The Saga of the Volsungs

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It’s amazing how time can get away from you! It seems like just yesterday I sat down to create my summer reading list, but it also feels as if it’s been much longer than two months since my last post! There has been a lot going on in my life, and I’m kind of amazed at how much I’ve packed into these last two months. I’ve been on a trip to Philadelphia to visit a friend, a trip to Cleveland for work, two separate trips to visit my brother in upstate New York, I’ve celebrated the 4th of July here at home, celebrated a friend’s birthday, celebrated the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup, started rowing practice again, I sprained my wrist while hiking, attended a few retirement parties, watched as my company sold the division that I work in, congratulated three different couples on their pregnancy announcements, planned my own birthday celebration (taking place later today!), and throughout it all I’ve been finalizing details for my upcoming trip to London and Iceland. So, yeah, life has been a little crazy lately. I’ve definitely been feeling a little overwhelmed, but looking at my calendar things should slow down after my vacation, which is only two weeks away!

This trip has been in the works for almost a year, so there’s a lot of pent up excitement. I’ll be traveling with a friend to London for five days, and then to Iceland for five days. It’s funny thinking about it now, because a year ago today I was making an impromptu decision to go to Oktoberfest in Munich by myself, and that trip set the ball rolling for this upcoming vacation. Basically, I came back from Munich in the beginning of October last year and was feeling the inevitable post-travel blues. Soon after I got back, the announcement about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out, and since I was missing Europe like crazy I came up with the idea to see the play live in London. I enlisted my friend, Michelle, to join me, even though it had been a year since we had seen each other. She also loves to travel, and is a huge Harry Potter fan too. We bought the play tickets last October, and suddenly our “just a few days in London” turned into traveling around more and deciding to go to Iceland because it’s off the beaten track and neither of us have been there. Ten months later, here we are.

In Iceland, we’ll be renting a car and driving along the southern coast of the island. Since we know next to nothing about tourism there, I bought a guidebook a few months ago to figure out a general plan of where we should stay, what we should do, and all that fun stuff. I bought the Rough Guides to Iceland, and I think it has been generally helpful in planning, but we can’t really put it to the test until we get there. As I was flipping through the book, though, I noticed a section at the very end called “Books and Sagas.” As a reader, my interest was piqued. It provided reading recommendations for books on Icelandic history, modern literature, travel and wildlife, and the sagas.

I’ve never heard of the Icelandic sagas before. According to my guidebook, they were written anonymously between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. They cover a wide range of subjects; some are biographies of individuals, others serve as histories of the early Commonwealth, and often contain elements of folklore, Norse kings, and Viking-era adventures. In preparation for my upcoming trip, I decided to read two or three of these sagas to try to get a flavor of the culture and history of the country I’ll be visiting.

I started with The Saga of the Volsungs. According to my guidebook, this saga is said to have inspired The Lord of the Rings (which I’m a fan of) and Wagner’s Ring Cycle (which I don’t think I’ve ever heard). The description said that it more or less follows the adventures of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, and contains elements of unrequited love, greed, and vengeance. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to read this.

To be honest, I’ve never read anything quite like this before. The beginning of the saga describes Sigurd’s genealogy. He was a descendant of Odin, the Norse god of war and wisdom, and the first few chapters describe the battles and adventures of his forefathers. Then the saga goes into Sigurd’s own brave adventures: how he avenged his father’s death, slayed the dragon Fafnir, and obtained more treasure than any other man. Following this section, the saga becomes less mythical as it describes the marriages and alliances (and ultimate betrayal) of Sigurd, his wife, Gudrun, her brothers, and Brynhild, a wise and beautiful queen.

One of the things that struck me about The Saga of the Volsungs was that the prose was straight to the point. There weren’t many metaphors or overly poetic lines, and the scenes describing battles were very blunt. I realize that part of this could be due to the translation into English, but I think the overall bluntness is just one of the aspects of the sagas. While I was reading, in my mind I kept picturing Viking-era men sitting around a fire and telling this story aloud. I like that image, and if the prose was different I don’t think I would get the same picture.

Throughout the saga, I definitely picked up on elements that could have inspired Tolkien. The most obvious was a cursed ring that would bring doom to all who had it. Some names also looked familiar, and I wonder if some of the characters in The Lord of the Rings were inspired in part by Sigurd and his contemporaries. There were also a few things that reminded me of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I would be willing to bet that George R.R. Martin has read this saga as well. Namely, a pair of incestuous twins brought Jaime and Cersei Lannister to mind. Also, Iceland is often referred to as the land of ice and fire, and that was in the back of my mind as well. Overall, the themes and battles described in this saga were similar The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’m tempted to re-read both series (even though that would set me way back on my reading list).

This was my first saga reading experience, and I’m glad I managed to fit it in before my trip. I’m hoping to finish a second one (Laxdaela Saga) as well, but I don’t know if I’ll have enough time. I’m glad I got a taste of the sagas, though, and the parallels between this and other fantasy series are obvious. I would recommend this to anyone who is into those types of books, or anyone who is interested in Norse mythology or Viking-era tales in general.

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Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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I was super excited to read Eligible this month. Originally, I was planning on reading it before I read The Argonauts, but I was afraid that if I pushed The Argonauts back then I would never actually read it. Like I mentioned in my previous post, The Argonauts was a struggle. And I’m not going to lie- part of the motivation pushing me through was knowing that I had Eligible waiting for me.

