Saturday, December 31, 2016

My 10 Favorite Books of 2016

I read 101 books this year. Yes, really. Damn. If you want to see all of them, check out my monthly "What I Read In..." posts... or just tune in to this one for the best-of.

I've broken down this list into two parts: the three best books I read this year, a number chosen simply because there are three that stand out, in my mind, above all the rest. Next is a list of honorable mentions, books that I enjoyed, liked, & even loved, though they didn't quite match up to the caliber of the first three. And here they are!


The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

This is the most recently read book on my list of favorites, so I remember it well, but truly, it's one of the most beautiful love stories I've ever read. Its main characters are Natasha, an undocumented immigrant being deported back to Jamaica, & Daniel, a Korean-American under parental pressure to become a doctor. It follows them through the course of one life-altering day, then revisits their story a decade later.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

When beloved eldest daughter Lydia is found drowned in a nearby pond, her Chinese American family struggles to come to terms with her death & to figure out whether it was murder, suicide, or an accident. This character-driven novel goes deep into family dynamics, the unique challenges of being a minority in America in the 1970s, & the ways we all struggle to understand those we love most. Truly, this book is a work of art.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

By now, everyone knows of this incredibly told love story of Ifemelu & Obinze, who, by the end of this book, felt like close friends who I'd known all my life. This is an incredible novel about blackness (African, American, & otherwise), about life as an immigrant, about the challenges of poverty & wealth - & about the struggles unique to each of those elements that are, somehow, still universal, relatable, & human. It is one of the best books you will ever read.
 

Honorable Mentions: I read plenty of books this year - far more than I'm naming here - that I really enjoyed reading & that have stuck with me beyond their end, despite not making it to the tip-top of my favorites list. Here's a roundup of the best of the bunch.
  1. The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (adult fiction)
  2. Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West (memoir)
  3. Siracusa by Delia Ephron (adult fiction)
  4. Local Girls by Caroline Zancan (YA fiction)
  5. The Distance from A to Z by Natalie Blitt (YA fiction)
  6. Violent Ends edited by Shaun David Hutchinson (YA fiction)
  7. Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming (memoir)
What were your favorite books of the year? What's on your to-read list in 2017? I'm starting with Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty, which has a bit of a slow start, but I can feel it getting good. Let's connect on Goodreads!

PS: My book posts include Amazon affiliate links to the titles I discuss. If you buy a book using one of these links, I will receive a small percentage of commission. Please don't feel any obligation to use these links, but please also don't judge me too harshly for including them!

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 in Review: A Look at the Year Everyone but Me Hates

Aside from the part where this year was awful, it was, for me, kind of wonderful. I feel like I'm supposed to feel guilty for saying that, given the fact that the world seems to be falling apart right now, & I am certainly not immune to global ills - but on a small, personal level, 2016 was, well, pretty damn great.

Last December, I boldly declared 2015 my best year ever, but this one wasn't far behind. Without further ado, a look at my 2016 in review.



I kicked off the new year with dinner in Ohio City & a Lakewood house party with Mike's friends, who've quickly become my friends. When I kissed him at midnight, he told me, "By the end of this year, we'll be engaged."

We embarking on intentional adventures around the city, starting with Lakewood Cemetery in unseasonably warm weather & then drinking with dinosaurs at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

One of the bests events I attended this year was January's United We Brunch hosted by Cleveland Scene. We pigged out on tiny versions of nearly every brunch food imaginable - & accidentally got verrry day-drunk.

In February, a personal essay about my family ancestry was published in Woman's Day online. That piece, which was re-published by four other sites, eventually earned me an unthinkable $5,000.



On another unseasonably warm winter weekend, Mike & made a little getaway to a cabin in the woods of Hocking Hills, OH, where we spent most of our time in an outdoor hot tub.

In March, I wrote one of my most successful pieces yet. "Pay Me What You Owe Me: On Asking Bloggers to Shill for Your Brand for Free" was so far-reaching that I'm still getting feedback from it.

I hit the theater for Matilda, If/Then, & an event revealing Playhouse Square's new Broadway season. As a former showchoir kid, I had so much fun getting back into the musical-loving spirit.

We spent a long weekend in Washington, D.C., where Mike met a ton of my friends for the first time & we spent St. Patrick's Day at an authentic Irish party complete with a live band in the living room.



