Author: lilyellyn

The Year of 100 Books: Reading Superlatives for 2016

Somehow, without quite intending to, I will finish 2016 having read exactly 100 books. (I say this with confidence now having 3.25 days left in the year and 1.5 books to go, but I’m hoping claiming 100 a little early won’t jinx it). Since I read a wide diversity of books, it’s impossible for me to simply choose just a few to write about, so instead I like to do book superlatives, because then I don’t have to pick favorites and I also get to create categories to fit the books I really want to write about. It’s a win-win!

Before I jump in, I wanted to address two  comments I frequently receive from people about my reading. First: “You must read really fast!” I’m actually a fairly slow reader due to the fact that for me to really process what I’m reading, I have to move my lips like I am mouthing each word, which basically means I read in my head at the same pace it would take me to read aloud. Of course, it depends on how dense the book is, but on average I’d say a 300 page book will take me 6-7 hours of reading time. I’m also not always reading literary fiction or works of research. This year in particular, I’ve read quite a few books that had little or no literary or educational merit and were just for fun.

The second comment I see often is, “I would love to read that much, but I never have time. How do you find the time?” I have a few answers to this. Practically speaking, I am a twenty-nine year old woman with a self-sufficient husband and no kids. While I often work 60 hours/week, I still have fewer demands on my free time than many other people do. Audiobooks have played a huge role in my reading life this year.  I sometimes listen to a book on audio while also reading the hard copy and switch back and forth between the two. I listen to audiobooks while I’m getting ready in the morning, while I’m driving to work or running errands, and while I’m cooking dinner. I get at least 2-3 hours of reading in every day just by doing that. I also bring a book with me everywhere I go and take advantage of the small moments I get throughout the day. Five or ten minutes here and there really do add up.

If you’d like to see the full list of what I read this year, feel free to check out all of the titles on my Goodreads Reading Challenge. You can also read my superlatives from 2015 here. Now on with the show!

Grumpiest Old Man Book

18774964A Man Called Ove by Friedrik Backman. Ove is the quintessential grumpy old man with plenty of opinions about all of the youngsters these days. All he wants is to be left to die in peace, but the young family who moves in next door isn’t about to let him. This book is heartwarming, but also made me excited to be a cranky old person some day.51Q3z3emk2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Runner Up: The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood. Though this one has a 104 year old grumpy old woman (plus a quirky little boy), it still fits the category and was one of my favorite reads this year.

Most Thrilling Thriller

23125266I went through a thriller phase this summer and into the fall, but I found myself let down by most of the ones I read. I think this is because thrillers set you up to expect some great twist and most of the ones I read either didn’t surprise me or just didn’t make a ton of sense. My top pick was I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh which managed to be unexpected without being a wild dramatic twist. Big trigger warnings for domestic violence though.

More recently, I really enjoyed Before the Fall by Noah Hawley which also steered away from the last minute plot twist in favor of a reasonably paced reveal of what happened. But don’t read this on a plane.

Most Likely to Make you Want to Cook All the Foods

3090282A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg which is both a memoir and a book full of recipes, reminding us of how food shapes our ordinary lives.

Runner up would be Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler which I didn’t ultimately give a great review because I really disliked the main character, but it paints an incredibly vivid picture of life on the Manhattan restaurant scene.

Most Disappointing Book

51rq4omr5l-_sx329_bo1204203200_I really hate to say this because this wasn’t a bad book at all, I just had very high expectations. I’m talking about Tana French’s latest Dublin Murder Squad mystery The Trespasser. I absolutely loved her previous five books (especially The Likenessand had extremely high expectations for this one. It wasn’t a bad book, but it did drag for me a bit in a way her previous ones hadn’t, and I didn’t feel as connected to the detective as I have in her previous books.

Most Fun Book

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Crazy Rich Asians and the sequel China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan. Both books are pure, voyeuristic pleasure peeking in on the lives of the filthy rich of Singapore and Hong Kong. These books also made me want to move back to Asia ASAP.

Book I Now Wish I Could Get Back the Hours of My Life I Spent Reading

27190202We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. Rich White People Problems book except with completely flat characters and no development whatsoever and weird creepy incest-y relationships.

I also did not care for Jennifer Weiner’s newest book Who Do You Love although I usually find her books to be reliable feel-good reads.

Best Historical Fiction

515p3OrN1KL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah which is about two sisters living in occupied France during WWII, each fighting in her own way. (One of the best books of the year for me).

51tXTlzZcNL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Runner up: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Another WWII novel, this one focusing on the lives of Japanese Americans forced into internment camps in the US during the war told through the eyes of a Chinese American boy.

