Books Read in February 2017

I read eight books in February (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 17.

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

Highly Recommended

1) Settle for More, Megyn Kelly

Description: Kelly reflects on the values and experiences that have shaped her — from growing up in a family that rejected the “trophies for everyone” mentality, to her father’s sudden death while she was in high school. She goes behind-the-scenes of her career, sharing the stories and struggles that landed her in the anchor chair of cable’s #1 news show. Speaking candidly about her decision to “settle for more” — a motto she credits as having dramatically transformed her life at home and at work — Kelly discusses how she abandoned a thriving legal career to follow her journalism dreams.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this book so much, but…it surprised me.

To be fair, I assumed I wouldn’t like it because Megyn was a Fox News anchor for many years, and I’m not a Fox News watcher. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t read this positive review on The Book Wheel.

I don’t rate books as Highly Recommended unless I feel like I got a lot out of it, and/or the story inspired me in some way. In a nutshell: Megyn didn’t come from a family of means, as a kid she was bullied in school, as a teenager she lost her father, but through an immense amount of drive and hard work, she excelled in law school and pursued a lucrative career as an attorney. It wasn’t until she burned out in her job in her early 30s that she considered switching to journalism (at the time, she wondered if she was too old to change careers).

I was happy to learn that politically, she considers herself an Independent. While I’m sure she said many things on TV over the years that I wouldn’t agree with, she doesn’t vilify one political party over another.

What I really respected is how vocal she is about speaking up for women. While she doesn’t consider herself a feminist – something other people have decried and which she addresses in the book – I didn’t hate her explanation as much as I expected to. Among other things, she finds the word feminist “exclusionary and alienating” and says “feminism has become associated, de facto, with liberal politics.” She prefers to support women without putting a label on it.

Megyn comes across as fearless on the air (did you see this clip where she challenged Newt Gingrich a few months back?) but she admits to a certain amount of vulnerability. She says it can be difficult for her to reach out to people, or put herself out there in new social situations.

In the last third book of the book, she addresses her long-standing conflict with Trump (which was a completely one-sided conflict since she never responded in kind, after he took offense to one of her on-air debate questions and proceeded to speak negatively about her, relentlessly, on TV and on his Twitter account, for many months). I’d heard about some of it but didn’t realize the full extent until I read this book. She says that Trump’s anger toward her was seen by some of his followers as a “call to action,” and she received an immense amount of negative feedback from those followers — in addition to calling her unprintable names, she received so many death threats that Fox had to hire security guards.

Megyn doesn’t say who she voted for during the last presidential election, but even though she publicly patched things up with Trump, he’s obviously not someone she respects. She calls him “a master at manipulating the media.”

There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t mentioned (like her involvement in Roger Ailes’ sexual harassment case, and personal stuff like how she met her current husband and how being a mom has changed her). You’ll have to read it for yourself. I think you’ll like it.

2) Homegoing: A Novel, Yaa Gyasi

Description: We begin with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Homegoing traces generations of family as their destinies lead them through two continents and 300 years of history, each life indelibly drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

This is one of the best fictional books I’ve read in a long time. I learned a lot about the African slave trade; how they were captured, held, shipped, and sold. The capturing usually happened at the hands of their fellow countrymen, motivated by tribal warfare but mostly by monetary greed.

I liked how the book covered a wide range of characters over a long period of time. There was continuity and flashbacks to previous generations, so it wasn’t difficult to follow. My only complaint is that sometimes a chapter didn’t seem long enough and I wanted to know more of a particular person’s story, but I suppose that’s a good problem to have.


3) The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country, Helen Russell

Description: When she was given the opportunity of a new life in rural Jutland, journalist and archetypal Londoner Helen Russell discovered a startling statistic: the happiest place on earth isn’t Disneyland, but Denmark, a land often thought of by foreigners as consisting entirely of long dark winters, cured herring, Lego and pastries. What is the secret to their success? Are happy Danes born, or made? Helen decides there is only one way to find out: she will give herself a year, trying to uncover the formula for Danish happiness.

I love memoirs written by women who move to a new country, and this one is especially great because she interviewed a bunch of Danes (in a wide variety of fields) about why they consistently rate themselves as so darn happy.

Unfortunately, some of the big reasons Danes are so happy aren’t easily transferable to other countries: free and/or greatly subsidized healthcare and education (from preschool through college), generous maternity and paternity leave, and an average 34-hour workweek.

Other things Danes value: environmentalism (Denmark gets 30% of its electricity from wind), beautiful design (they are willing to spend more to have beautiful, quality items in their homes), and hygge, a concept which has received some recent attention.

On the flip side, Danes have a high rate of antidepressant and tobacco use, and studies show they’re the heaviest drinkers in Europe.


4) The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Description: Hannah captures the panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. She tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France.

I read some glowing reviews of this book but I didn’t love it. I felt like certain things were put in just for shock value, and I didn’t feel invested in the characters at all (a young girl getting shot, a Nazi being murdered).

5) Still Points North: Surviving the World’s Greatest Alaskan Childhood, Leigh Newman

Description: Growing up in Alaska, Leigh spent her time hiking glaciers and flying in a single-prop plane. But her life split in two when her parents divorced, requiring her to spend summers on the tundra with her “Great Alaskan” father and the school year in Baltimore with her mother. Leigh reveals how a child torn between two homes becomes a woman who both fears and idealizes connection, how a need for independence can morph into isolation, and how even the most guarded heart can still long for understanding.

I didn’t like the first third of the book as much as the rest, although I realized she had to tell us about her childhood in order to show us how it affected her as an adult. While I didn’t love the book, it was a good example of how living a dual life as a kid (in rural Alaska and urban Baltimore), and dealing with weird parents, can really mess someone up. The story of her relationship with her husband — how they met, became a couple, got married, sort-of-separated, and reunited — was quite…something. I spent most of my time reading this book thinking, “This author is really screwed up.”

6) In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, Diane Guerrero

Description: Guerrero, television actress from “Orange is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin,” was just 14 on the day her parents were arrested and deported. Born in the U.S., Guerrero was able to remain and continue her education, depending on the kindness of family friends who took her in and helped her build a life without the support system of her family. This is the story of one woman’s resilience in the face of the nightmarish struggles of undocumented residents in this country.

Diane’s experience of surviving her parents’ deportation is moving, but I would have been content reading an article about it rather than the full-length version. I’d heard about the book for months but didn’t think it was something I’d be interested in — I should have gone with my gut. I put it on my list after Jaclyn recommended it, saying “I cried throughout most of the book – what a powerful story.” (Just goes to show that two voracious readers — we both read over 100 books last year! — often prefer to read entirely different things.)

7) Melissa Explains It All: Tales from My Abnormally Normal Life, Melissa Joan Hart

Description: Melissa tells the frank and funny behind-the-scenes stories from her extraordinary past and her refreshingly normal present. She explains all that she’s learned along the way, and reveals herself as the approachable, hilarious girl-next-door her fans always thought she’d be.

I knew who Melissa Joan Hart was, but I didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t watch Clarissa Explains It All or Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the two shows she’s most known for (although to her credit, she’s appeared in a bunch of commercials, plays, TV shows, and movies). In addition to telling her story, she talks about famous people she’s known and worked with over the years (like her high school friend Tara Reid), and making out with Ryan Reynolds and Jerry O’Connell.

I listened to this on audiobook, and Hart reads it herself, which is always a plus. I think I would have liked it better if I recognized the names of the coworkers on her shows that she talked about and popular episode details she described. If you’re already a fan of Hart, you’d likely enjoy this book.

8) Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future, Elizabeth Esther

Description: Elizabeth grew up in love with Jesus but in fear of daily spankings (to “break her will”). Trained in her family-run church to confess sins real and imagined, she knew her parents loved her and God probably hated her. Not until she was grown and married did she find the courage to attempt the unthinkable — leave. Readers will recognize critical questions facing every believer: When is spiritual zeal a gift, and when is it a trap? What happens when a pastor holds unchecked sway over his followers?

