Lock In, John Scalzi

It’s no secret that I love John Scalzi, and his books. He’s a friendly guy who is both a gifted writer in one of my favorite genres (humorous sci-fi) and an incredibly sharp political mind who has, in the last few years, used his celebrity to compose and share some of the most wonderful insights on issues of gender, race, and harassment that I’ve had the privilege to read. Apparently this makes him something of a pariah in certain circles, but since I try to avoid the trolling corners of the internet (how is it possible that all 17,000 of you are so kind? I’m very lucky), I think of him more as that wacky uncle who likes to sneak off and play videos with the kids after dinner and who probably steals all the best candy out of Halloween bags.

Due to the craziness of October, and now November’s non-stop word count battles, I ended up reading Lock In primarily in bites, ten minutes here and there, until I got about two-thirds of the way through and just plowed to the end. When I finished it, and there wasn’t immediately a sequel, I got annoyed. Then I remembered I don’t have time to read sequels this month, and I immediately felt better…ish.

I say this knowing full well you can undoubtedly appreciate the struggle between wanting (or even having) a sequel and wanting an afternoon (or a week, depending on the length or number of sequels available) when everything else can be blown off for reading. It’s the best feeling. As a child, it was easier to find the time. I would read during lessons I already understood in school, do my homework as quickly as possible, and then curl up with a book until dinner. I could happily pretend I’d already practiced piano (which I loathed and was unbelievably untalented at) if it meant twenty more minutes before bed. Now, in the twenty minutes before bed, I have to clean up the kitchen and make a reminder list for the next day and try not to fall asleep while brushing my teeth. Very little reading gets done. Even when the book is as wonderful as Lock In.

There was something especially fascinating about finding a book about disease as Ebola was entering the US. All of a sudden, the issues Scalzi was addressing seemed eerily prescient. How would we react if the world was hit by an uncontrollable pandemic? How would it change the political, ethical, medical, and social structures we’ve become accustomed to? Scalzi’s novel does an excellent job of balancing the exploration of seemingly infinite repercussions while creating characters I’m desperate to see again and again in future installments.

(Just, you know, not this month…)


For more of Scalzi, head this way.

The Way of the Happy Woman: Living the Best Year of Your Life, Sara Avant Stover

There are some books I read that I feel an immediate affinity for. I have to admit, this wasn’t one of them. It’s the second of the books my sister-in-law gifted me in January (Homebody Yoga being the first), and I’d put in on the shelf and forgotten about it until last week. I was looking for my Moosewood cookbook, and since I have limited storage space, I keep cookbooks next to the unread pile; as I was squatting there trying to ignore how incredibly dirty the rug had gotten, I had time to scan through quite a few titles when I came across this one.

I didn’t remember immediately where it had come from, but it seemed fortuitous. I’m halfway through a couple of novels but have been too busy to sink fully into their stories, and I wanted to take a break and try to regroup. Also, truth be told, 2014 has been a rough year (especially after ’13, which proved to be very lucky indeed) and it seemed important to pick up a book that might  help to realign my priorities. 

That being said, this is the kind of book that reminds me of people who love to hug. I have many dear friends who are huggers, but it isn’t an exaggeration to say I can count on one hand the people I like to hug, and on another, the people I’m willing to hug but would prefer to nod at politely from a distance to express my love. For the record, that hypothetical second-hand includes my very best friends in the world and most of my relatives; hugging, for me, in no way correlates to how much I care for a person, but I think it does say something about who I am as a person. And as a person, I don’t really like touching. Or touchy feely moments. Or books that encourage me to explore my feelings, even if they do so in a well-educated, thorough, and academically interesting way. Which this book does.

Stover is a fantastic writer, and she apparently also leads wonderful workshops based on the ideas she presents in The Way of the Happy Woman. I enjoyed the book and spent most of the time reading it in a meditative posture (as opposed to slung across the couch), which is a win in itself. I even found myself taking notes as I read, and when I looked back at them, I was amazed by how much I absorbed even though her style wasn’t quite a hit for me. To me, that’s a testament to how well-considered this material is and how relevant it is to my life. Even though I couldn’t help but giggle when she talked about the connection between menstrual cycles and the moon (yes, when I hear the word “menses,” I mutate into a twelve-year-old boy), I was able to get past the elements that didn’t work for me and be reminded of how important it is to disconnect from outside expectations in order to reconnect with myself on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by choosing to go for a run every day of Lent. Over the last few months, my body has felt more and more out of whack, and nothing I did seemed to bring it back in line. I was having trouble sleeping, eating well, and my exercise routines – usually a source of deep comfort – felt stymied. I needed a change, and although I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my normal workouts completely, I decided to add a minimum of ten minutes of running a day. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but just knowing that I have to get changed and go out for a quick jog has reignited a sense of joy in the activity and motivated me to push harder and go further almost every time. I’ve come back faster than I’ve ever been before and more appreciative of the meditative time compressed into a short, intense workout.