I guess I should start by saying that I loved Pride and Prejudice. I was in middle school when I read it for the first time. It was one of the assigned summer reading books for my older brother’s English class, and I had always loved to read, so I found myself picking it up one night when he ignored it for the umpteenth time. It’s hard to describe how I felt reading it that first time, because it seems now as if I have always known and loved the story. I’m thumbing through my copy now, and the pages are yellow and musty (don’t you love the smell of old books?!) and most of the pages have creases where I folded them down, and there are most definitely coffee stains, and the careful underlining of passages in pen made by my brother, and my handwritten notes in pencil when it was time for me to read it for school… I can’t count how many times I’ve read this book, curled up in the corner seat of my parents’ couch or in my college dorm room or first apartment. It’s like an old friend, a well-worn companion that has been with me for over twelve years now.

Needless to say, I was excited when I first heard about Eligible. I was anxious to see how Sittenfeld would modernize the story. How would the Bennets and Bingleys fit into the crazy, modern world we call the 21st century? Pride and Prejudice had always seemed timeless to me, but was it really? I was also a bit nervous- part of the appeal of Pride and Prejudice was Austen’s voice, satirical and clever yet also proper and enchanting. With a different author, there would be a different voice, and would part of the appeal of the story be lost in the change?

Well, I needn’t have worried. Eligible was as perfect as I think it possibly could be. Somehow, Sittenfeld was able to keep the witty tone that Austen had mastered. And the characters were just as dear as they always had been, just a little different. The characters are older (or at least the Bennet girls seem to be about ten years older than their Pride and Prejudice counterparts), Bingley and Darcy are doctors (Darcy’s a neurosurgeon!), and Kitty and Lydia are seemingly egocentric millennial. Eligible also managed to include many aspects of modern society, from seemingly trivial topics like the Crossfit craze and online dating to more serious subject matter like the in vitro fertilization process and transgender relationships.

One of the changes between Pride and Prejudice and Eligible was the portrayal of Lydia’s story. In Pride and Prejudice, it seemed like she never really grew up and continued to be the immature and selfish young girl throughout the whole story. In Eligible, I was happy to see that she did change throughout the novel. She definitely didn’t make a major transformation, but there were some small changes that I identified as character improvements. As I’m writing this now, though, I’m wondering if I’m reflecting on Lydia more positively in Eligible because it’s easier for me to relate to the modern version. It’s not that I identify more with Lydia; I think it’s just a matter of having a better understanding of her experiences.

Probably the most notable difference between Pride and Prejudice and Eligible (other than the time period) is the setting. Eligible takes place in present-day Cincinnati, which really sets the tone of the novel. It felt like Liz spent just as much time and effort trying to defend the city as her hometown as she did trying to stand up for her family in the eyes of Darcy and the Bingleys. Personally, I loved that aspect of the story. I’m from Pittsburgh, so I understand what it’s like to grow up and live in a former industrial city that’s not quite as glamorous as places like New York or Los Angeles. It can be annoying (and sometimes pretty infuriating) when people are quick to judge and criticize the place that I call home. It was nice to read that Liz, despite living in New York for so long, still appreciated Cincinnati for what it is, and felt the need to defend it when necessary.

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Pittsburgh- I can’t resist a little bit of hometown pride 🙂

Basically, I loved Eligible. I really did. I’m trying to think of a nice way to wrap this post up and summarize my thoughts, but all I can think is that I just liked this book so much. There really isn’t much more I can say other than it was absolutely great and if you liked Pride and Prejudice then you would probably like Eligible. Curtis Sittenfeld deserves a lot of credit for writing such a superb modern version. This book is definitely being added to my list of favorites, and I know that I’ll be re-reading it sometime soon.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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Reading outside by the river!

The Argonauts was the May book choice for Our Shared Shelf. I was very excited to read it because it was so different from my normal reading material. If I had to describe what kind of book The Argonauts is, I would say that it’s a memoir blended in with essays on love, gender studies, and family (among many other topics!). It’s Maggie Nelson’s very personal account of her relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, and the experience of going through a pregnancy.

I struggled a lot with reading this book. I think it was a combination of the format and some of the subject material. The book is not divided into chapters, or any sections really. To me it reads like a stream of consciousness, with Nelson’s thoughts and insights and memories blending with references to theorists and scholars. Because there was no break throughout the book, I found myself becoming completely absorbed in her writing because it was very intense and powerful. But after 10 pages or so I would have to stop because it was so much information to take in, and I just needed a break. Also, I had to look up many of the references that she made, which made it a little more difficult and ultimately slowed my process. Overall, I think the book is very intellectually written, and I’m just not as familiar with some of the topics and references, and needed to get myself up to speed.

I think the thing that completely amazed me was how frank and honest Nelson was about such personal details of her and her family’s life. She held nothing back in writing this, she was herself openly and completely, regardless of opinions that others might have. I thought it was a beautiful piece of writing in that regard. That level of honesty is so rare, I felt very connected to what she was saying, and the experience kind of blew me away.

