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!

Book Review Tuesday: six quick book reviews

As usual, I’ve fallen behind on my blogging. My excuse is that it’s Bachelorette season, which means I’m covering the carnage for Previously.TV, plus I’m revising my mystery novel (more on that later, hopefully!), so things are relatively busy. But, in the last few weeks that I haven’t touched my blog, I’ve read a bunch of books, and want to talk about some of them. So, without further ado, here are six quick book reviews.

Her: A Memoir, by Christa Parravani: A devastating and beautiful memoir written by a woman who lost her identical twin sister to a heroin overdose. Parravani is a photographer who often featured her sister, Cara, in her work. Throughout their adult lives, Christa and Cara Parravani, both artists, struggled with addiction and maintaining healthy relationships, but after being violently raped, Cara’s drug use spiraled out of control. As Cara fell deeper and deeper into self-destruction, her relationship with Christa became increasingly strained. Over and over, Christa would attempt to help Cara and then become frustrated with Cara’s refusal to try to help herself. The cycle repeated itself until Cara’s untimely death. The book explores the tension between loving a person more than anyone else in the world while also resenting (and at times even hating) that person. As Christa writes in one passage about Cara’s struggles, “Not only did she not want to suffer alone, she demanded co-suffering from all who dared love her.” I teared up reading this book. Some of it was difficult to read. But I’m so glad I read it. (Here’s an NPR interview with Parravani).

Source: NPR

Source: NPR

Harbor, by John Ajvide Lindqvist: I love a dark, Nordic thriller, and so I picked up Harbor, the story of a mysterious Swedish island whose inhabitants have struck a bargain with a sinister force. The author, John Ajvide Lindqvist, also wrote Let the Right One In, so I figured his creepy pedigree was strong. The book starts off with a family — two parents and a young girl — skiing from their cottage on the small island where they live to a lighthouse in the middle of a frozen channel. Within a few minutes of reaching the lighthouse, the little girl has disappeared. There are no other people around, no trace of a body, no hole in the ice. The girl appears to have been swallowed up into thin air. The book follows the girl’s desperate father as he searches over the coming years for his missing daughter and unravels the island’s dark secrets in the process. Harbor is not so much a thriller as a supernatural horror story: think a Stephen King novel set in small town Sweden instead of small town Maine. It’s weird, and creepy, but it can be a bit ponderous, at times. Overall, though, it was an engaging read, and something different from your standard Dean Koontz-style horror novel.

The Visionist, by Rachel Urquhart: My mom was the one who recommended this book about a Shaker community in 1840s Massachusetts. First, a disclaimer: I don’t always like historical fiction because I find it can be a bit dry, a bit draggy, or a bit too infused with modern sensibilities (which is why I love Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series so much, because it avoids all of these pitfalls). The Visionist, like much other historical fiction I’ve read, was a bit draggy at times. However, the book’s detailed portrait of life inside a Shaker community kept me engaged. I knew next to nothing about the Shakers before reading this novel, but now I feel like I know what it would have been like to live among them. The titular “visionist” is a teenage girl, Polly Kimball, who is sent to live among the Shakers after she leaves her abusive father to die in a house fire. Her mother wants Polly and her brother to have a better life than she can provide, and so she leaves them at the City of Hope, a Shaker community headed by the severe Elder Agnes. When Polly gets carried away during a worship meeting, the Shakers assume she is receiving divine visions and elevate her to the position of “visionist.” The ensuing tension that unfolds between Polly, a suspicious Elder Agnes, and Sister Charity, Polly’s trusting friend within the community, feels both sad and inevitable.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. The less I say about this brilliant, funny, and touching book, the better, because it’s quite easy to spoil. Please do yourself a favor and just read it. Now. You’re welcome.

Source: NPR

Source: NPR

Sleeping Murder, by Agatha Christie. As I may have mentioned, I’m writing a mystery novel. To get my brain in fighting shape for the task, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries. In terms of expertly crafted, tightly written, clever sleuth novels, no one beats Agatha Christie. Reading her novels is a great object lesson in What To Do while writing a mystery. The woman was a genius! I’ve enjoyed every Christie book I’ve read, and Sleeping Murder is no exception. This was the first Miss Marple mystery I read and I will be reading more; the character is a delight (and she knits!).

