reading

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?

 

 

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What I’m Into: May 2016 Edition

Linking up with Leigh Kramer for the May edition of What I’m Into.

What I’m Reading:

I read so many good books this month!

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway. This was a our book club pick for May, part of my own effort to read more books by or about people of color. Shoko is a Japanese woman who married an American GI and moved to the US, a decision which left her estranged from her beloved brother. Fifty years later, Shoko wants to return to Japan to reconcile with her brother, but when her health prevents her from making the trip, she asks her daughter Sue to go in her place. This was a book that I found slightly better in theory than in execution, but I loved Shoko because she reminded me so much of the older Korean women I knew and the descriptions of the Japan made me miss Asia like crazy.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. This is a deeply moving though difficult book written by the poet, Elizabeth Alexander, after the sudden loss of her husband. While achingly sad in places, it is also a reflection on the blessings of love and what it means to live a full and meaningful life.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell. This was a fun chick lit read if you are willing to go along with things like a telephone that makes calls into the past. Georgie McCool is a television writer who has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime—to pitch her own TV show. The only problem is that getting the show ready means bailing on plans to spend Christmas in Omaha with her husband and daughters. Georgie and Neal love each other deeply, but it seems like they want different things. Georgie, desperate to fight for her marriage, places a late night phone call to Neal’s parents’ house to try to reconcile, only to find that she’s somehow managed to call back in time to before she and Neal were married. Maybe she can fix their problems before they even start?

Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan. I highly recommend listening to this on audiobook (which is what I did) because then it’s basically like listening to Jim Gaffigan do standup. If you don’t know who Gaffigan is, he’s a great comedian whose main schticks are his love of food and how he and his wife are Catholic and very fertile and therefore live in a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan with five children. This book is mostly about parenthood and it’s hilarious.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. This is a new genre to me, a memoir-in-verse, about the author growing up as an African American in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Written from her perspective as a child, an adult understanding of the larger social context gives weight to the innocent reflections, observations, and memories of a young girl trying to find her place in the world. I also highly recommend this on audio since it is written in free verse and you won’t get the same sense of rhythm reading it to yourself.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. If you are a fan of Jane Eyre, or gothic novels in general, this book is for you. While this is not a retelling of Jane Eyre, it draws heavy inspiration from it with the main character admitting that her favorite book is Jane Eyre because she sees so many parallels to her own life. Jane Steele is also a sensitive orphan who loses her parents and her home and is sent to a terrible boarding school. As an adult she sees an opportunity to return to her childhood home when the new owner advertises for a governess for his ward. Cue the epic romance. Jane’s life mirrors Jane Eyre’s in many ways, but with one notable exception. Jane Steele is sort of a serial killer. I loved it!

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. This book. All the feels. I read the entire thing in one day. It is devastating and beautiful and everyone should read it. At 36, Paul Kalanithi has spent most of his life training to be a neurosurgeon/neuroscientist. Just as he is finishing up his last year of clinicals, he is diagnosed with lung cancer. Kalanithi writes about his own journey, his decision to pursue medicine and what made life meaningful to him and the ways that those feelings shifted or grew stronger in the light of his impending death. Kalanithi died in March 2015 with this book “unfinished” in his opinion, but I think it’s perfect just the way it is. It’s difficult, but beautiful. I think everyone should read this and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which I wrote about a few months ago.

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

What I’m Watching:

We’re still trying to get caught up on The Grinder and New Girl. I finished the last season of Call the Midwife (loved it) and have actually been watching a few episodes of the latest season of Bones which I used to watch, but haven’t in a while.

We went to see the new Captain America movie, which I liked much better than several of the recent Marvel movies. And today we unexpectedly had some time in the afternoon and decided to go see the new X-Men movie. Because I love X-Men. (OK, I actually just love James McAvoy. I can’t possibly be alone in this).

