Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis

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I remember reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed a few years ago, and how I felt so in awe of her experience on the Pacific Crest Trail as well as her personal transformation over the course of her journey. I was inspired on so many different levels, and I remember researching the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail at the time. I remember that I thought I wanted to attempt one of them, at least until I realized I was already working full-time at that point and probably wouldn’t be able to support myself for so long without income. I like to think that because I’m a hiker and avid about the outdoors my inspiration was on a deeper level than the women portrayed on the Gilmore Girls revival A Year in the Life, but who knows. I’ve accepted the fact now that I probably won’t be doing any thru-hikes in my lifetime, and I’m okay with that. But the feeling of awe never really went away, and since then I’ve been drawn to books and memoirs by and about other PCT hikers, and Appalachian Trail hikers too (see my On Trails post here). When I stumbled upon Wild by Nature in the bookstore this past December, though, I think I was in shock.

It was one thing to spend a few months or a summer hiking a trail in one’s native country. It is a completely other (and in my opinion more monumental) thing to spend three years walking through some of the world’s most desolate landscapes in a journey that encompasses two continents! Not to mention the dangers that inhabit each of the countries Sarah Marquis wandered through, and the fact that this was all a completely solo expedition! She takes her love of the outdoors, and Earth overall, to a level that I had never encountered before. I couldn’t wait to dive into this book.

I started reading Wild by Nature on a plane on my way to Texas for a work trip. I was traveling with a male coworker who is in his sixties, and he noticed the book and asked to look at it. I handed it over, and he looked at the cover and glanced through some of the photos before giving it back. “Wow,” was his only comment. If you knew this man personally, you would understand that this is actually one of the highest compliments he can possibly bestow on anyone.

Marquis’ journey is incredible. She faced so many hardships throughout the expedition, but despite everything she remained positive and happy and so grateful about the experience. She walked through sub-zero temperatures and scorching heat, she faced down thieves on horseback and drug dealers, she battled dengue fever and tropic ringworm and a severe tooth abscess, and yet she continued her trek with an amazingly positive attitude. The distance and length of the expedition is awe-inspiring enough without the rough spots; she crossed over 10,000 miles on foot over the course of three years!

While reading the book, I think I was most inspired by her positive attitude, and I can’t say that enough. Many of the sections ended with Marquis offering up a grateful “Thank you, thank you…”. It provided me with a much better perspective on things in my own life. If she was able to continue the expedition and stay positive after dealing with some of the obstacles she faced, then I think it’s time I adopt a similar attitude for situations (not as intense) in my personal life.

I think when I started this book I was expecting more of an adventure story. While it does chronicle Marquis’ solo trek through the wilderness (which is indeed adventurous), I think I was more drawn to the spiritual and philosophical aspects of her journey. Marquis stressed the importance of a simple life tied to nature, and I think this book was a gentle reminder that I need a little more balance in my own life. Things have been crazy lately; I feel like I’m constantly jumping from one thing to another and it’s definitely been taking a toll. At one point in the book, Marquis talked about how your body knows what it needs and gives you signs to signal those needs; all you have to do is listen. I can’t help but draw parallels to my own life right now. I’ve been running, and admittedly stressing, almost nonstop since the holiday season. I kept saying that I needed to start slowing down and taking care of myself, but for January and most of this month I continued to ignore my own advice. So what did my body do? It threw a sinus infection and tendonitis at me, quite literally forcing me to take it easy and rest. And as odd as this may sound given my current condition, I actually do feel better!

As I’m reflecting on it now, I’m grateful that I read this book. It wasn’t quite what I expected but it was what I needed at this point in my life. Sarah Marquis is without a doubt an amazing individual, and I am truly inspired by her story. I’m looking forward to following her story on any future expeditions she challenges herself to.

 

 

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Never Let Me Go” has been on my reading list for a long time. I remember adding it to my list back when I still kept track of books that I wanted to read on the Notes app on my iPhone. But somehow, over the years, it kept slipping further and further down my list, and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I decided to read it on a whim.

On the night that I bought it, I had plans to meet a friend for dinner after work. But dinner reservations were for that awkward time that would make me too early by going straight from the office, but not really worth it if I went home first. So naturally I stopped at a bookstore on the way to kill some time. I’m participating in a book exchange that one of my friends started, so I needed to stop there anyway to pick up a copy of “The Alchemist” to send off. I remember wandering around the bookstore aimlessly, going from the fiction section to biographies to business books, trying to find something for myself. And then I noticed “Never Let Me Go,” and I remembered how long I’ve been wanting to read it, so I grabbed it and left.

