books, reading, what I'm reading

Favorite Books of 2018

Every year I set a personal challenge for myself on Goodreads. This year I set the number of books I would read to 50. I ended up changing that to 40 once I realized how demanding my job was (I often worked involuntary overtime and often worked until midnight) and how much I valued sleep over reading. When we found out we would be moving to New England, I all but gave up on even reaching 40 books.

But I managed to read 57 books this year! And I’ve started two more – one, My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares, is an audiobook; the other is Severance by Ling Ma, a new release I picked up from my December Book of the Month selection.

A few other interesting numbers: Of the 57 books I finished, 31 of them were fiction. This actually surprises me and makes me a little proud, too. It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself unable to choose a novel to read for fun. Everything I was reading, and had been trained to read, was a historical document or a nonfiction account.  Additionally, 35 books were written by female authors and only 13 of my 2018 reads were actually released in 2018.

Favorite Fiction:

The Girls by Emma Cline – This was one of the first novels I really got into this year. I’m certain The Girls was meant to mirror some aspects of Charles Manson’s followers, but I found myself appreciating the situation these young girls found themselves trying to navigate, and with little to no guidance from people they trusted. A coming-of-age story in a time when finding yourself could mean losing yourself.

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin – Hands down one of the best books I have ever read. Only Child gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of school shooting survivors, and in this case we meet the little brother of a fifth-grader who was gunned down in his classroom. Released only a week before the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Navin’s book was a raw read for me. And an eye-opening one, at that. Because we all think about the parents of the dead, but we never think about their siblings. Now I will always think about their siblings.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave – Little Bee was one of my commuter books that I was lucky enough to listen to on audio. I made the mistake of also reading The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya at the same time. Both books are incredible! However, Little Bee is fiction and I found myself confusing the stories. I feel like I did a disservice to them both. However, I will warn you: Little Bee has an emotionally graphic gang rape scene that will tear your heart to pieces. I remember telling myself “It’s not a true story,” over and over, just to shake it from my memory. But because I was becoming familiar with Wamariya’s account of her country’s civil war, I was not so naive to believe such a rape had not actually happened to someone. Something to keep in mind.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal – Why is this not a movie? I want to see these characters in real dimensions. I want to see them cook the food. I want Eva to be my best friend. And her cousin! Both of her cousins! Every character in this story is absolutely lovable, even when they’re being horrible. I’ve considered purchasing a copy of the print book simply so I can bring to life the recipes that featured so prominently in these people’s lives. Mostly I just want to get my hands on Pat Prager’s award-winning peanut butter bars, even if I have to make the damn things myself.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin – I loved everyone in this story except for Varya. I’m not sure why, since all the other characters had ample development and some emotional legitimacy, but Varya came off at the end like the author panicked and threw a bunch of emotional problems together. Did Benjamin believe Varya should be the carrier of all burdens? I actually find myself having more sympathy toward Bruna than Varya. This was still a wonderful book. And I think Benjamin touched on a very real and very human idea – would you live your life differently if you knew when it would end? My answer: YES.

Favorite Nonfiction:

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides – I read this book on a whim, really, and only because I had developed some unexpected Polar-centric interests when we moved north to Cleveland from Oklahoma. Now that I’m living a few hours from Canada, I’m practically obsessed with Polar exploration (this theme continues…you’ll see). Sides is an accomplished writer (he has a number of nonfiction books to his credit) and I’m convinced that everything he does is pure gold. In the Kingdom of Ice is a non-stop thrillfest of misery and endurance, from which you’ll find in yourself a deep appreciation of basic comforts, like heat, food, and a shelter that isn’t being crushed by early-forming pack ice.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann – Oklahomans, this should be required reading. Grann is a meticulous researcher and a skilled wordsmith, both of which lend to this incredibly readable account of the government’s poor treatment (that’s putting it lightly) of the Osage people and the tribe’s rightful claims to oil and money. Our library director also selected this book for our book club discussion, months after I had read it, but it was fascinating to hear others’ perspectives on just how and why local, state, and federal officials treated the crimes against the Osage so differently.  (I just ordered Grann’s newest book The White Darkness. In it, Grann tells the true story of a trio of descendants of Shackleton’s crew and their attempt to cross Antarctica by foot.  Tomorrow I’m ordering two more books of Polar fiction. I’m Polar-crazy.)

