Book review: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

I picked up Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs after seeing it at a beachside bookstore near my parents’ condo in Delaware. Despite where I purchased it, this book is definitely not what one could fairly label a “beach read.” It’s not light, or frothy, or inconsequential. It’s a book that makes you think, and makes you squirm. It’s suspenseful, despite being rather light on plot. It’s extremely well written. In other words, it’s well worth your time (even if you are reading it on the beach).

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The titular “woman upstairs” in the story is Nora Eldridge, a single woman in her late-thirties (when the story begins) who teaches third grade in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nora’s life, when the story picks up, is consumed primarily by her duties as a teacher and daughter. She teaches, and when she’s not teaching, she’s visiting and taking care of her elderly father, who lives nearby. Although Nora went to art school, she’s long ago given up on pursuing art as a career, and instead makes art when she has time in the extra bedroom of her apartment. Everything changes for Nora, though, when a new student, Reza Shahid, enters her third grade classroom, and she soon becomes emotionally entangled with him and his family.

The Shahids have just moved to Cambridge from Paris and are attractive, glamorous, and worldly. Reza is an adorable scamp with beautiful gray eyes. Reza’s father, Skandar, is an academic who specializes in the ethics of history, and his mother, Sirena, is a professional artist who makes large, fanciful installations. Nora finds herself charmed by Reza, attracted to Skandar, and drawn like a magnet to Sirena. As the school year progresses, Nora becomes more and more involved with the Shahids: she begins to share studio space with Sirena (and consequently resumes thinking of herself as a real artist), she babysits Reza, she goes on long, winding walks with Skandar. Nora’s involvement with the Shahids shapes every aspect of her life, and animates her days. During the year she spends in the Shahids’ presence, Nora is the happiest she’s ever been, and when they move back to Paris, she feels lost. And later, she discovers a deep betrayal by the Shahids that leads her to question everything about her relationship with them.

The Woman Upstairs is interesting in that not a lot happens, plot-wise, but yet the story is hyper-engaging. This is a pretty neat trick for an author to pull off. Messud manages to build tension by layering small events on top of one another and diving deep into Nora’s inner thoughts and feelings as these seemingly mundane events unfold. Nora helps Sirena with her installation. She discusses Lebanese politics with Skandar. She tucks Reza into bed. On the surface, these might seem like commonplace interactions (albeit perhaps a bit inappropriate given that Nora is Reza’s teacher), but for Nora, these quotidien developments feel weighted with import. Messud builds Nora’s story in such a way that each interaction Nora shares with one of the Shahids contributes to a growing sense of unease, as we, the readers, wait for the other shoe to drop. And drop the other shoe does, quite spectacularly, late in the book.

What makes this book compulsively readable is Messud’s handling of Nora’s tangle of emotions — infatuation, anger, envy, jealousy, sadness — as the story progresses. As the narrator, Nora offers us a kind of double perspective, since she’s telling her own story with several years’ remove on the events. That is, while she can still relay the intense emotions and desires she experienced during her year with the Shahids, it seems she can also offer occasional glimpses of hard, cold perspective on the matter. But it becomes clear as the story unfolds that Nora is still very much caught up in her year with the Shahids, even many years later (and there’s good reason for that, as we learn). Messud allows Nora to tell her story in such an intimate way that her revelations often become uncomfortable for the reader. We’re both wrapped up in Nora’s private psychodrama and are able to step outside of it and see, quite clearly, how disastrously things are going to end for her. This is probably why it didn’t bother me that I was able to spot the development that would later drive a wedge between Nora and the Shahids as soon as it happened.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for those in the market for a masterfully written psychological drama. Check out what The New York Times had to say, too.

Moosehead Lake

Last week, Al and I went on a week-long vacation to Maine to hang out with Al’s dad, step-mom, and youngest brother (plus two of his brother’s friends, plus two border collies). Al’s dad and step-mom live in Bangor, so we flew into Bangor and then drove with them up to Moosehead Lake, Maine’s largest lake.

