Books

Books Read in February 2015

I read 12 books in February and 10 books in January, which brings my 2015 total to 22. At this rate, I’ll catch up with 2014’s total (53) by May!

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Highly Recommended

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Description: Set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, this is a story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

I really liked this book set in a world 20 years after a devastating flu wiped out over 99% of the world’s population (I enjoy reading about people who survive in extraordinary circumstances, even if it’s fictional). I preferred the part of the story set in present time more so than the flashbacks — but those were good, too. One review I read thought the story ended rather abruptly (there was at least one large unresolved issue) and hypothesized there might be a sequel on the way. I hope so.

Still Alice, Lisa Genova
Description: Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty years old, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease changes her life forever.

This book was unsettling. I don’t have a great memory, so now every time I forget something I’ll be thinking about the possibility of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The story is very well done. You will cringe for Alice. You will feel sorrow when she tells her children about her diagnosis (along with the news they’ll have a 50% chance of contracting the disease themselves). You will wish she’d followed through on her suicide plan before her condition advanced so far she forgot she was supposed to do it (okay, maybe that’s just me). Alice seemed to degenerate so quickly; her condition was obvious within a matter of months.

I don’t usually go searching for movies based on books I’ve read, but the cinematic version of this particular story is definitely on my to-watch list.

Alice

Recommended

Mambo in Chinatown, Jean Kwok
Description: Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. When she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down.

When I started reading this book, I assumed the story was set in the early 1900s: A Chinese woman in her early 20s, working as a dishwasher in a restaurant where her father is a noodle maker, living together in a tiny apartment with a younger sibling.

It wasn’t until she made references to certain technologies (like cell phones) that I realized it was set in the modern age. That part of the story definitely surprised me – people who live in NYC’s Chinatown but remain so insulated from the outside world. (The main character had a friend named Zan, which I’ve never come across in a book before, so I thought that was pretty neat.)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin
Description: A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. He lives alone, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. But when a mysterious package appears at the bookstore, its unexpected arrival gives Fikry the chance to make his life over.

This story about a bookstore owner is delightful. It’s about a crotchety man who falls in love, but it’s not at all typical. I also liked how the ending surprised me – at first I thought it would be sad, but there’s another twist and it ends happily after all.

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
Description: The enigmatic Winter has spent six decades creating various outlandish life histories for herself — all of them inventions that have brought her fame and fortune but have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. She summons biographer Margaret Lea, a young woman for whom the secret of her own birth, hidden by those who loved her most, remains an ever-present pain. Struck by a curious parallel between Miss Winter’s story and her own, Margaret takes on the commission.

I rated this book one of my favorite fiction reads of 2007…and eight years later, I forgot all about it and read it again. On the bright side, I enjoyed it just as much the second time!

Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy
Description: This powerful memoir is about the premium we put on beauty and on a woman’s face in particular. It took Lucy twenty years of living with a distorted self-image and more than thirty reconstructive procedures before she could come to terms with her appearance after childhood cancer and surgery that left her jaw disfigured.

Is life easier now for kids who get cancer in their face than when the author went through it in the 1970s? I have no idea, but I sure hope so. Have treatment methods evolved so patients no longer have to do chemotherapy and radiation for two-and-a-half years? Because that’s what Lucy did. Is plastic surgery less likely to revert back to its original state? Because that’s what happened to Lucy over the course of multiple reconstructive jaw surgeries. Lucy would have surgery to fix the shape of her jaw and a year later it would look like nothing had been done. It’s amazing she kept trying after so many disappointments.

This is the moving portrayal of a girl who didn’t think she deserved to be loved because she was so ugly. Someone who was mercilessly teased in school. From the first paragraph of chapter 12: “I put all my effort into looking at the world as openly, unbiasedly, and honestly as possible, but I could not recognize my own self as a part of this world. I took great pains to infuse a sense of grace and meaning into everything I saw, but I could not apply those values to myself.”

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton
Description: In 1686, 18-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office. Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways.

While this book is called The Miniaturist, the actual miniaturist in the story was not fleshed out in a satisfactory way. We learn who the miniaturist is, but not why the character does what it does or what their motivations are. There were many questions regarding the miniaturist which remain unresolved.

Having said that, the story was well written. I was impressed at the amount of research involved for the author; I learned a lot about Amsterdam in the late 1600s that I didn’t know before (I have a soft spot for Amsterdam because I spent five months there on a study abroad program in college).

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
Description: Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, this is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who is charged with the brutal murder of her former master and sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.

Just like with The Miniaturist, I was impressed with the author’s research and knowledge when it came to writing this story. Since I’ve just started getting back into fiction after a long break, I’ve come to realize I really like fiction based on true events, and as well as historical fiction.

The description of Agnes’ treatment while in prison was horrific, but it got better once she was transferred to live with a family while awaiting her execution. I assumed there was more to the murders than her accusers cared to acknowledge, and indeed, Agnes’ story comes out slowly over the course of the book.

Okay

Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, Helaine Olen
Description: Journalist and former financial columnist Olen goes behind the curtain of the personal finance industry to expose the myths, contradictions, and outright lies it has perpetuated. She shows how an industry that started as a response to the Great Depression morphed into a behemoth that thrives by selling us products and services that offer little if any help.