Jonathan is, for some unknown reason, unwilling to go see Me Before You with me when it comes this weekend. Possibly my description of it as, “Maybe the most I’ve ever cried while reading a book,” didn’t sell it to him. I might just take myself even though it will be embarrassing to sit in a theater alone and sob.

What I’m Eating:

I’ve suddenly become obsessed with guacamole. Like obsessed. One of my favorite dinners is guacamole on top of a turkey burger. So yum. Here’s my recipe in case you are wondering about it. It’s completely imprecise and easy and it works every time.

1 ripe avocado
1 roma tomato
1 Tbsp onion
Garlic powder
Cumin
Salt
Lime juice

Cut the avocado in cubes, mash it up a bit but leave some chunks. Finely dice the onion and mix in. Add some garlic powder (maybe ¼ tsp? ½ tsp? I just eyeball it). Add cumin (maybe 1 tsp? More than the garlic powder. The cumin is very important). Dice tomato and mix in. Add salt to taste. Add a squeeze of lime juice.

I don’t measure anything, I just say add a little at a time and taste it as you go til you figure out what you like! Then put it on everything.

What I’m Writing:

I managed to do one post in the middle of the chaos of this month about my new tattoo. I also had a few pieces published to Modernize including this one about how to achieve eco-friendly style, Industrial Style 101, and this most recent post about how to boost your curb appeal with a container garden.

What I’ve Been Up To:

Life has hit hard this month. I’ve barely had time to breathe.

First off, I was offered and did accept a position as the International Student Coordinator/ESL teacher at Hammond. This is a part-time, year-round position that begins tomorrow. Hurray!

Then, a few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to take over the job of the Middle School Administrative Assistant. There was an unexpected vacancy and they needed someone to fill in for the last few weeks of school. I jumped in and spent a few frantic weeks scrambling around trying to help out in any way I could without any real training or knowledge of what was going on. It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. This was adding a full-time job on top of all of my other tutoring and writing obligations and a few Fireflies baseball games I had already committed to work at, which basically meant that I didn’t see my husband for approximately three weeks.

There was a pretty traumatic event during my second week working at the school where someone was shot outside of my house in the middle of the night. This naturally cued all the panic attacks and led to some stress-filled days and sleepless nights. I’m mostly OK now, though I’ve made an appointment to see my doctor about some medication for getting through highly stressful times. It wreaks havoc on me emotionally and physically.

Other than working and panicking, we have had some fun things going on as well. We got to house/puppy sit for friends who have an adorable white Havanese puppy called Dobby. We drove to Spartanburg to have dinner with my second family, the Millers who were in town visiting my lifelong friend Leigh who lives there now. We had Mama Ginger’s homemade red beans and rice. It was like being home.

The next weekend I hosted a makeup party for some of my friends. This was basically just a party to talk about makeup, recommend products, and talk through general do’s and don’ts. And I got to do a few of my friends’ makeup which is always fun. The whole event was fun for me since makeup is one of my favorite hobbies.

The following weekend my mom came into town for an epic 3-day visit. It was so great to see her and hang out. She treated me to a spa day complete with facials, massages, and a pedicure, and then completely shocked me by agreeing to the tattoo shop with me to get my new tattoo. (Read more about that here).

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Jonathan made me try out lots of cheesy showing-off-my-tat poses. Believe it or not, this is the best one.

I’m still loving my new tattoo, which is healing nicely. It was designed especially for me but my creative and amazing friend, Asharae Kroll, who recently had a book on handlettering published and is also offering an e-class handlettering very soon, so check it out! (Shamelss plugs one and all!)

Last Friday my friend Laura invited me to go to a paint bar with her and her sister. I really got in touch with my inner artist and painted this little masterpiece. I couldn’t understand why the people at the art bar didn’t ask if they could keep it to display for other customers. When I came home and showed Jonathan, he said, “Which way does it go?” but that’s OK, because we all know the best artists are the ones who aren’t appreciated in their time. 😉

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I’m obviously a visionary.