Self-esteem-wise, I struggled with my habit of nervous talking & feeling like I might be annoying. I got a lot of nice feedback that helped me feel less alone & address this issue head-on.

After a day of Cleveland adventures, my friend Lindsey & I scored a private visit up to the observation deck of Terminal Tower, the tallest building in downtown Cleveland - with an incredible view!

I checked out all kinds of other fun CLE spots, including the Night Market, the Cleveland Flea, the Greek Festival, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Walkabout Tremont, & my first Cavs game.

As we waited for a flight to Georgia in March, my mom & I saw a man die right there in front of us in the airport. It was easily one of the most emotionally heart-wrenching scenes I've ever witnessed.


On the same trip, my mom & I had some rental car troubles... & our initial rental was replaced with a neon orange Mustang! I wrote about why it felt like a gift/joke from my late father.

In May, I came to the realization that I'm probably never going to be Internet-famous, like I always dreamed I would... & that for the first time, that feels totally OK by me.

I came up with 14 things I like about my body, which should hardly be a feat but, well, absolutely was. I still refer back to this list on days when I'm feeling bad about myself.

I shared how I make a little bit of cash on the side: by consigning clothing online through the Poshmark app. Following a little but of interest, I later shared my tips for running a successful shop.



In June, the Cavs won the em-effing championships! If you're not from Cleveland, I can't expect you to understand just has joyful this was, but it's honestly one of the happiest memories of my life.

Also in June, I got a new tattoo on a whim while wandering my neighborhood. It had been a difficult year, globally & personally, & this tattoo is a reminder to take care of my mental health.

We traveled to Buffalo for a wedding with friends, where we also got to check out some cool bars & breweries. I'd love to go back & explore a bit more in the year to come. 

I struggled with sleeplessness & waking up a million times during the night, trying every Internet remedy I could find & eventually seeking medical help. I have a sleep study coming up in 2017.



Mike & I got the hell out of town during the Republican National Convention, taking a staycation at my mom's. Luckily, there was no damage to the city, & Cleveland showed its stuff on a national stage.

At the end of July, I celebrated my one-year Cleveland anniversary & waxed poetic about all the ways this city makes me happy - with a massive photo collage to prove it.

We spent my birthday in Columbus, OH, attending my favorite event: the Ohio State Fair! Yes, I requested to turn 32 at a fair... & even tried ranch dressing for the first time.

Mike & I made a surprise trip to New York for a reunion with some of my best friends from my years in D.C. We weren't there for long, but it was great to get back to NYC & see so many beloved faces.



I made my modeling debut for my college friend Tara's new company, the Bloom Beautifully Box. Legit, my photo is all over their website - & I had a blast posing for a brand that I believe in.

I read a whopping 100 books, which I blogged about every month like a total crazy person, & I shared a monthly book service that I'm a little bit obsessed with.

My friends & I spotted Lost actress Evangeline Lilly dining at our local Thai joint & later learned that she was in town filming a Netflix show with Parks & Rec actor Adam Scott (who I never did see).


In October, Mike & I got engaged! He proposed in front of a Cleveland sign, then took me to a surprise engagement party full of three dozen of our favorite people. I've never felt so happy or so fortunate. 


I proudly voted for Hillary Clinton, then watched in shock as she won the popular vote but lost the presidency. Like so many, I continue to mourn the idea of Donald Trump as the leader of the free world

After the election, I left for 10 days in Peru with my family, where we saw the sites, hiked Machu Picchu, & ended with a joyful celebration of my brother's wedding.

I wrote about my #GivingTuesday donations, inspired by people I met in Peru, then was contacted by a Washington Post reporter for an article on the same topic. So cool!

Mike & I celebrated our first Christmas together (he was out of town last year), & our first full Hanukkah, too. I was sick on Christmas Day, but it was otherwise lovely & joyful.

 

In all? Yes, 2016 was a brutal year, globally, but on a personal level, it was an incredibly good one for me, which is sort of a difficult dichotomy to digest. I'm looking forward to 2017 with equal parts nervousness (about the government & whatever else could fall apart) & hope (about my personal life, including our wedding in November).