The Argonauts also expanded my awareness and understanding of gender fluidity. I haven’t had any experience with gender fluidity in my life, meaning that I don’t personally know anyone that would identify in that way. To be completely honest, I found it incredibly difficult to wrap my head around. I think the concept of “male” and “female” is so ingrained in my mind that I felt like I had to unlearn something, though I’m not exactly sure what it is that I unlearned. I just found myself questioning things a lot. For example, I was confused on what pronoun to use to describe Harry (Nelson’s partner), and eventually I reached a point where I was asking myself why I had to choose, and why couldn’t I just accept Harry as Harry and leave it be? This probably isn’t a good analogy because it’s so basic, but I remember telling people in high school that “I don’t believe in labels.” At the time I was referring to the loose classifications of preps, jocks, geeks, etc. I would tell people that I didn’t believe in labels because I felt like I belonged to more than one group. Is it such a stretch to apply the same logic to gender, even though the logic is so incredibly basic? I don’t know the answers to these questions, or even if there are answers. I’m just enjoying being challenged by the reading material. This is the first book in Our Shared Shelf that I felt motivated to participate in a discussion board, so it’s clear that the book is making me think. And however confusing or challenging that is, I like it.

Maggie Nelson also spent a significant portion of the book discussing motherhood, and how being a mother relates to and impacts being a woman. I thought these parts of the book were very interesting and eye-opening because it made me think about motherhood in a new light. I’m not a mom, and I have no plans to become one anytime soon, so a lot of the theories that Nelson discussed were basically unknown to me because motherhood just isn’t on my radar right now. It made me think a lot about my own mom, and some of my friends that have recently had children, and I wonder what they would think if they read this book. In that regard, I think they would have gotten more out of the reading experience than I did. I already want to re-read The Argonauts at some point, just because it is so much to digest, but I want to make a mental note to myself to pull this out if and when I ever have children. I wonder what I would think about it then.

Reading The Argonauts was definitely an experience. It was a struggle- both in the structure of the book and the subject material. Even though it’s only about 140 pages long, I was challenged enough that it took me over a week to read. But I’m not complaining about it. It was such an eye-opening book; it was just a really good learning experience. In a weird way, I’m kind of proud of myself for completing it. If it weren’t for Our Shared Shelf, I would’ve never felt compelled to read The Argonauts. It’s something I would’ve passed over in a bookstore without a second glance. So the fact that I went outside my reading “comfort zone” and that I finished it despite the struggle… it’s just a good feeling. It serves as a reminder to me that you can always learn by reading.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

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Earlier this year, on “Galentines Day,” I went to see the movie How To Be Single with my friend Elizabeth. It was a classic girls day out- we had brunch then split a bag of extra-butter popcorn at the movie theater. Now you should know that I don’t go to the movies often (one of my exes insisted on going every week, and I’ve been mildly disinterested ever since). I also don’t watch cable TV; and my Internet time is pretty much limited to reading the news, scrolling through my Facebook news feed, and updating this blog. So when I do actually go to a movie theater, I LOVE the previews. Usually the previews are the first time that I’ve ever heard of upcoming movies. So when Elizabeth and I went to see How To Be Single, one of the first previews was for Me Before You.

I have to admit, the preview made it look great. Daenerys Targaryen (aka Emilia Clarke) as the main character, an attractive (in my opinion) male lead, set in England, and an interesting plot- I mentally added it to my Movies I Might Actually Want To See list. When I went home after How To Be Single (which I highly recommend, by the way) I googled Me Before You and learned that it was based on a novel by Jojo Moyes. I added the book to my reading list right then, and I vowed to read it before the movie hit theaters. Since the movie is going to be released at the beginning of June, I included it in my May reading list so that the story would be fresh in my mind when I go see it.

I was really excited to read Me Before You. With the movie coming out, and so much hype around it, I had kind-of-high expectations. It sounded like the perfect romance novel, and I thought I was bound to like it. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did devour it over the course of 24 hours and I still plan on seeing the movie as well as reading the sequel. I just didn’t really love it. It may be because there was so much hype; maybe I was expecting it to be a lot better than it ever really was. Or maybe it’s because for the most part I dislike mainstream contemporary romance novels. (As mentioned in a previous post, I really don’t enjoy anything by Nicholas Sparks, which is what I consider the standard for modern romance). Me Before You just wasn’t what I wanted it to be, and I wanted to like it so much.

I think one of my “issues” with the novel was that if you have any basic understanding of context clues you pretty much know the major plotlines from just the book summary and the title of the sequel. The details were well written, and for the most part I liked the characters, but it felt like I already knew what would happen, which I found kind of boring. It seemed like the climax wasn’t really a climax at all, just another chapter in the novel.   Before I read this, I think in my head I was expecting it to be a bit like My Sister’s Keeper by Jodie Picoult. My Sister’s Keeper was similar in the sense that you felt like you already knew how it would end, but then it completely throws you for a loop. The plot twist in the book (not the movie, the movie was appalling in the sense that it completely changed the plot) left me reeling, and it was one of the only books that I’ve ever shed a tear over because it was just so unexpected. I think I was waiting for something monumental like that in Me Before You, but it never happened.

One of the good things about the book was the main character, Louisa. I thought she was very likeable, but also very ordinary and normal. One thing that makes me roll my eyes is when female characters are described as ordinary but in actuality they’re super smart, or incredibly beautiful, or experience an unrealistic turn of luck, or basically anything that makes them not ordinary. Characters like that give real-life ordinary girls a bad rep, and it’s not fair. But Louisa Clark wasn’t like that; she was just ordinary, and that’s why I liked her. She never really tried to be anything but herself, and I think throughout the novel you were really able to see her grow as a character. I think Jojo Moyes did a great job in the development of her character.

