Books and grandfathers

In spite of our 59 year age difference, my grandfather and I had a fairly tight bond throughout my entire life. I’m forever thankful that we lived in Miami close to my dad’s family in my early childhood, because that helped to establish a solid foundation and friendship between my grandparents and me. Even after we moved, my grandfather and I started a pen-pal friendship, exchanging hand-written letters every few weeks. I have no memory of when or how this first started – I’ve been digging through my boxes trying to find all of our letters, and the oldest letter I have dates to my first year of college 11 years ago, though I’m fairly certain we started earlier than that.

These letters were mostly mundane, updating each other on the weather in our respective states (the man loved watching the Weather Channel), me telling him about my latest travels, and him sending me truly terrible print-out jokes from the internet (you know, the type old people get forwarded to them in an email chain?). I was always truly stumped by how my grandpa got those, since the man has neither a computer nor any access to the internet in his home.

Most of all, we shared what books we were reading, especially if we thought the other would like it. I have a secret shame that most of my book habits aren’t very grandpa-friendly – grandpas like serious, weighty tomes, not lightweight frills about fantasy worlds. Most of the time, I ignored his book recommendations for being too serious for me. Now, in his memory, I’m going to trove through my shoebox full of letters (thank god for past Kristen saving them) and start a series on Grandfather Books.

There’s a lot of good stuff to be said about the internet (and believe me, I bitched and moaned anytime I went to their house and had to be without WiFi), but today I am thankful that I have those letters. I will forever have his writing, his updates on how his backyard squirrels were doing, his terrible jokes, and over and over again the letter sign-off, “love you, gal.”

Not about books: my travel routine

I travel a lot for work (and a little for fun), and in the two years I’ve been a #businesslady I’ve developed a pretty solid routine:

  1. Post a killer photo of the city on Instagram and see what random likes I get from local users and people who follow business travelers
  2. Come prepared every time with my superawesome necessities

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While I’m certainly not the person to give hot tips on how to post on Instagram, I’m pretty proud of the “travel necessities” list I’ve cultivated.

All the yum yums: I get hungry a LOT. I’m a grazer and tend to eat a lot of small meals throughout the day, so needless to say I carry food with me at almost all times. I’ve started going to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods before I travel so I can stock up on healthy snacks pre-airport, instead of relying on plane snacks and Hudson News bags of chips. My favorite plane snack/meal on long flights consists of cheese, grapes, meat (usually beef jerky, or prosciutto if I’m feeling fancy) and dark chocolate covered almonds.

Most importantly, I need to eat really soon after I wake up. While I can usually splash out on a nice work-sponsored breakfast, one usually has to look generally presentable for that, and I’m not about to put in my contacts any sooner than 30 minutes after waking up. So, on my last trip I finally hacked the best Breakfast #1 plan. In a strategy so simple I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before, I brought bags of oatmeal with me! Every hotel has a coffeemaker that makes hot water, and I just make the oatmeal in a coffee cup or mug and bring a spoon with me from home. If I’m feeling  very  ambitious I whip up a pro greens powder drink, which mixes a veggie probiotic powder with water and basically tastes like drinking grass, but you get to be smug for the rest of the day about it so that’s nice.

If I’m very lucky, I’m in DC and can eat my favorite-in-the-world avocado toast with whipped goat cheese. *drools*

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Sleep Musts: One that is still evolving, but I’m slowly discovering how to sleep better in hotels. I tend to have some mild sleep anxiety, even at home, and do some failsafe tricks to sleep in strange beds:

  • Be a princess with the room request. It helps that I have status (#platinumlife baaaaby) but I’m VERY explicit when I check in and request a room as quiet as possible to hotel and street noise, throwing in I’m okay if the view is of a brick wall. My favorite is when I stay in a hotel enough times that I can say, “Give me any of the -14 rooms.” It makes me look super cool.
  • Noise machine! My boyfriend gifted me his noise machine and it’s been amazing. Yes, I know phones have the app, but I like that the noise machine can get really noisy. I use it at home, too, and it’s nice to have consistency. It’s also nice to be able to drown out rogue hallway noises. (My home is under a flight path to the airport, so I know that if this noise machine can cover the sound of a 747 directly overhead, it can handle hotel noises.)

