Books

Books Read in March 2015

I read 15 books in March, which brings my 2015 total to 37.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended (I didn’t have any in the top category this month).

Recommended

The Three

1) The Three, Sarah Lotz

Description: The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage. Dubbed ‘The Three’ by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioral problems. They are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival.

The format of this book threw me off a bit at first. It’s fiction but reads like nonfiction; it’s a book within a book; it’s packed with interviews and personal accounts from people involved in some way with the four plane crashes. The author does a fantastic job of seamlessly transitioning between characters and voices, and also creating suspense. There are a lot of questions left unresolved at the end but I was content with how the story played out.

2) The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker

Description: On an ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia awakes to discover that something has happened to the rotation of the earth. The days and nights are growing longer and longer; gravity is affected; the birds, the tides, human behavior, and cosmic rhythms are thrown into disarray. In a world that seems filled with danger and loss, Julia also must face surprising developments in herself, and in her personal world—divisions widening between her parents, strange behavior by her friends, the pain and vulnerability of first love, a growing sense of isolation, and a surprising, rebellious new strength.

I normally steer away from books with child narrators (I prefer to read from an adult’s perspective), but this one was worth it. The author did an excellent job describing what could happen if a single day stretched to 30 hours long…three days long…and beyond.

An attempt to restore normalcy by living according to the 24-hour clock meant an entire day could be spent in the dark. Some people refused to live by the 24-hour clock and found themselves ostracized because of it. Books like this can be a little freaky, forcing you to consider how you’d handle living in such an environment. I hope I never have to find out.

3) Mudbound, Hillary Jordan

Description: It is 1946, and city-bred Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm—a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family’s struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura’s brother-in-law, is everything her husband is not—charming, handsome, and haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, has come home with the shine of a war hero. It is the unlikely friendship of these brothers-in-arms that drives this powerful novel to its inexorable conclusion.

This is how Laura’s husband told her he was taking her out of the city where they had lived together for six years: “Honey, by the way, I bought a farm in Mississippi. We’ll be moving there in two weeks.” What?! I understand things were different for women in our not-so-distant past, but my opinion of her husband plummeted when this happened (and sank further when his attitude toward his sharecroppers surfaced). I liked how the main characters rotated telling their stories by switching off chapters of the book – it was nice having the story build from multiple perspectives.

4) Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, Marilyn Johnson

Description: This is a look at the lives of contemporary archaeologists as they sweat under the sun for clues to the puzzle of our past. Johnson digs and drinks alongside them, chases them through the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and even Machu Picchu, and excavates their lives. What drives these archaeologists is not the money (meager) or the jobs (scarce) or the working conditions (dangerous), but their passion for the stories that would otherwise be buried and lost.

I didn’t love this book as much as other bloggers did – I enjoyed the first half more so than the second – but I admired the author for bringing shine to a dusty profession. My only experience previous with archaeology was an elective 101-level class in college, so it was interesting to learn how modern archaeologists make a living (or don’t make a living, as the job is rated one of the worst majors you can choose if you want to work in the field and make a decent wage).

There are people who love archaeology so much – even if they literally live in poverty and/or go months or years unemployed – they can’t fathom doing anything else. The field is full of passionate people we never hear about unless there’s a major discovery. I’m not patient enough to spend hours on my knees in the dirt, uncovering artifacts layer by layer (and more often than not, having nothing to show for it), but they probably wouldn’t want my desk job either.

5) Ruby, Cynthia Bond

Description: Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the beautiful girl running through the piney woods of Liberty, their small East Texas town. Young Ruby has suffered beyond imagining, so as soon as she can, she flees suffocating Liberty for the bright pull of 1950s New York. When a telegram from her cousin forces her to return home, Ruby finds herself reliving the devastating violence of her girlhood and struggling to survive her memories of the town’s dark past. Meanwhile, Ephram must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy.

This book is kind of a love story, but it’s not typical and it’s certainly not polite. Don’t read this book if you’re easily offended or squeamish about rape. I thought certain parts were disturbing (other bloggers have described it as brutal), but the author isn’t overly graphic in her descriptions so I didn’t find the disturbing parts to be excessive. Although Ruby experienced horrible things from childhood through her present, I found it difficult to see her as a sympathetic character.

6) The Wife, Meg Wolitzer

Description: The moment Joan Castleman decides to leave her husband, they are 35000 feet above the ocean on a flight to Helsinki. Joan’s husband, Joseph, is one of America’s preeminent novelists, about to receive a prestigious international award, and Joan, who has spent forty years subjugating her own literary talents to fan the flames of his career, has finally decided to stop. Wolitzer flashes back to 1950s Smith College and Greenwich Village and follows the course of the marriage that has brought the couple to this breaking point—one that results in a shocking revelation.

