Monthly Archives: February 2013

Sound Advice Thursday: How can I back out of wedding events?

Dear Steph:

When staring down the barrel of at least four weddings and three bachelorette parties in the next calendar year, is there any gracious way to decline any of the associated wedding events (engagement parties, showers, couples showers, etc.) without seeming like a total grinch? And is there any way to bring things up like the fact that spending $1000 on a bachelorette party and another $1000 on the wedding  (once airfare and things are factored in) can be a a real hardship and one we might try to find ways around? I don’t want to hurt feelings, but I also don’t want to go broke. Help!

Sincerely,

The Harried Wedding Guest

Photo by Leah & Mark

Photo by Leah & Mark

Dear HWG:

This is one of those areas where I think American society needs a good, hard slap upside the head. Because things have gotten out of hand. In the good old days, if you were invited to a wedding, you’d buy the bride and groom a gift, drive to the wedding, have a nice chicken dinner – maybe a steak if these were fancy people – and then drive home. And you’re done. No weekends in Napa. No weddings in Bora Bora. No requests by the bride and groom to buy them a new house or fund their hypothetical children’s college educations. But sadly, those days are gone. Modern wedding guests are expected to attend – and pay for – a litany of events, with presents and plane tickets popping up at every turn. And there needs, frankly, to be an opt-out option.

I must defer, at least partially, to the inimitable Miss Manners and her incredibly helpful book, Miss Manners’ Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding, on this question. Miss Manners, over recent years, has noted with dismay the increasing tendency of brides and grooms to turn events, such as bridal showers, into opportunities “to turn a milestone into material advantage.” When posed a similar question as yours by a woman who was facing multiple bridal showers for each of her engaged friends, Miss Manners advised that the letter writer should accept only one shower per couple, if any, and that she “need only express regret when [she] decline[s] an invitation – or six of them.” With regards to bridal showers in particular, Miss Manners has also noted that “[i]n proper American etiquette, a bridal shower is a lighthearted event among intimate friends, not something required to call attention to a wedding in the way that a rain shower calls attention to the need to fetch an umbrella.”

As much as I agree with her, this isn’t Miss Manners’ show; it’s mine. And speaking as a lady who has both gotten married and attended weddings, I am here to tell you not to fret about declining invitations to showers, brunches, lunches, parties, or even weddings. I myself had a bridal shower, thrown by my mother and some of my female cousins. It was a low-key affair for family – and one close friend – held at my cousin’s apartment; it involved party games, homemade lasagna, and tea. It was perfect. The people who were around came; the people who were not, did not. And it was FINE that some people didn’t or couldn’t come. I also had a bachelorette party, thrown by my wonderful maid-of-honor, Karen. Since most of my close friends and I lived on the East Coast at the time, the party was held in New York City. My dear cousin Catie, who was one of my bridesmaids, lives in Seattle and let me know that she could simply not afford to take the vacation days to come to New York for a weekend. And it was FINE. I understood! Because I am a human being with human feelings, like empathy and humility, and I did not expect anyone to shell out big moola to fly to a party for me, although many people did end up doing just that. Because they love me more. Kidding!!

Skipping weddings is also okay. We had people decline our wedding for a number of reasons, and we understood. Weddings can be tough to attend, especially when they involve travel. Of course, we would have loved to have each and every person we invited at our wedding, but we weren’t going to throw a tantrum if people couldn’t make it because we are adults and, shockingly, we are not actually the center of the universe. Remember: no one is obligated to attend a wedding (except for the bride and groom, and probably the officiant).

The bottom line is that if your friends are nice, kind, grown-up human beings, they will understand your sending kind regrets and skipping their many (superfluous) wedding-related events. You do you, HWG.

Good luck!

~Steph

Book review Tuesday – Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

Like many other people in the Western world, I’m absolutely fascinated by North Korea, the aggressive “hermit kingdom,” with its showpiece capital, goose-stepping soldiers, nuclear tests, and series of eccentric, wacktastic father-son dictators. I’ve seen pictures of Pyongyang, including the excellent series taken by my friend Sam Gellman, and I follow the news about Kim Jong-un’s latest nuclear machinations, but it wasn’t until I read Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick’s excellent and deeply disturbing portrait of life in North Korea, that I really began to grasp the horrendous misfortune of being born in that country.