As the Counting Crows once sang, "Maybe this year will be better than the last..." Truly, we should all be so lucky. 

Happy new year, my friends. May 2017 be better for us all.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

At the Very End, 2016 Did Me Dirty


My favorite book when I was a kid was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. I have always had a penchant for dramatizing bad news, reacting as though the world is falling apart, & that book has always helped to remind me that, well, "Some days are like that. Even in Australia."

I've been channeling that book a lot today. 

Backstory: I purchased my iPhone 5s brand new on the day it came out in fall of 2013, standing in line at the Dupont Circle AT&T store on a visit to D.C. just before I decided to move back. With the help of a sturdy case, that phone has lasted me more than three years - but in recent weeks, I knew the end was near. It started shutting off at 35%, certain apps froze at random, stuff like that. It usually worked OK, though, so I said I'd ride it 'til the wheels fell off.

Yesterday, the wheels fell off. When I arrived home after a quick shopping trip at Crocker Park (where, incidentally, the nearest Apple store is located), my phone flashed about a dozen colors, like those old cable testing screens, then glowed neon green & shut down entirely. No amount of charging has brought it back to life, & indeed, I fear its life has come to an end.

No problem! Annoying, for sure, but I knew it was coming. I made an appointment at the nearest Genius Bar with an upcoming appointment (about half an hour away) & headed out this afternoon, written directions in hand & a little flutter of excitement in my heart for the new iPhone I was soon to own (a few thousand dollars be damned).

I was barely out of my driveway when my low tire pressure light went on - light, aggressively. BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP. Something was wrong, indicated not just by that sound but by the painfully loud sound of metal scraping pavement.

Talk about riding it 'til the wheels fall off... I'd blown a tire. That's what I get for using that phrase, apparently.

OK, so, problem: I wasn't going to make it to Akron to snag a new phone, but without one, how was I going to call AAA to come fix my tire?! Do I even still have AAA? I sent a tweet to my BFF Lindsey, who kindly called my mother at work & asked her to jump on Facebook messenger with me. My mom, in the midst of a busy workday, called AAA on my behalf, & she Facebooked me an hour later to say they were nearby.

Lem, a very friendly AAA roadside assistance tech, made haste in switching out my busted tire for my spare tire. But get this: The spare tire is kind of flat, too, & to top it off, Lem's air pump wasn't working. So now I have to make haste myself & gingerly drive my car with its flat spare to the nearest tire shop (once I figure out where it is).

While waiting for Lem to arrive, I took the plunge & decided I didn't want to drive any more than I had to & instead ordered an iPhone via Apple online. It's supposed to be delivered to me tomorrow.

While I am feeling very Alexander at the moment, I'd like to take a second to list a few things for which I'm grateful, because I'm trying to make that my new jam. In this madness, I'm grateful for:
  • Decent weather for waiting outside for a repairman to come, especially in December;
  • Being (mostly) able to afford a new tire & a new iPhone at the same time;
  • The fact that the blowout occurred on my own street & not halfway to Akron, on the highway;
  • The two kind strangers who offered me help while I was clunking down the road on a bad tire;
  • The lovely Sara, who offered via Twitter to call AAA for me from California;
  • My BFF Lindsey, who called my mom at work & talked me through car & phone options;
  • My mom, who called AAA for me even though she was slammed at work;
  • The typically curmudgeonly barista who gave me advice about rims for future reference;
  • And, of course, Mike, who always keeps me calm when I'm the spazziest
So, yes, there's still plenty to be thankful for, even on bad days. But all I can say is: Damn, 2016, you cold. I'd been defending you! But some years are just like that, I guess. Even in Australia.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

This Blog Was Featured in the Washington Post!


I forgot to share this exciting news when it happened a few weeks ago, but whoaaaa, this is awesome. When I came home from my big trip to Peru last month, I wrote about how some of my conversations there about the upcoming Trump presidency inspired me to make charitable donations back home. I published that post on #GivingTuesday, a designated day of global giving, in the hopes that it would inspire others to do the same.

Later that day, I got an email from a writer for the Washington Post's Inspired Life section, dedicated to weeding out & raising up positive stories - stories about compassion, caring, giving, & all the good things in the world that we sometimes forget to look for now that we're despairing about a fascist future. The reporter, Colby, found my blog post (no idea how!) & wanted to know if she could interview me about the giving practices.