It was slightly disappointing that I guessed this book’s ending far in advance (did I inadvertently read about it somewhere, or was the truth as obvious to others as it was to me?), but I still enjoyed it.

7) California, Edan Lepucki

Description: The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable in the face of hardship and isolation. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant. Terrified of the unknown and unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, they set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses dangers of its own.

I can’t help it – I like books about survival in post-apocalyptic worlds. It makes me realize I pretty much have zero skills which would be useful if our society collapsed. I live in a city and work at a computer all day. When I’m not at my computer I have my smartphone nearby. Maybe one day these stories will inspire me to gain some useful knowledge of my own.

8) Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

Description: In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given all his savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story.

Chris McCandless was a brilliant, stubborn guy who made some stupid decisions (I lost some respect for him when I discovered he called himself Alexander Supertramp). Krakauer wrote a compelling tale of Chris’ life, his experiences in Alaska, and the people he met along the way (some of whom he affected quite deeply). The book is interspersed with stories about other solo adventurers – including the author – who shunned societal normal and headed off into the wilderness by themselves.

9) Bad Feminist: Essays, Roxane Gay

Description: In these funny and insightful essays, Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman, of color, while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

While I’m not usually a fan of essays, I had heard good things about this collection. I didn’t like ALL of them (particularly the section on movies), but I liked most of the others. I would say this book is best read while you’re also reading something else (or if you read more slowly than I do, it’s something you could pick up every few days and read a few essays at a time). Otherwise they can start to seem a bit overwhelming. Since I recently mentioned the Sweet Valley Twins series, I particularly enjoyed her essay on the Sweet Valley High series.

10) It Was Me All Along: A Memoir, Andie Mitchell

Description: All her life, Andie had eaten lustily and mindlessly. Food was her babysitter, her best friend, her confidant, and provided a refuge from her fractured family. But when she stepped on the scale on her 20th birthday and it registered a shocking 268 pounds, she knew she had to change the way she thought about food and herself.

I’m drawn to books about food, weight, and eating disorders because all of those things have affected my life. Andie’s issue was food addiction (something I don’t have experience with), but the issue of disordered eating is one that many people can relate to.

11) A Mountain of Crumbs, Elena Gorokhova

Description: Born with a desire to explore the world beyond her borders, Elena finds her passion in the complexity of the English language—but in the Soviet Union of the 1960s such a passion verges on the subversive. Elena is controlled by the state the same way she is controlled by her mother, a mirror image of her motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. In the battle between a strong-willed daughter and her authoritarian mother, the daughter, in the end, must break free and leave in order to survive.

It took me way longer than usual to read this book, but it wasn’t because I disliked it. Unlike the e-books I tend to read more quickly on my smartphone, this was a physical book I would pick up at home, reading a few pages or a chapter at a time. I started reading it in early February and didn’t finish for over a month.

I enjoyed reading about the author’s experience growing up in 1960’s-70’s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) under Communism. She attended English-speaking schools but once found herself ridiculed by a teacher when, for a writing competition, she chose to review an American play rather than a Russian writer. She knew so many people who wanted to travel outside of Russia, but most foreign travel was banned because authorities knew citizens would likely not return. Elena found a way out when she married an American in her early 20s (an experience she writes about in a follow-up memoir, Russian Tattoo).

Okay

12) The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown

Description: Three sisters have returned to their childhood home, reuniting the eccentric Andreas family. Their father–a professor of Shakespeare who speaks almost exclusively in verse–named them after the Bard’s heroines. It’s a lot to live up to. The sisters have a hard time communicating with their parents and their lovers, but especially with one another. What do the sibling shave in common? Only that none has found life to be what was expected; and now, faced with their parents’ frailty and their own personal disappointments, not even a book can solve what ails them.

This wasn’t a horrible book but it had too many clichés for me to rate it more highly. You know the drill when there are three sisters: the oldest is the responsible one, the middle one rebels, the youngest is flighty and spoiled (this one decides to return home after years of aimless wandering once she accidentally becomes pregnant – this isn’t a spoiler, it comes up in the first chapter). I also cringed in embarrassment for the author when the middle sister used this line: “[W]e just can’t be as perfect as you are, Rose.” One sibling accusing the other of thinking she’s perfect? Yes, it happens, but come on. Be more original.

