Pregnancy: the finish line

I am 38 weeks pregnant. This makes me, I realized today, the most pregnant person I know.

38 weeks of baby growing, completed.

38 weeks of baby growing, completed.

It’s weird, because occasionally, I feel like I just got pregnant, like, yesterday, but most days I feel like I’ve been pregnant since Jesus was a baby. Some days I really like being pregnant, and other days I am ready to eject this baby from my body and get on with the next step, already. I’ve been having more and more of the latter type of days over the past several weeks as being in my body has gotten less and less comfortable. Please allow me to complain about the many aches and pains of pregnancy for a moment. Putting on and taking off pants, in particular, has become one of my least favorite things to do. Oh, the groin pain! Bending over to put on shoes? Horrible. Waking up in the middle of the night with the whole side of my head throbbing from being compressed on the pillow? ALSO NOT FUN. I guess this is why everyone says the last few weeks of pregnancy are the worst, physically. They weren’t kidding!

But up until just a few weeks ago, I could still put on my pants without making grunting noises. I could still bend over without getting winded. So, like a chump, I thought I was going to escape the worst of the fabled pregnancy aches and pains since I’d had such an easy time of things, for the most part, up to that point. But the last weeks of pregnancy come for us all, eventually, and none of us escape unscathed. I guess what I’m saying is that I won’t miss the physical complications that come along with hauling around a fully cooked baby inside one’s body. It ain’t easy.

But there are things about pregnancy that I think I will miss. For one thing, people have been SO NICE to me since I’ve become visibly pregnant. People offer to carry things for me and let me go ahead of them in line. Strangers smile at me. Strangers COMPLIMENT me. Just today, I was blow-drying my hair at the YMCA in my bra and underwear (that locker room’s a sweatbox, but I’m not about to go full old lady and let it all hang out — yet), and a woman smiled at me and told me my belly was “beautiful.” Another woman in the elevator the other day told me how cute I looked. Listen, never in my life has a stranger told me I looked cute without an ulterior motive. But people genuinely love a pregnant woman, I’ve found, especially ladies who have been through it themselves. Something about seeing a round belly seems to inspire warm, fuzzy feelings in people and they want to share them. At least, this has been my experience. I have heard horror stories about people saying all sorts of outrageously insulting things to pregnant women. But I’ve been lucky in that people have been nice to me, with nary an insult thrown my way. And I have to be honest, I’ll miss the special treatment when this baby is on the outside.

Speaking of which, I still haven’t totally wrapped my mind around the fact that I’m going to be a parent in approximately two weeks. Most of the time, I float through my day in a cloud of denial. That sounds bad, but I don’t know what else to call it. It’s not that I’m not insanely excited about having a baby, it’s just that thinking about the fact that I’m going to be responsible for another human’s ENTIRE LIFE in a fortnight is a little overwhelming. I mean, just typing that sentence is giving me a mild panic attack.

Is this really happening?!

Is this really happening?!

But I hear that feeling overwhelmed at this stage of pregnancy is normal. After all, it’s easy to pretend the kid’s never going to come out when you still have months and months stretching ahead of you on the baby countdown. But when you start counting down to your due date in weeks instead of months, and then days instead of weeks, things start looking pretty real — and kind of scary. Scary wonderful! I think! …Eh, I don’t know. I’m basically a walking bag of hormones these days, so take everything I’m saying with a grain of estrogen.

Anyway, since I don’t think I’ll be writing about this topic again over the next two weeks, this will be my final word on the matter. And that final word is: EEK!

(Cook)book review: A Kitchen in France: A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse, by Mimi Thorisson

In the Glorious Age of Pinterest in which we live, I’ve found that I do less and less cooking from cookbooks. There are a couple of tried and true favorites on my shelf that I refer to again and again, but mostly, if I need a recipe, I dig it up on the internet. It’s just easier, most of the time. But does that mean that I’ve thrown my old cookbooks out? No! Cookbooks have taken on another function in my home: objects of beauty and inspiration. Oh, how I love paging through a well presented, gorgeously shot, visually pleasing cookbook! Even if I never cook a thing from a beautiful cookbook, it’s still nice to have on the shelf, to take down and look through if I’m feeling like I want to create something in the kitchen.

Mimi Thorisson’s cookbook, A Kitchen in France, is one of those lovely books that looks good on the shelf and is pleasing to page through. It’s full of photos of the author and her family in the picturesque French countryside and the sumptuous French dishes she creates in her farmhouse kitchen. It’s a very pretty book.

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It would be enough for me to just look at the photos in this book and drool, but I decided to attempt a recipe and see if I could manage it. A couple of caveats, before we begin: I am eight-and-a-half months pregnant (oof) and so preparing meals that require lots of time and effort has become less of a priority as my energy levels have steadily fallen. I used to love to hole up in the kitchen and cook elaborate meals if I had extra time on my hands, but these days, I struggle against the temptation to order in take-out every night, and so must keep my home cooking simple in order to continue to eat healthfully. When I first looked through A Kitchen in France, I was drawn to the more ambitious dishes, like coq au vin and blanquette de veau. But just reading the recipe for coq au vin made me feel like I needed to take a nap, so I decided to scale down my aspirations and cook a dessert. Second, the book is organized by season, so I decided to pick something from the winter menu, just to play by the rules.

