The Hot Pot Blog

March 31, 2011

A Brand New Band & Some Life Lessons

Wedding band, that is.

When Chris and I got married, we decided there were only 3 things we really cared about the wedding: 1) the food; 2) the photography; 3) the rings.

We entrusted our moms with the catering and splurged on a fantastic photographer.  These were both great decisions.  Guests said it was the best wedding food they’d ever had and our wedding photos are some of my most treasured possessions.  Stephen captured the essense and the happiness of the day for us perfectly.  We prioritized perfectly.

On the rings though, not so much.  While we didn’t go all out, we did pick out two very simple, very nice, bands in platinum.  Our thinking was, a wedding is one day, our marriage is hopefully for a lifetime.  We wanted bands that said something to that commitment.

Turns out though, no matter how committed you may be to your marriage, your ring may not feel the same way about you.

Especially when your husband has strangely tiny knuckles and taper-shaped fingers apparently ill-suited for rings (sorry Chris, but it’s true).

Yes, yes, you guessed it.  Once upon a time Chris and I attended a Chinese New Year banquet at which Chris made an expansive gesture and a small circle of platinum, signifying his love and devotion to me, went flying off into an abyss of brocade and baijiu, never to be seen or heard from again.  We turned over nearly every table in that restaurant, retraced our steps, called the restaurant 5 times afterwards, but to no avail.

Poor Chris was completely distraught.  He felt horrible for days, no matter how many times I reminded him that it wasn’t his fault.  He had picked out that ring carefully and it meant a lot to him.  There was no question, we would have to replace it somehow.

Unfortunately though, owing to an error made by a customer service agent when we revised our insurance coverage last year, our personal property rider had somehow been deleted from our coverage plan.  When we called to file a claim for the ring, we were told that, despite notes on our file stating that we had asked to be billed the measly $5 extra per month for comprehensive coverage, we were not actually covered at the time of the ring’s epic last flight.

They were very sorry.  We now make sure to look for that $5 charge every month.

It sucked.  Worse still, only 3 days later-2 days before leaving on R&R- we found ourselves in the middle of a very, very expensive run-in with a heating duct at a local shopping mall.  Beware parking garage heating ducts in China, they are made of moldy asbestos/plywood and if you tap them going 5mph, they will crash to the ground and the garage owners will try to charge you as if they had been plated in pure gold.  Expect to be held in the garage for over 6 hours.  Also expect requests for the equivalent of $10,000USD in cash.

Between the ring, the stressful and seemingly endless heating duct negotiations, it was probably one of the hardest and most expensive weeks we’ve had here yet.  That night in the parking garage was a turning point in our marriage for me, as I watched, as if in slow motion, as Chris backed the car up and the ductwork shattered.  I screamed, I sobbed, I stomped off to a corner to collect myself and generally acted like a petulant child for a few embarrassing minutes.

But the words “for better or for worse” rang over and over in my head and I swear I felt something almost physically shift in my heart and in my head as I became dimly aware of the fact that these are the sorts of moments that help to make or break a marriage.  Those moments when you have to use every last ounce of your strained will-power to resist the urge to fight and/or flee.  When you have to remember that sometimes the person you love needs you to stay strong for them just as badly as you need them to somehow make everything ok again.  So that night, we held hands, surveyed the damage, and hoped for the best.

For the second time in a week, we learned the hard way that sometimes insurance companies really suck and I cried imagining all of the funds we had spent months diligently saving that would now be used to pay off an overly-greedy garage owner.  Chris still mourned his ring.  We fought, not always successfully, to keep from inflicting our shared anger and frustration upon one another and we both hated China that week with a passion only 2 people so badly in need of a break can.

Sure we had an emergency savings fund we could draw on, but with a  baby on the way, we decided to suck it up, tighten our belts, and pay off the garage owner out of our checking account rather than our emergency funds.  It ended up being much less than the extortionist quotes we were first given but it was still a lot of money, especially for a few feet of moldy plywood.  We cancelled our plans to do a big consumables shipment, toned down our babymoon to St. John, skipped buying new clothes in the States, and agreed that we’d wait and replace Chris’ ring when we could better afford it.

But of course, that’s not the end of this story.   This story has a happy ending.  And, unbelievably, it’s courtesy of Sky Mall.

Yes, that Sky Mall.

Because while enduring the unique form of torture that is a 13 hour economy flight from China, Chris passed the hours flipping aimlessly through the Sky Mall catalog.

And amidst the faux-concrete lawn gnomes, pet staircases, and replica Harry Potter wands, he found this:

A stainless steel band encasing a ring of concrete by a Canadian company and jeweler named Konzuk.

When we got home from R&R, in a much better state of mind than we had left, Chris showed me the ring online.  It was unique, oddly masculine, and at $210, it was a replacement ring we could afford.

It took about 15 emails with the company in Canada and a circuitous route to get here, but finally, last Tuesday, it arrived.

I had wanted to do something romantic like hide the box, take Chris out to dinner and propose to him again on one knee.  But in the end, we were both too excited and we practically ran to the mail room to tear open the box together.

It’s fitting I guess, Chris has a ring again and we’ve never been very good at delaying gratification for the sake of romantic gestures anyway.

After he tried it on for the first time, I made him shake his hand for a full 30 seconds to test it’s fit.

Turns out, any ring that isn’t literally turning his finger blue is capable of flying off of Chris’ hand.  It’s just something about the way his fingers are shaped.