Dopesick by Beth Macy – Dopesick was the only book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading and wanted to throw against the wall when I was finished. The last page broke my heart. If you’ve read it, you probably know what I’m talking about. Macy gets so deep into her research that she finds herself becoming a part of the story. I can’t imagine that not happening when dealing with a topic like this. But Macy does humanize many of the people we seem to place so much blame upon, even as she tries help those who just can’t help themselves. I was absolutely furious when I closed this book, but not at Macy. Mostly at a particular doctor who tried to prescribe me some Oxy when I tested positive for strep throat. STREP THROAT, people.

The Butchering Art by Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris – I love my diseases and I love President James Garfield, so this book was a delightful marriage of the two. Fitzharris, an American, is a medical historian who lives in England. It seems only natural that Victorian medicine would become her favorite thing in the world. In this book, Fitzharris explores the evolution of anti-sepsis. It’s really that simple! Anti-sepsis and its benefits were not so simple to sell, however. Imagine how sick or dead we’d all be had it not been for Joseph Lister and his tenacity, his ability to convince the right people at the right time that he had the right solution to saving lives. Unfortunately, those who could have saved President Garfield’s life just by washing their hands were not immediately receptive to the idea. Thanks for trying anyway, Joseph.

What Remains by Carole Radziwill – It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am a Real Housewives junkie. I watch OC, Atlanta, New Jersey, Dallas, and New York (Beverly Hills is laaaaaaame). When Carole joined the New York cast a few years back, I found myself immediately fascinated with her. She comes from a middle-class family; she was a war journalist; she was married to a Kennedy (cousin, but still); she became BFFs with Carolyn Bessette; and she can write. How this woman endured such tragedy and grief in such a short amount of time (she loses Carolyn in the infamous JFK, Jr. plane crash, then her husband dies of cancer a few weeks later) is beyond me. So this is a really good book if you like crying in bed.


books, reading, what I'm reading


I now live in a place where driving time is measured by doubling, and sometimes tripling, the mileage between where you are and where you are going. My 19-mile commute takes me on roads with maximum speed limits of 40mph. Which means when I need to be at work at noon and I want an iced latte from Dunkin’ (which is quite often), I gotta leave my house an hour early. Commuting around here is no joke but at least the scenery is pretty.

During my first week of commuting to my job, I discovered my XM radio is kind of useless. I’m surrounded entirely by trees and rock walls against the roadside. There is hardly an open space for a satellite signal to reach me. If I’m driving anywhere else it works, though. But I’m rarely driving anywhere else. Occasionally I drive to the dentist (35 minutes away to the north) or to my brother’s place in Portsmouth (55 minutes away to the south). Sometimes I visit my daughter at work on the weekends (20 minutes away to the northeast). Distance is measured in time out here. And spending that time and distance with no working radio and only the thoughts in my head was starting to make me a little crackers.

The library I work for has a limited catalog of audiobooks, and audiobooks were never something I listened to before. I can barely pay attention to podcasts when I’m cooking or vacuuming because my attention is elsewhere, like focused on cooking or vacuuming. But a couple of months ago I gave audiobooks a chance (rest assured, I am still focused on driving), simply because I had no other options. And you guys! There’s some good stuff out there.

1. Still Alice by Lisa Genova

This was my first audiobook ever, and it’s a story that I kind of wish I had read in print form. The author is the narrator and I had a really difficult time in the beginning getting used to Genova’s lack of emotion while telling the story. This might have been why I wish I had read it myself. I learned an incredible amount of medical knowledge (for someone who hasn’t had to deal with Alzheimer’s disease in any way, directly or otherwise), and I hope the compassion this book compels its reader/listener to have is something I gained in the process. Genova is a gifted writer and Still Alice is a remarkable book. I just wasn’t a fan of the narration.

2. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

All of my fretting over narration and wondering if I would be able to get into another audiobook were pointless with this story. It’s narrated by B.D. Wong. HE’S INCREDIBLE! Every book should be narrated by B.D. Wong. Aside from my excitement over the narration, this was a truly lovely story. And I know for a fact that I would never have been as enthusiastic about reading Sijie’s novel as I was about listening to it as I drove back and forth from work. Balzac is a story about stories – the ones we read, the ones we tell, the ones we write, the ones we hide – and it follows three main characters as they grow up in re-education camps during China’s Cultural Revolution. And Four Eyes was probably one of my favorite characters ever, even if he was nothing more than an opportunistic little twerp. Maybe B.D. Wong had everything to do with that.

3. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Published in 2011, years before the rise of Trump and the need to make television series like The Handmaid’s Tale, When She Woke is a pretty realistic interpretation of what could be our near future. Hannah has had an abortion, a criminal offense in the new church-controlled America. As a result, she, and every other criminal in the country, are chromes, sentenced to live in their newly-colored skin that reflects the severity of their crimes. Hannah is a red, a murderer. However, When She Woke is just as much about Hannah’s past as it is about her future, and how she still holds steadfast to certain moral obligations (but not others). When I was finished with this one I felt…unsatisfied. There were just moments when I wanted her to do the exact opposite of what she was doing and it was unbelievably frustrating. I ignored that, though, simply because I couldn’t wait to back to this story everyday. As a matter of fact, I’m still rooting for Hannah.

4. Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Ford’s first novel Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is one of my favorite works of historical fiction. There is no other author out there who can take some of the worst things that America has done to a culture, that Americans have done to immigrants and minorities, and turn them into a beautiful story. Love and Other Consolation Prizes covers a lot of ground, from China to Seattle, and unfolds over the span of decades, moving back and forth. The transition from the 1900s to the 1950s and back is simple to follow, thanks to a gifted narrator. Jamie Ford also lends his voice to his final notes on the story, emphasizing the historic event on which the story is centered and how much we haven’t really changed. It is a hopeful story, but heavy with regrets and the acceptance of how life plays out.

5. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

I’m only on the second disc, but I already know this will be a favorite. Remember Holly from The Office? That’s Amy Ryan, and she’s a prominent narrator in this story! And my goodness, she’s fabulous! Unfortunately, I had a four-day break from work so I had to find ways to drive here, drive there, drive somewhere just so I could get a fix every day or so. The characters in Kitchens are tremendously likeable, even when they’re being awful, because Stradal just knows how to write them as simple people with not-so-simple problems.

My favorite quote so far: “Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful, and not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most.”

Part of me wants to get my hands on the print book just so I can continue reading where I’ve left off in the car. The only problem with that is I would totally miss out on the narrator’s glorious attempts at mimicking the Upper Midwest accent from my Upper Michigan childhood. Think Fargo, but in an argument. It’s so darn polite.


I have been reading a ton of book books, too, and I hope to put together an update on my most recent reads. Last year, I joined the Book of the Month club, in which I pay $14.99 each month and get to choose a new release (or more books from the archives). I recently considered cancelling my subscription because I have read so few of my actual selections. The new books just pile up and continue to exist on my shelves unread, so what was the point? Then I laughed and quickly got rid of the idea of getting rid of my Book of the Month membership.

Only a few weeks after I moved here I started a book club with a few local women and we’ve been meeting each month. Including my audiobook (Kitchens…) I am currently involved in a five different books. There were only four books until I hit a wall, you know when you just can’t get your head into anything? So I browsed the stacks of my local library (not the one I work in) for some new inspiration and found it: Roxane Gay’s Hunger. I likened this successful trip to the library to eating something someone else cooks. Sometimes it’s just better when someone else makes it.

adventuring, fall, garden, hiking, New Hampshire, weekending

Fall, so far.

Fall is most definitely here.

I could tell even a few weeks ago when the sunlight was a little different, never mind that we still had a day or two in the high 80s. The ferns and tall grasses have turned burgundy and gold. Nights are chillier, too. The flannel sheets went on the bed today in preparation for what’s to come. They say it’s going to be a brutal winter, whoever they are.


So here I am thinking back on the last three months of our lives in New Hampshire. These were good months if you prefer summer over winter. For some, summer was just as brutal as the winter we’re getting ready to supposedly endure. More than a handful of days in the mid- to high-90s were absolutely miserable. Remember, most of us up here don’t have air conditioning. This includes schools, libraries, state government buildings, etc. It was a rough summer. Even I, who used to brag about my Florida blood and superhuman abilities to withstand 100+ degree heat and humidity, broke down a couple of times.

That heat, though, and the unusually heavy downpours we had throughout the summer gave to me some of the best vegetables I’ve grown in years. In two years, to be exact. My backyard in Northeast Ohio was too damp and too shady to even grow more than a handful of cherry tomatoes (Did I even manage that? I can’t remember!). The sun beats down on my front porch garden in New Hampshire which, in turn, provided us with delicious Early Girl and Indigo Rose tomatoes. The zucchini was overtaken by bores (I was glad to hear others suffered the same fate and that it wasn’t just me), my pole runner beans are still going strong, and my snack pepper plant yielded only four. But that’s four more than I grew in two seasons in Ohio. And…and!…I planted some of this stuff as seed in mid-July!



