Books Read in April 2015

I read 15 books in April, which brings my 2015 total to 52. Once I read two more books, I will have officially surpassed my reading total from all of 2014.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended. While I didn’t have any in the top category this month, I rated all of the books I read as Recommended except one. That’s a pretty good month of reading!


Selfish Shallow

1) Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, Meghan Daum

Description: One of the main topics of cultural conversation during the last decade was the supposed “fertility crisis,” and whether modern women could figure out a way to have it all — a successful, demanding career and the required 2.3 children — before their biological clock stopped ticking. Now conversation has turned to whether it’s necessary to have it all or whether children are really a requirement for a fulfilling life. The idea that some women and men prefer not to have children is often met with sharp criticism and incredulity by the public and mainstream media. In this collection of essays, 16 acclaimed writers explain why they have chosen to eschew parenthood.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I liked this book, based on having written this post: I’m 35 and I Don’t Know If I Want a Baby. There are a lot of different perspectives in this book, all of which were interesting. I think a lot of women would enjoy this book, even if you know for sure you want a baby one day, or if you already have them.

2) All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, Jennifer Senior

Description: Thousands of books have examined the effects of parents on their children. But almost none have thought to ask: What are the effects of children on their parents? Award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior analyzes the many ways children reshape their parents’ lives, whether it’s their marriages, their jobs, their habits, their hobbies, their friendships, or their internal senses of self.

Are you trying to decide if you want to have a kid or not? Are you certain you want one but still need to know what to expect? This book does a great job of covering the bases. The author has a child and talks about the joy kids can bring, but she also takes a very down to earth look at the inevitability of stress, parental guilt, pressures and time commitment of extracurricular activities, and clashes between couples. I found myself bookmarking passages to reference later.

3) The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

Description: The girl on the train is Rachel, who commutes into London and back each day, rolling past the backyard of a happy-looking couple she names Jess and Jason. Then one day Rachel sees “Jess” kissing another man. The day after that, Jess goes missing. The story is told from three character’s perspectives: Rachel, who mourns the loss of her former life with the help of canned gin and tonics; Megan (aka Jess); and Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s wife, who happens to be Jess/Megan’s neighbor. Rachel’s voyeuristic yearning for the seemingly idyllic life of Jess and Jason lures her closer and closer to the investigation into Jess/Megan’s disappearance, and closer to a deeper understanding of who she really is. And who she isn’t.

This book started off a little slow. I found myself wondering why I should care about this woman who was riding a train and looking out the window. A few chapters in, I realized the author did a great job of releasing information in a gradual build-up so we understand the back story and why it’s important. You know the perpetrator will end up being one of the characters in the story (so the ending wasn’t all that surprising to me), but the author introduced enough suspense and doubt to make it interesting.

4) My Sunshine Away, M.O. Walsh

Description: This story unfolds in a Baton Rouge neighborhood best known for cookouts on sweltering summer afternoons, cauldrons of spicy crawfish, and passionate football fandom. But in the summer of 1989, when 15-year-old Lindy Simpson–free spirit, track star, and belle of the block–experiences a horrible crime late one evening near her home, it becomes apparent that this idyllic stretch of Southern suburbia has a dark side.

While this book has a young narrator (not my favorite), he’s looking back from an adult perspective, which I don’t mind as much. (It was the same situation with The Age of Miracles, which I read last month. That book had a young narrator but there was more of an adult view on what was happening.)

In Chapter 28, the author took an amusing nonfiction detour – the rest of the story is fiction – to discuss some of the historical relations between Baton Rouge (where the book is set) and New Orleans (located 60 miles away). It was a departure from the story line, but it was interesting information.

5) Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum

Description: Anna, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband and three young children in a suburb of Zurich. Though she leads a comfortable life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs. But Anna can’t easily extract herself. When she wants to end the affairs, tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back.

I recognized myself in Anna (minus her compulsive affairs, of course). I have a tendency toward boredom and melancholy, and it’s difficult for me to reach out to people and make new friends easily.

I liked how I’d be innocently reading along and Anna would say or think something entirely unexpected. I disliked the conversations with her psychoanalyst which were sprinkled throughout; there could have been less of those. I liked how the book raised a lot of questions and feelings; it would make a good book club selection. I disliked the ending.

6) Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness, Sasha Martin

Description: Over the course of 195 weeks, food writer and blogger Sasha Martin set out to cook a meal from every country in the world. As cooking unlocked the memories of her rough-and-tumble childhood and the loss and heartbreak that came with it, Martin became more determined to find peace and elevate her life through the prism of food and world cultures.