I’m rambling a little bit about why I bought it because I don’t want to go into too much detail about the book itself. The basic summary of the book is this: Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grew up together at an exclusive boarding school in the English countryside. Now they’re adults and have reentered each others’ lives, and Kathy finds herself reflecting on and trying to understand everything about their past. That’s not much of a description, but I feel like that’s all I really knew when I started reading the book. And I think I enjoyed it so much because I didn’t know too much about it- which is why I’m trying to avoid talking about the plot here. This is one of those novels that doesn’t really have an introductory scene, it just picks up with one of the characters going about their day. You don’t really know what’s going on, or why they’re doing what they’re doing, or to some extent what they’re talking about. But you figure it out as you keep reading, and everything settles into place.

Another thing that took some getting used to was the conversational tone of the book. It’s written in Kathy’s point of view, and it’s as if she’s sitting with you and telling you a story. But it’s just like any story that a friend or family member tries to tell you; sometimes she backtracks to explain other details before starting on one topic, and at other times it feels like she’s getting ahead of herself and talking about things you don’t understand yet. But once I got used to her tone, it almost made the book seem more intimate. I felt more connected with the characters, and to everything that happened to them.

Once I started to understand the characters, and what the premise of the novel was about, it became more and more heartbreaking. And it wasn’t sad in the sense that I was crying over any particular scene (there were no tears shed, I’m not much of a crier when it comes to books). It was more of a growing sense of pity and compassion for the characters. But I don’t want to say too much about it, because I think not knowing is part of the beauty of the novel.

This book is one that I’m really trying to encourage my friends to read, mainly because I want to talk about it! But I also think it would be great for a book club; there are a lot of topics presented that would make a good discussion. When it comes to enjoying books I think some are meant to be consumed all at once, and the thrill is in reading the story as it happens. For other books, I think the pleasure is in the way they sit with you after you finished reading them. “Never Let Me Go” is definitely one of the latter, at least for me. I’m so happy that I finally decided to read it, and I can’t wait to hear what other people think.

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

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I must admit, I’m starting my 2017 reading list much better than 2016. I started this one on New Year’s Day and finished the other night. My reading challenge goal on my Goodreads Account last year was 50, and I only read 39 books. This year I adjusted to 45, and if I keep up this pace then hopefully I’ll meet my goal!

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book! Reading it put me in a very “Girl Power” kind of mood, and I felt so much more comfortable with myself being a twenty-six-year-old single woman. On a very basic level, one of the things that struck me about “All the Single Ladies” was that most (if not all) of the women interviewed are so successful, and they are all relatively young! I was so impressed with the accomplishments of these women, and just reading about them has given me motivation that I’ve been lacking recently. I’m not going to lie, since I started this book I’ve begun putting together a new five-year career plan, something which I’ve never bothered with before. I feel like I have always been a “go with the flow” kind of person, and since I’m reasonably smart and hard-working I’ve just always assumed that things would work out in good ways. But reading about the amazing women in this book who are starting companies and nonprofits, and they’re socially and politically active, it just really hit me: I could be doing so much more. Instead of just reading about amazing women I could actually be one myself.

“All the Single Ladies” also provided a view of women’s rights that I’ve never really considered before. It never occurred to me that by default, the system is pretty much designed to make it much harder for single women to live a happy, independent life (compared to married couples and men). And I’m a single lady myself! You would think that I would’ve thought about this, but I haven’t. And now that I am thinking about it, I’ve realized that I’ve had conversations with co-workers and colleagues circling these ideas, though framed in different contexts. One of the things I really appreciated was the appendix of this book, where Traister listed policies and attitudes that she believes must change as single women move forward in the world. It’s a good resource for talking points, as well as what to look out for in politics.

When it comes to feminism and what that means socially and politically, sometimes I feel like I’m just not as knowledgeable as I would like to be. Though I’ve always identified as a feminist, it wasn’t until I joined Our Shared Shelf (Emma Watson’s feminist book club on Goodreads) last year that I really started learning more about what that actually means for different people. Feminism is all about equal rights for men and women, and there are so many different perspectives you can examine. That book club has really opened up my eyes to women’s experiences that are vastly different from my own, and it’s been a great learning experience. This book, however, looks at it from the perspective of single women in the United States, who face their own set of troubles and limitations, which is something I relate to very much.

In its most general sense, “All the Single Ladies” is an investigation of the current trend of delaying (or opting out of completely) marriage. In this book, Traister has put together a comprehensive study of all aspects of single women: history, politics, relationships (both friendships and sexual), poverty, independence, city life, and more. Some of the chapters I felt really hit home, and I was able to identify with them very well. Other chapters, not so much, but I was still invested in the discussion.