After I finished the book, I decided to take up another daily practice. It seemed like I’d been making excuses about my brain feeling fried more recently, and while I’ve been doing a lot of writing I’m happy with, I can’t completely ignore an edge of creative burnout. I needed to try something new, if only so I could come back to writing with a fuller appreciation, so I went out and bought a new sketch pad, a pencil, and a set of cheap charcoals. I decided that everyday, I would reread one of my favorite poems and spend at least twenty minutes thinking about it and drawing something in relation to the piece.

I didn’t decide on this because I’m secretly a brilliant illustrator. I have very little experience in this area, truth be told, but in college, I took an art class that changed my perspective on the subject completely. For the first few weeks of class, I really struggled. The room was full of amazing artists, and all I could try to do was imitate, poorly, the work I saw happening around me. The only happiness I found was in our take-home assignments, which we did with charcoal in used books. I carried that dirty hardcover with me everywhere, and for the first time, I felt like there might be a spark of the artist in me. I give enormous credit to my professor because after she noticed this, she sat down and engaged me in a conversation about the problems I was having. I was embarrassed to admit what an amateur I was, but I knew it must be obvious from the work I produced. She didn’t care about that at all; instead, she asked me what I loved most. “Words,” I said. “Then that is where you art begins,” she told me.

I have never forgotten that moment, the freedom she granted me with that conversation, and in Stover’s book, it was that theme I came back to again and again. Her philosophy isn’t about perfection, or filling every day with lists of things to create superficial success; it was about reclaiming the parts of ourselves that bring us joy and a sense of peace. For me, all it took was deleting Facebook and Twitter from my phone, and suddenly, I had plenty of time to both run and draw. I stopped checking my email right after waking up and found out I had nearly thirty minutes every day to stretch while my husband got ready for work. I even forced myself to give up making calls for a week, and I realized that the long conversations I have on the phone are actually enriching my life, not detracting from it. I don’t know if these small adjustments will be enough to turn around what I don’t have control over this year, but they’re a place to start.

For more about Sara Avant Stover, go here.

Homebody Yoga, Jay Fields

During the two weeks of January that weren’t a polar apocalypse, I was on the east coast visiting some friends and family. (It turns out I really don’t miss winter, although the one snow day I got was nice.) While I was with my brother and sister-in-law, they (but mostly she) gave me a slim volume called Homebody Yoga: 28 Days to Bring You Home to Your Body & To a Life Led with Purpose for my birthday. It was the only book I got while I was there (I may have purchased five novels at the great secondhand bookshop that’s also a wine bar) that I didn’t have my parents ship back to me. Instead, I tucked it in my carry-on and read it on and off for the rest of the trip.

Now, Julia is the person, years ago now, who first introduced me to yoga. She badgered me to try it enough times that I actually learned to love it (oh, how I loathed it at the start!). She’s been a constant source of knowledge and encouragement to me and has managed to spread her love of yoga to my whole family.

If you had told me a decade ago that such a thing could happen, I wouldn’t have believed you, but sure enough, yoga has inextricably become a part of our lives. I think my favorite class was the one where my parents, my brother’s in-laws, and my sixth grade teacher were all practicing under Julia’s patient tutelage. It was surreal and excellent at the same time.

At any rate, when she recommends a book to me, I trust her. She understands what I’m looking for uncannily well; she has never once recommended one (on yoga or any other subject) that I haven’t loved. Homebody Yoga was no exception. This book, which essentially began with a reference to the poem by Derek Walcott below, was an absolute perfect find for my birthday month.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 

During February, I like to spend time reflecting on my year and considering what I can do over the next eleven months to improve my life from the inside out. I enjoy unlocking little pieces of myself that have been undernourished or ignored, and this book offered the perfect opportunity for a month of reflection.

Fields’ book is so much more than a “how-to” for home practice though. As a writer, she’s insightful (without being smarmy), as well as warm and funny and thought-provoking. Her guidance is intuitive for both the novice and the expert, and every page had me ready to jump up and get on my mat.

Part of me wanted to wait until February 1st to crack the cover, but ultimately, I couldn’t wait. I had to do a full read-through before I officially “started” my twenty-eight days. I’m glad I did. This is a book that bears rereading. Like a good poem (or yoga pose), her advice resonates a little differently with me each day. The time I’m spending with this book and my mat has become a refuge, and Fields, my companion on a very strange, and necessary, journey.


For more about Jay Fields, head here.

