Books Read in August 2016

I read nine books in August (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 74.

These are the books I started reading this month but decided not to finish:

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



1) Love, Loss, and What We Ate, Padma Lakshmi

Description: Long before Padma ever stepped onto a television set, she learned that how we eat is an extension of how we love, how we comfort, and how we forge a sense of home. Shuttling between continents as a child, she lived a life of dislocation that would become habit as an adult, never quite at home in the world. This is an account of her journey from her grandmother’s kitchen in South India, ruled by ferocious and unforgettable women, to the judges’ table of Top Chef and beyond.

Not knowing very much about Padma in advance, I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. She goes into her marriage and divorce to Salman Rushdie, a painful struggle with endometriosis, her childhood growing up in India and America, behind the scenes working as a host on Top Chef, and all the gossip surrounding the birth of her daughter.

2) Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart, William Alexander

Description: Alexander is more than a Francophile – he wants to be French. There’s one small obstacle: he doesn’t speak the language. Alexander travels to France, where mistranslations send him off in all sorts of wrong directions and he nearly drowns in an immersion class in Provence. Alexander reports on the riotous workings of the Académie française, the 400-year-old institution charged with keeping the language pure; explores the science of human communication, and learns why it’s harder for 50-year-olds to learn a second language than it is for 5-year-olds.

Why is it more entertaining to read about someone else learning a language rather than learning a language ourselves? Reading a book doesn’t require a serious time investment, of course, nor does it require study or memorization. You skim the lines until you’re done, then go on to something else. If learning a language was as fun as reading a book, I’d speak tons of languages by now.

I really enjoyed this book, and applauded Alexander’s desire to learn French in his late 50s. In addition to spending hundreds of hours in study, attending a language conference, and enrolling in a 2-week immersion school in France, he addresses a wide range of topics: linguistics, the absurdity of trying to learn masculine/feminine nouns, all the inconsistencies of French, and the difficulty of trying to become fluent after a certain age.

3) A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, Donald Miller

Description: Years after writing a best-selling memoir, Don went into a funk and spent months sleeping in and avoiding his publisher. One story had ended, and Don was unsure how to start another. He gets rescued by two movie producers who want to make a movie based on his memoir. When they start fictionalizing Don’s life for film, the real-life Don starts a journey to edit his actual life into a better story. This book details that journey and challenges readers to reconsider what they strive for in life. It shows how to get a second chance at life the first time around.

I find this book hard to describe. I was disappointed with the first half, but by the second half I was starting to see why so many people liked it. I wasn’t happy with the religious undertone, though — it wasn’t overt, but I like to know in advance if someone will be giving God the glory in their writing so I can decide if I want to read it or not.

My consensus on this book: Don makes a lot of good points. I liked his assertion that we’re all living our individual stories and it’s up to us to make an interesting life. That’s a very valuable perspective to keep in mind. However, I didn’t really care for his matter-of-fact writing style, so that kept me from enjoying the book as much as I could have if someone else wrote it.

4) The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, Kate Andersen Brower

Description: America’s First Families are unknowable in many ways. No one has insight into their true character like the people who serve their meals and make their beds every day. Full of stories and details by turns dramatic, humorous, and heartwarming, Brower reveals daily life in the White House as it is really lived through the voices of the maids, butlers, cooks, florists, doormen, engineers, and others who tend to the needs of the President and First Family.

This is an informative peek into a world that many people don’t get to see. There are many behind-the-scenes stories related to what it was like to work at the White House during major events like the Kennedy assassination, Nixon’s resignation, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and September 11. What stands out is how dedicated the employees are to their jobs — like putting up with long working hours without complaint, and maintaining a high level of confidentiality — and how many of them spend their entire careers there (Brower gives multiple examples of jobs that end up being passed along to children or other family members).

5) Terrible Virtue: A Novel, Ellen Feldman

Description: This is about one of the most fascinating and influential figures of the 20th century: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood—an indomitable woman who, more than any other, and at great personal cost, shaped the sexual landscape we inhabit today. Trained as a nurse, she fought for social justice beside labor organizers, anarchists, socialists, and other progressives, eventually channeling her energy to one singular cause: legalizing contraception.

This is a novel but the story is based on a real woman. It’s an interesting format, written in first person (Margaret speaking), but the author includes all these little asides from other characters in the story where they refute or clarify Margaret’s version of events. Often these asides are openly derogatory and accusing.

I get the impression that Margaret did a lot of good — and from her first-person account she had a high opinion of herself and her accomplishments — but the story also told of her limitations and failures (she fell short as a mother, she was promiscuous and regularly cheated on her husband).

This early quote from the book demonstrates that Margaret saw herself as different from other women of her era: “Sometimes I thought about how much easier life would be if I were like the other women on the street, child obsessed, husband dutiful, house and garden proud.”


6) Lab Girl, Hope Jahren

Description: Jahren writes about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

In relaying the events of her life, the author’s story got more tolerable as her age and maturity increased, but I found the description of her early years just plain…weird. There are multiple examples to illustrate this, including when she took a group of grad students to a monkey jungle in Florida and camped outside the entrance in tents, and the (way too long) retelling of a van accident on a snowy road while on her way to a conference. She later admits to being diagnosed with manic depression and goes on medication.

I do appreciate her background as a female scientist, and how she’s had to fight harder to get where she is than males generally do. Here’s what she said about her experience with sexism:

“Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”

7) The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, Arianna Huffington

Description: According to Huffington, co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post, we are in the midst of a sleep deprivation crisis. This has profound consequences – on our health, our job performance, our relationships, and our happiness. What is needed is nothing short of a sleep revolution. Only by renewing our relationship with sleep can we take back control of our lives.

I might have liked this book better if I had trouble sleeping, but I don’t. I’m generally asleep within 10 minutes of going to bed, sometimes much less. While electronics are discouraged before sleep, I can read a book on my phone up until I turn out the lights with no problem. Some of the research was interesting, but I’d heard most of the get-to-sleep tips before.

I listened to this on audiobook, which was a mistake — I didn’t like the narrator at all. They chose a woman who has a thick accent similar to Arianna Huffington’s (while that makes sense in a way, it was extremely distracting; I sometimes had to pay more attention to how she was pronouncing words than what she was trying to get across). If you read this book, I’d recommend not doing so via audio.

8) Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life, Jenna Woginrich

Description: In a world of mass-produced food and computer-centric desk jobs, it’s easy to overlook the simple pleasures of eating homegrown vegetables, raising animals naturally and humanely, and wearing hand-sewn clothing. Inspired by her growing admiration for small farmers, Jenna decided to take great control of her life — what she ate, what she wore, and how she spent her free time.

This isn’t a straight memoir, as it has more instructions and tips sprinkled in than I was expecting. She goes into creating her first outdoor garden, raising backyard chickens, attempting to make some of her own clothes, and the joys of antiquing rather than buying new.

I liked that with everything she did, she started small and manageable, but there was a lot of stuff she did that I’m not interested in learning myself (training dogs to be pack animals, putting up a bee hive, raising angora rabbits and using their fur to knit a sweater).

Not Recommended

9) Mud Season: How One Woman’s Dream of Moving to Vermont, Raising Children, Chickens and Sheep, and Running the Old Country Store Pretty Much Led to One Calamity After Another, Ellen Stimson

Description: After a getaway in rural Vermont, Stimson and her family decide to move there. This book chronicles Stimson’s transition from city life to rickety farmhouse. When she decides she wants to own and operate the old-fashioned village store in idyllic Dorset (pop. 2,036), one of the oldest continually-operating country stores in the U.S., she learns the hard way that “improvements” are not always welcomed warmly by folks who like things just fine the way they’d always been.

I wanted to put this book in the “Okay” category, but when I got to the end I really wished I hadn’t wasted my time reading it. I thought the premise was cool — a family moves to Vermont and buys an old general store — but they made obvious mistake after glaringly-obvious mistake. I’m not going to give examples because recounting them just makes me mad.

In the beginning, Stimson admits to exaggerating, so basically I assumed everything off-the-wall that happened was mostly (or completely) made up. Random shit kept happening, and most of it wasn’t explained with any kind of resolution. On top of all that, she thinks she’s funnier than she is so she kept inserting not-funny antidotes and eyerolling one-liners.

It’s not surprising that the business fails miserably and they lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. I didn’t feel sorry for her because it was 100% her fault.