In the introduction, Traister quotes Simone de Beauvoir’s observation about real life women: we “are married, or have been, or plan to be, or suffer from not being.” For most of history (and often still today) women are expected to marry and raise children, and if they don’t they are viewed as incomplete or damaged or selfish or any combination of these. This topic came up at work yesterday, and was directed at me. One of my (female) co-workers said that she was “looking out for a man for me.” Trying to speak lightly about it, I responded by saying that I wasn’t really looking anyway, and her answer was that that’s why she was doing it for me. And that conversation isn’t the only time my singlehood has been discussed at work; it happens on a fairly regular basis, which becomes very annoying and sometimes hurtful. But seriously, I’m happy that I’m not married or trying to get married anytime soon. I’ve come to the realization lately that I am generally more unhappy when I’m in a relationship, compared to when I’m not. And for the first time in my life, I’m really focusing on myself and what I want, and it’s freeing! I feel like I’ve been much more excited about things lately, and this book added to that feeling. It was probably one of the best ways to start off a new year, and I’m looking forward to seeing what I accomplish, as well as all the other single ladies across the country.

The Best Simple Recipes from America’s Test Kitchen

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First things first, I didn’t really intend for my first post of 2017 to be about a cookbook. But last night I cooked one of my favorite meals and it occurred to me that it was a recipe originally adapted from one in this book.  With it being a new year and people making resolutions to be healthier, maybe it’s a good time to post about a cookbook.

I generally enjoy cooking, but I’m not one to buy cookbooks all the time. I probably only purchase one a year, if that.  But I’ve had this one for about 4-5 years now, and it’s without a doubt the one that I’ve used most often throughout the years.  I first discovered it through a recipe I found on Pinterest for a spicy sausage pasta bake.  The blog post indicated the recipe had originally come from this book, and when I enjoyed the meal I thought it was worth it to buy the cookbook itself.

Like I said, that was about 4-5 years ago, and it was just after I finished college. Back then, I really wanted to start cooking decent meals that were more elaborate than the “make-it-a-meal” option on the back of your standard boxed side dish.  I had grown up in a household of really good home-cooked dinners and I wanted that for myself, but life was getting in my way.  With my job, I wasn’t getting home from work until close to 6, and my evenings were spent trying to juggle friends, networking, and dating as well as basic adulting skills like cleaning, cooking, and working out.  And that’s not including the downtime I wanted for myself to read books, binge Netflix, and learn to knit/play guitar/speak Spanish/insert random hobby (I’ve had a lot of “learn how to” goals over the years).

My biggest problem with cooking was finding the time to make a meal, and that’s why this cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen was perfect.  All of the recipes in here are designed to be made in 30 minutes or less, so it’s not like I was spending a huge chunk of my evening to make a gourmet meal.  And the recipes are good!  Thinking about it now, I can list at least 5 or 6 meals that are some of my favorite go-to’s now, and they’re recipes that are either straight from or slightly adapted from this cookbook.  And as an added bonus, there are so many helpful tidbits throughout the book about buying fresh vs frozen, what to look for when buying different types of meat, how to prepare different foods, etc.

One thing to note though, some of these recipes do take a bit longer than 30 minutes (at least for me!). Sometimes I think the prep time takes a little bit longer than it should.  I have to acknowledge the fact that my vegetable-chopping skills are below average, so in my case that’s where some of the extra time comes from.  Though I have improved since I got a Slap Chop, I would highly recommend it if you have the same problem!

The other thing to note is that the recipes in this book typically make 4 to 6 servings. This isn’t a problem if you have a family or group of people to cook for, but as a single person living alone I always make adjustments.  Usually I half the recipes and eat the balance as leftovers, which has worked out well for me over the years.  I did take a quick look at other cookbooks that they offer, and they have a Cooking For Two and a Make-Ahead Cook version which might be worth taking a look at as an alternative.

So in the spirit of New Year’s, if one of your resolutions is to cook more at home then I would definitely recommend this cookbook! For me, one of my resolutions is to update this blog more often, so hopefully I’ll be posting more about regular books soon!  Happy New Year and hopefully we all keep up with our goals!

Love With a Chance of Drowning

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To be perfectly honest (and petty), I’m immensely jealous of Torre DeRoche after reading her memoir. Actually, if I’m going to be really honest I’ll say that I was immensely jealous about twenty pages in, and my envy only grew throughout the remainder of the book. I mean, she walks into a bar, approaches an attractive guy that just so happens to be a sexy Argentinean man, and not only does their drunken hook-up turn into a real, meaningful relationship but she ends up sailing halfway around the world with him! For me, personally, I would be completely and totally happy with about one of the above, let alone all of them! Torre DeRoche is one lucky woman, and I would do anything for her to show me her ways!