But this ring did stay on for 20 seconds of furious shaking and I think that means we can plan on it sticking around for at least a few years.  And now we know for sure that our insurance will cover the loss when it does ultimately, and likely inevitably, disappear from our lives like the first one did.

But if it does, we also know now that it really doesn’t matter that much.

It wasn’t a ring of platinum that got us through that night after I had screamed and cried and Chris spent a heroic 6 hours negotiating in non-stop Mandarin with the garage owners.  It wasn’t a ring that reminded us to hug and hold each other after painful, icky, financial conversations through which we (I) barely held our tempers.  And we certainly didn’t need a ring to have a wonderful time on our R&R, in spite of all of the sandy peanut butter and jelly dinners we ate in St. John to save money.

I understand now more than ever that a marriage is much more sharing a house, a joint checking account, and a couple of matching rings.  It’s about sharing a life, full of really great days and really shitty ones.

Chris, I love you.  And I may not have given you a romantic proposal with your new ring, but I hope a blog post will do instead.  So I want to ask you,  the man who refuses to buy me flowers (because they die) but buys me house plants instead, the guy who always holds my hand and does the dishes after all of my big kitchen messes.  The man who is my partner in crime and life and who I’ve found distractingly handsome and irresistibly intriguing since the day we met.  With your new ring, will you marry me again?

March 27, 2011

Potential New Camera/Diaper/All-Around Bag?

The SLR Sloop at the Photojojo Store

Can we talk about the remarkable similarities between diaper bags and nice camera bags?

Both have lots of pockets.

Both have contrast linings to enable easy-to-find-ness.

Both promise “wipe clean” abilities and waterproofness.

Both are often quite utilitarian and/or ugly-looking.

Both often compromise your ability to carry another, often more useful bag, at the same time.

I’ve been thinking about a new camera bag for a long time.  Not only is my current bag too small to carry more than one lens, but it’s also too small to carry anything else either.

Which is fine for a quick jaunt around the neighborhood but it also means if I think I’m going to want my long lens, I bring a backpack.  And when I’m traveling, I’m awkwardly shoving my entire camera bag into another bag in order to fit baggage rules.  My regular purse is darn near destroyed from the abuse at this point.

Not too mention that for as totally awesome as my current camera bag is (the easy to use waterproof cover is my favorite feature) it looks like a camera bag.

Which isn’t exactly stylish but, more importantly here in Paranoia Land (I mean, China) its sometimes best to look as if you aren’t carrying a camera.  Heaven forbid you walk by a McDonalds on a Sunday or something.

An aside: sorry if I sound a little down on China lately.  But the whole major freak-out over the Jasmine Revolution stuff is just getting soooo old and more than a little inconvenient.

Anyways, not only have I been thinking about a new camera bag for awhile, but I’m also in the market for a diaper bag now.

Ideally one that doesn’t look overly diaper-bag ish.  Ideally something that has a useful shelf-life somewhat longer than our kid is in diapers for.

Which got me thinking again about the similarities between diaper bags and camera bags.  And how much I like the camera bag at the top of this post and below.

Easy-to-clean features, pockets, plus camera bags have those nifty velcro dividers that allow you to customize the layout of your bag.  They are also, I think, meant to be a bit more durable than diaper bags, which I believe are meant to be gotten rid of after a rather finite amount of time.  Sure they make really pretty diaper bags now, but it’s still a diaper bag, not likely something you are going to want to hold onto for more than 3 or 4 years.  My favorite purse is still one my mom gave me when I was in high school.

The SLR Sloop at the Photojojo Store

And I had a thought-what if instead of buying a diaper bag and, eventually, a new camera bag, instead I bought a nice camera bag that I could also use mostly as a diaper bag when Thumper is little and later as a full-time camera/all-around bag?

And I mean why not?  Sure, there is the ick factor of dirty diapers but that is what wet sacks are for.  I might not be able to pack up my whole camera plus 12 hours worth of baby gear in one bag but for quick trips out, a camera plus some dipes and other accessories is probably doable?  And for longer day trips or overnight trips or airplanes, we’d certainly be using a second bag anyways.

Plus, I like messenger bags.  All of the diaper bag versions I’ve found complain about the main body being too narrow.  A foam-cushioned camera bag doesn’t suffer from this problem.  It’s built with a wider base on purpose.  Which also means it will sit up more easily without tipping over onto the floor when you put it down to change a squirming baby in a tiny, gross bathroom.

But alas, this bag I like, this casual and not ugly camera bag is expensive.  I mean, all camera bags are pricey and this one is certainly no where near the most expensive but still, it feels extravagant.

And, truly, the really great utilitarian black camera bags are great and utilitarian for a reason-they protect your camera like no one’s business and they are easy to use.  A yuppie and pretty version will certainly not be quite as rough-and-tumble durable even if it’s cuter to wear around at a barbecue.

But if it’s doubling as my diaper bag, does that make it worth it?  Worth a try at least?

Or am I just trying too hard to hold on to some last bit of hipness as I head towards motherhood?

Better question, would anyone have really called me hip to begin with?

No, probably not.  But it’s never too late to try.

The Weekend

Ugh it was one of those weekends.

The kind where you accidentally fall asleep at 8:30 on Friday night, wake up at 10:30 on Saturday morning, and suddenly heave yourself upright on a zombie-like quest to make cornbread muffins for breakfast.