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Speaking of geniuses, Margaret Atwood is one of the most inventive authors of our time, especially when it comes to imagining post-apocalyptic hellscapes wrought by human arrogance and foolishness. Oryx and Crake imagines a world in the not-too distant future in which humankind has been effectively wiped out by a human-manufactured disease. The world before the disease was dominated by Monsanto-like corporations that cranked out horrific animal hybrids and mutations such as Chickie-Nobs: headless, brainless, motionless chickens harvested in labs for their meat. Atwood’s dire vision of our potential future is gloomy, to put it mildly, and can feel heavy-handed at times, but it’s also fascinating, and so well written that I kept turning pages, even as I was horrified by what I was reading. Even more incentive to read Oryx and Crake: it’s part of a trilogy of novels that’s being turned into an HBO series!

Source: Amazon

Source: Amazon

What are you reading these days? Any recommendations? I’ve just started Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (and am loving it so far) and next in the hopper is Christina Garcia’s King of Cuba. Happy reading!

Charleston

Last week, Al and I decided to go on a mini Southern road trip. We were in Florida, so we drove up the coast on a Friday evening, stopping in Savannah for dinner, and then ending up in Charleston, South Carolina. I had heard lots of good things about Charleston and I had a vague idea of what it would be like before we got there. Despite managing to resist the siren call of the new Bravo monstrosity Southern Charm, which is filmed in Charleston, I still gleaned the general idea of the place. I expected waterways, men wearing polo shirts tucked into colorful shorts, women wearing sundresses, champagne, hanging creepers (the plant!), cobblestones, grits, and general genteelness. I was not disappointed.

Hi, we're in Charleston.

Hi, we’re in Charleston.

Now, I’m going to be honest with you right off the bat: most of our Charleston trip was spent eating. I recommend, if you care to visit Charleston, that you spend most of your time eating, as well, because the food there is really good. The rest of your time you can spend admiring the Spanish moss and going on a ghost tour (more on that in a minute). But if you don’t want to read about all of the things we ate in Charleston, you might want to skim this post. Forewarned is forearmed!

Scrambled eggs at Two Boroughs Larder

Scrambled eggs at Two Boroughs Larder

Al and I got into town late on Friday night and he had to work on Saturday morning, so we started our adventure with a late brunch on Saturday afternoon. We ate at the delightful Two Boroughs Larder, so named because it’s situated in the cool, laid-back Cannonborough/Elliotborough neighborhood. The restaurant, like the neighborhood, is cool and hipstery and feels very local. There were families eating with their kids, older people out for breakfast, and, I suspect, a few dorky tourists like us. Al had a chicken boudin blanc sandwich and I had scrambled eggs. Yum. Also, Al had this beer:

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Blonde Bombshell

Later, we wandered around the city a bit, killing time before our dinner reservation. We went down to the water and took pictures, stopped at a bar to sit outside and watch The Kentucky Derby on a big screen, and admired Charleston’s wealth of skinny old houses and elegant gardens. IMG_6555

 

We ate dinner at Cypress, where we split a cheese plate and a giant “steak presentation for two” (and what a presentation it was!).

Cheese plate at Cypress (with real honeycomb)

Cheese plate at Cypress (with real honeycomb)

After dinner, we had the awesome idea of signing up for a Charleston ghost tour, and it was so much fun! A guy named Roy, a South Carolinian with a history degree and a flair for the dramatic, led us around town, explaining various “hauntings” along the way. It was delightful. I don’t believe in ghosts, as a general rule, and neither does Al, but we both got a big kick out of Roy and his practiced delivery of various spooky Charleston stories. There were a lot of stories that began, “Now, a friend of mine…” We both agreed that Roy subscribes to the Keith Morrison school of narration: lots of dramatic pauses and “well”s thrown in for added gravitas. It helped, I think, that we were both reasonably tipsy throughout the tour (as were the five other people who attended), because it allowed us to suspend our credulity and just enjoy Roy’s creepy tales of vengeful Charleston ghosts. I highly recommend doing a ghost tour with Roy’s company if you’re in town; Al and I both agreed it was the most fun thing we did in Charleston (besides shoving food into our faces).

First course at Husk

First course at Husk

The next day, we stopped for brunch at Husk, a Southern restaurant situated in a beautiful old mansion house. Husk had really good food but they also had really good presentation. I especially loved the beautiful wooden salad plates, earthenware cups, and canvas serving bowls.