Okay, but all silliness and pettiness aside, I was very inspired by her story. And not just in the I-would-love-to-quit-my-job-and-travel-the-world way. Much of “Love With a Chance of Drowning” was about overcoming fears, or at the very least learning to live with them. And it was a very good examination of relationships, and how sometimes it’s not easy to reconcile the long term goals and dreams of two different people. Also, I think it was a good lesson on how to determine when you’re ready- for a move, for a job change, for whatever.

So in this book, Torre DeRoche tells the story of how she ended up sailing across the Pacific Ocean with her boyfriend, Ivan. Not only is this incredible by itself, but it’s made more incredible by the fact that Torre was very afraid of deep water. That’s right- a woman who was afraid of water spent two years sailing on the ocean! If that’s not the definition of overcoming fears, I don’t know what is. For Torre, the one thing holding her back was herself and her own trepidations. She talked a lot about how her experience was something she would tell her grandchildren about. Basically, she was presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, and she could either take advantage of it or turn it down because she was afraid. Obviously, she chose to embrace the adventure. But her fears didn’t end with her decision to go; her anxiety and stress were present throughout the book. Sailing across the Pacific Ocean sounds glamorous, but in reality it can be very dangerous. Over and over again Torre found ways to face down her fear and enjoy their adventure together, despite the risks. I think that was one of my favorite takeaways: you don’t have to be fearless to go on an adventure, you just have to be brave one day at a time.

Tied into Torre’s fears about the trip were her feelings for Ivan, her boyfriend. The relationship seemed to move at lightning speed: they met, then they were dating, within months they were living together, and almost within a year they were sailing the open seas together. I’ve had some experience being in a relationship that moves at hyper-speed, and in my case it didn’t work out. I had jumped in with both feet before I was ready to accept that his dreams were vastly different from mine. In my situation, he broke up with me because he was afraid that I wouldn’t be happy in the long run. It was brutal at the time, but looking back on the experience I think it was the right thing. I think I would have become miserable a few years in, and would have caused a lot more pain for everyone if it had continued. In a sense, Torre’s experience started out the same way. She committed to the trip knowing that Ivan had dreams of spending his life on the ocean. By comparison, she was a city girl with ties to civilization and people, and had plans to live out her life in Australia, her homeland. This dichotomy between the two of them was apparent throughout the book, and in some ways contributed to Torre’s stress and anxiety. It was proof that relationships aren’t easy, and that they often require sacrifice from both parties. This true story of a couple’s experience was evidence that love isn’t the fairytale that fiction pretends it is.

Aside from lessons on fear and relationships, I was most impressed with how and when Torre and Ivan knew it was time to let go and begin their journey. They had spent months living in the sailboat as it was docked in Los Angeles, and doing everything possible to prepare for their trip. For Torre, that meant learning how to sail as well as helping Ivan improve the boat so it was in its best condition. They received some frightening “advice” from some of the people they encountered. Sometimes they were told they would die at sea. Other times people said they were crazy and inexperienced, and it was too dangerous. But one woman told them that if they kept trying to prepare for the journey, then they would never leave. She said that it was impossible to ever be ready for such a trip, and it was just a matter of waking up and deciding to go. This stuck with me. It reminded me of a John Green quote from Paper Towns, which I’ll try to loosely quote here: “Leaving is the hardest thing to do, until you go. Then it’s the easiest damn thing in the world.” This quote, and Torre and Ivan’s experience, shows that we’re never really ready for what’s coming. There is no way to ever be completely prepared for what’s ahead. It’s just a matter of making a decision and sticking to it, and figuring it out along the way.

I wasn’t really expecting all of these important life lessons when I started reading this book. I was expecting it to be a light and comical read, without the philosophy lessons. However, I’m happy that these messages were there along with the humor. In a way, this was just what I needed to read at this point in my life, and I’m pleased that I had the notion to pick it up one day.

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

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Faithful- the latest novel by Alice Hoffman

A few weeks ago my friend and I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by author Alice Hoffman.  (This is the same friend who recommended Girl Underwater this past spring).  Our local library regularly hosts authors for lectures, but I had never attended one before.  Though I hadn’t read any of Alice Hoffman’s books I thought it would be something different to do, and an interesting experience as well.  And it was- I took a lot away from the hour that I spent there.

She talked about how books have had an impact on her life, both as a reader and a writer.  She referenced books that were significant to her throughout her childhood and young adulthood.  One of the most memorable things that Ms. Hoffman said was that she feels that books you read in your middle school and early teenage years stay with you throughout your life, and become a part of who you are.  This is something that I completely agree with, though I’ve never thought about it before.  Looking forward, I think this is a topic that I’ll elaborate more on in a later blog post.