This is a quick read. Esther’s religious upbringing was definitely worse than mine; I don’t have nearly as many emotional scars. I feel like she left out a lot of information (like her parents’ reaction to her deciding to leave the church — I have a feeling it was worse than she let on, but she didn’t go into details because they have a good relationship today). I also found the dialogue stilted and unnatural.

Random Friday

Random Friday, Ver. 121

I own a number of Buffalo-related items, based on the fact that I, well, live in Buffalo. This hangs in my cubicle at work, and this guy is on my fireplace mantel, and there are a number of items on my walls at home, as well as a wooden Buffalo-shaped cutting board on my dining table.

The newest addition to my collection is a print by Modern Map Art. They’ve introduced a number of map prints for various cities, Buffalo being one, and they’re available in a variety of sizes and colors (I chose blue and yellow). The colors are deep and rich, the lines are crisp, and it looks exactly as it appears online. Now I just need a frame.

(Disclosure: I received a complimentary print in exchange for my review.)


My father-in-law offered to repaint our house number, which was badly in need of attention. It’s something I would have gone out and bought brand new, because even though I’m thrifty, I’m also lazy when it comes to home projects (yet another reason why I shouldn’t own a house). The before-and-after is quite dramatic and I’m very happy with it. Now when I have strangers come by to pick up all the items I’ve been selling/giving away on Craigslist the past few months, it’s much easier for them to identify the correct house.

House number


Paul and I decided to check out an episode of Leah Remini’s documentary series on Scientology, and ended up watching four of the nine episodes in one night. I watched this documentary just a few months ago, and I’ve read several books on the subject (to clarify, I’ve read books about people escaping Scientology, not the propaganda they put out in an attempt to recruit new members).

Here are some very good books I recommend:


Favorite Links:

What Else? (The danger of posting link round-ups when there are more important things you should be writing about.) “I still love reading — and writing — “link round-ups” from time to time. … There’s nothing “wrong” with scouring the Internet for cool resources and compiling them into a fun list. … However with a capital H…What else do you want to say to the world? What are the life experiences that have shaped your identity, and that have taught you the greatest lessons? … Most importantly: How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone?”

A Few Thoughts on Abortion. “I fiercely believe that medical decisions are the domain of a person and their doctor. I am pro-choice, a political stance that became firmer when I became a mother. I have never aborted a pregnancy, but the safety and legality of abortion have impacted my family in a positive way.”

Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich. “Survivalism, the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization, tends to evoke a certain picture: the woodsman in the tinfoil hat, the hysteric with the hoard of beans, the religious doomsayer. But in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.”


From the Archives:

Two years ago: 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.)”

Seven years ago: Snowed-in. Three feet of snow fell in Washington, DC and the entire region shut down for a week.

Eight years ago: Indoor Rock Climbing: Don’t Look Down. The first and only time I’ve been rock climbing.

Nine years ago: Reclaiming Spinster. “I love when women proclaim loud and proud that they’re fine with being single. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be just as happy with a partner; it’s that they don’t require the presence of someone else to lead a happy, fulfilling life.”


Books Read in January 2017

I read nine books in January (one was an audiobook).

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

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


1) A Life in Parts, Bryan Cranston

Description: In his memoir, Cranston maps his zigzag journey from abandoned son to beloved star by recalling the many odd parts he’s played. He chronicles his evolution on camera, from soap opera player, to legendary character actor, to star. Cranston also dives deep into the details of his greatest role, explaining how he searched inward for the personal darkness that would help him create one of the most memorable performances ever captured on screen: Walter White, chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin.

What stood out to me about Cranston’s story is that he really hustled to get where he is today. He had an interesting life even before he made it big — for instance, when he was in his 20s, he and his brother spent two years riding their motorcycles around the U.S., sleeping in churches, parks, and homeless shelters, and taking odd jobs to support their lifestyle. When he decided he wanted to act, he was very dedicated in pursuing his goal. He sought it out; he didn’t wait for opportunities to come to him.

In addition to tales of his turbulent childhood and a former girlfriend who turned into a stalker, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes info related to his six seasons on Breaking Bad

I listened to this on audiobook, and I really liked that Cranston reads it himself. It wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling otherwise.

2) Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing, Jennifer Weiner

Description: No subject is off-limits in this collection of essays: sex, weight, envy, money, and her estranged father’s death. From lonely adolescence to modern childbirth, Jennifer goes there with the wit and candor that have endeared her to readers all over the world.

Weiner is a well-known chick-lit author. While I’ve never read any of her fiction, when I heard about her memoir I put it on hold at the library.

I almost deleted my hold when I heard that Weiner thought her memoir should have been chosen for Oprah’s book club rather than Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior (which I read last October, and rated as Highly Recommended). Apparently Weiner did retract her complaint and blame it on impulsiveness and hurt feelings, but still…who does that?

I’m glad I read Weiner’s memoir because it is very good. She does come across as braggy sometimes (after she obtains her literary fame and riches), but I thought her essays were well done. She writes about her second book being turned into a movie, undergoing weight loss surgery after she gained a lot of weight while pregnant, the terrible secrets she uncovered after her estranged father died of a drug overdose, and (warning!) a graphic description of a 10-week miscarriage at age 45.

I liked her openness, and applaud her unwavering support for feminist and democratic causes throughout her life.

3) Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, Mara Wilson

Description: Mara has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex, to losing her mother at a young age, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity.

I liked the first half of this book better than the second half, but most of it is worth reading (minus a few essays, like the one on the first boy who broke her heart as a teenager, and her experience with show choir in high school). Mara is seven years younger than me so I remember her as “that little kid in those movies” (Mrs. Doubtfire, Matilda, Miracle on 34th Street), but she had an interesting life and I liked her perspective as a smarter-than-usual, nerdy, dark kid.

I liked her essays on: being told how “cute” she was as a child, and how that affected her as she got older; an open letter to Matilda, the title character she played in a movie; her mother’s death when Mara was eight years old; her history of anxiety / OCD / not thinking she’s good enough; and a blog post she wrote after Robin Williams committed suicide.

If you don’t read the book, this is a good article from Vanity Fair.

4) When in French: Love in a Second Language, Lauren Collins

Description: This is about the lengths we go for love, as well as an exploration across culture and history into how we learn languages. Collins grapples with the complexities of the French language, wrestling with the very nature of French identity and society—which, it turns out, is a far cry from life back home in North Carolina. Plumbing the depths of humanity’s many forms of language, Collins describes the frustrations, embarrassments, surprises, and, finally, joys of learning — and living in — French.

This is a book about learning the French language, but it’s mostly set in Geneva, Switzerland (a city the author finds boring, elitist, and expensive), where her husband is located for work. I liked that it’s not a typical memoir. While she relays stories about speaking French with her husband, how she ended up where she is, and adventures in language-learning class, she also delves into various translation and language topics. It was a nice mix.

5) The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir, Ruth Wariner

Description: Growing up in rural Mexico, where authorities turned a blind eye to the practices of her polygamist community, Ruth lives in a ramshackle house without indoor plumbing or electricity. In need of government assistance, Ruth and her siblings are carted back and forth between Mexico and the United States, where her mother collects welfare and her stepfather works a variety of odd jobs. As Ruth begins to doubt her family’s beliefs, she struggles to balance her fierce love for her siblings with her determination to forge a better life for herself.

What a way to grow up. When the book opens, Ruth is one of five kids. Her mother keeps getting pregnant, and each time I’m like…six! Seven! Eight! That has to be the last one. But no. This woman gives birth to ten kids before the book ends, with three of them mentally and/or developmentally disabled. Ruth endures a tumultuous childhood: sexual abuse by her stepfather, poverty, and constant moving. It all comes to a head when a horrifying experience involving several family members is the catalyst that causes her to leave the community for good.

6) Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach

Description: This book tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries — panic, exhaustion, heat, noise — and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.

I’ve read many of Mary Roach’s previous books (with great titles such as Gulp, Stiff, Bonk, and Spook). I wasn’t sure I’d like this one since it focuses on military science, but she has a great ability to take a mundane topic and bring forth all the fascinating and abnormal aspects you’ve never thought to question. Examples: genital reconstruction for soldiers involved in bomb blasts, hearing loss in soldiers and why they deny having a problem, why it’s so difficult to repel shark attacks, the science of sweat, and the use of medical maggots (yes, really).

7) Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, Elizabeth Greenwood

Description: Is it still possible to fake your own death in the 21st century? With six figures of student loan debt, Greenwood was tempted to find out. This is an investigation into our all-too-human desire to escape from the lives we lead, and the men and women desperate enough to lose their identities—and their families—to begin again.

This is an interesting look at people who have chosen to fake their own deaths, and also the people who are paid to seek them out (typically employed by life insurance companies). This is not a how-to manual, but Greenwood does uncover tips and tricks along the way. People who are thinking of faking their deaths should read this — not as a primer, but as a cautionary tale.


8) Future Sex, Emily Witt

Description: Witt captures the experiences of going to bars alone, online dating, and hooking up with strangers. She observes the subcultures she encounters with a wry sense of humor, capturing them in all of their strangeness, ridiculousness, and beauty. The result is an open-minded account of the contemporary pursuit of connection and pleasure, and an inspiring new model of female sexuality — open, forgiving, and unafraid.

I started out thinking the author was too prudish to write a book about sex, but she loosened up a bit later on. Still, she seemed to shy away from many of her subjects, her perspective largely comes off as clinical, and some of the people and situations she chose to focus on (internet dating, web cams) just weren’t all that interesting. A chapter on her experience at Burning Man was pretty good, and there’s one on reproduction where she acknowledges she’d like to have a baby, but probably won’t due to the logistics as a single woman being too great.

9) The Wonder, Emma Donoghue

Description: English nurse Lib Wright is brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle — a girl said to have survived without food for months — and soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.

This is a story about a young Irish girl who claims to have survived for four months on no food, told from the perspective of a nurse brought in to observe her and make sure she’s not cheating. The ending surprised me, which was nice, but I found most of the plot tedious. How compelling can a story be when it centers on visiting a dying girl’s home every day?


2016 Year in Review

Rather than list all the major activities that happened in 2016 (as I did in 2015 and 2014), I thought I’d concentrate on three things that will stand out most when I look back at this year.

1) The departure of a friend:

I didn’t write about this when it happened, but in hindsight, I’m glad I waited because I have more perspective on it now. I want to talk about a friend moving away, and the difficulty of making new friends as an adult.

In July, after living in Buffalo for three years, my friend Jaclyn and her family decided to return to Washington, DC. Jaclyn and I met via the internet, as so many do, but our similarities bound us together and made our friendship unique.

I moved to Buffalo in July 2013 from Washington, DC. Jaclyn moved to Buffalo – also from DC – a month later, in August 2013. We didn’t know each other before we moved here; Jaclyn did a Google search looking for Buffalo bloggers and came across my site. She reached out, and we had our first meeting in early September 2013 at SPoT Coffee in the Elmwood Village.

Sometimes a few months would pass where we didn’t see each other, but we met up pretty consistently (sometimes solo, sometimes in group situations with our husbands and her two kids). She was very good about including me and Paul in her family’s fair-weather hiking plans; there are several locations we visited with them that we might not have made it to otherwise. In the last few months before she left, Jaclyn and I would meet for weekly lunchtime walks when we had a break from work.

I spent a full day at her house on a Saturday last January, providing childcare and packing boxes, as she prepared to sell her house and move into temporary housing before they solidified their move back to DC. I met her parents on multiple occasions. I attended two of her daughter’s birthday parties. I cuddled her youngest son when he was just a few weeks old.

Zan and baby

The sticking point is this: Even as we enjoyed each other’s company, Jaclyn and I lamented on multiple occasions that we found it difficult to make other friends in Buffalo.

I’ve met some folks here who are very nice; I’ve been to their homes; met up at restaurants. These relationships just haven’t progressed to actual closeness. Most people are fine interacting a few times a year or less, or greeting you with a hug if you happen to run into each other at an event. Others drop away entirely. You follow each other’s social media feeds but never receive any in-person invites.

I’ve noticed that most people I’ve come into contact with are from here. They’ve lived in Buffalo their entire lives, or most of their lives, and they have enough friends. When they throw a get-together, they don’t think to include you because they already have enough attendees. Valuable weekend hours are set aside for people they’re already close to.

Whenever I tell people how difficult it’s been to make friends in Buffalo, I make sure to acknowledge my part: I’m an introvert. It’s always been hard for me to initiate conversations and invitations. However, if someone extends an invitation, I’m all about it. I realize this aspect of my personality has not helped in the making-friends endeavor, and if I was better about reaching out to people, I’d probably have better luck.

So yes, the closest friend I made after moving to Buffalo was a fellow DC transplant. And then she left.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad Jaclyn left. She was unhappy here, she had good reasons for leaving, and she doesn’t regret her decision. I applaud her bravery – she made multiple drastic changes in her life in the span of three short years. Many people would never do what she did; they contemplate taking action but remain where they are because it’s easier.

I haven’t quite decided what to do about this. It feels like my only option, living where I do, is to force myself past my discomfort and extend more invitations to people I already know and like, in the hope that one day I’ll have seen them enough to achieve that ever-elusive closeness.

In the meantime, I travel back to DC twice a year, and while I’m there I squeeze in as many visits with friends as I possibly can. It’s not uncommon for me to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner plans in a single day. Each of these visits feels like a sigh of relief. I can finally take part in real conversation and unburden myself of all the information I’ve been waiting to share, rather than engaging in the typical superficial “How are you? How was your weekend?” monotony where you know the person doesn’t really care to hear the answer.

2) Biking:

Bikes ended up being a surprisingly big theme of 2016, which I mentioned halfway through the year. From April through October, Paul and I rode almost every Saturday and Sunday, usually for 1.5-2 hours each time.

Our typical ride was 15-20 miles. We sometimes did less and sometimes did more, but the one time we took a wrong turn and added unexpected mileage to an already-long trip (giving us a grand total of 24.5 miles), I was quite grumpy. I’m happy with my 20-miles-or-less rides and don’t see myself becoming a long-distance cyclist anytime soon.

We even rented bikes when we visited Toronto for a long weekend in early October, something we’d never done before. Rental bikes are heavier and more difficult to maneuver, but it was still a fun way to see the city – we covered more ground than walking, and we saw more sights than if we’d taken public transportation.

Paul was the 2016 cycling-distance winner at 32 miles. On a day off from work, he did a round-trip ride from our house to Niagara Falls (16 miles each way). I was both jealous (what a cool ride!) and relieved that he did it without me (because there’s no way I could have lasted 32 miles unless we took a long break in-between).

Paul at Niagara Falls

Another positive side effect of biking is we’ve inspired my father-in-law to take it up. He purchased a bike around the time he retired in September, and he’s really taken to it. He actually goes out more than we do now that it’s gotten cold.

3) A new person in the house:

In July, my youngest brother (13 years younger than me) moved into our home. He’s been living with us now for almost six months.

He’d spent his entire life in central Virginia (where I’m from) until last summer and needed a change of scenery. We’re giving him a rent-free place to stay while he works, pays back some debt, and decides what his next step is going to be.

As with any new situation, there have been pros and cons. On the positive side, my brother is very intelligent and holds different views than we do on a lot of things, so when he decides to hold forth on a certain topic, it ends up being interesting even if we don’t agree with him. His presence has shaken up our normal routines. It’s nice to see him holding down a job and making plans for the future. Occasionally I get a hug.