And then you forget to add the corn.

You also forget that cornmeal in China is kinda rough and mealy and eating your muffins feels a little like eating a bunch of very very tiny pebbles with a little bit of butter and sugar.

But you eat like 3 of them anyway because, let’s face it, you weren’t ambitious enough to make bread or go to the store to get milk for yogurt last night.  And you used your last egg on your pebbly corn sans-corn muffins.

We had that kind of weekend.

The unfolded laundry in the dryer mocked me every time I walked by.  The plates piled by the sink instead of enjoying a timely wash.  The pile of mail and other assorted crap on the dining room table that I meant to clean up on Friday night grew up, had babies, and multiplied so that it now threatens to take over the last clear space left on a table big enough to seat 6 people.

The house smelled like our neighbors’ sewage and home-cooking in that way that only a Chinese apartment can.  There’s nothing like the perfume of raw sewage mixed with burnt cooking oil wafting through a tiny apartment.  Especially when it’s not your own.

We attempted a homey hash on Saturday night with some delicious-smelling sausage and some incredibly uncooperative potatoes.  So uncooperative that they ultimate declared mutiny on the whole meal and had to be pitched, with the delicious sausage, into the garbage.  We ate plain salads for dinner instead.

Pregnant ladies who eat nothing all day but corn-sans-corn muffins and salads for dinner wake up STARVING at 4 in the morning, you should know.

By Sunday, the need to visit the grocery store was dire, so dire that we decided instead to try and find a mysterious barbecue restaurant south of town for which there is no known address.  It was a lovely tour of Chengdu’s “high-tech zone” but we never found the restaurant and returned home an hour and a half later, hungry and dejected.

Hmmm will have to ask our ATO about this one...

Cue 2nd boring salad in 24 hours.

Pregnant ladies who eat nothing all day but corn-sans-corn muffins and salads for lunch end up taking naps at 2 in the afternoon and wake up STARVING at 4 in the afternoon, you should know.

They also wake up with a bizarre desire to go to Tony Roma’s for a massive plate of ribs, IMMEDIATELY.  Something they NEVER do.

They might also wake up to find out there husband braved a Chinese grocery store on SUNDAY, on a COUPON SUNDAY, to get some basic supplies.  Because he’s just that awesome and that brave.

But, he barely made it out of that particularly Chinese death-trap alive.  In fact, he came straight down with another fever as soon as he got home.

So we decided to save Tony Roma’s for another day.

To make myself feel better, I made a whole pot of homemade, creamy, high-fat, macaroni and cheese.  Before I got pregnant, I ate macaroni and cheese like 3 times a year-mostly on camping trips.  Now I’m making my own from scratch at least once a week.

Girlfriend here needs her protein and her calcium, I guess.

Blurry photo courtesy of our dark kitchen and my rumbling stomach.

The oven is preheating right now for some chocolate chip cookies.

If that laundry is ever going to get tackled, I’ll need some serious chocolate-chip-driven motivation.

How was your weekend?

March 24, 2011

Florence Nightingale: Pie-Graphin’ Pioneer

Infographic by GOOD and Corum + Guerette.  See the interactive version here.  See more cool infographics here.

Last night I woke up at 1am to such a hacking and rustling commotion that I was almost convinced Chris’ immune system had staged some sort of exorcism inside his lungs.  Afterwards as I tried to fall back asleep, I remembered that I had invoked Florence Nightingale’s name in my blog post.   This is totally the sort of weird sh*t I normally think of when I’m awake in the middle of the night.

Anyways, I realized that I had not only mentioned Florence Nightingale but had also committed a sin against my fellow women by not invoking her for the right reasons.

In other words, for not truly honoring her for the innovator she was.

Because sure, she was a saintly vision in the night to soldiers wounded during the Crimean War, but few history books honor her true accomplishments: transforming nursing into a profession, instilling sanitary practices in hospitals, and most interestingly, being “a pioneer in visual information presentation.” Quote source: wikipedia.

Did you know that this woman quite literally made pie charts cool?  She also invented something known as the Nightingale Polar Area Diagram that is still used today by infographic designers and staticians everywhere.  Imagine!

That might not sound like a big deal today in a world overflowing with information, but think about how different our magazines and classrooms and newspapers might look if she (or someone else) hadn’t realized that presenting data in a visually attractive format fundamentally changes how people react to the information?  Think about how democratically legible these charts and graphs make data for the everyday reader, how quickly we can absorb information and make informed decisions from just a quick glance at a few colored circles and lines!

It makes me think of all of the neat infographics that GOOD magazine and others put out and wonder if we would still have those if Nightingale hadn’t gotten so darn influential with all of her graphs and charts.

So next time you too are thinking about Florence Nightingale at 1am while nursing your significant other back to health, remember her not just as the “lady with the lamp” but as “the lady with the pie chart.”  I swear its just as romantic and sexy.

p.s. I changed my blog appearance again, you like?

March 23, 2011


My man is horrendously sick with what I can only assume is yet another visa-applicant-induced nasty virus.  Poor guy has been running a crazy fever, coughing, hacking like a maniac, and crying out in the middle of the night for me to take my temperature (Ummm, no, I think that would be you darling).