I had this on my to-read list for a while; I made note of it when Olen was a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in February 2013. There were some interesting tidbits (she has quite a bit to say about Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey, most of it derogatory), but I wasn’t fully engaged. I couldn’t read it late in the evening because the dense subject matter had a tendency to put me to sleep.

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin
Description: From veal scallops sautéed on a hot plate in her studio apartment to home-baked bread that is both easy and delicious, Colwin imparts her hard-earned secrets in this collection of essays. She advocates for simple dishes made from fresh, organic ingredients, and counsels that even in the worst-case scenario, there is always an elegant solution: dining out.

My friend RA loved this book, but I couldn’t get into it. I like food memoirs but I’m generally not a fan of essay collections. I need to learn to embrace this preference and stick to genres I know I like.

The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp Through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis, Tara Austen Weaver
Description: Growing up in a vegetarian family, Tara never thought she’d stray. But as an adult, she found herself in poor health and a doctor ordered her to eat meat. As she navigates through this confusing new world she’s tempted to give up and go back to eating tempeh. The more she learns about meat and how it’s produced, and the effects eating it has on the human body and the planet, the less she feels she knows.

There were some entertaining parts to this book (horrible food the author has been served at dinner parties) and also informative (like her visit to a local/organic beef operation), but most of it didn’t do a good job holding my attention.

At the end of the book, the type of food she decides she will eat going forward was…not what I expected. This book was published in 2010 and I have a feeling she didn’t find her choice sustainable over the long term (I did a Google search but wasn’t able to verify this one way or the other).

The Sound of Paper, Julia Cameron
Description: Cameron delves deep into the heart of the personal struggles that all artists experience. What can we do when we face our keyboard or canvas with nothing but a cold emptiness? How can we begin to carve out our creation when our vision and drive are clouded by life’s uncertainties? In other words, how can we begin the difficult work of being an artist?

I’ve previously read and enjoyed The Artist’s Way (another book by this author), but The Sound of Paper was a struggle to get through. Most of the essays didn’t inspire me and only a few of the writing prompts were something I could see myself using. I was looking for a book about writing but this one also addressed music, and the creative process in general, so that could have been a factor. I’ve read recommendations from people who liked this book, but it wasn’t for me.

Books

50 Memoirs Written by Women Who Lived Abroad

I love to read memoirs written by women who move to foreign countries. According to my annual book lists, I discovered this genre in 2006 and have been reading them ever since. In 2007, I went into detail about why I enjoy reading travel memoirs.

It makes sense that I started reading these books in 2006. Back then I was in the midst of a quarterlife crisis, desperately trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. While attempting to figure it out, I moved from Virginia to California, took the CBEST exam, the GRE, attended a grad school open house, almost signed up for paralegal training, and considered moving abroad.

What did I do instead? I drove back to the east coast in June 2006 and ended up in Washington, DC soon after. I didn’t go to grad school, substitute teach, or live abroad. I’ve had a series of desk jobs ever since.

I may not live in a foreign country but I can live vicariously through those who have. I sit behind a desk at work, but oh, how I love to imagine the possibilities.

Paris 9

(A street in Paris, September 2004)

Here are 50 books (all of which I’ve read), written by women who lived abroad, broken down by country:

France
1) Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard

2) Paris in Love: A Memoir, Eloisa James

3) My Life in France, Julia Child

4) Petite Anglaise: In Paris. In Love. In Trouble, Catherine Sanderson

5) We’ve Always Had Paris…and Provence: A Scrapbook of Our Life in France, Patricia & Walter Wells

6) Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris, Ann Mah

7) C’est La Vie: An American Woman Begins a New Life in Paris, Suzy Gershman

8) Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris, Sarah Turnbull

9) French Fried: The Culinary Capers of an American in Paris, Harriet Welty Rochefort

10) The Olive Farm: A Memoir of Life, Love and Olive Oil in the South of France, Carol Drinkwater

11) On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town, Susan Herrmann Loomis

12) Tout Sweet: Hanging Up My High Heels for a New Life in France, Karen Wheeler

13) French By Heart: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France, Rebecca Ramsey

14) France: A Love Story, Camille Cusumano (Editor)

Italy
15) A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance, Marlena de Blasi

16) A Thousand Days in Tuscany: A Bittersweet Adventure, Marlena de Blasi

17) The Lady in the Palazzo: At Home in Umbria, Marlena de Blasi

18) Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, Frances Mayes

19) Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy, Frances Mayes

Europe
20) My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story with Recipes, Luisa Weiss

21) Lying Together: My Russian Affair, Jennifer Beth Cohen

22) The Road to Santiago (Spain), Kathryn Harrison

Japan
23) At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery, Rebecca Otowa

24) Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto, Victoria Abbott Riccardi

25) Too Late for the Festival: An American Salary-Woman in Japan, Rhiannon Paine

China
26) The Foremost Good Fortune, Susan Conley

27) Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language, Deborah Fallows

28) Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China, Jen Lin-Liu

29) Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, Fuchsia Dunlop

30) The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, Jennifer 8. Lee

31) Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Susan Jane Gilman

32) The Early Arrival of Dreams: A Year in China, Rosemary Mahoney

33) Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China, Rachel DeWoskin

Asia
34) Burmese Lessons: A Love Story, Karen Connelly

35) Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India, Miranda Kennedy

36) Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure, Sarah Macdonald

Africa
37) Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo, Vanessa Woods

38) Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin, Susana Herrera

Middle East
39) The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen, Jennifer Steil