Long story short, I wasn’t really impressed with Me Before You. I felt it was lacking in a lot of ways, but I’m sure I’m a minority in that camp. However, I’m still interested in reading the sequel; I made the mistake of reading the first chapter that was included in my copy and now I need to know what happens. And I’m still hoping to see the movie, as long as I can secure Elizabeth for another girl date. And even though I didn’t love the book, I know that this genre isn’t one of my favorites which is probably a major reason why I wasn’t thrilled with it. It was a relatively quick read, and it kept me company on a miserable Friday night, so I can’t say that reading it was a bad experience. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m glad I gave it a try.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

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On any given day, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. You can spill coffee on your bare foot in the morning, or you can rear-end someone on your way to work. You can give your job everything you have but be let go without warning for reasons outside your (and maybe your supervisor’s) control. You can enjoy a lovely midsummer dinner with your partner only to have your heart broken when they tell you they don’t love you anymore. A family member that has been crucial to your life since the day you were born can suddenly betray and abandon you, seemingly without a care. Your universe can completely upend on a sunny afternoon when you get the call that your mother, or brother, or best friend, or any loved one has been taken from this world. On any given day, anything and everything can go wrong; but it’s what you do with this fact that determines the course of your life.

Beryl Markham learned this at a young age. Abandoned by her mother at the age of four, then catapulted into an unhealthy marriage at sixteen, Beryl was a seemingly modern woman born well before her time and forced to grow up way too soon. Born in England, her family moved to Kenya when she was very young. After her mother fled back to England, she was raised by both her father and the natives that lived on his estate. She was an unconventional wild child, and as an adult she never really found a way to fit into the mold of society. She made mistakes and muddled through them the hard way, yet she always seemed to make it through with her head up. She was an admirable woman; she built a career as a successful horse trainer, she learned to fly, she became the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic from east to west, and most importantly, she lived and loved on her own terms, regardless of the cost.

It sort of amazes me that Beryl Markham was a real person. When I first heard of Circling the Sun, I don’t think I realized that the characters in the novel were actual people, and that they really did a lot of what was detailed in the book. Then, once I bought the book, I think I was confused at first as to how much was real and how much was fiction. But as I started reading, those questions faded away as I became wrapped up in the story. Beryl was a fascinating character, real-life or not. Once I finished the book and read the author’s note, I did a little bit of research on the real Beryl Markham, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Circling the Sun truly mirrored her life (at least in the big ways). I was also very excited to learn that Beryl had written a memoir, and I’ve added that to my reading list along with Out of Africa, written by Beryl’s acquaintance Karen Blixen under a pen name. It might be a while before I make it to those books, but it will be worth it to read the true story of her life.

Simply put, Circling the Sun just really clicked with me. It’s got all the makings of a novel that I would enjoy: it’s historical fiction, there’s a romance plot, the main character is an admirable heroine, and there’s a solid bit of adventure. This book was right up my alley and I definitely enjoyed it. It was just so easy for me to get wrapped up in the story; I’m surprised at myself for waiting so long to read it. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a while; I originally bought it last fall before my trip to Munich. I planned on reading it on the flight back to the States, but I was too distracted by movies and games on the plane. Then in Newark airport I was way too annoyed about watching my final flight home being delayed every half hour to really enjoy it, so when I finally made it back to my apartment I put it on the coffee table to “read later.” When it sat there for a month it was moved to the bookshelf, and it’s been there until two weeks ago. I was very proactive in April about putting together my reading list for May, but I had a few delayed and missing packages that left me scrambling when it was time for a new book on May 1st. That day I noticed Circling the Sun on the bookshelf and figured it was time to give it another go. I think I finished it the next day, it was that good.

I’m just very fascinated about Kenya’s history and culture, particularly with how the British colonials were able to live in such a different environment than their home country. And I’m interested in the African wilderness- the geography, the animals, the climate, everything. The traveler in me is itching to go there, but realistically I know that it won’t happen anytime soon. A few years ago I read Love, Life, and Elephants, the memoir by Daphne Sheldrick. Her Kenya was a little bit later than Beryl’s, but when I finished Circling the Sun I found myself studying the pictures in Daphne’s memoir and comparing the maps in both books. It was such an interesting time and place in history, and it produced such amazing people. To me, that’s enough to justify visiting in person.

I really, truly enjoyed Circling the Sun. Considering my interests, I realize that I’m a little bit biased but the story was just so engrossing, and the fact that much of the novel was inspired by the real life of Beryl Markham makes it so much better. I’m still kind of kicking myself for letting it sit so long, but I’m happy I finally read it. The weather has been cool and rainy here, so I’m grateful that I had such a great book to curl up with and lose myself in. Now I just have to cross Beryl’s memoir off my reading list and figure out a way to make it to Africa to see her country for myself!

 

 

How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

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How To Be A Woman was the April book for Our Shared Shelf. In the announcement post, Emma Watson said that she laughed out loud when reading it for the first time, and she meant it as a more light-hearted and entertaining read than some of the previous books. When I bought the book, the cover included a quote from VanityFair.com saying, “The British version of Tina Fey’s Bossypants.” Okay. I was sold.

Honestly, Moran is funny. And maybe slightly ridiculous, but I mean that in the best way. She is just so very… herself.   I think her personality really shines through. I would absolutely love to sit down at a bar and have a few rounds with her. Because not only is she hilarious, but she’s also wise (or at the very least she gives really, really good advice). I experienced a few “aha” moments while reading the book, and it has definitely made me question some things in my own life. Admittedly, though, there were a few topics that I found difficult to relate to, but for me that didn’t take away from the experience. If anything, it makes me want to re-read this book in a few years to see what more I will gain from it.