Much of the lecture was about Hoffman’s development as a writer, and how she came to be a successful author.  As someone who has wanted to be a writer since the time I could read and write, I enjoyed this part of the discussion.  It inspired me to focus more on my writing (which is partly why I’ve been slacking on my reading list and blog updates).

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My signed copy!

Before opening up the discussion for questions, Alice read aloud an excerpt from her latest book, Faithful.  From reading the book jacket of the signed copy I had purchased, I knew that the story was about a young woman who was struggling to move on with her life following an accident that involved her best friend.  The section that Alice read aloud from was a scene in which the main character’s mother visited her on her birthday.  It was also the first time she saw her daughter’s apartment in New York City.  The main character, Shelby, was worried about the state of her apartment and what her mom would think of her life in the city.  She had tried putting off the visit, but her mother insisted.  I almost laughed aloud; I’ve lived out this scene a number of times in my own life.  For that scene alone, I couldn’t wait to start reading the book.

The novel begins post-accident, at the height of Shelby’s depression.  It spans about ten years, mostly centering on Shelby’s personal development.  But it also examines her relationships with the important people in her life: her mother, her boyfriend, her friends.  As someone who has felt a little bit lost at different points in life, I appreciated the way that Faithful presented Shelby’s mental health.  She wasn’t perceived as whiney or ungrateful, which I’ve experienced in reading other books about young women going through a tough time.  The novel never shied away from the fact that she was in a dark place, and it provided a pretty accurate depiction of someone trying to put their life back together without having any real idea of how or what to do.  It was realistic in showing that not everything comes together all at once, and sometimes moving forward means you have to backtrack a little bit first.

I enjoyed reading about Shelby’s journey in Faithful.  It was a welcome surprise coming from a lecture that I originally signed up for just because I wanted something different to do.  And as an added bonus, it opened me up to another author whose books I plan on adding to my (ever-growing) reading list.  I’m looking forward to reading more from Alice Hoffman someday soon.

 

On Trails by Robert Moor

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As a hiker, I was intrigued by the concept of On Trails. Written by Robert Moor, the book’s origins started out as musings during Moor’s thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2009.  He began wondering where trails came from, why people follow them, and what makes people set off on their own.  On Trails is the result of his journey over the next seven years to attempt to find answers to these questions.

One of the things I enjoyed about this book is that it’s hard to categorize into one genre. It’s part autobiographical, covering not only his quest for answers but also pieces from his past.  But it also includes elements from science, history, and even philosophy, all interweaved with a tone and voice that felt poetic to me.  A lot of information was packed into 336 pages, yet I was captivated by it without feeling overwhelmed.

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Trail to Wolf Rocks, PA

I found myself reflecting on this book more than any other that I’ve read recently. It made me anxious to get into the woods and go hiking, to see trails with new and enlightened eyes.  My mind started churning on my way to work in the morning, wondering how the highway I drive every day became a major road and if maybe it had once started out as a deer path or Native American trail.  I especially focused on the philosophical parts of the book.  I’m at a point in my life where I’m questioning where I am and where I want the course of my life to go.  It was rewarding to read about those metaphorical paths in relation to the physical trails I encounter every day.

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Bridge in Bear Run Nature Reserve, PA

One of the interesting facts that stuck with me was the revelation that “on average people who are lost, without external navigational cues, will typically not travel farther than one hundred meters from their starting point, regardless of how long they walk.” I’ve had some experience being mildly lost, and in my case I feel this is true.  This past February, I took advantage of a sixty-degree day and went on a solo hike.  Somehow, near the end of the hike, I found myself off the trail with no map and a dead cell phone, and dusk fast approaching.  I was close enough to the road that I could hear cars passing so I knew which direction I needed to walk.  But I couldn’t find a clear path and my way was obstructed by a creek too wide to jump across.  Even though I was so close to the road I can’t deny the panic that was starting to build; it’s not a good thing for a young female to be alone in the woods on a winter night with no food or shelter.  Instead of following the creek to where I most likely would’ve met up with the trail at the point it crossed over the water, I kept retracing my steps backward and trying a new direction.  I was so sure that there was a sign I missed.  In the end, I found a private footbridge that went to somebody’s house, and I crossed through their backyard to the road with my hands in the air, paranoid that they would think I was trespassing or trying to rob them.  The lesson from that (now slightly comical) experience was to carry more emergency items in my daypack (and be more careful), but I couldn’t help but think of that day while I was reading On Trails.  With the exception of finding the private footbridge, I think I mostly stayed within one hundred meters, so I fell into the average.

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About 2 hours before I lost the trail in Laurel Hill State Park, PA.