South America / Cuba
40) Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana, Isadora Tattlin

41) Along the Inca Road: A Woman’s Journey into an Ancient Empire, Karin Muller

Multiple Countries
42) The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure, Rachel Friedman

43) Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, Stephanie Elizondo Griest

44) Kite Strings of the Southern Cross: A Woman’s Travel Odyssey, Laurie Gough

45) The Devil’s Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit, Taras Grescoe

46) Have Mother, Will Travel, Claire and Mia Fontaine

47) Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman, Alice Steinbach

48) Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman, Alice Steinbach

49) Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World, Rita Golden Gelman

50) Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad, Christina Henry De Tessan (Editor)

Do you have any favorites to add to this list? What should I read next?

Books

Confession: I Borrowed Library Books Without Checking Them Out

I was around 10 years old when I removed books from the library without checking them out. Why would I do that? (Spoiler: I always returned them.) Before I answer, here are some factors to keep in mind:

  • I grew up in rural central Virginia, with deeply devout Baptist parents, and I was home schooled.
  • When I was 10 years old, I had two sisters and one brother (another brother came along a few years later). My parents were extremely protective of our exposure to the secular world.
  • My siblings and I weren’t allowed to listen to anything other than gospel music. My sisters and I stretched the limits to Christian rock as teenagers, but only with much groaning from Dad. A Christian rap group called DC Talk was considered too hardcore; we were forbidden to buy their music (even though they rapped about Jesus).
  • Whenever we watched movies – anything which hadn’t been pre-screened as safe – my dad would sit nearby, remote control in hand, and fast forward through anything he deemed inappropriate.

The tiny Buckingham County Public Library, located a few miles from home, was our main source for reading material. Mom would take us there to choose our books and we’d check out as a family.

Mom always inspected our books before we checked out; there was no reading free-for-all here. She let me get away with occasional fluffy reads (The Babysitters Club series, for example), but I knew she didn’t like them. I didn’t read nearly as many Babysitters Club books as I would have if given free rein. Mom wanted us to read books of substance, like memoirs and biographies of well-known figures.

Then I discovered the Sweet Valley Twins. I owned one book in the series; I believe it was purchased from a children’s book fair when Mom wasn’t around to steer me in a different direction. I still remember what that book was about, due to reading it over and over as a kid (unlike my current preference for reading new things). I looked it up just now. It was Teacher’s Pet.

Sweet Valley

I was enthralled with the Sweet Valley Twins because they were everything I was not. They were popular. Beautiful. Cheerleaders in sunny California.

Our library had a small selection of Sweet Valley Twins books. One day, knowing Mom didn’t approve of them, I slipped one in my purse. This was before books set off alarms if removed from a library without being checked out. Back in the day, books had paper cards in the back which were manually stamped with the due date.

I read the book at home, and on our next trip to the library, I replaced it on the shelf. And I took out another one.

This continued for a while, but not too long. One day I was reading a Sweet Valley book in my bedroom when I heard Mom on her way in. I rushed to slip the book under the covers but I wasn’t quick enough, so when she came in she asked me to show her what I was reading. She looked at it, noticed it was a library book, and remarked that she didn’t remember me checking it out.

I confessed what I had done. I cried. I told her I wouldn’t do it again (and I didn’t). I don’t recall being punished; I’m sure she could tell my fear and shame were valid.

What do I think about this situation as an adult?

For context: When I was 10 years old, my mom was 35. Which is the same age I will be in June. My mom had four kids when she was 35 (she had one more just before she turned 39). I have none.

I agree there are certain books pre-teens should not read. If I’m a parent one day, I’m sure I will keep an eye on what my child is reading. However, I wasn’t reading a steamy romance novel. I wasn’t even reading a banned book.

We rarely traveled when I was kid; I only left Virginia to visit my grandmother or attend church camp. Back then, I wanted to read books about girls whose lives were nothing like my own.

I love my mother. I know she had our best interests at heart, even if I don’t agree with many of her and my dad’s childrearing methods. I’m glad she encouraged me to read books with substance. I remain a huge nonfiction reader to this day.

But sometimes a 10-year-old girl just wants a little fluff.

Books

Books: Choosing Old Favorites or New Reads

If given the choice to re-read a book I’ve read before or pick up something new, my answer would instantly be the latter. I would read the same book multiple times as a kid, but as an adult, 99% of the time I go for something new.

The last book I deliberately picked up for the second time was Losing My Religion, by William Lobdell. I initially read it in 2012, liked it enough to rate it Highly Recommended, checked it out of the library a few years later for my husband to read, and when he was done I felt compelled to crack the spine again as well.

Did you catch the word deliberately in the last paragraph?

I deliberately read Losing My Religion for the second time. However, last week I read something I thought was brand new to me, but it turns out I also read it eight years ago. The book was The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.

13th Tale

Do you want to know how I realized I read this book for the first time back in 2007? Was it because I recognize the characters, or the plot? Did I guess the ending far in advance? Nope.