So, I’m pulling the Florence Nightingale routine, albeit without the assistance of a cute nurse costume.  Which means I am also horrendously tired (great practice for having a baby I guess) and riding that fine line between sick and well.  One of the benefits to having a perpetually sick husband this past year is that I never get very sick.  Something about kissing Sicky’s feverish forehead all of the time renders me partially immune.

But not completely.  Which is why I have no great blog posts for the time being.  Just a bunch of semi-coherent drafts dreamt up in the middle of the night while I’m trying to calculate if it’s been long enough since his last dose that I can drug Chris up with Advil yet again.

So until we’re all in a less sniffly, feverish state, I leave you with an opinion question that is near and dear to my heart right now:

Say you lived somewhere rather “quaint,” the sort of place one still needs to remember to bring their own toilet paper to use even in fancy mall restrooms, without access to nice restaurants or museums, etc, what would you do for a romantic night out on the town?  Leave responses in the comments, I’ll be taking notes! 🙂

March 20, 2011

On My Mind Monday

1. We bought a yogurt maker, it changed our lives.  Put milk + starter yogurt in and 12 hours later-voila!  Tart, low-fat yogurt sans preservatives for less than a quarter of the price we’d pay to buy it at the grocery store!  For a delicious breakfast accompaniment, I doctored this granola recipe (added wheat germ, assorted seeds, ground almonds, whole almonds, copious amounts of dried coconut and maple syrup).  Yum.  We also used it to make some Tandoori Chicken for dinner, yogurt multitasks!

An Aside: why does yogurt not cause the same sort of reaction that cheese and milk do for my lactose-intolerant husband?  The man has been on an all-out yogurt binge since we brought the machine home and to no ill effect.

2. After realizing that my very minimalist make-up routine was doing absolutely nothing to cover up my “glowing” (read: totally broken out) pregnancy skin, Chris and I braved the crowds for an inaugural trip to Chengdu’s first and only Sephora.  It was fascinating.  Not only did the perfume and skin-whitening options dwarf the actual make-up selection by a magnitude of 5, but it seems Chinese people are only supposed to come in one of two or maybe 3 skin shades.  In the U.S. the lack of selection could have been the basis for a racial discrimination lawsuit, here it’s just business as usual I guess?  People, there are over 13 million Chinese people in this city and I can tell you right now, they come in way more than 3 colors.

3. Speaking of make up, holy cow concealer, where have you been all my life???  I always thought people were born with those glowing under eye areas and I was just totally unlucky.  Yay for looking awake and presentable again!

4.  We made bagels again this weekend.  Whole-wheat multigran, plain, and bacon-salt flavored.  They are delicious.  There is nothing better than a bagel so fresh that it slices like butter and so warm that when said butter is spread upon it, it melts instantly.  Remind me why I don’t do this every weekend?

5.  Chris came home from Beijing at 2am Saturday morning and I made him take the above photo of the Great Wall for me on his iphone.  Holy great camera in a little tiny phone.  Anyways, he was gone for 4 days and I really missed him.  After the first night of belting out show tunes at the top of my lungs, doing my pilates routine to an episode of Glee, and sleeping with “his” pillow every night in addition to my own, I sort of ran out of fun “home alone” things to do.  I guess things are just more fun when the hubs is around.

6.  Fun fact: we’ve been in China almost a year now and the most I’ve seen of Beijing is flying in and out of the airport.  Working on that one.

7.  Found this blog a few days ago and I’m totally inspired.  Chris and I decided long ago that teaching our kids to cook and hopefully instilling in them a love for preparing and eating good food is important to us.  Will I too be able to handle a 3.5 year old Thumper wielding a 9 inch chef’s knife?  We’ll see when we get there…

8.  I’ve realized that Thumper has a sort of rhythm to his bouncing around right now…and its all radio silence from the little in utero acrobat until lunchtime…

Uh oh, does this mean I’ve got another man in my life who I’m going to have to diligently persuade to wake up in the morning?  Does this mean Thumper will inherit his father’s tendency to make “wounded bear noises” at 6:30am?

Also, when you are sleeping on your side and your baby is punching the mattress beneath you, is this a sign that he’d prefer that you roll over already?  I can’t decide.

9.  I’m torn over the new NYT pay wall.  On one hand, I can’t blame them, I use and abuse the ability to read as many of their stories as I want for free.  On the other hand, I don’t want to pay $15-$35 every 4 weeks (and why not just make it monthly instead??) for something I’ve previously enjoyed for free.  On a third hand, is not subscribing even an option?  Isn’t my New York Times access sort like oxygen and gravity-necessary to life as I know it?

These New York Times people are smart, they wait until reading their paper online is so much a part of my daily routine that the thought of going without it seems as realistic and desirable as wearing a panda costume to work everyday.

10. Fun fact: I’ve also yet to see the freaking pandas.  I’m a horrible tourist of China, aren’t I?

Book Report

Last Septemper-ish I decided that, if I wanted to become a better writer, I should also become a better reader.

I love to read, love, love love reading.  I devour the written word like some sort of starved literary animal and I’ll read absolutely anything I can get my hands on.  Books, magazines, the back of cereal boxes, even “the fine print” of credit card applications.

Unfortunately, I’m also a freakishly fast reader.  I dont want to get into pages per hour or test scores here, so let’s just leave it at freakish. And while this was a fantastic trait to have during college, it’s also a very expensive one when you consider living in a place with no English-language libraries.