Best Contemporary Fiction

51MDWaEfUiL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Just wow. I loved this book so much. I don’t even know what to say about it. Just read it.

Book I Can’t Shut Up About

51C9yK9VzzL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I mean, I really couldn’t shut up about this. I was bringing up the topic of end of life care and the inevitability of death like it was my job. This book manages to deal with a morbid subject with grace and compassion and truth. I think it’s a must-read.

Best New Series

This wasn’t a new series to the world, just a new series to me. Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries came highly recommended and they have not disappointed me. I will say that the first few were good but not amazing to me, but the further you get in the series, the better they are. These are the types of mysteries that are focused on character development, delving into the psychology of the characters and probing human nature. I will be finishing book 9 of 12 in the few days. (PS- You do sort of need to read them in order because sometimes they refer back to previous cases).

Most Challenging

20342617Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy broke me and challenged me not to turn a blind eye to the injustices being enacted every day in my country through our prison system. After hearing Bryan speak last month I am even more determined that we all have a responsibility to work towards justice in our communities.

Furthest Out of My Comfort Zone

9969571Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I have little to no interest in video games or in 80’s pop culture references and yet this book completely charmed me. As a bonus, the audio book is narrated by Wil Wheaton.

Most Exotic Setting

This is a three-way tie between Enchanted Islands (Allison Amend) which is based on a real-life couple who were sent to be spies in the Galapagos islands pre-WWII (but only about 1/3 of the book takes place there), The House at the Edge of Night  (Catherine Banner) which is a dreamy, multi-generational, Gabriel Garcia Marquez-esque book set on a small Italian island, and The Light Between Oceans (M. L. Stedman) which is mainly set on a mostly uninhabited island (more of a rock really) off the western coast of Australia.

Best Series Ender

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Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor. This is the final book in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy and it is magnificently intense. Runner up goes to Winter, the conclusion of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles. Both of these books run around 800 pages long so it’s a good thing they were worth it!

Most Important

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Written as a letter from Coates to his young son explaining what it means to be black in America. This is a book that everyone should read.

Funniest Book

16141924Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan. If you are familiar with Gaffigan’s stand-up, the book is very similar. I really enjoy his sense of humor.

Book That Made Me Cry

25899336When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Yet another book I read this year about mortality, the reality of death, and the brevity of life. Reading the words of this thirty-something neurosurgeon who must grapple with his own terminal diagnosis and what’s really important in life. I dare you not to cry reading this man’s words and knowing he does not live to finish the book.

 

Best Rich White People Problems Book

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Because this is a genre I actually enjoy now and again, The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is the ultimate indulgence. Four adult siblings who are within months or receiving a tidy inheritance, only to find that the “nest” has been plundered to cover the indiscretions of the eldest brother.

Best Prose

13152194I was honestly blown away by Tiny Beautiful Things which is a compilation of essays Cheryl Strayed wrote in her Dear Sugar advice column at the Rumpus. I don’t always agree with her advice, but I was moved by her genuine compassion and authenticity which shone through in these letters. They are stunning.

Most Educational

51PfhTR2k-L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I learned so much in this book recounting Kingsolver and her family’s year of dedication to eating only foods they grew themselves or sourced locally. For example, did you know that the ability to mate naturally has been bred out of American turkeys and the turkeys you eat at Thanksgiving are all the result of artificial insemination? Told you it was educational.

Most Unique

61sewvnupl-_sx324_bo1204203200_A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I’m not even exactly sure how to explain this book except to say that it was both intensely realistic, dealing very explicitly with things like mental illness and suicide, and also somewhat surreal. Which I think was the point. It’s difficult for me to tell you what this book is about and it’s probably better to just read a synopsis, but I will say that while this book had some disturbing parts and some strange magical realism towards the end, I still really liked it.

Best YA Book

515e3HFpceL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. I love what this book had to say about art, why we create it and what makes it necessary. Noah and Jude are twins (Jude’s a girl, btw) who have always shared a special connection until some time in their 14th year, something breaks them apart. The story is told in alternating sections from Noah’s and Jude’s perspectives. Noah’s part of the story is told in the past, while Jude’s portions are told three years later. You get bits and flashes of what happened between them from each side until it all comes together in the end. Noah is strange and isolated, drawing constantly, misunderstood by his peers and desperately in love with the boy next door. Jude is rebellious and fiery, ready to crash and burn if that’s what it takes. Something tears them apart in a way that changes them completely, but they each only have half the story.

