Tuesday Book Club: Final Count

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IMG_5602One of my resolutions this year was to read 40 new books. I felt optimistic about this arbitrary number, but I unfortunately fell short of my goal, reading only 34 new books in 2014. Maybe it was because I read a number of books that were either 1,000+ pages or just under that. Maybe it was because I didn’t feel as challenged in my personal reading. Or maybe that’s just too many books for me to read in one year.

Hopefully not, because I’m going to push myself to actually read 40 new books in 2015. That’s one of my resolutions for the new year, along with attempting to eat more fruit (again!), find more charitable opportunities and watch church regularly.

Have you set any resolutions? Are you a goal-setter? Adam and I talked about ours the other night over dinner and we agreed that it’s easier to follow them if they are quantifiable. That is, “go to the gym” or “work out” are too vague as resolutions and can make success feel too flimsy. Instead, it’s helpful to phrase it as, “I will work out twice a week,” or in my case, “I will eat fruit 4 times a week.” (You guys. I know that’s insane because you are supposed to eat like 4 servings a day, but honestly, fruit is a toughy for me. I could eat veggies all day long, though). Anyway, I’ve found that putting parameters on a resolution will help me stay more consistent and transition it into my daily routine more fluidly.

If you’ve been following along with the book club then you’ll have some idea of all the books I read this year, but I thought it would be nice to get them all in a list here since I abandoned the Book It page. Should I just take that thing down because I’m truly terrible about updating it? Maybe there’s a new resolution in there…

Below is the list of 34 new books I read this year. I put an asterisk by the books I would highly recommend and you can follow the link to read more of what I had to say about them. In sum, I’m happy with the variety of books I read. You may remember that I’ve posed a challenge to myself to actively stray away from the contemporary fiction I’m so drawn to from time to time. I’m happy that I branched out a bit this year and plan to continue to do so. Read deeply and widely might be the motto.

  1. Martha Quest, Doris Lessing
  2. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson
  3. Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, ed. by Sari Botton
  4. The Mistress’ Daughter, A.H. Homes
  5. Dear Life: Stories, Alice Munro*
  6. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt*
  7. Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld
  8. The Time Between, Karen White
  9. The Skies Belong to Us, Brendan I. Koerner
  10. The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton*
  11. Oblivion, David Foster Wallace
  12. The Engagements, J. Courtney Sullivan
  13. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler
  14. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
  15. The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell*
  16. Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
  17. Still Life With Bread Crumbs, Anne Quindlen
  18. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki*
  19. Life After Life, Kate Atkinson*
  20. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  21. The Moment, Douglas Kennedy
  22. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
  23. &Sons, David Gilbert
  24. The Little Friend, Donna Tartt
  25. Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan
  26. The Vacationers, Emma Straub
  27. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler*
  28. The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
  29. Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham*
  30. Mao’s Last Dancer, Li Cunxin
  31. What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty
  32. The Circle, Dave Eggers
  33. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
  34. The Hundred-Year House, Rebecca Makkai

There were a few stunners on the list–The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, Life After Life–that really dazzled and excited me, and of course there were also a few that disappointed–1Q84, for being well over 1,000 pages, what did you really have to offer? But therein lies the joy of reading: the surprises and the development of taste and expectations. Reading never fails to amaze and inspire me, which is why I will continue to push myself to read more and read more widely.

What were your favorite books of the year? Any that you would recommend? I’m looking for contenders for next year’s list : )

Happy reading!

Christmas This Year

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It’s hard for me to talk about going home for the holidays without tearing up. This year felt more emotional because I was experiencing especially strong pangs of homesickness this December and the anticipation of spending time with my family and friends was causing some restless nights. Of course, once I arrived the two weeks at home flew by and leaving home left me an even more emotional mess. I just wasn’t ready to leave.

There are certain times, though they are few, thankfully, where I truly wonder what we’re doing over here. Are we living our best life this far away from our nearest and dearest? Wouldn’t we be happier at home? There is no right answer. When I’m zipping across Europe by rail or snuggled up at home while it snows here in Switzerland, everything feels good deep down in my gut. I feel balanced. And then something happens, not even something catastrophic necessarily, and I question our motives and logic.

