Expat Thanksgivings

I have celebrated many a Thanksgiving outside of the United States. My first foreign Thanksgiving was in 2003 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I was with some of my best friends from college and we were on a weeklong vacation from studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. We were all so caught up in the excitement of being in Rio for the first time (read: drunk), none of us remembered that it was Thanksgiving until close to midnight on Thursday, at which point we left whatever sweaty club we were patronizing and made our way to an open-air pizza parlor and ordered a bunch of pizzas, which we decided would have to substitute for turkey. In 2005, I celebrated Thanksgiving in Rio again, with my dear friend Julia. We met some Americans in a bar and hunted around until we found an Irish pub serving something that approximated turkey. Chicken, maybe? I don’t really remember. Alcohol may have been involved in the decision. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)

I also spent Thanksgiving 2010 in Brazil, this time in São Paulo. I got together with a bunch of friends — mostly Brazilian but with a few Canadian, English, and German people thrown into the mix, as well — and we cooked a proper Thanksgiving dinner with a real turkey, apple pie, and mashed potatoes. Pumpkin was nowhere to be found (seriously, Brazil?) so we did without, but I seem to recall that there were a lot of Brazilian goodies to be had, like brigadeiros, which make up for a lot.

And last year, Al and I celebrated Thanksgiving in Cape Town, to which I transported my labor of love, my from-SCRATCH pumpkin pie. This year, I’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving in London, with Al and my cousin John and a bunch of John’s friends. It’ll be the first non-US Thanksgiving I’ve had with any of my extended family in attendance, so that’ll be a nice change.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - always a classic!
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving – always a classic!

Expat Thanksgiving is always an odd experience — especially if you’re in a place where it’s hot in November and essential Thanksgiving food supplies are scarce, a la Brazil — but it can also be a really unique, wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. The thing is, when you celebrate Thanksgiving  outside of America, odds are, you’ll be spending it with at least some non-Americans who are interested in the holiday and think it’s a cool idea. And that’s kind of awesome, isn’t it? It’s cool to be able to share Thanksgiving dinner with people who aren’t gathering just for the turkey or pie or football or because that’s just what you do on the fourth Thursday in November, but because they value and admire the spirit behind the holiday: the idea of getting together with people you love to express gratitude. I love Thanksgiving because even though it’s a very American holiday (and yes, Canadian, too, but Canadians will readily agree that it’s a much bigger deal in America), the concept behind it translates universally: giving thanks for what we have. I love that non-Americans can get into the spirit of Thanksgiving just as easily and authentically as Americans. It’s just a lovely holiday all around.

Speaking of gratitude, I saw this video a while ago. Take the seven minutes and watch it, if you haven’t seen it already. It’s about the huge happiness boost we experience from expressing gratitude to the people in our lives who we love. I think Thanksgiving is the perfect, non-cheesy opportunity to grab your own happiness boost by letting your loved one(s) know that you appreciate them, don’t you? This year, as always, I’m really grateful for my husband, my parents, my cousins, and my friends, who, in my completely unbiased opinion, are all the absolute best. I’m also exceedingly grateful to still be plugging away at making my dream of becoming a professional writer come true. (Fittingly, today I completed 50,000 words in the third manuscript I’ve written since quitting my lawyer job a little over a year ago, so things are coming up Stephanie over here). So, all in all, I’m feeling good and grateful today. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!


Book review Tuesday: Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple

It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel as fast-paced, witty, and enjoyable as Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I had heard good things about this book for close to a year but hadn’t bought it because, as usual, I had about a million other books stacked in my Kindle queue already. But then I heard Linda Holmes mention it on Pop Culture Happy Hour last month and decided it was time to dig in. (Also, I unquestioningly trust everything Linda Holmes says).