I spent most of this past weekend preparing for a business writing workshop I was supposed to teach this week, but we did sneak away on Sunday afternoon to meet up with Jonathan’s dad and sister in Charlotte. Kacy is doing in internship in Charlotte for the summer and Jonathan’s dad drove down to help her settle in. We were only able to see them for dinner, but we try to take advantage of any opportunity to see family now that we are in the same country. For now, anyway. 😉

We leave for our great European adventure on TUESDAY!!!! Not that I’m excited or anything. To be honest, things have been so busy that I haven’t really done any planning or packing or anything. Hopefully we’ll be able to make time this week to get everything set. We’ll celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary in Rome this year. How unbelievable is that?! (On several levels). I will do my best to take ALL THE PICTURES and post them here and on my Instagram account.

Header Image Credit: Weheartit.com

 

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What I’m Into: March 2016 Edition

I freaking love spring. Even though my car is positively yellow with pollen and the temperature fluctuates from 48 to 85 in one day, I love it. I love the colors, I love the sunshine, I love the warmth. I love the long, light-filled evenings. Basically, I’m a fan. Linking up with Leigh Kramer for this post.

What I’m Reading:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. This book blew me away. Surgeon Atul Gawande explores what it might look like if we accepted the inevitability of our own mortality, and if doctors specifically focused not just on prolonging life at all costs, but on helping people die well. One of the most compelling parts was considering how the seriously ill might choose to live their remaining days if they accepted the limits of their lives instead of living through invasive procedure after procedure on the slim hope of buying more time later. (This doesn’t mean assisted suicide). I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and have awkwardly worked it into dinner conversations with people who probably have no interest in discussing their own mortality, but what better mark of a great book than that you feel compelled to talk about it even in inappropriate contexts?

Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy by Donald Miller. I enjoyed this book about Miller’s own struggle to recognize the masks he hides behind and to recognize unhealthy and codependent tendencies. He is brutally honest about his own insecurities and the things he has used to cover them. This was a quick read and it made me think about how I conduct my own relationships.

Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center. Thirty-two year old Helen Carpenter seeks to rediscover herself after a bad divorce by signing up for a 3-week intensive wilderness survival course. She isn’t counting on her annoying little brother’s annoying best friend tagging along (cue the romantic tension). This is basically Wild as a fiction book. It had some charming moments and I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t anything that will stay with me long-term.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. This is a YA fantasy book. I think it would have had more significance for me if I’d read Fangirl, but I haven’t. It’s a stand-alone story about a boy magician named Simon Snow. While there is the Harry Potter-esque set-up of a magical school and a boy who is destined to be the most powerful mage of all time, we pick up the story in Simon’s 8th and final year of school. There are passing references to fights with dragons and previous encounters with the insidious humdrum, but the reader is dropped into the middle of an ongoing story which makes the setting feel less stale. Each chapter is a first-person narrative from a different character’s perspective. I felt like Rowell was giving an intentional nod to all the conventions of YA magical school fantasy, then proceeding to turn those conventions on their heads. There is a mysterious headmaster, the Mage, but there are also gay vampires.  One fun element is that the system of magic spells is tied to common figures of speech, nursery rhymes, and even the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody, so phrases like, “Easy come, easy go,” have magical power.

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham (of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood fame). When 26-year-old Franny Banks moved to New York to become an actress, she set a deadline for herself. At the end of three years she would either be successful or give up and move on. Now that deadline is looming and Franny is frantically trying to navigate what she is and isn’t willing to do in pursuit of her dream. No great literature here, but it wasn’t poorly written and was a nice light read with a funny and charming protagonist.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I recently started a book club and this was our first pick. I LOVED this book and discussing it with others during book club made my appreciation of it even richer. It’s 1987, and 14-year-old June Elbus has just lost her uncle Finn, the person she loved most in the world, to AIDS. At Finn’s funeral, June sees a mysterious stranger who she later learns is Toby, her uncle’s secret lover. Unwilling and unable to completely let Finn go, June forges a secret friendship with Toby, the only person in the world who might just miss Finn more than she does. Through her friendship with Toby, June learns more about her own family, about compassion, and about what real love looks like.