I chose to make salted-butter crème caramel. Just the name made my mouth water, plus, I’d never made a custard before so I was excited to try it. I started cooking, reading the recipe as I went along. And immediately, I encountered an issue. The first instruction in the custard-making process is to add water to powdered gelatin and set aside. I did that, and then read on. To my dismay, the rest of the recipe never mentioned the gelatin again. It was set aside, but never picked up. I turned to Google to try to figure out when one should add the gelatin to one’s custard (the query felt very modern-day Julia Child) but I couldn’t find a clear answer, so I just dumped the gelatin in when I added the sugar to my boiling cream and vanilla. I still don’t know if that was right. The world may never know.

Custards in process, with cookbook

Custards in process, with cookbook

In the end, the custards (and the caramel) turned out well. I can’t tell if the custard was the right consistency as I’ve never made custard before and don’t typically eat it, but it sure did taste good. Al and I each scarfed a bowl after dinner and it felt very indulgent.

Caramel in process

Caramel in process

Overall, this book is beautiful to look at and, based on the one recipe I’ve made from it, full of good-tasting food. However, I suspect it needs a good going-over by a copy editor to make sure that instructions aren’t missing from the recipes (like the gelatin confusion in the recipe I tried). The book could also do with a clear master index in the front. It’s organized into four seasons, each with their own menus, but an overall table of contents listing each recipe in the front of the book would have been helpful (although there is an index in the back). These are small complaints, however, and I am looking forward to cooking more from this book soon.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

On New Year’s resolutions

I used to be a big New Year’s resolutions person. At the start of each new year, I’d come up with an ambitious list of things I wanted to better about myself. My mother recently sent me a whole box of my old journals (I was a prodigious journal keeper from age nine to age nineteen, when I finally evaluated the wisdom of writing my innermost thoughts and feelings down on paper, where they might become discoverable by other people). I was paging through a journal that I kept in 1996/1997 (so, when I was fourteen — eesh), and I found this amusing snippet from January 1, 1997:

“A resolution… hmm… to wash my face more fervently. Maybe that’s not the right word. Just to be more committed to doing my face. Another resolution: to become my new self and be so cool (not “cool” like kids think, but cool, like my kind of cool), that people will be inspired by me. When I say cool, I mean … artistic, etc. And really nice to everyone, and indifferent to those who are less mature. I think those are reasonable, don’t you? I mean, I’m not going to resolve to cure cancer or solve world hunger. People who do that are unrealistic! Well, the first one might be feasible for a team of brilliant scientists.”

I like how I thought inspiring people with my “coolness” and maturity was realistic, but curing cancer wasn’t. Sure, fourteen year-old Stephanie. Dream big.

This was the girl resolving to inspire people with her coolness.

Resolutions are bunk. Case in point: this was the girl resolving to inspire people with her coolness. 

I made New Year’s resolutions well into adulthood, but a few years ago, I kind of stopped. I think this is because as an adult, the things I need to work on about myself have become so immutable that to resolve to chip away at them afresh year after year feels pointless, or worse, discouraging. If every single January I resolve anew to be less neurotic, worry less, stress less, etcetera, I have to begin to wonder if I’ve made any progress at all over the last year on those exact same resolutions. Because for adult me, my resolutions always boil down the same thing: don’t be such a stress case. Be more Zen. Stop worrying so much.

Another problem with my particular perennial resolution is that it’s hard to measure whether or not one is worrying less than the year before. How would one ever track such a thing? A year-long spreadsheet in which one tallies the time and energy one has spent worrying? That seems, to put it mildly, to defeat the point. And resolving to not worry at all feels, if I may borrow a word from my fourteen year-old self, unrealistic. My solution to this conundrum has been to simply stop resolving to worry less — or resolving to do anything else differently, for that matter.

Part of this failure to make resolutions is informed by my understanding of what a resolution actually is. To me, a resolution is a promise you make to yourself (and others, if you declare it publicly) to do something better or different: quit smoking, eat healthier, spend more time with family, make the bed every morning, etc. And, as I said, the principal thing I want to do differently each year usually comes down to going easier on myself and not stressing over things that ultimately don’t matter. Unfortunately, I suspect that this is something I’m going to have to work on until the day I shuffle off this mortal coil, because I’m sort of a tightly wound lady, and that’s just how it is. So what’s the point of restating the same resolution every year? Better to just keep it in the back of my mind and remind myself not to blow a gasket when things go wrong. That’s seemed to work for me so far. Yoga helps, too.

Making a list of yearly goals, though — that I can get behind. Goals, to me, are far more satisfying than resolutions. Goals are things you can check off a list, or at least work toward checking off a list. They’re fun to think about and to imagine. And, best of all, they don’t require making an inventory of one’s weaknesses and failings, as resolutions do. I have so many goals for the new year, including getting a novel published (or on the way to being published), publishing another short story in a reputable literary magazine, expanding my freelancing work, and keeping a new human alive and healthy. (That last one’s kind of a big one.)

If I had to pick my number one goal for this coming year, it would be to keep another human being alive, and not go crazy in the process. Now this is something I can measure, come New Year’s 2016. If I’m institutionalized next year, we’ll know I failed. As for New Year’s resolutions, who needs ‘em?

Happy New Year, by the way.