Most Surprising

25852870Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This book is part of the Jane Austen project, a collective that invited several modern authors to modernize classic Jane Austen novels. I normally really hate re-tellings of classics. Especially modernizations. But this one (based very closely on Pride and Prejudice) just worked for me. Bingley is a famous bachelor after being on a nationally televised show called Eligible (like the Bachelor), Lydia and Kitty are obnoxiously into CrossFit and Elizabeth and Darcy have hot hate sex. Also, the whole thing is set in Cincinnati of all places and mentions lots of places I go when I’m visiting my in-laws there.

Celebrity I Now Want to Be Friends With

51YEfYZUHLL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Padma Lakshmi after reading her book Love, Loss, and What We Ate. I never really knew anything about her before, but after reading this book I think she’s pretty impressive and much smarter than people probably realize. She’s also led a really interesting life–born in India before immigrating to America with her mother, working as a model in Europe in her early twenties, meeting and marrying Salman Rushdie, and later going on to become a television cook and a judge on Top Chef.

Best Heroine

So, this book will really only work for you if you are a Jane Eyre fan or a fan of the gothic novel in general. This is not a retelling of Jane Eyre, but it is heavily inspired by it. Except in this novel, our heroine, Jane Steele, is an accidental serial murderer. I also love the cover design for this book.25938397

If you’ve stuck with me this far, thanks for reading. Believe me, I did my very best to pare this list down to the ones I most wanted to talk about, and I still had to leave a few good ones out. I don’t have a specific reading goal for 2017 and I actually hope to do more writing, which would probably cut down on my reading time, but you can always follow my progress on Goodreads!

What were the best books you read this year?

 

 

 

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What I’m Into: August & September 2016

For the first time since I started doing my monthly round-ups, I missed a month. All I have to say is, I work about 60 hours/week right now and while I genuinely love my job(s), I have almost no time and certainly no energy for anything that requires brain space. So there you have it.

What I’m Reading:

 

Kitchens of the Great Midwest. by J. Ryan Stradal. More of a set of linked short stories than a novel, each chapter centers around a particular recipe and cumulatively tell the story of Lena Torvald, a brilliant young chef, through the stories of those whose lives intersect with hers. Some characters/chapters I loved. Others I hated. The overall form was new and fun.

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny. Chief Inspector Gamache #2. Small town murder in a charming Quebec town full of eccentric characters. Louise Penny’s strength is creating a world full of 3-dimensional characters. Admittedly, this is not what everyone is looking for when it comes to a mystery, but they lend themselves to interesting observations about human nature.

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. I have a soft spot for rich-people-problem books, but this one was really awful. There was no character development or movement. Just blah.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. This book reminded me of All of Us and Everything which I read in July. Three eccentric adult sisters with a Shakespeare-loving father come to terms with themselves and with each other. Interestingly, this book is narrated in the first erson plural (“We”) and somehow still works.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl Strayed’s collection of columns from her time writing the Dear Sugar advice column is a gem. Even if I don’t agree with all of her advice, it’s hard to deny that Strayed has a gift for speaking truth with tremendous empathy.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This difficult, beautiful book is something we all should read as we seek to understand the reality of the black experience in America

China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan. Pure delight. The sequel to the entirely wonderful Crazy Rich Asians picks up two years after the end of Crazy Rich Asians.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. People seem to have strong reactions to this book – either they love it or hate it. I loved it. This is a rich white people problem book that hits the right notes.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. Of all of the thrillers I read this summer, this one was my favorite although probably also the darkest and most violent.

I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron. Nora Ephron’s funny little life reflections are a great distraction.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I’ve heard a lot of negative feedback on this from fans of Gone Girl. I enjoyed it, but I had also figured out who was responsible for the crime fairly early on. I’m still enjoying the unreliable narrator trope even though it has (arguably) been overdone in recent releases.

The Expats by Chris Pavone. The set-up for this was so great, but it was lacking in execution. While this made me want to move to Europe ASAP, it was also very far-fetched and the timeline was somewhat confusing.

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny. More small-town Quebec murders, though certainly the book where we learn the most about Chief Inspector Gamache.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven  by Chris Cleave. I really enjoyed this. Part WWII saga, part love triangle, this book encompassed my favorite things about WWII era literature and films with a bright dash of humor mixed with the somber realism.

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin. Four-year-old Noah knows things he’s never been told and asks every night to go back to his “other Mommy” even though he lives with his birth mother. Is it possible that Noah is remembering a past life? This book was fascinating, although the pacing was a little odd to me because it seemed to climax about 75% of the way through and there was still another quarter of the book to go.

The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty. I adore Moriarty’s other books (though I haven’t read the most recent one), but this one wasn’t my favorite. I still enjoyed it, but compared to the others it felt a bit long and I connected less with the character. 