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron. This is a quick read that will make lots of women laugh (and maybe men too). While I’m not at the same life stage as Ephron was while writing this, I still enjoyed her humorous take on some of the more ridiculous aspects of what society expects of women.

Currently reading: Still Life by Louise Penny, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman , and Night Driving by Addie Zierman. Follow me on Goodreads for more of what I’m reading.

What I’m Watching

I finally made it to the end of Revenge which I’ve been watching on Netflix on and off for more than a year. The finale was somewhat satisfying. I also watched all of the Full House reboot, Fuller House. I think this is largely for people who are nostalgic about the original show as many details as well as entire plot lines are updated versions of well known Full House episodes.It’s corny, but as someone who grew up on Full House, I still kind of loved it.

This month we enjoyed a weekend getaway to a cabin outside of Asheville. While we were there we watched The Intern and Burnt (which I always refer to as “Bradley Cooper, Chef”). I liked both of these movies a lot. We also made it to see Zootopia which was cute.

What I’m Listening To

I don’t miss an episode of Anne Bogel’s What Should I Read Next? podcast and find it great fun to listen to while I’m running – something I have been making a big effort to do more of. I’ve also gotten into a band called I am They who I first heard in my friend’s car. I think they’re from Nashville and I think their music is perfect for easy listening. Very peaceful.

What I’m Eating

I have been making a very serious effort to eat better, which for me means limiting starches and sugars and eating lots and lots of veggies and fruits and fish and some lean meats. This means I have no enticing pictures to share with you. Except. I did make this lemonade cake for Easter. Which is one of my all-time favorites.

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Follow me on Pinterest for more recipes!

What I’m Writing

As you probably know, I’ve been pretty MIA from blogging this month. It was an unintentional hiatus, but I’m glad that I took some time off. I was feeling a little burnt out and if you keep reading, you’ll see why. I did do some writing to apply for a summer writing fellowship I’ve heard great things about, but unfortunately I wasn’t accepted.

The two pieces I published on the blog this month were this one about my relationship with “Mr. Jones,” a homeless man who I give reading lessons to and this one about managing my anxiety. I also continued to submit one post each week to Modernize, but they are behind on their publishing schedule and don’t have anything new up yet.

What I’ve Been Up To:

March was actually kind of nuts. In the best way. The first weekend I drove up to the Charlotte area to visit my adorably preggo friend, Asharae. The next day I went to Spartanburg to visit one of my oldest and dearest friends who has a new boyfriend I felt the need to meet and pass judgment on.

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The following week, Jonathan’s parents and sister came to visit for a few days during Spring Break. I was not on spring break and had to work during the day, but it was still great to see them. We’ve been back in America for 7 months and we’ve seen Jonathan’s family four different times, which is amazing when we’d only seen them twice in the previous two years. My good friend (and college roommate) Taylor also came up from Charleston to visit for an afternoon.

The next week I hosted the first meeting of the Badass Book Club where we discussed Tell the Wolves I’m Home. It was such a great evening and we had a great discussion. That weekend Jonathan and I went on a short getaway to Asheville, NC. We stayed in a cabin a little north of Asheville -actually it was the exact same cabin we stayed in on another getaway four years ago when we were living in Raleigh. It was such a sweet time and a great opportunity to relax and just hang out together. The view was beautiful and there was an awesome hot tub.

It was especially nice to get away because the following week I had to teach a two-day business writing workshop at a local company. This was my first experience doing anything like this and I was incredibly nervous and unsure about my materials, content, and presentation, but it went well and they have already asked me to come back and do the workshop again for a different group of employees.

That week was the week of Easter and part of my church’s Easter tradition is to celebrate the Seder (Passover) meal on Maundy Thursday. We do this in small groups in each other’s homes. I went to my friends Ben and Leslie’s house and celebrated with their family and another family from our church. We went through the traditional meal with all of the symbolism. Since there were six kids there, it was a little chaotic, but also a lot of fun.

