My dad’s lentil soup

Since Lucia’s birth, I’ve been lucky enough to host all three sets of her grandparents in succession: first my parents, then Al’s mom and stepdad, and then Al’s dad and stepmom (and youngest brother). Al and I have really enjoyed kicking back (ha!!) these past few weeks and letting our loved ones cook for us and do our laundry (and of course we’ve enjoyed their company and emotional support). Turns out that infant care does not leave much room for domestic chores, including cooking, which is something I used to do every day. So I’ve let others make me food, and it’s been pretty great.

Snow day

Snow day

Today is a cold, snowy day and Al’s stepmom is cooking us dinner tonight. I suggested lentil soup, which is hearty and warming. I’ve always enjoyed my dad’s lentil soup, which he makes from scratch. Years ago, when I was fresh out of college and first learning to cook, I asked my dad to send me his recipe for lentil soup. He didn’t have it written down (I’ve never seen the man cook from a written recipe in my life), so he typed the whole thing out in prose form for me. It was like my dad was talking me through the recipe, step by step. Having a recipe in that format was really helpful at the time, when I didn’t know my butt from my elbow in the kitchen, but now I’m used to reading recipes written out in the traditional form. Today, I decided to transcribe my dad’s recipe so that I (and others) can more easily use it. So here is my dad’s delicious, foolproof lentil soup recipe: perfect for a cold winter day! Bon apetit.

Ingredients:

1 c. lentils (any kind will do, but my dad favors the brown kind)

14 oz. can of tomatoes, diced

1 medium carrot

1 medium onion (yellow or white)

1 stalk celery

2 cloves garlic (or more to taste)

4 c. chicken and/or beef stock

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. dried parsley

1/4 tsp. ground cumin (optional)

1 tsp. lemon juice (optional)

1 c. chopped spinach, fresh or frozen

Bread or crackers (optional)

Method:

Rinse lentils and place in a soup pot. Add chicken or beef stock. Heat on medium-high. While mixture is coming to a boil, peel and cut up the carrot, onion, garlic, and celery. When the lentils are rapidly boiling, add in all the veggies, including the canned tomatoes. Stir well. Bring to a boil and then lower heat to medium. Mixture should be at a high simmer/”medium boil.” Add in all spices. Cook soup uncovered for about 45 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. If the mixture thickens too much add broth or water to regain the correct consistency.

After 45 minutes, add in spinach and lemon juice, if desired. Bring to high simmer/medium boil for another 20 minutes or so, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn or stick on the bottom of the pan, adding stock or water to keep it soup-like. Cook until lentils are soft and seasoning is just right. Serve with crackers and /or bread (pita is great!) for dipping.

The fog of motherhood

My baby will be three weeks old tomorrow. In some ways, it feels like I gave birth yesterday (that whole otherworldly experience is still vivid in my mind and even in my muscle memory), and in other ways, it feels like I’ve had Lucia in my life for years. It’s like she’s always been there; she’s always been my child. It’s hard to remember what it was like not knowing her. It seems bizarre that three weeks ago, she was still inside me, and all I knew about her was how hard she was capable of kicking me in the bladder.

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Since she’s arrived, I’ve muddled through each day in a haze of exhaustion and wonder. The hours blend together and the days and weeks turn into a blurry stream of nursing, burping, diaper changes, and, yes, blissful snatches of sleep. My days and nights revolve entirely around the baby. This is not a complaint; it is just a statement of fact. I have accepted this as my new reality and I’m rolling with it. I think if you had asked me before I had Lucia if I would enjoy having my life entirely dictated by a tiny, hungry person with a preternaturally large capacity for pooping, I would have said, and I’m just guessing here, “Oh, hell no.” But, funnily enough, I am enjoying this. It’s not easy — dear God, no! [insert maniacal laughter here] — and some days, I cry just as much as the baby, but despite that, it’s wonderful.

Logically, it’s difficult to understand how caring for an infant, which is a largely thankless job filled with uncertainty and stress and frustration, is actually fun, but I think it comes down to how utterly fascinated I am by this baby and how much, and how purely, I love her. Even when she’s being a pest — fussing and batting me away and peeing in my bed — I think she’s adorable. I mean, this face, for one thing, right?

