Ayun Halliday’s Holiday Gift Suggestion

It’s a delight to welcome Ayun Halliday back to these pages—some years back, she wrote a delightful guest essay about her pet peeves in foodie memoirs. She’s just published The Zinester’s Guide to NYC, a compendium of tips on what to do and where to do it from nearly two dozen zine creators who make the city their home; you’re as likely to find listings for the best open mic nights as you are for fine art museums, along with sections on the city’s best 99-cent stores and the locations of a few choice photobooths. Ayun has several events planned at New York City bookstores in December 2010; be sure to visit her website for details!


The book I’m hoping to get this holiday season, possibly by putting it under the tree with my husband’s name attached is Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness. I have no doubt it will be transcendent, but after several misfires wherein I gave someone a book I had yet to read myself, I’m going to play it safe by recommending one of this prolific author’s earlier books, The Principles of Uncertainty. It remains one of the best presents I ever received. Articulating all the reasons I love it and its author would take me all the way to New Year’s Eve, so I’ll limit myself to but a paltry few.

Her zest for life triumphs over the most Eeyore-ish of moods: “I return to New York. Tired. Sad. The world is coming to an end. What to do? What to do? I know what to do. Spend the day on the subway. Oh wonderful life-affirming two-dollar subway ride.” She documents the smallest details of the passing parade as if that’s what matters most (“the first superlative tassel”); she rescues dead people from obscurity with just a few words: “My favorite obituary is that of Megan Boyd. She lived in a tiny village in Scotland and spent her life making exquisite flies for the local fisherman and for Kings.” She assigns fierce sentimental—and thus genuine—value to things others throw away and forget: “We could examine my collection of sponges from around the world. Or the mosses of Long Island, which is an intact collection that I bought in a bookstore. It came in a shoebox that once held a pair of 7-1/2 B pumps.” She draws comforting connections, even when the points she is connecting are terribly sad: “Gershwin died at the age of 38 of a brain tumor. He is buried in the same cemetery as my husband.”

She knows how to create the time to actually do the kind of things I would like to do: “I have embroidered Goethe’s lines from Faust onto white fabric.”

She loves people: “At the Opera, there was a pink soft ice cream of a woman. During intermission, she sipped water from a tiny cone-shaped paper cup. Brava, woman sipping water. Brava!” And food. And context. “What is better than a sliced egg sandwich, eaten by someone named Sally at a luncheonette counter on a drizzly day in New York City?”

Plus there is a tear-out map in the back of which she says, “Either put it on the wall or put it back into the book. If you put it back into the book, it may one day fall out when someone browses through the book and it will become a thing that falls out of a book.” And it is handwritten, lavishly illustrated, and has a truly dazzling index.

Several years after my friend Mo O’Grodnik gave it to me for my birthday, it continues to feel like a gift, especially when insomnia wakes me in the middle of the night, and page through it until I can drift off again.

I just learned that Kalman is reading at BookCourt the night after the Zinester’s Guide to NYC Non-Denominational Brooklyn Cookie Swap. I’m going to go tell her how much her books mean to me, and ask her to sign several copies of And the Pursuit of Happiness, and then I’m going to give them as presents.

3 December 2010 | gift ideas |