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. This book has wrecked me. Everyone should read it. It was difficult for me to make myself continue in some parts because of how upsetting some of this (true!) information is, but as a privileged middle-class white woman, it was something I needed to read.

The Girls by Emma Cline. I’m not exactly sure what drew me to this book besides the good reviews I’d seen and a slight fascination with cults, but in the end, this wasn’t my cup of tea. It was well-written, but I just didn’t really connect with the main character so I wasn’t especially sympathetic to her actions.

The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller. Light, fairly fluffy, easy read. I enjoyed it, but it won’t stick with me.

Follow me on Goodreads for more of what I’m reading.

What I’m Watching:

I’ve picked up Scandal again (I’m at the end of Season 4) and Jonathan and I have started watching our old stand-by’s, New Girl, and Brooklyn Nine Nine. We also started watching The Good Place, mostly because I love Kristen Bell and it has some delightful Pushing Up Daisies vibes.  I’m waiting for the perfect time to start This Is Us because I know I’m going to love it with all of my guts, but also that it is going to emotionally exhaust maybe. Maybe this week when Jonathan’s at night class and I’m home on my own.

What I’m Eating:

I’ve eaten terribly for most of the last two months just out of sheer busyness. But when I haven’t eaten terribly, it’s been because of Prep Dish. Prep Dish is a meal planning service that gives you four meals plus a salad, a breakfast, and a snack or dessert. It tells you exactly what groceries to buy and then tells you how to prep everything in one 2-3 hour session so that you have meals ready-to-go all week long. It’s still a bit of work up-front to grocery shop and prep, but it really does make life wonderful to know that your meals are already planned and ready to go. And most of the meals I’ve had have been great. The service costs $14/month and they give you a paleo option and a gluten free option. I figure I’ll at least do it for a couple of months and then maybe just start recycling old weeks. This is totally not sponsored by the way. Here’s what we ate last week:

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What I’ve Been Up To:

Besides working all the jobs, we’ve had some good times in August and September. I think. I mean, it’s honestly kind of tough to remember back that far. I do remember that we went to Charleston at the beginning of August. And then school started and both Jonathan and I started teaching.

I do remember that the weekend after Charleston we got to hang out with our very dear friends, Tim and Asharae and Tim’s brother Richard who was visiting with his wife Lindsay, a friend I hadn’t seen in years. And of course we got to see Brandon and Christy, our other close friends who live in Charlotte. Yay, friends!

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For Labor Day weekend, I went to Raleigh by myself and saw my bestie boo Christina and her husband Andy, my friends Mary and Justin and their doll-baby Evelyn, and went to a 1st birthday party for my friends Jerusha and Nathaniel’s daughter, Edith.

A few weekends ago, Brandon and Christy came down our way and we all went to the Greek Festival together where we mostly ate delicious Greek food and watched some entertaining Greek dancing.

At work, I hosted a tailgate event for our international students and their host families that went over pretty well. We also all participated in spirit week with dress up days like Pajama Day and Superhero Day. On Friday, the entire high school went bowling and I had a great time watching some of my students try bowling for the first time.  I really do love these kids. Which is fortunate since they are pretty much my whole world right now!

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What I’m Into: July 2016 Edition

In July, I jumped full-swing into my new job, planned and cooked what felt like 1,000 meals that are Whole30 compliant (today is day 28!!!!), and drove all over the Carolinas trying to visit friends before summer ends. I’m linking up with Leigh Kramer to share this post.

What I’m Reading:

When my stress level is high (and when I have long solo drives and access to audiobooks) I escape into reading, and this month I read 12 books. I’ll mention all of the titles, but won’t go into much detail or this will get crazy-long.

All of Us and Everything by Bridget Asher. Quirky family drama about the eccentric Rockwell women. Funny and heartwarming. 3.75 Stars

Who Do You Love? By Jennifer Weiner. I like some of Jennifer Weiner’s books, but this one was a bit of a slog to me. Rachel Blum and Andy Landis meet when they are eight years old. Then they spend the next 30 years falling in and out of each other’s lives. 2 Stars.

No One Knows by J.T. Ellison. This thriller starts on the day that Aubrey Hamilton’s husband is declared dead, five years after he disappeared. But things may not be what they seem. Fast-paced summer read. 3 Stars

Furiously Happy: a Funny Book about Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson. Jenny Lawson writes comic essays about serious things. In this book, she tackles elements of life with mental illness. Her sense of humor is irreverent and isn’t for everyone, but some of the serious moments were really poignant. 3 Stars.