View from the dock, Moosehead Lake

View from the dock, Moosehead Lake

We stayed in Greenville, on the southern side of the lake, in a beautiful cabin that Al’s parents rented. Even with seven people and two dogs in residence, it didn’t feel crowded, because the cabin was so spacious and comfortable. It also had a private dock and wonderful views of the lake.

Moosehead Lake, on a cloudy day

Moosehead Lake, on a cloudy day

Although the only things I wanted to accomplish during my vacation were reading, sleeping, and eating, we ended up doing a lot of other cool stuff during our week at the lake. I went running every day and spotted some cool wildlife (a woodchuck, two snakes, assorted bunnies); I accompanied Al and his dad to a local golf course one day to watch them play nine holes; we went moose spotting (and saw two moose/meese — more on that in a second); I bought a floaty lounge chair, made Al blow it up for me, and then spent an entire afternoon reading while floating on the lake; I played many exciting rounds of contract whist with the family; and I even allowed Al to convince me to go out on the lake in a kayak.

IMG_7786One of the highlights of the trip was seeing my first moose! One evening, Al’s dad took us to an area about 20 miles from our cabin known for moose spotting, and we camped out there for several hours, straining our eyes for any signs of moose. Moose like swampy, wet areas, and they generally come out between five and seven PM, according to local wisdom. Thus, we got to the suitably swampy moose-sighting area at five and stayed until 6:30, but spotted nary a moose. Disappointed, we all packed back into the mini-van and headed for home. Then, on the way home, we spotted a moose crossing the road in front of us, which was exciting enough on its own, and then, a few minutes later, we came upon a young moose grazing just feet from the road. Other people had stopped their cars to take photos, so we followed suit and got out to ogle the moose. My father-in-law (who’s a registered Maine Guide, so I trust his judgment) estimates that this moose is about a year old. I got a couple of short (but pretty good) videos. Here’s a 15-second one:

So that was pretty awesome! It’s hard to get more quintessentially Maine than seeing a moose on the side of the road. Apart from the moose, this vacation was great because it was so relaxing. I spent a lot of time knitting, hanging out with family, playing cards, reading (I polished off Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land and most of M.E. Thomas’s Confessions of a Sociopath), playing with the dogs, and admiring the scenery.

Ruby the Border Collie

My morning coffee and book on the deck

Now that’s what I call a sunset, Volume XI

Enjoying the fabulous sunset

When the week was over, I was sad to leave. It’s always hard to go back to real life after stepping away from your obligations almost entirely for a week. But it sure was great to recharge with family in an idyllic setting like Moosehead Lake. There’s something good for the soul about floating on one’s back on a lake with a book. I should really do it more often.

Book review: Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

It seems to me that recently, sociopaths have been enjoying a bit of time in the pop culture limelight. I was first turned on to the sociopath craze a few years ago when I listened to this This American Life episode, which was inspired by British journalist Jon Ronson’s excellent book of the same name, The Psychopath Test. After Al and I read The Psychopath Test, we both entered into a phase in which we frequently diagnosed people around us with sociopathy. We still do this occasionally, but it was a lot easier to sociopath-spot when I worked at a corporate law firm (a word on that later). But, having spent the last almost two years working for myself and choosing to surround myself with primarily non-sociopaths (aka “empaths”), I had sort of forgotten about sociopaths. Then, I received M.E. Thomas’s book, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, and was reminded, once again, of those pesky psychopaths wandering among us.

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Confessions of a Sociopath, as the title suggests, is a memoir written by a self-proclaimed (and supposedly clinically diagnosed) sociopath. M.E. Thomas is a pseudonym, but it didn’t take the internet long to figure out that the author of this book is actually (most probably) a woman named Jamie Rebecca Lund, a former law professor at St. Mary’s School of Law in Texas and then, before she was “outed” as a sociopath and subsequently fired, BYU. Lund didn’t help to keep her identity secret when she went on Dr. Phil in a bad wig and talked openly about her sociopathy (a move that led some to question whether she was in fact a sociopath or merely a narcissist). Indeed, in the paperback edition of her book, Thomas/Lund acknowledges that she has been “outed” and has lost her job as a law professor. All of this is to say that it’s unclear whether Thomas is actually a sociopath or merely an attention seeker who observed sociopathy’s rise in the zeitgeist and decided to cash in on it. As I read the book, it was impossible for me to decide one way or the other, so I decided to take Thomas at her word and assume that she is, in fact, a sociopath.

