American Girl: A Personal History with Historical Fiction

I’ve always been a bookworm. From the time I could read, I read incessantly. That’s probably an overstatement. Let’s just say that I read a lot. I’ve also always been kind of smug about reading. One of my few memories from first grade is getting upset when my teacher – a yellow-haired and yellow-toothed woman with a face full of visible capillaries who I heard later might have been an alcoholic, though I’ve never bothered to confirm that – told me I was not yet allowed to take chapter books out of our Catholic school’s small library, even though I was reading them on my own. I wanted badly to be the first person in my class to take out chapter books from the library. I ended up being second, or maybe third. At age six, this was my great shame. Not being allowed to publicly check out chapter books in front of the rest of my class. Didn’t they know I was so advanced that I was already deep into reading the very important American Girl series? Eventually, every girl in my class would read these books. But I was the first. Or, more likely, one of the first. And, I knew, I loved these books the very best. They were mine.

Actually, Kirsten was mine. Meet Kirsten was the first American Girl book I read and I knew after the first two chapters that we would be friends. Kirsten Larson is a young Swedish immigrant who, along with her family, journeys across the Atlantic to New York and then on to Minnesota, which we know is the place where all of the Scandinavian immigrants settled. On the top bunk of the bunk beds I shared with my younger sister, by the light of one of those lamps that clips on to your headboard but is always kind of lopsided, I hungrily read Kirsten’s story. It felt like I was there with her. As she sat on a Manhattan stoop, tired and separated from her family, she thanked a stranger who gives her water in a tin cup. “Tak,” I said to no one, except possibly my tiny, sleeping sister with her blonde bowl cut and feety pajamas, who probably heard me reading to myself and thinking aloud more than I realized. I grieved with Kirsten after her best friend, Marta, died of something called cholera – a new word! – while on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. I rejoiced when she and her family reached Minnesota and she finally becomes a true American girl.

I read all of the Kirsten books. (And of course, got the doll, which I cherished and dressed and talked to, and eventually ruined by unbraiding its hair and trying to brush it.) Thanks to my eventual unfettered library access and my parents’ ability to keep me supplied with all of those paperbacks that I had to own and not borrow, I read most of the other American Girl books available at the time. Of course I loved them. They were popular, relatable stories about girls who were just like me. But it was the difference between us that really drew me in. These girls lived in another time. And when I read along with them, so did I.

Because of Kirsten, I developed an obsession with immigration. Specifically Ellis Island era, though I would read almost anything as long as it was about foreign people coming to America and set well in the past. It was because of this that a librarian recommended Journey to America by Sonia Levitin, which led to my very major obsession with the Holocaust.

A seven-year-old girl in Catholic school with an insatiable thirst for YA novels about the Holocaust. That was me. I couldn’t get enough. (There are a lot of reasons for this and, just to be clear, none of them are that I agreed with those who perpetrated the Holocaust.) I read Journey to America, about a young German Jewish girl who escapes to the U.S. with her family, probably twenty times. As the years passed, I read any book I could get my hands on. From the acclaimed Number the Stars to a memoir written by a Hungarian survivor called Upon the Head of the Goat. Even though my friend and fellow Holocaust novel devotee, Caitlin, would give me good tips on what to read next, there are only so many books. Eventually, I had to branch out and read about other times and places, though I would totally still read any new book I found about Europe during World War II, as long as it wasn’t primarily about soldiers or fighting.

I was good at reading lots of books, but I was really good at reading historical fiction. So I set out to read any novel about any period that interested me. I was still young when Scholastic started publishing the Dear America series, which blew my mind. Essentially American Girl books for an older set, they were fictional diaries of girls living during important American times, like my girl Remember Patience Whipple, who traveled on the Mayflower and lived in Plymouth Colony. I liked this book mainly because I knew that I have Puritan ancestry and I used to imagine that Remember Patience Whipple was my ancestor. Which is I guess the sort of thing a fourth grader spends her time thinking about.

I advanced. In a few years, I started reading Ann Rinaldi, who it seemed wrote roughly one million books, also all about girls living during important times in American history. (She actually wrote at least one Dear America book.) I read every book this woman published up until probably 2001. There was a darkness, an edge, in her stories that I liked. They seemed real to me. I suppose that’s why I was drawn to historical fiction in the first place. These made-up stories could have really happened.