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. Another summer thriller about two girls who disappear from the same small town 10 years apart. The story is told backwards over a 15 day period. At first I thought this was gimmicky, but in the end I liked it. 3.5 Stars.

Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi. Lakshmi writes (very well) about her life in India, as an immigrant in America, as a model in Europe, as the wife of Salman Rushdie, and as a judge on Top Chef. In each part of her life, food plays an important role. I actually loved this, especially for Lakshmi’s honesty, even when it portrayed her unflatteringly. The food writing was great and her experiences were fascinating. 4 Stars.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Sweet story about a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl living in Seattle, Washington just as America enters WWII. Henry’s father hates the Japanese and forbids Henry to have anything to do with them, but Henry forms a strong bond with Keiko, the only other non-white person at his school. When she and her family are rounded up and moved to an internment camp, Henry vows to bring her home. 4.5 Stars.

Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, writes about the year she challenged herself to say yes to all the things that scared her and embrace the opportunities that came her way. She writes just like Olivia Pope and Annaleise Keating speak, so that’s fun, especially on audio. 3.5 Stars.

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood. This was great. 104-year-old Ona Vitkus is alone in the world until an 11-year-old boy scout is sent to help her out. Ona tells him about her life and he shares his encyclopedic knowledge of world records. One day, the boy stops showing up. In his place is his father, Quinn, there to fulfill his son’s obligation. Together, Ona and Quinn teach each other above love and regret. 5 Stars.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. Twenty-two year old Tess moves to New York City and becomes a waiter at a prestigious restaurant. She is exposed to the intoxicating world of the restaurant business as well as some of its darker character. So much cocaine. So many dysfunctional relationships. I wasn’t connected to the character but there was great atmosphere in the restaurant and food writing parts. 3 Stars.

Rising Strong by Brene’ Brown. The follow-up to Daring Greatly, this book explores the process of how we get up again once we’ve fallen on our faces and why vulnerability is still the way forward. Not necessarily a fun book, but an important one. 4 Stars.

Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I loved this multi-generational story of three Indian women (and the other people whose lives intersect with theirs) whose stories of running from the mothers who can’t understand them, reveals how little we often know about what’s really going on in the lives of others. 4 Stars.

Currently Reading: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal and A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Gamache #2) by Louise Penny. Follow me on Goodreads for more of what I’m reading.

What I’m Watching:

I binge-watched Season 2 of Jane the Virgin when it hit Netflix. I love this show so much. But I have no idea if I’m team Michael or team Rafael. It changes constantly.

What I’m Eating:

Jonathan and I are on day 28 of Whole30 which is no grains, no dairy, no sugars, no soy, no artificial flavors, additives, or preservatives. The good part of this is detoxing from 3 weeks of pasta and pizza and gelato (and many previous months of not eating as well as we could). The hard part is that it takes a lot of work and planning to eat three Whole30 compliant meals every day and it has more or less killed our social life because it is very hard to eat out or eat at a friend’s house. You have to read the label on everything you eat and it matters what oils things are cooked in, etc. We are beyond ready to be done. At this point I would say I will continue to eat this way more or less when cooking at home, but I don’t think I’ll ever do Whole30 again. It’s like living life in black and white.

I did find some really delicious new recipes though. My favorite has been this pan-seared mahi-mahi over coconut cauliflower rice with fresh mango salsa. Recipe here. Follow me on Pinterest for more of what I’m eating.

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What I’ve Been Up To:

Right after returning from our trip, I took the 4th of July weekend to fly down to Louisiana and visit my family, specifically my sister Anni who was about to leave to study abroad in Australia for the semester.

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We spent a significant amount of our time reading in her bed. Seesters.

The next weekend, Jonathan and I drove to Raleigh to visit my best friend from college, Christina, and her husband Andy who recently bought their first house. We also got to see our friends Nathaniel and Jerusha while we were there. We stayed with Andy and Christina overnight on Friday and while we were there, our mutual friend Asharae (who lived with Christina and me during college) went into labor in Charlotte. Asharae and her husband Tim had chosen not to find out their baby’s gender before the birth, so Christina and I were eagerly awaiting the news. The minute we heard they’d had a healthy baby boy, we raced out to buy tiny baby boy clothes for him.

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The next day, Jonathan and I were able to go to Charlotte to visit Asharae and Tim in the hospital and to meet tiny Beckett Elijah. My heart is so full for these sweet friends.

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Sweet Little Family

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Ecstatic Auntie and Uncle!

The following weekend I got to help throw a baby shower for Kelly, another dear friend of mine here in Columbia expecting a son in September. I Pinterest-ed a recipe for cake pops which turned out mostly well except that the candy melts I used for the coating kept turning out too thick, so the coating wouldn’t go on smoothly.