Books Read in July 2016

I read 10 books in July (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 65.

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



1) Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself, Sarah A. Chrisman

Description: On Sarah’s 29th birthday, her husband presented her with a corset. Although she had been in love with the Victorian era all her life, she had specifically asked her husband not to buy her a corset. Sarah explains how a garment from the past led to a change in not only the way she viewed herself, but also the ways she understood the major differences between the cultures of 21st-century and 19th-century America. The desire to delve further into the Victorian lifestyle provided new insight into issues of body image and how women, past and present, have seen and continue to see themselves.

Who knew wearing a corset could bring such a sense of empowerment? Sarah’s corset-wearing started gradually, but within a short period of time she was wearing it 24 hours a day (yes, even to bed). Wearing a corset changes the shape of your waist, so wearing it at night ensures she stays at her preferred shape. Within a few months, she had to buy a new corset because the first one was too big.

I liked that Sarah started doing this (and as far as I know, continues to do it today, eight years later) simply because she wanted to. She loves the Victorian era; wearing a corset ensures she has the body shape of a Victorian-era woman and can fit into the style of dress that was popular back then. She endures a lot of questions about this choice, and sometimes verbal abuse, as well as unwanted physical touch (when people reach out to grab her waist without permission).

On the negative side, she did tend to come off as judgmental toward people who dress in cheaply made, reproduction Victorian-era costumes (especially those made of polyester). She expressed disdain for the prevalence of people who use orthodontics to straighten their teeth, but she later admitted to feeling self conscious about her own crooked teeth. When she broke her foot, she refused to take any painkillers, comparing doctors in the Emergency Room to drug pushers of the 19th century.

I learned a lot about the history of corsets and their (undeserved) negative reputation. She debunked some myths, like the one about women removing their bottom two ribs in order to make their waists smaller. I also liked when she scoffed at the depiction of corsets in the movie Gone with the Wind, when Scarlett O’Hara grasps a bed post while being laced into her corset. Sarah said: “Tying the laces of a corset, like tying any variety of thin cord into a slipknot, requires a bit of dexterity, but no exertion, and it is really best to leave the furnishings out of it. Groping an article of furniture and adopting the breathing patterns of someone in the early stages of foreplay is no more necessary in order to tie a corset than it is to engage in such activity to tie one’s shoes.”

2) This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion, and Technology, Sarah A. Chrisman

Description: In her first book, Chrisman recalled the first year she spent wearing a Victorian corset 24/7. Now Chrisman picks up where she left off, documenting her complete shift into living as though she were in the 19th century. From Victorian beauty regimes to 19th-century bicycles, custard recipes to taxidermy experiments, oil lamps to an ice box, the more immersed she became in the late Victorian era, the more aware she grew of its legacies permeating the 21st century.

This book is a follow-up to the one above, taking Sarah from Victorian-era corset wearing to embracing many more aspects of life from that time period. She and her husband move into an 1889 Victorian fixer-upper and start collecting as many period pieces as they can on their limited household budget.

The house has electric lights, but they exclusively use oil lamps unless they have company. Neither of them has ever owned a cell phone. Sarah sews her clothes by hand, even after acknowledging that sewing machines were used in the Victorian era (she just prefers to do it that way, even if a dress takes a year to make). She even made her own mattress to fit an irregularly-shaped bed (it involved buying massive amounts of cotton balls and feathers). She washes her hair using castile bar soap.

I wouldn’t want to live this way but I’m very interested in people who choose to live outside the norm. You really have to love something a LOT to go as in-depth as they have. Someone should make a documentary about these people.

3) Paris Letters, Janice Macleod

Description: “How much money does it take to change your life?” Unfulfilled at her job, Janice doodled this question at her desk. Then she decided to make it a challenge. With a little math and a lot of determination, she saved up enough to buy two years of freedom in Europe. But she had only been in Paris for a few days when she met a handsome butcher—and never went home again.

This is a fun tale of a woman in her mid-30s who realizes she can save enough money to buy herself a few years of freedom from her job. I enjoyed reading about how she gradually downsized her life, paid off all her debt, and sold everything she owned except the essentials (all of which fit in a single suitcase). She expected to stay in Europe for a few months, but ended up staying much longer when she met a man and later married him. Happily, she was able to change her life enough to never return to that advertising job.

4) A Pig in Provence: Good Food and Simple Pleasures in the South of France, Georgeanna Brennan

Description: Thirty years ago, James Beard Award-winning author Brennan set out to realize the dream of a peaceful, rural existence in Provence. She and her husband bought a small farmhouse, goats, and pigs. Filled with local color, this evocative and passionate memoir describes her life cooking and living in the Provenal tradition.

I’ve read several books about Americans who move to Provence, but I don’t get tired of them. Brennan raised goats and sold goat milk cheese, hunted for wild mushrooms (a popular activity in that area, both for private consumption and selling for a profit), and participated in many local activities, celebrations, and festivals. Although many of Provence’s food rituals have changed over the years, it’s cool to see that so many of them remain intact.

5) 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, William Alexander

Description: Alexander is determined to bake the perfect loaf of bread from scratch. And because he is nothing if not thorough, he really means from scratch: growing, harvesting, winnowing, threshing, and milling his own wheat. An original take on the 6,000-year-old staple of life, Alexander explores the nature of obsession, the meditative quality of ritual, and the mysterious instinct that makes all of us respond to the aroma of baking bread.

This is another book in the vein of a year-long challenge, which I’m a sucker for. Alexander’s sense of humor doesn’t appeal to me, but I was able to look past his occasional bad jokes since the story was entertaining and informative. He’s written two other books (Flirting with French and The $64 Tomato), which are both on my future reading list.

6) Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, Anthony Doerr

Description: Doerr has received many awards, including the Rome Prize, which came with a stipend and a writing studio in Rome for a year. This book describes Doerr’s adventures in one of the most enchanting cities in the world as he visits piazzas, temples, and ancient cisterns. He attends the vigil of a dying Pope John Paul II and takes his twin boys to the Pantheon. He and his family are embraced by the butchers, grocers, and bakers of the neighborhood, whose clamor of stories is as compelling as the city itself.

For a book on the smaller side, it took me a long time to finish this (I checked it out months ago, read a few chapters, then had to return it when my nine-week library hold expired). Once I finally settled in though, I enjoyed it. Doerr has an almost mesmerizing way with words — which explains the popularity of his 2014 novel, All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He admitted to not getting any substantive novel-writing work done during his international fellowship, but he could be forgiven based on the amount of time it took to wrangle his young twin sons.

7) A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Description: After growing up in the most food-obsessed city in the world, Cheryl left home at age 18 for America—proof of the rebelliousness of daughters born in the Year of the Tiger. But as a 30-something fashion writer in New York, she felt the Singaporean dishes of her childhood calling her back. Cheryl learned to infuse her New York lifestyle with the rich lessons of the Singaporean kitchen, ultimately reconnecting with her family and herself.

I did it again. For the second time (that I know of), I finished a book that I thought I’d never read before and when I went to record it, I realized I’d already read it. I read it four years ago, but still…this does not bode well for my memory skills.

Luckily, re-reading this book wasn’t a waste of time. I enjoyed Tan’s tale of going from a non-cook to spending many hours in the kitchens of family and friends, learning how to make meals from her Singaporean childhood (along with so much more — she also teachers herself how to bake bread).

8) Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben

Description: Our old familiar globe is changing in ways no human has ever seen. We’ve created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different: Eaarth. McKibben argues our hope depends on scaling back—on building the kind of societies and economies that can hunker down, concentrate on essentials, and create the type of community that will allow us to weather trouble on an unprecedented scale.

I’ve been on an environmental-reading kick lately. I liked this one because McKibben focuses on smaller scale changes. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you know about the far-reaching problems with global warming, but his thoughts on community building and living locally provide some hope. I did like Oil and Honey better than this one, though.

9) The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, Elaine Sciolino

Description: Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, invites us on a tour of her favorite Parisian street as she celebrates the neighborhood’s rich history and vibrant lives. While many cities suffer from the leveling effects of globalization, the rue des Martyrs maintains its distinct allure. Sciolino reveals the charms and idiosyncrasies of this street and its longtime residents, making Paris come alive in all its unique majesty.