Once I entered high school, I didn’t have as much time to read. I still read as much as possible outside of my classes, but something drew me away from historical series and toward literature I deemed more serious. Of course, some of those books were set in the past. (Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which I loved because, when I read it at age sixteen, it consumed me like no other book had in years. And also because I was a nerd who attended high school in the early 2000s.) They just weren’t genre, which is how I’d come to see “historical fiction”. Similar to science fiction or fantasy, set apart from regular fiction in the bookstore like a bunch of squat, often terribly titled stepchildren. (Except anything historical is just included with regular fiction. I know that.)

Historical fiction – genre historical fiction – became a guilty pleasure. How many romantic and suspenseful Philippa Gregory novels did I burn through in all of my hours pedaling away on a recumbent bike in my university’s gym? Probably too many. I was a history major, so in my mind I was balancing out all of my required actual reading, much of which made me sleepy and hurt my brain. JK, even when they hurt my brain, I fucking loved reading most of my actual history books. And I know that my childhood devotion to historical fiction had so much to do with my academic interest in history.

Once I graduated from college and started working, reading for pleasure became a huge part of my life again. One of the books that had the biggest impact on me as a writer, reader and person that year – also, in life –  was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Her novel’s imagining of the rise of Thomas Cromwell bowled me over. The book is literature in the highest sense of the word, but I got the same pleasure from it that I’d felt while reading historical series as a girl. Wolf Hall made me rethink historical fiction: it could be something that I actively liked, rather than something I liked in the past when I didn’t know any better.

Since then, I wouldn’t say I’ve read too many books that could absolutely be classified as historical fiction. The sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, is another excellent representation of the genre and of fiction writing in general. And I just finished Nicola Griffith’s Hild, which is the fictional story of St. Hilda of Whitby, a seventh century figure we know little about apart from her role in the conversion of England to Christianity. The book is extremely well-researched, with beautiful prose. It felt like reading a fantasy novel without any magic or mythical creatures. But it was very solidly historical fiction.

In the process of writing this, I’ve come to realize what an impact this not very genre-y genre has had on me. Historical fiction, from the beginning, has inspired me to be curious, which I think is one of the best ways to be. Not being curious is a waste of humanity’s best natural asset. My curiosity has shaped who I am: a person who loves history and literature and, more broadly, absorbing facts, sharing and hearing opinions, reading too much, and a whole lot of other things. And I hope that person is a better one than if, two decades ago, I didn’t read Meet Kirsten in my top bunk all on my own.

Alone in Paris: Here and There

This is the fourth part in a series about studying abroad in Paris in the fall of 2007. You can read the first part here and the second part here and the third part here.

Eventually things really picked up and it felt as though my time in Paris was turning into a series of visits and trips. People visiting Paris, me going other places. I was finally, for the most part, happy. Time moved so slowly for me there that I never felt a disruption in my schedule or that anything was necessarily a distraction. The experience itself was a distraction.

My friend Edmund came to France on business. He flew into Charles de Gaulle, rented a car and drove to Paris for a brief visit before he had to go on to Rouen. He picked me up and drove us around the city as I pointed out landmarks. Eventually we parked and went to a cafe, where we sat for a while just talking about our lives. I don’t remember what I did or didn’t share with him, but I’m sure I had a lot to tell. I remember that he told me about his new girlfriend, whom he’d met after moving into his new apartment in Chicago. He seemed happy. In love, even. For some reason, listening to him talk about her was comforting.

This was  one of my favorite days.

My friend and college roommate Annie was studying in Madrid and came to Paris the weekend of Halloween, along with a few friends. Annie stayed with me at Liz’s apartment. Our friend Jacob stayed with Stephanie, who had to keep that secret from her host family, who had gone on vacation and I think had maybe prohibited her from having overnight guests. We’d scheduled a few days of sightseeing and socializing and I was happy to be so busy.