Silent Echo, JR Rain

For me, the new year almost always comes in with a whimper and not a bang. Over the years, I’ve had frostbitten feet, legendary colds, emergency room visits, friendships fall apart, and of course, the requisite hangovers from nights (and years) I just needed to forget. The holidays that weren’t terrible have mostly been dull, with the exception of a few years, like this one, that were simple – board games, good people, and more food than we could possibly eat. I cherish a New Year’s Eve that allows for quiet conversations and reflection about the past year, and on Tuesday night, I got both. It capped off a remarkably good holiday season, and after taking time to think about the last 365 days, what was probably one of my best years ever.

Judging from the posts and articles I’ve seen across the web in the last week, I feel like I’m sort of on my own in thinking that 2013 was a year for the record books. Aside from the friends I have who are perpetually thankful for their health and families (don’t we all know and love people who are just so earnestly delighted by the world that even a terrible year has a silver lining for them?), I’ve seen a lot of “thank goodness for a fresh start” messages. While I’m grateful that a year that began with a nasty case of the flu and the passing of my grandmother has resolved itself so wonderfully, I just want to say, to those of you desperately looking ahead, I feel you – I’ve been there, and I know exactly how needed January can be some years. I very much hope that, regardless of what 2013 has held, this next year will have exceptional highs for each of us.

One of the most amazing things about reading is that sometimes it’s possible to find just the right book at just the right time totally by chance. Silent Echo was a free novel I picked in November as an Amazon Prime kindle member (excellent perk, by the way). I’d never heard of the author, and all I had to go on was a blurb by the editor. It turned out to be a fabulous book to end my year on.

Rain’s protagonist, Jimmy, is a private eye living on borrowed time. He’s dying from an incurable AIDs-related cancer and has given up working until he’s approached by a high school friend with a case. It turns out to be one he can’t refuse, tied as it is to the unsolved murder of his younger brother. This case catapults Jimmy out of his near-death ennui into an incredible journey that’s part thriller and part examination of the bittersweet relationships that evolve at the end of life. Jimmy is in no way a faultless narrator, but Rain weaves a compelling story right from the start, and by Christmas Eve when I finished the book, I was weeping satisfied tears.

Silent Echo takes its genre to a better place. This murder mystery gave me pause during a season of reflection. Jimmy’s physical struggles and psychological scars made me appreciate the pleasures I often take for granted. Look how I can get off the bed and walk! I can use the bathroom without help, and when I want to see a friend, I don’t have to wonder if they’ll shy away from my touch. I can chew and go to the beach and drive my car. I can do a thousand things every day, and while they seem like nothing to me – washing my hair, buying a cup of coffee, having a conversation – they are, in fact, precious.

I don’t think I can be reminded of that too much, especially during this dark winter month when I need to regroup for the year ahead. I doubt I could appreciate more a novel that manages to tell a great story and nudge me to take stock at the same time.

New year. New chapter. Time to take advantage of what we can do – or at the very least, read a great book.


For more about JR Rain, head over here.

The Urban Picnic: Being an Idiosyncratic and Lyrically Recollected Account of Menus, Recipes, History, Trivia, and Admonitions on the Subject of Alfresco Dining in Cities Both Large and Small, John Burns and Elisabeth Caton

Last Monday, after surviving my first road race (the incredible – and incredibly hot – Bolder Boulder 10k in Boulder, Colorado), I was sitting with my husband and his family in the CU stadium waiting to watch the elite racers come through. After each of the 50,000 participants finished the run, they were funneled into the bleachers by way of volunteers handing out cloth lunch bags full of healthy post-run treats, water bottles, Pepsi, and if one was so inclined (I wasn’t), a can of Michelob Light. By the time we crossed the finish line, it was crowded and 90 degrees, and I was so hungry that I tore into this lunch bag with energy I didn’t even realize I still possessed. I was tired, covered all over with salt (from sweat evaporating so quickly in the dry air that it left me coated and gritty), and completely happy. I had run the race I wanted to run, and now I was being rewarded with one of my all-time favorite things – an impromptu picnic.

You see, I’m not too picky about the definition of the word picnic. This is why, I think, my husband saw this book and immediately thought of me. I love to take my food outside, to get away from the dining room table and into the fresh air. I love barbecuing (in my back yard, at the park, by a lake), and making cold noodle salads, and cutting up fruit to eat with my fingers, and I love finding those little spots where I can eat whatever I have with me and feel a breeze on my face. I don’t need a table-cloth or blanket. I don’t need a cooler filled with delicious food (although I’m not against it!). I don’t even need to have company in order to enjoy myself. All I want is a spot of dry land and a snack, and I’m feel better about life.