I didn’t know this in advance, but the author was born in Buffalo and attended Canisius College (the same college my husband attended). There are multiple references to her Buffalo childhood in this Paris-centered book, which was pretty cool. As for the rest of it, you could be forgiven for assuming a book about a Parisian street wouldn’t be interesting, but she makes it so — there is history, and drama, vendors coming and going, and a way of life that is different from what we experience in America.


10) Only in Spain: A Foot-Stomping, Firecracker of a Memoir about Food, Flamenco, and Falling in Love, Nellie Bennett

Description: One day, Nellie falls in love with flamenco in a Sydney dance studio. Tired of her boring retail job and longing to get closer to the authentic experience, she packs her dance shoes and travels to Seville, Spain. What Nellie didn’t realize is that flamenco is not just a dance; it’s a way of life.

As much as I enjoy memoirs written by women who live abroad, this one was a little cheesy. It took place when the author was in her early 20s, and I’m at an age now where I prefer to read about ladies who are a little more mature.


Books Read in June 2016

I read 13 books in June (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 55.

I finished a ton of books this month, but in my defense, I’d started at least four of them in May — which means I finished all four in the first few days of June. (I’m usually reading multiple books at any given time: at least one ebook, one physical book, and one audiobook.)

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



1) All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Rebecca Traister

Description: The phenomenon of the single woman in America is not a new one. Historically, when women were given options beyond early heterosexual marriage, the results were massive social change—temperance, abolition, secondary education, and more. This is a remarkable portrait of contemporary American life and how we got here, through the lens of the single American woman.

I thought I’d read enough about single ladies (what an awesome bunch!) over the years, so I didn’t intend to read this book until I came across this review. I’m glad I did. Even though there was a lot of information I already knew, there was a lot of new material as well.

Although this should be common knowledge by now, the author did a good job of showing how being single as an adult for an extended period of time is now mainstream, and that it’s preferable to delay serious relationships and/or marriage until you’ve been through many life experiences on your own. Like me, the author was single for a long time before she decided to marry (she got married at age 35, I was 33-and-a-half).

I like how she touched on the history of notable single women (those who paved the way for mass acceptance today), the prevalence of single women living in cities, and examples of strong female friendship.

2) New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City, William Powers

Description: Burned-out after years of doing development work around the world, Powers spent a season in a 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin off the grid in North Carolina, as recounted in his award-winning memoir Twelve by Twelve. Could he live a similarly minimalist life in New York City? To find out, Powers and his wife jettisoned 80% of their stuff and moved into a 350-square-foot “micro-apartment” in Greenwich Village. Downshifting to a two-day workweek, Powers explores the viability of Slow Food and Slow Money, technology fasts and urban sanctuaries. Discovering a colorful cast of New Yorkers attempting to resist the culture of Total Work, Powers offers an inspiring exploration for anyone trying to make urban life more people- and planet-friendly.

I read and enjoyed Twelve-by-Twelve in May, and this one was no different. This book takes Powers from a tiny house in rural NC to a tiny studio apartment in NYC. Instead of long walks on country roads, through forests, and sitting by a creek for hours at a time, Powers spends time listening to musicians in a park, on the roof deck of his apartment building, and sitting by a river. I think this book can be more relatable to people interested in slowing down, since it takes place in a major city rather than in the woods. Through it all, he explores topics related to living slow, and asks himself questions about how he wants to lead his life now and in the future.

3) Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein

Description: With casual hookups and campus rape relentlessly in the news, parents can be forgiven for feeling anxious about their young daughters. They’re also fearful about opening up a dialog. Not Orenstein. A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times best-selling author of books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein spoke to psychologists, academics, and other experts in the field (and yes, 70 young women), to offer an in-depth picture of girls and sex today.

This is a book every parent with a preteen-ish daughter should read. It’s extremely unfortunate there is so much misinformation and ambiguity around girls and sexuality. I certainly wish I had been better informed around that age. Topics include how expectations of oral sex and hooking up have changed in the past few decades, and the prevalence of campus rape and sexual assault, among others, with many disturbing statistics.

This book wasn’t all that relatable for me personally (as someone who is married with no children), but it is something I’d want to read if I had a preteen daughter. If that ever happens, hopefully I won’t need to read this book again because things will have changed for the better by then.

4) Falling in Honey: How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart, Jennifer Barclay

Description: One winter, after her love life falls apart, Jennifer decides to spend a month on a tiny, wild Greek island. It’s a chance to find another kind of contentment, one that comes from holding an octopus in your hands. She decides to stay longer, but just when everything is falling into place again, the strangest thing happens…

If I come across a memoir about a woman leaving her home country to live somewhere foreign, I’ll pretty much always put it on my reading list. I’ve been like this for many years; I can’t see this interest ever changing.

From the description, I thought this book might be a little too romance-oriented, but I was glad to see it wasn’t that way at all. In fact, there’s a twist to the relationship which was hinted at during the story, but still, the way it turned out surprised me. There is also very little mention of bees and honey in the story, so if you’re a bee enthusiast, don’t let the title fool you (I didn’t care; I just thought I’d point it out).

5) Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate), Amy Thomas

Description: This is a personal and moveable feast that’s a treasure map for anyone who loves fresh cupcakes and fine chocolate, New York and Paris, and life in general. It’s about how the search for happiness can be as fleeting as a sliver of cheesecake and about how the life you’re meant to live doesn’t always taste like the one you envisioned.

Amy worked in advertising in NYC when she got an opportunity to join the Louis Vuitton account in Paris. A longtime Francophile, of course she jumped at the chance. Her experience starts off feeling magical and exciting, later devolves into loneliness and depression, but she manages to bring it back around and enjoy her stay (and even extend her contract; she ends up living in Paris almost two years). Along the way, her committed sweet tooth leads her to the best desserts in the city. (I even made note of a few locations, just in case I end up back there one day — it’s been almost twelve years since I visited in 2004.)

6) Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, Bill McKibben

Description: With the Arctic melting, the Midwest in drought, and Hurricane Irene scouring the Atlantic, McKibben recognized action was needed if solutions were to be found. Some of those would come at the local level, where he joins forces with a Vermont beekeeper raising his hives as part of the growing trend toward local food. Other solutions would come from a much larger fight against the fossil-fuel industry as a whole. This is McKibben’s account of these two necessary and mutually reinforcing sides of the global climate fight — from the center of the maelstrom and from the growing hive of small-scale local answers.

This is the first book I’ve read of McKibben’s, but I liked it a lot. It was interesting to read about his environmental activism and all the time he spends on the cause, including the time he got hundreds of people to call attention to the Keystone pipeline fight by getting arrested while protesting in front of the White House. I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of reading about his far-reaching activism-related travels with the very local aspect of honey production in his home state of Vermont.

7) Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, Sarah Hepola

Description: For Sarah, drinking felt like freedom, part of her birthright as a strong, enlightened 21st-century woman. But there was a price. She often blacked out, waking up with a blank space where four hours should have been. Mornings became detective work on her own life. Publicly, she covered her shame with self-deprecating jokes, and her career flourished, but as the blackouts accumulated, she could no longer avoid a sinking truth: the fuel she thought she needed was draining her spirit instead. This is the story of a woman stumbling into a new kind of adventure — the sober life she never wanted.

I’ve read other books written by reformed alcoholics, but this is a particularly good one. Sarah is not much older than I am and I’ve read some of her online writing over the years. In addition to describing how she became an alcoholic and what her worst years were like, she also focused a lot on what happened after she became sober (for instance, she couldn’t write for the first six months because she was so used to writing while drinking). Her writing style is very relatable — honestly, I just really liked the way she puts sentences together, the words she chooses. She talked a bit too much about her beloved cat, but I was able to look past that annoyance.

8) Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans

Description: Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals — church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Centered around seven sacraments, Rachel’s quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.

I greatly enjoyed the author’s honesty because, for someone pretty well-known in the Christian community, she has a lot to say about her struggles with belief. She’s expressed cynicism many times in the pews, left churches when they didn’t fit with her values, and spent many Sundays at home, sleeping late and watching TV.

I particularly liked this quote:

I didn’t want to put my church story in print because…I still don’t know the ending. I am in the adolescence of my faith. There have been slammed doors and rolled eyes and defiant declarations of “I hate you!” hurled at every person or organization that represents the institutionalized church. I am angry and petulant, hopeful and naive. […] Church books are written by people with a plan and ten steps, not by Christians just hanging on by their fingernails.

