Confessions of a Bookaholic: Eating Locally

Arizona Backyard Garden_Cherry Tomatoes 1_feistyharriet_April 2016

Over the last couple of months I have become more and more interested in eating locally, meaning, eating fruits and vegetables that have been raised and farmed responsibly and sustainably close to my home. There are a lot of people that put a lot of rules on what all of those things mean, but for me, it’s not a hard and fast dictum, but more a general premise to shop and eat by (by which to shop and eat?). Mr. Blue Eyes and I eat a lot of vegetables in the first place, but other than some browsing and occasional purchasing at the summer farmer’s market in Salt Lake, I’ve never made much of an effort to eat locally grown vegetables or organic vegetables. I was pretty satisfied with, you know, eating vegetables.

However, living in a valley that receives 300+ days of sunshine every year and only the occasional hard frost, I feel like I have a lot more flexibility and more options on my fruit and veggie shopping. I did some research, asked friends, and read a lot, and finally found a CSA that I hope will work out. My first delivery is this week and while the grass-fed meats were more expensive than my local grocery, the veggies are really about the same price. (Yes, I’ve been doing the math, keeping receipts and a spreadsheet and everything.)

I read a handful of books about eating locally, my favorite, Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, by Megan Kimble (review below) made the idea of eating locally and unprocessed foods seem relatively easy. There are farms that grow edible foods in enough variety to create a menu every week right here in the Phoenix valley. She talks a lot about moving to unprocessed foods, and, by default, that often means local because processing is required for transportation of most things. She isn’t a zillionaire, she doesn’t have an inherited family farm, she just, you know, did a ton of research and made a few lifestyle changes. Lucky for me, her research is local to me too; she lives in Tucson, just 90 minutes south of me.

I also read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, and while the idea of my moving to Appalachia (where it’s already GREEN without pumping the Colorado River dry) and living on a farm is certainly tempting, it’s not going to happen. (Also? Kingsolver LEFT Tucson for Appalachia…Tucson must be a hoppin’ place!) I love that she and her family were able to eat primarily food from their own yard or the backyard of neighbors and the farms of vendors at their local farmer’s markets. I am kind of obsessed with this idea, actually. The radical notion of eating whole foods, not genetically modified foods, not ultra processed foods, but ones that were picked a day or two ago and can be purchased at a manageable price. Sure, the farm idea is nice too, but it also comes with a CRAP TON of effort.

Now, I realize that not everyone lives in a place that sustains year-round farming, I get that. I’m not advocating for militantly standing by a set of rules written by someone in completely different geographic and agricultural circumstances than you are. But, the idea of joining a CSA, or frequenting the farmer’s market on the regular is something I can get behind.

Author Wendell Berry spells out a list at the end of his book of ways one can be a more responsible eater/food consumer. The first four components are: 1) Participate in food production, grow herbs in your window or a bunch of veggies in the backyard, appreciate the time and effort it takes to cultivate edible foodstuffs; 2) Prepare your own food, instead of relying on pre-packaged meals; 3) Learn the origins of the food you eat, buy food produced closest to your home; 4) Deal directly with a local farmer whenever possible, I think this means by farmer’s market shopping, or even being familiar with the farmer who distributes your CSA portions. That is advice I can totally get behind. Gold star, Wendell Berry.

In addition to the books reviewed below, here are a few additional recommendations if you’d like to whet your appetite on local eating, unprocessed eating, or–in general–better eating (I’m sorry! It was a horrible pun! But necessary because when will I have that chance again!?:

I have a GoodReads shelf for books about food, the food industry, and cookbooks too.

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Following are short book reviews, the first two are books I loved (also mentioned above), the next three books are interesting–okay, two are interesting, one involved a lot of eye-rolling–but not super great. So if you want to stop reading now I totally get it. But! Before you go, I’d love to hear about any backyard vegetable garden attempts! Or CSA successes! Or farm-to-table eating! And if you’ve got nothing, please admire the BABY BELL PEPPERS and BABY LIMES that are currently growing in my backyard! Meeep!