Satellite image of North Korea - no lights

Satellite image of North Korea – no lights

Based in Seoul, Demick covered North Korea for the Los Angeles Times for five years and wrote the book, which was published in 2010, “based on seven years of conversations with North Koreans,” primarily defectors from the regime. The book examines the lives of six such North Koreans who had left the country, both before and after their defections. It also includes in-depth research about the founding of the North Korean regime, its evolution (or, more accurately, devolution), the catalogue of bizarre and oppressive rules that exist to regulate its society, the devastating famine in the 1990s, and the aftermath of that famine, including the continuing uptick in defections to China and South Korea.

nothing to envy

The title of the book is taken from a slogan the North Korean regime cooked up to inspire its people: “We have nothing to envy in the world.” In English, the phrase has a double meaning: while it is meant to imply that the North Korean people should not be envious of any other nation, it also can be read to say that the North Korean people literally have nothing that anyone could envy. Indeed, the stories of deprivation in the book are startling, particularly during the years of famine (1994-1998), when people were forced to eat grass and pick pieces of corn out of cow manure to survive. Demick explains that “[t]he North Korean government offered a variety of explanations [for the famine], from the patently absurd to the barely plausible. People were told that their government was stockpiling food to feed the starving South Korean masses on the blessed day of reunification. They were told that the United States had instituted a blockade against North Korea that was keeping out food.”

In fact, the North Korean government blamed (and continues to blame) the United States for all manner of ills. I don’t think I was fully aware until reading this book how central a role the “imperialist” government of the United States plays in North Korean propaganda. In 2004, I spent a summer doing my undergraduate senior thesis research in Cuba, another closed-off, communist regime with a healthy distaste for Yankee imperialism and a strong propaganda machine to spin elaborate conspiracies. Demick’s descriptions of North Korean anti-American propaganda reminded me of Cuban propaganda on overdrive. After all, at least the Cuban regime isn’t lying when it says that the American government has instituted a blockade.

north-korea-propaganda

Nothing to Envy is rife with examples of horrific deprivation and abuse of North Korean citizens at the hand of their government, but the heart of the book is about the decisions made by the six individuals Demick profiled to defect from the only regime they knew. In North Korea, survival, let alone escape, is a complicated emotional proposition, because survival represents a kind of selfishness, a willingness to do what it takes to live, often at the expense of others. Demick and her subjects note that the North Korean famine tended to target “the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law, or betray a friend. This was a phenomenon that the Italian writer Primo Levi also identified after emerging from Auschwitz, when he wrote that he and his fellow survivors never wanted to see one another again after the war because they had all done something of which they were ashamed.” Those who survive and escape the North Korean regime must grapple with the choices they made to get where they are, and mourn the people they lost in the process. Demick notes that “[g]uilt and shame are the common denominators among North Korean defectors; many hate themselves for what they had to do in order to survive.” Once escaped, defectors must adjust to life in modern society, and the transition can be difficult. North Korea continues to haunt even those who escape from it.

This book is fascinating, moving, and painful. There were times when I winced reading it, or felt like crying, or wanted to put it down. It’s not a light read. But I strongly recommend it for anyone who is curious about the lives of the ordinary people we may overlook when we think and talk about North Korea.

Drakensbergs, revisited

This weekend, fresh off my safari, I went back to the Drakensberg Mountains with Al and some of his McKinsey colleagues for a so-called “team weekend.” Based on past (semi-traumatic) experiences with McKinsey “teambuilding” “retreats,” I feared that this weekend would involve flow charts, PowerPoint, and small-group breakout sessions. To my relief, it just ended up being a weekend away — no brainstorming or teambuilding involved — that McKinsey paid for. Not bad!