Although the author got a book deal due to her quest to cook foods from every country in the world, I appreciated that most of the book was about her earlier life. She talked about her childhood a great deal (a period of time which was quite unusual), and how she ended up in Oklahoma – she didn’t start writing about her cooking adventures until she was about three quarters of the way through the book. I had never read her blog before picking up this book, but I’ve been poking around some and plan to read more (and maybe try some of her international recipes).

7) Florence Gordon, Brian Morton

Description: Meet Florence Gordon: blunt, brilliant, cantankerous and passionate, feminist icon to young women, invisible to almost everyone else. At 75, Florence has earned her right to set down the burdens of family and work and shape her legacy at long last. But just as she is beginning to write her long-deferred memoir, her son Daniel returns to New York from Seattle with his wife and daughter, and they embroil Florence in their dramas, clouding the clarity of her days and threatening her well-defended solitude.

I liked Florence and her forthright, take-no-nonsense approach to life. Near the beginning of the book, she leaves a surprise party held in her honor because she wants to return home and write. I like the idea that we should do what makes us happiest (within legal reason, of course), rather than constantly trying to please everyone else.

8) When She Woke, Hillary Jordan

Description: This is the story of a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed—their skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crimes—and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder. In seeking a path to safety in a hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.

I picked up this book after reading Mudbound (written by the same author) last month. I recommend both books but I actually liked this one better. Let’s hope the United States never devolves into this type of ultra-conservative shitshow.

9) The Wives of Los Alamos, TaraShea Nesbit

Description: They arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure, or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship as they were forced to adapt to a rugged military town where everything was a secret — including what their husbands were doing at the lab. While the bomb was being invented, babies were born, friendships were forged, children grew up, and Los Alamos gradually transformed into a real community: one that was strained by the words they couldn’t say out loud or in letters, and by the freedom they didn’t have.

I thought this was a really interesting look at the years scientists, physicists, and their families lived in the New Mexico desert while the atomic bomb was being constructed. Scientists were sworn to secrecy, so while the wives made guesses as to what their husbands were doing, nobody knew for sure until the bombs were dropped in Japan in 1945.

Something I didn’t expect was how the author used “we” throughout most of the book (instead of using first or third person), telling the story from multiple perspectives at once rather than focusing on individuals. It worked, it wasn’t confusing, but it was the first book I’ve read which took this approach.

10) Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro

Description: Through a blend of deeply personal stories about what formed her as a writer, tales from other authors, and a searching look at her own creative process, Shapiro offers an elegant guide of hard-won wisdom and advice for staying the course. Offering lessons learned over 20 years of teaching and writing, Shapiro brings her own revealing insights to weave an indispensable almanac for modern writers.

When I read books about writing, they tend to inspire me. They make me want to wake up early and write in the mornings before I leave for work (the period of time I feel most alert, and less likely to get distracted by other things). Then I finish reading the book and never actually make the changes. At least I have nobody to blame but myself, as Dani does a good job of making the point that (good) writing won’t happen unless you make the effort.

In her words: “If you’re waiting for the green light, the go-ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you a writer, you’d better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you’re going to be waiting for a good long while.”

11) Slow Motion: A Memoir, Dani Shapiro

Description: Dani was a young girl from a deeply religious home who became the girlfriend of a famous married attorney–her best friend’s stepfather. The moment Lenny entered her life, everything changed: she dropped out of college, began to drink heavily, and became estranged from her family and friends. But then the phone call came. There had been an accident on a snowy road near her family’s home in New Jersey, and both her parents lay hospitalized in critical condition. At a time when she was barely able to take care of herself, she was faced with the terrifying task of taking care of two people who needed her desperately.

I like Dani’s writing style. I knew once I finished her book Still Writing (listed immediately above this one) that I wanted to read more of her work. This is an incredible story of how your life can turn out totally different from how you expected.

12) Now I See You: A Memoir, Nicole C. Kear

Description: At age 19, Nicole’s biggest concern is choosing a major–until she walks into a doctor’s office and gets a life-changing diagnosis. She is going blind, courtesy of an eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, and has only a decade or so before Lights Out. Instead of making preparations as the doctor suggests, Kear decides to carpe diem and make the most of the vision she has left. She joins circus school, tears through boyfriends, travels the world, and through all these hi-jinks, she keeps her vision loss a secret.

I like books like this which force me to put myself in someone else’s shoes. Just like when I read Still Alice (about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s), I started thinking about what life would be like if I contracted a retinal disease which would cause me to go blind.