Arizona Backyard Garden_Bell Pepper 1_feistyharriet_April 2016

Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, by Megan Kimble (4 stars). I literally could not put this book down and finished it in under 24 hours. The whole premise is that Megan decides to spend a year not eating processed foods, or, mostly not eating processed foods, and/or eating mostly not processed foods.* Her rules are a little loosey-goosey at first, although as she learns more about food processing–from vegetables to milk to meat–she firms them up quite nicely. I love that she lives in the arid Southwest, I feel like I can totally relate and even try some of her tips. I also love that she does not make a gazillion dollars, she makes $18,000 per year as a single woman and grad student living on her own. Yes, she eats a lot of fairly plain food, but her point is that even with a small income we can make better choices about what we eat and where it comes from.  I think it fitting that somewhere in-between starting and finishing this book I actually planted seeds in my new vegetable garden (photos of said garden’s progress in this post), and selected a CSA to tide me over until my little garden starts producing tomatoes and zucchini, squashes and peppers. Quite convenient that many of the vendors she interviewed and facilities she toured are local to me, so I cherry-picked off her research much more than I normally would be able to on a book about better eating choices.

As for the memoir part, I’ve read reviews complaining that Megan is just some privileged white girl who hasn’t had enough experience with hunger or lack of choices to write a worthwhile memoir about it. Well, frankly, I am also a privileged white girl who has very, very rarely gone to bed hungry, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn to make better, more informed choices about what I put into my body, and to do it without spending a gazillion dollars.

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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver (4 stars). There are so many things I loved about this book! Basic idea: Kingsolver and her family leave Tuscon for a large farm in Appalachia and decide to spend a year eating only what they can grow on their own land, or purchase from local farmer’s markets/farming neighbors. Now, the first obvious problem is that we all don’t and can’t have 20 acres of fertile ground in a rain-rich area of the country. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t do better about making a shift in our buying choices to buy more local produce, dairy, and meat. Kingsolver’s husband and daughter both offer essays throughout the book on politics and recipes, respectively, and I ignored the political ones and skimmed the recipe ones, frankly, neither have near the skill at writing that Kingsolver does. I really did love so much of this, despite knowing that I will not be able to replicate her project. I loved heard more about heritage seeds and the many many varieties of vegetables and fruits that are no longer in commercial production/are only available through seed saving farmers. I also signed up for a heritage seed catalog and am already planning what I’ll do with my garden boxes for the fall/winter (a legit growing season here in Arizona).

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The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, by Michael Pollan (3 stars). I wanted to love this book more than I did, I mean, it starts out quoting Darwin for heaven’s sake, it is RIGHT UP MY ALLEY. And, to be fair, I did appreciate the research and history Pollan discusses about the apple, the tulip, and the potato.  However, Pollan LOVES apples and I’m only kind of “meh” about them, and Pollan doesn’t seem to really care that much about tulips and I LOVE them (my wedding bouquet was tulips and tulips only). So, Pollan and I kind of got off on the wrong foot to start with, he anthropomorphizes both to a spectacular degree but in the opposite way that I would, so…yeah. I do appreciate the discussion in the potato section about genetically modified foods and the difference between Big Agra and small organic farming. One of his four sections is about cannabis, and while he did bring up some interesting bits that are relevant now with all the political discussion about making marijuana legal in so many states, the history and benefits of cannabis is not really my jam.

Bringing it to the Table, by Wendell Berry (3 stars). I’m not sure what I was expecting, but not exactly the contents of this book. The first 100 pages are essays written by Wendell Berry over the course of 30+ years that focus on Farming and agriculture and the ills of agribusiness (and, though not specifically mentioned, the enormous factory farms and the way companies such as Monsanto and Cargill have drastically altered farming in this country). This section was a rough go and was hard to enjoy and relate to, in many ways it read more like an economics textbook. The next 80 pages are essays about individual farmers, and this section was–by far–my favorite. I loved reading stories about people who continue to farm small family farms and continue to produce in healthy, responsible ways and make a living at it. I particularly loved stories about the Amish and their hyper-responsible farming traditions. The last 50 pages are about food, but Berry only has one published essay about food, so the rest are excerpts from some of his fiction books that deal directly with farm-to-table eating, typically by a farm family and assorted guests. I love reading about farming, farm-to-table, sustainable and responsible agriculture, shopping local and CSA stuff, all that. But I feel like–especially in his Farming section–I bit off more than I was interested to truly chew. (MORE BAD PUNS!)

