books, reading, stories, what I'm reading

Favorite Books of 2019

Hi!

Remember me?

I’m still around. Kind of. I’ve just been busy.

My life revolves around books. I work with books. I plan vacations around books. I research books. I buy books. I go to meetings about books. I recommend books. I write about books. Occasionally I get to read books. And here are my favorite books that I read in 2019:

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Severance by Ling Ma: This was the first book I read in 2019 and I’d been looking forward to it for a few months. A global epidemic is wiping out most of humanity, but Candace, a New York City office worker who is so wrapped up in her job, barely recognizes what’s happening around her. Her company execs have promised her big things if she sticks around to continue manning the operation. So she does. At the same time Candace starts a blog in which she photographs and documents the city in its abandoned state. In time, she joins up with other survivors. The group travels to a place called The Facility to create a new society. Here they must decide if their leader, Bob, is in it for the right reasons. The book is very subtle – there are no wow! moments, no shocking confessions or emotional peaks. And I liked that about it. The shock and awe has already happened. Most of humanity is dead. Instead, the novel focuses on these people who are just traveling through the world, trying to rebuild what they can while trying to decide if they should.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Prepare to be heartbroken. Jojo and his love for his little sister, Kayla, and his messed up mother, Leonie, was so complicated and beautiful. The characters are as complex as the consequences their decisions have created for them, or in the case of Jojo, the decisions his drug-addicted mother has created for him. Leonie, a black woman with a rich family history in Mississippi, packs up her children for a road trip to greet the children’s white father upon his prison release. The ghosts of Mississippi’s deep-seated racism and that of Parchman Farm come to a head as young Jojo tries to find his place among the multitude of haunted worlds in which he lives: black/white, mother/father, brother/caretaker, past/present/future. It’s a lovely story.

The Wall by John Lanchester: This was, quite frankly, a bit terrifying because of the possibility of it becoming so real. The world has been taken over by the rising seas. People are risking their lives traveling by sea to breach the wall, a massive structure protected by armed guards called Defenders who will risk their own lives to keep The Others out. The Others come from different parts of the world. They are desperate to reach dry ground. They are running out of time. As the Defenders grow closer in their camaraderie, they begin to question their leadership and their role in keeping the island nation safe from outsiders. However, if they fail at their task they will put out to sea themselves. This book isn’t even trying to be a metaphor; it’s a warning for what could actually happen.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: I lived in North Florida when stories of physical and sexual abuse that had occurred at the state’s reform school became public. This book is based on those stories, except Whitehead offers up the narrative from a young black boy’s point of view. Elwood and Turner become unlikely friends at The Nickel Academy, a school for boys who misbehave, commit petty offenses, run their mouths, or simply take up too much space in their own impoverished family’s homes. The staff behave in unspeakably horrific ways and the children, as they seem to have done their entire short lives, continue to endure. One scene in particular has stuck with me since I read it, in which I, a modern-day middle-aged white woman, found myself having judged a justifiably angry but scared young, black boy. What happens to him is unforgettable, unforgivable, and heartbreaking. But isn’t that how it is these days? We judge. We react. We move on. Except I couldn’t move on for over a month. The Nickel Boys was, hands down, my favorite read of the year.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: This book about a single plane crash survivor, a young boy named Edward, is also based on a true story. The other passengers’ complex lives and tragic ends are partly the basis of this book; the other part is how Edward manages to live each day after he is discovered to be the sole survivor amidst the wreckage in a Colorado field. After he learns his parents and brother have been killed in the crash, he is taken in by his childless aunt and uncle. Throughout the book, Edward tries to understand why he was given the opportunity to live and so many others were not. The story moves between Edward’s recovery (a process of years) and the terrifying unfolding of the doomed flight itself. (My suspicion is that Napolitano was inspired by what happened to Northwest Airlines Flight 255, the plane that crashed outside of Detroit in 1987. It killed all but one of the 155 people on board. The only survivor was Cecelia Cihan, a 4-year old who lost her parents and brother that day, too.)

I read over fifty books this year, some through audio during my long work commute, and most in actual print. And, while my list might not reflect it, I did take in a healthy amount of nonfiction. After looking through all the books I’d read in 2019, no nonfiction books were absolute standouts. Most were good, but not as good as the fiction books I listed above.