Being the flatlander that I am at heart, I still find myself closed off a bit from the outside world (or maybe that has something to do with the fact that I live 25 minutes from the nearest decent-sized town). The lakes that dot the region are a nice break from all the trees and steep hills that crowd in close to the road. I’ve pulled over a few times on my way to and from work to take in the view at Rollins Pond and Alton Bay on the south end of Lake Winnipesaukee, near where I live. I’ve also had some time to just enjoy the scenery around here. It is exactly as beautiful as you’ve been told.



A few weeks ago, my brother convinced me to join him on a short hike. His goal that day was to get to the top of Mount Major, an easy day hike for most people. But I haven’t been hiking in years. I walk easily through parks and trails, but the last mountain I walked up was at least 10 years ago, and even that was on a paved trail. These mountain trails in New Hampshire involve climbing over rocks, dodging timber rattlesnakes and tree roots, and wearing out my lungs for no reason that they deserve. So I made a deal with my brother: Every month, he and I will pick a trail and hike it. These hikes will increase in difficulty and we cannot stop hiking even in the winter months. This deal is so serious that I made him – my younger brother who just turned 34 – pinky swear. But who are we kidding? We all know it’s me who’s going to need to be convinced to hike a mountain in the winter.

Our first hike was more of a walk. Actually, it was totally a walk. I asked him to take it easy on me on our inaugural hike, and then I chose a trail that was so ridiculously easy that even I felt like I had cheated. Unknowingly, of course. I offered up a second walk through a state forest preserve near the top of the mountain on which I live. There was a steep incline towards the end, giving me a fair idea of what I was getting myself into. We completed both of our walks in the woods within a matter of two hours or so. Then my brother grabbed some snacks and headed out to hike Mount Major. Last weekend he hiked up two mountains in a single day! I’ll get there. One day. Until then, we’re taking it one month, one hike, at a time. Next month we’re driving out to York, Maine to hike up Mount Agamenticus. That I can spell and pronounce the name of that mountain is probably more impressive than the moment I reach the top of it. I scheduled this hike for my birthday weekend. On purpose. Accountability. ‘Cause I need to be motivated to go outside, to be outside, even when it’s not summer.


Here’s a shot from our walk through the woods on a nearby trail, just as the wild goldenrod was at its most golden.


American history, culture, history, History Connections, music

History and Pop Culture: Billy Joel

For someone who was so willing to plunk down thousands of dollars (and what felt like an equal amount of hours) into researching and writing a master’s thesis, I have done absolutely nothing since I got my degree. I attributed it to burn-out and to starting a full-time job. Then winter in Ohio came and I endured my usual seasonal depression. Then we moved to New England. It’s been eight months since I submitted that sucker, and I can finally admit that I simply believed the same enthusiasm I had for historical disease research would carry over into my non-academic life. It didn’t. Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps I had shelved my self-discipline. Perhaps I was just tired. I believe, in a way, it was all three. No accountability. The work was done. Now what?

I hoped, however, that being literally surrounded by early American history (even the trees in New England have historical significance) would jump-start my interest once again and send me head first into a topic which, considering my location, would have ample sources to investigate. And that happened, temporarily. First, I came across a local controversy involving a Civil War hero and his horse in a nearby cemetery. Then I discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne’s involvement in creating New Hampshire’s tourism industry and the actual field of trauma tourism. Then…nothing. The spark of light that held my attention petered out just as uneventfully as it appeared – that is to say I hadn’t expected it to come or go, but I’m happy it kept me from being too overwhelmed with responsibilities during my first weeks here in New Hampshire.

Recently I started reading Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. When I think of North Korea, I often think of Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” As a kid, I absolutely adored Billy Joel’s music. I still do. I’m pretty sure my parents had a few of his albums, so his musical presence was nothing new whether it was from inside my house, or coming from my parents’ car stereo. I grew up in the 80s, but more importantly I lived on a military base in Northern Italy during the first half of the decade. I was always keenly aware of the Soviet nuclear threat and the fact that international flights were frequent terrorist targets. By the time the video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was released, I had memorized all the words and became ridiculously interested in all of Joel’s historical references. What is a Communist Bloc? Why are children on thalidomide? What IS thalidomide? Where is the Congo? And why are the Belgians there? It would be fair to say that Billy Joel deserves just as much credit as my visit to the Peshtigo Fire Museum and my high school history teacher, Mr. O’Malley, for enrooting in me the near-obsessive compulsion to discovering the who, what, where, when, and, most compellingly, the why in anyone’s story.