Throughout the book, Moor provided a history of the land the United States emerged from. The way it’s presented here is unlike any class I’ve had in school; it focuses on the land and how it’s affected by the people that live here, and also on how the land changes the people.  Nature, and the land itself, was a way of life for the Native Americans that lived here for centuries.  Then as settlers from Europe arrived, the wilderness was viewed as something to be tamed and farmed.  During the industrial revolution, the farms turned into factories as natural resources were harvested to earn money.  And now, in the technological age, there is a rediscovered respect for nature.  As Moor put it, “With the advent of industrial technology we began to see wilderness less as a landscape devoid of agriculture and more as a landscape free from technology – and thus the wild went from being a wasteland to a refuge.”  That passage hits home for me; in times of stress or unhappiness I always seek the outdoors to find peace and contentment.  I know I’m not alone in this sentiment; there are countless articles and blogs that tell of the benefits for personal health and well-being that come from going outdoors and experiencing nature.

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Fall at Frick Park, PA.

I’ve been seeking refuge in the wild a lot lately, and not just because it’s autumn and a beautiful time to be outdoors. In many ways I feel like I’m in limbo, and being in the woods provides a sense of grounding for me.  I’m trying to find answers to some big questions I have for myself about where I want to go and what I want to do over the next few years.  My way forward is a bit hazy, and it’s hard to make out the details and see what’s ahead, but I trust myself enough to know that I’ll figure it out along the way.  In On Trails, Moor says, “In the end, we are all existential pathfinders: We select among the paths life affords, and then, when those paths no longer work for us, we edit them and innovate as necessary.  The tricky part is that while we are editing our trails, our trails are editing us.”  For me, this observation is a new way of looking at things, and it’s a satisfying conclusion to everything that On Trails offers.  It gives me a lot to think about the next time I find a trail and explore the wilderness.

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Nature at its best- Parker Ridge, Banff National Park, Canada.

 

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I love Harry Potter. I really do.  I could probably go into detail and devote a whole post to why it’s my favorite and what it’s meant to me over the past 17ish years, but instead I’ll try to stick to just one topic: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

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I first heard of the play during what I would consider an emotionally charged time. It was almost a year ago, and I had just gotten back from a spontaneous trip to Germany for Oktoberfest.  I was still coming to terms with a rough break-up (the reason why I booked said spontaneous trip to Germany), I had recently moved to a new neighborhood and was still adjusting, and I was dealing with some serious post-travel blues.  To me, traveling is a double-edged sword.  The feeling I get when I’m experiencing something new in a place I’ve never been is exhilarating, it’s addicting.  But each vacation exposes me to people and places that inspire even more trips, and I end up coming home with a bucket list that’s much longer than when I left.  It can feel a bit discouraging when you start thinking about time and work and money, and how you’ll probably never cross off everything on your list.  So that was my state of mind when I saw a post on Facebook that J.K. Rowling had co-written a play that was a sequel to the Harry Potter series, and it was going to premiere in London the following summer.  I talked to my friend Michelle who I hadn’t seen in a while, she jumped on board to go with me, and then all of a sudden I was waking up at 5:00 AM eastern time to participate in the pre-sale, and then I got the email confirmation for the tickets and that was how the base of our London & Iceland trip was planned.

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On the way to the Hogwarts Express!

 

Flash forward ten months to about one month ago, and we were on our way to London! We had planned the trip so that the play was on our last day, so we had lots of time to explore the city.  There’s a lot to do and see in London, and I think we checked off pretty much all of the major stuff.  We saw the Tower of London, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Platform 9 ¾, Abbey Road, the Globe Theatre, and a lot more.  We even managed to squeeze in a day trip to Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Oxford.  There is so much history in London (and in England in general), and I’ve added quite a few books to my reading list.  Since the trip I’ve been binge-watching The Tudors on Netflix, but I want to read about that time period too.  I’m also interested in the British monarchy in general.  And after this trip, I definitely want to clear the dust off my Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes collections.

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Palace Theatre

But then came the day of the play! I was super excited to see it.  I had bought the book when it came out, but I had decided not to read it until after watching the play.  My theory was that it was created to be watched, not read.  And since we ended up spending a lot of money on the tickets and trip, I wanted to experience it in the element it was intended to be.  We picked up the tickets in the morning, and there was an almost-crisis when I didn’t realize the tickets had fallen out of my bag.  Thankfully there was a very kind woman who saw it happen and picked them up for us so we were in the clear (Dear God, please bless this woman and her family).  We ate lunch in Chinatown (where I successfully ate fried rice with chopsticks) and then it was play time!