On the negative side, he’s a 23-year-old male. He cleans things if we specifically ask him, but nothing more, so we often end up with extra work. His room is a disaster. I buy and prepare more food. We’ve had to get used to another person in the house, not knowing when he’s coming in or out. Because of our age difference, I sometimes feel more like a mom than a sister. And he recently broke one particular house rule that made me so angry I almost kicked him out.

This situation won’t last forever. I hope when he leaves, he looks back on his Buffalo experience as a positive one.


Books Read in December 2016

I read seven books in December (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2016 total to 105.

This wasn’t a great reading month, with five out of seven books not categorized as recommended. On the bright side, I did accomplish the goal I set last year of reading less books in 2016 than I did in 2015. I still broke the three-figure mark though!

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


1) Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly

Description: Before John Glenn orbited the earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space. Among these were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Space Race, this book follows the interwoven accounts of four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes.

I had never heard of the black female “computers” in the days of NACA and early NASA formation. What struck me most about this book was its prominent focus on segregation. Segregation was rampant in the 1940s and 1950s, which is when most of the story took place: in housing, neighborhoods, schooling, restrooms, and the type of jobs black women were able to get (and when they did get jobs, how they were usually paid less than their white counterparts). Some of it I knew, or realized I must have read about years ago, but it certainly wasn’t something I’d thought about in a very long time.

This book takes place in my home state of Virginia, where I lived for more years than any other. I didn’t realize Virginia held on to their segregation policies way longer than other states did, a fight mostly centered on their very public renunciation of integrated schools (apparently Virginia paid prospective black students who wanted to attend graduate school in their state to choose a school in another state). The author said it very well: “Virginia’s legacy as the birthplace of humanity’s first step into the heavens [a reference to NASA] would have to compete with the notoriety it was gaining as the country’s most intransigent foe of integrated schools.”

2) Off Balance: A Memoir, Dominique Moceanu

Description: An unflinchingly honest memoir from an Olympic gold medalist that reveals the often dark underbelly of Olympic gymnastics as only an insider can — and the secrets she learned about the past that nearly tore apart her family.

I didn’t know anything about this book before I came across it on my library’s list of available e-books, but I enjoyed it. I remember watching Dominique and the rest of the Magnificent Seven on TV when they won gold at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She’s only a year younger than I am, and it was interesting to see what went on behind the scenes, including Dominique’s background with an overbearing, controlling father and being coached by Bela and Marta Karolyi, who ruled with intimidation and fear.


3) The Magnolia Story, Joanna & Chip Gaines

Description: This is the first book from Chip and Joanna, stars of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” which offers their fans a detailed look at their life together. From the very first renovation project they tackled, to the project that nearly cost them everything, from the childhood memories that shaped them, to the twists and turns that led them to the life they share on the farm today.

This is definitely not an example of great writing — I’d say only fans of their show would enjoy this book — but it’s a quick, easy read (Joanna wrote most of it with Chip’s comments interspersed throughout). I’ve seen Fixer Upper a handful of times, so it was mildly entertaining to learn how they arrived where they are. It was also nice to read about their obvious love and admiration for each other, even after being married for many years and having four kids.

One negative thing that stood out was Chip’s history of recklessness. Don’t get me wrong — he seems like a gregarious, super friendly guy — but there’s no possible way I could have put up with what Joanna did. He purchased multiple houses over the years without telling her (he even bought a houseboat once “as a surprise,” sight unseen, which turned out to be a complete wreck), and moved them from house to house even when she told him she didn’t want to go.

Joanna says in hindsight that she understands why he did it, and she enjoyed the experience of decorating and fixing up ugly houses, but still…didn’t Chip think she deserved to be part of the decision making? That really rubbed me the wrong way.

My impression: Joanna is okay with Chip’s actions because it all happened to work out, and their TV show and various businesses are extremely successful. If Chip’s recklessness had landed them in bankruptcy court, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be nearly as accepting.

4) Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home, Jessica Fechtor

Description: At 28, Jessica was happily immersed in graduate school and her young marriage. Then she went for a run and an aneurysm burst in her brain. She lost her sense of smell, the sight in her left eye, and nearly died. Jessica’s journey to recovery began in the kitchen as soon as she was able to stand at the stovetop and stir. There, she drew strength from the restorative power of cooking and baking.

This woman had a crazy time when an aneurysm unexpectedly burst in her brain: multiple surgeries, an extensive recovery, loss of sight in her left eye. I was rooting for her to get better but her story didn’t pull me in enough to recommend it to others.

5) First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, Bee Wilson

Description: Wilson draws on the latest research from food psychologists and neuroscientists to reveal that our food habits are shaped by a host of factors: family and culture, memory and gender, hunger and love. She introduces us to people who can only eat foods of a certain color, and researchers who have pioneered new ways to persuade children to try new vegetables. An exploration of the surprising origins of our tastes, Wilson shows us how we can change our palates to lead healthier, happier lives.

Ho hum. I listened to this on audio, and I liked some parts but mostly found myself wishing it was over. The part I found most interesting was the section on how to get picky kids to eat a wider variety of foods (a topic which doesn’t even apply to me as a childfree person).

6) Crossing the River: A Life in Brazil, Amy Ragsdale

Description: Overwhelmed with her fast-paced lifestyle, Amy moved with her husband and two teenagers to a small town in northeastern Brazil, where she hoped they would learn the value of a slower life. Spending a year in this culturally rich but economically poor region, Amy and her family learn to fundamentally connect with their neighbors across language and customs.

This sounds like something I’d want to do — whisk my kid off to a foreign country for a non-typical childhood experience. Amy was honest about the challenges; they didn’t always like it and often wished they could pack up early, but they stuck it out and ended up being glad they did. I liked reading about their daily life in rural Brazil, but some portions bored me (like the long section devoted to their summer travels in the Amazon).

7) Wild by Nature: From Siberia to Australia, Three Years Alone in the Wilderness on Foot, Sarah Marquis

Description: Sarah survived the Mafia, drug dealers, thieves on horseback who harassed her tent every night for weeks, temperatures from subzero to scorching, life-threatening wildlife, a dengue fever delirium in the Laos jungle, tropic ringworm in northern Thailand, dehydration, and a life-threatening abscess. This is a story of adventure, human ingenuity, persistence, and resilience that shows firsthand what it is to adventure as a woman in the most dangerous of circumstance, what it is to be truly alone in the wild, and why someone would challenge themselves with an expedition others would call crazy.

A Swiss adventurer and explorer, from 2010 to 2013 Sarah walked over 10,000 miles from Siberia to the Gobi Desert, into China, Laos, Thailand, and then across Australia. Along the way, she carried a large pack on her back and pushed/pulled a cart filled with over 100 pounds of gear to sustain her when there was no way to refill her supplies. I was in awe of her quest, but there were things I disliked as well: like how she overused exclamation points, and how she glossed over several stories that deserved more explanation. If you’re interested in learning more without reading the book, this New York Times article on her was very good.

Random Friday

Random Friday, Ver. 120

Back when it was summer in Buffalo (not cold and snowy like it is right now), a giant duck came to visit. Many people traveled downtown to see it.


Giant Rubber Duck


Election Aftermath:

It wasn’t until after the presidential election that I realized I must gravitate toward bloggers who share my political views, because the only political posts I saw in Feedly after the election were written by Hillary supporters. I assume I must follow some secretive Trump supporters, but if so, none of them owned up to their voting choice with a celebratory blog post.

Here are four of those stand-out posts I wanted to share:

I’m Disappointed That Hillary Lost. But I’m Terrified That Trump Won. “If you ridicule a disabled person in my home, I would never speak to you again, much less think that you should be president. Someone saying that we should ‘grab women by the pussy’ has no place in my life. Someone who said that Mexicans are rapists is not someone who I would want to silently share a subway car with. If you said shit like that, I wouldn’t want you to lead a fucking parade, much less my country.”