For those who haven’t done much reading on sociopathy, sociopaths (a term usually used interchangeably with the more loaded “psychopaths”) are people who suffer from a personality disorder that renders them unable to feel empathy and/or tap into a conscience. They know right from wrong, but they don’t feel right from wrong. Some sociopaths turn out to be violent criminals; others end up being wildly successful in business, law, medicine, and other fields in which the typical traits of sociopathy (ruthlessness, manipulation, charm, risk-taking, and lack of empathy) are advantageous. Thomas is one of the latter, a sociopath who has succeeded in her chosen field (law), has never been arrested, and who claims to live a full and happy life filled with friends and family. She attributes her success in large part to her strict Mormon upbringing, arguing that adherence to a set of external values (in this case, the ones set by her church) has helped keep her on the straight and narrow. Even though she doesn’t feel moral outrage, guilt, or compassion, she nonetheless adheres to the rules set by the church because they make sense, and they keep her in line.

Thomas divides the book into nine chapters, each of which discusses a different facet of sociopathy, which she backs up both with research and with anecdotes from her own life. She discusses, among other things, how sociopaths experience emotion, the impact of family life and upbringing on steering young sociopaths toward good or evil, how a sociopath might interact with an external moral or ethical code, and what sociopaths are like in romantic relationships. To me, the most interesting discussions were the ones focusing on Thomas’s religion (she remains a practicing Mormon) and her experience working in the law, particularly in corporate law (also known as BigLaw, a realm with which I am intimately familiar).

In explaining how she balances being a sociopath with being a Mormon, Thomas writes that because Mormons believe that “we are all sons and daughters of a loving God who only wants our eternal progression and happiness,” and that because all beings have the potential for salvation, she has concluded that only her actions matter, “not [her] emotional deficits, not [her] ruthless thoughts, and not [her] nefarious motivations.” She explains that Mormonism is “especially well suited” to her needs, “because its rules and standards are very explicit,” and following them has always helped her to blend in with everyone else. She argues that her lack of guilt is not a hindrance in practicing her religion; she says she follows the tenets of Mormonism simply because they tend to be rational and lead to good outcomes. “Rather than feeling a moral certainty about the rightness of the church and its articles of faith, my affiliation with the church makes sense to me in the language of efficiency,” she writes.

However, rather than following the letter of the church’s law, Thomas bends or interprets the rules as she sees fit. For example, she writes that the church only explicitly bans “pre-marital relations,” and she has interpreted this to mean that she can enjoy a full sex life, presumably as long as she refrains from intercourse (although this is not made explicit). In another chapter, she discusses her fluid sexuality and many sexual conquests of both men and women. So, it’s unclear to me how she squares her sexual behavior with the Mormon church’s rules, particularly when she claims to believe that only her actions matter with regard to her eventual salvation. Then again, Thomas is explicit about her reasons for being Mormon: it’s about efficiency, and getting ahead. So maybe these questions don’t matter to her that much.

Thomas’s discussion of her success as a lawyer was not surprising to me. In fact, it brought back a lot of memories from my time working in BigLaw, when I saw a lot of people seemingly devoid of empathy not only survive but thrive. Thomas’s observations about law school were also interesting:

Some of the most amoral and manipulative people I met in my life I knew in law school — rats who gamed the system with little regard for others at a level of meticulousness baffling even to me. They calculated every event or encounter to optimize their advantage, even when the advantages were so trivial as to mean having a slightly better breakfast. Many of them seemed capable of committing massacre, grand theft, or real destruction, had a sufficient motivating desire struck them to do so.