One part that stood out to me was when Evans expressed how distraught she was when World Vision, an organization she’d personally worked with, had to backtrack on their decision to allow gays and lesbians to serve as employees in their organization because tens of thousands of kids were dropped by church-going parishioners in mass protests. (What a despicable case of misguided priorities. That’s the only way they could think of to show their displeasure?)

What I didn’t like were the inclusion of chapters that were essentially mini sermons. Evans’ personal story is worth reading though, so if you don’t like being preached to, you can skip the Bible lessons entirely and not miss out on anything.

9) When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, Addie Zierman

Description: Evangelical poster child Addie wore three bracelets asking what Jesus would do. She also led two Bible studies and listened exclusively to Christian music. She was on fire for God and unaware that the flame was dwindling—until it burned out. Addie chronicles her journey through church culture and first love, and her entrance—unprepared and angry—into marriage. When she drops out of church and very nearly her marriage as well, it is on a sea of tequila and depression. She isn’t sure if she’ll ever go back.

I was brought up similarly to Addie and recognized a lot of her references (Bible stories told with paper characters on felt boards, Awana, Amy Grant going mainstream, WWJD), although she was definitely more “on fire” with her faith than I ever was.

I didn’t mean to read two books (this one and the one mentioned above) related to the evangelical faith this month, but that’s the way the library hold process works sometimes. If I were to compare the two, I’d say I related to Addie’s story, enjoyed her conversational tone, and appreciated that she didn’t come across as preachy. With Rachel in Searching for Sunday, I was mesmerized by her words, and appreciated how raw and honest she was about her struggles with faith and how she still struggles day to day.


10) In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

Description: Lahiri was first captivated by the Italian during a trip to Florence after college. Although she studied the language for many years afterward, true mastery eluded her. In 2012, seeking full immersion, she decided to move to Rome with her family, for “a trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world. This book investigates the process of learning to express oneself in another language, and describes the journey of a writer seeking a new voice.

There were some things I liked about this book and others I didn’t. I thought it was really interesting that she wrote this book entirely in Italian and had someone else translate it into English — understandably, she didn’t want to tempt herself into changing any of the words later (in other words, doing massive edits in her stronger language and making it “better”).

I didn’t like that so much of her writing came across with an ethereal tone (I’m not sure if that’s the exact word I’m looking for, but it’s the first that came to mind so I’m sticking with it). There was also a fictional dream sequence near the end that I didn’t understand and didn’t seem to fit.

I did enjoy when Lahiri talked about how she became multilingual (her original language is Bengali, then English when she moved to the U.S. as a young girl, and finally Italian when she picked it up at age 25), and how she’s never felt like she fit in 100% with any of these languages/cultures.

11) Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-planting Tribe, Charlotte Gill

Description: Gill spent twenty years working as a tree planter in the forests of Canada. She offers up a slice of tree-planting life in all of its soggy, gritty exuberance, while questioning the ability of conifer plantations to replace original forests that evolved over millennia into complex ecosystems. She looks at logging’s environmental impact and its boom-and-bust history, and touches on the versatility of wood, from which we have devised countless creations as diverse as textiles and airplane parts.

Trees are amazing, but I don’t have a particular interest in the life of tree planters (people who are hired to plant seedlings after a massive logging operation concludes). I picked this up because it was written by a woman, so in that aspect it was informative, since females are not common in that field. It’s not a bad book — it won a number of nonfiction awards — but there’s too much detail of the evolution of trees and history of logging, and way more description of nature than I care for (I’d rather experience nature myself; not read about it).

12) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein

Description: Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. She meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies.

Naomi is a committed environmental activist, and I respect her for that. This book is packed full of information she’s collected over the years, some of which I’d heard of, some of which surprised me (like how certain large nonprofits who are committed to protecting the environment have taken money from fossil fuel companies). However, I wouldn’t have tackled this book if I’d known it was 576 pages (I listened to the audiobook, and I didn’t look up the length in advance). It was just too long. I worked on it over the past few months, listening to other audiobooks in-between because I’d get tired of this one and needed a break.

13) Karma Gone Bad: How I Learned to Love Mangos, Bollywood and Water Buffalo, Jenny Feldon

Description: When Jenny’s consultant husband is sent to manage a project in India for two years, she finds herself in water buffalo traffic jams. She struggles to fight depression, bitterness, and anger as her sense of self and her marriage began to unravel. And it was all India’s fault…right?

I think this woman was trying to be humorous, telling us about her overprivileged reactions and hijinks when she was sent to India against her will, but her helplessness was infuriating. (I also rolled my eyes when she described herself as “far from a feminist.”) Predictably, she redeems herself near the end, coming to terms with her situation by finding a yoga class, hiring household help, and volunteering at an orphanage. It’s too bad she spends so much of the book being insufferable.

Random Friday

Random Friday, Ver. 119

I was hit by a car last month. I was crossing an intersection on foot (in a crosswalk, at a green light), and was struck by a vehicle making a left turn across my lane of traffic.

I experienced a number of bumps and bruises, but the worst injury was to the left side of my head (the impact knocked me to the ground and I hit my head on the asphalt). It’s been over four weeks since the accident and I still have a lump on my head underneath my bangs. Most noticeably, the trauma of the head injury caused a black eye, which is much better but not completely gone.

Head Injury

Black Eye

The experience was quite disconcerting, and even though I wasn’t in the wrong, I’ve been a bit over-careful while crossing the street since then (for instance, waiting for drivers to fully stop and acknowledge my existence before I proceed).


A new activity in my life that makes me happy is cycling. I bought a bike in 2008 when I lived in Alexandria, VA and rode regularly for a while, but the habit died off when I moved into DC in 2010 and then to Buffalo in 2013. I told Paul he needed to get a bike so we could ride together, so we picked up a used Cannondale for him at a local bicycle shop.

He embraced the cycling habit right away and we’ve been on our bikes most Saturdays and Sundays for the past few months. Paul is great with maps and navigating, so he plans our routes for us in advance. We’ve explored a bunch of trails already and it’s been a really fun way to experience the area (we travel much slower than a car, but a lot faster than we would on foot).


Currently Reading: All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, by Rebecca Traister

Currently Watching: Mostly documentaries, like Lisa Ling’s This is Life, GasLand, and Chasing Ice.


Favorite Links:

I Love the Victorian Era. So I Decided to Live In It. This is amazing! How had I never heard about this woman, or her books, before last week? I don’t want to take her lead and live in a recreated Victorian era, but I love that she and her husband enjoy it so much and go to such efforts for authenticity. (They use a period-appropriate icebox instead of an electric refrigerator, which they stock with block ice and empty melted water from the drip tray 1-2 times a day. There’s a wind-up mechanical clock in their parlor, and she writes in her diary using an antique fountain pen that she fills with liquid ink using an eyedropper.) She’s written two memoirs, both of which my library owns, so expect to see them pop up soon in my monthly reading roundup.

Quitting Your Job To Travel Isn’t Brave. It’s Lucky. This post is spot-on. I get annoyed with travel writers who proclaim that everyone can do what they do. No, everybody cannot — or should not — do what you do. Even if you’re single and childless, it’s irresponsible to quit your job to travel if you have debts to pay off. Fulfill your obligations first. And when you’re debt free and everything is lined up for your departure, don’t forget you’re lucky to be taking advantage of this opportunity. Unless you’re traveling to a war zone or something similar, traveling is not brave.

The Patronizing Questions We Ask Women Who Write. “Let me say this: I am embarrassed and worried all the time, and that is why I am a writer. You do not need to bring up hypothetical consequences of my work as if in an effort to trap me, to surprise me, to make me turn red and throw my laptop in a river. I go through all of that every damn day, in the hour or so it takes me to work myself up to open a Word document.”

When It’s Time to Detach Yourself From Your Things. Do you have a collection, or something else you’re particularly attached to? J. Money discusses his coin collection, but his thoughts can be applied to pretty much anything.

Hoarding is a Serious Disorder and It’s Only Getting Worse in the United States. This reminds me of the book on hoarding I read a few months ago.

If You Are What You Eat, America Is Allrecipes. “The nation’s most popular recipe site reveals the enormous gap between foodie culture and what people actually cook.”