So, I do what any I can.  I pick and choose my books carefully.  I mostly skip chick lit and pop lit, unless its something I really can’t resist because they don’t usually last me more than an hour or two.  I read a lot of classics because they are good and cheap (usually less than $2 dollars to download).  I reread my favorite books over and over again, I borrow from Chris’ massive Terry Pratchett, Neil Stephenson, and historical novel collections and I consume free online newspaper articles and blog posts at an absurd rate.

And of course, when people ask me what I’d like for Christmas/my birthday, I unabashedly request e-book gift cards.

I have no shame.

Luckily I have way-too-generous parents who indulge my habit and so, for the past 6 months or so, I’ve managed to read a fair number of books that aren’t classics (yet) or from the shelves of our home.

At some point I realized that the best literary bang for my buck was those stodgy award-winners and critically acclaimed novels and non-fiction pieces that most people seem to hate and a few people seem to love.  They are usually pretty long and pretty complex so it takes me longer to digest each page.  Chris would also argue that they are also usually pretty depressing.

Depressing or not, they are usually award-winning for a reason, because they are really, really good.

So, I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve read over the past few months and highlight a few of my favorites (and least favorites) because, for me, reviews are usually so helpful in figuring out whether I might like a book or not.

I find that my favorite books tend to get both really negative and really positive reviews from real readers.  To me, that’s usually a sign that the story is provoking in some, possibly uncomfortable way, that I may not like it the whole way through but that I’ll continue thinking about long after I put the book down.   Keep in mind though, that’s just my definition of a good book, you might feel differently about some of the books on this list.

So without further ado, a sample of my reading list from the past few months:

Freedom Jonathan Franzen

Just finished this and loved it.  I’m already thinking about when I’ll read it again to really pick it apart and analyze the whole thing.  If you like complicated and sometimes unpleasant characters and slightly wacky rifts of modern American life that highlight the absurdities of normal, this is the book for you.

Also, if you are sick of these sorts of post-Modern American family tragedy in which the last page is as depressing as the 215th, this is the book for you.  It’s not sunshine and rainbows the whole way through but there is a happy-ish, if somewhat unrealistic, ending.  This isn’t one of those books that leaves you with a cliff-hanging ending to make you keep thinking about it, you keep thinking about it for everything you read the whole way through.

The Warmth of Other Suns Isabel Wilkerson

This is a non-fiction piece detailing the period of black migration from South to North from approximately 1930-1970 through traditional non-fiction reporting, thousands of anecdotes and in-depth biographies of 3 different people who migrated from South to North between the 1930s and the 1950s.

Pros: This book is painstakingly researched and well-written, you’ll learn more about the South under Jim Crowe than you’ve ever learned before and, perhaps more surprisingly, how hard, dangerous, and unfair Northern cities made life for those families that migrated.    The biographies are, for the most part emotional and gripping-tragic and happy by different turns.

Cons:  At times, this book feels a bit academic, which, to be fair, is probably where it got its genesis.  One other minor qualm I had was that, for some strange reason, the author repeats over and over-almost thesis style-several points that seem to almost distract from what could be several profound conclusions.  It’s also strange to me because the author writes so well and passionately about her Southern subjects, there’s no need to break up the narrative to make such overt thesis statements so many times-the stories speak for themselves.  The author also mentions repeatedly how the migration drastically changed the course of history for many Northern cities and for the whole South and, as a sort of urban planning and city-nut, I would have liked to read more about that phenomenon.

All in all though, I highly recommend this book, there is so much to learn from reading it.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Stieg Larsson

One of the pop lit books that made it on to my reading list.  I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo about a year ago and a) hated the torture of reading it; b) couldn’t put it down; c) vowed never to read the rest of the series.

But, at some point, in a fit of weakness I read the second book and it felt a little like torture (I have a weirdly, nearly visceral reaction to stories of gross injustice and wrongful accusation, they twist my stomach).  I wasn’t going to read the third until my father-in-law recommended it, he said it was much easier to read than the first two.

Guess what, it is.  This was by far the least ulcer-inducing of the three books in the series, it’s worth reading to get your sense of closure-or at least as much of one as you’ll ever get.

A Thousand Acres Jane Smiley

A 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner that is something of a middle-America twist on King Lear.  This book is like an epic-forceful and wearing.  You read it and you think you must have aged 30 years somewhere in there.  The book ends and you sort of feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, in a good way I think. It’s the story of a successful farmer, his 3 daughters and the tragedy that unfolds after he decides to hand over the reigns to his children and their husbands.  It’s powerful, it’s captivating, its a classic tragedy.  There’s betrayal, wrongful accusation, sex, lust, greed, attempted murder, incest, mental illness-this book has it all and it’s well-written and hard to put down.

Read it if you like Shakespearean tragedy, avoid it if you prefer happy endings.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot

I almost didn’t go for this book as it made all of the book club lists everywhere and sometimes that’s a bad sign.

In this case though, its on all of the book club lists because it is great read and I’m glad I read it.  This book will make you think you’ve missed your calling and should have become an investigative reporter.  The author has a way with words that renders even the most dry scientific terms, the most painfully awkward human interactions a pleasurable thrill to read.  It’s an insanely in-depth and well-researched piece that just flies along and makes you feel like your riding along in the backseat of the author’s beat up old car.

You might read the back cover of this book and think, so what’s the big deal?  Doesn’t matter, read it anyway.  You’ll be surprised by, if nothing else, the sheer strength of the writing.