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

I love a good house-cleaning binge. Every year or so, Al and I go through our stuff and do a giant purge, tossing out things with wild abandon, and we always feel SO GOOD afterwards. It’s like a workout for the spirit, getting rid of unnecessary stuff. There’s something deeply satisfying about putting things you no longer need in trash-bags and hauling them to the curb, or, even better, loading them into boxes and dropping them off at the Salvation Army. Yet, despite our periodic purges, over time, stuff — different stuff, but stuff nonetheless — always manages to creep into our house again. Thus, a yearly purge remains necessary for our household. I think this is a typical problem — too much stuff, and negotiating how to get rid of it — but it still bugs me, and I spent a not insignificant amount of time pondering it.

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This preoccupation with purging superfluous stuff and preventing clutter rebounds is why I was so intrigued when I got a copy of Marie Kondo’s slim, attractive little book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo is a Japanese organization expert — don’t you just instinctively trust someone with those credentials? — and she’s devised her own method, the KonMari Method — for tidying up and, here’s the catch, having your house stay tidy. The basic message of Kondo’s method is that you should surround yourself only with things you love, and in her book, she provides step-by-step guidance on how to achieve that.

Kondo’s basic method is different from many other organization experts’ in that she rejects the idea that one should tidy a little each day to make a dent in your clutter. Instead, she supports the idea of one, giant purge, treated as a “special event,” and done methodically, by category. That is, instead of tidying room by room, Kondo recommends tidying by category of thing: first clothes, then books, papers, miscellany, and finally, mementos. The single selection criteria for each item, Kondo stresses, is whether or not it brings you joy. She provides actual guidance about how to determine whether an item — say, a book — brings you joy, which often involves placing all items on the floor and picking them up one by one and waiting for a spark.

There’s a ton of solid, practical advice in Kondo’s book about how to effectively tidy and organize, including tips on efficiently folding clothes and socks, but what I found most useful were the lists in the book of various types of komono (miscellany) that people tend to hold onto “just because.” These include cosmetic samples saved for trips, electronics packages, spare buttons, and unidentified cords. I found Kondo’s observation that “Mysterious cords will always remain that — a mystery,” and that it’s easier and faster to just buy a new one than to dig through a giant tangle of cords, to be particularly liberating. I kept it in mind as I tossed out a huge box of cords and plugs Al and I had been holding onto for a rainy day.

I’m a huge fan of this book and I do plan on using Kondo’s method to tidy my own house from top to bottom — just not right now. We’re having a baby in a month and I know that means we’re going to have a huge influx of new stuff into our house, like it or not. Undoubtedly, some of that stuff will be less useful/joy-provoking than other stuff, and that’s okay. We can make decisions about what to purge later, once we figure out what we need to be parents. Instead, pre-baby, Al and I opted for a stop-gap purge  of our basement, getting rid of tons of cardboard boxes, wires, old papers, books, and household gadgets we’ll never use. I kept Kondo’s advice about interrogating whether an object sparks joy in mind, especially as I cleared out my books. I tend to cling to books (and given the content of this blog, that probably shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone), so in the past, it’s been hard for me to part with them. This time, though, I found myself easily tossing books away because they didn’t bring me joy. I guess the method works! Recommended for those who are ready to get their stuff organized — for the last time.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Book review: eight short reviews to round out 2014

It’s almost the end of the year and the internet is bursting with comprehensive end-of-year book round-ups. This post, I must warn you, will not be one of those. If you want a great list of recent books to check out, the NPR Book Concierge is a fun, interactive collection of book recommendations that I used to find some of these very books that I’m about to review. This post, on the other hand, will be a list of eight books that I’ve read recently, in no particular order. So — you know, forewarned is forearmed.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

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A friend from high school, Erin, recommended this book to me (as well as some of Patchett’s other books, including This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), and I’m so glad she did. The premise — a famous opera singer is taken hostage, along with a number of other people, during a birthday party at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country — did not immediately grab me, but I was soon sucked in by Patchett’s beautiful writing and vividly drawn characters. The book is told from the perspective of a number of these characters — both hostages and kidnappers alike — which, in another author’s hands, might have come out as clunky or overreaching, but Patchett pulls it off seamlessly, easily flowing out of one character’s head and into another’s. The result is that we get to know these people deeply and intimately, and we really care about what happens to them, even the ones who seem, at first glance, completely unsympathetic. The ending of the book is both wrenching and lovely, and will stick with you the way only a truly satisfying ending can. Highly recommended.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

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When I was a freshman at Stanford, I was lucky enough to take a creative writing class taught by Julie Orringer, who at the time was a Stegner fellow and is now a successful novelist (please check out her gorgeous novel, The Invisible Bridge). One day, as a special treat, she brought our entire class to her house in the Haight district of San Francisco and invited over her friend Adam Johnson, who read aloud to us one of his short stories from his collection Emporium. I remember sitting on the floor, eating strawberries, and listening to him read. Then, twelve years passed and I never read anything else Johnson wrote, until I became aware, two years after it was published, of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. “Oh yeah,” I thought, “that’s the guy who read to us at Julie Orringer’s house. I should check out that book.” Anyway, all of this is to say that as I was reading The Orphan Master’s Son, jaw ajar, I kept reminding myself that, oh my God, Adam Johnson READ ALOUD to me and a few other students twelve years ago, and how awesome is that? The Orphan Master’s Son is a truly impressive piece of fiction. It takes place in North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s and manages to capture the overwhelming brutality of daily life in that regime while still telling quite a beautiful story of love and hope. I’ve read non-fiction about North Korea before (see, e.g., Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy), but Johnson’s fictional version of the place felt even more real, even more oppressive and urgent, than the real-life stories I’ve read. This isn’t a lighthearted beach read, by any means, but there are quite a few moments of humor and lightness. Highly recommended. NYT review here, for those interested.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