Coming Home to Eat, by Gary Paul Nabhan (2 stars, maybe only 1). I love the idea of eating local (obvs, and if you’re still reading this post, gold star to you), however Gary Paul Nabhan takes his year of local-eating to an extreme that I just couldn’t identify with. He lives in Arizona (Yay! Like me! Maybe I can get some tips!) and decides that “local” means “native to 100 miles around my home.” Not cultivated, but NATIVE. Ok, so, this means he spends his year eating cactus flowers and weedy greens he picks from public lands and–literally–roadkill. He does also grow a garden full of plants that are native to the southwest, and he raises a couple of turkeys, and I think that overall his version of local is a cool idea in theory, but I also think that I would starve if I had to subsist on rattlesnake road kill or hunted neighborhood quail and salads made from weeds and flower petals. It’s just…it’s not sustainable. For one guy, sure. But not for more than that. Nabhan relies heavily on techniques and methods he learns from Native Americans on reservations around Tucson (MORE Tucsonites!), and I completely respect their ways, but again, it is not sustainable for more than a small group. There are REASONS the southwest was sparsely populated until the invention of air conditioning and automated farming sprinklers. As is, the land cannot sustain the numbersof people who now live here.

Nabhan spends a lot of time arguing the health benefits of eating the diet that is local to your ethnic nativity (so, ethnic Italians in Italy or a diaspora are healthier when they eat like ancient Italians because that diet and their genes have adapted together) …but, um, he’s not Native American nor are his ancestors from the Southwest. He’s Irish-Lebanese and the seeds he brought from his family’s ancestral home in Lebanon couldn’t grow in his Arizona backyard garden.  So his year of eating some other group’s local/native foods should not have done anything for his health outside the general best practice of eating organic and farm-to-table, cutting out the Monsanto’s and Cargill’s of the world.

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How To Start The Best Book Club In All The Land

For the last four years a group of friends has met the second Thursday of every month to talk about books; Book Club is a solid pillar of my social life and my reading list. Really, Book Club is my favorite. In fact, it is SO MUCH my favorite that even with a 700-mile move, Book Club is still going strong and I have managed to arrange my work trips to still be able to host/attend every month. Yep, I love it that much. We are still going strong with many original members and some new(ish) ones, we average about 15 attendees, but have had as few as 6 and as many as 30. I want to give a preliminary disclaimer that this is for an actual book discussion group; we talk about the book every. single. month. No exceptions. Honestly, I think that is part of the reason our book club has been as successful and long-running as it has; the other reason is because it’s a freaking awesome group of people who are super smart and have interesting ideas and great hair. Great hair not a requirement for joining, but it doesn’t hurt. (Wink.)

Here is everything you need to know to start your own fantastic book club:

How to Start a Book Club_feistyharriet_April 2016

How To Start A Book Club

1. Send out an email to a handful of friends to gauge interest. Be clear that this is a book club, not a monthly dinner party or gab-fest; the expectation is to read the book and attend the meeting prepared to discuss. We have a mix of men and women, single and married people (both with or without their spouse) and a pretty solid variety of backgrounds. There are many hard core readers and some recreational readers. And, to be honest, there are probably a few who come just for the conversation and the food, which is okay too as long as they don’t detract from the discussion. Be clear about whether or not members can bring friends or invite others who may be interested. I asked for some notice if a member was bringing someone new and tried to vet them a bit prior to officially adding them to the group. If you are still short on attendees, you can always put a call out via social media, or if you’re brave you can put an ad on Craig’s List or a flyer at a bookstore or library.

2. Decide where, and how often you want to meet. I wanted to meet monthly knowing that every person may not be able to come every single month; we opted for the second Thursday. For the first four years I always hosted Book Club at my apartment, and it worked splendidly, now the location is rotated among member’s homes and that’s been great too. Other options include using a room at the library, a church, or bookstore to have your discussion.

3. Decide what mix of books you will read. Some book clubs do all their readings from one genre–sci fi, romance novel, biography, memoir–and others have rules on content or length. Decide if you want to choose books that no one has read before or books that a couple of members have previewed and recommend for reading. We decided that we could go either way, although I do quite a bit of research/review reading on any book I’m unfamiliar with prior to adding it to the rotation. We alternate fiction and non-fiction and try and get a wide variety of topics. Our only real hard-and-fast rule is that books must be under 400 pages and available in paperback, that’s it. That being said, our January selection is always a little longer than 400 pages because we don’t have a book club discussion in December.