Sometimes I have to go back to the beginning to remind myself why I love history so much. It’s not that I forget, necessarily. It’s just that I find myself uninspired sometimes by the negativity of this world, weighed down by the heaviness of our current political climate. Earlier this year I deleted all of my news apps and, coincidentally, Facebook friends (and some family members) who feed the monster that is, in my opinion, besmirching the ideals that a good percentage of Americans from every background had finally started to come around to. Some of you might argue that my past research on biological genocide against native North American tribes or racial and economic disparities regarding Yellow Fever outbreaks is just as negative. I wouldn’t say you’re entirely wrong. But I think the country’s current epidemic of the Orange Fever is dangerous in its own way. Why? Because it’s happening now. Will Trump and anecdotes about his presidency ever make it into a song that also includes the lyrics “Black Lives Matter,” a reference to Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” and the inevitable end of the world? Maybe. And I’d probably love the hell out of it.

For me, there is no reason to study history if I can’t find some way to connect events, from yesterday or past centuries, to the reasons something exists, or doesn’t exist, today. Again, Billy Joel’s song encourages me to do that. He sang about the Ayatollah in Iran and Bernie Goetz, remember? Because of that Ayatollah in Iran, I know what an air raid siren sounds like because I had to respond to them when I was five years old. And because of Bernie Goetz, gun rights enthusiasts and activists can still make a good point in being legally self-armed, decades after Goetz made his.

About that fire, though: Billy Joel wants to know When we are gone, will it still burn on? Probably. Like he said, It was always burning since the world’s been turning. And with that, my fascination with historical trauma events and their affects on the modern world will never be without material. Admittedly, I am a little sad that I haven’t been terribly motivated by anything or anyone in history, as of yet, to start plugging away on the research and the writing. Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps I have shelved my self-discipline. Perhaps I am just tired.

Perhaps I should just write a history book that tackles every single one’s of Joel’s references in the order in which he sings…

American history, history, History Connections, New Hampshire, touristing

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Plymouth’s Most Famous Guest

There is a ridiculous amount of well-marked history in this region of the country. In fact, I’m almost certain that any patch of grass or pavement on which I stand has played a crucial role in something: An historic railroad junction; the deathplace of a notable townsman; a natural disaster with a terrible story that remains only in the buried memories of a bunch of dead people. This place is teeming with it all. Teeming, I tell you!

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at all when I happened upon a small town in the southern foothills of the White Mountains, stopped to have a small bowl of graham cracker ice cream (it exists, and it’s delicious), and unexpectedly discovered, in the tiny town commons, a memorial in honor of Nathaniel Hawthorne.


I will admit I have never read a single novel by Hawthorne. The only thing I actually knew about him, up to that point, was that he wrote The Scarlet Letter (a novel my friend, Katy, absolutely loathes), and that he was so ashamed of his family’s connection to the Salem Witch Trials that he changed the spelling of his last name so he would likely never be associated with them.

But what’s his association with Plymouth, New Hampshire?

It turns out that Hawthorne and President Franklin Pierce, a native New Hampshirite, were BFFs. Like, for a really long time, going back to their college years. Pierce had invited Hawthorne to travel to Plymouth where they both hoped the crisp, mountain air would alleviate Hawthorne’s many ailments. It didn’t, and Hawthorne died in his sleep on May 19, 1864. Pierce discovered his body just hours later. And while this was likely a somewhat traumatizing moment for Pierce, who had endured great loss in his life, it may have been exactly how Hawthorne hoped to die. The New York Herald wrote, ““It is a singular and happy circumstance that friends who have lived so many years upon terms of unrestricted intimacy as Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne should in the final hours of one still be so near to the other as to enable the survivor to hear, as it were, the last whisper of his friend as he entered the portals of eternity.”

And so, the town of Plymouth perhaps endears itself to fans of literary tourism by memorializing Hawthorne’s unexpected passing in a hotel that used to exist just across the street from this park. And I have no problem with that. Hawthorne probably wouldn’t have a problem with it, either. It seems that he, too, was a fan of trauma tourism and, because of his work, he even introduced the concept to those who vacationed to New England in the 19th century.