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Waltzing my way through security with too many bags: My final crucial tip revolves around how to brazen your way through airport security when you have the personality that tends to crumble before authority. My dirty secret is that sometimes (most of the time) I sneak three pieces of luggage to carry on to the plane: my overhead carry-on bag, a snazzy professional backpack, and a very thin purse. Blasphemy! You’re only meant to have two!

In my defense, the purse is really no bigger than a wallet and I carry it separately simply so I can access my phone and money more quickly than ripping my backpack off. But, it does give me a little thrill whenever authority figures let my rule-breaking slide.

And yes, a few times it hasn’t worked, and I’ve either gotten a stink-eye from a flight attendant or been stopped by TSA to put the purse into the backpack (all the while internally rolling my eyes and externally apologizing profusely to them). You know what does work, though? Casually draping a coat over the rogue third personal item. Works like a charm, every time. And you’re talking to the gal who once snuck two large fountain drinks into a movie theater under a very large fleece. Pure pro over here. You’re welcome for this, world.

 

How To Dig In To Paranoia

Or, Join Me In My DepressionVol. 2.

WHAT I READ:

In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Erik Larson).

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 telegrams, I give this 4 Marthas.

 

As part of my pledge to read more deeply this year, I challenged myself to read more nonfiction than I have in previous years. Already I’ve tackled Strangers In Their Own Land (fuller review coming soon), and this month I cracked open In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Erik Larson). I’m not quite sure why I put it on my to-read this considering it was published in 2011, but surely it was on one of those “Read these to learn more about living in an autocracy” listsicles that have been going around recently.

I’ve read Larson before – Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania – and thoroughly enjoyed his narrative nonfiction writing style. (He’s also the author of the tremendous popular Devil In The White City). This book, as the lengthy title suggests, takes a magnifying glass to the experience of U.S. Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, as he and his family move to Berlin for his posting in 1933.

I know a moderate amount about that period in time, but certainly have not revisited the topic of Nazi Germany as our new regime has taken hold. Larson narrows in on the experiences of the Dodd family mostly in 1933-1934 (Dodd was in his position until 1937, when he was effectively forced out by Roosevelt and the State Department due to Dodd’s loud belief that the Nazi Germany was extremely dangerous to European stability. WHAT AN IDIOT, FIRE HIM).

Throughout most of the book, there’s just this feeling of uneasiness. Until the summer of 1934 and the Night of the Long Knives (which I had never heard about before this book), there’s some unsettling instances (American tourists being beaten for not doing the Heil at a passing parade, for example), but even Dodd’s own family is somewhat amenable to the Nazi party and exhibit their own anti-Antisemitism. (And boy, is anti-Antisemitism rife in this book). But, it covers the American perspectives – both those wishing to remain isolationist and those who were staunchly anti-Nazi from the start – in this time period leading up to Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the launching of WW2.

Martha Dodd is the other “main character” in this book, and is she ever a character. The 20-something daughter of Dodd, she sweeps through Berlin taking on numerous – and highly-placed – lovers and even is introduced as a potential love interest to Hitler at one point. (She ends up become a Soviet spy, naturally). I loved learning more about her story, too.

In all, this book is extremely easy-to-read, non-Gifable due to its serious subject matter, and made me want to read more Larson and think more about how my own country may look in 60 years.

The Tragedy of Sequels

I try my hardest, I truly do, when I know I’m reading the first book in a duology or a trilogy. I take detailed notes on the synopsis to remind me of the plot in the future; I request the next book from the library as soon as it comes out; I find in-depth anaylses online of the previous book and dive into them right before reading the sequel. (I’ve found this website to be really helpful).

But, despite my best efforts, I totally failed in my read of Wayfarer (Alexandra Bracken), the follow-up to one of my favorite books of 2016, Passengergushed over Passenger when I read it: I loved the time travel, going to different eras, the dichotomy of pairing a white present-day woman traveling with a black 18th-century man through different eras. I even convinced my mom to read it, wrote myself a tidy little synopsis so I’d remember what happened, and got Wayfarer from the library almost as soon as it came in.

And yet… Wayfarer just never really grabbed me. Partially it was because I had a busy week and was reading in snippets, instead of in long swaths of (commuting) time like I normally am. But I’m not sure if the author – to be clear, one of my favorites – did a fantastic job at bringing everyone back into the world.