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As you’ve probably noticed, I have no interest in writing much these days. I’ve taken up painting, rescuing hamsters (totally serious) and road tripping (my most recent adventure trips have been to Mystic, CT and Burlington, VT) as more enjoyable ways to spend my time. Writing is a chore, but maybe I’ll pop back here once a year to write about my favorite books. Maybe I won’t. We’ll see.

childhood, Maine, music, Uncategorized

A Quarter of My Life

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My husband and I have been fans of Lord Huron for quite some time. When we lived in Cleveland and found out their tour was bringing them to town we set reminders for ourselves to buy tickets the minute they were on sale. Then we moved to New Hampshire about a week before the show, giving up our tickets to people I barely knew. A few weeks later they were going to be in Portsmouth performing a free outdoor concert at Prescott Park. The night of the show an intense storm rolled through the area. It poured buckets. Lightning and thunder. The whole bit. We didn’t see them that night either since the show was canceled on account of dangerous weather.

And so we found ourselves driving to Portland, Maine one night back in July. Another chance to see Lord Huron! Another outdoor concert, too, but this time it wasn’t free. We bought tickets, booked a hotel, and watched the weather reports all week. The night of the show we reveled in our good luck. The weather was nothing short of spectacular. As was the show itself.

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Lord Huron sings about the places where I grew up. I literally just did the math and even I’m surprised to learn that I’ve lived a quarter of my life on the Great Lakes – first Huron, then Superior, then Erie. In between I spent holidays and summers with my mother’s family near Lake Michigan. A few years ago my husband and I spent a couple of nights in Buffalo, New York, and made a point to drive to the Lake Ontario shoreline. She was my last lake to visit, a final check on the Great Lakes bucket list. On the way home to Cleveland we talked about me getting a Great Lakes tattoo for my next birthday. I never did.

My birthday is coming up and I have yet to shake the idea. Clearly those lakes mean a great deal to me. I have yet to shake them, too, I guess.

adventuring, daytrip, Vermont

Daytrip: Vermont Cheese Quest

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It really could not have been a more perfect day when we set out on the road for the drive north to Quechee, Vermont. Over the year we’ve lived here, we have discussed heading up that way to visit the Ben & Jerry’s headquarters or the Cabot Creamery. Coordinating our schedules and figuring out dogsitters proved a little difficult. My husband has a second job. I work nights and sometimes weekends. Do we leave the kid at home? And that’s kind of unfair to her, right? Luckily, someone told us about a smaller Cabot Creamery Store in an old antique mall located just across the state line. When I mapped it out, I noticed the creamery is only a short drive from an old, famous bookshop I have always wanted to visit, which is only a short drive from a brewery my husband has always wanted to try.

We made a day of it. Our Cheese Quest turned into a Bookstore Quest, a Brewery Quest, and a Llama Quest (how often do you get to participate in one of those?). That we happened upon the deepest gorge in Vermont was simply a delightful surprise. The kind of surprise that makes road trips like this one so much fun.

Our first stop took us past Quechee to a small town called Woodstock, home to the Yankee Bookshop. This quaint little store has been in business since 1935 and serves as the oldest continuously operating bookshop in Vermont. I’ve been on a kick lately to visit all the New England bookstores I’d heard about when I was a non-resident. It’s a worthy goal: shop local, go home with a book. It’s a win/win if you ask me.

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Next we were off to Long Trail Brewing Company. We drank good beer, ate mediocre food, and waded in the adjacent river that has such a difficult name for me to remember that I often have to Google it (the Ottauquechee River!). Here is where we also met up with our friend, Rob. Rob went to school with my husband and me back in the early 1990s in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Rob and I didn’t speak much in high school. Matt and Rob never spoke at all. Yet we each acknowledge how our hellish high school experiences have bonded us for the long haul (one day I may expand on the trauma of our high school years). And here we are, visiting each other as often as we can. When we first moved to New Hampshire last summer, Rob was our first overnight guest! We hadn’t seen each other in nearly 25 years but stayed up into the early morning hours catching up. There is much to be said for shared experiences, good and bad, that make the unlikeliest of friends.

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After lunch at the brewery, we said our goodbyes to Rob and headed back toward Quechee and the New Hampshire border. But I wanted to make a quick stop near a bridge we’d crossed that traveled directly over the deepest gorge I’ve seen east of the Mississippi. It’s 165 feet deep and spans over that river I can never remember the name of unless I Google it (the Ottauquechee River!). It turns out it’s part of Quechee State Park, but there are parking areas available off the highway. From there visitors can walk across the gorge on Route 4 via pedestrian bridge. There is protective fencing, no doubt erected to prevent attempts at suicide, but the view across the gorge is incredible. One can even see, if facing north, a small sandy beach where visitors have hiked into. It was very brief stop but enough to satiate my want of more nature touristing.