13) The Magician’s Lie, Greer Macallister

Description: The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, but when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell—and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free…and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.

This was a good story, although it wraps up a little too perfectly at the end. (I may have even rolled my eyes…it was cheesy.) I raced through most of the book with interest though, so I’d still recommend it.

14) Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin

Description: Nina spent her twenties working at a Boston newspaper, sitting behind a desk and staring at a screen. Yearning for more tangible work, she applied for a job she saw on Craigslist (“Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply”) despite being a Classics major who couldn’t tell a Phillips from a flathead screwdriver. She got the job, and tells the rich and entertaining story of becoming a carpenter.

I published this review as a separate blog post when I realized I had more to say than my typical 1-2 paragraphs.


15) Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan

Description: When 24-year-old Susannah woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she was at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.

Susannah came down with a rare disorder – one which had only been identified in a few hundred people before she contracted it – and it took weeks of effort for doctors to realize she had it. Since her symptoms could look like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, she makes the point that many people in a similar situation could be misdiagnosed if they don’t have access to the same level of care she did (health insurance, supportive parents).

Interesting story, but I kept thinking it was taking too long to tell. I wish it had been shorter. In fact, if I’d read her original New York Post article in advance (written before she got a book deal), I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to read the entire book.


Book Review – Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter

Hammer Head

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin

Rating: Recommended

Description: Nina spent her twenties working at a Boston newspaper, sitting behind a desk and staring at a screen. Yearning for more tangible work, she applied for a job she saw on Craigslist (“Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply”) despite being a Classics major who couldn’t tell a Phillips from a flathead screwdriver. She got the job, and tells the rich and entertaining story of becoming a carpenter.

I knew in advance I would like this book; I gravitate toward stories written by women who drastically change their lives. Often this means I’m reading books by women who have lived abroad, but there are many ways to change your life without having to leave the country – like quitting your desk job to become a carpenter (with absolutely no previous experience).

While I don’t want to be a carpenter, I can identify with Nina’s feeling that she wasn’t accomplishing anything tangible when she sat at a computer all day. I frequently feel like I get more done when I have non-computer tasks to check off – like making dinner, washing dishes, laundry, and grocery shopping. For Nina, working with her hands and obtaining measurable results gave her a feeling of achievement much more substantial than tapping a keyboard and clicking a mouse.

In addition to describing her early years on the job – her inexperience and mistakes, the understanding and knowledge gained – she admits wearing boxy, thick, paint-stained clothes made her feel less womanly. To combat that, she started wearing makeup for the first time at age 30, and would change into lacy bras and low-cut shirts after work to feel more feminine.

Another subject Nina addresses is financial insecurity. Although she appears to make enough to live on while she’s physically working, there can be long stretches when nobody is hiring (this typically happens late in the year around the holidays, and can continue months into the new year if a Boston winter is particularly harsh). She admits to feelings of uncertainty about her career choice during these times, but so far she has always returned to her job as a carpenter (and continues to do so today).

While one of the downsides to working as a freelance carpenter is a lack of paid time off, Nina has found satisfaction and pride in her new life. For her, it’s worth it. And that’s pretty darn cool.


I’m 35 and I Don’t Know If I Want a Baby

Sometimes I want a baby and sometimes I don’t.

Most of the time I say to myself, “I’m so glad I’m not pregnant. I’m so glad there’s nobody I have to worry about except me and my husband.” Then I get my period and I’m disappointed about it for a few days until I go back to feeling relieved.

It’s very strange. I have no idea what to do about it.

For some people, choosing to have a baby is easy. They take it for granted they’ll have a kid once they get married, reach a particular age, have a certain amount of money saved, or a specific job title achieved. I envy their sense of certainty.

The decision to have a baby has never been one I’ve considered an absolute. For years I’ve read articles about childfree women with interest, because I understand and admire their choice. I always have, and I always will, even if I do decide to become a mother one day.

The only thing I ever knew for sure is that I wouldn’t be a young mother. When I reached the point in my life where having kids of my own was a possibility (late teens / early 20s), I knew I didn’t want to be a mother until I was at least in my mid-30s. I’ve said this to people for as long as I can remember.

I’ve also said for many years that if I pass childbearing age and haven’t had children, I will not feel like my life has been worth less. I still feel this way.

Over the years, I watched many girls I grew up with have two to four children. Some of those kids are teenagers already. I’ve congratulated friends who became pregnant in their 20s, and consoled those who had to wait years longer than expected, or required medical intervention to make it happen. I watched all this unfold but I knew it wasn’t my time.