On Easter Sunday we went to church and then shared a delicious Easter lunch with our friends Buffy and Ian and their kids (and Ian’s mom). Our dear friends Brandon and Christy happened to be passing through town that afternoon and Buffy and Ian kindly invited them to join us for lunch. We had a great afternoon eating yummy foods and enjoying each others’ company. Also, my mom sent me these Jasmine pajamas in the mail for Easter!

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This last week of March was supposed to be a bit slower-paced, but I found out on Monday that I would need to prepare and teach a demo class at the school I tutor at. This was part of the interview process for a 5th grade teaching position I am applying to for next school year. I spent most of this week in an adrenaline frenzy. I gave the lesson yesterday morning and it seemed to go well, though I don’t have my hopes up about the position since there are other candidates with better experience and qualifications. But, you never know until you try!

If you’ve stuck with me to the end, thank you so much for reading! I hope you are enjoying spring as much as I am and I would love to hear about what you’ve been into and up to this month!

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What I’m Into: February 2016 Edition

 

The past few days have felt positively spring-like here in South Carolina and I am hopeful that it’s here to stay. As someone who is cold 95% of the time, even the mild winters we experience in the south can feel long to me, so I’m all about spring showing up. I’ve been struggling with my health a bit this month, and feeling generally tired and sluggish, and I think warmer weather might help with that as well. Linking up with Leigh Kramer to share what I’ve been into this month.

What I’m Reading:

Mr. Kiss and Tell (Veronica Mars #2) by Rob Thomas. This is the second Veronica Mars book in what I hope will be an ongoing series. As I said about the first one, if you are already a fan of Veronica Mars as a show and a movie, you will love these. If you aren’t familiar, you might still enjoy them just for the mystery-solving detective aspect, but some of the tone and the connection between the characters might be lost on you.

The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman. This is the third book of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I read the first two books and I think half of this one several years ago. I was intrigued by the first two, but remember feeling like this one dragged. This time I listened to the audio version which is a dramatized reading almost like a radio play. Even with the great reading, it still felt a little long and plodding and much more heavy-handed than the other two in his criticisms of the church and of religion. Definitely not my favorite of the trilogy.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. This is another of those YA books that I wouldn’t give to my young teenager, but maybe to the right older teen. The really powerful thing about this book is that it is an honest and revealing portrayal of mental illness in teens that isn’t always talked about openly. Violet and Finch meet on a ledge of the school bell tower, both contemplating their own deaths. In meeting, they save each other, at least for the day, and their meeting leads to a friendship that helps and challenges each of them in different ways.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe. I am fairly recent Rob Lowe fan with most of my exposure to him coming from Parks and Recreation and his new show, The Grinder, so I enjoyed these stories about Rob Lowe’s show biz journey, starting as a teen heart throb in the 80’s If you’re not very interested in the movie and television industry then this might not be the book for you, but if you are interested in it or just like Rob Lowe in general than this is a fun and easy read.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes. I’m a huge fan of The Princess Bride so I really enjoyed this book telling some of the behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the film and the people involve from Cary Elwes, who played Wesley. In particular, the stories about Andre the Giant, who played Fezzig in the movie, are funny and heartwarming.

In January I read about half of Sarah Bessey’s newest book, Out of Sorts, and fully intended to finish it this month, but I sort of lost momentum. It shouldn’t take too long once I pick it back up, but I’ve been distracted by other things. If you want to see what I’m reading and what I think of it, be sure to follow me on Goodreads!

What I’m Listening To:

I’ve been really enjoying Modern Mrs. Darcy’s new What Should I Read Next? podcast. This is a concept she used to do on her blog sometimes and has now converted into a podcast format where she invites a guest to answer three questions – name a book you love, a book you hate, and what you read most recently -and then gives three book recommendations based on that discussion. It’s lots of fun.