I made a simple Google form for people to suggest books, and I ask everyone to suggest at least one book per year, but it’s not required. Having that survey makes it easy to keep track of all the books and who recommended them. I like to have the next 4-6 months scheduled out with title and discussion leader, and I include this information & schedule in an email after every discussion (date, title & author, discussion leader, location) along with a brief synopsis of our discussion and any Book Club announcements.

4. Decide how to determine the discussion leader or moderator. Do you want to be the moderator for all titles, or if the person who suggested the book is the discussion leader. I get a lot of suggestions for books to read and I always ask whether or not the suggestee is willing to lead the discussion, most people agree to do so. I’ve surprise-asked a couple of people to lead a discussion on a title, sometimes because I know it’s a subject they are interested in or because they have some kind of background that I think is relevant to the book. I think overall I probably lead 30% of the discussions, but it’s my Book Club and I am totally fine doing that in order to keep a solid schedule and discussion. I usually make a list of 10-12 questions to talk about (sometimes lifting those questions straight from the publisher’s website) and that easily gets us through an hour’s discussion.

5. Decide what format you want your book club to take. This was the aspect I did the most research on, reading dozens of articles and blog posts about different book clubs. Our format works really well for our group, and it has not changed for four year; it’s also the one aspect I am most adamant we maintain. We always meet the second Thursday of the month, from 7:30-8:00 pm there is chit-chat, and a few light appetizers, people showing up throughout, but no book discussion. From 8:00-9:00 pm is the formal discussion and that block of time is strictly reserved for talking about the book: no gossip, no relationship updates, just book discussion. After 9pm many people hang around chatting and laughing and having a good time, sometimes for 30 minutes, sometimes for a couple of hours (this is also one of my favorite things about book club: the after party). If you don’t want to chit-chat before hand, you can come only for the discussion and leave at 9:00 pm. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to hear all the spoilers but want to see your friends, you can come before or after the discussion. If you want to stay for the discussion but haven’t read the book, you need to a) somehow contribute to the conversation or b) you need to stay quiet, no distracting side-convos. The last few minutes of the discussion (like, 3 minutes, tops) are for any housekeeping items and an announcement of the next month’s book selection.

Our Book Club has a holiday party every December, we exchange books (sometimes our favorites, sometimes White Elephant selections) and instead of talking about one specific book we talk about reading in general, eat a lot, catch up with each other, and oftentimes see members who haven’t attended a discussion in months. It’s an easy way to continue the book club tradition without adding additional stress (must read the book!) to an already busy holiday season.

6. Decide what kind of food situation you’d like, formal or casual, pot-luck or not? I always think food is a good idea for a get-together. At our meetings we will be having a mix of salty and sweet, healthy and not-so-healthy appetizers, snacks, and desserts. If possible, I love to include food that somehow relates to the book either because it was mentioned in the text, or whatever. (Example: when we read a book set in Iran we had a Middle-Eastern feast. When we read a book set in Germany we had all sorts of Germanic foods). Most attendees bring something to share and we almost always have leftover food. I usually print up some RIDICULOUSLY simple food label tents so everyone knows what is on the table and those will allergies can make better decisions. If I’m feeling fancy I’ll take those food label tents (that I made in Microsoft Word) and add a themed background or something, but usually they are pretty black and white, literally.

That’s it! It’s really only a few simple steps to start a book club of your own, solidify your bookish friendships, and quite possibly, change your life for the better. Because I’m in a sharing mood, here are some easy ways to get started on your own fabulous book club.

  • Want to see the survey I use to get book recommendations? It’s right here.
  • After the break is a list of the books we’ve read since 2012 , an asterix denotes (in my opinion) an extra stellar discussion. You can also view the spreadsheet here.
  • Want to get a copy of the (Easy! Microsoft Word!) file I use to make reminder bookmarks? Right here. To update for your needs, just google-image search for the title of the book and you can copy-paste the cover onto the front of the bookmark. On the back you just need to copy-paste the book summary from Amazon or Goodreads. Print double-sided (flip on short edge) onto cardstock and cut into bookmarks. Viola! Easy-peasy. You can also just print the front-side and call it a day, I doubt anyone will think less of you if a summary is not included on the back.
  • Want to download some of the book-themed food labels I’ve made? Right here. Feel free to use however you’d like.
  • Are we friends on Goodreads yet? If not, please add me! I love to see what other people are reading!