What usually calms me down when I feel this panic rising is that nothing lasts forever and I’m not the only one grappling with these conflicting feelings. I am happy here. I love living in Switzerland. And I love my family and friends and spending masses of meaningful time with them. I feel pulled in opposing directions, but ultimately content with where we are now. Being at home riles up all these thoughts in me and I can’t help feeling contemplative and nostalgic, the natural end-of-year reflection only exacerbating this exercise.

 

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sisters^^Courtney and I went to a Christmas party and I still don’t know what we dressed up as

All told, I had a wonderful time at home. Lots of quality time with friends and family, eating all my favorite foods and indulging in holiday delights, shopping trips, sister sleepovers, reality TV with my mom and general merriment and fun.

We spent some great time at Adam’s house and reveled in the relaxation. We celebrated Christmas a few days early, though it felt just like the real day with a big breakfast in the morning and a lazy afternoon of movies and lounging.

My family has the big to-do on Christmas Eve with my brothers and their families and all the siblings. We have brisket, cheesy potatoes, pie, cookies and presents before going to service in the evening. Christmas day is more relaxed; we usually see a movie in the afternoon (this year it was Big Eyes–recommend!) and find a time to open presents at home either in the morning or evening.

I took a healthy amount of photos while I was at home, but discovered this weekend, when I downloaded all the images, that I had my settings all wonky and only a handful of them turned out. So many of them are overly yellow and blurry and it pains me to see so many memories fuzzed out. I’m sharing them anyway, despite of my lack of attention to detail, if you’d like to see what we got up to at home. Get ready for the photo overload…

IMG_6659^^Louis, Erin’s dog, is the best male model

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IMG_6639^^a picture recreating a picture

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toast^^European beers are great and all, but nothing has the crispness of a PBR ; )

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IMG_6805^^for every one nice, normal photo of us there’s a good smattering of “outtakes” that no one seems to love as much as us

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IMG_6816^^when we went to Greece this summer we bought my dad a 20-year-old bottle of Vinsanto, a dessert wine. Standing in line to check my bag so we could bring it home nearly caused us to miss our flight, so this thing was worth a lot. We were happy to finally get to open it up and enjoy!

IMG_6828^^my dad has a fondness for creepy woodland animals

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IMG_6886^^teaching two of the triplets how to misbehave at Grandpa’s house

IMG_6888^^Mason ::swoon::

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IMG_6952^^ a Christmas toast!

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I hope you are having a magical time of year. These quiet days between Christmas and New Year’s offer such pointed time for reflection and resolution. Adam and I spent some time last night thinking about what we want 2015 to look like. It’s humbling to review such an exciting and momentous year. But’s it’s just as exhilarating to stand at the beginning of a fresh year, one ripe with possibility and adventure. I want to wish you the warmest of season’s greetings and glad tidings in the (almost) new year.

 

 

Giving During the Holiday Season

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2012 SRI LANKA IT WORKS+I want to preface this post by saying that giving to a charity or an organization is a very personal matter, but one that can be delicately discussed. I would never want to pressure you into doing something, rather just let you know what is important and dear to our hearts.

The holiday season is obviously ripe for gift giving and drawing up wish lists, but for us it is crucial to remember those who are celebrating this time of year differently from many. For Christmas, my parents asked that we give a donation to a charity in lieu of any tangible gifts. They believe that any money we would normally put toward them could be far better served to those in need. It’s a selfless and generous choice that I know I could learn from.

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2012 UGANDA IT WORKS+Adam and I will be making donations to Room to Read and Wounded Warrior Project, organizations that focus on interests of my mom and dad, respectively. I’m pleased to be able to give to others and spread positivity around the world this year.

For our own part, Adam and I having been sponsoring a child in Haiti since this past spring. She’s a sweet five-year-old girl who likes to play dolls and go to church. We donate through Compassion International, a Christian-based organization that serves communities around the globe. For us, a religious component was important and we are very impressed with both the transparency of Compassion and the percentage of profits that go toward children and families.

As I mentioned, giving to and supporting a nonprofit or charity is a personal matter. Think about what causes are meaningful to you. What will have the most impact? Before you decide which programs you’d like to support, it’s important to do a little homework. Find out how much of your money is put toward actual program needs versus overhead costs like marketing and staffing. Here is a good article detailing a few steps you should take, and sites like Charity Navigator and GuideStar are reliable sources for comparing charities.