What I’m Watching:

I’m slowly working through the final season of Revenge on Netflix. Jonathan and I are trying (and sometimes failing) to stay current with Brooklyn Nine Nine, New Girl, and our new fave, The Grinder. To be honest, we’ve been busy and haven’t spent a ton of time watching shows together. We did see Hail, Caesar! at the theater this past weekend and we both enjoyed it even though the trailer is a bit misleading. Channing Tatum is hysterical in it.

What I’m Eating:

I went through about a 3-week period where I was eating Chinese takeout every Sunday evening. I just had to have it. The cashew chicken at Yummy Yummy II is bomb. I also made a ton of cookies and strawberry cream cheese muffins for the Bible Study retreat I went on at the beginning of the month. I use this bread recipe and just do muffins instead. I also add chocolate chunks because, why not? Follow me on Pinterest for more recipes.

What I’m Writing:

On the blog I wrote about mindfulness with this post on walks without destinations. I shared a spoken-word poem about love in honor of the 9 year anniversary of my husband and I becoming a couple. I shared Vol. 2 of What’s on my Bookshelf. And I wrote about my continual struggle to fully live in the present even as I look with expectation to the future.

For Modernize I wrote an article on ways to hide cords, cables and other eyesores and started a series of style 101 posts. So far I’ve tackled Minimalist Style and Rustic Style.

What I’ve Been Up To:

For such a short month, February has packed a punch. The first weekend of the month I went away for a women’s retreat with the women from my Bible study. We stayed in this amazing house at Lake Lure, NC, which is where Dirty Dancing was filmed. In fact, it was a very Dirty Dancing themed weekend, complete with my friend Buffy and I doing a lip sync dance to Time of My Life incorporating some signature moves from the movie. Besides all of the great fun, it was also a rich and meaningful time and a great opportunity to get away.

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I heart these people. I heart them hard.

The following week I subbed at the school I tutor at for the entire week, so that kept me pretty busy. That weekend was Valentine’s Day and we had an oh-so-romantic dinner of burgers and fried pickles after which I fell asleep. Epic romance.

The next week we had agreed to stay with some of our friends’ kids for five days while they were out of town. We moved into their house on Wednesday night and stayed with their 3 kids and 2 Saint Bernards until the following Monday. It was fun and tiring all at once and kind of a unique opportunity to imagine what life could look like for us in 15 years. I think Jonathan and I may have had slightly different experiences of it, but it was fun to do together.

What have you been up to and into?

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We took our temporary kids to see this giant tree. Cause we’re super fun like that.

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Our temporary dog was not as easily won over.

 

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What’s On My Bookshelf Vol. 2

Back by popular demand, today’s post is the second installment of the What’s on My Bookshelf series. Picking up right where we left off last time with more books from our living room bookshelf. (Sorry for the long break between posts –since Jonathan and I both participate in these it takes a little more time to get them together).

The first few books on the shelf are Jonathan’s. (Anything Jonathan wrote will be in italics).

Gun, with Occasional Music (3.5 Stars) and Motherless Brooklyn  (4.5 Stars)are both offbeat, inventive literary mysteries by Jonathan Lethem (though Lethem doesn’t exclusively write mysteries). Gun, his first novel, is a blend of crime noir and science fiction, following a detective around futuristic Oakland as he investigates a murder and its subsequent cover up. It’s funny and engaging, plus it features a memorable turn by an evolved kangaroo-turned-gangster. Motherless Brooklyn is set in contemporary New York and narrated by a man named Lionel Essrog, who works for low-level mobster Frank Minna. When Minna is killed, Essrog has to figure out what happened while avoiding the blowback from others vying to fill the now empty seat of power. The twist, however, is that our 1st person narrator Lionel has Tourettes, so the narrative is unusually disjointed and often very funny.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. This is one of those books that’s on both of our, “Been Meaning to Read That,” lists. Set in New York City in the 1970’s it tells the story of a community through the individual stories of people on all ends of the social spectrum, from monks, to prostitutes, to wealthy, grieving mothers who have lost their sons in the Vietnam war, to struggling artists, to teenage mothers.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (4 Stars) is the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy about a world destroyed by environmental disasters and the greed of corporations. It flashes back and forth to moments before and after the apocalypse, following a character named Jimmy (known, in the future, only as Snowman) through his relationships with his genius friend Crake, and their mysterious friend and possible love-interest Oryx. This book was inventive, prescient, and remarkably frightening, especially in regards to our growing consumer culture and the belief that one should be able to buy a solution to every imaginable problem, plus the amorality of the corporations we then come to rely on. I found it very upsetting, which isn’t a ringing endorsement but does speak to how clear and affecting it is.