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That someone who originally told me about the Cabot Creamery Shop had also supplied me with cash and her personal cheese shopping list (it was the least we could do since she’s the one who pointed us in the right direction). It was like Cheese Mecca, you guys. DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY CHEESE SAMPLES A HUMAN CAN SAMPLE BEFORE THEY JUST BECOME SICK FROM ALL THE CHEESE SAMPLING? I nearly crossed that line on my second trip around the sample table. There are cheddar samples (do you know how many varieties of Cabot cheddars there are? NO YOU DO NOT. Trust me.), a bazillion and a half other hard cheese samples, spreadable cheese samples, and mustards. Yes, MUSTARDS. With crackers and pretzels. It’s like lunch. Go hungry. Leave happy. Or sick. Happily sick.

I can’t remember how much money we actually spent but I do remember we had to do math. Like If we buy all this cheese will we have enough money to pay the mortgage? kind of math. And yes, we did buy all this cheese. We’re still eating it – two months later. We bought it all because there are varieties in the Cabot Creamery shop that are not sold in the grocery store. And because I SAMPLED MYSELF TO NEAR DEATH so I knew all the cheeses I wanted. I literally kept a rating scorecard on my iPhone, calculated the results of each, and proceeded from there. The winners: Orne Cheddar, Vintage Cheddar, and the spreadable Port Wine. Also, Cabot cheddars are lactose free so KNOCK YOURSELVES OUT, lactose sickos. You’ll be fine.

And finally, Llama Quest! Elle often suffers from Cabin Fever like her mother, and often begs to go somewhere. She joined us on this road trip simply because I promised there would be llamas (strangely, she wasn’t impressed with the promise of cheese). AND THERE WERE LLAMAS. We didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time with them, but Elle’s goal for the day was to pet a llama. And we made that happen because WE ARE NICE PARENTS.

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The first time I traveled through Vermont was to come to New Hampshire on a house hunt. The second time I traveled through Vermont was to permanently move to New Hampshire after said house hunt. I hated it both times. Southern Vermont has a lot of closed in spaces. Too many trees blinding the view, the sky, the oncoming traffic around all those sharp curves. But this Vermont was a different Vermont. Of course there were mountains and trees and lots of oncoming traffic. There were also vistas, and open spaces, and views of the sky. It was simply beautiful. Vermont and I are friends now.

adventuring, daytrip, Maine, New Hampshire

Daytrip: Grocery Store

Someone recently said to me, “I love how you go on so many adventures!” And I wondered to myself, “Are those really adventures? Are they adventurous enough to be called adventures? Am adventurous enough to actually go on adventures?”

The answer is YES. I’m not looking to scale Mount Everest. I’m not preparing a continental trek along the Appalachian Trail. I mean, I haven’t even visited Boston yet. But sometimes when I wake up and I realize the weather is only going to be good for another two months, three months tops, I am motivated to leave my house and drive due north for nearly two hours with no other purpose in mind but to find a new grocery store and reward myself with Starbucks.

That’s what I did one morning. I had a grocery list a mile long, and I couldn’t fathom going to the same grocery store that I always go to, again. And because I reward myself with a Starbucks latte after nearly every grocery run, I couldn’t fathom going to the same Starbucks that I always go to, again.

So the kiddo and I decided to drive to Conway, New Hampshire. It’s a town we’d never been to before. We saw mountains we’d never seen before and order from a Starbucks we’d never ordered from before. The trek up north led us to venture into Fryeburg, Maine, just over the state line, back into New Hampshire, and around the entirety of Lake Winnipesaukee. We visited the towns of Tamworth and Meredith, where I found the famous Archie statue (yes, from the Archie comics!). We stopped for a short hike around Chocorua Lake. We trespassed onto farm property in rural Maine, found a Ben & Jerry’s back in New Hampshire, and finally hit up a grocery store. We drove past the iconic Weirs Beach sign on our way home, seven hours after we’d left the house.

I get antsy. I love my house and I love my little town, but I’m realizing how holed up I’ll be in a few short months when winter sets in. And I am starting to believe that I had always relied on our next cross-country move as my source of adventure. Well, we’re not moving anymore. We are here. And that just makes it harder for me not to be there, wherever there is.

So I take daytrips. I drive aimlessly and stop to look at the scenery. I go to Maine. I go to the mountains. I go to Vermont. I find a lake and I stare at it. My family often comes with me on these road trips. We visit famous indie bookshops. We buy local cheese. We drink local beer (well, Matt does). And we marvel at how beautiful it is here and say we need to do this more often. 