I’m not going to give anything away here, but I have to say that the play was amazing! The special effects alone were incredible; I honestly don’t know how they did it.  The music was perfect, too, it helped to really create the right atmosphere.  If you’ve read the book, you know that there is at least one scene with dementors, and I have to admit that I was legitimately (though only slightly) afraid during that part.  But overall I thought the acting was incredible, and that’s what really brought the story together.  The cast was so talented, and they did a great job of bringing these much-loved and well-known characters to life in a different format.  For me personally, the star of the show wasn’t Jamie Parker or Sam Clemmett (who play Harry and Albus respectively), but it was Anthony Boyle (who played Scorpius) that stole my heart.  He brought a lot of personality to the role, and looking back on the experience I have to say that he helped to make Scorpius my favorite character in Cursed Child.

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When it comes to the book itself, most of my friends had read it as soon as it was released, so they knew the story before I did. When I talked to a few of them about it, the general consensus was one of slight disappointment.  Some of the best things about the original Harry Potter series are the background descriptions and character insights, things that are lost in a screenplay.  I think they felt that it was hard to really get into the story because for the most part they were only reading the dialogue.  I read the book after I got back from my trip, and I have to admit I understand where they’re coming from.  I found myself drawing on my memories of the play when I needed help visualizing a scene, and I could see how it would be difficult to become absorbed in the story without having seen it performed first.

Regardless, I loved Cursed Child, though in a different way from the original Harry Potter series. It’s bittersweet to admit it, but I think it was a fitting end to the Harry Potter story.  Mostly, though, I’m just grateful that I had the opportunity to see the play performed live.  It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience, and it formed the base of what is now one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.  This is definitely something that I’ll be talking about for years to come.

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Including this because it’s one of my favorite pictures ever!

 

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

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I always feel recharged after a Stephen King novel, sort of like the mental version of the way your body feels after a good, hard workout. Stephen King novels are long and intense, full cover to cover of drama, love, fear, wit, mystery, and much more. The plotlines are addictive, and for me that means pushing aside daily activities so I can finish the book as fast as possible in epic, marathon reading sessions. Bag of Bones was no different.

My friend recommended this to me a few weeks ago after we were discussing the pros and cons of Girl on the Train. With my vacation in mind, I decided that Bag of Bones would be a good book to add to my iPad and read on the plane. I mostly prefer to read physical books, but I own both a Kindle and an iPad (both were Christmas gifts). I mostly use the Kindle when I’m in the mood for a “fluff” read and don’t want to spend extra money on a physical copy, and I really only use the iPad when traveling. The added benefit of the iPad is that it allows me to read in the dark without turning on the lights (yes, I know that is terrible for your eyes).

Anyway, I started Bag of Bones somewhere near the end of my flight from London to Reykjavik, but I didn’t become addicted until my flight back to the States from Iceland, when I actually was able to get past the first few chapters. Three days later I was so hooked that I was reading online on the Kindle Cloud Reader at work (another benefit of the Kindle). I would not recommend reading at work, but in my own defense it was the Friday before a holiday weekend and by the time I started most people had already left for the day. I finished the book later that night, while decidedly ignoring messages from my friends who wanted to celebrate the long weekend and hear about my trip (sorry friends!).

Bag of Bones is about an author who suffers from severe writer’s block and is also struggling to come to terms with his wife’s death four years prior. He moves to his old lake house in rural Maine, and begins having delusions and encounters paranormal activity within the house, and also becomes involved in a custody battle over a charming, three-year-old girl in town. The plotlines seem tangled and separate in the beginning, but I love the way Stephen King brings them together in the end. Everything is connected in some way, and I feel like there was no detail that was insignificant or didn’t matter. It’s hard to go into detail without giving too much away, so I’ll just say that this book got my heart rate pumping at times. There were a few instances where I was extremely happy to be reading in the safety of a crowded airplane and brightness of my office rather than alone in my apartment at night.

Also, I loved when King went into detail about the “writing zone,” and how it feels when you’re completely absorbed in what you’re writing. I love to write, and if I could do one thing only that’s what it would be. Over the past few years it’s been difficult to find time, and there have been many moments where I’ve been discouraged and felt like I lost the talent I used to have. But that zone, that feeling, that complete unawareness of reality- I understand it. I can still get there, and in a weird way I felt encouraged when I read those scenes.

Bag of Bones was the perfect plane read, it brought me back from my trip and now I’m ready to tackle my fall reading list. If you’re a Stephen King fan you’ve probably already read it, but if you haven’t you should go for it. Though I would recommend reading during the daytime- I at least found that comforting!