The Drakensbergs

The Drakensbergs

We (that is, Al and I, his colleague Mattia and his girlfriend Isabella, and another McKinsey colleague, Martin) drove from Joburg on Friday afternoon, all five of us cramped into a tiny Suzuki Alto. In case you’re not familiar with the Suzuki Alto, it looks like this:

Suzuki-Alto-2009-hd

Don’t let the smiling faces of those Europeans fool you: the Suzuki Alto is not a good car. It is slow, cramped, and most definitely not suitable to seat five adults – and their luggage – comfortably. But we made it. Somehow.

We stayed at the somewhat grandly named Champagne Castle hotel, and it was a mixed bag.

View from our balcony

View from our balcony

Good things about the Champagne Castle:

  • Very close to the mountains
  • Decent buffet with a good cheese selection
  • Meals included in price
  • Many interesting animals on the grounds (including peacocks, parrots, and baboons).

Bad things about the Champagne Castle:

  • Neither a castle nor filled with champagne
  • Confusing and unnecessary “dress code” enforced: no shorts or “slipslops” after 6 pm – unclear if this prohibition also applied to one’s room, but we decided to chance it. Also, what are slipslops?
  • Spa was booked until Monday, and also did not appear to be open/actually a spa
  • Many “strictly enforced” rules about checkout time, attire, meal seating, etc. – one must always be on one’s guard at the Champagne Castle
  • Internet only available in “internet hut” on grounds
  • No fitness center
  • Shrieking parrots, marauding baboons

We were baffled by the many and varied rules enforced at the Champagne Castle, and decided that the boss, an affable Belgian who checked in on us multiple times during each meal to make sure we were enjoying the fettucini alfredo, must have it in his head that “fancy” hotels involve dress codes and dinner bells and assigned seating, whether the guests find those things charming or not. Or else maybe the place is run by Nazis. I could see it going either way.

The Champagne Castle

The Champagne Castle

Apart from abiding by the Champagne Castle’s rigid code of conduct, we spent most of the rest of our time in the Drakensbergs sleeping, eating, and hiking.

IMG_5135

 

On Saturday, we had planned to do a four-hour hike that ended up turning into a seven-hour death march because the guy in charge of the map sort of didn’t know how to read a map. But we made it back, seven long hours later, a little worse for the wear and extremely hungry, but alive. Then we pigged out on buffet food, so it was all good.

Me, at the beginning of our hike

Me, at the beginning of our hike, while I was still smiling

It was a nice weekend, overall, but it’s refreshing to be back in Joburg. I haven’t really been able to work for a month, so I’m looking forward to bearing down and getting a lot done this week. I do love traveling, but you know what they say: the best part about traveling is coming home.

Elephant Plains

I’m now officially back from my month-long vacation(s); I got back to Joburg from safari yesterday. What a week! My friends and I spent four nights at Elephant Plains Game Lodge, in the Sabi Sand private game reserve just north of Kruger National Park.

Sunrise at Elephant Plains

Sunrise at Elephant Plains

I had been on safari before, of course, so I thought I knew what to expect from this trip, but staying in a private game reserve is a very different experience from staying in Kruger itself. For one thing, in a private reserve, you can go off-roading. Which means you can follow animals and drive right up to them. I mean RIGHT up to them.

Oh, hello.

Oh, hello.

Also, all of the rangers have radios so they can communicate with each other about where the good animals are. Thus, we saw, in short order, lions (including cubs), a leopard, elephants (with babies), a rhino, giraffes, hippos, zebras, buffalo, wildebeest, jackals, waterbucks, kudus, nyalas, impalas, a crocodile, and more. Now, I saw most of these animals in Kruger, as well, and it was a wonderful experience. But at Elephant Plains, we got right up in the animals’ grill(s).

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

To see the above rhino in action, here’s a video I took of him drinking, which gives you a better sense of how CLOSE we were.

A couple of times, things got a little scary. For example, a herd of elephants (with several babies) were not happy to see our van and the matriarch, who was quite large and intimidating already, started flapping her ears at us to appear even larger, which is what elephants do when they’re gearing up to fight. Turns out the elephants were mostly bluster; they flapped their ears and gave us threatening looks and then hurried past us, although one stopped to turn and stare us down before moseying down the road.