What tipped me off was an old blog entry: for the past few weeks I’ve been going through my archives post-by-post. I’ve never taken the time to do this before and some posts are badly in need of editing. I’m deleting short, inconsequential posts which would have been social media updates if social media had existed back then. I’m repairing and deleting dead links. (Yes, this process is taking a long time.)

While reading The Thirteenth Tale last week, I came across a blog post from January 2008 where I named it one of my two favorite fiction reads from the previous year. Yes, that’s right – not only have I read this book before, I named it one of the best books I read in 2007.

I’ve never had a great memory. I received high grades in school because I paid attention, took good notes, and studied those notes before a test. Like many people, the information I learned quickly left my head when I no longer needed it.

I’m not particularly worried about it – my memory doesn’t seem to be deteriorating in any noticeable way – but I sometimes find examples like this a bit disconcerting. Since I was still reading the book at the time I discovered the blog post, I expected it might help boost my recall of the story, but it didn’t. I continued reading the book and it felt brand new to me the entire time.

I’ve told people over the years that this blog has acted as a public diary for me. I don’t write in a paper diary, so this website has collected a lot of my actions and thoughts over the past 13 years. This space is a record of my life.

What has this experience taught me? Re-reading books isn’t such a bad thing after all. I can’t see myself reading the same book every year, but I’ve read a large number of good books in my lifetime which would probably seem brand new to me now. I need to remember that and not automatically discount them just because we’ve crossed paths before.

Do you like to re-read old favorites or do you prefer to pick up something new?

Food

Whole30 Recap, Round Three

I completed my third Whole30 last month, in January 2015.

For my first Whole30 in July 2012, I posted a blog entry every day with what I’d eaten that day. Before and after, I wrote about why I was doing it and did a comprehensive recap at the end. My first Whole30 was the hardest because it was brand new to me and I was battling an underactive thyroid at the time (I still take a pill every day for my thyroid but at least it’s under control now).

For my second Whole30 in October 2014, I wrote about why I was doing it again over two years later, but I decided to post weekly food wrap-ups instead of daily. I didn’t do a recap post at the end of that one.

For my third Whole30, I didn’t announce in advance that I was doing it or post my daily meals anywhere, but I did decide to write this recap. (Way to change things up, huh?)

Here are some questions that have come up in the past, or I’ve seen other Whole30’ers answer:

How was the Whole30, Round 3?
The third time around was mostly uneventful. I knew what to expect and I knew what I could eat. I had already identified some new paleo dishes during my second Whole30, so I pulled out the ones I like the most and made those again.

The first 4-5 days were unpleasant because I indulged in too much chocolate during the month of December. (In hindsight, it’s probably not a good idea to plan a Whole30 so far in advance because I was essentially giving myself permission to eat chocolate, knowing I wouldn’t have any starting in January.)

How was the temptation? Did you find it difficult to stick to the plan?
I’m going to be completely honest here: when it comes to decision-making, I find the Whole30 easier in a lot of ways than when I’m not on it. If I’m not allowed to have something, I don’t crave it. Since sweets aren’t an option for me, the permission button in my head – the one that asks “should I or shouldn’t I?” – just cuts off.

Sugar, gluten, legumes, dairy, alcohol. I can’t have it. The end. So I find something I can eat and I enjoy it because there’s a lot of tasty Whole30-compliant food out there.

During my periods of non-Whole30 eating, I do, of course, still practice restraint in my eating. I cut out most gluten in early 2012 (due to the aforementioned thyroid issue) and these days I eat mostly paleo. But I am more likely to say yes to the occasional indulgence – delicious desserts at work, pizza or beer with my husband, fried food at a restaurant – because technically there’s nothing telling me I can’t.

Did you feel deprived?
I don’t feel deprived on the Whole30 because you don’t restrict yourself to a certain number of calories or points. As long as you stay within the Whole30 food guidelines, you can pretty much eat whatever (and however much of it) you want.

I started making better food choices after my second Whole30 ended last October. Before then, even though I was eating mostly gluten-free I was consuming way too many corn tortilla chips. I also used half & half and stevia in my morning cup of coffee. (I drink decaf coffee during the week at work and regular on the weekends when Paul and I share a pot at home.) I haven’t had corn tortilla chips since last September and I only have cream in my coffee when I order it from a coffee shop (which has happened 2-3 times in the past four months). I’ve cut out stevia completely.

What did you eat?
I mostly took compliant foods from my two cooking lists (Top 25 Weeknight Dinners and Top 20 CrockPot Meals), or modified them to be compliant as needed. Turkey Satay Burgers with Broccoli Slaw is one favorite:

Paleo Turkey Satay Burgers with Broccoli Slaw

Since Paul wasn’t on the Whole30, I’d serve him side dishes of pasta and rice. For snacks I like shredded coconut, apples with almond butter, bananas, raw walnuts, and bags of frozen vegetables (mainly Brussels sprouts and broccoli, which I eat with a scoop of coconut oil mixed in because yum).

Any tips?
It’s very important I take enough food to work so I don’t find myself hungry with no Whole30-compliant options in sight. I’ll often leave food in my desk drawers for just such an emergency (a bag of shredded coconut is a great shelf-stable snack item). Hunger is the enemy of willpower.

How much weight did you lose?
I tend to lose 3-5 pounds whenever I do a Whole30.