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

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To be honest, I couldn’t really get into this book. Partly it was because of the subject material, but I think my biggest issue is that I’ve had so much other stuff going on, and my interest just wasn’t there.  As I mentioned in my previous post, my vacation is coming up.  In fact- I leave for New York this afternoon and we fly to London tomorrow!  So needless to say, I’ve been rushing around and doing some last-minute shopping and attempting to pack and prepare for everything.  The trip has been the main thing on my mind, but I’ve also been busy with the young professional networking group I’m a part of, and I’m also trying to line up everything at work while I’m gone.  There were so many points over the past two weeks where I wanted to just stop reading this book and devote my energy to something else, but I promised myself I would finish it before I left.  So I pushed through.

I had never heard of Carrie Brownstein or Sleater-Kinney before, so I really had no idea what I would be reading about when Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl was announced as the July/August book for Our Shared Shelf. Looking back at my progression through music, I think I was too young for the Riot grrrl movement and the whole indie-punk scene in general.  I was around seven years old when I got my first CD, which was the first Backstreet Boys album.  I spent the next few years in the mainstream pop music world, listening to not just Backstreet Boys but NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera too (such a diversity).  My older brother might have listened to some punk bands, but his music never made it outside his bedroom or headphones or anywhere that I would be exposed to it.  In my early teens I started gravitating toward more “emo” bands, and the trend stayed throughout high school.  New Found Glory, Dashboard Confessional, Bowling for Soup, and Fall Out Boy were some of my favorites (enough so that I still listen to them today when I’m feeling nostalgic).  College was mostly about Top 40 and whatever was playing at bars and parties, and then after graduation I discovered Spotify.  Nowadays, I would say 50% of my music library is made up of singer-songwriter acoustic type artists, then split evenly between classic rock, country, electronic pop, and Top 40.  So, reading about a feminist punk rock band from the nineties was unlike anything I was familiar with.

The beginning part of the book, when Carrie talks about her childhood, I could relate to. She talked about putting on plays and performances for her family, and I kept smiling because I used to do that too.  My best friend and I always had a performance ready for our parents after sleepovers.  I think our best one was about two girls who lived by the beach.  The worst was when we created a band called Blue Ice, and our opening song was “We’re Blue Ice, we’re so nice, we’re Blue Ice and we’re so nice.”  The most entertaining one was the video we created of my Beanie Babies competing in a game show, complete with me using different voices for each contestant (this video still exists somewhere).  But then she started to grow older and had to deal with serious issues.  Carrie’s mother began suffering from an eating disorder, and as a reader you could see how that affected her.  Her life took a darker turn, and it was more difficult for me to relate to.

As Carrie described how music began to become more and more important in her life, I began to lose interest. She referenced bands I had never heard of, and feelings I had never experienced.  When she wrote about seeing bands live and discovering new music at record stores, I began to wonder if it was an age thing.  Would I be able to relate more if I had to hunt for good music, if it wasn’t as simple as opening an app on my phone?  And as for Sleater-Kinney’s experience touring and recording, I just couldn’t garner any appeal for it.  Sleeping on borrowed and possibly dirty mattresses, practicing in confined places that smelt bad, struggling to get by; it all repulsed me.  Maybe I’m too mainstream or protected or snobby (I seriously hope not) but I just couldn’t connect with it.

Despite all that, there were two important aspects of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl that I really enjoyed and appreciated. The first is Carrie’s complete openness about her struggles with depression and mental health.  It takes a certain kind of bravery to be that open and honest with the world, and I have so much respect for her.  I wish others (myself included) could be more open about our personal vulnerabilities.  In the world today, I think people are so exposed; there’s no break in attention.  It requires us to be “on” all the time, and it takes effort to maintain the image that’s out there, the image we want people to view us as.  So for someone to basically strip that image away and open up about such personal details, it’s amazing.

The second aspect that I appreciated were her thoughts on being a female musician, and why the word “female” shouldn’t really make a difference. A musician is a musician, regardless of gender, yet Carrie (and the other band members of Sleater-Kinney) faced countless questions about what it’s like to be a female musician, and they had to deal with so many gender stereotypes throughout the band’s career.  It’s frustrating.  As Carrie wrote in Chapter 15, “Anything that isn’t traditional for women apparently requires that we remind people what an anomaly it is, even when it becomes less and less of an anomaly.”  I mostly feel the same way about my job.  Being a woman in business is still something I have to explain; it’s like I have to constantly justify myself.  In reality, my job would be the same if I were a man, but it’s the perceptions and attitudes of others that make it different.

Despite my struggles connecting to Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, I’m glad I read it. So far, the books discussed in Our Shared Shelf have pushed me and expanded my knowledge about a number of different subjects.  This is definitely a book that I would never have considered reading if it weren’t for this book club, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to get outside my comfort zone and try something new.  And I’m happy to have learned about Carrie Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney.  I’m definitely planning on checking out the band on Spotify, and I’ll probably try to catch a few episodes of Portlandia as well.