Mom was intimidating. Babies, not so much.

Mom was intimidating. Babies, not so much.

Then, a few minutes later, another group of elephants appeared, and one of them – I kid you not – sort of charged the van, trumpeting. I had been drifting to sleep because we had gotten up at 5 am for our morning game drive but the sound of an angry elephant three feet from my face woke me up real quick. Again, the elephant was bluffing, and it trudged off into the bush after scaring the living crap out of all of us, but still. Here’s a short video of the first group of elephants, before the matriarch started getting ticked off at us.

The scariest thing that happened – although, at the time, it didn’t seem that scary – was when Elise, Allison, and I went for a bush walk with our trusty ranger, Louis. The point of a bush walk is to see the plants, insects, and small animals that live in the bush, not to see big game, since it’s not safe to be on foot around predators (or other aggressive animals like buffalo or hippos), since they can, you know, kill you. So we were walking along and Louis was showing us a tree with interesting leaves when we spot, maybe 100 meters away, three lionesses. Unlike all of the other times we had seen lions in the reserve, these ones were not lying around listlessly, full from a big meal of impala or zebra. No, these lionesses were coming toward us. Ruh-roh. Louis calmly loaded his rifle (yeah…) and told us to form a single-file line and back slowly toward the nearest tree. Once we were behind the tree, he told us to keep walking and get behind the next tree, and so on, until we were close to the gates of the lodge. At the time, we thought it was cool and exciting, and maybe a little scary, because we didn’t realize that normally, when lions see people on foot, they stand still and then move off into the bush. These ones, though, were hungry, and one of them even crouched down, which is the position lions take when they’re hunting. Um. Close call?

A female leopard

A female leopard

All in all, it was a fantastic trip, truly an experience of a lifetime, and I feel so lucky to have gotten to see these incredible animals up close (and to have emerged unscathed). This will probably be my last safari for the foreseeable future, and it was a great one. Here are a few more photos, although I took so many it’s hard to choose which ones to share. Hope you enjoy.

Waterbok

Waterbok

Me and a giraffe

Me and a giraffe

Female kudu with bird friends

Female kudu with bird friends

Zebras

Zebras

Two young males playing

Two young males playing

 

Cape Town

Hello there! I must apologize, once again, for the intermittent bursts of blogging. I am still mid-vacay and won’t be back full-time for another week, but I wanted to tell you all about the five days I just spent in Cape Town.

View of Table Mountain from hostel

View of Table Mountain from hostel

After Stellenbosch, I bid my in-laws and Al adieu and stayed on in Cape Town to meet up with two of my friends from DC, Elise and Allison, who were kind enough to visit me in South Africa. We stayed at a somewhat famous backpacking hostel called, appropriately enough, The Backpack. It was named one of the 10 “coolest hostels” in the world by The Guardian in 2010 and has won awards for being sustainable (they use all recycled materials, no bottled water, etc., etc.). It was indeed a very nice place with a cool vibe. The only problem is that I am too old for cool vibes. It’s official. We were put into a room that was right next to the common area, so we were treated to thumping bass, loud bellowing, and assorted screeches for all five nights of our stay. My crotchetiness came out full force last night (or, technically, this morning) at 2:15 am when I marched out into the common area and told the jerks who were playing annoying techno music to please, kindly shut. it. off. already. Youngsters these days, am I right? But, noise pollution aside, I’d recommend The Backpack; if nothing else, it has incredible views of Table Mountain.

Cape Town, seen from Table Mountain

Cape Town, seen from Table Mountain

We got up to a lot of stuff in Cape Town, including some shopping, wine drinking, and delicious dining. We even did some outdoorsy stuff! On our second day in town, we decided to hike stunning Table Mountain, which is the impressive, flat-topped mountain overlooking Cape Town. At the top is Table Mountain National Park, which is a World Heritage site and one of the “new seven wonders of nature,” which may or may not be a made up thing. Although, after seeing the views from the top of the mountain, I’m pretty convinced this is one of the top natural wonders of the world. For real. Check out these views.