Are Farmers Markets Really as Expensive as Everyone Says? “The prices of the goods you buy at the farmers market are a lot more complicated than the numbers on the placards read—and those numbers shouldn’t be the only thing we take into consideration.”


From the Archives:

One year ago: I Conquered My Eating Disorder. “My recovery wasn’t quick or linear, but since 2007 I’ve never returned to a calorie-restricting diet. I spent too many years counting calories; I will never do so again. I focus instead on eating foods that won’t harm me. In the past I never cared how many unpronounceable ingredients were in my prepared foods, or how much artificial sugar I consumed, as long as it was low calorie.”

Six years ago: A Farewell of Sorts. After writing weekly posts for BlogHer for three years, I decided to quit. Here’s why.

Seven years ago: Marriage? I Could Take It or Leave It. This was written a year before I met Paul.

Eight years ago: Nobody Asked Me If I Was Okay. The day I almost passed out on the Metro.

About Me

Turning 36

Today I am 36 years old.

When I turned six in 1986, I had just finished kindergarten at Buckingham County Primary School in Buckingham, Virginia. I had one older sister and one younger sister; my two brothers had not yet been born.

When I turned 16 in 1996, it was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. My mom left my dad a few months later and a great life upheaval began, which in some ways continues to affect my life today.

When I turned 26 in 2006, I had been living in southern California for a year and was preparing to return to the east coast. I had taken the GRE and considered applying to several graduate programs, but couldn’t find anything I loved enough. I ended up moving to DC that fall, where I stayed for the next seven years.

On the surface, my life is very similar to last June when I turned 35: I have the same job, own the same car, live in the same house. I still read a lot, and try to live as minimally as possible.

Some things have changed in the past year: I have two additional nephews (which makes five total). I became a pescetarian (my husband and I eat entirely vegetarian at home but occasionally consume seafood in restaurant/social settings). I joined a CSA last summer and renewed our membership this year, so our veggie consumption rises pretty dramatically when those deliveries arrive. I bought a compost bin and plan to set it up in the backyard (I’ve been composting since last summer but previously took all the waste material to my in-laws’ house – their bin is getting full so we’re starting our own).

I wouldn’t say I have any grand goals for the next year, nor have I made a new list of things I’d like to accomplish. I’d like to take a vacation outside the United States, as I haven’t traveled internationally since 2010. (Well, I’ve been to Canada. But that doesn’t really count, because I live in Buffalo, which means I can leave my house and cross the Canadian border in about 15 minutes.)

Also, I know I talk all the time about getting rid of stuff in my house, but there is always more I could do. My goal is to be able to look at my possessions and say, “I only own things that I need or love.” I’ve come a really long way, but I’m not quite there yet.



Books Read in May 2016

I read 5 books in May (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2016 total to 42.

I started reading this book in May but decided not to finish it:

  • Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, Russell Shorto
    I lived in Amsterdam for five months in 2004 while I did a college semester abroad, and I’ve held a soft spot for the city ever since. The American-born author started out talking about his personal experience living in Amsterdam, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but then he delved into stuff that happened back in the 1500s and 1600s and I was like, “Ahhhh! Too much dense history!” So I stopped reading it. But it does make me want to explore books about the Netherlands that maybe aren’t so history-focused.

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



1) Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream, William Powers

Description: Why would a successful American physician choose to live in a 12-by-12-foot cabin without running water or electricity? To find out, writer and activist Powers visited Dr. Jackie Benton in rural North Carolina. A creek gurgled through Benton’s permaculture farm, and she stroked honeybees’ wings as she shared her philosophy of living on a planet in crisis. Powers, just back from a decade of international aid work, accepted Benton’s offer to stay at the cabin for a season while she traveled. There, he befriended her eclectic neighbors — organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers — and discovered a sustainable but imperiled way of life.

There aren’t many people who want to spend so much time in solitude — at least not in a tiny house without the comforts of electricity and running water. Powers would spend hours upon hours walking through the woods or sitting by a creek. He had visitors and sometimes spent time with neighbors, but he was by himself a majority of his stay.

You’d think that wouldn’t leave a lot to write about, but you would be wrong. Now I’m interested to read his followup book, New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City (where he sets out to live a similarly minimalist life in the heart of New York City instead of rural North Carolina). Since I just finished reading Green Metropolis, I know it’s possible.

2) Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, Samuel I. Schwartz

Description: In this clear and erudite presentation of the principles of smart transportation and sustainable urban planning—from the simplest cobblestoned street to the brave new world of driverless cars and trains—Schwartz combines rigorous historical scholarship with the personal and entertaining recollections of a man who has spent more than 40 years working on planning intelligent transit networks in New York City. Street Smart is a book for everyone who wants to know more about the who, what, when, where, and why of human mobility.

I enjoy reading about smart cities and what kinds of things cities are doing to make their locations more desirable as places to walk and cycle. There are huge environmental and health benefits to limiting automobile use.

3) Witches of America, Alex Mar

Description: Mar explores Paganism and the occult, from its roots in 1950s England to its current American mecca in the Bay Area; from a gathering of more than a thousand witches in the Illinois woods to the New Orleans branch of one of the world’s most influential magical societies. She takes part in dozens of rituals, some vast and some intimate, alongside all sorts of people. Throughout, she asks the central question: Why do we choose to believe in anything at all?

I’m not interested in witchcraft on a personal basis, but reading about other people’s level of involvement was pretty eye-opening. The author, a self-described “overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion” immersed herself in the subject for years — the original purpose was to make a documentary, which she did, but she continued exploring the occult for years afterward and gives a good overview of the branches she came into contact with. (Apparently there are a lot of branches, more than I ever would have guessed.)

4) Alligator Candy: A Memoir, David Kushner

Description: David grew up in the early 1970s in the Florida suburbs. One morning in 1973, David’s older brother Jon biked through the forest to the convenience store for candy, and never returned. Every life has a defining moment, a single act that charts the course we take and determines who we become. For Kushner, it was Jon’s murder—a tragedy that shocked his family and the community at large. Decades later, David found himself unsatisfied with his own memories and decided to revisit the episode a different way: through the eyes of a reporter. His investigation brought him back to the places and people he once knew and slowly made him realize just how much his past had affected his present.

When you’re only four years old when your brother is murdered, it makes sense you wouldn’t remember many details of what happened. Kushner conducts interviews and extensive research to recreate the story in a very personal, interesting, and heartfelt way.


5) Paris: A Love Story, Kati Marton

Description: In this honest and candid memoir, award-winning journalist and author Kati Marton narrates an impassioned and romantic story of love, loss, and life after loss. At every stage of her life, Marton finds beauty and excitement in Paris.

This was a nice story but not one I was particularly interested in. I couldn’t help feeling animosity toward her when she admitted to cheating on both of her husbands (news anchor Peter Jennings and ambassador Richard Holbrooke). Even though it was a small part of the story and both men apparently forgave her, I don’t like reading about infidelity, or watching movies where it’s a theme. If she had chosen not to share it, I wouldn’t have rated the book any higher, but I would have thought more of her as a person.


Books Read in April 2016

I read 10 books in April (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 37.

These are the books I started reading in April but decided not to finish:

  • Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, John Elder Robison
    I got almost halfway through this book before I put it down. I kept hoping the author’s endless tales of boyhood shenanigans would stop and he’d address how he deals with Asperger’s in his adult life. I’m sure he must have moved on at some point, but I got impatient and abandoned it.
  • Why Catholics Are Right, Michael Coren
    My husband is Catholic so I thought I’d see what this author had to say about it. The first chapter was interesting, but then Cohen started in on the history of the Crusades and in-depth theology which I wasn’t at all interested in (to be fair, I’d feel the same about any dry religious tome; not just one on Catholicism).

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



1) Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, David Owen

Description: Most Americans think of crowded cities as ecological nightmares. Yet residents of compact urban centers individually consume less oil, electricity, and water than other Americans. They live in smaller spaces, discard less trash, and, most important of all, spend far less time in automobiles. Owen contends the environmental problem we face, at the current stage of our assault on the world’s nonrenewable resources, is not how to make teeming cities more like the countryside. The problem is how to make other settled places more like Manhattan, whose residents presently come closer than any other Americans to meeting environmental goals that all of us will eventually have to come to terms with.