Where’d You Go, Bernadette is narrated principally by Bee, an eighth grader at Galer Street, an aspirational private school in Seattle, who is searching for her missing mother, Bernadette. When the story begins, we meet Bee’s father, Elgie, a big deal at Microsoft who spends most waking hours at his office working on a high profile robotics project, and her mother, Bernadette, who was once the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant and a rising star in the world of architecture, but who now spends her days in a trailer behind the family home, refusing to come out or interact with the world unless absolutely necessary. When Bernadette does interact with the world, bad things happen: accusations of assault, unintentional landslides, and escalating gossip and rumors. As Bernadette increasingly alienates herself from the cliquey, upper-middle class, Seattle-focused world of the other mothers at her daughter’s school, she turns to help from an online personal assistant in India, a decision that ends up having unforeseen and rather dire consequences. Without giving the entire plot away, suffice it to say that Bernadette decides, just before a planned family trip to Antarctica, that she has to split. She disappears, leaving Bee and Elgie to try to figure out where in the world she went. They travel from Seattle to Antarctica and back in search of Bernadette, with surprising results.

There were several reasons this book was so immensely enjoyable to read. First, its structure: the story is told by Bee, the narrator, who has collected and is commenting upon a series of documents — emails, letters, faxes, pamphlets, invoices — all of which serve as clues in her mother’s disappearance. This makes for fast, fun reading, as the reader is taken into the minds and goings-on of a number of characters, including Bernadette’s array of sworn enemies, her old architecture colleagues, her husband, and others. The result is a complex, incisive portrait of upper-middle class Seattle. Some of the wittiest (and most damning) descriptions of Seattle come from Bernadette herself, who openly despises the city and its ethos, despite having lived there for close to two decades. In one bit of correspondence, for instance, Bernadette sets forth her disdain for Seattle’s collective fashion sense thusly:

Remember when the feds busted in on that Mormon polygamist cult in Texas a few years back? And the dozens of wives were paraded in front of the camera? And they all had this long mouse-colored hair with strands of gray, no hairstyle to speak of, no makeup, ashy skin, Frida Kahlo facial hair, and unflattering clothes? And on cue, the Oprah audience was shocked and horrified? Well, they’ve never been to Seattle.

There are two hairstyles here: short gray hair and long gray hair. You go into a salon asking for hair color, and they flap their elbows and cluck, “Oh goody, we never get to do color!”

This brings me to the second reason this book is so fun to read: voice. Maria Semple absolutely nails the individual voices of the characters, bringing them to vibrant life even through small snippets of conversation and correspondence. Semple avoids creating two-dimensional stock characters, even for bit players. Bernadette, who is without a doubt a flawed, damaged, and cantankerous woman, is also lovable and relatable, and I found myself rooting for her, despite her poor choices. And man, the characters are funny (some unintentionally so). Bernadette gets some pretty solid one-liners off throughout the book. In one of my favorite scenes, Bee and Bernadette are in the car listening to a program on public radio about the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the systemic use of rape as a tool of war. Bee is disgusted and turns the radio off.

“I know it’s horrific,” Mom said. “But you’re old enough. We live a life of privilege in Seattle. That doesn’t mean we can literally switch off these women, whose only fault was being born in the Congo during a civil war. We need to bear witness.” She turned the radio back on.

I crumpled in my seat and fumed.

“The war in Congo rages on and with no end in sight,” the announcer said. “And now comes word of a new campaign by the soldiers, to find the women they have already raped and re-rape them.”

“Holy Christ on a cross!” Mom said. “I draw the line at re-raping.” And she turned off NPR.

The third reason I enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette is its plot, which weaves together many sub-plots to create a layered and absorbing story. My only tiny complaint is that occasionally, Semple relies a bit too heavily on neat coincidences to solve the mystery of where Bernadette went, but I had so much fondness for the story and its characters that it didn’t bother me that much. (This also might be one of those things I notice keenly since I am in the middle of writing a novel and often have to steer myself away from tying things in a bow with fortuitous coincidences, which I fear would end up making the story less believable and a bit too pat). I want to stress, though, that this is not a major detractor from the story; it’s just a small nitpick of mine.

All in all, I highly recommend the novel for anyone looking for a fast, fun read and a peek into the particular world of Seattle’s upper-middle class. Here is a glowing NY Times review, by the way. Also, word on the street is that they’re making the novel into a movie. Better read the book before that happens so you can be on the cutting edge!