IMG_2350 IMG_2352

Not bad!

The next day, we went on a wine tasting excursion with a company called Wine Flies (be warned: their website has music — sigh). I had pretty low expectations for the wine trip, since I had just spent the weekend with some veritable wine experts (i.e., my husband and his mom) in Stellenbosch and I figured whatever packaged wine tour we went on would pale in comparison. But actually, the tour was fantastic. The guide was knowledgeable without being condescending, we went to some really good wineries (and had a great cheese tasting at one of them), we met some adorable (and naughty) dachshunds, and we ended the day with brandy and dried apricots.

My new best friend

My new best friend

A lunch companion

She joined us at lunch

Middlevlei winery

Middlevlei winery

Brandy cups

Brandy cups

Needless to say, by the end of the day, everyone on the tour bus had become best friends. At least until we all stumbled out and went our separate ways. Then we totally forgot one another’s names.

The next morning, bright and early, we went on a tour of the Cape Coast, which included stops at an island full of seals, the penguin beach at the nature reserve within Table Mountain National Park, and the Cape of Good Hope itself.  The penguins were my favorite part, obviously. They’re so cute and weird and awkward! And they have a pretty sweet beach they get to hang out on:

Penguin beach

Penguin beach

Nature reserve, Table Mountain National Park

 

We also saw some pretty stunning vistas as we drove down the coast toward the Cape of Good Hope. Here are just a few photos to give you an idea of the landscape:

Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope

IMG_2393 IMG_2395 IMG_2402

To round out a trip full of natural beauty and wildlife, we spent our last night in Cape Town stuffing our faces with awesome seafood, wine, and beer, and then dancing at one of the best bars I’ve been to in quite a while, The Waiting Room. The DJ, the so-called Daddy Warbucks, looked like a nerdy, less bald version of Prince William and he was awesome. After dancing for an hour or two, we came back to the hostel and I watched Juno on TV in one of the common rooms, by myself, sitting on a beanbag chair, until I realized it was past 2 am and time for my old bones to be in bed.

Cape Town

Cape Town

This morning, we said goodbye to Cape Town and headed back to Joburg. And even though Cape Town is, by pretty much any standard, way better than Joburg, it still feels good to be back home.

Joburg

Joburg

Stellenbosch

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past three days in beautiful Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. Stellenbosch has something for everyone: amazing food, outstanding wine, and stunning scenery.

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch is the second oldest European settlement in South Africa (after Cape Town). It was founded in 1639 (!) by a man named Simon van der Stel, who was governor of the Cape Colony (incidentally, Stellenbosch means Stel’s Bush, so the ever-humble van der Stel named the town after himself). It’s sometimes easy to forget how long the Dutch have been kicking around South Africa, but in places like Stellenbosch, you realize that they’ve been here a super long time, making wine and playing sports and generally being rugged.

Anyway, Stellenbosch has come a long way over the last 374 years and is now a beautiful, touristy university town situated among various mountain ranges.

IMG_4253

Art at Tokara winery

Art at Tokara winery

IMG_4261It’s the ideal spot to launch a wine tasting weekend, since many of the country’s best wineries are right here. We did just that, arriving on Thursday night and setting out bright and early on Friday morning to begin quite the decadent weekend of all-out wine and food gluttony.

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Al’s mom is a sommelier in Canada, so she had a professional interest in going to some of the best wineries to try their wares. I won’t try to summarize all of the wineries we visited (I’ll leave that to the expert, my mother-in-law), but we went to a lot of beautiful wineries and had some excellent wines.

Tokara winery

Tokara winery

 

Some of my favorites, both for scenery and wine, were Thelema, Tokara, Boschendal, and Winery of Good Hope, where we had a private tasting of FOURTEEN WINES with the winemaker. We fairly stumbled out of that one and had to spend the rest of the day recuperating.