And with that, here’s a photographic record of my day out getting groceries and Starbucks.

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adventuring, family, Florida, history, road trip, touristing

Southbound

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When you live as far north as we do, even Boston is south. By nearly two hours. Matt managed to get the time off from work and was even willing to drive to Key West from New Hampshire in just three days’ time. We managed to do it! It was exhausting and one of the most difficult road trips we’ve pulled off. I’ll never do it again.

It was exciting, though, in ways I didn’t think it would be. Matt took us through downtown New Haven, Connecticut to show us his old digs when he worked at Yale. And we drove through New York City. I’ve never had a desire to visit NYC, and the slow-moving traffic and chaos of the place pretty much solidified this non-desire. New Jersey is quite pretty, even from the interstate. And it’s where I preferred to see the New York City skyline disappear from view. We vowed we would not be taking this route back home. Tappan Zee Bridge for the win!

A few nights’ rest with our friends in Manassas, Virginia and an overnight with my parents’ in Titusville, Florida were all we got as far as rest was concerned. We were on a time crunch – my brother’s wedding in Orlando was only a few days away so we figured we’ll rest when we’re dead and forged ahead. I’ll never do that again, either.

Am I happy we did it? YES! But I don’t think there is enough money in the world that could convince me to do it a second time. And with that in mind – as with all of the other activities we wanted to do while in Florida with the whole family – we packed in as much as we could. We weren’t even in Key West for 24 hours.

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On Matt’s Key West Bucket List was to visit a bar on Duval Street and take a photo at the Southernmost Point (his last marker to see is the Northernmost Point off the coast of Maine – much more accessible to us these days). My Key West Bucket List was made up of one item: Ernest Hemingway’s House and Museum.

Years ago I had a polydactyl cat aptly named Polly. I am not a cat person, but I was undisputedly a Polly person. I learned that all polydactyls descended from the original Hemingway cats. And these cats that live at the Hemingway House are protected by the National Park Service, probably as they’re living cultural relics. My Polly walked away into the woods one day and never returned home. I miss her terribly. And as I strolled through the house and the gardens of Hemingway’s old place, I encountered cat upon cat upon cat. One after another. In the grass, on the rooftops, and on Hemingway’s bed. I imagined Polly had finished her eighth life with me and that this life, her most luxurious, was her feline reward. It was her I saw on Hemingway’s bed, resting through her ninth life under the protection of the legislative pen.

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Then we headed north. When you are as far south as we were, even Miami is north. By nearly two hours. Except I made a wrong turn somewhere on US 1, lost all hope of finding a Chik-Fil-A, and we found ourselves driving through Little Haiti. It was an experience. We were all close to killing each other by this point but we managed to make it to Titusville by dinner time.

There was a beautiful wedding a few days later and an intimate reception at the bride and groom’s favorite restaurant. The next morning we packed up the car and headed to the movie theater to watch Avengers: Endgame with the bride & groom, the parents, the wedding party, etc.

We were on the road to New Hampshire by noon and home in our own beds two nights later.

 

adventuring, Maine, road trip, travel, winter

Winter & Brunswick, Maine

I decided to board an Amtrak train to Brunswick, Maine. This was months ago, just when New England seemed to be at the peak of an already long and cold winter. There was an opportunity to tour one of the most elite colleges in the country. We’d heard things about this place: the campus is small but charming, the food is phenomenal, there’s an Arctic museum on the grounds. And because we all seemed to be suffering from cabin fever, we booked a hotel across the street from the school and called it our Winter 2019 Family Vacation.

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Matt decided to drive to Brunswick where he would meet us at the station while Elle and I hopped on board the northbound Downeaster express. The route took us through Old Orchard Beach, Portland, alongside the L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport, and along the coast. From our huge windows we saw Ferris wheels, frozen rivers, and the ocean. It spit us out right in the center of downtown Brunswick. Admittedly, Brunswick is small. And it was cold. Not Brunswick’s fault. But the town’s smallness was much appreciated by those of us traveling on foot. Not so far to go to get to where you’re going.

The college tour was cold, of course. Led by a sophomore government major in a miniskirt. She’s from Montana and therefore immune to winters. And I, while not even close to being immune to winters, am starting to find all things beautiful in these icy cold climates. I dream of visiting Newfoundland and consider risking seasickness in order to seek out puffin colonies on the North Atlantic coast. Iceberg spotting from Twilingate. Sighting auroras from the shores of the Labrador Sea. Eating a proper Scotch egg made by a Nova Scotian. These kinds of things.

