Sharon’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide

Here is a gift guide, because I felt like writing one. Did anyone ask for this? No. Do I have enough clout to justify the effort? Also no. Here it is anyway.

(If you are one of my friends or family, and you are close enough to me that it is likely I will be giving you presents in December, STOP READING!!!)

There are no affiliate links in this, because despite the weird emails I get asking me to promote stuff, I’m not an influencer. There are also no Amazon links here—that’s right, this is an AMAZON-FREE GIFT GUIDE. (Of course, most of the stuff here can be bought on Amazon, but I strongly urge you to buy from small businesses—local if possible—or at the very least, direct from the companies themselves.)

Every single item on this list is a thing I have bought or used myself, that I seriously love, and can wholeheartedly recommend. Again, there is zero monetary incentive for me to post this stuff. There isn’t a super strong theme here, although I kind of noticed that everything fits in the category of “stuff that makes life at home more enjoyable,” because travel is a distant memory at this point.

The Candle Section

As a brand-sensitive Millennial I know I’m supposed to want/gift Diptyque and Jo Malone candles, because that’s what Instagram tells me, but you know what? Candles are a total racket. We’re already overpaying for smelly wax, why not support small businesses while we’re at it? Here are candles I have actually bought and enjoyed that smell great, aren’t ridiculously overpriced, and will make you seem hip and in-the-know and not at all basic.

Sạch Candles ($22)

Sạch is a new candle company based in LA, run by a Vietnamese-American couple and featuring scents that pay homage to their heritage. They also use recyclable/sustainable materials, which I really appreciate. I recently ordered the Sophie’s Garden candle, purely for the Howl’s Moving Castle reference, and am delighted at how it makes the room smell lovely even when it’s not lit.

Ilha Candles ($25)

Ilha is a Taiwanese-American-owned company based in NYC with seriously good-smelling candles. My favorite is the Jasmine Green Tea candle—it legitimately smells like there’s a fresh pot of jasmine green tea in the room. (It’s been super confusing for me, but in a good way.) They also have a holiday collection; I got a sample of Spruce ($25) and can attest that it smells warm and pine-y and very holiday-ish.

Harlem Candle Co. ($45)

I discovered this brand via a roundup of Black-owned candle companies, and really loved the luxe packaging and double-wick construction. The scents are lovely and appropriately strong; when I lit Love in a bathroom it made the surrounding rooms smell like rose. I have not personally gotten anything from the Harlem Renaissance line yet (I’m 100% a floral scents girl) but the colors and descriptions feel very cozy and the Holiday candle, inspired by Billie Holiday, makes for a very festive Christmas present.

The Book Section

Firstly:

Here’s your regular PSA from me: DON’T BUY BOOKS FROM AMAZON. (If you’re not fazed by the labor rights violations or the intentional, money-losing strategy to undercut brick-and-mortar bookstores, consider that you will look like a terrible person if you end up gifting someone a counterfeit book.)

I strongly recommend buying from your favorite local indie bookstore; I have a membership to Skylight Books in LA, which gives me an eternal discount and free shipping. Other favorites that I’ve ordered from in the past: Vroman’s (also in LA), Powell’s (Portland, OR), BookPeople (Austin, TX) and Strand Books (NYC, although the owner’s record during this pandemic is very hmmm).

If buying local/indie is not a viable option for you, or you’re overwhelmed by the options, or whatever, then buy your books from Bookshop.org—their warehouse fulfillment system works very similarly to Amazon’s and books are also sold below retail price, but the proceeds are split among independent booksellers. All my book links below go to Bookshop.org.

Secondly:

Like a disapproving high school English teacher, I am really disappointed that a lot of people who voiced their milquetoast support for Black Lives Matter this year ended up never doing the reading. Look, people, it’s not enough to say “Racism is bad!” and then 1) not do the bare minimum to examine your own biases and complicity (yes, it’s work, but you know what’s even more work? Being a POC in America in 2020, and we can’t opt out of that nonsense) and 2) maintain the disproportionate burden on the aforementioned POC in America in 2020 to educate others.