The result of that conversation was an article titled "‘It’s unprecedented in our history’: Trump’s election inspired millions in nonprofit donations," & it's since been shared on social media by Planned Parenthood, CAIR National, The Trevor Project, & even my favorite author, Celeste Ng. The piece begins:
When Kate Bigam left for a vacation in Peru days after the election, she knew there’d be no avoiding questions about Donald Trump. So she decided that for every Peruvian who asked her about the new U.S. president-elect, she would learn a bit about that person and then donate to organizations inspired by those conversations.
Like many Americans, Bigam, a 32-year-old from Cleveland, felt compelled to do something tangible in response to an election that she feared left many groups and many issues vulnerable. On her personal blog this Giving Tuesday, Bigam shared the eight groups she’ll be contributing to and why. She’ll be donating to the National Alliance on Mental Health after meeting a psychiatrist. She’ll be donating to the Immigrant Legal Resource Society on behalf of a Latino immigrant living in California. She’ll give to EarthJustice for the tour guide who took her up Machu Picchu.
Read the whole thing online from The Washington Post - & then go forth & donate! I'd still love to hear what nonprofits are getting your hard-earned dollars this year & in the year to come. 

P.S.: On a related note, this afternoon, I won the "Get to Know Yours Coworkers" quiz that my boss hosts every year as a part of our departmental Hanukkah party. Instead of a prize, the winning employee asks the rest of our team to donate to a nonprofit of his or her choice. It was my honor to play today for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cleveland, which I've just gotten involved with. Stay tuned for more about my experiences with my new "little sister," N, a 14-year-old from Cleveland Heights. So excited to get to know her!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

2016 In Books: A Look at What I Read This Year, By the Numbers


At the start of 2016, I set out to read 30 books throughout the course of the year, but when I hit that goal pretty quickly, I decided to try to double it. Now, in the last few weeks of the year, I've read 94 books in total, more than tripling my original goal. Last year, I decided I wanted to read more, period; this year, I did it.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, someone asked me, somewhat incredulously, "How many hours a day do you devote to reading?" The answer is... whatever I feel like on any given day? Some days, I don't read a single page; other days, it's all I do. I haven't been watching much TV lately, probably because Mike doesn't, & so my natural default has been to hit the books. In a separate post closer to the end of the year, I'm going to share a post summing up my 10 favorite books read in 2016; in the meantime, here are last year's 15 favorites.

I have a few days left before the end of the year, & I expect to finish another book or two in that time - still, a little early, here's a look at my by-the-numbers reading report so far.

Books read: 94
Total pages read: 27,445
Memoirs : 28
Non-fiction (excluding memoirs): 5
Adult fiction: 35
YA fiction: 26Sci-fi fantasy books: 11
Murder mysteries/thrillers: 27
BookBub buys: 11
Kindle First reads: 5
Book of the Month Club books: 10
Rereads: 5
Series broached (in whole or in part): 6
Books written by celebs:11
Books with Jewish themes: 6
Books written by authors of color: 11
Books written by women: 83
Books with "girl" in the title: 10
Books about body image: 4
Books about serial killers: 9
Books about school shootings: 4
Books about cults &/or weird religions: 4
Harry Potter-related books: 8

I have... weird taste, maybe, I know. You can see the full list of books I read in 2016 on my Goodreads Reading Challenge page. At the start of each month, on this blog, I review the books I read in the previous month; I also post those short reviews to Goodreads, if you'd rather find it all in one place.

I never meant for this to be a book blog, & I honestly don't know if anyone cares about stuff like this, but I like to keep track of it, & I hope at least someone is finding reading list ideas from my monthly reviews. I promise to keep writing about other stuff, too, but this has become a nice little hobby.

Reading anything good? Let me know what I should add to my to-read list in 2017! 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

All I Want for Christmukkah Is...


Honestly, I feel weird even writing a wishlist this year. The world is kind of crappy right now, to say the least, & I don't feel like I have any business talking about expensive items I wish I owned. But I suppose there's no harm in dreaming, wanting, or wishing - as long as materialism doesn't reign supreme.