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I was a big fan of Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, so I was eager to pick up The Bone Clocks, which follows a similar structure of interwoven, temporally distinct stories told from different characters’ perspectives. It’s hard to succinctly describe the plot of The Bone Clocks, since it spans sixty years and a host of characters and sub-plots, but suffice it to say the main action revolves around a metaphysical war between the good guys (the Horologists, a group of immortal souls who are eternally reborn into different bodies) and the bad guys (the Anchorites, a group of evildoers who manage to evade death by drinking the lifeblood of humans with “psychosoteric” abilities). Now that I’m writing this out, the Anchorites sound a lot like the bad guys in Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, don’t they? Anyway, in my opinion, the drawn-out battles between the Anchorites and the Horologists were the least interesting part of The Bone Clocks; I preferred the smaller scale stories about the mortal humans caught in the middle of the larger war. As always, Mitchell’s writing is a delight — who else could coin the term “gentle-twat?”– and even the convoluted fight scenes among the warring forces were pretty fun to read. Recommended for fans of Cloud Atlas who are itching for something else weird from Mitchell’s brain.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

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This book got a lot of buzz this fall, and as soon as I started hearing about it, I knew I’d buy it since I’ve read and enjoyed (for the most part) two other books by Sarah Waters. This one might be my favorite so far. The Paying Guests, which takes place in 1922 London, explores the reverberating consequences of a series of bad decisions involving love and violence. The plot includes a torrid lesbian love affair, betrayals, money woes, the justice system, lying, scheming, cheating — it’s a page-turner! As always, I love Waters’ writing; she has a gift for capturing universal truths in little snippets of prose. When describing the main character’s solo wanderings through London, she writes: “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought, as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in those tingling moments — these moments when, paradoxically, she was also at her most anonymous.” Recommended.

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

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Like The Paying Guests, The Light Between Oceans is another story about the lasting consequences of a series of bad decisions — in this case, the misguided decision by a childless couple living in a remote lighthouse off the coast of Australia to keep a baby who washes ashore in a boat, rather than alerting the authorities on the mainland. I have mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, I was absorbed in the story as I read, but on the other, when the story ended, I felt quite let down by the patness of its conclusion. There’s a tough balance to be struck by an author in resolving a plot satisfactorily — tying up loose ends and answering big questions — and tying everything into such a neat bow that the story feels less authentic as a result. I think M.L. Stedman veered too far into “happily ever after” territory in concluding this story, which, at its heart, should have recognized the fact that sometimes, things do get ruined, and you can’t go back to how things were before.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

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I love a good story about a mysterious disappearance. This story, set in 1970s small-town Ohio, revolves around the disappearance of one Lydia Lee, the eldest daughter of James and Marilyn. The Lee family sticks out in their small college town because James is Chinese-American and Marilyn is white and their children, consequently, are considered oddities at their otherwise all-white high school. When Lydia goes missing, speculative articles in the local paper wonder about whether Lydia’s status as one of the only “Orientals” at her school could have led to her committing suicide. The circumstances leading up to Lydia’s disappearance, we come to understand, seem to have something to do with her unhappy family and social life, but it remains unclear what, exactly, happened until the very end of the book. Along the way, Ng tells a complex tale about family dynamics affected by racial and cultural tensions. My only real complaint about the way the story is told has to do with Ng’s tendency to pepper her story with “ripped from the headlines” real news items, as if to remind the reader that, yes, we’re still in the 1970s. It adds nothing to the story of Lydia Lee to be reminded that “1976 was a topsy-turvy time, [ ] culminating in an unusually cold winter and strange headlines…” Otherwise, the story is well told, moving, and keeps you guessing until the end. Recommended.

The Fever, by Megan Abbott

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The Fever may be one of my favorite books that I’ve read in recent months. It is a deeply creepy, beautifully rendered look at what happens when a mysterious affliction sweeps through a high school, sending girls — and only girls — to the hospital en masse. What’s causing it? The HPV vaccine? Environmental causes? A virus? Or something else entirely? I flew through this book, enjoying how utterly creeped out I was by it, and didn’t read a single review until today, when I read the New York Times review and realized that, yes, there were some troubling assumptions about female sexuality baked into this story. But even accepting that Abbott’s starting point about young women and sex might be problematic and recognizing that her portrayals of female and male characters are somewhat skewed, this book sucked me in and spat me out. Highly recommended for lovers of dark mysteries.

Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, by Molly Wizenberg

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This is a slim little memoir about a couple who opened a pizza restaurant in Seattle, and the trials and tribulations they faced along the way. It’s also sprinkled throughout with some scrumptious sounding non-pizza recipes. I enjoyed reading about the nitty-gritty involved with launching a business, and a peek behind the scenes at the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the day-to-day operation of even a small restaurant. Recommended for food lovers and those looking for a light, quick non-fiction read.

What have you read this year that you couldn’t put down? Let me know; I’m always looking for my next read!

Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh

Happy belated Thanksgiving! To think: only a few, short days ago, we were still basking in the golden glow of everyone’s favorite gluttony-and-gratitude-based holiday, and now we’re deep in the throes of Cyber Monday (which lately has been extended to Cyber Week)-style cut-throat consumerism. Sunrise, sunset. I don’t know, wouldn’t Thanksgiving be even better if it weren’t immediately followed each year by events in which people get trampled to death in parking lots? Of course, I say all of this as I contemplate buying a severely marked-down food processor online. At least I’m not trampling anyone. Yet.

This year, for the first time since 2011, Al and I were in the U.S. for Thanksgiving (last year we were in London and the year before that, Cape Town). The day before the holiday, we drove out to Pittsburgh to visit Al’s friends Hakan and Meredith, who recently moved there from Louisiana. The drive to Pittsburgh from Alexandria was supposed to take four hours, but between the unrelenting snow and my compressed bladder, it took us six-and-a-half. Frequent (and annoying) pee breaks are the new normal for preggo me, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Despite all the stops, though, we got to Pittsburgh before it got dark.

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner

Pittsburgh, as it turns out, is a pretty cool town! I had never been there before, but I’d heard good things, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s an old industrial town filled with red-brick buildings and steel bridges and funicular railways running up steep hills. Since it has that aging steel town vibe, it lends itself well to hipster enclaves, and there are lots of fun, young neighborhoods packed with cool bars and shops and restaurants. Plus, since there are a ton of universities and colleges in town, there are plenty of museums and cultural events. Of course, the only “cultural event” in which we participated while there was a showing of Disney’s Newsies (the musical), but hey, you do what you can.

Our Thanksgiving day was nice and low-key. Meredith and Hakan did most of the cooking (turkey, stuffing, carrots, cranberries), but I contributed mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie (using the same recipe as I used two years ago, except minus the hand-roasted and pureed pumpkin, now that I’m back in a country where canned pumpkin is a thing), and a gallon-sized bag of Chex cookies ‘n cream Muddy Buddies. We sat down to eat dinner around four and then went downtown to see the evening show of Newsies, which was pretty faithful to the delightfully cheesy 1992 movie of the same name, except with more pirouettes and high kicks!

The next night, we went to dinner in Shadyside, a hip neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh. We ate at the astonishingly unfashionable hour of 5:30 (in fact, when the restaurant called to confirm our reservation, they asked whether anyone in our party had “trouble going up and down stairs”), and it was great. Now that I’m in my thirties (and seven months pregnant), I really enjoy eating early and then being able to digest for a few hours before going to bed early. I figure this lifestyle will make my transition to the nursing home that much easier when the time comes!

We bid our friends adieu on Saturday morning and drove back to Virginia. The snow had melted and we made quick time on the way back, even with all of my many pee stops. We were sad to say goodbye to our pals, but now that they live much closer, I’m sure we’ll see them again soon. As we drove back, I reflected on all of the things I’m thankful for this year. There are a lot, but most of them can be boiled down to the following: the baby, Al, my family, and living in a country in which canned pumpkin is abundant.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Third trimester

Hi. Let’s talk about pregnancy. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Honestly, I imagined myself writing more about my pregnancy as it progressed, but I came to the conclusion that nobody actually wants to hear it. You might THINK you want to hear about the details of someone else’s pregnancy, but unless you’re another pregnant woman looking for validation of her own craziness/weird symptoms/aches and pains/lumps and bumps, you probably don’t actually want to know. As it turns out, the quotidian experience of pregnancy is, in a nutshell, a collection of gross symptoms not fit for social media punctuated by occasional dashes of the sublime. So, perhaps not the best blog material (unless all of your readers are hormonal preggos, or, alternatively, my mother and/or my husband, both of whom are contractually obligated to be interested in the nitty gritty of this process).

This isn’t to say that pregnancy isn’t awe-inspiring and beautiful and fantastic, but rather that if I were to report on it frequently, it wouldn’t sound particularly awe-inspiring, beautiful, or fantastic. It would probably just sound boring and gross. So I haven’t really been writing about it, except in my private pregnancy journal, which I’m pretty sure is making me sound way more neurotic than I actually am. In fact, I might burn it after the baby’s born to hide the evidence of my crazy. But then how will I remember that one epic crying jag I had, or the two separate times I fell on my knee and convinced myself I had given the baby brain damage in the process? These are precious moments worth cherishing!

But, seeing as I’m coming up on 30 weeks pregnant now, I thought it was time for a bit of an update on what’s going on, uterus-wise. So here we go!

Me at 27 weeks pregnant

Me at 27 weeks pregnant

 

Now that I’m in my third trimester, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what pregnancy is all about, although new symptoms are always popping up to surprise me. For example: my ears hurt now if I lie on them for too long (thanks, increased blood volume!), and I always end up lying on them because I’m not supposed to lie on my back to sleep any more (thanks, increasingly large baby and inconveniently placed major blood vessel)! Also, I’m constantly blowing my nose. Oh, and don’t get me started on the heartburn. And the other stuff. There’s lots of other stuff. You know, let’s not even go down this road, because if you ask a pregnant woman what her symptoms are, you’re going to find out stuff you never wanted to know, and there’s no un-hearing it.