Anyone who would have read White Fragility or So You Want to Talk About Race or How to Be an Anti-Racist has already bought them. At this point, if you gifted those books to anyone, they would shove them to the back of their shelf and never read it, so here are some books to trick people into doing a fraction of a fraction of the anti-racist reading they should have done a long time ago.

Recommendation #1: Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Ideal for: People who exclusively read funny celebrity memoirs and get scared off by the types of books that win literary prizes.
Notes: This was genuinely one of my favorite books this year; it’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny (if you were on a plane to London in January being kept awake by that weird girl huehuehue-ing in the aisle seat, sorry that was me) and unapologetically incisive about the toll of systemic racism.

Recommendation #2: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Ideal for: People who posted black squares on Instagram.
Notes: This book made me wonder if I should join a book club (I shouldn’t) just because it’s so perfect for breathless discussion. The story initially hits enough romantic fiction tropes that you think it’s another lighthearted piece of chick lit, but it ends up subverting expectations brilliantly. It also demonstrates the many nuances of benevolent/paternalistic/casual racism, the dangers of tokenism, and the many faces of the white savior complex. It also feels very grounded in our present reality, with viral videos, Instagram stalking, and hashtag-girl-power feminism playing important roles in the story.

Recommendation #3: Minor Feelings: an Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Ideal for: The thoughtful, compassionate ally in your life who’s gotten the basics of American Racism 101 down and is ready for the next level of complexity.
Notes: I will probably never not recommend this book, unless it turns out that Cathy Park Hong is, I dunno, a puppy-kicking monster and we have to #cancel her. I had SO MANY MOMENTS in this book where I suddenly saw my own experience described with startling clarity; I know a lot of fellow Asian-American reading friends had extremely similar experiences. I don’t know why any of us should bother trying to explain the complexity of Asian-American identity (as well as how Asian-American history is deeply intertwined with the civil rights movement and white supremacy) anymore; we should just hit people over the head with a copy this book whenever they start bumbling into Minor Feelings territory. (Basically what I’m saying is that it would be enormously beneficial if people besides Asian-Americans read this book.)

(There are, obviously, many other books that tackle ~racism and identity~ but I think these three are non-intimidating entry points for people. A reminder that I’m reviewing every book I read in 2020 over at an Instagram account I keep solely for that purpose, so you can get way more recommendations there.)

The Cozy Section

Hario Maru 450mL. (Non-Amazon links: Sur la Table, Mem Tea, Harney & Sons EU)

I’m very much A Tea Person, and one of the things that happens when you’re A Tea Person is that EVERYONE gifts you teapots for every occasion, year after year. I have tried (and disliked) many teapots. There is one (1) that has never let me down. The One Teapot, you might say.

This humble and unassuming Hario teapot is the real MVP: it doesn’t dribble when you pour, the handle is perfectly shaped so your knuckles don’t get burnt, and the strainer dips low enough that even when you only brew a half pot’s worth for yourself, the leaves get properly submerged. IMO there is no better teapot out there.

Takeya Actives Water Bottle with Straw Lid ($33, but they’re running a 30% off special)

It may seem very weird for me to suggest a water bottle as a great gift, but hear me out. I generally have a hard-ass time staying hydrated, especially now that I’m home 24/7. For whatever reason, I spill or slop water on myself all the damn time, and I…don’t like the taste or the sensation of drinking water out of a cup??? I know! I’m weird! I’ve asked science to figure me out but they’re preoccupied working on the vaccine!