The remains of the day

The remains of the day (Boschendal winery)

The highlight of the weekend was probably our dinner at Rust en Vrede (“Rest and Peace” in Afrikaans), one of the top restaurants in South Africa. We opted for the six-course tasting menu with wine pairings and holy crap, it was awesome. It actually ended up being more like nine courses, what with all of the amuse-bouches and pre-desserts and post-desserts and mid-desserts, and every course was spectacular (with the notable exception of the meat course that included beef tongue and sweetbreads, blech).

Cheese course, Rust en Vrede

Cheese course, Rust en Vrede

Everything about this dinner was impeccable: the food, the wine, the service, the atmosphere. Afterwards, we spoke to the chef, John Shuttleworth, who looked to be approximately 15 years old, and congratulated him on a job well done.

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Today, we’re off to another top South African restaurant, Jordan, and I can hardly wait. Then Al has to go back to Joburg (noo!) while I stay in Cape Town to meet up with two of my friends, Elise and Allison, who are visiting from DC (yaay!). Should be a good time! I will try my darndest to write another post or two during my vacay. In the meantime, hope everyone’s having a fabulous weekend, and happy Sunday.

A brief hiatus

Hello and happy Thursday. No advice column today, I’m afraid. I’m neck-deep in revising my novel and can’t spare the time for blogging, since I’m leaving for an eight day trip to Cape Town tonight and thus must be productive before vacation.

To tide you over until the next post, let me share a tiny story with you. This morning, when my husband was getting ready to leave for work and I was still lounging around in bed at the decadent hour of 7:30, he asked me, “Do you remember what you did last night?” Never a confidence-rousing question, that. I said, “No…” And he said, “You don’t remember waking up and shaking me and saying, ‘A butt! A butt!’?”

And then I remembered.

You see, last night I woke up and saw what appeared to me to be a rhinoceros butt in our bedroom. Alarmed, rightly, that there was a rhino in our room, I did the only sensible thing and shook my husband and started shrieking, “A butt! A butt! Al, look, there’s a rhino butt in our room!”

Turns out, this was the culprit:

The alleged rhino butt

The alleged rhino butt

Hey, in certain lighting, a safari hat can look like a rhino butt, okay? Anyway, apparently after a few seconds of insisting to Al that we were infested with rhinos, I realized that I was, in fact, looking at a safari hat and went back to sleep. So the situation resolved itself, really. We didn’t even have to break out the emergency tranquilizer darts.

Well, I’ll try to blog over my vacay but no promises. Hang tough.

 

Book review Tuesday: The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

My friend Karen recommended that I read David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, a novel focusing on, among other things, the apostasy from the Mormon Church of Brigham Young’s 19th wife, Ann Eliza Young. I find all things Mormon fascinating, so, despite being in the middle of no fewer than three other books, I downloaded The 19th Wife and read it in a few days.

Ann Eliza Young

Ann Eliza Young

First, a word about the structure of this book: it’s kind of confusing. Ebershoff makes use of fictional historical clippings, fictional memoir, fictional academic documents, and a fictional narrative set in the present day, mixing them throughout the book. There’s even a fictional introduction by Harriet Beecher Stowe to a fictional memoir by Ann Eliza Young. Complicating matters, Ebershoff based the principal historical narrative – the memoir of Ann Eliza Young – on her actual autobiographies (Wife No. 19 (1875) and Life in Mormon Bondage (1908)). I wish that Ebershoff had explained up front – perhaps in a preface to the novel – his reasons for structuring the book this way, because his explanation in the reader’s guide at the back of the book is helpful:

I decided to include a number of fictional documents or sources (many of them of course inspired by actual documents and sources) because I wanted to give the reader the sense of what it’s like to delve into this history and to sort through the record and different points of view. The novel’s historical sections focus on Ann Eliza’s story, but I wanted to enrich that in a way that re-creates, for the reader, the experience of digging deeper and deeper into the archives.