I’ve written about this topic a few times over the years. Eight years ago as a new contributor to BlogHer, I featured women who are childfree by choice. Six years ago, I was incensed when someone accused childfree women of lacking an essential humanity.

While I’ve given motherhood little thought for most of my life, the topic is at the forefront due to my upcoming 35th birthday in June. While I hypothetically have a few years remaining to make this decision (familial examples: my mom had her fifth kid at age 38, my older sister is currently pregnant and will turn 37 before her baby is born), I feel like if I would be ready to be a mother in two years I should probably be ready now.

I can’t see my life changing in any drastic way over the next few years. I have a good job; I’m not searching for another one or planning to make a career change. My husband and I purchased our first home not long ago, and we like where we live. There is no outstanding debt to rid ourselves of (the only debt we have is our mortgage). In other words, we’re stable. The only way things would change is if I become more baby-crazy.

I do like other people’s kids. Until I turned 30 or so, this wasn’t the case — I had little interest in holding babies or interacting with young children. These days I’m no longer immune to their chubby cheeks and bashful smiles. I find myself imagining scenarios in which a baby is part of my life – like making my husband wear the kid strapped to his chest whenever we leave the house, because I think fathers who do that are so darn adorable. I can see myself reading endless story books and making homemade baby food.

But do I get sad when I leave other people’s kids? Am I jealous of other parents? Do I cry over my empty womb? No, no, and…no. I don’t mind that I have no diapers to change, toys to put away, baths to give, or battles to wage over food choices or appropriate bedtimes.

What does my husband think about all this? Unfortunately, he’s an undecided as I am. It’s great that we can discuss our mutual hesitation without fear of upsetting the other person, but it would be easier for me if he felt strongly one way or the other. If Paul was very pro- or anti-kid, the choice would be easier for me to make. We’ve had multiple discussions over the past few months but we haven’t come away with a clear answer. There are too many unknown variables.

Some people refer to childfree couples as selfish. Although some of the so-called selfish reasons for not having a child would apply to us (we enjoy our long stretches of uninterrupted sleep; I relish the hours of free time I have after work to make dinner, read a book, or go for a walk; our weekends are mainly ours to fill as we please), those aren’t my biggest hesitations. I could deal with the loss of those luxuries if need be. I could adapt.

Here are things that come to mind when I think about reasons for and against having a baby:

Reasons to Have a Baby:

  • Joy, laughter, and love. I could use more of these in my life.
  • Paul and I would be kickass parents.
  • Commiserating with people we know who have kids; making new friends by participating in child-related functions; fun stuff like holidays, sports activities, and school plays.
  • Providing a positive influence and guidance to a human being who wouldn’t be on the earth if it wasn’t for us.
  • I have strong opinions when it comes to names and would relish the opportunity to choose one our child would carry throughout their life. (This one is meant to be humorous, but seriously…I do have strong opinions on names.)

Reasons to Stay Childfree:

  • An American Sociological Association study revealed that childfree couples are happier than any other group, including empty nesters. Daniel Gilbert has echoed this research. It has often been found that having kids affects couples’ overall marital satisfaction.
  • I am strongly opposed to working in a cubicle for the rest of my life (or until I reach a designated retirement age in my mid-60s, whichever comes first). If we stay childfree, we will reach our retirement goals much faster.
  • I’m not a fan of stress; I avoid it whenever possible and most of the time I’m successful. (This is why I work as an Executive Assistant rather than a more fast-paced or demanding job. I set up meetings for other people instead of attending them myself, and my deadlines are mostly recurring, expected, and manageable. Some days are busier than others but rarely do I have to put out fires — or even check work email once I leave the office.) A child, in addition to the joy of its existence, would inevitably bring stress.
  • I’m an introvert, and I relish my quiet and peaceful home life. I like being able to flop on the couch after work and read a book for hours before my husband gets home.
  • While we’re not jetsetters, Paul and I have both traveled abroad and would like to do so again (next time we’ll do it together, since all previous foreign travel happened before we became a couple). We would also love to go on an epic U.S. road trip where we visit friends who are scattered across the country. This isn’t impossible to do with a child, but it would definitely require more luggage, adherence to schedules, and a plethora of activities to keep a kid’s boredom at bay on the road.
  • Ever since I spent a semester abroad in college, it’s been my dream to actually live in a foreign country again, not just spend a few days or weeks. While some people accomplish this with kids, it would be easier and more achievable if it were just the two of us.
  • I would avoid: diapers, temper tantrums, sickness, whining, barf, sleepless nights, and the aforementioned accumulated expenses of raising a child for 18+ years.