The impulse to donate is quite strong during the holiday season, and I would encourage you to follow that instinct in an intentional and thoughtful way. Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

(all images used with permission from Compassion International)

 

 

 

Strasbourg for the Weekend

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Last weekend Adam, Phil and I went to Strasbourg, France to celebrate our birthdays, and also just to take a trip together. Strasbourg was recommended to us by a friend who was charmed by the old timber-framed houses, numerous sidewalk cafes and excellent shopping options. Though it was a bit too chilly to dilly dally outside, Strasbourg truly was a beautiful place, especially around the holidays.

I didn’t fully realize that the city is commonly referred to as the Christmas Capital of the World, but once we arrived we realized how seriously Strasbourg takes that special distinction. Christmas markets popped up everywhere and lights were strung with almost careless abandoned. Every restaurant, shop and bar was fully outfitted and it would have bordered on the kitsch if it wasn’t so earnest. If you’re looking for the sweet nostalgia of Christmas, this is the place.

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On Friday night we had dinner at Winstub S’Kaechele, a tiny nine-table restaurant near Le Petite France. Typically, a winstub serves traditional Alsatian food and wine in a warm, cozy atmosphere. Wood paneling, checked tablecloths, low-beamed ceilings and several variations on pork are all standard at these places. There are a few restaurants of note in Strasbourg, but the winstub will offer the most authentic and delicious experience, in my opinion.

The main specialty of the region is charcroute, pictured above. A large helping of homemade sauerkraut sits buried underneath at least five variations of pork and sausages, if not more. Boiled potatoes and a side of mustard accompany this dish, along with a hearty appetite. I’m not a big fan of sauerkraut but I was promised that this would have none of the vinegar-y tang that is usually so off-putting. This was sweet and almost creamy in its consistency and was a beautiful complement to the rich, fatty pork. The guys had potato gratin and pork shoulder; everything was so delicious. We’d highly recommend this place, but bookings are essential since it’s so small. There was a sign on the door turning away everyone who didn’t have a reservation.

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^^^nothing wrong with a little post-meal burst mode session outside the restaurant

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After dinner we walked around the town to check out lights and the giant Christmas tree that had been lit earlier in the evening. We stopped for a couple drinks along the way but really soaked up the Christmas spirit.

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The next morning we woke up to find a farmers market right outside the apartment we were staying in. It was full of the usual suspects: fresh produce, stinky cheeses, warm bread and pungent seafood. It was fun to stroll through on our way into town.

We walked through a few of the Christmas markets and stopped for flammkuchen and coffee on our way to the cathedral. Once there we walked up over 300 steps to enjoy the view from the top.

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We walked further through the markets and some of the shops in the more popular part of town, around the cathedral that is, before submitting to the cold and heading into a nearby bar. We had a deck of cards and played round after round of golf in La Mandragore, a very cool bar near the Galleries mall. It’s full of taxidermy and oddities and makes for a great place to relax and gear up for the next tour of markets.

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That night we went to Restaurant Au Pont du Corbeau for dinner. It was another winstub-like place with dark wood walls and checked tablecloths. It too was completely booked for the evening so I would recommend reservations here. We shared wild boar, pork cheeks and salmon after devouring foie gras, escargot and quiche for starters. We were beyond stuffed but very happy indeed. Everything we ate was so, so good.

We visited Le Petite France to walk off dinner and see more Christmas lights. This is definitely the most picturesque part of town and I wish we could have seen it during the day. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to the 13th century.

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On Sunday we visited the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. They had a couple of interesting exhibits and it was a nice place to stroll through on a quiet Sunday.

We headed home shortly after that. It was a quick trip, but a fun and festive one. It’s nice to get out of town every once in a while, especially when there are so many neat places easily accessible by train. This was our last trip of the year, besides our trip back to the States for Christmas. Nothing is exactly on the books for next year, but we’ve been brainstorming like mad and 2015 looks like another exciting year for travel. Visitors welcome and highly encouraged!

 

Christmas Cheer

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Have you decorated for the holidays? I am so, so bad at it. Last year I was so overwhelmed with buying things for the everyday that I couldn’t even think about buying yet more stuff that would just be put away in the near future. This year, I’m leaving on the 11th for the US and I don’t want to decorate just to leave a few days later. Of course, most of this can be chalked up to laziness. Excuses, excuses.

