not in competition with other women; you’re in competition with everyone.” Of interviewing for a job on “Saturday Night Live,” Fey writes, “Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.” Of going to college at the University of Virginia, “I spent four years attempting to charm the uninterested.” Of turning forty, “I need to take my pants off as soon as I get home. I didn’t used to have to do that. But now I do.” Of doing a photo shoot, “The makeup artist will work methodically on your eyelids with a series of tickly little brushes for a hundred minutes,” and “at really fancy shoots, a celebrity fecalist will study your bowel movements and adjust your humours.”

If you don’t love Fey, I’d say you don’t have a sense of humor, let alone good bodily semifluids.

FOR FICTION LOVERS:

“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides. FSG, 406 pp.

Like a Jane Austen novel written for our own times, the plot of Eugenides’ engaging new book, “The Marriage Plot,” concerns a young woman, her suitors, and her quest for a lifelong partner. But our world is a far more confusing one than the marriage-means-happy-ending society inhabited by Emma and Elizabeth and Austen’s other heroines. Finding one’s way in it is far from simple, and Eugenides’ heroine, Madeleine, as well as her two suitors, Leonard and Mitchell, are having a hard time when the book begins and the three of them, students at Brown in 1982, are about to graduate.

Madeleine, a literature student who’s pretty, rich, and sexually-inquisitive, is desperately in love with Leonard, a brilliant but bipolar science student who initiates her into physical intimacy but can’t quite commit to their relationship. And Mitchell, fascinated by religion and philosophy, is in love with Madeleine, who couldn’t care less.

After they graduate, Madeleine, unsure of what kind of career to pursue, flounders. Leonard learns that brilliance isn’t enough, and Mitchell, searching for life’s deeper meanings by working with Mother Teresa in India, loses his youthful idealism. I won’t tell you who Madeleine ends up with, but, without giving away too much, I want to say that despite having known a few manic-depressives and read a great deal about that illness, the way Eugenides shows us the awful progression of the disease beats any rendition I’ve ever read in fiction. Equally special is his satirical take on the absurd literary theories in vogue in the eighties.

Witty and moving, this book about love, sex, and coming of age, gets being young in the eighties altogether right. And I suspect it’s pretty accurate about the pleasures and problems of being young in any decade.

“State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett. Harper/HarperCollins. 353 pages.

I reviewed this book at length earlier this year, so I’ll be brief and just say here that if I had to tell you my choice for the “Number One Best Book of 2011,” it’d be “Age of Wonder.” With more than a touch of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” this book is a stirring evocation of a primitive world, a mystery tale, and a deft exploration of the character of two brilliant women. In the depths of the Amazon, the heroine, self-effacing Dr. Marina Singh, must discover the secrets that the imposing Dr. Annick Swenson, a one-time mentor of hers, is hiding from the rest of the world. She also must learn how to live and even thrive in barbarous surroundings, and become psychologically strong enough to defy her teacher.

You’ll be with Marina, learning her thoughts as if inside her head and experiencing her alien surroundings with her distinctive eyes and ears, throughout this stunning tale.

11/22/63 by Stephen King. Scribner. 849 pp.

I’m not a fan of horror stories, don’t like reading about cars with minds of their own, killer viruses or crazed fans, so I rarely read King. But this book is about horror of a different sort–and it’s terrific. The horror in “11/22/63” is time, an adversary that each of us must do battle with, and which always, whatever our circumstances, defeats us, taking away our abilities, our strengths, and all that we most prize.

A science fiction tale with that hoary old subject, time travel, “11/22/63” recounts the experiences of a Maine schoolteacher, Jake Epping, who goes back into the world of the late nineteen-fifties bent on a mission: to stop Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. King recreates that world with meticulous and delightful detail, from the vibrant preservative-free taste of root beer, to 19.9 cents-a-gallon gasoline, to music you could really dance to. But the past has its drawbacks. “It’s a time,” King points out, “for which a lot of people felt nostalgic. Possibly because they had forgotten how bad the past smelled.”
Not only does the past smell bad, it’s rife with poverty and racial strife. Yet the good-natured Epping begins to prefer the past, with all its unsavoriness, to his actual present. He takes a job as teacher in a small Texas town, gets to know the Oswald family and–this will delight conspiracy theorists–tries to determine if Oswald was the only person responsible for Kennedy’s death. He also falls passionately in love with the school librarian.