Moran begins the book by talking about her 13th birthday, and sharing thoughts she had at that time about what being a women meant, or what she felt she had to do to become one. Saying it like that sounds kind of ridiculous, but 13 is a confusing time, especially for girls. I think a lot of people would agree with that. But as Moran continues and discusses different topics concerning modern women (body hair, breasts, pornography, love, etc) she makes it clear through the telling of her own experiences that for women, growing up is a lot more than “finding yourself.” She points out over and over again all the different ways that society dictates how women “should” be. Ultimately, she reveals that the real learning experience was in figuring out how to block out all that noise, and just be her own person freely without judgment or consequence. Which essentially is how she goes on to define feminism in the fourth chapter: “What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy, and smug they might be.” *applause*

One of the first chapters that really hit home for me was when she discussed encountering sexism at work. I can completely relate, and I understand the frustration of trying to figure out how to deal with it. Because, as Moran points out, the sexism encountered today in the modern workplace isn’t flagrantly obvious.   It’s subtle. It’s tricky. It makes you question yourself, “Was that really sexist? Or am I too sensitive? Is being sensitive giving into a predetermined role for a woman? Is calling sensitivity a female trait sexist? Am I sexist? I’m a woman how can I be sexist?!” I work in a corporate setting in a predominantly male environment (and a lot of these males are over 60), so I experience this kind of stuff daily and have learned to just shrug it off. It sounds crazy, but the flip side is filing a (probably embarrassing) report with HR that will be taken very seriously and might cause someone to lose their job, and is all of that really worth it just because of a few comments here and there? Because again, it’s never overtly sexist.   It’s mostly comments that are quite possibly intended as jokes, and I can take a joke right?

The very next chapter (about relationships) felt like it could have been written out of pages from my own diary, but it was also one that made me laugh a lot. My favorite part was when Moran discussed how so many women have imaginary relationships with men, and as she put it, “living in a parallel world in their head; conjuring up endless plots and scenarios for this thing that never actually happened.” I mainly enjoyed this because I am fully aware that I do this. Here is a summary of my most recent imaginary experience:

A couple of months back, I had been on a few dates with a guy when I saw on Facebook that he RSVP’d to a cocktail event that was about a month, maybe a month and a half away. And even though we had never actually discussed this event in person, I started thinking about buying tickets. Should we get the VIP tickets or go for the regular tickets? I thought VIP would be better, it included drinks so we could save money. And what about a dress? This would be our first public event as a couple, and someone would probably take pictures of us, so oh my god this is going to be our first Facebook picture together. Now, I absolutely had to buy a new dress, and probably new shoes too. I wanted to pick out a really nice dress, preferably a little sexy, because I’m relatively young and wanted this first picture to look Really Good. But it can’t be too sexy, because his mom will see it and I didn’t want her to think I was slutty. And while I was thinking of picking out a sexy-but-classy dress I thought I should plan on hitting the gym more just to make sure I look Really Good in this monumental picture, but I was going on a work trip the next week and visiting my brother out of town the following week, so how was I going to find the time?!  And I thought that I really should get my hair cut and maybe get my nails done too? Forget the VIP tickets, all of this costs money, and I’ve been trying to save up for vacation so maybe I should just plan on skipping some museums in London and then I won’t worry about spending the money now. And on and on I went, thinking all these crazy things, and the whole thing was pointless because he ended up not even going to the event! He was out of town that weekend!  And to top it all off- we aren’t even a couple!

Retrospective conclusion: I’m insane. But Moran made me feel like I wasn’t alone, and that it was perfectly normal for women to think things like this because society has such a negative opinion of single & unmarried women. I mean, if you’re a single woman I’m willing to bet you’ve been asked these questions more than a few times: When will you settle down? Don’t you hate living alone? When will you get married/have kids/start a family? Why are you single? Aren’t you afraid of becoming a crazy cat lady? Ugh… it’s all so annoying. Moran’s point was that there’s so much pressure out there on women when it comes to relationships, so it’s pretty natural that we go a little overboard when we think about them.

This was just one of the sections in the book that made me feel so understood. Like yes, this is what it’s like. This is what’s going through my head. I’m not alone, other women feel/think/do this too. Another chapter that I related to was when Moran discussed fashion and clothes, and how it’s about so much more than just picking out a shirt you like. She says, “How women look is considered generally interchangeable with who we are – and, therefore, often goes on to dictate what will happen to us next.” Basically, she’s saying that for women life is an elaborate game of dress-up where every day your clothes are just a costume for the person you’re supposed to be that day. For me, I could live in jeans and tee shirts (in the summer) and leggings and sweaters (in the winter). But at work I have to dress the part of Young Bright Professional Woman, so it’s all heels, skirts, and dresses. And heaven forbid I wear slacks and pull my hair back, coworkers might think I was out late the night before! (True story: I once wore slacks and pulled my hair back and my coworker asked if I was out drinking the night before. I wasn’t.) And if I go out at night, whether with friends or on a date I have to be the Cool Attractive Post-College Easygoing Woman Who Isn’t Trying To Be Cool And Attractive. For the record, I’m still trying to figure out how to pull that one off.