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How cute is Kelly?! And also that alligator towel.

I also got to spend an afternoon at the zoo with my friend Kristen and her boy, Callum. My favorite part was the gorillas who, like me, were totally over it.

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I took a solo overnight trip to Wilmington, NC where I got to see one of my best friends from home in Louisiana who lives in a charming house there with her handsome firefighter husband, their massive dog Grizz, and their new Dalmatian puppy, Koda. She is one of those friends that I can reconnect with immediately, even if it’s been months since we’ve talked. We tried to go to the beach, but it was too crowded, so instead we bopped around town and looked for secondhand bargains.

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Last week, Jonathan’s parents came to visit for a few days. It’s been near 100 degrees here every day all summer, so we are limited on how much activity we can do, but we enjoyed playing board games and talking.

This past weekend while Jonathan was working at the baseball park I took another short solo trip up to Stanfield, NC, the town outside of Charlotte where Asharae, Tim, and baby Beckett live.

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Beckett has epic hair.

My new job involves me finding host families for our international students, arranging their transportation and move-in, organizing a week-long orientation, and teaching ESL class once school begins on August 18th. Since my students start arriving this weekend, I know the month of August will be a crazy one, which is why I’ve made it a priority to see my friends over the past few weeks, even if it means traveling every weekend.

I’m still working on telling all of our travel adventures. Parts 1 and 2 are up already, but look for Part 3 about our time in Rome in the next few days!

What have you been into?

 

 

Parthenon (under construction)

Europe Dunn Right Episode 2: Athens

We arrived at the Athens airport around 11:30 PM on June 8th after spending the day flying to Istanbul and then sitting in the airport there for several hours. Our first step was to file another lost bag claim for Jonathan’s bag, which we already knew had never left Atlanta. We hoped we’d get it before we moved on to Italy on the 10th, but it wasn’t looking promising.

We took a 30 minute bus from the airport to the city center where our Air BNB host told us we could take a 5 minute taxi ride to our apartment. It was well after midnight by this time and we were exhausted. We got into a cab and gave the driver the address along with a map and directions the host had provided in Greek. The driver was friendly and chatty, but soon began putting on what we later realized was an elaborate show of not being able to find the place. He drove us around for about 20 minutes, getting out of the car at several points to poke his head down alleys.

Finally, we passed the street we were supposed to turn on, and our host, Lydia, saw us and ran towards the taxi waving her hands and yelling. He quickly turned the corner and let us out, asking for 15 euros. As we grabbed our bags from the trunk, Lydia, a bad-ass, no-nonsense true Athenian woman, marched up and started screaming at him in Greek. He yelled back, and we stood awkwardly holding our bags as they argued in the middle of the street. Then she turned to us and said pleasantly. “Only pay him 5 Euros. He knows the cost is 5 Euros. He pretended to be lost on purpose. It’s only two turns from the town center.” The taxi driver protested that this wasn’t fair, that he’d been driving around with us for 45 minutes (false) and that her directions were bad. They argued some more. Lydia called the police and reported him. I think we ended up paying him 10 euros and he left. It was 1 AM.

Corrupt taxi drivers aside, Lydia was a wonderful host and made sure we had everything we needed including directions to the major sights, which were within walking distance of us. Since we would only have 1 1/2 days to explore Athens, we wanted to pack in as much as possible.

The next morning we set off to see the Temple of Zeus, Hadrian’s Gate, the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the Agora. I really enjoyed the way these ancient ruins were tucked into the modern city, and how the Acropolis still rises above everything else as it did in ancient times. We were both in awe of the size and the age of these ruins. It’s genuinely hard to comprehend just how long they have stood and how many generations of people have visited these places. Although the Agora is mostly rubble at this point, it was still amazing to walk to through it and think about Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, spending their time on the very same ground.

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Temple of Zeus

 

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Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora

We had lunch in a restaurant in the touristy area near the base of the Acropolis and later stopped for a drink and a slice of lemon pie at a charming café built into the side of a staircase. There were restaurants and cafes on both sides of the stairs  with little bench-like tables for people to sit on the steps with their food and drinks. The neighborhood around these famous sights were adorable and everything you picture when conjuring up images of Greece.

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Storybook Athens

We were surprised to find that the Greek people we met in Athens were the warmest and friendliest people we met on our trip. My only regret about Athens is that we did not have time to eat more Greek food. My father is of Greek heritage and I grew up eating Greek food, which I love, but we were only in Greece for one dinner time.