In 1835, Hawthorne wrote and published a short story called “The Ambitious Guest.” It was based on the freak deaths of seven members of the Willey family and two others who died in an avalanche of rockfall the occurred on August 28, 1826. The area in which the disaster occurred experienced a boom in tourism shortly after the Willey family’s story got around. The Willey family had fled to what they believed was a safe house, which ended up being buried in the rockslide. The Willey house itself sustained no damage at all. Artists of all kinds flocked to Willey Mountain in the area of Crawford Notch. Painters Thomas Cole and John Frederick Kensett, along with Hawthorne, are often credited with either promoting the beauty and history of Willey Mountain, or just flat out exploiting the deaths of an entire family through their chosen art forms.

The title character in “The Ambitious Guest” has no name. He is simply a stranger whose arrival brings to the family a sense of excitement, a newfound desire to live a more meaningful life than the sleepy one they have chosen on the mountainside. They share with each other what they wish to have engraved on their tombstones, to tell others how they lived their lives. The children in the group joyfully announce all that they will accomplish before their deaths, now that they’ve been encouraged by this ambitious guest of theirs. The stranger, who refers to himself as “a nameless youth” declares, “But I cannot die till I have achieved my destiny. Then, let Death come! I shall have built my monument!”

Moments later, he ponders, “I wonder how mariners feel when the ship is sinking, and they, unknown and undistinguished, are to be buried together in the ocean–that wide and nameless sepulchre?” Suddenly, a rumbling from outside begins to sound and the family, with their guest, flees to their safe house. An avalanche of rockfall crushes them all. They are never found. They are buried together in the ocean of rock and debris–that wide and nameless sepulchre.

That kind of anonymity does not apply to Nathaniel Hawthorne obviously. He died in Plymouth, and by god, they’re going to announce it to everyone with this monument. There is a statue of him in Salem, Massachusetts, the place where was born but never felt like he belonged. And his grave site is located in Concord, Massachusetts, where he shares cemetery real estate with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. They were his equals. They were his friends. They were also his pallbearers. But Hawthorne, according to Emerson, suffered from his own loneliness. It is believed by some that his solitude and suffering are what ultimately killed him (it is now known that he died of stomach cancer). In death, Hawthorne is revered and celebrated. But in life, Hawthorne may have endured an existence aboard what his own creation, the nameless youth, called a sinking ship.

“I shall have built my monument!” This is what the stranger wanted, yet, could this really be what Hawthorne wanted? I don’t believe Plymouth is exploiting Hawthorne’s death at all. The monument is merely a desire to be a part of the Hawthorne narrative. Plymouth inspired Hawthorne and welcomed him whenever he came through. The town was clearly one facet of his life that helped keep his ship from sinking even sooner.

cruelty-free, self-care, vegan, vegetarian

Making the Transition

When I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, I teamed up with an organization called The Girls Gone Green to document my struggles and achievements in being newly vegetarian. I wrote a few blog posts for their website and quickly earned the support of other local vegetarians. And then I failed. I failed big. I might have lasted less than a week, but I think that was mostly because of my poor planning and, as I am wont to do, my eagerness to just dive right in. The last thing I wrote to The Girls Gone Green was an apology letter. Clearly, I just wasn’t ready to be a vegetarian. This was seven years ago.

In fact, I’m still not ready to be a vegetarian. And this is something I’ve been thinking about quite often in the last few months. Do I enjoy bacon? Of course. How about chicken? Sure! And my recent introduction to haddock and fried clams assures me even more that I’m not ready to make the transition to vegetarianism just yet.

However, I have found other ways to compensate for my inability to change my diet. (I say compensate because I do feel a little bit of guilt over my conscious decision not to make the change. I live with a sometimes debilitating health condition that causes me to avoid changing my diet too much. Also, laziness.) I actively seek out the kind of meats that are raised and cared for by local farmers. But I also seek out cruelty-free (CF) and vegan products that I use everyday.

I’m talking hand soap, makeup, hair care products, etc. At the start of the new year, I brought nearly all of my Bath and Body Works lotions and body sprays to my new job and gave them away. I quickly replaced them with CF and vegan products. Not one to wear a lot of makeup, I wasn’t terribly inconvenienced by the lack of options in most stores. And the sticker shock I was anticipating never even occurred. Sure, your Suave shampoo might only cost three bucks less than my fancy, vegan shampoo, but MY GAWWWD – have you ever felt hair that has been washed and conditioned with plant-based nutrients? That alone is worth the extra three bucks. BELIEVE ME.