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I’m meant to understand that his crazy newborn period (you know, the one in which the baby eats every one to two hours and poops and fusses and pees and spits up constantly) does not last. “This too shall pass” is a reassuring mantra for me at the moment. Even though I’m enjoying this experience immensely, sleeping in one to two hour bursts is not something I want to be doing for the rest of my life. So, I’m hanging in there and not trying to worry about the fact that I haven’t done any real exercise or writing in three weeks, or that I wake up each morning covered in various bodily fluids, or that I’ve had to let obligations that I thought I could handle drop, or that I can’t even finish the simple knitting projects I had going before I gave birth, or that I haven’t called half the friends I want to talk to on the phone, or that I’m completely reliant on my parents (who are staying with us) to do my laundry and cook for me and take out the trash and buy toilet paper. Because this period won’t last, and then I’ll be faced with other challenges, and I’ll have to roll with those, too.

In the meantime, I am loving staring into this face. And if this period never passes, that’s okay, too.

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Lucia Wren

Last time I wrote, I was super pregnant and counting down the days until our baby — who, while being very real, still felt a bit, um, theoretical — made her appearance. I had a feeling — just a feeling — that she was going to come a bit early, and this feeling was bolstered by a premonition from Al’s stepmom (and she has crazy strong intuition) that the baby would show up at around 39 weeks. Incidentally, my chiropractor also predicted that the baby would show up around January 27 or 28. These predictions proved to be quite accurate, because six days before her due date, on January 28, Lucia (pronounced “Loo-CHEE-uh”) Wren made her debut.

Me and my baby

Me and my baby

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the labor and delivery process, I’ll say that giving birth was the most intense, crazy experience of my life. I know those two words (“intense,” “crazy”) don’t do much to impart how mind-bending it is to experience a fully formed human emerging from one’s body, but it’s the best I can do. It. Was. Crazy. Also: awesome, wonderful, empowering, and overwhelming, but mostly just CRAZY. Anyone who’s given birth (especially without the aid of painkillers) knows what I’m talking about right now. Dude.

The VERY abridged story: The contractions show got on the road at around 10:00 am on the 28th and Lucia was out at 7:22 pm. I was on another dimension (an astral plane? who knows) for much of the labor process, but the whole thing was pretty peaceful, all things considered, and fast, especially for a first baby! So, lucky me, and lucky Lucia.

Chillin', baby style.

Chillin’, baby style.

She was born at George Washington University Hospital under the care of a fantastic team of midwives and nurses. We also had a doula, who happened to be tied up with another birth when I went into labor, so she sent a replacement doula, a very nice lady named Laurie, who showed up at my bedside while I was still laboring at home (and was not entirely in the same universe as anyone else) and gave me fantastic support and encouragement. Everyone at GW, from the midwives and nurses who helped deliver the baby, to the postpartum nurses, pediatricians, and lactation consultants, were really, really great. We feel really lucky to have given birth there. To quote Travis Birckenstock, “a very enthusiastic two thumbs up.”

We named the baby Lucia because, first of all, it’s a gorgeous name, but also because it’s a family name. My dad’s mom was born in Italy and her maiden name was Santa Lucia. I always loved the sound of the name and the fact that Lucia means “light.” And let me tell you, this baby is the light of our lives so far. I’m a bit biased, but I think it’s fair to say that she is one of the cutest babies in the world, if not THE cutest. Also, she’s a bit of a mini-me, based on photos I’ve seen of myself as a baby. We have the same chin. And kind of the same mouth. And the same hands. Did I just asexually reproduce and not know it? Because, if so, sorry, Al.

Baby Steph

Baby Steph

Baby Lucia

Baby Lucia

She’s also super chill. Her hobbies include sleeping, pooping, eating, and mewling. She doesn’t cry very much and occasionally gives us big smiles, although I suspect this is probably related to gas. I’ll take it! Even though Al and I are both super sleep-deprived and a bit overwhelmed, we are overjoyed, and are having so much fun taking care of her and just staring at her.

Daddy reading baby a story... about Bruce Jenner's transition to becoming a woman.

Daddy reading baby a story… about Bruce Jenner’s transition to becoming a woman.

I’m tempted to flood the internet with a million photos of her, but I am holding back since I’m not sure she’ll appreciate that when she’s old enough to make her own decisions about what she shares online. So, for now, this will have to do. In the meantime, blogging might slow down a bit since I spend large portions of the day with my hands full. But expect more tales of Lucia down the road, and more normal posts once I figure out this parenting thing!

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.