Mm, biscuits.

Mm, biscuits.

After brunch, Al and I checked out the old Unitarian graveyard, which is supposedly haunted (along with everything else in Charleston, according to Roy). It was gorgeous, full of stately trees with ghostly Spanish moss hanging from their boughs and old gravestones overrun by flowering plants.

Gravestone at Unitarian Church

Gravestone at Unitarian Church

After wandering around the graveyard, we had to get on the road and head back to Florida. I wished we had had an extra day in Charleston so we could have tried some of the other restaurants we heard about and spent more time wandering around the charming old neighborhoods. But I’m sure we’ll be back! Thanks, Charleston!

Book review Monday: You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Reading Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known was sort of like entering into a brief but doomed relationship. At first, you’re over the moon about your new flame, and the object of your affection can do no wrong. Then, after spending some time together, the cracks start to show. Little things start to annoy you. By the end, you feel cheated and betrayed and just want it to be over, already. Then, after the dust has settled, you look back with some fondness on the whole thing, through a haze of nostalgia, and wonder if you were being too harsh all along. This metaphor, I think, is particularly apt given the plot of Korelitz’s novel, which focuses on a relationship expert whose own relationship, in fact, is not what she believes it to be.

you should have known

[Warning: spoilers ahead!]

In You Should Have Known, we meet Grace Reinhart Sachs, a successful therapist in Manhattan who’s just written what is sure to be a bestselling book, provocatively titled — you guessed it! – You Should Have Known. The premise of Grace’s book is that women facing failed relationships have no one but themselves to blame: they should have seen it coming from the clues their partners were dropping the entire time. This smug premise may rub people the wrong way, Grace knows, but she believes with all of her heart that an ounce of prevention is the key to ensuring happy relationships. In other words, Grace’s message to women can be boiled down thusly: just don’t marry the wrong man, and you’ll be fine. As the book unfolds, we learn, from Grace’s perspective, about her picture-perfect life: she’s married to a successful pediatric oncologist, has a thriving therapy practice, and is mother to a bright twelve year-old boy who attends a prestigious private school, Reardon (the same school that Grace herself attended). Everything’s hunky-dory until a fellow Reardon mother turns up murdered, and Grace’s husband becomes the prime suspect. As Grace revisits her life with her husband, examining what appear to the reader to be fairly giant red flags that she somehow ignored for the past eighteen years of her marriage, she realizes, with dawning horror, that she married a psychopath. Accepting that her husband did in fact do the very bad thing he has been accused of, Grace skips town and takes her son with her, settling in her family’s cottage in Connecticut as she licks her wounds and starts over. Unfortunately, as Grace flees Manhattan, the book loses its way.

I was so excited about You Should Have Known when I started reading it because it had such great promise. The idea of a relationship expert who finds herself hoisted by her own petard when she realizes that she failed to take her own advice with spectacularly awful results (she married a murderer, whoops!) is delicious, and the suspenseful chapters in which Grace figures this out are wonderful. I loved Grace’s dawning horror as she realizes that everything she believed about her relationship was a lie. But the suspense that Korelitz builds is frittered away when Grace packs up her kid and drives to Connecticut, where she starts an idyllic new beginning in her family’s rustic lake-house and begins to fall in love with the handsome neighbor. Bluh.

All of the potential for drama and suspense escapes out of the plot like air out of a balloon as Korelitz subjects the reader to Grace’s reawakening at the lake-house. As a reader of a psychological thriller, I’m far more interested in the direct aftermath of the main character’s marriage with her husband, the dangerous sociopath, and a confrontation with said husband than I am in seeing the main character reconnect with old friends, develop a crush on the guy who lives in the next lake-house, and enroll her son in a good public school in Connecticut. It begs the question: as an author, why create a dangerous, sociopathic husband if he’s not also going to stir up a little trouble for his family? As murderous sociopaths go, Jonathan’s kind of a dud. Sure, he kills the lady in the beginning, but then he makes no attempt to make things difficult for Grace, who’s cooperating with the police, or to reclaim his son, who Grace has removed from the scene with nary a protest from anyone. In fact, Jonathan spends the entire novel off camera, which, in the beginning, helps to build a sense of unease, as if he could spring from behind a corner at any moment, but by the end, feels like a big wasted opportunity.