Thomas/Lund went to University of Chicago law school; my experience at Harvard was somewhat different. Most law students at Harvard are not manipulative, scheming rats, but are instead socially stunted, hyper-intelligent, neurotic head-cases. But there were some of the sociopathic schemers that Thomas describes in my class; they were just far fewer in number than the harmless nerds. Where I encountered the real sociopaths was at my law firm job. There’s a reason for this, Thomas argues; sociopathy actually helps lawyers to succeed:

The stereotypes about the bloodlessness of lawyers are true, at least about the good ones. Sympathy makes for bad lawyering, bad advocacy, and bad rule-making. … Working the slippery knot between right and wrong to my advantage is not only personally satisfying but has the additional benefit of being good lawyering…. And like all sociopaths, lawyers recognize the self-interest that hides in every heart, ferreting out the hidden motivations and dirty secrets that underlie criminal acts.

Reading the book made me glad, for the zillionth time, that I no longer practice law, and that my interactions with people like Thomas are consequently much reduced. By the end of the book, I was tired of her self-aggrandizing tone and stories of her own ruthlessness and seductiveness. Much of Thomas’s discussion of the study of sociopathy, particularly how it plays out in her professional and personal life, was interesting, but some of her anecdotes and conclusions struck me as inflated, as if she was trying too hard to prove her own sociopathy. Part of the problem with reading a firsthand account of sociopathy, it turns out, is that you have to listen to a sociopath drone on about herself for 300 pages.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to those who are interested in sociopaths and want to hear a firsthand account from a self-diagnosed (but possibly lying) sociopath, but wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already read The Psychopath Test, a superior and more entertaining book, in my estimation.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Book review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Many people had mentioned Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to me before I read it. I had planning on reading it for what felt like a long time. And when I finally did get around to it, I wondered what had taken me so long to start. Once I picked up Americanah, I found that I could not put it down. It offered that rare combination of excellent writing, absorbing storytelling, and challenging content. Now, normally, I don’t read novels to be challenged, necessarily. I don’t go to any trouble to seek out books — particularly novels — that I think will make me feel uncomfortable. But Americanah often did make me feel uncomfortable, and it did challenge me. And I loved it.

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The novel follows its protagonist, smart and pretty Ifemelu, from Lagos to the East Coast of the United States and then back again, tracing her struggles and triumphs as she adjusts first to life in the United States and then to life in a changed Nigeria. Americanah (the title is taken from a Nigerian slang term for a Nigerian who has gone abroad and become Americanized) is about love, race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia. The love story happens between Ifem and her high school and early university boyfriend, contemplative, handsome Obinze. Ifem and Obinze’s stories intersect, separate, and then intersect again, across decades and continents, until Ifem makes the fateful decision to leave her comfortable American life (and black American boyfriend) and return to Nigeria.

The race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia aspects of the story are drawn in vivid detail as Ifem negotiates her life in the United States, first as a struggling international undergraduate student at a Philadelphia college, later as a successful race blogger, and finally as a disaffected fellow at Princeton. As Ifemelu is beginning to navigate her radically different life in the U.S., Obinze also departs Nigeria for the UK, where he works illegally and tries to land a green card marriage with an EU citizen before being deported. He then builds a highly successful life for himself back in Lagos, including marriage and a child.

Ifem and Obinze’s experiences abroad and back home, and the challenges they encounter as Nigerians in America and the UK, are parallel stories of people grappling with identity — racial, national, and individual — while seeking fulfillment and connections with people who don’t necessarily understand or empathize with those challenges. For Ifem, these struggles play out as she enters into relationships with Americans — both black and non-black — and tries to reconcile her identity as a Nigerian with her new identity as a black person in America. Some of the book’s most trenchant observations — and it is packed full of them — come as Ifemelu, a person who never considered herself black before leaving Nigeria, encounters America’s specific, prickly brand of racial politics. One of my favorite little scenes is when Ifemelu first arrives in Philadelphia and goes shopping with her high school friend Ginika, who has lived in the US much longer than she has. Two girls are working in the store: one black, and one white. The white girl helps Ginika.