What was the first non-Whole30 thing you ate after the month was over?
Paul and I attended a local Ice Festival the day after my Whole30 ended, where I had cream in my coffee and a small bowl of pumpkin bisque. I had a glass of wine with dinner that evening, plus a mug of cocoa with marshmallows. However, I was back on Whole30-compliant foods after that. I’d like to continue eating mostly Whole30 during the week with some breaks on the weekend.

Do you have any questions about the Whole30 I didn’t answer?

Books

Books Read in January 2015

I read 10 books in January. This number is a bit astonishing to me as I haven’t gone through so many books in a month since…well, I don’t remember when. Probably sometime in 2006, which was the year I read 110 books. My normal rate is more like 3-5 a month.

There are certain factors I should mention: 1) I started reading two books near the end of December that I didn’t finish until the first few days of January, so they’re included here instead of in my 2014 reading list; 2) January in Buffalo is pretty darn cold, so I spent more time than usual reading in my warm house instead of going outside; 3) I rarely watch TV, so those hours are available to spend with the printed page; and 4) I don’t have kids.

I read most books via the Overdrive app on my smartphone (borrowed from the library for free) because I pretty much always have my phone on me and it’s easier than carrying a physical book around. (I do check out physical books from the library but only if they’re not available in e-book form.) Using my phone, I can read books on my couch, while brushing my teeth, sitting on the bus as I commute to work, waiting for lunch to heat up in the microwave, and standing in line at the grocery store.

This month I surpassed the goal I set to read at least one work of fiction (I only read one total in 2014). Of the 10 books I read in January, exactly half were fiction. I’ve been taking note of what other book bloggers recommend, which has been a huge help in deciding what I should go with.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended. In January, they all fell into the first three.

Highly Recommended

The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life, Chris Guillebeau
I reviewed this book last week.

Recommended

Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
I really enjoyed this. The only danger, if you’re someone like me who has no qualms about putting a book down if you find it boring, is making it through the first few chapters. I seriously considered abandoning it. I figured the author was setting up the story and everything would tie back into the narrative later (which it did), but I found it hard to get through. I’m really glad I stuck with it.

The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman
I wish I’d been able to read this with a book club. (Alas, I’m not a member of any book clubs in the city where I live. I’d love to remedy that.) I would have liked to discuss it with a group of ladies. This book was definitely a page-turner (I finished the last half in one day), but I couldn’t list it as Highly Recommended because I found myself so annoyed at the characters and also the way it ended. Without giving anything away, I was annoyed that Tom couldn’t just get over it and live his happy life like Isabel could. And I was really annoyed with the way Tom gave up their secret.

Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead
For someone who has never had any ballet training or even attended a ballet in person, I really like reading books about ballerinas. (Has anyone else seen the 12-part documentary about NYC’s City Ballet published by AOL in 2013? I watched all of them.) This book is more set in the ballet world than describing the ins and outs of becoming and working as a ballerina, but it was really well done.

China Dolls, Lisa See
I had previously read and enjoyed another book by this author (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan), so when I saw this one I added it to my list. I like historical fiction, especially when the story is set in a time period I’m not overly familiar with. It’s crazy to read about the racism Asians experienced in America (not really all that long ago). This book covered the time period before, during, and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when many Japanese in the U.S. were sent to live in camps.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The structure of this story was different from the norm but the author navigated it well. I had no idea what the book was about in advance (as other bloggers’ reviews recommended), so I was surprised when the news about Fern was revealed — I definitely didn’t guess it in advance.

It was interesting how the narrator remembered certain things about her childhood one way, but discovered as an adult that she had been mistaken. I also liked how the story ended, which I wasn’t able to say about all fiction books I read this month.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley
You’d think a nonfiction book about education might be dull, but this was a quick and interesting read. The author profiled three American teenagers participating in study abroad programs in South Korea, Poland, and Finland. Learning how these countries run their education systems compared to the U.S. (we score abominably low on international tests) was fascinating. It was also interesting to note that while these countries have high test scores, no education system is perfect. Parents and students in those countries find something to complain about just as easily as we do. The author offered suggestions for changes the U.S. education system could make, with more rigorous teacher training and standards being high on the list.

Okay

Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It, Jennifer Fulwiler
I considered putting this book in the Recommended category, but I just couldn’t. I’m sure many people would disagree with me (I understand the author has a popular faith-based blog), but I didn’t find her very likeable. Maybe it was just the way she portrayed herself in the book, but she kept doing and saying annoying things that made me roll my eyes. A common theme was how she would constantly slack off from whatever she was supposed to be doing in order to read the Bible, research her questions, or get involved with long conversations with people on her blog. Those things are all fine, but do them on your own time. What I did like about the book is how fully she explored the subject of her (very slow) conversion from atheist to Catholic. She went in-depth about how difficult the transition was — she didn’t just decide one day to believe in God; the decision (and the constant questioning) took years.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, Alexandra Fuller
I like travel memoirs, especially books written by women who leave the U.S. to live in another country. I thought I would enjoy this memoir written by a woman who grew up in Africa, but…I just didn’t. For one thing, there was way too much description of what her surroundings looked like, which I don’t care for in any book. And most of the time she was writing about how drunk her mother was at any given moment, or her mother’s parenting failures (like taking her daughter out in the hot sun for hours without water). I found myself reading it quickly to get it over with.