The other annoying part was their Shakespearean professor father spoke almost entirely in quotes from Shakespeare’s works. I didn’t find this believable, and if someone I know did this in real life, I would be unspeakably annoyed.

13) Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman

Description: The characters in Mayhew Bergman’s stories are defined by their creative impulses, fierce independence, and sometimes reckless decisions. This book offers an elegant and intimate look at artists who desired recognition. The world wasn’t always kind to the women who star in these stories, but now they receive the attention they deserve.

I was under the assumption this book was nonfiction before I started reading it, but it turns out the author selected real-life women and created fictional accounts to bring their stories to life. It wasn’t until I looked up the women in the first story (conjoined twins) that I realized some facts had been fabricated. It’s certainly okay for an author to take this route, but I would have liked it better if the stories had focused on actual real-life events.

Several stories were included which were only a few pages long; they didn’t seem to fit in well with the rest of the book and I questioned their inclusion.

14) All Good Things: From Paris to Tahiti, Life and Longing, Sarah Turnbull

Description: Having shared her story in her bestselling memoir, Almost French, Turnbull seemed to have more than her fair share of dreams come true. While Sarah went on to carve out an idyllic life in Paris with her husband, Frederic, there was still one dream she was beginning to fear might be impossible — starting a family. Then out of the blue an opportunity to embark on another adventure offered a new beginning. Leaving behind life in the world’s most romantic and beautiful city was never going to be easy. But it helps when your destination is another paradise on earth: Tahiti.

Given my love of travel memoirs, I expected to like this one more than I did. I guess moving to tropical Tahiti doesn’t interest me as much as the author’s first book about living in Paris. Sarah mainly fills her days swimming in a lagoon, researching a novel she never ends up writing, in-depth descriptions of her underwater scuba diving adventures, and her efforts to conceive a child through IVF.

Not Recommended

15) The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

Description: The Romans have long since departed and Britain is steadily declining into ruin. Axl and Beatrice, a couple of elderly Britons, decide that now is the time for them to set off across this troubled land of mist to find the son they have not seen for years. They know they will face many hazards—some strange and otherworldly—but they cannot foresee how their journey will reveal to them the dark and forgotten corners of their love for each other. Nor can they foresee that they will be joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and a knight—each of them lost in some way to his own past, but drawn inexorably toward the comfort, and the burden, of the fullness of a life’s memories.

I didn’t like this book. While I do like historical fiction, I don’t care for fanciful lands with ogres and dragons. I read it only because the author is well known and the book received a fair amount of press, which enforces an important lesson: don’t bother reading a book if you don’t like the sound of the story.

I kept pressing on even though I could tell from the beginning I wasn’t going to like it — the author repeats himself a lot, the conversations weren’t substantive, and I felt like ripping my hair out in annoyance every time the old guy called his wife “princess” (which was…a LOT).

Home

Dining Room Progress

After owning this beautiful table for two months, I was finally able to sit down and eat a meal for the first time this weekend. Why did it take so long? I had a table but no chairs!

New dining chairs

I looked for chairs online at the same time I searched for a table, but it was difficult to picture how they would look and feel in real life. I had other reasons for not wanting to buy chairs online. First, unlike the table (which was delivered and put together by two deliverymen), the chairs would arrive in boxes and we’d have to put them together ourselves. Second, even if I found free shipping online, I would have to pay to ship them back if I didn’t like them (or I might feel pressured to keep them even if I didn’t love them). Third, I read a lot of bad reviews about chairs falling apart or not looking as good as they did in photos.

We decided to look for chairs in local furniture stores so we could see them in person before making a purchase. We ended up finding these pretty quickly, but it took two months – twice as long as expected – before they showed up at our door. We originally planned to pick them up from the store (to save the $100 delivery fee), but when we received the call to come get them (almost five weeks after the initial order), we discovered our sales associate had transposed a few numbers and accidentally ordered the wrong chairs.

To the store’s credit, they did their best to make things right. The correct chairs took about three weeks to arrive this time around, and they agreed to deliver them to us for free. Much easier than taking two cars to the store and trying to jam them between the seats.

It’s been quite a long time since I’ve eaten meals regularly at a dining table (we haven’t had one since we moved to Buffalo almost two years ago, and we rarely used the borrowed set we had in DC because we found the wooden chairs so uncomfortable). I look forward to sitting at a solid surface without balancing a plate on my lap on the couch.

New dining chairs at the table

Another advantage to having dining chairs: it will be easier to have guests over for meals. My in-laws came over last night and we broke in all four chairs at the same time.