I don’t remember a real sequence of events that weekend. Just flashes of things. I know that on their first day in town, I went to a cafe to meet Annie, Jacob and two fellow-Northwestern kids they’d become friends with at a cafe. I couldn’t tell you where the cafe was. Maybe it was in the 15th, because I definitely walked there from school. I remember that walk really well because it was the first time I listened to Beirut’s The Flying Club Cup in its entirety and enjoyed it. It felt like the perfect soundtrack for walking around Paris in the fall and I couldn’t believe it had taken me weeks to figure that out.

I think the first night we had dinner with Liz and then went out to meet everyone at a cafe. I know for sure we were sitting outside at a little table and just drinking and people-watching when one of the few Parisians who was super-psyched for Halloween – and wearing a rubber mask – walked up behind me and scared me.

annie, me & steph

annie, me & steph

One night, I took Annie, Jacob, Steph and another friend to Le Cristal. I recall several things about that night. First, Stephanie and Jacob had eaten a fancy steak dinner beforehand. Second, I hadn’t showered that day and went out with greasy hair pulled back into a ponytail, which was and still is very unlike me, but being in Paris does crazy things to you. Third, we drank an astounding number of pitchers of beer. And then the order in which things happened gets a little hazy. Jacob was having a conversation with someone in Spanish. We were taking a ton of pictures. Stephanie eventually went outside to talk to her boyfriend on the phone. (Did that happen? It might not have.) Eventually, she came back outside and told us that she’d thrown up on a car. (Was it on a car? Also, did that happen?) She and Jacob went home and left me and Annie to drink another full pitcher of beer by ourselves, which was an amazing idea because by the time we finished, we were so drunk that I decided I would lead us home on foot, using the light at the top of the Montparnasse Tower to guide us. I don’t remember our walk home, but I do remember waking up at 1 PM the next day.

We went to the Eiffel Tower. By that point, I was really fucking sick of the Eiffel Tower.

We did some more sightseeing at night. Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur.

me, jacob & annie

On their last night, we all met up with Annie and Jacob’s friends with whom they’d traveled to Paris. They were staying in a hostel in the Latin Quarter, where I usually refused to go, but it was one of the girls’ birthdays. We ended up at a horrid, overpriced but dingy piano bar that someone who worked at the hostel had suggested. I probably complained about it and I hope now that it wasn’t too obvious.

I had fallen into a routine. Class Monday through Thursday. Sometimes I went on field trips on Fridays for my History and Art History classes. They weren’t field trips so much as they were like, really long, specific walking tours of Paris. My History professor, who walked with a cane and often had to miss class because he couldn’t get to Paris on the commuter rail from Versailles, took us on a tour of the Marais. My Art History professor showed us Notre Dame and a few other churches. Then I think I had to see Notre Dame again as part of a History trip. Of course, I was interested in what they had to say, but three hours of walking around in a group was a little much for me. (For the record, my favorite trip was our Art Nouveau architecture tour.)

I looked forward to the weekends when I had solid plans. And I really looked forward to the weekends when I was traveling.

The second big trip I took with Jill was to Berlin. It was our first time on an overnight train and I was really excited. We brought beer and some snacks along for our nine-hour journey. Once we were settled in our car, we started talking to one of our fellow travelers, who was named Hannelore. (God, why do I remember that?) She shared our beer and told us about what she did in Dijon – she was an academic, maybe – and why she was traveling back to her native Germany. I stayed up later than I should have and was rather tired when I woke up, just as we were stopping outside of Berlin.

Jill and I got off at the right stop and somehow found our way to our hostel, which was hands down the best hostel I booked Europe. It was called The Circus. I think I found it in a New York Time Travel article. Anyway, it was great, even though we were on top bunks in a huge dorm room and I was too afraid to use the shower or change my clothes. (But seriously, it was super clean, they had excellent amenities including a bar, and the staff gave us an amazing recommendation for a walking tour.)

We immediately put our stuff in a locker and signed up for an eight-hour walking tour, which we figured would be a good way to see a lot of the city in the limited amount of time we had. We were right. We covered a lot. Our tour guide, an old man who wore a tweed cap and was maybe English – I forget – picked us and a few other tourists at the hostel. I think the hostel was technically in the East Berlin section of Mitte and he showed us a lot of little particularly East Berlin things on our way to the New Synagogue, where we would meet up with the rest of the tour group. While we were walking, I texted my parents to tell them that I’d arrived safely. My dad responded, “Achtung Baby!”