Also, being a writer, I took issue with Korelitz’s overuse of certain words and phrases. I guess I should take this up with her editor, but someone should have intervened after the seventh time she used the word “unlovely” to describe a building. My inner Hemingway was also cringing at all of the adverbs. SO MANY ADVERBS. Her favorite was “not unkindly,” as in, “he said, not unkindly.” Let me tell you: no one was unkind, ever, in this book. Adverb abuse gets my hackles up. And I know that no non-writers care about this, at all, but I am a writer, and I do care, so it affected my enjoyment of the book.

So, was this book a waste of time? No! I did enjoy large swaths of it. I loved the descriptions of life within the upper echelons of Manhattan, particularly in the close (and catty) environment of a private school. I thought the character development of Grace was fantastic (and, for what it’s worth, I pictured her as looking like Heather Dubrow from the Real Housewives of Orange County). I even enjoyed reading about Grace’s interactions with her long-lost friend Vita, from whom she had become alienated after her marriage to Psycho McGee (one of those large red flags I referred to above). But these things do not a psychological thriller make. I wish that Korelitz had followed the momentum of the first half of her book to its thrilling conclusion. It would have been a much different book, yes, and, in my view, would have been a better read.

 

Stephanie’s favorite things

Remember how Oprah, before she became a full-time life coach for Lindsay Lohan, or whatever, used to have a show? And on that show, once a year, she’d tell everyone her “favorite things,” which were, without fail, utterly impractical, frivolous, and (it almost goes without saying) delightful? Oprah’s favorite things would be, like, “handcarved wooden boxes from Nepal in which to store your energy crystals,” and “handmade planter repurposed from thousand-year old Viking ship dredged from bottom of ocean,” and “handwoven, six-foot cashmere scarves sold by sentient, ethically raised goats,” and suchlike. But most people can’t afford to buy Oprah’s ridick favorite things (unless, of course, they sell the free car they got from Oprah), so I decided to write a list of favorite things for the rest of us. Yes, I’m not a known tastemaker like Oprah, but I do have a collection of Pinterest boards that I personally “curated” (read: clicked on stuff while watching TV), and that should count for something.

Below, you’ll find a very short and very incomplete list of a few products that make my life better and don’t cost very much. Thus, I snatch these products up at any and every opportunity. Some of them may be irrelevant to your life. Others you may find offensive (see item no. 1: dirty hippie deodorant). But maybe — just maybe — your life will change after reading this list. And that’s the goal here: changing lives.

MOVE OVER, OPRAH.

BEAUTY

1. Bionsen natural deodorant. Here’s a fun little secret about me: in some areas of my life, I’m a dirty hippie. And I mean that sort of literally. I don’t wear deodorant. There, I said it! Well, let me qualify that: I don’t wear deodorant that actually works. I read somewhere once, I think, that deodorant causes Alzheimers (the aluminum, and all), and ever since then, on the basis of something I think I read once, I’ve avoided regular deodorant. I gave up my beloved Lady Mitchum in favor of “natural” deodorants that not only didn’t work, but in some cases, actually made me smell worse. Then, one fine day while living in London, I discovered Bionsen. I’ve only ever seen this stuff in the UK, but you can definitely also get it on eBay. It claims to be made from “Japanese spa minerals,” whatever that means, and while that’s almost certainly a load of crap, it actually WORKS. Okay, let me qualify again. It works better than any other natural deodorant I’ve tried, except for maybe Malin & Goetz eucalyptus deodorant, but that stuff is twice as expensive (and it makes you smell like the Stanford campus, which, now that I think about it, is not necessarily a bad thing). So, if you, like me, are a secret dirty hippie who does not actually want to smell dirty, and also doesn’t want to pay $18 for one measly stick, look into Bionsen. When I was in London Heathrow Airport recently, I went into Boots and bought, like, six things of it. It’s that good.