Anyway, the cool thing about being this far along is that the baby is super active, so I feel like we’re communing during the day when she’s kicking the crap out of me. It shows how much I love this little fetus that I don’t even mind when she’s sending judo chops straight to my groin. I find it endearing! (“Aw, baby has a great right hook!”) She moves a lot, and whenever Al’s around, I’ll put his hand on my abdomen so he can feel it, but of course, as soon as he has his hand there, she stops moving. He’s gotten to feel a few good kicks, but I wish he could feel what it feels like from the inside. It’s weird and wonderful!

Now that we’re a mere eleven weeks away from meeting this kid (give or take a few weeks on either end, probably), we’ve been trying to get things ready for her around the house. So far, we have the crib set up, and the nursery is filling out — we’re just missing a changing table, but that’s what bathroom counters are for, am I right? — and mentally, I think we’re as prepared as we can be. Like most delusional, first-time, soon-to-be parents, we just want the baby to get here, already, although literally every parent I’ve ever talked to has stressed that we should be savoring these last months together as a Childless Couple. So, we’re doing our best to savor, I guess, but really, we both are super excited to get to know the much-anticipated third member of our family. Right now, all we know about her is that she likes to kick things, and all she knows about us are the muffled voices she hears through her water-balloon apartment, so there’s a lot to learn on both sides.

So, overall things are going well. I’ve enjoyed pregnancy, so far — not all of it, of course, but most of it. Hopefully, parenting will be even better. At least no one will be kicking me in the groin then.

(Knitting) book review: Knockout Knits, by Laura Nelkin

Non-knitters, take a break! Today’s post is knitting talk heavy. Just a friendly disclaimer. Knitters, keep reading!

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It’s already November, which means it’s time for me to start my Christmas knitting. It’s probably more enjoyable for me to make things for people every year than it is for people to actually receive the things I make, but I do try to knit somewhat interesting (or at least practical) things for the special people in my life every year. Hence, I was excited to take a look at Laura Nelkin’s Knockout Knits, which promises “new tricks for scarves, hats, jewelry, and other accessories.” Accessories make the perfect knitted Christmas gifts, because they don’t necessarily take forever to make, and if your recipient doesn’t actually like what you made, she won’t feel like a jerk for throwing it out or never wearing it (unlike an unwanted sweater, which can haunt a closet for years).

I decided to dive right in by making one of the book’s shawl patterns, the Las Cruces Shawl (I won’t say here who I’m making it for, so as not to ruin any Christmas surprises). I chose the Las Cruces Shawl because it looked pretty and the skill level required was described as “Intermediate.” I should note that I chose an intermediate-level project not necessarily because I am an intermediate level knitter (I think I’m probably inching into “advanced”/obsessive territory at this point) but because I wanted something that would go fairly quickly and wouldn’t kill me in the process, but also wouldn’t be boring or monotonous to construct.

I started on the pattern and immediately (like, within the first line of the pattern) was forced to use an unfamiliar cast-on method. But that was fine, because Nelkin conveniently included a page reference number to a guide in the back of the book that includes diagrams for several increases, cast-ons, and other techniques. Handy! I wish more knitting books would have easy-to-use reference guides like this when they make use of not-super-common techniques.

My notes on the pattern

My notes on the pattern

So, I cast on, started to knit, and soon encountered another technique I had never heard of. Luckily, Nelkin had that one covered, too, in the beginning of the book, where she describes (and has diagrams for) several stitch-elongating techniques. So far, so good.

Work in progress

Work in progress

 

The shawl I’m making is constructed of two mirror-image triangles that will later be joined together via a center panel. I’ve made one triangle and am almost done with the second. I read ahead in the pattern to see how this whole center panel thing is going to work, though, and now I’m feeling nervous. The instructions on how to join the left and right triangles are scant, and in reading them, I can’t picture how it’s supposed to work, at all. *Gulp.* I went onto Nelkin’s Ravelry page in search of answers, but found none (although I did find an errata to the relevant part of the pattern, which I’m hoping will help when the time comes). So, I’m not sure how this is going to turn out. I’m hoping it’ll be one of those things where, once I start knitting, the pattern will become obvious (this often happens to me — turns out I’m kind of a learning-by-doing type person), but right now, I’m feeling a little anxious about finishing this shawl correctly. It’s too bad, since I was so pleased with how many diagrams and guides Nelkin otherwise included in the book. Why not a longer explanation about a non-obvious joining technique such as the one this pattern requires? I’ve been a serious knitter for two years and I’ve never encountered a pattern like this one before, which suggests the technique in question is not a common one, so a little more detail on how it works would have been appreciated.

Apart from my unease about the instructions in the Las Cruces Shawl, I’m happy with this book (so far!). It has a lot of fun accessories patterns that I could see myself making for people this year, including some cute mitts (Prolix Mitts), a cloche hat (Folly Cloche), and a lot of nice patterns involving lace. Nelkin also has a whole section about knitting with beads, which I find both intriguing and intimidating. Maybe I’ll get to that next Christmas. I also love the look of the book and I appreciate that it’s slim and compact and fits neatly onto my already overstuffed shelf of knitting books.

Hopefully the shawl will turn out okay and I’ll overcome my trepidation re: the obtuse pattern instructions. If not, at least this book will look nice on my shelf!