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Confessions of a Bookaholic: Habits, Efficiency, and baby steps towards Minimalism

My life is very different as far as time management goes than it was 3 months ago, I’m working remotely from home and am figuring out that piece, and I also figuring out how to merge my life with Blue Eyes after years apart, and figure out my role as stepmom, and, and, and…it’s a lot of change. I’ve been making lists like crazy and trying different ways to refine my habits and use my time wisely. Shockingly, because reading and nerdery is totally my jam, I picked up a handful books that I hoped would help me navigate this new space. Now, overall, I don’t feel like any individual book was all that helpful. Most had really great ideas and components, but I feel like none were a home-run for me. But, collectively, I felt like I have some new insight in creating and maintaining better habits, becoming more efficient, and structuring my life to “default” to a better, healthier decision, instead of default to Netflix and Kraft Mac-n-Cheese.

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam. This is a reread (originally rated 3 stars), but I only read the parts about efficiency at work and not at home because I think her research and writing is crap for efficiency & time management at home. My biggest take-aways this time through are that you have more time than you think and YOU are in control of it, you prioritize how you spend your time, and no one else. True, you cannot control the random chaos in the universe, but you can use your time to “stack the odds in your favor.” So, I’ve adding some of Vanderkam’s strategies about efficiencies at work to my daily life and am hoping that in a month or two I will have solidified some new habits that help me figure out how I fit in this new life and head-space.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo (3 stars). I will say this straight up: I do not drink the Konmari Kool-Aid. I think she makes a lot of really great points, and I also think that I have a lot of room for improvement in pack-rat prevention. However, I am not to the extreme point of minimalism that Kondo suggests, nor do I want to be. I grew up with very few things of my own, and even fewer that were purchased specifically for me and not acquired second or third hand and used simply because there was no other option and no money for another option. Things matter to me in ways they do not matter to Kondo, and that is okay! Now, I do try and select quality over quantity, and I have thinned out my clothes, my books, and other cluttery areas again post-Kondo. But I will never dry my dishes on the patio and I won’t talk to my socks and I won’t get rid of my bookcases because they are an eyesore. I love having a home full of books and art; that brings me joy, Marie Kondo be damned.

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin (3 stars). I think there are a lot of really great components of this book, I like the easy-to-identify-with style Rubin employs, but I also grew wary of how much Gretchen was embedded in the pages. Her “conversational” style seems to veer towards lecturing and bossiness, which I have a difficult time relating to (I am a Questioning Rebel, so this perspective does not surprise me at all). None of this was particularly new information, but I have read other non-fiction books about creating and forming habits that I found more insightful and helpful, and weren’t quite so, well, Gretchen. 

Happier at Home, by Gretchen Rubin (2 stars). I did not love this book, I feel like it was an addendum to the Happiness Project and not actually a new spin, quantifying and specifying at-home projects. I feel like Rubin contradicts herself over and over, and the things that she values the most are the exact opposite of what I value. (She’s a workaholic homebody who hates trying new foods, trying new hobbies, changing up the fundamentals of her routine, or buying anything, even if it might enhance or simply her life. She likes to “work harder” but I don’t feel like she has any interest in working smarter, her lack of efficiency is appalling, frankly. She doesn’t like interacting with new people on THEIR level, but she does like interviewing/lecturing them on whatever she’s researching at the moment. I am, for the most part, the exact opposite of all of those components. This book was hard for me, and will probably be my last Rubin book. Meh.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg (3 stars).  This is a mix between a neuro-psychology book about how the brain is wired/re-wired, and a book about consumer choices, specifically, buying patterns and economics. So, it’s probably not at all surprising that I really enjoyed it! Many of the studies that were used about brain pathways I’ve read about in other books; examples of how to create good habits I’ve heard about in other books, there wasn’t a ton of groundbreaking new information, but I did appreciate the delivery.

Others recommended reads: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman; Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein; The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

Instead of grouping book reviews by month or quarter, I’ve decided to group them by topic instead because that seems to be how I read them anyway. What are you reading lately?

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All The Books I Cannot Read

You know that millenial-generational thing, FOMO? Fear Of Missing Out? I have that, kind of, but about books. When I stop to think about it I get genuinely upset when I think about all the books in the world that I will never have time to read. There are so many stories, so much research, so much to know about, and I will never be able to do more than scratch the surface. As I continue to add title after title to the list of books I want to read I become more and more aware of how little I actually know. There are millions and millions of stories I’ll never hear, and zillions of facts I’ll never understand or even comprehend that such information exists , so I will never question. The weight of all the knowledge that exists is both sunlight and soul-crushing, it feeds and inspires me and feels exclusionary; I’ll never know it all.