King has bigger fish to fry in this work than in most of his other novels. The book has a gripping plot and a likeable hero in pursuit of an ominous killer, but the author is also in pursuit of the answers to the Big Questions: Would today’s world be different if Kennedy had not been killed? Is there any way to slow time’s indifference to human life? Is love the only thing that makes life worth living? And, is loss always our inevitable fate?

FOR HISTORY FANS:

“Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” by Robert K. Massie, Random House, 625 pages

Despite its heft, this doorstopper of a biography goes down as smooth as fine Beluga caviar. It’s the story of Catherine the Great, an obscure German princess who deposed her ineffectual alcoholic husband, Czar Peter III, in 1762, seized the throne of Russia, and ended up ruling that vast turbulent country for more than thirty years.

In Massie’s hands, the start of the story has all the elements of a fairy tale: a child scorned by her mother, plucked from obscurity by a kindly aunt (who just happened to be the daughter of the czar of Russia), decked out by that fairy godmother of a relative in furs and jewels, and married amid wild celebration to the future czar. “An adolescent girl,” Massie tells us, “was launched on a great adventure.”

But of course, Catherine was no fairy tale princess. And her story becomes ever more interesting as she learns to be a ruler, finding her way to gain and hold onto power despite constant threats. A quick study, she had taught herself at an early age was always to appear courteous and humble, to be a good listener, and to mask her considerable brains. But as she matured, her brilliance became evident to all who knew her, evoking respect even from such luminaries as Voltaire and Diderot. “I would say about myself,” she wrote in “A Secret Confession,” a private account of her life and loves, “that I was a true gentleman with a mind more male than female.”

Catherine reformed and reorganized Russia, she encouraged the arts, education and medical care, put down powerful rebellions, survived innumerable political crises and–somewhat ruthlessly–accomplished several land grabs that greatly extended Russia’s territory. But, aside from being an astute monarch, she was above all a woman, endlessly looking for the love she had been denied by her mother and lacked in her marriage–her husband had refused to make love to her during their nine years together. She said she was “Loath to be without love for even a single hour,” took numerous lovers, and wrote to one of them, “If you want to keep me forever, then show me as much friendship as love.”
Massie’s Catherine is not only a political genius, but a flesh-and-blood woman who at times sounds just like one’s BFF.

“1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” by Charles C. Mann. Knopf 535 pp.

Charles C. Mann’s best-selling “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” was a sweeping examination of life in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. His “1493” takes up the story of what followed: the vast spread of plants and peoples that is known as the “Columbian Exchange.” “After 1492,” Mann explains, “the world’s ecosystems collided and mixed as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the oceans. The Columbian Exchange…is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Swtizerland, and chili peppers in Turkey and Thailand. To ecologists [it] is arguably the most important event since the death of the dinosaurs.”

Indeed, Mann tells us, it has created an altogether new ecological era, the “Homogenocene” or the Age of Homogeneity, the era in which we live, although most of us just call it “Globalization.” Undeniably, we have become One World, where what happens in Greece affects our stock market, what happens in China effects our manufacturing, what happens in Africa affects our hospitals. But the process, so recent-seeming, started ‘way back then, immediately after Columbus’s history-altering discovery.

The Columbian Exchange has vastly benefited mankind, spreading foods that not only delighted, like those tomatoes and oranges, but foods that filled hungry bellies, like wheat and corn. Nevertheless, benefit and detriment are the two faces of the Exchange’s coin. Take the exchange of plants: along with its beneficence it brought pests never before known in the West and mighty difficult to eliminate. Or take the spread of peoples: the European settlers who descended on the ancient native populations destroyed them both actively and inadvertently–inadvertently because they brought with them diseases for which these populations had no resistance. Today, it is Western society that is threatened by diseases for which we have no resistance, viruses transferred from monkeys to man in Africa and then brought–by plane–to new shores.

Mann, an extremely lively writer, gives us fascinating portraits of some of the little known figures responsible for the spread of specific plants, animals, people and germs. And he warns us about the most frightening consequences of the Columbian Exchange–not just the spread of diseases, but climate change and the destruction of ancient species. “On the one hand,” he writes of our Age of Homgeneity, “people want the wash of goods and services that the worldwide market provides.” But on the other hand, “Things feel changed and scary.”

You can say that again!

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