2. L’Oreal Magic Skin Beautifier BB Cream. I used to think this stuff was only available in Europe because I got it in an airport in Germany, and it was called L’Oreal “Nude Magique,” and the label was in French, but guess what? It’s just called L’Oreal Magic here in the old U.S. of A, and it IS (magic, that is). It’s white, and slightly gritty, and it matches the shade of your face when you put it on, AS IF BY MAGIC. I have tried so many BB creams over the last couple of years that my behavior is teetering on the border of clinically insane. For years, I couldn’t stop myself from buying BB creams and trying them, thinking each time that THIS BB cream would be the one that would actually beautify my skin and make me look vaguely Japanese, but until L’Oreal Magic, I searched in vain. And listen, my skin is still blemish-prone and just Irish enough to include a healthy dose of rosacea, but this stuff does a really good job at making me look like I’m not a mutant cross between a sixteen year-old with acne and an old Irish person with a drinking problem. Sometimes I even wear it instead of foundation. I know! Go buy some; it’s not expensive, and it works.

3. Body Shop White Musk. If you’re at all like me, you’ve worn a lot of perfumes in your day. My first perfume was Gap Day, and it smelled like dish soap. My second perfume, a vast improvement, was Body Shop White Musk. Don’t let the name (and its offputting inclusion of the word “musk”) throw you off. This stuff smells so good, even after all these years. It’s light, fresh, and classic. When I was in South Africa, I stocked up on it, because I feel like I never see it in Body Shops here in the US, but turns out, that was unnecessary, because you can buy it online. Oh, well.

4. Maybelline Baby Lips lip balm. Again, please don’t be put off by the horrifying name. My husband actually shudders every time he sees the label or hears it advertised, but whatever, I love this stuff. I wear the “Cherry Me” color and it’s amazing. It’s bright enough to suffice for lipstick, but it also moisturizes. I carry one in every purse (which is doable since each stick of Baby Lips only costs a couple of bucks). Buy it in drug stores.

FOODSTUFFS

1. Teapigs licorice-peppermint tea. I once wrote a blog post about how I only drink Irish-style tea, with milk. Then I stopped drinking milk, and I realized I no longer enjoyed my regular Red Rose tea, and was forced, against my will, to branch out. I dipped a cautious toe into the waters of infusions, and ended up realizing that chamomile was not SO bad (but I still stand by my earlier contention that Earl Grey is the Devil’s work). Then, when I was in London, my sweet friend Yan Yan brought me a little baggie full of Teapigs licorice-peppermint tea and told me to try it. It took me a few weeks to drum up the courage to brew a cup, but once I did, I never looked back. I would now happily drink five cups of this stuff a day. It manages to be sweet, warming, and refreshing, all at the same time. I’ve tried other licorice-mint teas in the US, but nothing is as good as Teapigs. You can get it online but it takes a while (because it ships from the UK). Otherwise, it’s probably worth flying to England for.

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2. My one-cup coffee filter. I have a variety of coffeemakers in my house because, when people come over, it is much easier to brew a pot of coffee or pop a few pods into the ol’ Keurig than to make coffee my way, which is by brewing one, single, perfect cup. But ever since my dear friend Karen gave me a single-cup coffee filter holder in college, I’ve never made coffee for myself any other way. It’s cheap, it keeps me to one cup of coffee a day, and it tastes amazing. A filter cup costs $5.00. Buy one.

3. Quest Bars. Okay, these are kinda pricey, even when you order them bulk online (yes, I do that), but they’re SO GOOD and they’re full of protein. Since I travel a lot these days, going wherever Al happens to be working and living out of hotel rooms with him, it helps to not have to leave the hotel to get breakfast every day or, worse, pay for room service. So I travel with Quest Bars. They are filling and yummy and gluten-free, and I don’t feel like I just inhaled a cup of sugar after having eaten one. Al thinks the best flavor is cookies ‘n cream, but I’m a fan of the chocolate chip cookie dough. He says tomato, I say to-mah-to, etc. (Note: I don’t actually say to-mah-to).

4. PB2. Oh, hey, did you hear that I’ve gotten into smoothies recently? Well, I have. And what’s better than a smoothie with a ton of peanut butter in it, amirite?? But, being a peanut butter addict, I knew that if I purchased actual peanut butter and brought it into my house, it would be gone (into my stomach) within a day or two, so I decided to mitigate the damage and give PB2 a whirl. It’s this weird, dehydrated peanut stuff that tastes exactly like peanut butter but supposedly only has a quarter of the fat and calories. It might be sorcery. (I’m kind of okay with that). I dump this stuff into smoothies and it even makes KALE taste better. KALE.