We merged with another group at the New Synagogue, where we were greeted by our new tour guide, an American guy with a curly ponytail wearing a fedora. I wish I remembered his name. Anyway, he was really fucking excited about being a tour guide. He moved to Berlin without knowing any German at all. His only reason was because…he knew that he wanted to live there. It was possible he was a student, but I think he was just real live weirdo. He did know a lot about German history and kept assuring us that German was an easy language to learn, showing off his skills by chatting up anyone – well, mostly young girls – who happened to stop close to our group on the street.

in front of the brandenburg gate

in front of the brandenburg gate

I feel like we saw…everything. You name it, we saw it! And it was very cool to do all of that on that particular day because…it was November 9th! A really important day in German history! There were so many things I was excited about seeing – the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall, the Reichstag. And even though I wasn’t necessarily excited, I was interested in seeing the Holocaust Memorial with my own eyes. (Readers, I think you know by now that I’m an enormous German history nerd.) But there was one thing that I didn’t know we would see and therefore didn’t expect to be affected by. And that was the parking lot that’s now over Hitler’s Bunker.

berlin wall art installation

berlin wall art installation

Six hours into the tour, it started raining and we took refuge in a Doner kebab shop. Jill and I decided we’d had enough for the day, so we headed back to the hostel and dried off. That evening, we went to a restaurant near the hostel that our tour guide had suggested. It was a quiet, candlelit place on a side street that served traditional German food and it was perfect. We were tired and opted to just go back to the bar in the hostel, have a drink and get to bed.

In the morning, we dry shampooed our hair and I think maybe wore the clothes we had worn the day before. And then we were off to see more things. I think we did Checkpoint Charlie and went to a museum where we saw some sort of Egyptian temple thing. Jill asked me to take her picture at the top and told me that I needed to stop putting her in the middle of the frame every time, which is the best photography advice I’ve ever received.

We went to a Christmas market outside which was still charming despite being in what looked like a parking lot. I ate a sausage and bought a really small leather purse. It started snowing. On our walk back to the hostel, everything we passed made me look twice. I think it was around then that I decided I loved Berlin.

Back in Paris, I’d started babysitting for our upstairs neighbor, Sylvie. Her daughter was three years-old. She was usually a delight and after she got used to me, we were great pals. Her father was English and lived in London so I was supposed to speak English to her. She didn’t speak any English, really, except for simple words. My mom had brought over a few books in English for me to read to her, which I would do before she went to bed. It was really low-key compared to my previous Parisian babysitting experience.

After she went to bed, I would try to find stuff to watch on cable. By far, my favorite thing on late-night French cable: Shake Ton Booty, which was a dance program on MTV that I really only kept on in the background because I enjoyed when the words “SHAKE TON BOOTY” would flash across the screen.

The weekend after Berlin, Jill and I went to Amsterdam. The trip started out…poorly. For me, at least. I hadn’t left myself too much time to get from my apartment to Gare du Nord and as I was transferring Metro lines, I realized I’d forgotten my Eurail pass. I had two choices: turn around and get my pass at the apartment and probably miss the train or buy a new ticket on the train. I didn’t want to leave Jill hanging, so I decided to buy a new ticket on the train for 100 euros, which seemed like a million dollars to me at the time. I was so upset.

The train took about five hours and when we got to Amsterdam, it was pouring. I honestly have no idea how we figured out how to get from the train station to our hostel, which was on the outskirts of the city. This hostel also had a bar, where we grabbed a drink on our first night. I remember being very excited to hear them play this song:

We shared a room with a bunch of Spanish girls for at least the first night we were there. I remember them being loud, but not much else.

me, with all of the things we associate with amsterdam, i think

me, with all of the things we associate with amsterdam, i think

The two days we were there are sort of blended together in my mind. I think we did the Van Gogh Museum the first day, which was definitely one of the worst museum experiences of my life. It’s not like I spend ages in front of paintings when I go to a museum, but I do enjoy being able to look at something for more than 5 seconds before a crowd sweeps me away and on to the next one. On our second and last day, we went to the Anne Frank House. I, like many humans, was very taken with Anne Frank’s story as a child. (I went on to become so obsessed with the Holocaust that I ran out of library books to read on the subject, which is probably less common.) I thought the museum was excellent. Sad, but excellent. (Though it would be kind of hard for them – in the house where Anne Frank, her family and friends hid – to screw up bringing history to life, wouldn’t it?)