A few friends have asked about the products I’ve switched over to, where to find them, and how well they actually work. Disclaimer: I am so spankin’ new at this, so don’t hold anything I say against me. I could be totally wrong about some things. For example, a lot of products will claim “this product was not tested on animals,” leading one to believe the item is cruelty-free. It’s not. It just means the final product wasn’t tested on animals; a whole ton of its ingredients were tested on animals. I am aware of this now, so I tend to do more research. Another claim to be wary of: when a company claims that its products are cruelty-free or vegan, that could just mean the brand or product line is CF or vegan. Yet you’ll notice it was distributed by Unilever or Proctor & Gamble, two larger companies that just took your money because they appealed to your ethical conscience. I’ve been suckered by this a few times myself.

So, here is a list of products I actively use after much research and a whole lot of asking questions:

Lotion – This was kind of the product that started it all. During my first spring in Cleveland, my daughter and I attended VegFest. It’s a huge expo that promotes vegetarian/vegan food systems, cruelty-free/vegan body products, animal welfare groups, and sustainable, ethically-made clothing, among so many other things. I happened upon a vendor booth for Perfectly Posh and ended up buying a body butter that smelled like sugared violets for $22. It took me days to come to terms with the fact that I’d just spent $22 on lotion that I could easily buy at CVS for $4. But could I really? No, I couldn’t. I loved how it made me feel on the inside (cheesy, I know), and I worked really hard not to waste it. It also made me start thinking about how easily I could move away from chemical-based, yet less inexpensive items and put my money into a company with products I could trust. Perfectly Posh provides CF and vegan products, like lotions, lip balms, body sprays and perfumes. Pacifica is another company that does the same.

Shampoo/Conditioner – I have used two different brands, Renpure and Love Beauty and Planet. Both leave my hair feeling really good and smelling even better. I do have to admit that I have a preference for Love Beauty and Planet, though. During the last few months we lived in Cleveland, my well water was consistently failing inspection so we removed the water softening agent. My hair still felt incredible. Renpure has a delicious scent, too, but if I had easy store access to Love Beauty and Planet products, I’d buy those first. Anyone reading this from Ohio? Giant Eagle grocery stores have a fairly good selection of LBC products.

Lip Balm – I will admit, I am kind of in love with Bath and Body Works lip glosses. They’re long-lasting, taste great, and aren’t terribly sticky. But they do test their ingredients on animals. So I had to chuck those, which hurt. I mean, when you find something you love, it’s hard to let go. Except I did find some great replacements. In fact, one of them was discovered today! As I mentioned earlier, Perfectly Posh has a great lineup of lip care items. However, this afternoon I was at a local arts and crafts festival and came upon a small home-based company called Vermont Simple Beauty. Their product label only says “This product not tested on animals,” but I don’t know what the regulations are for small companies and cruelty-free labeling. So I asked. Being able to talk face-to-face with the makers of these products helped so much, since they were open to sharing with me the ethical sourcing of all their ingredients. This doesn’t have a mention on their website, unfortunately. Which, I guess, means when in doubt, ask! And because I did, I came home with an 8-oz container of grapefruit-and-lily-scented face moisturizer (called Ambrosia on their website) and a maple-flavored lip balm. Only in New England would I ever find maple-flavored lip balm.

Deodorant/Anti-Perspirant – This is a tough one. I have tried SO MANY BRANDS, it’s ridiculous. Tom’s of Maine is the most accessible in a grocery store, but it doesn’t work on me. That doesn’t mean it won’t work for someone else, so play with it. See if you like it. If you don’t, however, there’s always Crystal. It is a deodorant, not an anti-perspirant. I still feel a little…uh, sticky (?), but I don’t stink. And that’s a win!

Sunscreen – Only recently did I realize this would come up. I use sunscreen a lot these days because my new house has a pool. Also, New Hampshire is indescribably beautiful and it makes me want to be outside ALL THE TIME. About 20 years ago, I started taking a birth control pill that affected my skin in the weirdest way. I wore baseball caps in the ocean and slathered on 80 SPF to curb the raccoon mask that developed on my face every damn year. Even when wearing sunscreen, my face would become so discolored from sun exposure that I eventually stopped going to the beach. Then I switched pills. It may have been the prescription that did it to me, but every hormone pill can lead to that facial discoloration, also known as Pregnancy Mask. Yet how many people think about CF or vegan sunscreen? Or even know where to find it? Thankfully, I did! Sun Bum sunscreen has a line of face lotions, body lotions, and lip care all with SPF. I found a 50 SPF sunscreen created for my face and a face stick in 30 SPF. I still use Banana Boat sunscreen spray for the rest of me (see, it’s a process), but I’m still coming to terms with paying $16 for a 6 oz spray can. Gimme another year or so.