Just like when reading about hoarding made me want to immediately throw out most of my possessions, this book made me want to move into an apartment building in a densely-populated city. The author makes a strong case about how city living is much more environmentally friendly than living in the wilderness (or even a suburb). A big reason? Living far away from work, grocery stores, schools, and other common resources requires you to drive long distances on a regular basis, and apart from the cost of fuel – which is kept artificially low – our oil reserves won’t last forever.

I do have to point out the author’s hypocrisy, and I’m not the first to do so. He preaches city living while residing in a 3-story, 200-year-old house in rural Connecticut. His explanation (that he and his wife are writers so they don’t have a daily commute; if he moved away someone else would just move in, which that doesn’t solve the existing environmental problems) doesn’t seem very strong. I feel he’d be a much better role model if he lived what he’s recommending to others. Still…it’s a good book!

2) Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth L. Cline

Description: Cheap fashion has fundamentally changed the way most Americans dress. We have little reason to keep wearing and repairing the clothes we already own when styles change so fast and it’s cheaper to just buy more. Cline sets out to uncover the true nature of the cheap fashion juggernaut. What are we doing with all these cheap clothes? And more important, what are they doing to us, our society, our environment, and our economic well-being?

Written from the perspective of someone who used to buy a lot of cheap clothing without thinking about it, the author decided to educate herself on where her clothes come from, why they’re so cheap, and how the entire fashion industry has changed in a relatively short period of time. Very interesting and informative. It will definitely make you rethink your purchasing decisions.

3) Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, Lesley Hazleton

Description: Hazleton gives voice to the case for agnosticism, breaks it free of its stereotypes as watered-down atheism or amorphous “seeking,” and celebrates it as a reasoned, revealing, and sustaining stance toward life. Stepping over the lines imposed by rigid conviction, she draws on philosophy, theology, psychology, and science to explore the vital role of mystery in a deceptively information-rich world; to ask what we mean by the search for meaning; to invoke the humbling yet elating perspective of infinity; to challenge received ideas about death; and to reconsider what “the soul” might be.

I found myself wishing this book had more personal anecdotes (it’s a bit more dense and scholarly than I expected). However, I did enjoy it, and would recommend it to others. Even people who have a firm belief in a god can benefit from reading other people’s viewpoints.

Back when I was growing up in a religious household, the concept of living forever in heaven was difficult for me to grasp, and it didn’t seem all that appealing. I liked what Hazleton had to say: “For myself, I have no intention of only half-living this life in anticipation of a hypothetical next one. I want to live my life as well and as fully as I can. […] The last thing I would ever want is to have no end, to find myself adrift in the horizonless expanse of eternity. I want, that is, to live the mortal life I have.”

4) Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, Leah Remini

Description: Indoctrinated into Scientology as a child, Remini eventually moved to Los Angeles, where her dreams of becoming an actress and advancing Scientology’s causes grew increasingly intertwined. As an adult, she found the success she’d worked so hard for, and with it a prominent place in the hierarchy of celebrity Scientologists alongside people such as Tom Cruise. But when she began to raise questions about some of the church’s actions, she found herself a target. Remini loudly and publicly broke away from the church in 2013.

I didn’t know anything about Leah Remini before reading this book (I never watched “The King of Queens”), and I had already read two very interesting books about Scientology (Going Clear and Beyond Belief) previous to this one, so I wasn’t planning to add this to my list. I changed my mind when I found this review on The Book Wheel and was immediately intrigued.

I had no idea Remini was involved with Scientology for 30 years before she left the organization in 2013; she gave them a big part of her life and many millions of dollars. Fascinating read.

5) My Father, the Pornographer, Chris Offutt

Description: When Andrew Offutt died, his son Chris inherited 1800 pounds of pornographic fiction, including 400 novels of pornography written by his father in the 1970s and 1980s. As Chris began to examine his father’s manuscripts, memorabilia, journals, and letters, he realized he finally had an opportunity to gain insight into the difficult, mercurial, sometimes cruel man he’d loved and feared in equal measure.

This is a story about Offutt’s father, but it also involves his mother, and the author’s own memoir. It was interesting to read about his childhood even though it obviously wasn’t a pleasant situation in which to be raised. It seems the pornographer father – who wrote hundreds of short stories and novels over his 50-year career – successfully hid most of his deepest dark predilections until his death, but he did that by closing his office door and retreating from his family.

While the author said his motivation for going through his father’s 1800 pounds of writing and research material was to get to know him better, the long process seemed to do more harm than good. He spent months combing through his father’s hardcore pornography, depressing himself (and his libido) simultaneously, but in the end he put all the material into storage.

What else should he have done with it? I don’t know, but it did make me question the immense amount of time he spent categorizing the material.

6) Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

Description: Acclaimed journalist Krakauer investigates a spate of campus rapes that occurred in Missoula over a four-year period. Taking the town as a case study for a crime that is prevalent throughout the nation, Krakauer documents the experiences of five victims: their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the skepticism directed at them by police, prosecutors, and the public; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them.

There were a lot of people in this book, which sometimes made it difficult to keep all the names straight. But just like every other work of Krakauer’s I’ve read, it was extensively researched and attention grabbing.

7) Men Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit

Description: In her essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works. This book adds six essays, including an examination doubt and ambiguity, an inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.

I put this on my list after Jaclyn recommended it; she said it was “incredible and distressing and should be required reading for everyone.” In addition to the title essay (which has been credited with inspiring the term mansplaining), Solnit touches on the pandemic of violence against women, same-sex marriage, the historical subjugation of women, and reproductive rights. There were a few essays I wasn’t interested in (like the one on Virginia Woolf), but as a whole, it’s worth checking out.


8) The Lake House, Kate Morton

Description: In 1933, after a party drawing hundreds of guests to their estate, the Edevanes discover their youngest child, 11-month-old Theo, has vanished. The tragedy tears the family apart. Decades later, Theo’s sister Alice is living in London, having enjoyed a successful career as an author, while Sadie Sparrow, a detective in the London police force, is staying at her grandfather’s house in Cornwall. While out walking, she stumbles upon the old Edevane estate—now crumbling and covered with vines, clearly abandoned long ago. Her curiosity is sparked, setting off a series of events that will bring her and Alice together and reveal shocking truths about a past long gone.

I had every intention of rating this book as Recommended (I flew through it in just a few days, and there are over 500 pages) up until I reached the final few chapters.

What I liked: the story was told from the perspectives of many different people, and the conflicting hypotheses of “what really happened that night” were slowly debunked as the book ran its course. I didn’t guess the ending at all until the author decided it was time to put it out there.

What I didn’t like: I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a work of fiction that wrapped up every single loose end with a pretty pink bow. One or two positive resolutions would have been acceptable, but by the time I reached the end, the author had taken me from eagerly working my way through the chapters, to rolling my eyes. It was laughable (not in a good way) and completely unrealistic.

This is the first Kate Morton book I’ve read, and I expected more from someone who has written multiple bestsellers and sold millions of copies.

9) The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, David Grann

Description: In 1925, legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon jungle in search of a fabled civilization. He never returned. Over the years, countless people have perished trying to find evidence of what happened. Journalist Grann interweaves the spellbinding stories of Fawcett’s quest for the lost city of Z, along with his own journey into the deadly jungle, as he unravels the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.

This book has been on my potential to-do list for years. I finally checked it out of the library on audiobook and listened to it over a few weeks. There were some parts I liked, but the problem was I was more interested in the present-day author’s journey to the Amazon than Percy Fawcett’s extensive history.

10) Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker, Lauren Kessler

Description: When Lauren was twelve, her ballet instructor crushed not just her dreams of being a ballerina but also her youthful self-assurance. Now, many decades and three children later, Kessler embarks on a journey to join a professional company to perform in The Nutcracker.

I admire the author’s dedication to her goal, and I enjoyed reading about the lives and backgrounds of the professional dancers she came in contact with. However, there was too much space dedicated to the self-help books she read, the results of various online personality tests she took, her experience in various exercise classes, and waaaaaay too much about how she acquired her stage makeup (complete with brand names). All this extra fluff made it seem like she was desperately trying to fill up space in her book.


Why I’m Having Second Thoughts About Homeownership

My husband and I have been homeowners for almost a year and a half. I do not dislike our home, nor do I entirely lament its purchase. I simply recognize there have been pros and cons since we took on our mortgage, and there are certain aspects of the decision I wish we’d thought through a bit more in advance.