After our full day in Athens, I developed an impressive migraine (likely triggered by air travel, dehydration,stress, and general tiredness) and had to put myself to bed early to sleep it off. In the morning, we had coffee in a cute café and then took a walk through the National Gardens. When we returned from our walk, Jonathan’s bag had miraculously arrived from the airport, just in time for us to get on the Metro and head back to the airport for our afternoon flight to Rome.

Other than the big sights in Athens (which were amazing), I wasn’t particularly enchanted with the city itself, but  I now have my heart set on a trip back to Greece to visit the islands. (This is the problem with me, every time I check a place off my list, three more pop up). Although we had an incredibly short visit, we enjoyed our time in Athens, scheming taxi drivers aside. It was a great first stop after a rocky start to our trip.

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Europe Dunn Right Episode 1: When the Worst Thing Becomes the Best Thing

We started our great European adventure in the Atlanta airport. We’d bought tickets with Air Canada that flew from Atlanta to Toronto and then on into Istanbul. Our plan was to spent 12 hours in Istanbul, doing a mad dash through the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque before continuing on to Athens. Over the past few years Istanbul has become a source of fascination for me, so when I found out that the cheapest way into Europe was to fly through Istanbul, I was all about it.

We spent the night in Atlanta so we’d be able to arrive at the airport bright and early before our 11 AM flight. We were among the first people to check in. When we checked in we were told that we had no seat assignments, but not to worry because they would be assigned at the gate. We got coffee, went to our gate and read for a while, waiting for an agent to appear.

When the agent showed up, we politely asked for seat assignments. She said to sit down and wait and she would give them to us as soon as she had them. We politely and patiently sat down. 30 minutes later, we checked back in with her and were given the same answer. I tried to be calm, but I was starting to get nervous.

A few minutes later the gate agent announced that the boarding process was beginning. We stood at the desk and said, “We still don’t have seat assignments.” She asked us to wait just a minute until she was done boarding these people. At this point it became clear to me that we were not getting on this flight. As the final passengers boarded the plane, the gate agent finally told us, “You purchased tickets, but not seats, so we’ll have to put you on the next flight.”

I collapsed into a chair where I tried to do deep breathing exercises while popping anxiety pills. In spite of being fairly well-traveled and very flexible in many ways, I am not good with travel delays or changes in travel plans. Any type of travel where there is the potential to miss a connection–a flight, a train, etc.–makes me physically anxious. And when things go wrong, even though they are usually fixable, I freak out.

Once everyone had boarded our flight and the door was closed, we waited for the gate agent to give us a new itinerary. The best they could do was a flight that got us into Istanbul late in the afternoon–not leaving enough time for us to leave the airport and see anything before our evening flight to Athens. We asked if we could just fly directly to Athens since we wouldn’t have time to see anything in Istanbul anyway, but the gate agent said she could only book us tickets to our original destination. I angry-tweeted at Air Canada for a while while being very polite to the gate agent. We were both disappointed to realize we’d miss this whole day of our trip and end up spending two full days sitting in airports.

And then, the agent had us sign the paperwork for the airline to send us compensation for being involuntarily removed from our flight. Because we’d been bumped from that international flight, the airline sent us large checks (not travel vouchers). When we added everything up later we realized these checks covered almost exactly half of the cost of our entire 18 day trip to Europe. Which means we got a 1/2 priced trip to Europe.

I know. We’re still in shock.

The thing that seemed like the WORST THING EVER to the anxious traveler in me turned out to be an enormous blessing.

We flew to Toronto and then to Istanbul where we sat in the airport for about five hours before flying on to Athens. Since Jonathan’s luggage didn’t make it to Istanbul, we got to spend part of that time getting him Turkish boxers and t-shirts to tide him over until his bag arrived.

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Here’s Jonathan, killing time in the International Departures lounge in the Istanbul airport, waiting until we can check in for our flight to Athens.

I can’t finish this post without talking about how close to home it hit to hear about the Istanbul airport bombing, just 3 weeks after we’d been there. I think about the 36 people who died and the 147 more who were injured and know that it could so easily have been us. I am grateful for our safety, but I do not believe we are entitled to it any more than anyone else.  Today Turkey erupted into chaos as the military attempted a coup. I can’t help but thing of all the lives that have been and will be lost as the government and military struggle. I pray for peace and it feels inadequate. As-Salaam-Alaikum.

 

 

 

 

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What I’m Into: June 2016 Edition

This June was probably one of the best months of my life. I started a new job, took my dream vacation to Athens, Italy, and Paris, read eight books, celebrated Jonathan’s birthday, and ate gelato almost every day. This may have been a record high. I am linking up with Leigh Kramer to share some of what I’ve been into this month.