The Blind Assassin (4 Starsis a classic Margaret Atwood novel and one of my favorites of hers. The novel begins with Iris Chase reflecting on the apparent suicide of her sister Laura 45 years before when she drove off a bridge just 10 days after the end of WWII. What keeps this book from being a straightforward account of an old woman’s memories about her life is the introduction of The Blind Assassin, a science fiction novel written by Laura before she died. Atwood weaves together Iris’ reflections with the text of her sister’s novel as we try to piece together what really happened.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Similar to Let the Great World Spin, this is a book we both have every intention of reading someday. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story of Henry Townsend, a former slave who is now a farmer, and his relationship with William Robbins, the most powerful man in the county. After Townsend dies unexpectedly, his wife, Caldonia, struggles to hold onto all that he has built. This book is lauded for its straightforward look at the moral ambiguities of slavery. I suppose this is one of those books that feels weighty – worth the read, but also worth being in the right frame of mind to read it – which is why I haven’t picked it up yet. 

Room (4 Stars) by Emma Donoghue (which became a movie this year) is a story about a woman held captive for years by a man known only in the book as Old Nick, who keeps her locked in a shed in his backyard. It’s narrated by the woman’s five-year-old son Jack, who was born in the shed and has never left – the world, to him, is literally just their room. It’s a very moving story about the love between mother and son in horrible circumstances (plus man’s tremendous capacity for evil), though it also ends up, surprisingly, being a great deal about child development and growth. So much of the story centers on Jack’s struggles to grow and understand the world – his deeply warped perspective – given his unique and disturbing situation. 

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (4 Stars) is a book I’ve owned for years but only actually read recently. It’s a beautiful book, though I understand criticisms of it trying to do too much. There’s a lot going on there. Dr. Marina Singh travels to the Amazon to investigate the death of a colleague who passed away under mysterious circumstances while researching an indigenous tribe whose women have the unique ability to continue reproducing up until they die.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (4 Stars) is a book I’d like to reread someday. I remember thinking the language was beautiful and the story was inventive and I was wildly impressed by the fact that the author was receiving so much acclaim for it at the ripe old age of 26. (It was a finalist for the National Book Award). To boil it down, this is a book about how people respond to death. Natalia is a young doctor on a mission of mercy to provide immunizations to an orphanage in a remote town (in a country that’s never named but we assume is Croatia), but she has to deal with the people’s superstitions and with her own personal struggle to come to terms with the recent death of her grandfather, a renowned physician who died under mysterious circumstances. In desperation, she turns to the stories her grandfather told her as a little girl to make sense of his death. The strongest parts of this novel are the parts where she draws on folklore to recreate the stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife.

Hope you enjoyed this!

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A key to my rating system:

5 Stars: I loved this book, I had no problems with it, it’s one of my all-time favorite books and I recommend it.
4 Stars: I really, really liked this book. I had no major problems with it, but I’m not sure it’s one of my all-time favorites. I recommend it.
3 Stars: I enjoyed this book. There were maybe some things I didn’t like, but overall I liked it. OR it was really fun, but not something that stands out or will stick with me. I recommend it, but might have some disclaimers.
2 Stars: I didn’t like it but I feel bad giving it one star so I’m giving it two.
1 Star: I thought it was a terrible, terrible book and I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on it.

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