What I Wish I Had Said. “I had been wrong about who would win the election. Really, really wrong. But the biggest thing I was wrong about had nothing at all to do with who was about to become president….It had to do with me. I was wrong about keeping quiet. I was wrong to think that just because my words might not affect change that they don’t have any value. I was wrong to deny my own voice when so many people don’t even have the privilege of a voice.”

I’m a Straight, White Person and Even I’m Scared. “A misogynist, racist, xenophobic reality TV star [is] going to be our next president. I’m fortunate that I’ve never been diagnosed with a fatal disease, but I wonder if this is what it’s like. There was a growing anxiety that something was wrong, a confirmation of the diagnosis, extreme fear and sorrow, then acceptance, and finally resolution to fight and get through the awful near future as well as I could. America had been diagnosed as Donald Trump positive.”

A Letter to My Children About the Election. “The election of 2016 resulted in the elevation, to the highest office in the land, of a man who has openly bragged about sexually assaulting women, who has mocked the disabled and our veterans, who has built his empire on the backs of working people, who has gotten rich by refusing to honor his contracts with small business owners, who is proud of not paying federal taxes – that means he’s proud of not playing by the rules that Daddy and I have to play by and that you will one day have to play by – who has threatened to tear apart families, build walls, and turn away refugees (the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ that our Statue of Liberty vows to welcome) because of their religion. These are not the values of our family.”


Currently Watching:

Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. You guys know I’m a big proponent of minimalism. I’ve been reading The Minimalists for years and was excited when their documentary hit Netflix on December 15. Highly recommend this one.

Bag It! Really liked this. Paul and I kept hitting the pause button as we watched so we could talk about it.

Going Clear. I’ve read a number of anti-Scientology books, and one of the best is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. I highly recommended this documentary for anyone who is interested in knowing more but doesn’t want to spend time reading a book.

Before the Flood. Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary on climate change. I watched it for free on YouTube when it first came out, but I believe it’s currently available On Demand via the National Geographic channel. I liked but didn’t love it, but it’s still worth watching.

Lovelace. The only title on this list that isn’t a documentary, but it is based on a true story. I’d heard of Linda Lovelace and Deep Throat, but didn’t know anything about her life before I watched this.

Class Divide. I found this film very thought-provoking. The documentary provides “a look into gentrification’s effects on one neighborhood in New York City. [It] examines the massive changes in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, spurred by the development of the High Line public park, looked at through the eyes of teens in West Chelsea. On one side of 10th Avenue, there are disadvantaged teens who live in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project, and on the other side, wealthy teens who attend The Avenues: The World School, a private school that costs more than $40,000 per year.”


Favorite Links:

Let’s Hold Hands, Take a Moment of Silence, While We Numbly Watch the Effects of Climate Change. “No flights. No new computers except once every four years or more. Get solar panels and cut out your electric bill completely. No new purchases of anything that emits CO2 in the production. No beef. Eat local. Bike everywhere. Live totally differently. What it takes to change is nothing short of drastic. Instead, we’re drinking the last bottles of champagne on the Titanic. Sorry, kids! Should we have been putting you in lifeboats? Dude, later, I promise.”

Everything We Love to Eat is a Scam. “That extra-virgin olive oil you use on salads has probably been cut with soybean or sunflower oil, plus a bunch of chemicals. The 100% grass-fed beef you just bought is no such thing — it’s very possible that cow was still pumped full of drugs and raised in a cramped feedlot. [Y]ou’re not getting the sushi you ordered, ever, anywhere, and that includes your regular sushi restaurant where you can’t imagine them doing such a thing. Your salmon is probably fake and so is your red snapper.”

The Answer Is Never: Rewriting the False Narrative of Childlessness. “We so rarely hear from those who really choose to be childless, and there are few essays from women who don’t regret having had an abortion, who wouldn’t have been ‘ready’ at a later age, who had the money for IVF and childcare but who chose not to go there. The mainstream conversation is colored by if-arguments…I don’t have any if-arguments…I simply never wanted to have children. Not when I was 20, not when I was 30 and not today.”

Why Elizabeth Gilbert’s and Glennon Doyle Melton’s Divorces Freaked Me Out. “I think I was not made for marriage. I am a mostly selfish person whose default mode is autonomy. I do independence really, really well. I love people, I’m fascinated by people, but I also have too much going on in my own head to ever be fully devoted to anyone else. Being single and happy would be easy for me, I’m certain of it. That’s one of the reasons I stay.”

Zero Waste Bloggers: The Millennials Who Can Fit a Year’s Worth of Trash in a Jar. “Their neighbors may look at them askance, perhaps, or as extremists. The early adopters of rooftop solar power a few decades ago were viewed in the same way. Now they look like visionaries. I think the zero-waste-istas are in a similar place, showing the rest of us what’s possible, spreading the word. Ten years from now, they will seem much more mainstream.”

I’m a Falconer – There’s Nothing Like Watching a Bird You Trained in Action. “Every time you release a hawk for a hunt, there’s a chance you’ll never see her again. You spend time crafting something beautiful, and then you let it go.”

Toronto Family Ditches the City to Take Over a 1960s Vintage School. “First they had to make the school livable. They arrived to find homework assignments still pinned to classroom walls, abandoned skipping ropes and a box of trophies from the 1970s. They dealt with the alarming brown sludge bubbling out of the plumbing in the boys’ bathroom and scoured every surface multiple times.”


From the Archives:

One year ago: Why I Drive An Ugly Car. “My husband and I appreciate our old, ugly car because it symbolizes a commitment to our financial goals. If we wanted a newer, prettier car, we’d go out and get one. We hang on to the one we have because we’d rather have our money in an investment account instead of sitting in our driveway.”

Three years ago: How to Get Married in Buffalo. “I was adamant that we keep the event as stress-free as possible, and I’m happy to say we accomplished that. There were a total of six people in the room: Paul and I, his parents, the officiant, and a photographer. Here’s what we didn’t have: a bridal shower, bachelor/bachelorette party, or a gift registry.”

Twelve years ago: Signing Off From Amsterdam. This is the last post I wrote from the Netherlands, after spending five months there on a college semester abroad.


Books Read in November 2016

I read nine books in November (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 98.

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



1) Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction, Elizabeth Vargas

Description: Vargas discusses growing up with anxiety — which began at the age of six when her father served in Vietnam — and how she dealt with this anxiety as she came of age, to eventually turning to alcohol for relief. She tells of how she found herself living in denial, about the extent of her addiction and keeping her dependency a secret. She addresses her time in rehab, her first year of sobriety, and the guilt she felt as a working mother who had never found the right balance.

I’ve read better recovering-alcoholic memoirs, but this one tends to stand out due to the notoriety of the author. I’ve seen Vargas on television many times over the years, but (likely due to not watching much TV anymore) I didn’t know about her struggle with alcoholism before I read this book review.

Vargas focuses more on her anxiety and the drinking itself rather than trying to chronicle her entire life (she talks a bit about her childhood, then skips from arriving at college to being hungover on the morning of September 11, which occurred decades later).

She compares her early relationship with alcohol to a romance (which reminded me of Drinking: A Love Story). She shares how she experienced anxiety before appearing on camera, and had several panic attacks on air (which reminded me of the 10% Happier guy, who turned to meditation to combat his anxiety — Vargas was later introduced to meditation in rehab and calls it a “key part of my recovery”).

It was tough to read about her multiple stints in rehab, since you’re rooting for her every time to finally get her life together. She’s been sober now for a few years, and admits she received some backlash about writing a book while still so early in her recovery. I’m sure there are many people (including myself) who hopes she makes it.

2) The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, Belle Boggs

Description: When Boggs learns she might never be able to conceive, she searches the world around her for signs she is not alone. She explores many aspects of fertility and reports complex stories of couples who adopted domestically and from overseas, LGBT couples considering assisted reproduction and surrogacy, and women and men reflecting on childless or child-free lives. Boggs deftly distills her time of waiting into an expansive contemplation of fertility, choice, and the many possible roads to making a life and making a family.