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Yet the closest I’ve been to any of these places is Brunswick. Our feet were frozen and raw from the walk around town. I got to touch a narwhal tusk. We ate delicious food.

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Back in 2016 Malcolm Gladwell trashed Bowdoin College for spending more money on their dining services (they consistently rank #1 in best college food) than on providing financial aid packages for low-income students. It’s an unfair assessment on how Bowdoin spends their endowment and generates funding for its stellar dining options. And would you know we opted not to eat at the college. Why? Because we’re a bunch of idiots and we just wanted to go home after a long, cold day on campus. Tired, cold idiots. Nobody thinks rationally when they’re tired and cold.

The good news is Elle graduated an entire year early, so the chances that we’ll get to take another tour around Bowdoin are good.  I’m totally going to eat on campus and I’m totally only taking another tour during the non-winter months.

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We drove home together the very next day. The Amtrak train ride to Brunswick was a practice run of sorts. We’d just recently found out my brother was getting married in Orlando in April. My husband wasn’t sure he’d be able to go, conflicting schedules and all. And I certainly wasn’t going to drive from New England to Central Florida without him. Flying? Out of the question.

That’s next…

adventuring, Maine, New Hampshire, road trip, Vermont

Is anybody out there?

A few months ago I said to myself, “Self, you should really update your blog.” And I didn’t because I doubt anyone reads this thing. Does that matter, though?

I’ve been busy. I’ve been really busy doing really cool things. Remember last fall when I was hired by a library outside of Concord to do their programming and help at the circulation desk? That didn’t even last nine months. But only because I was asked to be their new director in April.

This, I believed, was a horrible idea. Mainly because while I know had the skills, the knowledge, and the support of the board of trustees and the townspeople, I had no self-confidence. But I’m in my 40s now and it’s about time to start saying yes to things. So I said yes. It turns out I’m actually really good at this job. So, self-confidence, schmelf-confidence.

Since then, we’ve done a fair amount of adventuring. A road trip to Orlando for my brother’s wedding took us through parts of the country I had never seen before. And, if I may admit this, we went through parts of New York City and South Carolina that I never care to see again. Connecticut was my favorite state. South Carolina was my least.

It wasn’t long before we got cabin fever once again. While pulling out of the driveway to get groceries, the kiddo and I agreed to go to the store nearest to Starbucks. That snowballed into “Let’s drive an hour and a half north to that Starbucks and see what grocery stores are up that way.” So we did. We returned home nearly eight hours later having driven to the foothills of the White Mountains, over to Maine, and back around Lake Winnipesaukee.

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Mountains behind Chocorua Lake – Tamworth, New Hampshire

A few weeks later, one of my favorite library patrons told me about the Cabot cheese shop just over the Vermont border. I wasn’t in a hurry to go back through Vermont; our move to New Hampshire only a year ago brought us through the southern part of the state and I really didn’t like it. I felt claustrophobic. There were either steep hills or thick clusters of trees right by the roadside. No room to see. No room to breathe. But, we have a friend who lives in the area near the Cabot store (which, incidentally, is not the creamery or cheese factory) and my husband wanted to visit a local brewery. I found a bookstore nearby that’s been on my bucket list for some time.

Off we went to Vermont. And, this time, I didn’t want to leave. It’s a totally different Vermont near Woodstock.

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Ottauquechee River – Bridgewater, Vermont
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Quechee Gorge – Hartford, Vermont

And, finally, we got to spend some rushed-but-quality time in Portland just this past weekend. We’d visited a few spots in Maine over the winter: the first time was a college tour of Maine College of Art in Portland, and another tour around the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. But this time, we left the kid at home with the dogs and headed to a Lord Huron concert at Thompson’s Point. Another bookstore visit, another brewery, and a lobster roll. We came home yesterday afternoon, fell asleep quickly, and didn’t get out of bed until 10:00. We are still so very tired. But it was totally worth it.

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Thompson’s Point – Portland, Maine
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Portland, Maine wharf

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As usual, I’ve been reading. A LOT. Not as much as I would like, but the stuff I’ve managed to get my hands on has been pretty good stuff. I will do my best to keep up with the book recommendations and continue making a list of my favorite reads through the months.

The dogs are doing well. The hamster is still her normal, sassy self. How they managed to get through this recent heatwave boggles my mind. It reached 94 degrees here yesterday. And while we don’t have A/C, we do have a pool. But when the air is that hot, the pool can only do so much.

Thank goodness it’s over.