somewhere along a canal in amsterdam

somewhere along a canal in amsterdam

I was worried about money the whole time we were there, even though I still had plenty and had been very frugal during my time in Europe. I felt sick over having to buy the extra ticket. I just kept telling myself that there was nothing I could really do about it and that I had to try to enjoy myself.

On our second night we ended up in the hostel bar again because our hostel was so far away from anything and we were really tired. We made some friends that evening, including a large and very Nordic-looking woman. Her blond hair was in braids and she was wearing a Nordic print sweater. (So again, just super Nordic-looking.) She told us she was from the Frisian Islands in the North Sea. What it’s like there I can’t even imagine. We also met an American dude who told us he had eaten bad mushrooms earlier and had spent the whole day in bed in the hostel. He was a pizza delivery guy from central Illinois and he had saved up his money for four years in order to take an epic trip through Europe. However, he planned probably the weirdest Eurotrip ever: like 15 cities in Germany and then Amsterdam and then back to Illinois. Maybe he went to Austria also? There was definitely another German-speaking country in there. Anyway, I thought it kind of a waste to save up money for FOUR years to travel and only hit two or three countries, but who am I to judge?

I know what you’re all thinking right now. Where are the drugs? (Right, Mom? You’re definitely thinking this, I know.) Everyone goes to Amsterdam to do drugs. Well, my partner-in-crime wasn’t super into the idea of spending our two days there in coffee shops and I was on board with just sightseeing. But with mere hours left in Amsterdam… I won’t say any more here, on the internet, but if I know you personally, just ask me and I’ll tell you a story that involves not one but two paranoia-induced panic attacks in a train station, Dutch bagels, a doppelganger, a can of Pringles that wouldn’t open, and listening to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love on repeat for five hours.

My friend Katherine and her then-boyfriend (now-husband) James came to Paris for a weekend. I met up with them someplace, I don’t remember where exactly, on a Saturday. We ate a late lunch at a Turkish restaurant and after that, I went home because Katherine and James were going to a rugby match and Liz was having a party for Nick’s birthday. I hung out while Liz, Nick and John prepared for the party. Then the guests, a motley crew from the international agency where Nick and Liz worked, started arriving. I was planning on meeting Katherine and James after they were out of the rugby match but then. Then. THEN. I began really not feeling well. I was sitting at Liz’s bar, talking to one of her colleagues, when it seemed like all of the spanikopita I had just eaten transformed itself into knives and stabbed me in my stomach. I excused myself and violently threw up in the tiny bathroom, hanging on the string you pulled from the ceiling to flush the toilet for support.

I had never had food poisoning before, but I knew that that’s what was going on. From that fucking Turkish restaurant. I asked Liz for some cleaning supplies so that I could clean the toilet. And then I got in bed.

The party was still going on. It sounded like it was kind of raging actually. I watched Pushing Daisies, which I had been streaming illegally since it started that fall, in my room. My stomach continued to rebel against me. I heard some people go through Liz’s room to the balcony, which you could also access from my room. There was some loud conversation about how much of the city you could see, what excellent views the apartment had, when suddenly something burst into my room and crashed into the TV. It was Delphine, one of Liz and Nick’s colleagues, with whom I had spoken earlier in the living room. I could hear John hissing from the hallway, telling her that she was in the wrong room. She apologized to me and walked through my room and out onto the balcony anyway.

The next day, Liz gave me a suppository – my first – to help with my stomach, I think. Now that I think about it, it was probably a laxative. I honestly don’t even know what it was supposed to do for me – I mean, I do, but I just don’t see how it would have been helpful – but I took it anyway. Liz was really surprised when I told her that, to my knowledge, I had never before stuck medication in my rectum before.

My friend Chris’s band came back to Paris, this time to open for The Shins at a much larger venue. This time, there was no wild night out. I think it was a weeknight. We ran into Chris and a few of his friends from college before the show, when I was sitting outside of a McDonald’s waiting for Stephanie to go to the bathroom inside.