That said, after I wrote out this list, I thought "My God, I am the most boring human in the entire world." This is hardly a wishlist worth blogging about - & yet, here I am blogging about it.Without further ado, here's what I'd be buying myself this holiday season if I found lottery winnings in my stocking.
  1. J. Crew monogrammed pajamas: I've always wanted a pair of coordinating pajamas, & a monogram makes these cozy, navy jammies extra-personal. I know I'm jumping the gun a little bit, but I'd love to get a set monogrammed with my soon-to-be new initials, KBK. (J.Crew, $105)
  2. Himalayan salt lamp: I have no idea why I want one of these, or even where I would put it, but the glowing amber color just seems so cozy, somehow. Himalayan salt lamps are said to emit negative ions, creating an effect similar to an ionizer & purifying the surrounding air. (Amazon, $34)
  3. iRobot 650 Robotic Vacuum Cleaner: Apparently I've become a person who asks for household items for the holidays. Damn it. But come on. Roombas are so cool, & having one would save me so much work, & did I mention that Roombas are so cool?
  4. An appointment with Cardinal Maids: I don't mind cleaning, but I really can't stand deep cleaning, the kind where you get on your hands & knees & scrub. Unfortunately, I live in an old building with old hardwood floors & plenty of nooks & crannies that need lots of cleaning. I would love to hire someone, even just once, to do a really solid apartment cleaning.
  5. Fleece robe: Again with the cozy! I'm not wedded to any particular robe, I just want one, period, preferably in a dark color & in some comfy material like fleece. Perfect for lounging around my chilly apartment. (LL Bean, $79)
  6. A wireless printer: I don't know enough about technology to even know what kind of wireless printer I want, but I know I'm tired of walking to the library every time I need to print a label to send off one of my Poshmark packages. I'd love a printer that's not big & clunky, since my "desk" is usually the kitchen table.
  7. A Practical Wedding: I'm a little bit overwhelmed by the idea of wedding planning, which is probably why we haven't done much of it yet. It's also why I'm so intrigued by this book, which a Twitter friend recommended as an alternative to all the girly, prissy, over-the-top, Knot-driven, wedding industry jumble. (Amazon, $10)
  8. Fujifilm Instax Mini: I used to be such a sucker for Polaroids, but now that those have gone extinct, this little guy is the next best thing. On the night of our engagement, someone had one of these at a bar, & they snapped the worrrrst photo of us as a newly engaged couple. What a keepsake! I want to be that girl at a bar, snapping tiny Polaroid memories. (Amazon, $60)
  9. Hot Buttered Rum candles from Bath & Body Works: Truth be told, I'm a little embarrassed to love a scent from Bath & Body Works - it just feels so '90s! - but this candle smells decadent. I bought a bunch on sale after Christmas last year, & now I'm all out - which means that I'll be loading up again soon. 
  10. Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb Eau de Toilette Spray: I once received a sample of this scent in a Sephora delivery, & I had already fallen in love with it by the time I realized it's a men's cologne, not a women's perfume. Nevermind that. I would totally wear it anyway.
Like I said: Goddamn, I'm boring. Is... is this what adulthood is going to feel like from here on out? Asking for home appliances & medicinal lamps & a maid service? I can't even come up with a freaking article of clothing or a piece of jewelry or a pretty Etsy print? I just want candles & planning books & computer accoutrements?

I don't know about you, but I'm feelin' 32. Happy holidays, y'all.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

I Have a Lot of Unpopular Opinions. Here are 30 of Them.


Maybe you've seen the Facebook meme going around, the one asking people to comment with their "unpopular (non-political) opinions"? I'm not usually one for memes, but I loved reading the responses my friends posted (131 of them!) when I asked this question on my own Facebook wall.

I found it so interesting, in fact, that I decided to write out as many of my own supposed unpopular opinions as I could think of. The result is the list below, which is, uh, kind of long. In my defense, I don't think I'm a disagreeable person, just a little... particular, perhaps.