Basically, How To Be A Woman made me feel understood.  I could go on and on about everything that I related to, and how some of my experience were so similar to what Moran described.  There were some heavier topics in the book (children, abortion, etc) that I couldn’t relate to because personally I’m not there yet in my life, so I’m not ready to fully comment on those right now. But for the rest of the book, for all the chapters that I found relatable, including the topics I didn’t discuss here, reading felt like hanging out with a friend. Moran is funny, personable, and to me, relatable. I’m definitely looking forward to reading some of her other books, and I’m incredibly grateful to Emma Watson for introducing me to her.

 

 

 

 

 

Girl Underwater by Claire Kells

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Girl Underwater was just what I needed this weekend. I’ve been in a funk recently; there’s a lot going on in my life and I haven’t been able to really get into what I’ve been reading. This book was the perfect cure- completely consumed within 24 hours!

Before this, I was trying to work my way through All About Love by bell hooks. It was the March book for Our Shared Shelf, Emma Watson’s feminist book club on Good Reads (of which I’m a member). But things were going slow… First it took me a while to get the book. Then, once I had it, I planned on reading it in the car on the way to my brother’s house, where my family was helping him move. That turned out to be a fail: we made the 5 hour drive after the sun went down, and I completely forgot that I would need sunlight in order to read in the car. Then my life got a little crazy: less than one week after I booked flights for an epic (but kind of expensive) adventure in London and Iceland this summer I found out my rent was going up by quite a lot. Then my car broke down on the turnpike on my way back from a work trip and I learned that I will need to buy a new one. Then I received news that there’s a chance my office could be closed or moved, but nothing is final or confirmed and no one really knows anything. Needles to say, I’ve been a little stressed out and spending a lot of my free time researching apartments, cars, and jobs. And even though I kept trying, I couldn’t get into All About Love (which actually made me stress out a little bit more because I don’t like to be behind on my reading list). I wanted to hear the message, I could tell it was meaningful, but the book is essentially an essay, and I couldn’t calm my brain down enough to focus and take it in. I needed something more engaging, and that’s where Girl Underwater came in.

Girl Underwater was recommended to me by my friend Sam around the time that I started this blog. When I bought it, I didn’t do much research other than skim the book jacket. Basically my mentality is that if a friend cares enough to recommend a book to me, then I should care enough to take the time and read it. So there was no doubt as to if I would read it, it was just a matter of when. And last week when the craziness began to feel like a little too much to handle, I set aside All About Love for another day, I threw a few clothes in a bag with Girl Underwater, and I drove out to my parents’ house to spend the night and read a book. Their house (my childhood home) is one of the coziest, most comfortable, and relaxing places I could think of, and it was the perfect setting for me to de-stress and unwind. Armed with Girl Underwater, I curled up on the couch and spent most of Friday night and Saturday afternoon reading the whole book. And it was awesome.

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My childhood home at Christmastime… so cozy

This is where I have to give Sam a lot of credit- this book wasn’t on my radar at all but it was exactly the kind of story I like to read. It’s a love story but not overwhelming in the romance department, definitely nothing like the Nicholas Sparks type fluff that seems to be popular. (Side note: my eleventh grade English teacher once spent half a class period talking about how Nicholas Sparks is a “fluff writer,” and I’ve referred to his books as fluff ever since). But Girl Underwater is more about the story leading up to the romance part, and it’s full of suspense and adventure. Add in an incredibly smart, strong, and brave female protagonist and I was hooked. So Sam- here’s a huge thank you for the recommendation!

Other than romance, I would categorize Girl Underwater as a coming-of-age story more than anything else. The main character, Avery, is a sophomore in college who is one of a few survivors of a plane crash in the Rocky Mountain wilderness. The novel alternates between her life post-crash and her struggle for survival in the wild with three young boys and her male teammate on her university’s swim team. I thought that the survival part of the story was pretty intense. As an avid hiker, it definitely made me more aware (or re-aware, if that’s a thing) of the dangers I put myself in every time I walk in the woods. Though I always carry a first aid kit and flashlight when I go hiking, this book served as a reminder to brush up on my survival and emergency skills, especially since hiking season is right around the corner where I live.

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Moraine Lake in Alberta, Canada- this is how I pictured the location where the plane crashed in Girl Underwater

Throughout the course of the novel, both in the present and in the flashbacks, you get the sense that Avery struggles with knowing and accepting herself for who she really is. Amidst all the trauma going on, much of the novel centers on Avery finding herself and becoming her own person. That’s something I found incredibly relatable, and my guess is that a lot of people would say the same thing. Looking back at my own life, I don’t think I was being my “true self” when I was 19, and it took me a few years to not only realize that, but also figure out who I am and where I want my life to go. Sometimes I think I still struggle with that, at least to some extent. It’s so easy to get caught up in everything that’s going on around you and forget to put yourself first. And it’s hard when someone you care about has different expectations for you than you do for yourself, because it can feel like you’re letting that person down by just doing what makes you happy. But Avery powered through it (as did I, and I hope millions of other young people all over the world). I think the author did a great job of weaving that coming-of-age aspect into the novel, it was heartening but not overwhelming.

All in all, Girl Underwater was a great book and I’m incredibly happy that I spent a significant portion of my weekend reading it. For someone who likes adventure and a little bit of romance in a book, this was just what I needed to get back into the regular swing of things!