At the venue, Stephanie stood kind of off to the side. Chris came out and watched The Shins with us. I really liked The Shins in high school, but at that time I was very into protecting my image when it came to music – I worked on a rock radio show at my college radio station, which specifically sought to play underrepresented music – so I acted very whatever about seeing them.

Jill and I had decided to spend Thanksgiving in Rome. We booked our train tickets. Two sixteen-hour trips. We were nervous about spending a total of thirty-two hours on trains in one weekend, but excited for the adventure.

Because I wasn’t going to be in Paris for Thanksgiving, John and I thought that it would be a good idea to make a little Thanksgiving dinner the day before I left. Roles were assigned for what everyone was to make. I was in charge of the cranberry sauce. I ended up having to go to Picard – which, if you don’t know it, is a spectacular frozen food emporium that I wish we had in the U.S. – to find frozen cranberries. It was my first time really making a recipe using the metric system, but it turned out well enough.

My friends Peter and Molly joined me, Liz, John and Nick for dinner. Even though Liz encouraged me to invite people over all the time, I didn’t. Not because I didn’t want to, but it was usually just easier to meet up with my friends individually elsewhere in the city. Also, everyone was busy. Maybe they just didn’t want to come over. I don’t know. But Peter and Molly came over and we had a nice time.

I remember only two things from that night, specifically. One thing was that when Peter rang the doorbell, I was petting the nicest cat, Crevette, on the couch. Unfortunately, when I stood up, her claw got stuck in my dress, so she sunk her claws from her other paw into my thigh. I unhooked her and answered the door, bleeding. The other thing that I remember was talking almost constantly about the Italian transportation strike that had been announced earlier that week. I was hoping that it would end before my train left the following day so that I could get to Rome as planned.

It didn’t. My train was canceled. Jill and I ended up frantically rebooking our trip for a few weeks later, during what would be our last weekend in Paris. I ended up spending Thanksgiving eating Thanksgiving leftovers with Liz, our neighbor Sylvie and her daughter, as well as Sylvie’s friend and the friend’s boyfriend and daughter. The little girls ran around the apartment like wild animals and I ended up spending most of the evening answering Sylvie’s friend’s boyfriend’s questions about New York City, which culminated with me drawing him a map of the five boroughs on a cocktail napkin.

I was determined to be depressed that weekend about missing Thanksgiving at home and I think I succeeded. I don’t remember anything about it.

The Best Books I Read in 2013

Did you think year-end lists were over? Well, they’re not. At least not here. I wanted to wait until the year closed out to bestow my favorite books that I read in 2013 on you, mostly because I was still reading one until the very end. (Actually, I’m not quite finished with it.) Here they are, without too much commentary because I still have one more roundup to do and if the books aren’t covered there, then they certainly were covered in one of these three other roundups I did of 2013 reads: January-March, April-June, July-September. Also, they’re sort of in an order. The ones toward the top are the ones I liked the most, I think.


How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This book caused a lot of anxiety for me this year. I felt very strongly that it was great, one of the best I’ve ever read. Many of my friends and fellow readers felt…opposed. I hate disagreeing with anyone – except for people I dislike, that’s fine – but I will defend this book probably forever. You can read my thoughts on reading this book last January here.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I went crazy for this book. I recommended it to everyone, except I think I told my mom not to read it but I forget why. It certainly wasn’t perfect but I loved it for its overstuffed-ness and repetition and all that Dickensian stuff that turns some people off. (Not surprisingly, I am a huge Dickens fan. Bleak House is one of my favorite books of all time.) I think this will be a great book to cozy up with this winter. Here is what I wrote about The Goldfinch after finishing it a few weeks ago.

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

The Mountain Lion is intense, especially for a book about children. It’s a brilliant tragedy and the story of siblings Ralph and Molly affected me very much. Honestly, I’m still not sure how Stafford pulled it off, but I’m very glad she did.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I feel like I’d been avoiding this book for years. Despite my awareness of all of the praise heaped on Bel Canto, something about the premise seemed really unappealing to me. A group of notable people from around the world – including a famous opera singer – are held hostage in an unnamed South American country. I never should have let that get in my way. This book is wonderful.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I had never read Donna Tartt before this year. I think everybody ever has read this book at some point, but I didn’t read it until this summer and man, I am glad I finally got to it.