The room is pretty much done at this point — we have the table, chairs, and curtains. I’d like to get some new artwork for the walls (I have one piece hanging on the wall right now but I’m not loving it’s placement in a dining room), and I’d like to have the overhead light fixture put on a dimmer. While a bright light is sometimes welcome, it will be a hindrance to future romantic dinners.

Books

20 Favorite Books About Religion (or the Lack Thereof)

In addition to reading memoirs written by women who lived abroad, I’ve read my fair share of books on religion: those who seek it, those who have it, those who don’t believe in it.

I tend to read books about people who have lost their religion (as I did), but as long as the story is well-written and the author’s view is non-combative (I don’t want to hear from anyone who tries to convince me their beliefs are the only correct option), I will likely be interested.

Here are 20 books I’ve read about religion. Which one should I read next?

Mormonism
1) Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer
Description: Krakauer takes readers inside isolated American communities where some 40,000 Mormon Fundamentalists still practice polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the renegade leaders of these Taliban-like theocracies are zealots who answer only to God.

Krakauer

2) Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up in Polygamy, Dorothy Allred Solomon
Description: Since polygamy was abolished by manifesto in 1890, when raids were threatened, families were forced to scatter from their compound in Salt Lake City to the deserts of Mexico or wilds of Montana. To follow the Lord’s plan as dictated by the Principle, the human cost was huge. Solomon, monogamous herself, broke from the fundamentalist group because she yearned for equality and could not reconcile the laws of God (as practiced by polygamists) with the vastly different laws of the state.

3) Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, Martha Beck
Description: As Mormon royalty, Beck was raised in a home frequented by the Church’s high elders—known as the apostles—and her existence was framed by their strict code of conduct. When her son was born with Down syndrome, she and her husband returned to Provo, Utah, where they knew the supportive Mormon community would embrace them. However, soon after Martha began teaching at Brigham Young University, she began to see firsthand the Church’s ruthlessness as it silenced dissidents and masked truths that contradicted its published beliefs. Most troubling of all, she was forced to face her history of sexual abuse by one of the Church’s most prominent authorities.

Scientology
4) Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, Jenna Miscavige Hill
Description: Jenna, niece of Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, was raised as a Scientologist but left the controversial religion in 2005. In her memoir she shares the true story of life inside the upper ranks of the sect, details her experiences as a member of Sea Org (the church’s highest ministry), speaks of her disconnection from family outside of the organization, and tells the story of her ultimate escape.

5) Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright
Description: Based on more than 200 personal interviews with current and former Scientologists—both famous and less well known—and years of archival research, Lawrence Wright uses his extraordinary investigative ability to uncover the inner workings of the Church of Scientology.

Atheism
6) Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace, William Lobdell
Description: While reporting on hundreds of stories as a religion reporter, Lobdell witnessed a disturbing gap between the tenets of various religions and the behaviors of the faithful and their leaders. He investigated religious institutions that acted less ethically than corrupt Wall Street firms. He found few differences between the morals of Christians and atheists. As this evidence piled up, he started to fear God didn’t exist. He explored every doubt, every question—until, finally, his faith collapsed.

7) Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, Barbara Ehrenreich
Description: Educated as a scientist, Ehrenreich is an author, journalist, activist, and advocate for social justice. Here she recounts her quest-beginning in childhood-to find “the Truth” about the universe and everything else: What’s really going on? Why are we here?

8) Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, Dan Barker
Description: Barker recounts his journey from evangelical preacher to atheist activist, and along the way explains precisely why it is not only okay to be an atheist, it is something in which to be proud.

Christianity
9) An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, Mary Johnson
Description: At age 17, Mary saw Mother Teresa’s face on the cover of Time and experienced her calling. Eighteen months later, she entered a convent in the South Bronx to begin her religious training. Not without difficulty, this bright, independent-minded Texas teenager eventually adapted to the sisters’ austere life of poverty and devotion, and in time became close to Mother Teresa herself. During her 20 years with the Missionaries of Charity, she grappled with her faith, her sexuality, the politics of the order, and her complicated relationship with Mother Teresa. Eventually, she left the church to find her own path—one that led to love and herself.

10) Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, Tom Kizzia
Description: When Papa Pilgrim, his wife, and their 15 children appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy, their new neighbors saw them as a shining example of the homespun Christian ideal. But behind the family’s proud piety and beautiful old-timey music lay Pilgrim’s dark past. He soon sparked a tense confrontation with the National Park Service, and as the battle grew more intense, the turmoil in his brood made it increasingly difficult to tell whether his children were messianic followers or hostages in desperate need of rescue.