Before sitting down to create a list of homeownership pros and cons, I had a conversation with my husband. As we talked, a thought came to me that I’d never considered before: Since we both aspire to travel long-term, for me, homeownership symbolizes complacency.

I don’t mean we’re being complacent in an immediate sense. It’s advantageous for us to be where we are right now. We like living in Buffalo. We like being so close to, and having a relationship with, Paul’s family. We’re saving money which will ultimately end up funding our future grand adventures, whatever they may be.

When I compare homeownership with complacency, what I mean is, for me personally (this isn’t a judgment about your house or how long you choose to live in a certain place), if I’m still living in our house past the time I think we should have moved on, I will feel I have become complacent. My goal is to see more of the United States, and a lot more of this planet, than I have up to this point.

I’ll expand on these thoughts after I talk about our initial rationale for the home purchase, as well as some of the positives and negatives we’ve experienced.

New House 1


Not long ago, my husband and I drove by a building where we almost rented an apartment, back when we still lived in DC and were searching for a place to live in Buffalo. We ended up choosing a townhouse to rent instead, which was aesthetically desirable but plagued with issues that caused us to want to leave as soon as we arrived. (When we opened the door on move-in day, haven given several months advance notice, the supposedly professionally-managed abode was filthy. Absolutely, disgustingly filthy. And our experience just went downhill from there.)

We’ve lamented more than once that we didn’t go with the first apartment, which was newly renovated but architecturally bland. I’ve often thought that if we hadn’t been itching to get out of the townhouse as soon as our lease expired, we might not have been so eager to buy a house. We’ll never know for sure.

What we did instead – as a married couple in our mid-thirties, with good jobs, enough savings for a down payment, residing in a city with affordable real estate – was start looking for a house to buy rather than sign a lease on yet another rental.



Suitability: We made a good decision where appearance and size is concerned. I like the style of the home, and I’ve always been partial to brick. We have just under 1500 sq ft, with three bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms, which is more than enough (and sometimes can even feel like too much) space for us. Also, the previous owner upgraded the kitchen and bathrooms, so we don’t have any large, costly interior renovations to undertake anytime soon.

New House 3

Driveway: After many years of parallel parking on city streets, having our own driveway is something we don’t take for granted. I can park right beside my door to bring in groceries! No more circling crowded streets, praying for someone to exit!

Privacy: We no longer share walls with strangers living directly above, below, or beside us. Not having to listen to other people go about their daily lives – or worry we’re creating our own disturbance – is a wonderful thing.

Proximity to in-laws: Although I don’t like being farther from work, our home is much closer to Paul’s parents, which is super convenient. We visit each other regularly; they run over to grab our CSA deliveries when we’re out of town; Paul checks in on their cats when they’re on vacation.

Ability to change things: As a renter, I’d sometimes say how nice it would be to paint a wall without having to worry about changing it back before I left. I’ve put this in the positive category because technically we could paint if we want to…but guess how many walls we’ve changed since we moved in? Zero. The walls are neutral shades and I’m fine with them. Painting is a chore and I’d rather read a book or go for a walk.


Ongoing repairs and maintenance: This category has been the biggest pain, both financially and mentally. In the past 17 months since we closed on our home, we’ve taken an additional $20k or so from our savings account to spend on repairs and upgrades. We knew about two of those things before purchasing the house: we needed a new furnace (which was verified when the super-old model kept breaking down during a freezing winter), and the aging roof needed to be replaced.

When we bought the furnace, we also added central air conditioning because it’s cheaper to buy the units at the same time. That’s the only thing we’ve added which technically wasn’t required.

We thought we were done for a while. But then our basement started to flood during heavy rainfall. To stop that from happening, we paid a company to dig trenches in our front yard and lay pipes in the ground to divert excess groundwater out to the street. (Our basement hasn’t flooded since, so that expense was totally worth it.)

We were just congratulating ourselves on how much lower our house expenditures should be in 2016 when several rows of aluminum siding started to peel off (most of our house is brick, but there is some siding on the upper left and right sides of the house). The same day the siding repair was made, our hot water heater stopped working and required a replacement part.

We’re fortunate to have the resources to pay for these repairs and upgrades. It’s just…annoying. We’d much prefer to keep our money instead of pouring it into our house.


Smaller repairs: In addition to those things we had to do, there are things that should be done at some point but we haven’t gotten around to them yet (fixing a bathroom faucet; adding a dimmer switch to the dining room; repairing the ceiling in the master bedroom, which had some moisture damage before the roof was replaced).

If you haven’t already guessed, we are not particularly handy when it comes to doing our own home repairs. Some people enjoy tackling these things and saving a ton of money while they’re at it. While I would like to be that way, I’ve accepted I am not. We’ve done a few things on our own, but undertaking large home improvement projects isn’t something either of us enjoys.

Yard work: Paul takes care of mowing the grass, and I pitch in with snow shoveling and leaf raking. I had been a renter since I moved out on my own at age 17, so before we bought our house it had been a very long time since I’d participated in any type of yard maintenance. Especially when it comes to snow shoveling, being responsible for our sidewalks and driveway is a necessary evil; something to get through, not something we would do if given the choice.

Location: When we rented our downtown apartment, I was close enough to work that I was able to walk (often returning home for lunch breaks as well), which I sorely miss. Now both of our workplaces are farther from home; Paul takes the car, and I utilize public transportation (which I vastly prefer to having to drive myself, especially in the snowy winter months – plus, I can read a book during the commute). Our stay in downtown Buffalo was the only time I’ve ever been able to walk to work, and since I haven’t found a job yet that allows me to work from home full time, being in such close proximity to the workplace was definitely the next-best thing. I very much miss my 10-minute-by-foot commute.

Financial: Given the amount of money we’ve already spent on repairs (which doesn’t include other stuff that’s bound to come up over the next few years), I strongly doubt we’ll recoup the amount of money we’ve put into this house when we move. We don’t have plans to move anytime soon, but home values in our neighborhood have been pretty stable over the years; they aren’t expected to spike so much that we’d make a large enough profit to offset the cost of repairs.


While I have an equal number of items in each category, I feel many of the negatives outweigh the positives. There are things I really like about our house (a private driveway, not sharing walls), but we could have obtained those same advantages by renting a single-family home instead of another apartment.

Was there excitement involved in becoming a first-time homeowner? Yes. However, the novelty wears off quickly (I can track my deflating happiness with homeownership to the first time our basement flooded). It turns out I really like having a landlord come over and fix whatever’s gone wrong.

Paul and I have spent hours calling, meeting with, and receiving quotes from various home contractors – and that doesn’t include all the instances I’ve left work early to let them in the house. When I lived in an apartment, maintenance workers would let themselves in during the day and my issue would be fixed by the time I got home.

In hindsight, it’s not the act of owning a house that I needed. I just needed to find a space more suited to what I was looking for.


If I look past all the obvious advantages and disadvantages of owning a home, what I see is a structure that requires me to stay in one place. As a renter, I always had the option to leave, and I exercised that right often. In the past 19 years since I left my rural Virginia hometown, I’ve called 18 different places home.

Many people value having a stable place to live, somewhere they can put down roots. But for me, I’ve always found the prospect of a new home exciting. To live in the same house – or even the same town – for the rest of my life has never been a goal I’ve striven for.

If you told me to pack a single suitcase that I’d need to live out of for a year so I could travel to various places around the world, I would welcome it. In fact, it would pretty much be the most exciting thing I could imagine.

I realize I’m in the minority. I know many people who still live in the same towns or cities where they were born, who have only left for short vacations or to attend college, and who plan to stay for the rest of their lives. I don’t think less of people who prioritize a single geographic location. In a way, I envy their contentedness. Feeling content with my life is something I’ve only ever experienced in fleeting moments.

Should you be a homeowner? That depends on your goals. If you can afford the down payment and plan to stay put for a long time, the decision could make sense. If you have a wandering spirit like myself, you may want to stick to renting.


Books Read in March 2016

I read seven books in March (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2016 total to 27.

These are the books I started reading in March but decided not to finish:

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



1) Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, Randy Frost & Gail Steketee

Description: Frost and Steketee were the first to study hoarding; they expected to find a few sufferers but ended up treating hundreds of patients and fielding thousands of calls. Now they explore the compulsion through a series of compelling case studies. They also illuminate the pull that possessions exert on all of us. Whether we’re savers, collectors, or compulsive cleaners, none of us is free of the impulses that drive hoarders to the extremes in which they live.