At the checkout, the blond cashier asked, ‘Did anybody help you?’

‘Yes,’ Ginika said.

‘Chelcy or Jennifer?’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t remember her name.’ Ginika looked around, to point at her helper, but both young woman had disappeared into the fitting rooms at the back.

‘Was it the one with the long hair?’ the cashier asked.

‘Well, both of them had long hair.’

‘The one with dark hair?’

Both of them had dark hair.

Ginika smiled and looked at the cashier and the cashier smiled and looked at her computer screen, and two damp seconds crawled past before she cheerfully said, ‘It’s okay, I’ll figure it out later and make sure she gets her commission.’

As they walked out of the store, Ifemelu said, ‘I was waiting for her to ask, “Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?” Why didn’t she just ask “Was it the black girl or the white girl?”‘

Ginika laughed. ‘Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.’

There are also plenty of sharp observations about the lives of Nigerians abroad, and the way they interact with each other. At one point, Ifemelu, by now a fellow at Princeton, is waiting in line for a taxi and anticipates the driver’s nationality with some trepidation.

Ifemelu joined the taxi line outside the station. She hoped her driver would not be a Nigerian, because he, once he heard her accent, would either be aggressively eager to tell her that he had a master’s degree, the taxi was a second job, and his daughter was on the dean’s list at Rutgers; or he would drive in sullen silence, giving her change and ignoring her ‘thank you,’ all the time nursing humiliation, that this fellow Nigerian, a small girl at that, who perhaps was a nurse of an accountant or even a doctor, was looking down on him. Nigerian taxi drivers in America were all convinced that they really were not taxi drivers. 

As Ifemelu becomes more familiar with the concept of race in America, she starts a blog in which she anonymously doles out observations from the perspective of a non-American black. One of those posts is titled ‘Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness.’ As an American non-black myself, I found this post fascinating and challenging. For example, in the post, Ifemelu counsels the American non-black reader thusly:

Don’t bring up your Irish great-grandparents’ suffering. Of course they got a lot of shit from established America. So did the Italians. So did the Eastern Europeans. But there was a hierarchy. A hundred years ago, the white ethnics hated being hated, but it was sort of tolerable because at least black people were below them on the ladder. Don’t say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang, America’s assets and America’s debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don’t say it’s just like antisemitism. It’s not. In the hatred of Jews there is also the possibility of envy — they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews — and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American Blacks, there is no possibility of envy — they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks.

When Ifemelu heads back to Lagos, however, she shudders her race blog and instead begins to blog about social issues in Nigeria. As she carves out a life for herself in a city that she once understood well, but in which she now feels a bit alien, she reconnects with Obinze, and their love story — complicated and fractured as it is — resumes. The resumption of their story feels both satisfying and frustrating, and the resolution (no spoilers!) is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Just like life.

I really loved this book. I want to read more of Adichie’s writing right away, and I highly recommend you do the same. In case you’re interested, here is an interview with Adichie on NPR.

My podcasting debut

As many of you know, I’m a contributor to the fantastic TV humor and criticism website, Previously.TV, which is home to the Extra Hot Great podcast. I was honored to be this week’s guest on the podcast, in which we discussed important topics such as The Bachelorette finale, the nineties-ness of Felicity, Season 1, what’s good on TV right now (my pick was PBS’s gross and fascinating Sex in the Wild), and much more!

It was so fun being on the podcast, and once I got over the revulsion of listening to the sound of my own voice, I was even able to listen to it and enjoy it!

If you’d like to check it out, it’s available for streaming and/or download here.