Makeup – The only makeup I really wear is lip balm (see above) and face powder. I currently use Cover Girl loose powder, but that’s because I’m too lazy to shop for actual makeup. When I do make that transition, though, I will more than likely head to Beauty Without Cruelty. While I’m not big on face makeup, I do have a lot of nail polish. That is a bigger purge session than I want to even think about right now. But again, in time…

There are a few other things that I’m still in the process of discovering and learning about, like shaving cream and toothpaste. I am a dental freak of nature. Any changes in my toothbrushing regimen might just make the stability of my entire mouth collapse into a yearlong pain-fest. So that is one product I refuse to budge on. Shaving cream, though, could be substituted with my hair conditioner – something I’m not too classy to admit I’m willing to do.

By the end of the year, I will begin working on planning fewer meat-filled meals and, well, planning meals in general. My lack of a plan was what led to my emotional breakdown the first time I tried to go vegetarian. I know better now.

So, help me out, readers. (All four of you. Ha!) Any suggestions? Any bits of information I’ve gotten wrong? I’m eager to learn about vegetarianism, CF and vegan products, anything!

American history, history, History Connections, New Hampshire

Major Savage & Old Tom, Part Two

(Part One can be found here)

George Savage and his trusty horse, Old Tom, returned to Alton, New Hampshire, shortly after they were both wounded in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Old Tom had become a part of George’s family and, in turn, became a part of Alton’s small-town character. Both were Civil War heroes. In fact, George credited Old Tom with saving his life in battle.

So it was with this loyalty to Old Tom that George asked the citizens of Alton to allow his horse to be buried in the town cemetery. The unusual request got a few folks riled up. Residents of Alton were split. On the one hand, Old Tom had performed admirably in battle. On the other hand, however, Old Tom was, to some, just a horse. If this was allowed, who’s to say more people wouldn’t request to save a plot next to theirs for their most beloved pets, no matter the size? The cemetery trustees mulled it over and Alton’s citizens became embroiled in a short-lived controversy. In the end, the trustees just wouldn’t allow it.

Major George Savage died in 1883, but not before a compromise had been reached with town officials: Old Tom could not be buried on the grounds in the cemetery, but the trustees would allow for Old Tom to be buried just outside the cemetery walls. George, according to record, believed this to be a reasonable arrangement.


George Savage’s burial marker


When Old Tom died in 1885, town officials honored their agreement with George. Old Tom was buried outside the cemetery, but as near to George as the boundary walls would allow.


Old Tom’s headstone


Except, over time, a certain kind of irony has directed the course of Old Tom’s popularity and the endearing story of George Savage’s love for his horse. Alton is a small town, but thousands of people have continued to live here and die here over the 133 years since the death of Old Tom. The town cemetery eventually expanded in ways it probably never planned for back in the 19th century. In fact, driving around the town of Alton, I found two separate entrances into the cemetery, each from a major corridor leading commuters in and out of the region.

The walls have most definitely been moved. Which means Old Tom is now within the walls of the cemetery. But not only is Old Tom inside the cemetery, he is directly in the center. ON A SMALL HILL, no less.

And doesn’t that just make you feel good?

Major George Savage would, undoubtedly, be quite pleased. Although his initial wishes were quashed by local officials and neighbors who felt completely uncomfortable with the idea of sharing burial grounds with a horse, it all worked out over time. George’s family plot and Old Tom’s burial site are both flanked by small, white picket fences. And they are facing each other, open to pedestrian visitors who can easily walk from one site to the other.

Did someone design it that way? I don’t know. And that’s not the only question I find myself without an answer to. I’m also curious to know who stepped up to care for Old Tom when George died. Because that person, whoever it was, probably deserves a little credit. Don’t you imagine he or she saw to it that the agreement between George and the trustees regarding Old Tom was honored? That Old Tom received the burial he was promised?

From George to Old Tom, from the trustees to the mystery caretakers, and, nowadays, from the cemetery groundskeepers to the history-seeking public, there is a whole lot of loyalty to be discovered in this story. One can only wish to have this kind of dedication bestowed upon them upon their death. Yet this here’s a tale about a man and his horse…