I bought myself this water bottle this year and it was a game-changer. After I got over the ridiculousness of buying a product with “Actives” in the name for sitting around the house, I kicked myself for not getting it earlier. It’s SO easy for me to sip water absentmindedly without spilling, the insulation keeps cold water cold and hot water hot (sometimes I drink plain hot water! we’ve already established that I am weird!), and I swear water tastes better through a straw. I initially felt very ambivalent about the handle (it hinges; don’t get confused by the product photo), but it’s turned out to be brilliant for [checks notes] toting my water around the house while I have my hands full with my laptop and other assorted devices.

If you gift this to anyone, I recommend throwing in a straw and bottle cleaning kit, just because all reusable water bottles get funky.

Vanuba Anoa Slippers, $60 (Etsy)

I really try not to claim that consumer products will improve your life or increase your happiness, but these slippers were a turning point in my year. (Look, 2020 has been A YEAR. Don’t judge.) I love those fluffy shearling-lined moccasin slippers as much as the next person, but LA is just too warm to wear them most of the year. Like the Takeya water bottle, these slippers were a game-changer: they were snug and comforting, like a weighted blanket for my feet, but weren’t too warm or stifling in SoCal temps. I keep thinking of Bruce Willis “making fists with your toes” in Die Hard, because this is something I get to do ALL DAY now. 10/10 would recommend.

While $60 is on the steeper end for house slippers, I think these are 100% worth it because 1) the soles offer actual support, and 2) the slippers are made of natural, non-synthetic materials (sheep’s wool and rubber), and these days I’m trying to avoid as many non-biodegradable materials as possible. You know, for the earth?

Pigeon Posted ($8.27 for a pack of 6)

The amount of letter-writing I did SKYROCKETED this year; it’s been one of the few silver linings of physical isolation. I’ve gone through so many stationery sets, and these Pigeon Posted sheets stood out. They’re a single piece of very sturdy paper that arrives pre-folded; you write on the inside, fold it up, and then hold the entire thing in place with your postage stamp. I’ve sent these domestically and internationally and 1) they hold up and 2) people are delighted by them, to the point that I’m giving out packs as gifts now.

KAO MegRhythm Eye Masks ($19 for 14)

I love introducing people to these masks, because something in them wakes up, they embrace their new, better life, and I get to be a part of it. The eye masks gently heat up when you take them out of the packaging (don’t worry, they don’t ever get too hot) and release really soothing fragrance; I linked to the lavender scent because that’s pretty much a universally soothing scent, but my personal favorite is actually yuzu.

I don’t know if I can overstate how wonderful these masks are; they’ve helped me with mild headaches, eye strain, and have helped calm me down when I can’t fall asleep. They’re also just utterly relaxing, calming treats, and I think we could all use extra calm and relaxation this year. You can get these masks way cheaper (I stocked up on a trip to Tokyo in the Before Times) but I’ve been ordering from Glowie Co. frequently out of convenience, and I’d consider <$20 a reasonable price for a box of these.

Happy shopping!

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A Few Updates

I logged into my blog just now to make another Twitter thread post, and checked to see when I’d last updated this blog (“It’s been a while, maybe two months?”). To my mild horror, I found that my last post was on January 8.

That was a whole era ago—a different, simpler time before a global pandemic hit a woefully unprepared America, before hundreds of thousands of people died, before several waves of panic-buying and lockdowns, before several industries (including the arts) were forced to face the threat of nonexistence, before a national-and-then-international reckoning with racial inequities and the generational legacy of violence, before massive job losses and medical equipment shortages and viral hotspots, and before countless other cracks, visible and invisible, appeared in the structure of society, and we learned that nothing is certain, and everything is frightening.

Against the backdrop of all of this, my own little life has been quietly chugging along, and 2020 has served up a truly mixed bag, career-wise: a few steps forward, a few steps GONE. Poof.

The important thing though, is that I am okay. I have a roof over my head and food in the fridge. I hope you’re okay too, and if you’re able to I hope you’re doing what you can to support others around you, whether that’s supporting a small local business, tipping delivery workers generously, or donating to food banks and mutual aid funds. (I’ve been doing my best to do all of the above.)