(Crafting) Book Review: Petit Collage, by Lorena Siminovich

As a lady in her early thirties, I know a lot of people with babies or who are expecting babies, and it’s always nice to be able to present someone with a hand-made gift instead of something store-bought. As a knitter, I’ve made my share of baby hats and blankets, but I’d like to switch up my baby gift repertoire a little. One can only knit so many baby blankets before one is driven to distraction. Thus, I was so excited to get my hands on Lorena Siminovich’s Petit Collage, which promises “25 easy craft and decor projects” for homes with children and babies — and it did not disappoint! 

petit collage
Petit Collage is a design brand for nurseries and playrooms. I wasn’t familiar with it before I received this book, but their website is pretty charming. The book follows the same aesthetic of the website. Everything is, in a word, adorable. On top of that, as promised, the crafts included in the book seem doable. The author has designated three levels for the projects: easy, intermediate, and advanced, but even the advanced projects don’t require special skills. The “advanced” designation refers more to the time commitment involved in making the object.

Flipping through the book, I saw several projects that I could make for the (current and future) babies in my life: the paper mobile, the personalized baby plaque (made with templates included at the back of the book), the baby door tag, and the patterned letters, to name a few. The templates in the back of the book are handy and practical: they can be photocopied to desired size, cut out, and used immediately.

I also love the book’s emphasis on “reusing, repurposing, and recycling materials,” since, as an inveterate crafter, I have a million scraps of things lying around and I’m forever looking for opportunities to use them in new projects. I also liked that the book suggests non-crafting materials you can use for crafting, such as envelopes, notebook paper, and scrap paper. I have all of these things in my house and would love to be able to use them in creative ways.

Overall, I can’t wait to make some of the projects from Petit Collage. These crafts have the benefit of being both adorable and accessible. Highly recommended for crafty parents or crafty friends/family of parents looking to create unique, homemade gifts.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Recent DC visitors

Al and I have been lucky this summer to have lots of loved ones visit us here in DC. As a result, I’ve gotten REALLY good at giving tours of the National Mall, even if I don’t know the history of any of the monuments, buildings, or memorials and am completely ignorant about most important things about this city, other than where you can get good fro-yo. Hey, historical details are what iPhones are for.

First, my mom visited for one night at the end of May and we got some good museum visiting and pool lounging in! We made sure to hit the National Gallery and checked out the Andrew Wyeth windows exhibition, as well as the Cassatt/Degas exhibition. Very cool.

National Gallery tunnel

National Gallery tunnel

Me and my mom

Me and my mom

Then, for Fourth of July weekend, my cousin-friend Catie visited. It was her first trip to DC, so I felt it necessary to pull out all the ‘Murrica stops. First, we went to the National Mall and gazed at the monuments (at least, the ones that weren’t closed in advance of the fireworks) and watched various military service-members in their dress uniforms doing drills.

Catie and me at the Washington Monument

Catie and me at the Washington Monument

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Next, we checked out Georgetown and stuffed our faces at the excellent Good Stuff Eatery. I highly recommend the turkey burger and onion petals (drool). Catie and I decided that we are definitely going to buy a house in Georgetown, just as soon as we become multi-millionaires (any day now).

Cute houses in Georgetown

Cute houses in Georgetown

Patriotism, Georgetown

Patriotism, Georgetown (this guy was blasting Whitney Houston’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’)

That night, we went to the roof of our building and watched the fireworks over the Mall.

Fireworks

Fireworks

The next night, we went to see Counting Crows (a long-time Steph-Catie favorite band) at Wolf Trap, an amazing outdoor concert venue (and national park!) in Virginia where you’re allowed to bring in your own food and drink, including booze. We brought a picnic, sat on the grass, and aurally revisited the mid-1990s as we listened to Toad the Wet Sprocket warm up the crowd. Counting Crows, by the way, were awesome. This is the second time I’ve seen them this summer (I’m a super-fan) and they never fail to disappoint. Catie and I sang along to every single song (except for the stuff off their new album) and even Al got into it. SO FUN.

Picnicking at Wolf Trap

Picnicking at Wolf Trap

Counting Crows!

Counting Crows!

Adam Duritz!

Adam Duritz!

Mid-concert

Mid-concert

Overall, it was a fantastic weekend and I’m glad Catie finally got to see DC.