I still enjoyed reading it, but found myself confused most of the time, disinterested part of the time, and kicking myself for not giving the first book a full reread the rest of the time.

WHAT I READ

Wayfarer (Passenger #2), Alexandra Bracken

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 confusing time travel devices, I give this 3 astrolabes. When combined with the first book, it gets 4 eyepatches.

#FirstFifty Synopsis:

We’re immediately thrown back into chaos. In a flashback scene, a young Rose experiences the traumatic event that will set her against Cyrus Ironwood forever. Etta, orphaned in a different timeline (maybe, this part always confused me) makes her way through early 20th century Texas and then San Francisco. Meanwhile, Nicolas chases clues trying to find her in 18th century Nassau, even though he’s probably (maybe) in a parallel universe.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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Join Me In My Depression

Last week, one of my eagerly anticipated 2017 reads came in to the library: The Year of Living Danishly (Helen Russell). Part travel memoir and part research non-fiction, Russell moved to Denmark from Britain for one year after her husband’s job transfer and decided to spend that year figuring out why Danes so consistently ranked at the top of the charts for being the happiest and the best educated.

This was perhaps not the best book for me to read as I cringe on a daily basis, fearful of what my president will do, and as my country becomes more divided than ever. More than anything, this book had me instantly Googling, “How do you get a visa to Denmark?” (Alas, my work in international education means I know way too much about the Schengen visa process and it’s not something I want to navigate quite yet!).

WHAT I READ:

The Year Of Living Danishly (Helen Russell)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 hygges, I give this 4 candles.

SYNOPSIS + WHAT I THOUGHT:

The quick-and-dirty on what I learned – these were my favorite bits:

  • Denmark has amazing work-life balance: the author’s husband (who worked in a traditional office environment) noted that people worked extremely short – read: actually do-able – hours like 8am to 4pm. Additionally, they were unlikely to feel impressed if you were the type to take work home or stay late. In fact, they would be more judgmental that you weren’t able to complete your work in the proper time allotted.
  • There is a huge emphasis on family (paternity and maternity leave being mandatory), community (volunteering and joining societies are hugely popular), and coziness (we all know about hygge)
  • It has an amazingly built out welfare state that, yes, taxes most citizens between 35-51%, but in return you get a strong healthcare system, free education (they pay you to go to university), and guaranteed unemployment/welfare benefits.

Admittedly, it’s not all sunshine and roses. One of the most interesting things the author discovered is that while the genders are equal in the workplace vis-a-vis pay and expectations on child-raising (with each taking an equal role), there is still a lot of casual sexism.

I tore through this book, excited to learn more about a country I know little about, even if it depressed me to read about this close-to-utopia. Absolutely recommended for travel lovers and people of the universe in general.

 

Book Roundup: January 2017

This was the first month into my 2017 resolution to read harder books more deeply, and I expected that each month my total number of books read would be a little lower than usual. But at 9 books read this month, I was actually pretty on-par with my normal reading schedule, and I still feel like I had a good combination of heavy and light books. On to the stats!

NUMBER OF BOOKS READ: 10

NUMBER OF FEMALE AUTHORS VS MALE AUTHORS: All ladies this month!

NUMBER OF DIVERSE (non-American) SETTINGS: 3, although two of those are in Ireland (well, technically one in Ireland and one in a apocalyptic probably former Ireland).

RATINGS SPREAD: Two 5-star, One 4-star, Five 3-star, Two 2-star,

Want more? Goodreads, baby.

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WHAT I READ: The Wonder (Emma Donaghue)

WHY I READ IT: Big fan of her Room.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Meh on my end. Good atmosphere-building, but as a full-length novel it dragged.

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WHAT I READ: Spare and Found Parts (Sarah Maria Griffin)

WHY I READ IT: Book club!

WHAT I THOUGHT: If not for book club, I don’t think I would have kept reading it. I just didn’t get a lot of why the characters did what they did, and it was hard to get into the world.

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WHAT I READ: Today Will Be Different (Maria Semple)

WHY I READ IT: This book was all over the blogs as super-good, and I did mostly enjoy her Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

WHAT I THOUGHT: I liked the book, but didn’t love it. I wanted it to be a better exploration of adult mental health, but it didn’t do a deep dive into a whole lot.

