Vacation reading

“Focus on the journey, not the destination,” some say, but I say that airports are a drag. Not just airports, but whatever version(s) of public transit one takes to get to the airport (in our case, a bus to one subway line to another “subway” line that is actually a bus) and from the airport (another bus), not to mention the hours in the air. On one hand, I recognize that modern travel is a miracle; on the other, the atmosphere of stress, hurry-up-and-wait, and recycled air…the “journey” is never the best part of travel for me. (Being afflicted with motion sickness doesn’t help.)

However: all that sitting and waiting translates to hours and hours of reading time. I don’t usually pack for a trip until the night before, but I start thinking about what books to bring at least a week in advance. (Here’s what I read on honeymoon last year.)

Despite a Twitter joke about reading Ulysses on vacation, I don’t usually bring monster classics with me when I travel, especially legendarily difficult ones. (Except Anna Karenina, that one time, and I’d already read half of it.) I try to choose books I think will be absorbing, but also easy to pick up and put down frequently; travel involves a lot of waiting and a lot of transitions. This time, I included a mix of fiction and nonfiction, galleys and published books.

south_colmtoibin The South by Colm Toibin: This popped up on a list of books set in Barcelona. Toibin is one of those authors I knew I ought to read, and I wanted to, but hadn’t gotten around to it till now. The first thing I noticed about the book was its wide, heavy font, and it took a few pages to get used to that. Then I began noticing the sentences, which were short, reminiscent of – yes, I’m going to say it – Hemingway. However, Toibin has a female protagonist, Katherine, who leaves a husband and son in Ireland to come to Barcelona, where she falls in love with Spanish Civil War vet Miguel and makes friends with another Irishman, Michael Graves. I’m not entirely sure what to make of The South and would like to discuss it with someone else who’s read it.

remedy_goetz The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz: I won this as a galley from LibraryThing. I was hoping it would be similar to Steven Johnson’s excellent The Ghost Map (about a cholera outbreak in London), and I was not disappointed. Koch’s and Conan Doyle’s stories don’t so much entwine as they do intersect, but the author pulls off the combination pretty gracefully. Koch discovers the cause for TB but announces a cure prematurely; Conan Doyle reports on Koch’s findings. Sherlock Holmes stands as an example of the detective-as-scientist; indeed, he helped popularize the scientific method at a time when society was beginning to look to science for answers, instead of with skepticism.

changingmymind Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith: I’ve read Zadie Smith’s fiction (White Teeth, On Beauty, NW) and appreciated it, but I really love her nonfiction for the clarity of thought and expression, as well as the topics she chooses. Changing My Mind is heavy on literary criticism (George Eliot, E.M. Forster, Roland Barthes and Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace), but Smith’s writing is worth reading even if you aren’t familiar with the authors or books she writes about. Changing My Mind also includes a season’s worth of film reviews, an essay about an Oxfam trip to Liberia, thoughts on reading and writing, even an essay about the Oscars. Throughout, Smith’s intellect is fierce and focused, sharp and incisive, and not without humor (though she’s no stand-up comedian).

senseofanending The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and it was available as an e-book from the library before I left for my trip. I read it in one sitting on the plane flight home from Madrid to Boston, and wow. Tony Webster, our narrator, is a man in late middle age, peaceably divorced with one grown child. In order to tell his story, he starts with background on his school days with his two close friends and a fourth friend, Adrian, who joins their clique. The friends go their separate ways after school, and Adrian writes Tony to let him know that he is dating Tony’s first serious girlfriend, Veronica. Tony’s response is extreme, and it comes back to haunt him, despite the mild life he’s lived since.

graduatesinwonderland Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale: This was another LT advance copy. I’m a sucker for anything epistolary, and Graduates in Wonderland surpassed my expectations. It fits perfectly between the post-high-school, pre-college novel Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr, and Rachel Bertsche’s friend-making memoir SWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend. Certainly, as graduates of Brown, Pan and Kapelke-Dale have a certain level of privilege, and I’m not sure how well this book will sit with those who don’t come from the same or similar backgrounds; however, setting that aside, I think this has the potential to be hugely popular with the twenty-to-thirty-year-old set. Pan and Kapelke-Dale are both great writers; they’re funny and honest, and they write about work, social life, managing depression, romance, living in foreign cities and struggling with the language, and deciding what to do with their lives. The subject matter and casual style make for addicting reading.

Five books in seven days, and all of them enjoyable: not a bad vacation! Oh, and we also saw some things.



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Oatmeal cookies with apricots

I’ve never been a fan of raisins in other foods. Every now and again, one of those little red boxes of raisins as a snack on their own, sure. But raisins in trail mix always got stale before everything else, raisins in rice dishes just seemed strange and misplaced, and raisins in cookies? Why would you do that. I’ve gotten a little less picky as I’ve gotten older, though, and now I’ll tolerate raisins in cookies, but if I’m the baker, I’ll usually choose something else instead (like chocolate chips, for example).