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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I don’t normally cry when I read; I can only think of three books that I’ve shed tears over in all my life. But when I heard about When Breath Becomes Air, and when I finally felt its weight in my hands, I expected tears to flow continuously while I read. I initially planned to read it on a plane on my way to New York for a weekend trip with a friend, but when I held the book and brushed my fingers over the title and Paul’s name, I knew that a plane wouldn’t do it justice. Even before turning the first page I knew that Paul Kalanithi deserved more than a short trip in a pressurized cabin; he deserved a quiet weekend afternoon with a cup of coffee and my oldest, favorite sweatshirt. He deserved my undivided attention, just me and the book and his words.  So I put it aside for another day, until I had the time (and courage) to give it my all.

To my surprise, I never did cry while reading the book. I think I was too focused on trying to take it all in and appreciate the message, I didn’t really allow myself to have an overwhelmingly emotional response. The tears seem more ready to come now as I try to talk about what this story meant to me, as I struggle to find a way to describe Paul and the story he so bravely shared. It’s not until now that I fully realize the irony that I think Paul was such an amazing and beautiful person, but it’s only through his death that I, along with millions of other people, came to know of him. He would have touched and changed and helped so many people had he lived to be the neurosurgeon he had trained to be, but he would have likely had no impact on my own life. It’s only through his death that I have come to know about his wise and beautiful mind, and I wonder if that is part of how we as a people think about the dead and dying. Don’t we always only focus on the good when our loved ones are gone? Will we all be better in death than we can ever hope to be in life?

One of the struggles that Paul talked about a lot was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his days knowing that he had a limited, yet unknown, amount of time left. This topic intrigued me. Paul’s struggle was that he wanted to accomplish A, B, and C, but if someone could just tell him that he only had a certain amount of time left then he would jump straight to C and not worry about A and B. He just wanted to prioritize what would make him most happy in a given time period, and isn’t that what we all want to do? I mean, as morbid as it sounds wouldn’t it be easier to know when we will die?

Basic time management skills involve assigning an amount of time to certain tasks, and then prioritizing the most important tasks first. In a perfect world we could do that with our own lives; we could schedule everything that we want to do into the number of years we have, and we could die happy knowing that we accomplished all our goals and left no stone unturned. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and we can’t schedule every moment of our lives. And what we might lose in productivity I think we gain in beauty, because I believe the beauty in life lies in the unplanned moments, and the things we don’t expect that take our breath away.

Paul made me aware of my own mortality, and the reality that my life can turn on a dime and end up vastly different than anything I can imagine now. A few of the things I value in my life now seem trivial in the long run, but realistically I don’t know how long of a run I actually have. What if I receive similar news someday, what would I do with my life? How would I find meaning? These are questions that I find difficult to answer, which is frustrating. I have always been an advocate for living your best life and doing what makes you happy, so am I a hypocrite if I think I would change something if I thought I only had one year left?

Paul doesn’t answer these questions. He’s not as trivial or naïve as I am discussing them. He tells his story patiently and wisely, beautifully and bravely. In the forward, Abraham Verghese discusses feeling inadequate after reading Paul’s words, and I understand what he meant. I keep struggling to talk about this book; it’s hard for me to explain exactly what it meant to me. Verghese says in the last paragraph of the forward, “Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message.” I think this is a simple yet profound way of reflecting on Paul’s message. It’s not just about what Paul thinks and says, it’s about what you get out of it. It’s about what you feel and think after reading his story. It’s about how Paul has found a way to impact your life despite his untimely death. It’s about how your life may never be the same after reading his words.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

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Khaled Hosseini has been on my radar for a while now. For months (years actually) I’ve had A Thousand Splendid Suns, And The Mountains Echoed, and The Kite Runner on my reading list. But my reading list is an evolving one- it’s actually a spreadsheet organized and sorted by fiction/nonfiction, genre, Amazon rating, Goodreads rating, and my own “personal rating.” I know this sounds slightly crazy, but I actually got the idea from a girl that one of my friends went on a date with once. He asked her where she would like to go out for dinner, and she sent him an Excel spreadsheet with a list of restaurants that were sorted and highlighted into a bunch of different categories. I forget if they ever went on a second date, but I was inspired to use a spreadsheet to keep track of all the books I want to read. Basically every time I add a book to my list I enter the Amazon and Goodreads rating and I score the book on a scale of 1 to 5 on how excited I am to read it. Periodically I revise the personal scores based on my interests at the time, like if I’m in the mood for a romance novel or historical fiction or something a little more intellectual. And it’s been so helpful; every time I finish a book I generally know what I’m going to read next.

So Hosseini’s books have been on my list for a while, but until recently they’ve been edged out by my always-changing personal score. Recently, however, I’ve been reading more feminist literature (partly in thanks to Emma Watson, which I’ll discuss in a later post) and I bumped A Thousand Splendid Suns up to the top because at its heart it centers around two females who are brought together through tragedy and circumstance.

And what tragedy. What circumstance. What heart-wrenching lives these women lived. What hope persisted throughout the story despite all the tragedy. A Thousand Splendid Suns made me feel on so many levels, and as I read I kept trying to categorize the relationships and themes to try to put a label on what I was feeling. In the beginning it was about daughters and mothers, and daughters and fathers, then husbands and wives, then parents again, then friends and romance, and I eventually gave up trying to put a label on everything because part of what made this story beautiful was the web of relationships and connectivity of themes and the elegant way in which everything was brought together.

I have so much respect for Hosseini as a writer. It takes real talent to weave a story like this together in such a simple yet profound way. It really is a beautiful story, full of love despite the traumatic setting. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a writer, whether it’s a short story or novel, and this book is proof that I have such a long way to go. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to develop a style like this, it’s just amazing to me.