Hoarding intrigues me because it’s so clearly the opposite of my personality. I also realize I wouldn’t be a good therapist for hoarders trying to change their ways — their process is way too slow (I’d want them to get started immediately, throw that out, you don’t need it, why are you keeping that, you’ll never look at that again…you get the idea) and many of them backslide.

With all the studies that have been done on hoarding, it makes me wonder if there have been any studies on minimalism (probably not, since hoarding possessions is considered a disorder, while getting rid of possessions is not). Unsurprisingly, reading about people collecting vast piles of junk made me want to go through my belongings and get rid of even more than I already have.


2) The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, Matt Baglio

Description: Father Gary Thomas was working as a parish priest in California when church leaders asked him to train in the rite of exorcism. In Rome, as an apprentice to a veteran Italian exorcist, his eyes were opened to a darker side of the Catholic faith, and he came to see the battle between good and evil as never before. Journalist Matt Baglio had full access to Father Gary over the course of his training, and the story he found reveals that the phenomena of possession, demons, the Devil, and exorcism are not merely a remnant of the archaic past, but remain a fearsome power in many people’s lives even today.

This wasn’t a subject I had advance interest in, but when I came across the book, the concept seemed interesting. Exorcist training and exorcisms are still happening around the world, although they tend to be concentrated in certain areas (they’re especially prevalent in Italy, for example). I wasn’t enthralled by this book, but I liked that it was written by a journalist, and it contained a fair amount of information I didn’t know before.

3) When Breath Becomes Air, Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Description: At the age of 36, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. This book chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student, into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

I didn’t rate this book so low because of the subject matter (a very smart man is diagnosed with cancer and dies less than two years later). While he’s an admirable guy, I just wasn’t interested in reading about his life (childhood, medical training, living through his diagnosis). To me, the most moving part was the epilogue – written by his wife – where she recapped her husband’s final days and hours.

4) Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Description: Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

I wanted to be able to recommend this book because everyone else loves it. However, while I liked some of it, and found other parts poignant, I was bored by a lot of it and spent too much time re-reading sentences, attempting to figure out what he was trying to say. Unsurprisingly, my favorite part was when he obtained his first passport at age 37 and went to Paris.

5) Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans Are Looking Forward to the End of the World, Nicholas Guyatt

Description: Guyatt searches for the truth behind a startling statistic: 50 million Americans have come to believe that the apocalypse will take place in their lifetime. They’re convinced that any day now, Jesus will snatch up his followers and spirit them to heaven. The rest of us will be left behind to endure massive earthquakes, devastating wars, and the terrifying rise of the Antichrist. Bizarre, funny, and unsettling in equal measure, Guyatt uncovers the apocalyptic obsessions at the heart of the world’s only superpower.

Having grown up in a religious family (a way of life I later rejected), I’m all too aware of doomsday predictions and other scare tactics. Some parts of this book were hard to read because I recognize the language of Rapture prophecy and have bad memories. After all, having a preacher yell about how you’re destined to go to hell is a great way to ensure you adequately prepare yourself for the unknown. (Sarcasm.)

I wanted to like this more than I did, but it gets a little dense sometimes with biblical history; I preferred the parts where the author focused on his modern explorations and interviews. I also would’ve liked to hear more about everyday people who believe the Rapture is going to happen, instead of just well-known Doomsday dudes like John Hagee and Tim LaHaye. The author’s consensus: “It’s undeniable that Bible prophecy writers both feed upon and encourage anxieties about where we’re heading.”

I also liked this quote from the book: “Most of the prophecy enthusiasts I’ve spoken with have one big limitation: they haven’t successfully managed to predict anything, in spite of their claims that the Bible foretells the future.”

6) Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, Susan Blumberg-Kason

Description: When Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started graduate school in Hong Kong, she quickly fell for Cai, the Chinese man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, Susan thought she’d stumbled into an exotic fairy tale, until she realized Cai―and his culture―where not what she thought. In her memoir, Susan recounts her struggle to be the perfect traditional “Chinese” wife to her increasingly controlling and abusive husband.

This woman annoyed me because of what she put up with for way too long. She was cowed by her husband; afraid to speak up. She contracted an STD; he denied cheating on her and she accepted that answer. He was volatile, extremely unreasonable, and did pretty much whatever he wanted without her saying anything. She finally left him but not before the book started to seem unnecessarily long.

7) An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, Richard Dawkins

Description: A disarming account of world-famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s early life, from his childhood in colonial East Africa to the writing of one of the twentieth century’s seminal works, The Selfish Gene.

The good: Dawkins has no problem making fun of himself; he shares embarrassing stories from his early life growing up in Africa, and later, British private schools. The bad: Once he enters grad school, there’s a lot of in-depth explanation of his studies and experiments, and how he arrived at the theories that led him to write The Selfish Gene. I enjoyed the first half of the book, but I found the latter half a bit too technical for my liking.

Random Friday

Random Friday, Ver. 118

I was in DC earlier this month for a long weekend. As always, I packed my schedule full of friends I wanted to see and had a grand time. Whenever I go back for a visit, I find myself asking, “Why did I ever leave?” But then I have to sternly remind myself that when I’m there as a visitor, of course it’s fun – I’m not headed off to a cubicle job, fighting a rush-hour Metro commute, circling endlessly to find free street parking, or paying rent on an old, unrenovated apartment that costs twice what our mortgage does.

Yes, DC is where my best friends are and I miss them dearly. But the reason I like it better now than I did when I lived there is because it’s an escape. I no longer have to deal with the negative aspects and instead I get to reap the benefits: friends who rearrange their schedules to hang out with me, using public transportation during hours when it’s not busy, strolling past the White House on my way somewhere else, popping into a free museum just because I happen to be walking by and have a bit of time to kill.

I will always love DC, but the reason I’m able to look at the city with such fondness is because I left.

(Renwick Gallery, March 2016)

Renwick Gallery


Currently Reading: Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans Are Looking Forward to the End of the World, by Nicholas Guyatt.

Currently Watching: I rented Suffragette from the library, which is about British women campaigning for the right to vote. I knew the right to vote was a struggle, but I never knew there was such underhanded efforts by men to keep it from happening (like doing undercover surveillance to discover what those dangerous women were up to). It was pretty intense: multiple arrests, hunger strikes, violence, bombs, suicide. Very interesting, and superbly acted by Carey Mulligan.

Currently Cooking: We’re celebrating Easter a day early tomorrow and having a meal with my in-laws and some friends. I’m contributing Southwestern Salsa and Black Rice Salad with Edamame, Walnuts & Lemon Vinaigrette.


Favorite Links:

Doing a TED Talk – The Full Story. A TED presenter decides to do his talk on procrastination after he, well…procrastinates about preparing for his presentation. This article is a bit long, but also funny (the graphics are not to be missed). It’s also an interesting look at how people who need to give a very public 18-minute talk go about preparing.

Why I’m Returning to My Maiden Name. Emily decided to legally return to her maiden name after using her husband’s last name for several years after getting married. I thought it was interesting, especially since the decision to change my own last name wasn’t one I took lightly (and was certainly not a definite, like it is for a lot of women).

2020 Vision. Janet puts herself on an allowance and resolves to pay off her six-figure student loan debt by 2020.

Make Money & Travel. I enjoyed reading my way through these stories of people who make a living while traveling around the United States.

Open Letter to the Guy Who Refuses to be the Sole Breadwinner. I’ve read Penelope Trunk for many years, and she’s usually interesting, if a bit divisive (she also tends to stereotype a bit, as you can see in this post). I’m pretty sure we all know women who would continue to work even if they didn’t need the second income.


From the Archives:

One year ago: My 20 Favorite Books About Religion (or the Lack Thereof)

Eight years ago: Q is for Quarterlife.”My quarterlife crisis was all about searching. I spent many hours on the internet, looking at career options, reading about people who had made big, life-changing decisions. I wanted to know how and why they ended up where they did.”

Thirteen years ago: Who Am I? It’s nice to know that even back then, I identified as a minimalist. “I guess I consider myself a minimalist. I don’t like a lot of clutter and I try not to keep too many unnecessary things. I don’t hold on to knick-knacks unless they’re from my childhood, and I’ve never collected anything.”