11) The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, Kevin Roose
Description: Kevin wasn’t used to rules like these. As a sophomore at Brown University, he fit right in with the free-spirited, ultra-liberal student body. But when he leaves his Brown to spend a semester at Liberty University, a conservative Baptist school in Lynchburg, Virginia, obedience is no longer optional. Liberty is the late Reverend Jerry Falwell’s “Bible Boot Camp” for young evangelicals, his training ground for the next generation of America’s Religious Right. Liberty’s ten thousand undergraduates take courses like Evangelism 101, hear from guest speakers like Sean Hannity and Karl Rove, and follow a forty-six-page code of conduct that regulates every aspect of their social lives. Hoping to connect with his evangelical peers, Roose decides to enroll at Liberty as a new transfer student, leaping across the God Divide and chronicling his adventures in this daring report from the front lines of America’s culture war.

12) Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor
Description: After nine years serving on the staff of a big urban church in Atlanta, Taylor arrives in rural Clarkesville, GA, following her dream to become the pastor of her own small congregation. Taylor has five successful years that see significant growth in the church she serves, but ultimately she finds herself experiencing compassion fatigue and wonders what exactly God has called her to do. She realizes that in order to keep her faith she may have to leave.

13) Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, Sarah Sentilles
Description: Sarah’s relationship with God was not casual. When it began to unravel she was in the ordination process to become an Episcopal priest, a youth minister at a church, and a doctoral student in theology at Harvard. But in the studying of the religion she’d been raised on and believed wholeheartedly, one day she woke up and realized it was over. Sentilles reveals how deep our ties to God can be, and how devastating they can be to break.

14) Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It, Jennifer Fulwiler (review here)
Description: Asking the unflinching questions about life and death, good and evil, led Jennifer to Christianity, the religion she had reviled since she was an awkward, skeptical child growing up in the Bible Belt. Mortified by this turn of events, she hid her quest from everyone except her husband, concealing religious books in opaque bags as if they were porn and locking herself in public bathroom stalls to read the Bible. Just when Jennifer had a profound epiphany that gave her the courage to convert, she was diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition—and the only treatment was directly at odds with the doctrines of her new-found faith.

15) Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, Carlene Cross
Description: Cross looks back at the life that led her to marry a charismatic young man who appeared destined for greatness as a minister within the fundamentalist church. When efforts to hold their family together failed, she left the church and the marriage, despite the condemnation of the congregation and the anger of many she had considered friends. Once outside, she realized that the secular world was not the seething cauldron of corruption and sin she had believed, and found herself questioning the underpinnings of the fundamentalist faith.

16) Faith Under Fire: An Army Chaplain’s Memoir, Roger Benimoff
Description: An ordained Baptist chaplain, Benimoff spent two tours of duty in Iraq providing spiritual guidance to American soldiers. His experience takes an unexpected turn when he begins experiencing symptoms he had been trained to spot in recruits and veterans: difficulty adjusting to home.

Amish
17) Growing Up Amish, Ira Wagler
Description: Ira paints a vivid portrait of Amish life—from his childhood days on the family farm, his Rumspringa rite of passage at age 16, to his ultimate decision to leave the Amish Church for good at age 26.

18) Crossing Over: One Woman’s Escape from Amish Life, Ruth Irene Garrett
Description: Ruth was the fifth of seven children raised in Kalona, Iowa, as a member of a strict Old Order Amish community. She was brought up in a world filled with rigid rules and intense secrecy, in an environment where the dress, buggies, codes of conduct, and way of life differed even from other Amish societies only 100 miles away. This book takes us inside a hidden community, offering a striking look as one woman comes to terms with her discontent and ultimately leaves her family, faith and the sheltered world of her childhood.

Other
19) My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru, Tim Guest
Description: At the age of six, Tim was taken by his mother to a commune modeled on the teachings of the notorious Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The Bhagwan preached an eclectic doctrine of Eastern mysticism, chaotic therapy, and sexual freedom, and enjoyed inhaling laughing gas, preaching from a dentist’s chair, and collecting Rolls Royces. Tim and his mother were given Sanskrit names, dressed entirely in orange, and encouraged to surrender themselves into their new family.

20) I Am Hutterite: The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Heritage, Mary-Ann Kirkby
Description: This book is set in the little-known Hutterite colony in southern Manitoba where Mary-Ann spent her childhood. When she was 10, her parents packed up their seven children and a handful of possessions and left the security of the colony to start a new life. Before she left the colony Mary-Ann had never heard of Walt Disney or ridden a bike. She was forced to reinvent herself, denying her heritage to fit in with her peers.

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.