What I’m Reading:

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. The first sentence of this book reads, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” The book goes on to tell the story of a interracial family (Chinese father, American mother) in 1970’s Ohio, and the way the parents’ dreams play out in the lives of their children. It’s not a mystery, and in many ways it’s not even about Lydia’s death, but it was a fascinating look at family dynamics, the things that motivate us, and how our actions can have unintended consequences.

The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. A Gatsby-esque novel about one year in the life of Wall Street secretary and social-climber Katey Kontent in late 1930’s – early 1940’s New York. On the last night of 1937 Katey and her roommate Eve happen to meet the dazzling Tinker Grey, an encounter that changes both of their lives in ways they could never have predicted.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. I read this one with my book-club this month. When 7-year old Lavinia is orphaned during her Irish family’s journey to America, she is taken on as an indentured servant by the captain of the ship and taken to live on his tobacco plantation where she works with the slaves in the kitchen house. Although she is white, the slaves adopt her as their own and raise her, but as she grows older, she is drawn into the world of the big house where she walks a precarious line between her race, the slaves who have become her family, and her position in society. This book had an intriguing premise – a little different from your run-of-the-mill antebellum fiction, but it was undeniably heartbreaking.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Shout out to my friend Kim for recommending this one – this book is a pure fun summer read. When Nick Young, heir to one of the largest fortunes in Asia, brings his ABC (American-Born Chinese) girlfriend home to Singapore for a wedding, all hell breaks loose. Poor Rachel, who knew nothing about Nick’s family or financial situation, must navigate the gossip and games of the Chinese elite in Singapore society.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica. This was a very fast read with a major twist at the ending that I still can’t decide my feelings on. When 25-year-old Mia Dennett goes missing, her mother assumes the worst, but a few months later she returns with no memory of where she’s been and insisting that her name is Chloe. The story is told from three alternating perspectives – Mrs. Dennett, the detective investigating the case, and the captor himself –and jumps back and forth in time to the time Mia is missing and the time after she’s returned home.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. Listened to this on audio. If you think David Sedaris is funny, you will like this. It’s very true to his other slightly strange humorous essays, mostly about his family.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor. No words. This is the final book in Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy and there is nothing I can say to express how amazing this whole trilogy is. It is considered YA fantasy, though I don’t find anything particularly YA about it except that the characters are young. Sort of. It is creative and intense and haunting and beautifully written and I can’t recommend the series highly enough.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. Even though I’m happily married and have been out of the dating game for 10 years, I found this book very interesting. Although Ansari is a comedian, this book is a well-researched sociology project about how modern technology has changed the way people navigate the world of dating, romance, and marriage.

Currently reading: Who Do You Love? by Jennifer Weiner, All of Us and Everything by Bridget Asher, and Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson.

For more of what I’m reading or what’s on my To Read least, follow me on Goodreads.

What I’m Watching:

I caught up on Pretty Little Liars, my guilty pleasure show, and FINALLY got to find out who “A” is. I also watched a few episodes of season 10 of Bones, a show I go back and forth on watching. Jonathan and I watched the new season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt together and enjoyed it.

We didn’t watch that many movies because we were traveling, but I did watch Room on the airplane (upsetting, but interesting) and we went to see the new Now You See Me movie this week (didn’t like it as much as the first one). I’m hoping to see Finding Dory soon.

What I’ve Been Up To:

I started my new job on June 1st, but don’t have much to say about it at this point since I only worked for about a week before we left for Europe.

The bulk of June was spent on our amazing trip. We spent two days in Athens, 3.5 days in Rome, 5 days in Florence, 1 day in Venice, 1 day in Cinque Terre, and 3 days in Paris. It was spectacular. We celebrated our 6th wedding anniversary in Rome – we actually spent that day at the Vatican and were able to see the Sistine Chapel. As far as ways to spend your anniversary, this may be the best one we’ll ever have. 🙂

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We were beyond grateful to have this experience. It is something I’ve dreamed of since I was a young girl and it was surreal to see with my own eyes some of these places. We were able to go for 18 days including all the travel and we loved every minute. I want to do some individual posts to share my travel tips for those who are interested, but here are some photos of the highlights.

We also celebrated Jonathan’s birthday at home on the 30th. We had dinner with friends from his grad school program and I made banofie pie (banana toffee), something he discovered he loves years ago while doing study abroad in England.

Now that we are back and getting into our routine again, I am hoping that July moves a little more slowly. I’ve got a lot to figure out and get organized before school starts again and it feels like every time I blink another week has passed.

Hope your summer is off to a great start!