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Instead, I’ve added just a few cheery touches around the apartment, mostly in the shape of needlepoint pieces my Aunt Winnie has made or fresh berries from the florist. I wish we had a little tree but maybe next year?

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These could not be any cuter. My aunt and uncle gave them to us as a wedding gift, and of course Aunt Winnie stitched all the beautiful needlepoint. I love that we are represented as jolly Santa and Mrs. Claus. Maybe our kids will be elves? ; )

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Last night Adam and I laid on the couch and listened to Christmas music while giving each other foot rubs. I highly, highly recommend doing all your relaxing in these socks. If you can get this pajama set to go with them then you earn some extra festive points or something because I think it might just be too much for me to handle. I live for jammies and comfort.

We listened to all the standard favorites–Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, The Carpenters–but also my favorite Christmas tune, “Holy Holy Holy” by Sufjan Stevens. It is so sweet and peaceful. All his Christmas songs are beautiful, but this one is the best. “Sister Winter” is also pretty great.

How do you infuse holiday cheer around your house? Do you decorate? Listen to music? Cook or bake something special? Adam and I don’t have too many Christmas traditions but we do like to listen to music and watch movies. Adam’s a big believer in watching the Die Hard movies around this time of year and I of course like a little Love Actually with my Christmas cheer.

Monday Night Movie

artist is present

Have you seen The Artist is Present? It’s a documentary following the 2010 exhibition by Marina Abramovic by the same name. Several years back, at the Museum of Modern Art, Abramovic held a retrospective of some of her most popular, influential and controversial works. She also unveiled a new performance piece wherein she sat in a chair for 7 hours straight, 6 days a week for 3 months and allowed people to sit across from her as long as they wanted. Despite the simplicity of the performance, it became a mentally and physically demanding experience for Abramovic, as well as transformative for both her and the participants.

We watched the movie a couple weeks ago and I’d highly recommend it. Her work can be upsetting and disturbing but also enlightening. She explores questions surrounding male/female relationships, hierarchical societies and the limits of the human body. Her oeuvre is truly fascinating.

The film also offers an interesting study on the dichotomy between life and art and the ever-puzzling question, What is art? It doesn’t set out to answer or explain anything, rather it adds to the already rich discussion, forcing us to examine our own preferred aesthetics in contrast to others’. Does running naked into a wall count as art? Does filming yourself screaming until your voice gives out count as art? If not, then why does painting count as art? Does it still count if the canvas is a body? Must art be beautiful?

After “The Artist is Present” closed Abramovic struggled with what to do next. This past summer she held an exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery titled, “512 Hours.” The title refers to the amount of time she will be in the gallery, walking around with visitors. There will be nothing in the gallery except for her and the patrons. Is this art?

You can watch the documentary on Netflix and iTunes. Let me know if you see it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(oh, and welcome to December! When did that happen?!)

Happy Thanksgiving!

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I really am a sucker for those Rosengarten sunsets. They are just so magical, especially when they are covered in a hazy film of fog and mist. I’m so grateful that I get to live in a city with so much beauty and charm, one that continually amazes me.

Happy Thanksgiving, to those who celebrate! What a wonderful time of year this is, and not just because it was recently my birthday. I adore the holidays and all sentimental accompaniments. It’s tough to be away from family during such a special holiday, but we’ll be back in the States soon enough for Christmas. I’m so thankful to be living in Switzerland, and for the amazing opportunities this life affords. I’m thankful for my sweet, loving husband, for another year on earth and my wonderful friends, both old and new. I’m thankful for hot coffee in the morning, a great book, cozy socks and jammies, macaroni and cheese, red wine and jazz music. I’m thankful for my supportive and encouraging families–both old and new!–who are so generous with their love. I’m thankful for good health and a peaceful life.

I hope this week brings you joy and gratitude and massive helpings of mashed potatoes and gravy. Eat til you burst and don’t apologize for it! We’re heading to Strasbourg, France this weekend to finish the birthday shenanigans, shop the Christmas market and eat flammküchen. I can’t wait!

Happy holidays, friends.