The two main characters in the novel, Mariam and Laila, are women that I would love to meet if they existed in real life. Their capacity to endure, to hope, to protect is beyond anything I can imagine in my own life. I find them inspiring, and I feel for them. I know that this is a work of fiction, but I am sure there are real women who have lived at least parts of this story, and I send good thoughts to whoever and wherever they are.

Other than the various kinds of overwhelming love portrayed in this story, the other main emotion I felt was guilt. A Thousand Splendid Suns spans over three decades of Afghan history, and to be completely honest this was my first exposure to much of that history. Before this book, most of what I knew about Afghanistan was learned from CNN news stories that my mom started watching after 9/11, and I find that embarrassing. It makes me feel incredibly naïve and somewhat uneducated; I keep thinking back to my history classes in high school, wondering if there was a section I blocked out, but I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think I was ever taught much about Afghanistan, and I never tried to seek it out myself.

This book made me uncomfortably aware of how trivial the things are in my life that I worry about. Compared to others, and especially compared to the women in this story, I’m an incredibly privileged person to be living the life I have. Though I’m generally aware of that fact I felt that it was really thrown at me throughout the book, which I believe is a good thing. I feel more inspired to do some good in the world, to be more aware and educated about what is happening, and most importantly to be truly grateful for everything I have. Mariam and Laila had their worlds turned upside down so many times and in so many different ways, and yet they kept going. They loved, they hoped, they endured, and their unrelenting bravery in the face of hardship makes them some of the best heroines I’ve read about in some time.

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

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What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman (aka My Life Goals)

Reading this memoir was an inspiring yet terrifying experience. As a single 25-year-old female who loves to travel, I identified with Kristin. It was something about the way she wanted to do her own thing and see the world, but at the same time she wanted to find love (because that’s normal and what we’re supposed to do, right?!). In so many ways I felt like I was reading the memoir of some sort of alternate-universe version of myself, with the main difference being that Kristin is hilarious and I can only dream of being as funny as she is.

I felt the connection in the first chapter. “The first time I blew off steam internationally was not born of carpe diem. It was born of deep despair.” Add in the fact that Kristin’s deep despair was caused by a rough break-up and at that point in time she was only one year older than myself right now… well, it sounded eerily familiar. Her first international escape was with a friend, the friend’s boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s friend to Paris and Amsterdam. She spent an extra few days in Paris by herself, trying to be the Girl Who Has Fun Alone and, ultimately, she admitted that those days didn’t go as well as planned.

It was like reading a twisted version of my own journal. My first solo international experience was also born out of a break-up and the combination of a need to get away and the desire to be independent. Instead of just taking a trip to visit good friends in New York or Philadelphia (which probably would have been the sensible thing to do), I booked a solo flight to Munich for Oktoberfest. Why Munich? Because my friend’s Italian coworker was working there for a few months and had mentioned at one point that if any of us were in Germany we should let him know. I took that as a sign that I should go.  I had visions of myself breezing through the streets of Munich, sipping coffee and eating pretzels outside some gorgeous café, drinking liters of beer with attractive single foreigners from all over the world. You probably aren’t surprised that the trip didn’t live up to my expectations: I really struggled communicating in German, I found it difficult to meet people, I felt unsafe navigating through a bunch of drunk people by myself, and felt generally alone for a bigger chunk of time than I’d like to admit. However, I did manage to get a few things right: there was lots of great beer and good food, a hot Swedish guy made an appearance, I met some really cool people from Australia, and most importantly, I made it through an international trip all by myself and had an overall good time. Mission accomplished.

 

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Marienplatz in Munich, Germany

I drew all these parallels between my life and Kristin’s, and it was only the first chapter! As I continued reading, and learned about her adventures in Russia, Argentina, Australia, and more, I felt so inspired. I kept thinking to myself, this is what I’m going to do with my life. This is how I want to live. I started telling people that traveling was the most important thing, that I wanted to see the world, that I didn’t want to settle down, that I wanted to enjoy being single. (I didn’t tell them that I was almost quoting from a memoir that I was reading.) Kristin matured throughout the book; she became more self-confident and carefree when she was traveling. I kept picturing a future version of myself that was right there with her, just going with the flow and enjoying life, living each moment abroad to the fullest, not afraid of being judged. For the first time, I felt capable of achieving all of my lofty travel goals. If Kristin could do it, then so can I.

The last few chapters sobered me up a bit, though. Suddenly, the amazing and confident Kristin was in her late thirties, and afraid that she missed her chance at love because of all her adventures. The woman I had come to identify somewhat as a heroine was dealing with life questions that I can’t possibly understand at 25, and as I read her thoughts I realized I was afraid of the possibility of encountering the same problems. What if I traveled so much and focused on myself so much that I miss other opportunities? What if the adventures that I’m planning at 25 turn me into a crazy cat lady at 35? The last few chapters left me feeling nervous rather than adventurous, cautious rather than bold. By being honest about her thoughts and her life, Kristin presented the opportunity cost of being so independent and well traveled. But at the same time, she kept traveling and doing her own thing, which I found inspiring.

After finishing the book and letting it sink in for the past few days, I realize that I’m still inspired by Kristin’s life. She knew what she wanted and she went out to get it, and even though there were tough spots along the way she kept going, and along the way she met some amazing people and racked up countless stories to share. And in the end she regretted nothing, which to me is the most important thing.