WARMTH*

*A note about this category: I have such horrible circulation that keeping my hands and feet from falling off is a major challenge every winter (and spring… and fall). So when I find products that actually help me in my quest not to become an amputee, I take note.

1. K-Bell fleece leggings. This winter, when I was in Bangor, Maine, visiting family, the temperatures were so low, stepping outside felt like journeying into outer space. Al’s thoughtful stepmom, seeing that I was not at all prepared for the winter, gave me a pair of K-Bell fleece-lined leggings for Christmas, and they changed my life. They’re leggings…. lined with fleece. That is all you need to know. I own four pairs.

2. Timberland boots. These were another recent Maine discovery. Let me tell you: these boots are the real deal. You can stomp through snow drifts in them or wear them to the bar and feel sort of edgy, OR BOTH. They are unbelievably warm, and this is coming from a woman with notoriously terrible circulation. My feet DO NOT GET COLD in these. For anyone who has ever hung out with me during the winter (or, in fact, any time during the year), this should be endorsement enough. In case you need more endorsement, please see rapper Timbaland.

Timberland boots and a homemade hat

Timberland boots and a homemade hat

Well, that’s all I got for now. If you’re a TV producer looking to give me my own lifestyle show in which I dole out more advice about how not to smell terrible and what to put in smoothies, shoot me an email. Let’s talk.

 

Book Review Monday: eight short book reviews

It’s been a while since I’ve written any book reviews here; this isn’t because I’ve stopped reading, but more because I’ve allowed myself to slip into indolence with my blogging. It’s much easier to read a book and move on to the next than to have to recall that book’s details and ruminate on its meaning. Ruminating can be so exhausting. But it seems a waste to read so many books and then not even share my opinions on them with anyone. So, as a sort of stopgap measure, here, in no particular order, are eight very brief reviews of some of the books I’ve read over the past few months. Since I read some of these in January, which was eons ago, I’ve forgotten some of the details, hence my brevity. But hopefully these short reviews will get to the heart of the matter.