Having made oatmeal-almond-apricot scones regularly for the past few years, then, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to think of adding dried apricots to oatmeal cookies. It turns out that oatmeal cookies with apricots in them are fabulous and you should make them at once. I used Deb’s recipe from Smitten Kitchen and subbed in 3/4 cup of chopped dried apricots in place of the raisins and nuts. I did a pretty rough chop of the apricots so there are big chunks of fruit in the cookies. The grown-up me finds the result delightful, though the five- (or ten-, or fifteen-) year old me would probably have been appalled. What can I say, tastes change. But cookies are always good.

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Unidentified Peanut-buttery Object

In an effort to keep her from chewing up our stuff, we borrowed a few dog toys/puzzles from a friend to see if we could get her to chew on those instead. This little purple UFO-shaped thing is sort of like the beehive-shaped Kong, but a little trickier.DSC06357It kept her busy for a little while, and at least she understands it. (A few of the other puzzle toys presented more of a challenge. More on that later.)




DSC06361On a related note, this is the first year I got a birthday card from a dog.


I’m not sure how she purchased the card without thumbs or money, but that’s a conversation for another time.

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The only things that matter

From Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess): “I used to think that that it was a small sin to waste time rereading silly books you’ve already read, or watching shows about robots with hearts, and time travel, and impossible things, but then I grew up and realized that those things were the only things that mattered.”


Sudo agrees. Especially because reading and watching shows about robots with hearts are things you can do from the couch. And if any dog ever had a favorite place, hers is the couch. One day I hope to enjoy my retirement as much as she enjoys hers.


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On Letter-Writing

ToTheLetterRecently, I read Simon Garfield’s book To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. It was more of a history than a “celebration” (though the author was definitely in favor of letter writing), but it was an enjoyable history, and, like many good books, led me to discover all kinds of other things. One of those was Lewis Carroll’s (yes, that Lewis Carroll, of Alice fame) “Eight or Nine Wise Words On Letter-Writing,” published in 1890 and therefore available through Gutenberg

Between To the Letter and “Eight or Nine Wise Words,” I decided that one of my resolutions this year would be to write pen-and-paper letters to people. Because we had a lot of snow days recently, and therefore a lot of free time indoors, I went a step further: I downloaded Carroll’s pamphlet, re-formatted it, printed it out, and bound it, with some blank pages in the back for a modified version of his “Letter-Register.” (I know, I know: normal people, stuck inside for days, would just watch TV. I did some of that too.)

My version is a lot bigger that the original, with fewer pages; his little pamphlet accompanied a stamp case for carrying around all the different denominations of stamps (this was long before “Forever stamps” were invented). Some pages are sewn in, and some are tipped in with polyvinyl acetate (PVA, a kind of plastic glue).

front cover

front cover

The Guternberg file included some of the original images. Use of the images and text is completely legal (“This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at”;).

Inside, first page

Inside, first page

Inside, first page, tipped in

Inside, first page, tipped in

Inside, back cover

Inside, back cover

Back cover

Back cover

It’s really amazing how much of Carroll’s advice holds up for modern letter-writers. Among these bits of wisdom (for those not inclined to read the whole thing): if you’re replying to a letter, have that letter in front of you; start by addressing and stamping the envelope; always date your letters “in full” with the month, day, and year; carry letters in your hand when going to mail them (or you’ll forget); write legibly; if you are enclosing something, put it in the envelope when you mention it (because you won’t remember by the end of the letter); and use a sign-off at least as friendly – if not friendlier – than your correspondent’s.

There’s a lot of other good advice too, and it’s all full of Carroll’s cleverness and sense of humor. Garfield’s book has a sense of humor too (he makes fun of stamp collectors – although, as someone who’s writing a book about letters, and who has previously written about typefaces and maps, I feel he’s on rather thin ice here). So yes, it’s 2014, and we have e-mail and text messaging and Twitter and Tumblr – but we also still have real letters. Write one, and give someone else the pleasure of receiving mail that isn’t a bill or a catalog.


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Can we go inside now?



Here we are, not a minute away from our front door, and she’s looking up at him with an expression that very plainly says, “Can we go inside now?” (Two steps further on: “How ’bout now?”) Could not be more different than the husky dog we saw today, happily digging around in the snow, while we were at the sledding* hill.



Sudo, on the other hand, has to wear little booties to protect her feet from snow, ice, sand, and salt. And you can’t tell in this photo, but she’s actually wearing another coat underneath the orange one.

Fortunately, though, the sub-freezing cold that came with the storm broke today. This morning it was 27 degrees and it felt like a warm bath. It warmed all the way up into the low 30s in the afternoon and we had a nice long walk in the slush.



*Sledding, naturally. So what if we were the only people our age there who didn’t have kids?


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All the salt in the world couldn’t melt that ice



Here’s our street on the afternoon of December 18. At least this snowstorm (on the 17th) wasn’t immediately followed by sleet, unlike the preceding storm (December 14/15). There’s still a sheet of ice underneath everything, but not on top.


You can see the ice in this photo from the afternoon of the 15th. This was the only time we took the dog out without booties; poor thing was walking with her toes splayed out so much it looked like duck feet.


Here she is with the booties on her front feet; she’s much happier that way, though you can’t really tell in the picture. Overall she seemed to manage the snow and ice in a less freaked-out manner than last winter (see photo from last February’s “winter storm Nemo“), but I’m sure we’ve got bigger storms coming.



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