Lark and Termite Jayne Anne Phillips

I loved this book for the almost magical, mystical quality of the story.  It’s the story of two children, Lark and Termite, growing up after the Korean War, their aunt whom they live with, and their mother’s husband fighting in the Korean War.  As the point of view shifts each chapter from one character to another, the story deepens and pulls you deeper into the metaphor and the mystical quality of the characters and their relationships to one another.

As the New York Times books review puts it: “Jayne Anne Phillips renders what is realistically impossible with such authority that the reader never questions its truth. This is the alchemy of great fiction: the fantastic dream that’s created in “Lark and Termite” is one the reader enters without ever looking back.”

Lost in the City Edward P. Jones

I picked up Lost in the City in a fit of homesickness for D.C.  It’s a series of short stories that takes place within D.C.’s vibrant black community over the course of several decades. As is sometimes the case with short stories, it took me a little bit to get into this book but by the end I couldn’t put it down.  The characters make this book, they are engaging and at once familiar in their their thoughts, their justifications, their strengths and their weaknesses.  The short plots seem almost like window dressings through which to view them.  These are stories that explore the human condition, how people react to kindness shown, trust given, opportunity thwarted, and tragedy realized set against the rich backdrop of D.C.’s black community of yesteryear.  Some of the stories are just purely brilliant and you’ll want to read them over and over again.

Interpreter of Maladies Jhumpa Lahiri

This is another book of short stories, this time all of the characters are Indian diaspora living in the U.S.  I liked this book, the stories were wonderful and kept me interested, but when I got to the end I almost felt surprised, as if there should have been something more.  I enjoyed this book but it didn’t hit me in the gut in the way I thought it would.  In terms of collections of short stories, I think that, while Lost in the City was harder to get into, I felt more strongly about it and thought about it longer after I finished it.

Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro

Ok, I’m just going to come out and say it, I did not think this was a great book.  Sure the idea of raising children to become organ donors who will ultimately die after a certain number of donations holds a sort of morbid fascination for some people but frankly that premise is not even enough to make this a great book.

Perhaps part of the problem is how unrealistic the premise seems today.  Maybe this sort of scenario seemed scarily conceivable 40 years ago as transplants were becoming a more viable medical treatment, but these days we know that scientists are getting close to growing organs from cells in labs-no human clones necessary.

But that’s not what really bothers me about this book.  What bothers me is the characters,  they seem sort of like stock portraits of stereotypical traits.  You’ve got the misunderstood boy, the brash and charismatic girl whose deeply insecure, etc, etc.  I don’t mind a deeply unrealistic plot if the characters and their interactions somehow make it interesting and relevant.  Here we’ve got your predictable love triangle drawn against a morbid and mysterious backdrop.

It’s a creepy read with enough mystery to keep a reader interested, but it was not my favorite book.  (Although the movie version apparently go pretty good reviews?)

NurtureShock Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

I read this one soon after I found out I was pregnant but honestly, its so darn interesting I’d recommend it to anyone who is at all interested in child development and/or behavior.  The research is convincing and, with some thought, surprisingly intuitive and logical.  As much as the authors claim their findings out to be “shocking” in the beginning, by the end you almost wonder why we didn’t all know this stuff already.

I found the entire book so fascinating I think I read it in half an afternoon.  There was just so much to learn and so much food for thought.  It not only made me think about how we want to raise our kids but about how I thought and acted as a kid as well.

One thing I loved about this book is that I learned something from every chapter that I can easily imagine putting to work as we parent Thumper and any of his siblings.  As the authors explicitly state, this is not a parenting manual but nor is it purely theoretical without practical application.  Most of the topics covered in this book don’t require massive parenting overhauls, but rather very simple changes in the way we communicate with kids.

The Girl Who Played With Fire Stieg Larsson

Ugh, torture.  Pure, can’t-put-it-down, literary torture.  See review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest above.

Olive Kitterridge Elizabeth Strout

This book one the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 and for good reason, I think book is in my top 10 of favorite books of all time.  I love this book so much, I’ve already read it 3 times since September.  It’s a series of 13 interconnected short stories surrounding the main character, a seemingly brusque, hard, difficult woman, named Olive Kitterridge.

Read this book, it’s beautiful.  It’s at times heart-breaking and depressing but also funny and hopeful.  You’ll hate Olive in the beginning and love her by the end.  And after all of the tragedy and pain in the first 12 stories, there is even a quietly happy ending in the 13th.  I could go on and on about this book but just trust me, its a keeper.

The Corrections Jonathan Franzen

This book, like Franzen’s Freedom details the lives and breakdowns of one nuclear family spread across the country.  The characters can be repulsive and, as in Freedom, none of them are comfortably pleasant or “good” though you can’t help rooting for and hating them in turn anyway.  This is a darker more despairing book though than Freedom. There will be no redemption for these characters, only deeper more painful levels of self-realization.  This is not a book with a quietly happy ending but it’s worth reading anyway I think.  It’s a big, sweeping American family tragedy that on one hand seems bizarre and on the other feels all too familiar.

The Good Daughters Joyce Maynard

Daughters switched a birth, perfecting a new breed of strawberry, achieving financial independence by drawing sketches for a best-selling sex manual, it all happens in The Good Daughters but I doubt you’ll care how realistic these devices are while you are reading this book.

This isn’t an amazing book but its a thoroughly entertaining read and the way Maynard draws life on a farm is beautiful.  I’d recommend this as a beach read I think.