Book review Tuesday: Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

A while back, I wrote about reading Stephen King’s The Shining, and the surprising discovery that it blows the movie of the same name out of the water. As you can imagine, when I found out that King had come out with a sequel to The Shining, I pre-ordered that business immediately. So, last month, I bought and devoured Doctor Sleep, King’s follow-up to The Shining, within a few days. It turned out to be one of those books that I had trouble putting down. I read it on the Tube, in waiting rooms, and before bed. And when I finished it, it stuck with me. It’s taken me almost a month to write this review because I’ve been doing other things (like writing a new novel!), but the fact that the book is still fresh in my mind a month later is a testament to Stephen King’s ever- impressive storytelling abilities.

doctor sleep

Doctor Sleep skips forward several decades from the end of The Shining and focuses on Dan Torrance, the preternaturally gifted son of Wendy and Jack Torrance, who is now all grown up and an alcoholic, just like his father. At the beginning of the book, Dan is a wreck. He drinks, does drugs, has high-risk sex, and is generally miserable. After a particularly traumatic experience following a drugs/booze/sex bender, he escapes to a small New Hampshire town where, with the help of a few compassionate people, starts to remake his life. He gets clean and sober, secures a job as a caretaker at a hospice, and becomes active in his local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. Things are good. But Dan is still affected by the “shining,” the ability to see into the future and read people’s thoughts. One day, Dan starts receiving messages from someone named Abra, who needs his help. Abra, we learn, is a young girl in a nearby town who is endowed with a very powerful dose of the shining. She is being pursued by a sinister group of beings called the True Knot, who seek to kill children with the shining and feed on their “steam,” or supernatural essences. The True Knot disguise themselves as “RV people” and travel unnoticed across the country, murdering children and using the children’s steam to bolster their own powers. Abra and Dan must band together to defeat the True Knot and its scary, beautiful ringleader, Rose the Hat. As Dan is pulled deeper into Abra’s dilemma, he struggles with his demons: memories of his father, the urge to drink, and his own regrets.

The book, like every Stephen King book I’ve read, is a page-turner. The plot is fast-paced and gripping and the reader is made to care deeply about the characters, particularly Dan, who we’ve known since he was a child wandering the haunted halls of the Overlook Hotel. But the book also goes deep into Dan’s struggle with alcoholism, to moving effect. The Shining was also about alcoholism: it portrayed a man in the grips of a disease that was destroying him and his family. Doctor Sleep, meanwhile, is about a man who trying to swim against the destructive tide of his addiction, and mostly succeeding. King wrote The Shining when he was in the dark depths of his battle with alcoholism; he wrote Doctor Sleep after decades of sobriety. The most noticeable difference in perspective between these two books is that, unlike The Shining, Doctor Sleep offers hope for redemption even for people who have messed up their lives profoundly with drugs and alcohol. The Shining was about survival: getting out of the Overlook before it exploded. Doctor Sleep, though, is about creating a life worth living after escaping the wreckage.

This novel is highly recommended for Stephen King fans and anyone looking for a quick but emotionally satisfying page-turner. One word of advice: read (or re-read) The Shining first. It helps to have the original novel fresh in your mind as you delve into the world of Dan Torrence.

In case you’re interested, here’s what Margaret Atwood writing for the NY Times had to say.


This year, I am participating in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month! The concept of NaNoWriMo is pretty simple: your goal, as a participant, is to get 50,000 words of a new novel down during the month of November. This requires writing at a pretty brisk clip (something like 1700 words a day), but considering that when I wrote my last two manuscripts, I made myself write 2000 words a day, Stephen King-style, it shouldn’t be TOO difficult.

I was initially skeptical of NaNoWriMo, when I first heard about it last year, because I figured I didn’t need it. I had just moved to South Africa, was already knee-deep into another manuscript, and didn’t need any additional motivation to hit the keyboard. I was a newly minted writing machine, after all. These days, though, as I am slowly crawling out of the pits of a writing slump, I decided I needed the kick in the butt to start a new project that NaNoWriMo provides. And so, here I am, five days in and 9700 words down. And you know? I’m feeling pretty jazzed about it! I don’t want to say too much about what I’m working on (I’m superstitious like that) but it’s a new genre for me and it’s really fun.

It’s not too late to throw your own hat into the NaNoWriMo ring. If you need inspiration, here’s a great little pep talk by one of my favorite authors, Rainbow Rowell (who, as you might recall, wrote the truly lovely Eleanor & Park).

So… who else is in?