An Atheist in the FOXhole: A Liberal’s Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media, Joe Muto
What was interesting: Joe gives a behind-the-scenes look at how television shows are made; the roles of assistant, associate, and executive directors; clashes with anchors; the race to provide something for a story literally seconds before it goes on-air.

What I didn’t like: It felt like the author thought he was delivering shocking information, but it didn’t come across that way at all. Maybe we’re all immune to strict corporate policies and TV personalities by now, but I didn’t consider it much of an exposé. He admits later in the book that his goal for flaming out at FOX was to gain a job at Gawker – a risk that didn’t pay off. I didn’t feel bad for him.

Reviews

Book Review: The Happiness of Pursuit

Guillebeau

The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life, by Chris Guillebeau

I don’t rate many books as Highly Recommended (in 2014, it was only 6 out of 53). I try to save this category for something that really pulls me in, teaches me something new, or inspires me to action.

A book blogger’s opinion and their ratings are incredibly subjective. Some bloggers put fantasy, romance, and YA high on their list of recommendations – whereas I skip right past them because those genres don’t interest me. I may speed through a work of fiction, but if the characters annoy me or I don’t like the ending, I won’t put it in my top category.

I admit: I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. I read Guillebeau’s first book (The Art of Non-Conformity) last year and rated it just Okay. I had this new one on hold at the library for months (there was a long waiting list), and almost canceled the hold on several occasions because I figured I wouldn’t like it.

While I rated this book as Highly Recommended, I realize it’s not for everyone. The author talks extensively about quests – what they are, how they differ from regular goals (like losing weight or writing a book) – and gives examples of regular people who did something pretty extraordinary.

I like reading books like this. However, if you’re already passionate about something, you might not need additional motivation and encouragement. If you’re fine with the way your life is right now and couldn’t care less about a quest, then don’t bother reading this book.

If your life is good but you don’t feel completely fulfilled, if you feel some level of discomfort, if you have a sense of alienation or a frustration that’s hard to pin down…I encourage you to pick it up. A quest may be exactly what you need.

Blog

New Look For An Old Blog

After seven years with the same theme, it was time for something new.

This is the fifth theme I’ve had since I started blogging in September 2002. I started out with a blogspot site, which had a simple blue and gray background. I don’t have a record of what it looked like but it was pretty bare bones – blogging was still in its infancy back then, not equipped with all the fancy themes and widgets available today.

When I purchased my own domain, all the work that took place behind the scenes was due to the kindness of a fellow blogger named Kate (alas, she stopped blogging years ago). At the time, she wanted to gain experience building websites so she offered to transfer my blog to its new domain — and create a personalized theme — for free. Obviously I accepted her offer. This is what my second theme looked like (which was the first located here at zandria.us); you may recognize it if you’re a long-time reader:

For Posterity

Several years later she came up with this one. (I’m not sure why that thick yellow line is stretching all the way across the page; it didn’t always do that.)

Bye-bye, Old Design!

And then there’s this one, which I displayed from June 2008 through January 2015. Almost seven years! That’s pretty much forever in blog years.

Current blog design

When I started writing regularly on this site again last October, I knew I would need a new theme. Although I wasn’t frantic for a new look, the one I was using was outdated. It didn’t have the functionality I needed, and there was no easy way for me to add it. There was also a chance, if I tried to do something simple like upgrade WordPress, something on my site would break and I would have no idea how to fix it.

I contacted Kate once again. She’s busier these days but she agreed to help me. I made it easier for her this time, I think, because I purchased an existing theme (Florence) and asked if she’d back-up my blog and do the upgrade for me. (I did look at the instructions for backing up a WordPress blog, to see if I could do it myself. It looked like a bunch of gibberish. There are certain things I’m willing to pay for, and NOT spending hours doing something I have absolutely no idea how to do, and NOT breaking my blog, are worth the money.)

I kept my name in the header because…well, it’s always been there, and I wanted it to look similar to what I’ve had in the past. I retained the blonde cartoon version of me because I wanted the obvious holdover from the other themes. It feels like a representation of how long this site has existed, and I like that.

Please note that this blog now has certain functions common to other sites, like the ability to check a box when leaving a comment if you want to receive an email from me when I respond, and an email subscription option where you can be notified of new posts if you don’t use a feed reader (it’s over there in the sidebar).

Big thanks to Kate and her coworker Breanna at Third Boxcar for their help. It still kind of blows my mind that a lady I met online over 10 years ago (who I’ve never met in person!) has been responsible for all the updates to this site. I’ve used her as an example over the years when I talk about kindnesses I’ve received from people I met on the internet. Kate and I never had the chance to become real-life friends (she lives in Seattle and I’m on the east coast), but there are certainly people I originally met online and later developed offline friendships with.

I’ve mentioned a number of them on this blog over the years: Janet from Love is Blonde (we ended up working at the same place for a while in Washington, DC — I only heard about the job because she made me aware of it, and that was before we’d ever met in person); Nadine, who no longer has a blog (she and her husband picked me up from the airport in Amsterdam in 2004 when I arrived for a semester abroad and deposited me safely at my dorm – again, without having met me in person first. I’ve since seen them numerous times over the years); Janet from This Confetti Life (we met online when I lived in Richmond VA — when I moved to California in 2005 to live with my aunt, it just so happened to be the same town she lived in); RA from Definitely RA (I was the first blogger she ever met in person!); and Leah from Penn (we had a lot of fun exploring DC together on two occasions).