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

 

Thirty-two

Today is my birthday. I’m 32. There’s nothing particularly exciting about 32, or any birthday, really, after 30 and before 40. They’re all kind of ‘meh’ birthdays, aren’t they? But I suppose this birthday feels more significant to me than it otherwise would because I’m 26 weeks pregnant, and there’s something about having a little person kicking around inside you that imbues everything with a sense of importance. After all, I’ll be 32 when I have this baby, so 32 suddenly has become an important age. This is the last birthday I’ll celebrate as a pre-parent. It’s the first birthday I’ve had in a while where I didn’t drink too much (sigh). It’s the first birthday I celebrated in our new house. So, really, it feels like quite an adult birthday — maybe my first really grown-up birthday.

Spending my birthday in maternity jeans.

Spending my birthday in maternity jeans.

It’s strange to think that this is the third birthday I’ve recorded since starting this blog two years ago. When I started this thing, I was just turning 30, quitting my lawyer job, and moving to South Africa, and at the time, those life changes felt so momentous. And they were, of course. But now, at 32, the changes I’m facing are even MORE momentous. I mean, for crying out loud, I’m going to have a KID in three months! There’s going to be another person living with me and Al — permanently (well, at least for the next 18 years or so). It’s CRAZY. And I know logically that life can’t continue to shift and evolve at the rate that it has for me over these past few years (and I think that’s a good thing), but it is exciting to have something big happening at the turn of every single year. I’m not one of those people who hates getting older, because every year, life gets better. It’s not always easier, but it is better.

In this, my thirty-third year, I know some stuff is going to get harder (see, e.g., poopy diapers), but I am pretty sure that things are going to get even more awesome than they already are. Here we go!

Book review(s): six quick takes

I’ve been a book-reading machine lately, largely thanks to our New Zealand sojourn. For one thing, flying for twenty hours with, like, two movies to choose from (thanks for nothing, Fiji Air) is a situation that lends itself nicely to devouring a lot of books. Plus, being in a camper van for three weeks with not much else to do at night other than read helps, too. So, over the last two months, I’ve read a dozen books, which even for me is kind of a lot. Some of these books, of course, were pregnancy and childbirth-related (if you’re in that market, do check out Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth and Emily Oster’s Expecting Better), but most were fiction. So here, in no particular order, are six (quick) fiction book reviews.

magicians land

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman: This is the third book in Grossman’s Magicians series, which tell the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a graduate of the prestigious magical university Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, and his magician friends and foes. The Magicians books are dark and funny and deep and highly readable. The lazy but rather misleading way to describe them to someone is by saying that they’re like “grown-up Harry Potter,” but that’s kind of an understatement. There’s no butter beer and chaste kissing going on in these books. The magicians in Grossman’s books are really adults. They swear and have sex and make terrible, often disastrous, life decisions. But Quentin and his magical cohorts also get to do really exciting stuff, like explore and rule a magical, Narnia-esque land called Fillory, or, in Quentin’s case, get expelled from Fillory and resort to dark, illegal magic to try to make a quick buck. The third book picks up with Quentin, newly expelled from Fillory, trying to make it as a freelance, under-the-table magician for hire, and also follows up on the gang back in Fillory. No spoilers here, of course, so let me just say that I thought this book provided a highly satisfying conclusion to a great series. If you haven’t read the first two books, get on that.

Black_Life-Drawing

Life Drawing, by Robin Black: I read Black’s Life Drawing right after finishing Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and my great admiration for the latter may have tainted my enjoyment of the former. I find that sometimes when I read one book in close proximity in time to another, I notice parallels between them, and then inevitably begin to compare them. This can result in an unfavorable verdict for a perfectly good novel just because it happens to be stacked beside another, stronger one. Such was the case, I’m afraid, for Life Drawing. Like Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Black’s novel traces the complicated dynamics among a long-time couple and an outsider — a woman — and the trouble that such a triangle, even when not explicitly sexual, can bring upon a marriage. Unlike Messud’s novel, Life Drawing is told from the perspective of the wife in the triangle, rather than that of the outside woman. Like Messud’s novel, there are also long descriptions of art throughout the book, since the main character, Augusta (“Gus”) is a visual artist. Unfortunately, Black’s descriptions of imaginary art are even more plodding than Messud’s, and the book suffers for its long diversions into Gus’s creative process. The book spends most of its time, however, within the uncomfortable confines of Gus’s marriage to Owen, a writer with a stalled career, and the story often gets bogged down in Gus’s thoughts about her marriage — and art, and her demented father, and so on. The plot doesn’t pick up steam until well into the novel, and by that point, I had started to become irritated by quirks in the author’s writing, including long runs of dialogue in which each character repeats the name of the character to whom he or she is speaking (e.g., “I don’t know, Gus.” “I don’t understand it, Owen.” “I don’t know what to tell you, Gus.”). The dialogue was so stilted, it launched me out of the story, which was already dragging. Maybe if I hadn’t read The Woman Upstairs just before picking this up, I would have enjoyed it more, and allowed myself to get more caught up in the psychological drama of a damaged marriage, but in the end, there was not enough drama and too much psychology in Life Drawing for my liking.

king of cuba

King of Cuba, by Cristina Garcia: I’m completely fascinated by Cuba (I spent a summer doing my undergraduate thesis research there and it was so weird and wonderful that I still love talking about it) and particularly by the tortured, nostalgic, complicated relationship between Cuban exiles and their motherland. In King of Cuba, Garcia alternates between two compelling characters to tell a riveting, human story about Cuba and the dynamic between its passionate, bitter first-wave exiles and its lingering, equally passionate despot. The story is told from the perspective of El Comandante — a fictionalized version of Fidel Castro — in Havana, and, ninety miles away in Miami, Goyo Herrera, an elderly Cuban exile bent on revenge against El Comandante, who he blames for stealing his first love and ruining his country. The story follows eighty-something Goyo as he plots to take out the eighty-something El Comandante, and paints a vivid, hilarious, and bittersweet picture of life in both Havana and Cuban Miami. I tore through this book and loved every page of it.