  1. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott: A slim little book in which Lamott documents her son’s first year of life, in sometimes excruciating and often funny detail. Lamott was a thirty-five year-old single woman when she gave birth to her son Sam and was by turns apprehensive, terrified, enraged, enthralled, exhausted, and overwhelmed by the experience. While the book chronicles some of the minutiae of raising an infant, Lamott also gets philosophical about life, late 1980s politics, gender, motherhood, religion, mortality, and family. While Lamott’s flights of fancy about God and angry tirades against George Bush (the first George Bush, at that) can border on the hackneyed and the dated, respectively, there’s a lot of universal stuff in here about the experience of being part of a family, and the difficulties involved with being a human grappling with unanswerable questions. operating instructions
  2. The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst: After reading (and loving) The Line of Beauty, I just had to get me some more Hollinghurst. Unfortunately, The Stranger’s Child was a disappointment. Following several intertwined stories spanning several generations, and somewhat centered around the characters’ connections to a young poet named Cecil Valance who died in WWI, The Stranger’s Child is a meditation on the unreliability of memory and the subjectivity of the past. Hollinghurst’s writing is, as always, spectacular. But fantastic writing is not enough to save this book, I’m sorry to say. The plot was complex and “layered,” yes, but needlessly so. The time-shifting, often done without explication or table-setting, was jarring and exhausting. The characters, many of whom had the same or similar voice and interests, became muddled together. By the middle of it, I began skimming, and I never skim. Well, almost never. I enjoyed the unreliable narrator Paul Bryant, and I think I get the point Hollinghurst was trying to make with all of this, which is that ALL narrators are unreliable, and memory is a tricky thing, and the past is not a monolith, and whatever, but could he not have done it with a more streamlined and plot-driven vehicle? I just kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.
  3. The UnAmericans: Stories, Molly Antopol: I read a glowing review of this book on NPR and since I love sinking my teeth into a good collection of short stories, I thought I’d give this one a whirl. Unfortunately, I came away a bit disappointed by The UnAmericans. My basic problem with the collection was not with the writing, which, sentence to sentence, was excellent. I found Antopol’s stories inconsistent in terms of character development and relatability, which meant that, while reading several of the stories, I found myself bored and disengaged, despite the marvelous descriptions of setting. There is a lot of good work in this collection. Some of the stories, like “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” about Eastern European Jewish refugees during World War II, are gripping and vivid. Others, though, like “Duck and Cover,” about communists in Southern California during the McCarthy area, left me cold. All of the stories feature Jewish protagonists, many of whom are struggling with questions of identity – religious, national, familial, or otherwise. These are broad questions and provide fertile ground for interesting storytelling, and sometimes, Antopol nails it. But the stories varied too widely for me to wholeheartedly recommend this book.
  4. Dear Life: Stories, Alice Munro: It’s hard to say much bad about Alice Munro. Part of her gift as a storyteller is her ability to take seemingly mundane situations in less-than-fascinating settings (often, rural, mid-20th century Ontario) and create compelling, emotionally rich stories. One of the most interesting things about this collection is Munro’s inclusion of four final works that “are not quite stories,” but are essays that are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” These four semi-fictional works form a mini-memoir at the end of the collection of stories and give a window into Munro’s own upbringing and early family life. dear life
  5. Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews: Somehow, despite being born in the early 1980s, I totally missed reading the 1979 classic Flowers in the Attic. I was aware of it, of course, but by the time I fully grasped that it was a “young adult” book with sexy bits in it, I was too old and world-weary to bother reading it. Then, I read this piece by Tara Ariano, one of my editors at Previously.TV, about what the book meant to her as a kid, and I decided to read it, for the first time, as an adult. As everyone in the world who has read FITA will tell you, it’s terribly written, outrageously cheesy, laughably unrealistic, and completely weird on every level. But the weirdness is kind of what works about the book. It’s so creepily bizarre that you can kind of get past the terrible writing and just enjoy the craziness. This book certainly isn’t going to win any literary accolades, but it is going to last, because it’s just the kind of macabre, taboo love story that teens (and, okay, adults) eat up. If you want to give your brain a rest and be weirded out at the same time, give FITA a go.
  6. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman: My husband’s youngest brother gave me this book for Christmas this year. I had never read any Gaiman before, but as soon as I got into the story, I understood why people enjoy his writing. This story is small, and quick, but it sticks with you. Told from the perspective of a man revisiting the English village where he grew up, it’s a reflection on magic, family, and the fluid interplay between childhood safety and danger. I loved Gaiman’s simple, evocative writing and the sense of magic and promise in this story. ocean at the end of the lane
  7. The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara: The People in the Trees is an interesting and disturbing read. It tells the story of (the fictional) Dr. Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize winning immunologist who was arrested in 1995 for sexually abusing one of his 43 adopted children. Told from the perspective of Perina himself, as well as his trusted confidante and defender, Ronald Kubodera, the story traces Perina’s early life and career as a scientist before getting into the meat of the story, Perina’s journey in 1950 to the (fictional) Micronesian country of U’ivu, where he discovered, on one of its islands, people who had seemingly found the answer to eternal life. Perina’s subsequent handling of his discovery and his ensuing notoriety form a large part of the story, but it’s not until Perina begins to adopt children from U’ivu that things get decidedly twisted. The New York Times review can be found here.
  8. The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan. I’m a huge, lifelong Amy Tan fan. The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and The Hundred Secret Senses are among my absolute favorites, but I’ll read anything she writes. Her latest effort, The Valley of Amazement, while an impressive work of historical fiction, didn’t move me the way that some of her earlier books have. As always, Tan is an expert at capturing complicated mother-daughter relationships. But in The Valley of Amazement, the story wanders so much from the central relationships, and contains so many twists and turns (not all of which are particularly interesting) that I found myself bored and wishing it were more streamlined.

These eight aren’t the only books I’ve read over the last three months, but they’re the ones I felt like writing about, maybe because, in one way or another, they stuck with me (even the ones I didn’t care for). Have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

Portugal, part three — Lisbon: babies and monks and birds

We spent the third and final leg of our Portugal trip in Lisbon. We rented a little apartment in Alfama, the oldest district in the city.

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Al and I were really into Alfama. In some ways, it felt quintessentially European, with its narrow, cobbled streets,  shrines sprouting out of public walls, and ancient churches. But in other ways, it felt decidedly developing world. There was trash in the alleyways, certain streets in the neighborhood reeked of fish, and the buildings were crumbling and peeling. Alfama reminded me of some parts of Brazil, and even of Mozambique.