The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes

This book is INSANE. I loved it. But it’s insane. The first volume in almost-trilogy “The Human Predicament” – Hughes died before he could finish the final book – The Fox in the Attic is suspenseful and horrifying and wonderfully captures the changing tides in 1920s Europe.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I fell hard for this book, which I think I literally did not put down, when I read it last month. It’s Y.A. for sure, but that doesn’t mean adults can’t enjoy it. And not in the guilty pleasure kind of way.

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. Do I really have to write anything about this book?

The Likeness by Tana French

This book is basically The Secret History but written as a police/detective novel set in modern Ireland. After reading The Likeness, I became a big Tana French fan. I look forward to reading more of her this year.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

This one had been sitting on my shelf for years and I finally picked it up when I realized I didn’t have anything to read on a flight to Chicago. As a person who is anxious about many things, especially those things considered to be dangerous or life-threatening, it was amazing to get to experience Amazonian adventure through Grann’s superb narrative and portrait of the lost explorer Percy Fawcett.

The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy

I’m so, so happy that working my way through so many NYRB Classics led me to Elaine Dundy last year. Her first novel, The Dud Avocado, became one of my most beloved books ever after I read it. The Old Man and Me, her second novel, is I think slightly more absurd with a darker tone and a less likeable heroine. I don’t mean any of that negatively. It’s just as enjoyable, just a bit less comfortable.

Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I’ve recommended Patrick Leigh Fermor on this blog about a million times at this point. I’ve been tearing through his writing for the last year or so. This second book about his trip on foot from Holland to Constantinople in the years before World War II is simply awesome. (But definitely start with the first book in this intended trilogy, A Time of Gifts, if you want to read him.)

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

This is definitely one of my favorite memoirs I’ve read. I wished Decca had gone deeper at times, but considering the generation and the family she grew up in, I’m glad she shared all of the entertaining – and often tragic – personal details she did.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent

History nerds! You should definitely read this one. The storytelling is wonderful and the abundance of little-known (well, at least by me), sometimes hilarious facts alone makes the time spent reading this worthwhile.

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Before I read this book I told everyone that I just didn’t get George Saunders. Then I read it. And I’m still not sure that I get George Saunders, but I know that I really loved many of the short stories in Tenth of December.

Onward to 2014

I began 2013 by writing about past New Year’s resolutions I’ve made and my resolution to not make any resolutions. I can tell you that in this first week of 2014, I feel good about not having made any resolutions last year. Sometimes, not having goals is a good thing. Particularly when you’re the type of person who overcommits to personal goals, often doesn’t complete tasks and then feels guilty about not completing those tasks. This year, I want to once again commit to nothing. Instead, I would just like to continue doing what I’m doing with more, um, intensity.



I want to write more, obviously, and be more serious about it.

I’d like to continue learning things that I want to learn, like German language, which was one of the New Year’s resolutions I failed to keep in 2012. Better late than never!

I want to read more widely and keep my book club going. (Actually, holler at me if you want to join a book club. It’s just ladies now but we are open to dudes.)

I want to master more baking skills. Like puff pastry. And bread. I have never made bread!

And – this is important – I’d like to continue to become a more confident, more independent, more thoughtful woman who is not afraid to express her opinions or be herself. Like, seriously. This kind of sincerity usually makes me rashy, but I think this is the right time for it.

Am I going to do all of this? I hope so. But if I don’t…Oh, well. The important thing is probably trying. I mean, no one’s obituary includes what they tried to do but I don’t think the meaning of a life can be found in a few sentences written after it’s over. I think that life’s meaning, if that is even a thing (not sure yet), is found in experiencing it.

So, on that note. Happy New Year! I wish you all many wonderful and meaningful experiences in the year to come.

and i leave you with this, the only photo i have of myself on new year's eve, in which i look very, very ready to take on 2014

and i leave you with this, the only photo i have of myself on new year’s eve, in which i look very, very ready to take on 2014