Thus, I love reading, I love discovering a new-to-me, fascinating topic and devouring a bunch of books about it before moving on to another. I love to return to favorite topics year after year, increasing my knowledge base about, for example, Charles Darwin, or life in North Korea, or neuroscience, or notable feminists, or the reign of the Russian Romanov tsars, or whatever. I do tend to skew heavily towards non-fiction, and typically the novels I have read are not new releases, I usually wait a few years until the initial hype is gone to determine whether or not a fiction book has staying power. If it does, I’ll take the bait; otherwise, I’ll pass. As I’ve gotten a bit older I have honed in on the type of book I like and generally choose ones that will fall into that category from the get-go; so I feel like I am enjoying reading more than I have previously, and I’m reading more, but that has everything to do with the books I start in the first place.

Currently, my “To Read” list is over 400 titles long and I typically add 6 or 7 new ones each week. It’s a never-ending cycle of falling behind. One of my favorite daydreams is that I would be able to download vats of information directly into my brain. I just want to know ALL THE THINGS! And then I want to relate seemingly unrelated pieces together and think about it for a while.

For example: There are a lot of similarities between slavery in the United States and the repressed lives of citizens of North Korea, both in how the people live, think, the psychological damage, and the struggle to transition into a more self-sufficient and independent existence. Am I saying they are equal, absolutely not, but a super repressed regime creates citizens who are in many ways slaves to their government and without free access to information they are unable to imagine a different life. There are many programs in China and South Korea that are dedicated to helping North Korean refugees settle into modern life, including learning about money, what a debit card is, and re-learning basic world history. North Koreans have been so repressed for so long they have very little culture outside of what the Kim family has allowed. Enslaved Africans in the American South had a lot of their own cultural pieces and stories and history, and they could clearly see their own slavery in comparison with free whites. So, again, not equal, but the similarities are so fascinating to me!

Yes, this is what keeps me up at night. Literally. Whether I’m thinking about modern slavery, or the science vs religion debate, or gender discrimination, or the amazing psychological and communication abilities of elephants.…or just about all the things I’ll never know. I lose sleep over this and it seems the only cure is tucking my nose into a book until the wee hours of the morning when my eyes won’t focus anymore and my body demands sleep and wil no longer accept an argument about elephants or Romanovs as an excuse.

I am a sick person, terminally ill with a non-curable disease: I want to know everything in the world. (I also want to see and travel to everywhere in the world, but that is another ailment to discuss on another day.)

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Best of 2015

I think by all accounts, 2014 was one of the worst years on record for me. By comparison, 2015 has been a dream, even with the bumps, bruises, and emotional roller-coasters that are the norm for making our way through Life. In some ways, 2015 has been a holding pattern and a waiting game, but in most respects I tried to pack as much as possible into 52 weeks, spending my time exploring, hanging out with friends, and soaking up every minute I had with Mr. Blue Eyes. While I’m excited for the coming year and all the challenges and triumphs, I am also a little sad to see 2015 close. So, I decided to come up with a “best of” list of some of my favorite things from the last twelve months.

Muir Woods National Monument_feistyharriet_July 2015 (5)Muir Woods, California, July 2015

Best Experiences of 2015:

Geez, I really don’t know how to narrow this down. However, I can say with confidence that the best times of my year have everything to do with spending time with the people I love.

  • Adventures afar and nights at home in jammies with Blue Eyes.
  • A 6-state Midwest road trip with a girlfriend.
  • Spending a whole week as the full-time caregiver for my stepkids, it’s more time than I’ve ever spent with them, and a few hiccups aside, it went smashingly!
  • A long weekend laughing with my best friend and her family in California.
  • Book club, always and forever.
  • Designing and costuming a competitive (and award-winning) Shakespeare team comprised of 50 teenagers with one of my oldest, best friends, for our 10th year running.
  • Planning and executing back-to-back smash success events for work; one a giant professional development conference, the other a state-wide event for 20,000 high school students.
  • Spending the evening with my four siblings, the first time we have been together in YEARS.
  • Crashing with dear, dear friends for a couple weeks between moving all my things to Arizona and moving my actual self.
  • The homemade welcome party that awaited me when I finally arrived here in Arizona.