That isn’t everyone (I met many more people in person at the four BlogHer conferences I attended), and some of them stopped blogging years ago, but those are who come to mind first.

I sure hope Kate is around when I need more blog assistance one of these days. I like to think she will be.

Home

A Place to Eat

The desire to eat at a table (instead of the living room couch) has been on my mind constantly since we bought a house with a dining room. I’m tired of balancing plates on my lap and being careful not to drop food on the leather sofa.

I was quite excited to place an online order for a table in December. It was delivered last Friday.

Dining room table

Friday was actually the third time I had a delivery date on my calendar for this table – the first date was canceled due to heavy snow and when they showed up on the second delivery date, someone had forgotten to put the table on the truck.

Lucky for them, the successful delivery of a pretty table made past troubles quickly forgotten. I wanted something different from the norm so we chose this model with a reclaimed pine base, metallic (zinc) top, and rivets running along the edge. (It’s hard to get a sense of scale from the above photo — the diameter is 60″, so it’s a good size.)

The only problem I have right now is lack of seating. I’ve been staring at my table but unable to eat at it.

I’ve looked at chairs online for weeks, but it’s difficult to choose furniture when you can’t see it in person. Even if there was free shipping, I don’t want to feel pressured to keep the chairs if I don’t love them (due to the expense of shipping them back).

I was more comfortable ordering a table online without seeing it in person because 1) it’s a heavy duty piece from a respected brand (Restoration Hardware); and 2) it would be delivered and set up in front of me, so if something was off, I could refuse to accept it.

With chairs, unless you order them from a furniture store and have them delivered, they’re likely going to arrive in a box. In most cases, this means you’ll need to attach the back of the chair to the bottom, as well as all four legs. I’ve read many an online review from people who had trouble putting these chairs together, or once together they appeared wobbly, and/or cheap looking.

I want fully upholstered chairs (both back and seat) because I want people to be comfortable sitting in them for long stretches of time. (Due to my back issue, I have trouble sitting in wooden chairs for extended periods.) Plus, we plan to use them for extra seating in our living room when we have guests.

Paul and I have decided to go to some furniture stores and look at them in person. Crossing our fingers we’ll score good-looking chairs that don’t cost a ton of money!

Life

2014 Year in Review

I was supposed to compile this information at the end of 2014, but better late than never! In over 12 years of blogging, I’ve never written a year-in-review post before. I guess I figured the information was there to be found if you chose to look back, but 2014 was different — my posts were spread between three different blogs (this one, my Buffalo blog, and my food blog), plus there’s all the events I keep on my personal calendar but don’t write about anywhere.

Here are my highlights from 2014:

January: Went through the process of changing my last name after getting married the month before. Attended SoupFest with Paul & Bryana. Toured the Darwin Martin House. Started a new job.

(Darwin Martin House in winter.)

Darwin Martin House

February: Checked out Flurrious at Delaware Park. Traveled to Toronto, where Paul and I visited the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Royal Ontario Museum, and I reunited with an aunt I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. Attended the last meeting of the Lovin’ on Buffalo Book Club at Lobby Bar (I miss that group). Watched my friend Angela Keppel give a talk about the history of Buffalo streets at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

(Mini snowmen were created during Flurrious at Delaware Park.)

Snowmen at Delaware Park

(Me and long-lost aunt Jeanne at her art show in Toronto.)

Me and Aunt Jeanne

(Me and Angela after she gave her talk at the cemetery.)

Me and Angela

March: Took my mother-in-law to a Ladies of the Vine dinner at Providence Social. Went on a winery tour of the Niagara wine region and had lunch at the delightful White Linen Tea House. Attended a Buffalo Niagara 360 event featuring Buffalo Foodies. Went to the Buffalo Home Show. Saw my first movie at the historic North Park Theatre.

(Me, my mother-in-law Diane, and sister-in-law Stephanie at White Linen Tea House.)

Drinking tea with the ladies

April: Volunteered at the Unyts Bucket List Bash. Attended a VIP preview party at the Mummies of the World exhibit at the Buffalo Science Museum (where Paul and I had our photo taken and later found ourselves featured in a Buffalo magazine “who was there” spread). Saw Damn Yankees at Niagara Regional Theatre. Checked out my first Dyngus Day parade.

(Me at the Buffalo Science Museum.)

Zan at Buffalo Science Museum

(This is the photo of me and Paul that made it into Buffalo magazine.)

Buffalo Magazine - Mummies of the World at Science Museum

May: Flew to Virginia to visit my family. Paul started a new job. Drove to Penn Yan, NY to see friends of ours from DC who were vacationing there. Volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House (helped make dinner for residents, my second time doing so). Spent most of a Saturday outside: Participated in Hands Across Buffalo, walked through the Elmwood Village, enjoyed the sounds of Spring Porchfest, visited the Artisan Market at Canalside. Celebrated Memorial weekend at a lake house in Sunset Bay. Attended BuffaLoveFest at the Zoo for the second year in a row. Spent some time at the Greek Festival.