The Commitment Dan Savage

I’ve loved reading Dan Savage’s column since I was a college kid at Madison scouring my weekly copy of The Onion (founded in Madison!) for things to do on the weekend.  I picked up this book knowing full well I’d read it too fast to be worth the money but I didn’t care.

And surprisingly, I still think this book was worth paying for.  It’s a softer less snarky side of Dan Savage and reads like rom-com in which all of the wrinkly weird imperfections of real life just make it better.  It’s sweet without being cloying and just a fantastic story of real life love and the sacrifices and compromises we make to be with and give the best we can to those people we love most.

Brothers Yu Hua

I liked this book about two brothers growing up during the Cultural Revolution and coming of age and then middle age during a time of explosive economic growth for China.

Translated from Mandarin, the book retains a very Chinese dark sense of humor, a certain “theater of the absurd” quality that perfectly reflects the topsy-turvy “anything goes” economic ethos you often feel here.  In fact, I think that’s the real success of the book, a certain wry and goofy reflection upon just how utterly bizarre the last 30-40 years have been in China.  Boys who once witnessed the torture of their mothers and fathers have grown up to become millionaires-riding around in fancy cars but perhaps still wearing 5 kuai peasant shoes on their feet.  This satirical read is entertaining and reads much faster than you’d think it would.

Little Bee Chris Cleave

I picked this up at O’Hare airport on the way back to China, having already exhausted supply of books I bought before we started the trip.  Despite favorable reviews, I wasn’t expecting much from this book and I think I finished it within an hour or two of take-off.

It’s an engaging and easy read–a good book but not a great one.  The story and the characters will keep you captivated but I think the strength of this book lies with the narration from Little Bee.  The premise is that she learned “the Queen’s English” not through natural interactions but through reading books while held in an Immigration Detention Center for two years.  This provides the justification for why her speech in this book is at once both beautifully poetic and bracingly straight-forward.  It’s this voice that made the book for me.  If for nothing else, Cleave deserves praise for creating a character with such a unique, beautiful, and powerful way of speaking.

Phew, ok that was long!!  I’ll stop here for now and save the rest for another day.  Happy reading!

March 15, 2011

20 Weeks: The Halfway Point

I remember looking at my calendar after we found out we were pregnant and thinking 20 weeks seemed impossibly far away.

And now we’re halfway through.  As of yesterday, we’re now closer to the grand finale than we are to the beginning.  I remember squealing when I found out Thumper was the size of a blueberry at 7 weeks, now he’s as long as a banana?  Where did all that time go?

Oh crap, I already sound like one of those “they grow up so fast!” moms don’t I?  The other day I burst into tears imagining Thumper’s first birthday.  Hormones people, its the hormones.  I cried watching a Disney World commercial last night too and I HATED Disney World as a kid (true story).

Anyways, 20 weeks.  The halfway point.  All of a sudden my head is filled with thoughts like:

1. We still have 20 whole weeks until Thumper is here?  That will take forever!!!  I want it to be August now!!  Where are my chubby baby cheeks?? (That’s a rhetorical question by the way, I believe they are actually attached to the little one who has started kicking me when I wait too long to eat a meal)

2. ONLY 20 weeks until Thumper is here?  Chris and I have only 20 more weekends to sleep in and go out on dates whenever we feel like it?

3.  Hmm there’s a possibility my one maternity tank top might not actually be large enough to cover up this belly for the entire 9 months…

4. Are we really having a baby in 4.5 months and have we really bought him nothing yet save for a UVA onesie?

5. Now is probably when we should start clicking “Buy” on all of those baby items I’ve been meticulously researching

6. I’m down to 1 out of 3 functioning buttons on my pea coat.  It’s a race, can springtime beat my belly?

7. Chris thinks we need new luggage to replace our painfully large and clumsy duffle bags so as to more easily negotiate airports with a little one.  After doing Newark airport last month, pregnant, with the hub’s back thrown out, I’m totally inclined to agree with him.  Only in the Foreign Service would new luggage qualify as a legitimate new baby purchase.

8. Who cares about luggage??  I want to start buying a stroller and a crib and swaddling blankets and a car seat!

9. Mmm chocolate chip cookies sound good.

10. I wish Craigslist shipped like Amazon-for free and to China.

So that’s what’s in my head (among other things-mostly baby gear thoughts).  What’s in the baby bump?

A 10 inch long-ish baby!  Wow!  I just found some literature the OB nurse practitioner in Green Bay gave me when we visited and found a photo of what a real baby looks like in utero right now.  Amazing, stunning.  He looks like a real person, albeit with creepily transparent skin.  It was a really cool looking at those photos…until I flipped ahead to the page on “birth”…also with photos.  Holy trauma.  I’m just glad I’ll be experiencing labor from a slightly different angle than those photos were taken, thank you very much.  I had to double check to make sure the magazine was in fact for pregnant woman and not some teenage “safe sex or else” material thrown in by mistake.

Anyways, besides getting bigger, Thumper has also gotten more forceful in his swimming around lately.  Up until this point I’ve felt like a human washing machine with Thumper sort of whirling and swishing around inside.  Now I’m starting to get these hardcore upper cuts and roundhouse kicks finally, the kind that Chris would probably be able to feel on the outside if I could ever get his hand on my belly fast enough.