This book, along with its history about picnics (both urban and otherwise), is filled with recipes to try, and my guess is that I will I learn to make about eight of them really well. I’ll pick whatever’s easiest and keeps best at room temperature and be completely satisfied. That being said, I’m sure my family will think it’s a step up from what I usually pull together (a loaf of bread, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, chips, and somewhat inexplicably, Red Hot Tamales), and maybe I’ll be able to spread the picnicking love to my more skeptical friends and neighbors by tempting them with Artichoke and Sun-Dried Tomato Dip (p 97), and Sesame Potatoes (p 122), and Mushroom Medley (p 166).

I can share with them that I now have official documentation (in the form of this book, which looks like someone on Amazon possibly stole it from a library before selling it to us…) explaining that it is historically acceptable to bring booze on any outing where I require them to eat while sitting on rocks. Also, I can probably relent and occasionally allow us to find a picnic table so that we don’t have to deal with the bad knees and arthritis flare-ups that apparently begin plaguing people around age thirty. With this book in hand, I can probably even ease them into more adventurous picnicking scenarios (while hiking! on road trips! without wet wipes!), which makes me happy since, even though I can and have happily picnicked alone, it’s certainly more fun with a friend or three.

The best thing about The Urban Picnic is that it strives to demystify the experience (just in time for those long summer days) for people who live in cities or who don’t have a lot of free time to create an elaborate experience. The whole point of the picnic is to kick back and relax with some food; it shouldn’t be stressful or involve hours of prep work (unless you’re the kind of person who loves to cook, in which case, there are definitely some recipes in here for you – feel free to send samples of any dishes that take longer than thirty minutes to prepare, since that’s my hard limit for culinary endeavors that don’t involve chocolate).

There’s no one right way to dine al fresco (I especially don’t recommend googling the phrase “dine al fresco” with Image Search on because  the pictures are ridiculously daunting and gorgeous), so if you’re happy throwing some meat on the fire and cracking open a beer, great! If you prefer to slow roast vegetables in foil while chowing down on chips and salsa, that’s fine! If you want to grab a yogurt and muffin from Starbucks and take it to the park, that’s a picnic! All that really matters is that this meal is a moment you’re taking for you. Whatever you like to eat, and wherever you want to eat it, slow down and enjoy the freedom from the office, the winter, and using utensils. All too soon, school buses will be revving up their engines again, the barrage of autumn holidays will start, and it will be too cold and rainy to sit outside with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and simply be.


Here’s a link to the NPR interview with Burns and Caton about their book.

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection (2 of 2, finally), AJ Jacobs

So I finally got around to finishing this book, and I have to admit, the fact that my stomach was hurting and my legs were terribly cramped from a tough training session made reading it, if anything, even more excruciating than the last time (when I was also on the injured list – I’m terribly clumsy and have the immune system of a new-born thrust into an elementary school). It is just tough to read about someone undergoing such a concentrated effort to make every part of himself – from his hearing to his posture to his diet to his stress level (and so on) – and not feel like a complete failure at health!

Now, as far as this book goes, I don’t think he accomplished his goal (to be the healthiest man in the world) as successfully as he embodied the mission of his last book (to spend a year “living biblically”), but he certainly did his best. The problem lies more in the project itself, since it was essentially never-ending and impossible to keep up, than it does in his efforts to succeed. Jacobs went to see specialists about his hands, his sleep, the toxicity levels in his home…on and on, and it turns out, every doctor or expert considers his or her field the most important (and often overlooked) aspect of health. The lists of things he was trying to do every month to maintain optimum health were insane, and most likely damaging to both his emotional health and family life.

Now, I am definitely no expert in health. I love sloth and gluttony as much as the next guy (undoubtedly more than some), but even I was able to glean the truth from Jacobs’ experiences. The top two suggestions were the same as those we hear from our doctors at every visit – eat whole, healthy foods, and exercise every day. There is absolutely nothing flashy about that plan, but it works. If you want to go above and beyond this, you can improve your sleep, your mental outlook, and almost any body part (as long as you’re willing to commit to the specific exercises or therapies that will strengthen weak parts of the anatomy). If you want to go even further, well, I suggest your read this book first and get an idea of what that undertaking really looks like.

Good health is a wonderful gift, but many other things in life also deserve attention. Family, friends, career, hobbies, faith, service work  – each of these are commitments that require time and energy – and if you choose to devote your entire life only to optimizing your body, you’ll miss out. At least, that’s what Jacobs’ discovered, and I’m inclined to believe him. He spent two plus years pushing himself to every extreme, and in the end, moderation was the most successful solution for him. Sure, he spends more time walking and running, and his diet is largely plant-based now, but those are relatively easy changes for any of us to make if we want to. Also, honestly, it was interesting to watch him geek out over his health, if only because it meant I could take the easier road after learning from his example. And if there’s on thing I’ve learned from all this, it’s that easy is always right! (Is what nobody healthy said ever.)

Check out AJ Jacobs’ adventures for yourself here.