(Me and my sister Elissa at her house in Richmond, surrounded by her two large dogs.)

Me and Elissa

(My nephew Laine, in the best ultra-chill pose I’ve ever seen.)

Laine, relaxing

(Me and a girlfriend at a rented lake house in Penn Yan, NY.)

Me with friends in Penn Yan, NY

(Paul, on the far right, participating in Hands Across Buffalo.)

Hands Across Buffalo

June: Paul and I decided we were ready to buy a house; met with our realtor for the first time. Went to a Bisons game. Celebrated my 34th birthday with dinner at Tappo. Traveled to Baltimore and Washington, DC to visit friends (on the final day, had such a good time with one friend at brunch that I narrowly avoided missing my train to the airport). Signed a contract on a house that we ended up not buying. Supported Paul while he ran the Corporate Challenge race at Delaware Park. Took the Buffalo Living Tour. Attended a fundraiser for Grassroots Gardens at Resurgence Brewery. Volunteered at City of Night.

(Visiting my friend Shannon in Baltimore.)

Me and Shannon in Baltimore

(Inside Resurgence Brewery.)

Resurgence Brewery

(This is a view of the crowd at City of Night.)

City of Night 2014

July: Returned to the lake house in Sunset Bay for Independence Day (they have a great fireworks display there). Toured a new exhibition at the Albright Knox. Upgraded from a double to a king-sized mattress (love!). Attended my first Taste of Buffalo. Saw my first show at ComedySportz. Participated in a Reading Invasion at Black Rock Heritage Garden. Celebrated Paul’s birthday with dinner at Encore. Celebrated my friend Nicole’s birthday with dinner at Templeton Landing and a show at Canalside. Went on my first Garden Walk.

(This guy in the suit gave us a tour of an exhibit at the Albright-Knox.)

Tour at the Albright Knox

(I attended Taste of Buffalo with my husband and in-laws.)

Taste of Buffalo 2014

(This is what a portion of the Reading Invasion looked like. I was reading Some Girls: My Life in a Harem at the time, which was included in my 2014 reading list.)

Buffalo Reading Invasion

(Me at the Garden Walk.)

Me at Buffalo Garden Walk 2014

(More Garden Walk photos.)

Buffalo Garden Walk 2014

Buffalo Garden Walk 2014

August: Entertained weekend visitors (two friends from DC). Attended a co-ed bridal shower at Pearl Street Grill. Partied on the Portico at the Buffalo History Museum for their final show of the season. Gaped in wonder at the beauty of Letchworth State Park (joined by my friend Jaclyn and her family – she wrote a great recap). Spent a full workday volunteering with coworkers for the United Way Day of Caring. Attended a second Bisons game. Put an offer on our current house and had the inspection done. Took a weekend trip to Cleveland and Columbus, OH.

(Me and my friends from DC on the bridge that separates the U.S. from Canada at Niagara Falls.)

On the bridge between the U.S. and Canada at Niagara Falls

(Me and Paul at Letchworth.)

Letchworth State Park

(Letchworth again.)

Letchworth State Park

(This is me and Christina, a good friend I’ve known since childhood who now lives in Columbus.)

Me and Christina in Columbus, OH

(Paul and me at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.)

Me and Paul at Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

September: Attended the Buffalo Niagara 360 kickoff celebration. Checked out the Canalside Maritime Festival. Took a Lawless District Tour at Canalside with Buffalo History Tours. Went to an evening party at A Gust of Sun winery. Started my second Whole30.

(Buffalo Niagara 360 kickoff – Amanda, Bryana, and me.)

BN360 event

October: Visited my friend Jennifer (met her through social media!) at her house for the first time. Attended a wedding here in Buffalo. Was talked into going to a PartyLite party but didn’t buy a thing (I’m stubborn like that). Went to Tifft Nature Preserve with Jaclyn and family (she wrote a recap of that event, too). Attended my cousin-in-law’s baby shower. Started writing on this blog again after an almost three-year absence. (Yikes! I swear I was writing elsewhere in the meantime.) Shared what a day in my life looked like at that point in time (it’s already changed because I’ve since moved to a new house.)

(A day in my life used to include a walk that took me by these trees.)

Day in the Life 6

November: Bought a house! Dealt with new-house tasks (Internet installation, meter readings, address changes, moving, unpacking). Attended my second baby shower of the year (this one was co-ed at least). Traveled to Virginia to spend Thanksgiving with my family.

(This is what my house looks like.)

New House 1

(This is me and my younger sister Angela on Thanksgiving.)

Angela and me on Thanksgiving in Virginia Beach

December: Celebrated my one-year wedding anniversary with dinner at Agave. Attended a friend’s holiday party. Hosted Paul’s parents for our annual Love Actually viewing. Made holiday candy and watched football at Jaclyn‘s house. Christmas Eve dinner with Paul’s extended family. Celebrated Christmas Day at my in-laws’ house. Sold an old couch and chair set on Craigslist. Wrote my final weekly meal plan for my food blog (an explanation is included in the post, along with what I made for Christmas dinner). Spent New Year’s Eve at a small gathering at my in-laws’ house.

(This is the delicious holiday candy I made: chocolate-covered peanut butter balls and peppermint bark.)

Peanut Butter Balls and Peppermint Bark

What was your favorite event of 2014?