The next weekend, Al’s mom and step-dad, Carol and Gerald, visited. Neither of them had spent much time in DC, so we took them to the Mall and did a long walking tour of many of the monuments. It was approximately one billion degrees outside (Celcius) but we persevered and saw a lot of stuff, including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, reflecting pool, World War II Memorial, a bit of the National Gallery, and the Natural History Museum. We ate lunch at the cafe within the National Gallery sculpture garden and admired the outdoor art.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

WWII Memorial

WWII Memorial

Sculpture garden

National Gallery sculpture garden

Gem display at the Natural History Museum

Gem display at the Natural History Museum

Carol, Al, and me at the Natural History Museum

Carol, Al, and me at the Natural History Museum

We also did some wine-tasting in Virginia (Loudoun County), which is always lovely. It’s so peaceful and beautiful there.

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All in all, it was another great DC visit with family.

THEN, the following week, my parents came back into town to look at houses in Virginia, since they’re moving back East next year. We checked out Winchester (which was just okay) and then made our way up to Leesburg (which was charming and adorable). We had a nice time walking around the historic district of Leesburg and eating lunch at the Wine Kitchen. The weather was hot but beautiful.

Leesburg

Leesburg

Parents in Leesburg

Parents in Leesburg

So, the last month has been a whirlwind of visitors, and it’s been great. But for the rest of the summer, we aren’t expecting any more guests. Therefore, I feel confident saying that Al and I won’t be stepping foot in a museum until the next round of visitors shows up, whenever that may be. Hey, we never claimed to be cultured.

 

 

(Art) Book Review: The New Colored Pencil, by Kristy Ann Kutch

The New Colored Pencil is a beautiful looking book covering “the latest developments in color drawing media.” I’ve had it for a few weeks and was a bit intimidated to crack it since the drawings featured in its pages were so beautiful and appeared so advanced. But, since I have the kind of life in which I can take an hour or so out of my day to try out a new hobby, I decided today to open the book and test it out.The results were, um, mixed.

colored pencil

This book markets itself as a guide to drawing with colored pencils, but it’s less of a step-by-step guide and more of a review of the latest materials, technologies, and techniques available. It runs through individual techniques such as sgraffito, burnishing, and line drawings, explaining in text how to achieve each effect and often showing an example of a completed drawing using the technique. However, the book does not demonstrate, step-by-step, how to do the techniques. For a colored pencil beginner like me, this lack of step-by-step instruction was a problem.

Nonetheless, I decided to read through the book and then attempt a drawing based on what I had read. I read “Part One: Wax-Based Traditional Colored Pencils” and understood everything I read theoretically, but when it came time to apply the techniques in practice, I found myself running into difficulties.

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First, I dutifully chose an object to draw (a red ceramic chicken I got in Lisbon), did a line drawing, and then began to fill in my drawing with color.

My line drawing

My line drawing

The end

The end

Turns out, this whole coloring-in bit is easier said than done, and I didn’t find the book’s guidance particularly enlightening. How, for example, was I to capture the light shining off of the chicken’s beak? I tried to color it in with white pencil but that looked weird. I tried to leave white space but that also looked weird. Clearly, I was doing something wrong, but the book offered no help. I had other questions, too: for example, was I supposed to erase the lines of my line drawing as I added color, or just color over the lines? Did I make my line drawing too dark? I had a lot of unanswered questions and my completed drawing looked kind of sad.

The problem for me was not the drawing: I’ve got that down. The problem was how to work with the pencils, which, as I understand it, is the entire point of the book. Perhaps the disconnect here is that this book is meant to be used by a much more experienced artist than I, someone who is already familiar with the techniques discussed and/or someone who could intuitively imagine them without instructional pictures. But if so, the book should probably make that clear (for example, a sub-heading stating that it’s a guide for the “experienced artist,” or something to that effect). There were a few step-by-step examples sprinkled throughout the book; for example, a two-page spread on how to do a line drawing based on a photo by using the “grid method” was helpful. I wish more of the book had been similarly instructional.

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On the positive side, the book is beautiful to look at and the descriptions are clear and well-written. It contains a lot of information about different supplies and options in the colored pencil world. It just wasn’t the book I wanted it to be.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review!