I found the author very likable and her story compelling. It took Belle five years of trying to conceive before she and her husband were successful via in vitro fertilization (IVF). Along with sharing her personal experience, she reports on various forms of ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology), same-sex couples, surrogacy, and adoption.

There was also frank talk on the associated costs of these procedures (often so high they’re unattainable for many people, and usually not covered by insurance), and the business of cost-share plans.

3) As Good As Gold: 1 Woman, 9 Sports, 10 Countries, and a 2-Year Quest to Make the Summer Olympics, Kathryn Bertine

Description: Kathryn is an elite triathlete, former professional figure skater, and starving artist. Just as her personal and professional dreams begin to crumble in the summer of 2006, ESPN stakes her to a dream: Take two years to make the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. This is the heroic, hilarious account of Bertine’s exertions in the realms of triathlon, pentathlon, handball, track cycling, road cycling, rowing, open water swimming, racewalking, and — fasten your seatbelts — luge.

What an incredible effort, and what an amazing journey. While I enjoyed reading about Kathryn’s forays into potential Olympic sports, the intensity really increased when she decided to concentrate on road cycling. She proved that someone undertaking a challenge like this has to have an immense amount of drive.

It wasn’t just the physical exertion of 350-mile-a-week training rides and back-to-back races with high caliber competition, but also the mental fortitude needed to take care of all the behind the scenes tasks: not knowing for months whether she’d even be allowed to take part in the races she needed, dealing with jet lag, exhaustion, and language barriers. She makes too many corny jokes, but I looked past those since I was so impressed with everything else.

4) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver

Description: Kingsolver and her family sweep readers along on their journey away from the industrial food pipeline to a rural life in which they vow to buy only food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it. Their search yields surprising discoveries about turkey sex life and overly zealous zucchini plants, en route to a food culture that’s better for the neighborhood and also better on the table.

This book is a mix of Kingsolver’s eating-local story, with additions to each chapter by her husband and then-teenage daughter (I could have done without those; I preferred Kingsolver’s story on its own). Along with describing her garden and how she fed her family, she covers wider topics like government food policies, the dissolution of small family farms, organics, and GMOs. She raised her own chickens and turkeys, gathered morel mushrooms, purchased from local farmers’ markets, and refrained from buying exotic fruits (like bananas). This is an interesting look at months of scarcity and abundance, based on what is/isn’t growing at a particular time.

5) The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom

Description: Orphaned at 7 years old, Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family. Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare and lives are put at risk.

This is the only work of fiction I read this month. I didn’t love the character of Lavinia. I would have preferred her to be feistier and less submissive, but as a female growing up in the late 1700/early 1800s, that was likely a common occurrence. I did like the story itself though, especially once it got past the halfway point. I’m glad I chose the audiobook because the different character voices enhanced the experience.


6) Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, Elizabeth Royte

Description: In a country that consumes and then casts off more and more, what actually happens to the things we throw away? Science writer Elizabeth Royte leads us on a wild adventure that begins once our trash hits the bottom of the can. By showing us what happens to the things we’ve “disposed of,” Royte reminds us that our decisions about consumption and waste have a very real impact — and that unless we undertake radical change, the garbage we create will always be with us.

I was impressed by Royte’s efforts, but after getting a third of the way through the book, the subject matter just got old. I found the early sections interesting (landfills, composting, and some of the recycling stuff), but the details on paper, metal, and technology recycling were more difficult to get through. I will say though, reading about the massive amount of trash that gets thrown away every day makes me proud of the steps I’ve taken this year to reduce the amount of garbage I produce.

7) In CHEAP We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, Lauren Weber

Description: In this lively treatise on the virtues of being cheap, Weber explores provocative questions about Americans’ conflicted relationship with consumption and frugality. Why do we ridicule people who save money? Where’s the boundary between thrift and miserliness? Is thrift a virtue or a vice during a recession? She offers a colorful ride through the history of frugality in the United States, while also exploring contemporary expressions and dilemmas of thrift.

I was hoping to like this more than I did since I’m all about living the thrifty life, but the book mostly focused on the historical aspects of thrift in America over the past few centuries (one recurring theme is that people tend to exhibit thrift during times of war and economic downturns, then return to their regular consumption patterns as soon as they’re able). It was hard to feel engaged; I would have liked to see more of a focus on modern habits.

Not Recommended

8) Forward: A Memoir, Abby Wambach

Description: Abby has always pushed the limits of what is possible. At age seven she was put on the boys’ soccer team. At age thirty-five she became the highest goal scorer—male or female—in the history of soccer. Called “badass” by President Obama, Abby has become a fierce advocate for women’s rights and equal opportunity. However, her professional success often masked an inner struggle to reconcile the various parts of herself: ferocious competitor, daughter, leader, wife.

Abby is a revered former soccer player with many accomplishments, but I didn’t find her very likable. She tended to be dedicated to her sport only when forced to by deadlines (drinking and partying whenever she could get away with it), and as she got older, the alcohol — and later prescription drug — abuse just got worse. She says multiple times that she wanted to excel in her sport with the minimum amount of effort possible.

She writes about the DUI she received earlier this year, and how she gave up all intoxicants over the summer, but since all that happened less than six months ago I don’t consider her a credible source for responsible living quite yet.

As for how the book is written, I didn’t like how she included the full text of emails and text conversations with friends. I found these boring, and they could have easily been condensed.

On the bright side, she didn’t focus on the rules of soccer or in-depth details of games, which would have gone over my head since I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of soccer at a time.

Apparently she’s a pretty good public speaker, so I would probably like her better in person than I did by reading her memoir.

9) My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, Chelsea Handler

Description: In this collection of true-life stories, actress and comedian Chelsea Handler recounts her time spent in the social trenches with that wild, strange, irresistible, and often gratifying beast: the one-night stand.

I’m embarrassed to include this because, well, look at the title. I listened to it on audiobook because all the others I wanted weren’t available at the time. It wasn’t very long so I didn’t abandon it, and there were several humorous moments, but in the future I’ll continue to stick with my no-comedian reading preference. (Unfortunate, because I do enjoy following Chelsea on social media and I occasionally watch her show on Netflix.)


Books Read in October 2016

I read eight books in October (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 89.

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

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


Highly Recommended

1) Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton

Description: Just when Glennon started to feel like she had it all figured out—three happy children, a doting spouse, and a writing career so successful that her first book catapulted to the top of the New York Times bestseller list—her husband revealed his infidelity and she was forced to realize that nothing was as it seemed. A recovering alcoholic and bulimic, Glennon found that rock bottom was a familiar place. In the midst of crisis, she knew to hold on to what she discovered in recovery: that her deepest pain has always held within it an invitation to a richer life.

Glennon has had many struggles in life. She grew up hating herself. She was bulimic and had a stay in a mental hospital in high school. She battled addiction to drugs and alcohol before she became pregnant with her son and quit cold turkey. She’s had health problems that left her in bed for extended periods of time. Throughout the book she refers to the persona she showed the world for most of her life (as opposed to her real self) as her “representative.”

This is an incredibly honest book. Even though I don’t relate to most of her experiences, reading about someone’s life when they’re being so open and raw is incredibly compelling. Plus, she’s just a really good writer.

This is a bit of a spoiler, but Glennon made the announcement on her blog before this book was published (I heard about it before I read the book). Several years ago, she and her husband faced a huge challenge in their marriage when he confessed to infidelity, she forgave him, they worked through it. A few months ago, she announced that while she still loves and respects him, she’s decided to get a divorce. (The post is excellent; highly recommended to read.) This didn’t change my opinion of the book at all; in fact, it enhanced it.

Also, for those who care about such things: Glennon is religious, and god-talk increases as the book nears the end, but I didn’t find the inclusion hugely overwhelming like it can be with other authors.

2) Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance

Description: From a former Marine and Yale Law School graduate, this is a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town that offers a broad, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, Vance’s book is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Clever title, powerful writing. This is a great, straightforward, honest look at poor white people from someone who grew up in an extremely unstable childhood. (Admittedly, it’s a bit disconcerting to see the word “hillbilly” utilized so often when it’s generally used as a pejorative term.) Vance still identifies as a hillbilly today, even after graduating from law school, moving to San Francisco, and obtaining the elusive upward social mobility that so many people he grew up with never did.

Vance shares his theories for why poor white people are not reaching their potential (there are often no expectations or encouragement to achieve anything better; not working is often due to laziness rather than a lack of job options; unstable families and rampant drug/alcohol abuse lead to future generations doing the same). He could have ended up like so many who came before him, but there were people along the way that were able to influence and change his course.


3) Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe

Description: A century of auto-centric culture and city planning has left most of the country with public transportation that is underfunded, ill maintained, and ill conceived. Grescoe explores the ascendance of straphangers — the growing number of people who rely on public transportation to go about their daily lives. On a journey that takes him around the world, Grescoe profiles public transportation in the U.S. and abroad, highlighting people and ideas that may help undo the damage that car-centric planning has done to our cities and create convenient, affordable, and sustainable urban transportation (and better city living) for all.

Grescoe has lived in cities his entire adult life and while he does have a driver’s license, he has never owned an automobile. In this book, he takes a look at various metropolitan areas and their approach to transportation — from the good (Copenhagen, NYC, Paris) to the bad (Los Angeles, Phoenix). I found the information fascinating. I had no idea, for example, that Moscow’s gorgeous metro stations put those in other cities to shame.

Grescoe also covers up-and-coming cities which have made great strides with public transportation but still have room for improvement, and how unfortunate it is that North America has been outpaced so dramatically by European and Asian companies in respect to their high speed rail.

4) Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Jeff Speck

Description: Speck has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. He’s boiled it down to one key factor: walkability. The very idea of a modern metropolis evokes visions of bustling sidewalks, vital mass transit, and a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly urban core. But in the typical American city, the car is still king and downtown is a place that’s easy to drive to but often not worth arriving at. Making walkability happen is relatively easy and cheap; seeing exactly what needs to be done is the trick.

It may seem strange that I enjoy books on cities, walkability, and public transportation (I’m not a city planner or anything in that capacity), but find myself interested in how cities work more efficiently in many ways than suburbs. (Did you know that people who live in urban areas have much lower carbon footprints than people in rural and suburban areas? Another very good book on this topic is Green Metropolis, which I read earlier this year.)

The author, Jeff Speck, lived in DC at the time he wrote this book, where he built an insanely cool house and lived without a car with his wife and two children.

I would call this book a call to arms for walkability. It also makes me want to move back to a city immediately, which happens every time I read a book like this. There’s a reason Millennials are flocking to urban areas and choosing to live without cars. There are options available to make the choice easy (trains, trams, and buses; bicycle lanes and bike shares; vehicle shares like Car2Go and ZipCar; and on-call services like Uber and Lyft). Cars are expensive, rapidly depreciating assets that cost not only our pocketbooks but also our health – more time spent driving means less time getting around on foot.

5) Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow, Tara Austen Weaver

Description: Peeling paint, stained floors, vined-over windows, a neglected and wild garden—Tara can’t get the Seattle real estate listing out of her head. Any sane person would have seen the abandoned property for what it was: a ramshackle half-acre filled with dead grass, blackberry vines, and trouble. But Tara sees potential and promise—not only for the edible bounty the garden could yield for her family, but for the personal renewal she and her mother might reap along the way.

The idea of a garden bursting with vegetables and flowers, fruit trees and berry bushes, is enticing. But the amount of work involved? Off-putting. That’s why more people don’t do it. Weaver’s space sounds amazing, but she’s very honest in this book about the many, many hours she spent working there, to the detriment of her own paid work and social activities she missed out on. The work never ends — once planted, a garden needs to be watered and weeded, invasive grasses pulled, food harvested, insects repelled. I liked how she related working in the garden with her relationship to her family and the strange circumstances of her childhood.

6) Born with Teeth: A Memoir, Kate Mulgrew

Description: At age 22, just as her career was taking off, Mulgrew became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. Having already signed the adoption papers, she was allowed only a fleeting glimpse of her child. As her star continued to rise, her life became increasingly demanding and fulfilling. Through it all, Mulgrew remained haunted by the loss of her daughter, until, two decades later, she found the courage to face the past and step into the most challenging role of her life, both on and off screen. We know Kate Mulgrew for the strong women she’s played–Captain Janeway on Star Trek; the tough-as-nails “Red” on Orange is the New Black. Now, we meet the most inspiring and memorable character of all: herself.

I didn’t know very much about Kate Mulgrew before listening to this audiobook (it was read by the author, which was a great choice). I saw an interview with her earlier this year where the book was mentioned, which is how it got on my radar. In the interview, she talked about having a baby in her early 20s, giving the girl up for adoption, and reuniting later in life. That experience is a recurring theme in her book, but there’s a lot more: her family and childhood, how she became an actress, romantic relationships, being mugged and raped by a stranger, and dealing with the long hours on Star Trek: Voyager when she became the first female captain.


7) Girl in the Dark: A Memoir of a Life Without Light, Anna Lyndsey

Description: Anna was young, ambitious, and worked hard; she had just bought an apartment; she was falling in love. Then what started as a mild intolerance to certain kinds of artificial light developed into a severe sensitivity to all light. Now, at the worst times, Anna is forced to spend months on end in a blacked-out room, where she loses herself in books and elaborate word games in an attempt to ward off despair. One day Anna had an ordinary life, and then the unthinkable happened.

I started out liking this book, but it didn’t keep me entertained as it went on. Lyndsey describes how her life changed as she gradually became sensitive to all forms of light, and how she found ways to entertain herself while sitting in a dark room (audiobooks, phone calls, mind and memory games). On the less-entertaining side, she decided to include a number of her recurring dreams (few people find dreams interesting except the person experiencing them), as well as detailed descriptions of the mind games she made up.

I was curious about the author, so before I finished the book I discovered she published it under a pseudonym and there are experts who question the severity of her symptoms. This is a great article from the New Yorker, written by a man who visited her in person in her home.

8) The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman

Description: In this memoir of the AIDS years (1981–1996), Schulman recalls how much of the rebellious queer culture, cheap rents, and a vibrant downtown arts movement vanished almost overnight to be replaced by gay conservative spokespeople and mainstream consumerism. Schulman takes us back to her Lower East Side with vivid memories of her avant-garde queer friends, and dramatically recreating the early years of the AIDS crisis as experienced by a political insider. Interweaving personal reminiscence with cogent analysis, Schulman details her experience as a witness to the loss of a generation’s imagination and the consequences of that loss.

I came across a new book club in Buffalo which plans to concentrate on the topic of gentrification. This was the first selection. It isn’t something I would have chosen to read on my own — I do like books about cities and how they work, but gentrification in particular hasn’t been on my radar. I wasn’t enthralled by this book, and there were quite a few sections I found boring, but I did learn more than I ever knew about the AIDS crisis in NYC in the ’80s and ’90s.

The author’s view is that after people died from AIDS, their rent-controlled apartments were taken over by mostly homogeneous white people who could afford the higher rents, which brought on a wave of gentrification that wiped out diversity in neighborhoods, ethnicities, and cultures.


Books Read in September 2016

I read seven books in September (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 81.

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


Highly Recommended

1) Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, Lindy West

Description: From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle with Internet trolls, Lindy boldly shares how to survive in a world where not all stories are created equal and not all bodies are treated with equal respect, and how to weather hatred, loneliness, harassment, and loss — and walk away laughing.