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WHAT I READ: Talking As Fast As I Can (Lauren Graham)

WHY I READ IT: Love me some Graham crackers, and especially Gilmore Girls! 

WHAT I THOUGHT: It was very similar to a lot of other celebrity memoirs – some interesting chapters (mostly about the making of GG) but ultimately just a lot of fluff that was clearly written to get her a boost in sales coinciding with the new episodes.

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WHAT I READ: This is Where It Ends (Marieke Nijkamp)

WHY I READ IT: Another one popular on the blogs.

WHAT I THOUGHT: I REALLY did not like it.

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WHAT I READ: Boy, Snow, Bird (Helen Oyeyemi)

WHY I READ IT: One of those “must-reads,” lent from a friend.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Really more of 1.5 stars than 2 stars for me, I really did not like it. It just wasn’t compelling enough to read to the end, and I ended up skimming a lot.

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WHAT I READ: Strangers In Their Own Land (Arlie Hochschild)

WHY I READ IT: Part of my read harder pledge, this nonfiction narrative explores the “Great Paradox” of conservative America (specifically in Louisiana).

WHAT I THOUGHT: I’ll have a lot more to say in a later post, but I LOVED this book – both as a piece of writing (very well done and compelling) and as a piece of research.

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WHAT I READ: Dear Mr. You (Mary-Louise Parker. Yes, that Mary-Louise Parker)

WHY I READ IT: One of my favorite (travel) bloggers highlighted this as a favorite of 2016.

WHAT I THOUGHT: My god, I loved this book. One of my two five-star books of the month. This is the most unique celebrity memoir I’ve ever read, as Parker uses a combination of prose and poetic prose to convey key moments in her life via a series of letters to men – some significant men in her life, like her father and grandfather, others seemingly less significant (but you come to see how they keyed into her being) like a cab driver or a firefighter she passed on the street. So beautiful, so tear-worthy.

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WHAT I READ: Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

WHY I READ IT: I was tragically behind the curve on this beautiful book.

WHAT I THOUGHT: One of my other five-star books for the month; I can’t believe I waited this long.

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WHAT I READ: My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout)

WHY I READ IT: Her Olive Kitteridge is something I moderately enjoyed.

WHAT I THOUGHT: I bumped this up to 3 stars, but it was really more like 2.5. Beautiful writing, but pretty meh.

Bookish Oversights: Americanah

As part of my 2017 pledge to read harder (and my general life pledge to finally read those bookish oversights everyone loves), I borrowed a friend’s copy of Americanah and dug in this week. And hoooh boy, did I love it. For some dumb reason, I’ve been casually resistant to reading books not set in the U.S. I guess I would assume it just wouldn’t be personally interesting or relevant to me, or something. And guys, that was so dumb and closed-minded of me. The very purpose of books is to expand your horizons and let you explore worlds, countries, and backgrounds different from your own. Why was I limiting myself from such amazing pieces of literature, just because I assumed it wouldn’t be relevant to me? This is why Trump won, people!

In any case, I could not be more thrilled that I finally gave Americanah a go. Pretty much everyone I know who has read this book is obsessed, including the book community – it was one of the 10 Best of the year by the New York Times, won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award, and a host of other accolades and accomplishments.

WHAT I READ:

Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 star-crossed lovers, I give this 5 Ifemelus and Obinzes.

#FirstFifty Synopsis:

Ifemelu is traveling to Trenton from her home in Princeton to get her hair braided at an African hair salon. It’s clear that this is a big day for her, as she mulls over recently hearing more about her long-lost ex-boyfriend, Obinze; breaking up with her current boyfriend, Blaine; and making plans to move from the United States back to Lagos. Obinze, too, can’t stop thinking about Ifemelu as he goes through the motions as a middle-aged wealthy Nigerian man living a slightly corrupt life in Lagos. With that groundwork laid, we are brought back a few decades to Ifemelu growing up in Nigeria and the beginning of the relationship between the two.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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Don’t make my mistake, people – find a copy near you (preferably at your local library or bookstore, because we need to support those communities now more than ever) and enjoy sinking in to the worlds and lives of Ifemelu and Obinze.