 

What I’ve been working on

It’s about time for a little update/mea culpa about why I haven’t been blogging much lately. It’s because I’ve been revising a manuscript and I JUST finished! Hooray! I’ve been working on this thing since November, which feels like an incredibly long time, since I can usually bust out a complete and revised manuscript in a couple of months. This time was different, because I wrote a MYSTERY NOVEL.

Turns out, I’ve learned over the past eight months, mystery novels are tough to write. You have to think about things like clues, and foreshadowing, and fairness to the reader, plus all the things you normally have to think about, like pacing, and structure, and character development. To prepare, I read quite a few mystery novels, including Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder and Murder on the Orient Express. (That woman was a genius; if I can craft a mystery half as well structured as one of hers, I’ll consider myself an unqualified success). Anyway, now I have a manuscript, ready to be perused by my beta readers (namely, my husband and a friend who gives great editing feedback).

Other than that, I’ve been working on the usual stuff: freelancing (for Previously.TV and TimeOut) and some short fiction. But mostly, it’s been the manuscript. Now that I have more free time, maybe I’ll blog more — but no promises.

Happy July!

(Crafting) Book Review: Super Stitches Sewing, by Nicole Vasbinder

Normally I do book reviews on Tuesdays. But you know what? I’m breaking the mold this week (and might continue to break it in a streak of rebelliousness against my own rules). Enjoy this midweek book review!

I am a glutton for crafting books. When Al and I were living in London and moving from corporate apartment to hotel to corporate apartment every few weeks, my loads of books came to be such a burden that we had to rent a storage space in the city so we wouldn’t have to keep lugging them around. And I felt lost without my knitting and sewing books. There’s something nice about having a reference library full of resources for those times when you get stuck on something, need inspiration, or just want to indulge in some wishful thinking. Some of the crafting books in my library fall more on the inspirational side of the spectrum (for example, Best in Show: 25 More Dogs to Knit, by Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne, is pure knitting eye candy), but when I was first (re)teaching myself to knit last year, I tore through Jennifer E. Seiffert’s Fearless Knitting Workbook, and when I got into sewing, Diana Rupp’s Sew Everything Workshop was similarly helpful. Having practical, easy-to-follow guides on hand, especially when one is still learning a craft, is essential.

Some of my crafting books

Some of my crafting books

I was happy to discover that Nicole Vasbinder’s Super Stitches Sewing is both practical and easy-to-use. Its premise is very straightforward: it demonstrates, in clear drawings and simple text, 50 common machine stitches and 18 hand stitches. The book is meant to be used as a reference guide: if you come across a stitch on your sewing machine that you want to know how to use, pop open the book and look it up. Or, if you’ve always wondered how to do a darning stitch, for example, but aren’t sure what it entails, you can look that up, too.

super stitches

Hand stitching still scares me and I avoid it at all costs, so I decided to face my fears and test out a few of the hand stitches in the book. I sat down with a piece of scrap fabric and some thread and attempted one of my old nemeses: the backstitch. And — I think I get the backstitch now! For those of you who sew, you may be thinking, “What kind of idiot doesn’t ‘get’ the backstitch?” Um, this kind of idiot. Something about it always confounded me, but the diagram and instructions in the book helped me to see that it’s actually really easy. Oh. So, guess I can backstitch now.

Look, Ma, I can backstitch!

Look, Ma, I can backstitch!

I’m glad to have this book to my shelf because I think it’ll come in handy as I attempt more sewing projects over the coming months. I bought an adorable stuffed animal kit online and have been putting it off because it involves so much hand-stitching, but I think I might be able to muddle my way through it with this book by my side.

The only complaint I have about the book is that it’s not a workbook. It doesn’t claim to be, of course, but as someone who learns by doing, I would have enjoyed a couple of simple exercises that combined some of the stitches to actually make something. But this is a slim little volume with no fat or fluff; it lays out the stitches, and that’s it. Recommended as a reference guide for beginning or intermediate sewists, or for advanced sewists who aren’t sure what the heck the Walls of Troy stitch is, but would like to learn.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review!