Mid-way into the book, the structure begins to make sense and it becomes easier to switch back and forth between the various characters’ perspectives. The two main narratives are: 1) Ann Eliza Young’s memoir, set in 1975, and 2) the present-day story of Jordan Scott, a twenty-one year old so-called “Lost Boy” who was thrown out of his polygamist community at age fourteen, and who has to return to his Utah hometown to help his mother, who has been accused of murdering his father. His mother, like Ann Eliza Young, is the 19th wife of her husband. Both narratives are compelling but I was more drawn to Jordan’s story, probably because modern-day Mormon fundamentalists are so creepily fascinating. During the historical narrative, on the other hand, I often found myself skimming or skipping over long (presumably fictional) soliloquies by Brigham Young or Joseph Smith about the purposes of the early Mormon church, and so on.

My other complaint with the book was that the dialogue in the modern-day story was often tortured. For example: Jordan is gay and has a one-dimensional, flamboyant gay friend named Roland who says things like “Kanab? Sounds Kanasty. Oh, honey, where on earth?” Sometimes the characters talk in ways that real people just do not talk. Here’s a dialogue between Roland and Jordan, in which Jordan is telling Roland he needs to go back to Utah to help his mother get out of jail:

“Look at her – her eyes, I mean. I need to see her. I’ll be gone a day or two, max.”

“Sweetie, before you get in that van of yours and drive all the way to Utah, can I remind you of two small but highly relevant facts? One – and I’m sorry to put it like this – your mom dumped you on the highway in the middle of the night when you were – what? – fourteen. Not a nice thing. And two, she just popped off your dad. Are you really sure a family reunion’s such a good idea?”

Yeesh. Luckily, the story was gripping enough that I wasn’t too distracted by the ridiculous dialogue. Ebershoff paints a really chilling portrait of life inside a fundamentalist LDS community, and he manages to draw the parallels between the early Mormon polygamists and modern-day fundamentalists in a sensitive way, partly by including perspectives from (fictional) modern day Mormon academics, who are appalled by polygamy yet nonetheless proud of their Church’s history. The book provides an interesting glimpse into Mormon history, the birth of polygamy, the lives of actual historical figures (Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, Ann Eliza Young), the consequences of apostasy from the LDS Church, and daily life for modern LDS fundamentalists. It covers a lot of ground without seeming too weighted down or dry. Recommended for historical fiction fans and/or those who are curious about Mormon fundamentalism.

 

Kruger

Last night, I got back from a wonderful weekend trip to Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It covers over 7,500 square miles. Parts of the park have been protected by the South African government since 1898 and it became a national park in 1926. Because of its long history of conservation, the park is home to an incredible variety of flora and fauna, including, according to the official website, 336 species of trees, 49 of fish, 34 of amphibians, 114 of reptiles, 507 of birds, and 147 of mammals. Wow.

I went with Al’s mom and step-dad on Thursday afternoon and Al met us late on Friday night. Over the course of four days, we saw a dazzling number of animals, some of which are quite rare in the park (including a leopard – there are only 1000 of them in the whole place). I’m not sure if we just had amazing luck or whether the park is always like this – filthy with animals, I tell you! – but it was awesome. I kept a list of the animals we saw and here it is: hyena, rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, wildebeest, kudu, impala, giraffe, baboon, hippo, many birds (incl. vulture, African fish eagle, various starling, European roller and Guinea fowl), rabbit, leopard tortoise, zebra, Vervet monkey, bush pig, warthog, white mongoose, ground squirrel (we think), and water buffalo. And probably others, but those were the big ones.

Here are just a few of the photos I took this weekend:

Warthog

Warthog

Sunset on safari

Sunset on safari

Wildebeest

Wildebeest

Starling

Starling

Baby zebra and mother

Baby zebra and mother

Giraffe

Giraffe

Elephants in a row

Elephants in a row

Male impalas play fighting

Male impalas play fighting

Mini croc

Mini croc

Baboon mother and baby

Baboon mother and baby

Elephant eating

Elephant eating

Lioness RIGHT next to our truck

Lioness RIGHT next to our truck

Shy leopard

Shy leopard