I’m sure there are mothers out there who will tell me I’m looking at this all wrong. There’s no way for me to know the joy a child would bring until I have one myself. The reason I don’t feel close to other people’s children is because they’re not my own. Even though there are frustrating times, they don’t compare to the highs of watching a child take their first steps, teaching them to hit a baseball, or witnessing their excitement on Christmas Day. But making the choice to have a baby doesn’t mean the hard decisions are over.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Paul and I decide we’re going to get pregnant. We’ve weighed the pros and cons and decided we’re done with our childfree life. Now the question becomes, would I be able to stay home with my baby for a to-be-determined length of time, or would I take him/her to daycare after my 12-week maternity leave is over? (Maternity leave at my company is typical of other largeish U.S. organizations: several weeks fully paid, several weeks partially paid, several weeks unpaid.)

I admit, the ability to stay at home with my kid instead of going back to work is another large factor in my decision to have a child. Personally, if I had a child, it would be extremely difficult to leave them in someone else’s care while I work full-time – at least while they’re very young. While I enjoy my job, and my workplace is great, I don’t love it enough to want to be there for a majority of the day if it means I only get to interact with my baby before and after work.

I understand not everyone gets to make this choice, and some mothers would work whether they need the money or not. Some of you really love your jobs, and I envy you. I do not think staying at home is best for everyone; I’m only stating what my personal preference would be.

Having said that, here are reasons I’d like to stay at home while there are also compelling reasons to return to work.

Reasons to Stay at Home:

  • As previously stated, I avoid stress. Running from home to daycare to work and back again – while trying to keep a child healthy, clean, fed, and calm – on a prescribed daily schedule sounds pretty stressful to me.
  • I would have more time to do child-related, home-related, and life-related tasks, rather than cramming them into evening and weekend hours.
  • Trying to fit everything into the evening hours would be even more difficult to navigate when Paul is out of town on business trips and I would become a single parent. His business trips range from 3-5 days every four to six weeks or so.
  • I’m afraid if I tried to fit all my tasks into the too-short evening hours after work, I would end up resenting or fighting with my husband because I would still be responsible for the majority of the caregiving. I know Paul wants to be hands-on with childcare, but his wants and the reality of his job are two different things. I get home every day at least two hours before he does (sometimes even three or four hours, depending on his work load), which means it would fall on me to pick up the kid from day care, make dinner, feed the kid, bathe the kid, put kid to bed.
  • No daycare expenses.
  • Breastfeeding would be much easier.

Reasons to Return to Work:

  • My husband makes more money than I do and we could live off his salary, but I work for a larger company and my job feels a bit more stable because of it.
  • My husband could lose his job and we would both be unemployed. While Paul is a valued member of his company’s management team, people lose their jobs for random reasons all the time.
  • We both have health insurance through my employer because it costs substantially less than his (in addition to offering lower monthly fees, my employer contributes $1,000 per year to our Health Savings Account). If I left my job, not only would we not have my salary, we’d pay a heck of a lot more out of pocket for health insurance coverage.
  • If leave my job, it could be very difficult to find a comparable position – doing similar work for similar pay – once I’m ready to return to the workforce. I live in Buffalo; the job opportunities aren’t as plentiful here as they were when we lived in Washington, DC. I was fortunate to find a good position this time around, but if I take a break there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be so lucky a second time.
  • We could continue to make do with one car (which has been paid off for many years) because I take public transportation to work. If I stayed at home we’d likely need to buy a second car so I could get around during the day while Paul is at work (his hours and job location aren’t conducive to him taking public transportation).

Having said everything I’ve said, if I were to get pregnant tomorrow, I can’t imagine feeling anything other than happy. All of the questions and hesitations I have right now, I would figure them out. I would make it work.

Whatever I decide to do, I’m glad I took the time to write all this out. I wanted to show the decision isn’t automatic for everybody, and how many factors there are to take under consideration. I have a lot to think about and I may never have absolute clarity on which choice is the right one.

I do know that I have never, and will never, feel swayed by anyone’s opinion (other than my husband’s) on whether I should have a child or not. Those people who give you a hard time, or make you feel guilty? They’re not the ones who have to do the work.

Maybe I’ll decide to put off the decision for a while, even though I can’t help thinking it’s a bit of a cop-out. However, as time goes by I could feel more certain that our family should have three members instead of two, or I could be thanking my lucky stars I didn’t rush into making a decision I might regret.


[This is cross-posted at BlogHer.]

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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).


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).


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).


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.


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?

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.



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.


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.


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:

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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?


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: 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?