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All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Al’s lovely step-mom Ginger recommended this book to me, and I’m really glad I picked it up. When I saw that it was a novel about two young people in France and Germany during World War II, I’ll admit that I was trepidatious, fearing something maudlin or ultimately hopeless. But All the Light We Cannot See is neither of those things. It follows the parallel stories of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a gifted young German orphan recruited into the Wehrmacht for his technical skills. The story jumps around in time, flashing back and forth between the children’s childhoods and their young adulthoods in the throes of the war. Some reviewers hated this time-jumping format, and some loved it. I didn’t mind it, and I liked how digestible the short chapters were. Eventually, of course, Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths cross in the walled French city of St. Malo at the very close of the war, and the results are both beautiful and heartbreaking. Even though this is a novel about kids in World War II, it won’t leave you rending your clothes or tearing your hair. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, and it’s filled with very human, relatable characters going about their lives on both sides of an inhuman situation.

landline

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell: I loved both of Rowell’s previous novels, Attachments and Eleanor & Park, so I was excited to read her third effort, Landline. As I sometimes do, I went into this novel blind and read nothing about it before I opened it. So imagine my surprise when I realized that it wasn’t just a light romance, but a light, time-traveling romance! Well, it’s not exactly time travel, it’s more of a phone with a direct connection to the past. Am I making this book sound crazy? It seems less crazy when you’re reading it, I promise. Landline tells the story of a wife and mother, Georgie, a successful TV writer, who’s hit a snag in her marriage to her college sweetheart, Neal. When Georgie decides to stay home in Los Angeles to work on her show, rather than accompany Neal and their two kids to Nebraska to visit his parents, things hit an all-time low. But then Georgie realizes that the landline in her high school bedroom connects her to Neal’s parents’ house — fourteen years earlier, before they were married, at a critical moment in their young relationship. In other words, present-day Georgie has the opportunity to fix her present-day marriage with an unwitting Neal of the past. Putting aside the obvious conundrums that spring up every time you introduce time travel (the butterfly effect, and so on), it’s an interesting idea. Probably everyone who’s been in a long-term relationship wonders, at some point, what it would be like to go back and fix earlier mistakes. Without giving the ending away, let me just say that the magical phone works its magic, and things end up as they’re supposed to. Overall, while I enjoyed Landline, it felt insubstantial; when I was done reading it, it slipped right out of my brain and heart. It was a far cry from the raw emotional power of Eleanor & Park, which made me cry at the gym, or even the pure, earnest sweetness of Attachments, which I read two-and-a-half years ago and still remember vividly. Maybe the issue was that I didn’t connect with Georgie and Neal as characters enough to ever become fully invested in the outcome of their relationship; I was kind of neutral for most of the book on whether they should stay together or divorce. Rowell is extremely gifted at creating relationships that feel real and relatable, but in this case, the relationship between Georgie and Neal wasn’t enough to elevate the book into something emotionally powerful for me. Nonetheless, I would recommend this as a slim, quick little book to read on the Metro or the beach. Just don’t expect to cry at the gym.

the wife

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer: This is the second Wolitzer book I’ve read (the first was The Interestings, about which I had decidedly mixed feelings), and after reading The Wife, I can say with conviction that Wolitzer is a great writer who sprinkles a lot of resonant truth throughout her books. Like with The Interestings, as I read The Wife, I felt compelled to highlight in my Kindle lots of passages that spoke to me, that seemed universally correct (in the beginning, Wolitzer’s description of the air on a plane, “once so antiseptic,” as now “home to a million farts and corn chips and moist towelettes” made me grin/cringe with recognition). To its credit, unlike The Interestings, the ending of The Wife was not emotionally manipulative or melodramatic, and I didn’t end up feeling like Wolitzer had taken me through the wringer unfairly. My one complaint about the book is that its largest plot reveal seemed glaringly obvious to me quite early on, and I’m not sure it that was intentional or not. The book tells the story of Joan Castleman, the unhappy wife of celebrated author Joe Castleman, and it revisits their long marriage, from soup to nuts, to suss out the source of Joan’s particular unhappiness. Because the novel spans the length of their four-decades-plus marriage, dipping in and out at various points, it’s not action-heavy until the very end, when we jump back into the present and Joan faces the decision of whether — and how — to leave her husband. Despite being low on twists and turns, I enjoyed this book, even though I could see the big reveal coming from a mile away. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a page-turner, but the strength of Wolitzer’s writing and the keenness of her observations about marriage, particularly power dynamics within marriage, carry The Wife quite far.

Well, there you go: six books to contemplate. Some hits, some misses. Stay tuned for more book reviews, coming soon, as I’m plowing through several juicy tomes at the moment.