This is a series of essays, and while I liked some more than others, I did enjoy all of them (which is more than I can say for other essay collections; I’ve been avoiding them since I usually rate them so poorly).

She talks openly about how she came to identify as a feminist, her abortion, middle class white woman privilege, and fat acceptance.

“People go on and on about boobs and butts and teeny waists, but the clavicle is the true benchmark of female desirability. It is a fetish item. Without visible clavicles you might as well be a meatloaf in the sexual marketplace.”

West played an instrumental role in calling out male comedians about their use of rape jokes, and has endured a lot of vitriol through social media (not just insults, but death threats).

I’d recommend this book to any woman.


2) Sex Object: A Memoir, Jessica Valenti

Description: Valenti has been leading the national conversation on gender and politics for over a decade. Now she explores the toll that sexism takes, from the every day to the existential, along with the painful, funny, embarrassing, and sometimes illegal moments that shaped her growing up in New York City. She also reveals a much shakier inner life than the confident persona she has cultivated as one of the most recognizable feminists of her generation.

The title is provocative and attention grabbing, but luckily, so is the writing (with a bright yellow cover and big capital letters, it was something I attempted to hide while reading in public). I’ve read Valenti before (her last book, Why Have Kids?, was great and she has a recurring column in the Guardian); I always find her to be relatable and informative.

This book is mostly about the pervasive sexism she’s dealt with in her life, including unwanted comments and advances that started at a young age, and her own sex life (which she discusses in a refreshingly matter of fact way).

3) Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, Elizabeth Becker

Description: The largest global business in the world today is tourism. Employing one out of twelve people in the world and producing $6.5 trillion of the world’s economy, it is the main source of income for many countries. Becker describes the dimensions of this industry and its huge effect on the world economy, the environment, and our culture.

This is one of those books where I found myself sharing interesting quotes with my husband. Extensively researched over a period of five years, Becker covers a wide range of topics — from the most popular tourist destination in the world (France), countries that encourage tourism to the detriment of their own citizens (Cambodia), the problems with those massive cruise ships, African safaris, ecotourism in places like Costa Rica, and why the United States lost out on the tourism explosion of the past few decades.

4) A Spear of Summer Grass, Deanna Raybourn

Description: The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. After her latest scandal, Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides. Amidst the wonders and dangers of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty, and joy that cut to her very heart.

When I turn to fiction, I like when it focuses on a place and time period I’m not familiar with. In this case it’s Africa in the 1920s. I liked how Raybourn described Kenya — she was colorful but also succinct (I tend not to like in-depth nature descriptions). The story moved along well and the ending wrapped everything up nicely without being overdone. There’s a chance this book could be adapted into a movie, which would be interesting to see.

5) Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation, Edward Humes

Description: Transportation dominates our daily existence. Thousands of miles are embedded in everything we do and touch. We live in a door-to-door universe that works so well most Americans are scarcely aware of it. And yet, in the one highly visible part of the transportation world—the part we drive—we suffer grinding commutes, a violent death every fifteen minutes, a dire injury every twelve seconds, and crumbling infrastructure. Humes explores the hidden and costly wonders of our buy-it-now, get-it-today world of transportation, revealing the surprising truths, mounting challenges, and logistical magic behind every trip we take and every click we make.

Humes looks at a wide range of transportation options from an environmental standpoint, including those we think about regularly (our own cars), mostly just read about (the potential for self-driving cars), and likely think little about (the huge number of container ships traversing the oceans each day).

He also goes in-depth into several products, like coffee and aluminum, which are very different, but alike in that they both cover thousands of miles (often criss-crossing back and forth across the globe) before reaching their final destination. I learned a lot; it can be very helpful to know what kind of footprint the items you consume are producing.

6) Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, Judy Melinek

Description: The fearless memoir of a young forensic pathologist’s rookie season as a NYC medical examiner, and the cases (hair-raising, heartbreaking and impossibly complex) that shaped her as a physician. Judy takes readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the city, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.

The day-to-day life of a medical examiner is intense. Since I’ve always worked at a desk, it’s hard to imagine a day job where someone cuts up dead bodies all day. Many of her cases are routine, but she described a bunch of her more interesting cases. (Warning: some descriptions could be gory, so don’t read this book if you’re squeamish. Yes, she does include maggots.) She also talks about her involvement with body identification after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, a process that took a full eight months.


7) What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

Description: An intimate look at writing, running, and the incredible way they intersect. While training for the NYC marathon would be enough for most people, Murakami decided to write about it as well. The result is a memoir about his intertwined obsessions with running and writing, full of vivid memories and insights, including the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer.

I’m not a runner, and I may have liked this book better if I was. I enjoyed Murakami’s ruminations and insight into his personal life, but there was a bit too much about his running and triathlon training regimens for my taste.

I did think it was interesting that he’s been running for decades, but he didn’t start until he became a writer in his early 30s (he figured he needed a way to stay in shape since he was spending so much time at a desk). Murakami said he wouldn’t be the same writer if he hadn’t taken up running and embraced the dual discipline of doing both activities almost every day.


14-Year Blog Anniversary

I don’t acknowledge every blog anniversary but I felt a desire to do so this year. On September 1, 2002 – over fourteen years ago – I published my first post.

Many times in the past, I’ve raved that blogging introduced me to people who later became beloved in-person friends. People I never would have met if it wasn’t for the internet.

In 2016, I feel like it’s not nearly as common to find new friends through blogging, but that could be related more to my age (I’m 36 now instead of 22) and stage of life rather than a fundamental change in the blogging world.

What has changed: In years past, I used to write about any little thing that crossed my mind. I don’t do that anymore. That’s what social media is for. I try to save blog posts for more substantive updates.

Instead of recapping my weekend or throwing up a random picture or two, I try to write about topics that are weighing on my mind (I’m 35 and I Don’t Know If I Want a Baby), obstacles I’ve overcome (I Conquered My Eating Disorder), questions I wrestle with (Why I’m Having Second Thoughts About Homeownership), how I live my life (Why I Am a Minimalist), and even the type of vehicle I drive (Why I Drive An Ugly Car).

I’m not the first long-time blogger to point out the blogging community has changed. People who used to comment on blog posts now comment on social media links instead, or they don’t comment at all. I’m used to this, and I’m guilty of it myself. I try to leave comments periodically on blogs of people I’m close to, or if a stranger’s post especially moves me. Otherwise I don’t bother.

These days I only publish a new post a couple of times a month, but there have been times I’ve posted every single day in a month. I successfully completed NaBloPoMo in November 2006 (I wonder how many people still remember what that is?), and I posted every day during my first Whole30 in 2012.

One thing hasn’t changed over the past fourteen years: I’m still a dedicated blog reader. Even when I don’t write anything myself, I keep up with my subscriptions (originally with Google Reader, now Feedly). My subscriptions change over time, based on my level of interest in a particular subject.

Several years ago, I went through and edited a bunch of old posts on this site, and deleted quite a few as well (although many still remain that I would cringe over if I saw them). I was sad but not surprised to notice that a majority of bloggers I used to link to and interact with have either taken down their sites completely or not updated in years.

Although my posting frequency has gone up and down over the years, I’ve never considered deleting my blog entirely. I need this website to be here whenever I’m ready for it.

I have good intentions of returning to regular blogging, but I’ve had good intentions for a long time. I have lists of ideas for posts that I jot down when inspired but rarely return to flesh them out.

When I think about blogging, I’m plagued with the question of whether it’s worth the effort. Ten years ago, or even six years ago, my answer would have been an unequivocal yes. But some of the posts I’ve written in recent years – the long, in-depth ones – take many hours to write. Sometimes I’ll get a flood of views and comments, sometimes not.

Either way, after a day or two the subject is largely forgotten. Everyone moves on, and before you know it, those words live on a random web page, rarely visited or acknowledged. Either you keep going and write something brand new…or you don’t. I choose to keep going (albeit at a much slower pace), but I can understand why others have opted out.