The neighborhood

The neighborhood

By the end of our time there, I had decided that Lisbon (and Alfama in particular) looked and felt how I imagine a Southern European city would have looked and felt forty years ago. Not backwards, of course, but not exactly cosmopolitan, either (and I mean that in the best way). Alfama was very neighborhood-y: people yelled at each other from windows, laundry hung out to dry over the streets, kids played in front of their parents’ shops. We saw the same people every day when we left the apartment (most of whom were old ladies in housecoats, doing their shopping), and no one seemed to be trying to sell us anything or otherwise adapting their behavior to accommodate tourists. We later realized that we were staying in the lower part of Alfama, which is decidedly un-touristy (except for a few fado bars), but on our last night, we ventured to upper Alfama, which, we discovered, is where all the tourists had been the entire time. I’m really glad we stayed where we did.

Upper Alfama

Upper Alfama

One of our favorite Alfama experiences happened one night after dinner, when we stopped in a tiny bar near the apartment. When we walked in, the bar was empty except for the bartender (a middle-aged lady) and a monk in full black robes. As soon as we bellied up to the bar to order our drinks, the monk started chit-chatting with us in Portuguese, telling us all about Portugal, port, his life as a monk (which appeared to entail getting up very early but also drinking fairly late at night), and the places he had traveled. When I hesitated over which type of port to order, he told me to get white port because it was “like a woman: sweet, soft, and full of soul,” or something to that effect. Oh, flirty Southern European monk! You sure have a way with the ladies!

At the monk/baby bar

At the monk/baby bar

Later, as Al and I sat there drinking port (and for Al, beirão, a sweet, surprisingly not disgusting herbal liqueur), a family consisting of three adults, a baby, and a toddler came in. Everyone seemed to be regulars (including the kids). I took a video (although it’s hard to tell what’s going on since the bar was dark and noisy, but you get the idea). From there on out, Al and I referred to that place as the “monk and baby bar.”

We did some sightseeing in Lisbon, too — we checked out the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Tropical Botanical Garden — but mostly we just enjoyed walking around, admiring the old buildings and the azujelos, and, of course, drinking copious amounts of port. (Oh, how I love port!) We also got to meet up with my cousin Allie and her boyfriend, Marlo, which was fun. They took us to some bars in Bairro Alto, one of which had a bossa nova band (from whom I requested “Chega de Saudade,” obviously).

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

I also went for some good runs and saw some of the funky graffiti and sidewalk art along the river. In our wanderings, Al and I also encountered lots of caged birds, which was both sad and weird. I’d never before been to a place where people just hang bird cages (filled with birds) outside of their homes and places of business.

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Now, a word on food. Al and I concluded by the end of our time in Portugal that gastronomically speaking, the Portuguese do three things really well: 1) baked goods; 2) port; and 3) preserved fish. I also enjoyed the simple sheep’s milk cheeses and the marinated olives we got everywhere.

Queijo azeitao - scoopable, delicious sheep's cheese

Queijo azeitao – scoopable, delicious sheep’s cheese

Apart from those things, though, Portuguese cuisine struck us as being pretty nondescript. Unless you’re REALLY into salted codfish, you probably won’t come away from Portugal with a strong impression of their food. But if you have a thing for seafood in cans, hoo boy, you’re gonna love this place!

Into preserved fish? You've come to the right place.

Gorgeous packaging on preserved seafood

One thing the Portuguese do NOT excel at, we found out, is food photography. I started taking photos of all the horrendous food photography I saw, usually prominently displayed in the windows of restaurants, because so much of it was so revolting. Here are just two of my favorites, which were actually framed.

Congealing grease, anyone?

Congealing grease, anyone?

The fact that I can only positively identify 2 out of four of these foods is not a great sign.

I can only positively identify two out of four of these foods.

But you know what? Terrible food photography aside, we ate pretty well in Portugal. And we drank REALLY well. Overall, what I liked most about our time in Lisbon was wandering into cafes and restaurants in Alfama and not seeing any other tourists. We were never bombarded with gimmicks or up-sells or even particular attention, wherever we went, and it was really refreshing. To borrow a phrase from every Lonely Planet guide ever written, the city was very “atmospheric,” and we were sad to leave.

Obrigada, Portugal, por uma visita ótima!