As for me, I’m feeling pretty good.  The crazy fatigue has pretty much been replaced by an equally crazy desire to be doing something domestic or baby-related whenever we are home.  Folding laundry has never been so satisfying let me tell you.  In my weekly “Your baby is now the size of a (insert fruit/vegetable comparison here)!” email, I just read that I’m supposed to have gained about 10 pounds by now and I think I’m pretty close.

I suppose this is only tangentally related, but recently I’ve developed an unexpected decaf-nonfat-latte fetish.  When I got pregnant I went cold turkey on my coffee habit, figuring it would be easier that way –I always liked my awake juice strong, black, and preferably more than just one cup.  I tried decaf but it just didn’t taste right.  Decaf lattes for some reason do though, as I figured out a few weeks ago.  Extra calories, extra calcium, what’s not to love?  Especially with a little cinnamon mixed into the foam-yum.  I’d normally be annoyed at the extra cost and calories but I figure for a few more months its a healthy-ish splurge.  Now I’m just wondering how I’ll wean myself off them.

One more comment, this one on belly shots.  I try, I really do, but the lighting in this house and the weirdly malfunctioning shutter on my camera are killing me.  This is the best we got for 20 weeks, courtesy of Thumper’s daddy-to-be in 20 weeks:


March 14, 2011

On My Mind Monday…now Tuesday

1. Japan, wow.  I can’t imagine a) getting through the earthquake b) enduring huge tsunamis c) then finding out about 3-4 nuclear reactors leaking.  The bad news just seems to keep coming, I can’t imagine the nightmare that so many thousands of people arel iving through right now.  Hoping that rescue and recovery and radiation containment goes as well and fast and humanely as physically possible. Is there anything we can do to help?

2. You might be wondering how the Chinese are taking the news of the earthquake.  Well, to be honest, I’m told that many people started out really happy about it, almost celebratory.  (No, I’m sure not everybody but the phrases “a lot of people” and “most people” were used during the conversation) This is a country where cab drivers routinely brag about how they can’t wait for WWIII with Japan, so I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything more, less?  I will say though that, since learning of the true tragic scope of the disaster, I’m also told many people are now feeling more sympathy.  Aww that’s nice.  Remind me not to get on China’s bad side…ever. 

3. Just read that there’s been another explosion at one of the already-damaged nuclear reactors on the Japanese coast.  From what I can tell from the news reports, avoiding a full meltdown seems to just be a waiting game.  All but 50 of the most essential plant personnel have been evacuated but the news is pretty vague on what they’ll be doing to avoid the worst-case scenario.  Super scary, scary stuff.  I can’t even imagine being there.

3. Do we need a lighter note? A lighter note with a touch of edge? Here’s an op-ed on Charlie Sheen from the English-language Chinese newspaper the Global Times.  On why Charlie Sheen in not filial.  Rumors abound as to the true origin of the piece.  Tongue-in-cheek?  Totally serious?  Written by a laowai under a pen name as a joke?  Whatever the case, it’s hilarious yet sad, because remind me again what’s so wrong about throwing people who do really awful things to the court of public opinion for a thorough moral blasting instead of covering everything up?  Oh, that’s right, it’s bad for “harmony.” 🙂

Ok, I’ve probably written enough now to a) depress all of my readers and b) get my blog blocked for the gazillionth time.  Baby talk next time?  Shall we?

March 13, 2011

My Strange Nesting Habits

Within 24 hours of finding out we’d be having a boy, something happened.

It was like seeing those teeny tiny little feet on the ultrasound screen hit my optic nerve and set off a chain reaction in the previously-dormant mothering part of my brain.

Up until two Fridays ago, I had little interest in baby gear research or looking at baby gear.  Oh sure, I’d look once in awhile at things, but mostly I figured I’d outsource the serious research to Chris.

Holy cow, not anymore.  Not only have I read approximately 1,000 Amazon reviews in the past 5 days, but it has all of a sudden become imperative that I know now exactly everything we’ll be purchasing for this little bundle of joy.  I’m not talking just strollers and cribs people, I’m making a list of everything down to the waterproof crib mattress pads and the the Gerber-prefolds-to-be-used-as-burp-cloths details.

And while obsessing over baby gear is a lot of fun, I’ve taken the nesting thing to the level of even not-so-fun things.  Like double-checking 529 plans with my father (he’s a stock broker/financial planner), determining how much more life insurance we need, and making sure all of our investments and savings accounts are all up to date and accurate.

The other day I attended a first aid/CPR training and promptly informed Chris afterwards that we need an emergency preparedness kit at home, a “go-bag” for possible evacuations, and that our medicine cabinet/first aid kit is in need of some serious fine-tuning.

The other night (as I was furiously folding laundry-a chore I’m suddenly and uncharacteristically fastidious about) I had to seriously supress the urge to bake a lasagna.  Why a lasagna?  Oh you know, I just thought I’d get started now on stocking our freezer for when we return to China with Thumper…in September.  Pure insanity I tell you.

But who wants to read about college 529 plans on a blog? (besides me)  Hell, who wants to read about mattress pads or even cribs for that matter?  And we still have a almost 5 months to go!!!  Didn’t I promise this wouldn’t become a baby blog?

I know, I did, and I’m sorry.  Give me a few days to get over our son’s adorable little button nose and wee little feet for the moment and I promise I will return to sanity.

But until then, expect some baby gear posts and some shameless requests for advice…

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