Best Books of 2015:

Goodreads tells me that I read 111 books this year (!!), a total of 36,000 pages (for reference, my 2014 totals were 38 books and 13,000 pages). My shortest book was the Pulitzer Prize winning play Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, the longest was the behemoth War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. My most frequently-read categories this year were Russian literature and history (especially of the Romanov family), feminism, and slavery and racism. I also read a number of books about North Korea, Darwin and evolution, elephant psychology, Joan of Arc, neuroscience and psychology, the Iranian Revolution, and China prior to/during Mao’s cultural revolution. Yes, I have eclectic taste. No, I won’t ever apologize for it.


  • Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
    Tolstoy is a master, and in my opinion, this is his best.
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs
    More than any other slave narrative, this one rips my heart out. Harriet’s anguish and turmoil over leaving her children behind, of rescuing her children, of keeping her family together, this will change you in all the right ways.
  • The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan
    Refugees, war-torn middle-east, historical context for the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and a lot of “Humans of New York” type stories and sharing from in-depth interviews on both sides. Absolutely recommended.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir
    Hilarious, scientific-nerdy, perfection.
  • The Master and Margarita, by Mikhaul Bulgakov
    Magical realism and political satire in communist Russia? Gimme!
  • Middlemarch, by George Eliot
    This is why people like 19th century English literature.
  • Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
    This book is very much an acquired taste, but I loved it. Yes, even the 600 plus pages about the history of whaling, the anatomy of whales, the economy of whales, the works. Loved it.
  • Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
    So dark and moody! So delicious! I can’t believe I hadn’t read this one before.
  • Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon
    Dual-biography of early feminist icons from the 18th and 19th century? Yes, please!
  • The She-Pope: a Quest for the Truth Behind the Mystery of Pope Joan, by Peter Stanford
    Did you know a woman became Pope in the 11th century!? This story and the research to piece this story together are so fascinating!
  • Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup
    At times I am baffled that slavery existed in the United States, that humans were perfectly fine owning other humans. This book details some of the most monstrous atrocities and a few gentle kindnesses from white freemen to their black slaves.

Of these books, which should you read? Well, world events being what they are, I think you should read The Lemon Tree as soon as possible. It shows both sides of Arab and Jewish tension and the history behind it. Honestly, it made me much more sympathetic to both sides and the war-torn refugee people who are caught in the middle. If that isn’t your cup of tea, I’d definitely read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a rare first-person slave narrative from a woman’s point of view.

Best Vacation of 2015:

MidWestRoadTrip_Carhenge Nebraska_feistyhaarriet_June 2015 (18)

This is probably a toss-up between an awesome road-trip across the Midwest with a girlfriend, and a delightfully low-key weekend in San Antonio with my sweetheart. Last January I had high hopes for a warm, international getaway, but more practical things like bills and buying a house and maintaining two households for 14 months took precedence. Hopefully 2016 will see a little passport action.

Best Photos of 2015:

I have had the chance to travel around to a number of different places this year, hauling my camera with me. Of the thousands and thousands of photos I snapped this year, these are probably my favorites, along with the others in this post.

Capitol Reef Fruit Orchard_feistyharriet_March 2015 (6)Capitol Reef National Park, Apricot Orchard, March 2015

Grand Canyon North Rim_feistyharriet_October 2015 (4)Grand Canyon North Rim, October 2015

IMG_0039Boone Hall Plantation, Charleston, South Carolina, September 2015

Bryce Canyon National Park_feistyharriet_2015 (9)Bryce Canyon National Park, Thor’s Hammer in the fog, October 2015

Agave teeth_feistyharriet_San Antonio Botanical GardensSan Antonio Botanical Gardens, agave teeth, November 2015

Best thing I learned:

You will never truly feel better about something until you do the work to actually change it. I’m sure some philosopher has said this much more eloquently and concisely, but I learned (or, re-learned, rather) that buckling down and getting my hands dirty and elbows greasy brings me an incredible amount of satisfaction. Granted, there are some things that we cannot change and must simply learn to work around or live with; I get that. What I’m saying is that we as humans are capable of an incredible amount of forward progression if we put our minds to it, pool resources, and reach out to friends and loved ones. Here’s to 2016, more forward and more progress.

Harriet sig