With that, here are some updates on what I’ve been doing this year, for those of you who still follow my blog but not social media (I know you exist! I see you!)

  • I released two recordings this year. They’re both short, sweet singles, and you should absolutely listen to them on your streaming service of choice, so I can earn a few pennies. (The links below allow you to choose your streaming service, FYI.)
  • To accompany the first release and celebrate Louise Farrenc, I put together a gender-balanced playlist featuring my new recording as well as other gorgeous pieces of solo piano Romantic music. (I still listen to it; it’s a good playlist, dammit.)
  • I did a couple of interviews in which I discuss my own musical journey, these lesser-played composers I love so much, my take on success and the music world, the Uncertain Times the music industry is in, etc.
  • I started, then stalled on, a new outlet for my writing on Substack. At the beginning of the year I gave into peer pressure joined several of my colleagues by setting up a Substack, with the intention of publishing once a month. I hit it out of the park, if I do say so myself, with my first post, a take on the double standards in classical music that set the scene for dumbest controversy ever, and was all set to keep the momentum going once a month. Then the pandemic hit the US, devastating, well, everything, and suddenly the posts I had in the can seemed tone-deaf and inappropriate. I haven’t updated since, but I think I’m ready to have another go soon.
  • I’m still writing and posting practice videos over on Patreon. This is the one platform on which I’m still posting consistently, because as it turns out, the existence of steady pay, however little, is the key to consistent output—who knew? I feel a little weird promoting it at a time when your money can do so much good going elsewhere, but if you have $5-$20 a month to spare, and want to keep up with what I’m doing, this is how I fund my recording projects. (For real, the Patreon money goes straight into a business account that is used for me to write checks to the recording studio I work with, and any expenses I pay out of it have to be justified to an accountant and the IRS, so you can rest assured that none of it goes toward my macaron addiction or scented candle collection.)
    • P.S. The reward for the top-tier support level—$20 a month—is that I send you mail once a month, and this has become one of my favorite activities in lockdown: writing letters/cards, decorating the envelopes, picking out my favorite stamps. Cannot recommend highly enough how soothing of an activity this is in a time of isolation.
  • I updated my website (finally) to reflect the projects I’ve done and the platforms I’m on. My website at the beginning of the year had no place for me to show the recording or writing I’ve been doing, or the places I’ve been mentioned/featured/promoted. I overhauled it and it now has all these handy pages (recordings! press! writing! a whole page just for social media!) where the stuff I’m listing in this blog post actually has an official home.
  • I started some hobby accounts just for myself. As my personal social media accounts have started tilting in the direction of being semi-professional, I’ve felt weirdly self-conscious about spamming Twitter and Instagram with random things I love. So I created an Instagram account to log my 2020 reading where I write a little mini-review of every new book I finish, and, in classic Millennial fashion, an Instagram for my cat. (Oh yeah, I got a cat. She’s the best quarantine buddy in the world.)

That’s it for now, folks. 2020 is not the year I planned for, but I’m still proud of the things I’ve been able to do, and it’s a privilege to have any accomplishments at all and to share them with you. I hope you’re okay, in whatever way “okay” means to you. Stay safe, wear a mask, and thanks for being here.

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As Seen on Twitter: The Beethoven Thread (Extended Edition)

Note: This is a centralized, formatted version of a Twitter thread I wrote that ended up getting some traction. I have turned it into a blog post for easier reading and sharing.

First posted on Twitter on December 16, 2019.

It’s probably Beethoven’s birthday, so let’s talk about my dude Ludwig, things you might not know about him, and things we don’t talk about (but that we absolutely should) when we talk about the man and the music. There’s a LOT of myth surrounding Beethoven because history has deemed him a Great Man and that type of designation causes problems sometimes. My goal today is to 1) humanize the guy and 2) put his work in context, because Context is Good!

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