So. Give it a read-through, & then tell me: What are your "unpopular opinions"?
  1. I don't like meat on bones, ketchup, mustard, cooked carrots, steak, or any kind of eggs.
  2. I do not enjoy the ocean - being at it or in it.
  3. I don't think Parks and Rec, The Office, or Broad City are funny.
  4. I love winter. Yes, including snow. And I reaaaally don't enjoy summer.
  5. Wedding planning is not particularly fun.
  6. I used to own a Mac laptop, & I didn't like using it at all. I couldn't wait to go back to a Dell.
  7. I'm not super interested in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.
  8. When I wear nail polish, I feel like my hands are suffocating. 
  9. I don't know if I ever want to own a house. 
  10. I don't think engagement rings are a worthwhile investment. If I hadn't already owned an heirloom engagement ring, I would've just asked Mike to buy something inexpensive off Etsy.
  11. I don't like being barefoot, & I wear socks to sleep. 
  12. I don't have any particular fondness for chocolate or for most other sweets.
  13. I may want children (not sure yet), but I have no real desire to ever be pregnant. 
  14. Having hardwood floors is awful; I really want carpet.
  15. I think '90s music is the best music & country music is the worst music.
  16. I prefer thin, cheap toilet paper. I think the thick, cushiony stuff is both weird & wasteful.
  17. Going into a Sephora overwhelming & stressful.
  18. Super-popular cities Chicago and Los Angeles hold absolutely zero appeal to me.
  19. I can't make it through nonfiction books that aren't memoirs.
  20. For the most part, I am not interested in wearing colors or patterns.
  21. I do not enjoy cooking. Like, at all. 
  22. I couldn't get into The West Wing, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, or Mad Men.
  23. Having a real Christmas tree is a pain in the ass. 
  24. I don't mind being super pale, & I have no interest in tanning.
  25. American cheese slices are delicious.
  26. Having a dog is not worth the effort it takes. And cats are better, anyway.
  27. Grey's Anatomy is still a good TV show.
  28. I usually prefer cheap beer to craft beer, & I can't stand the taste of hops.
  29. Velvet looks & feels absolutely disgusting. It is not luxurious.
  30. Global catastrophes aside, 2016 was a really lovely year for me.
Your turn! 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Estoy Aprendiendo a Hablar Español


When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to learn Spanish. I had this picture book of images with both the English & Spanish translations beneath them, which didn't help me with sentence structure but did ensure that at age 7, I know how to say "butter" en Español. Very useful. (It's la mantequilla, by the way.)

I bugged my grandmother to to take me to Mexico for my thirteenth birthday (because I didn't know Spanish was spoken anywhere else). I planned to be a Spanish-to-English translator when I grew up. And like I already told you, I convinced my mom to take in a foreign exchange student from Peru - & after that, another from Venezuela.Needless to say, I was pretty into Spanish.

In an effort to become fluent, I took eight years of language lessons from middle school through college - but then my interest totally waned. It's been ages since I've even tried to speak Spanish - which is why, when visiting Peru, I was shocked by how much of it came back to me when I had to speak it in a pinch.

Through my limited language skills & surprisingly adept hand-acting abilities, I was able to communicate with most vendors & hospitality industry folks (many of whom speak English, but plenty of whom do not). I also received multiple compliments on my accent, even when my sentence structure wasn't on-point, which is a great start. But actual conversations were near impossible; at Paolo's wedding, I had to ask bilingual guests to help translate (including a 13-year-old girl who learned English by watching Full House reruns sans subtitles).

Still, I came home with a newly revitalized interest in learning Spanish. Even though I barely knew enough of the language to get by, I felt inspired by my conversations in Peru & by my enthusiasm for speaking Spanish even after all these years. Since getting home, I've since started using the Duolingo app every day to try to better my Spanish skills, taking at least 1-0 minutes out of every day to practice.

For your entertainment, here's a list of my seven favorite Spanish words thus far:
  1. El zanahoria (carrot)
  2. La mantequilla (butter)
  3. Los zapatos (shoes)
  4. El almuerzo (lunch)
  5. A la izquierda (to the left)
  6. La maracuya (a kind of passionfruit) 
  7. Miercoles (Wednesday)
Duolingo says I'm now 5% fluent in Spanish, which means I can speak basic phrases, like, "The cat is grey" & "My mother eats cheese on Sundays" - you know, the really important stuff. Now I've just got to figure out which Spanish-speaking country to visit next to try it all out in!

Do you speak any other languages? Got any tips for learning a new one? 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

What I Read in November


I didn't get much reading done during my trip to Peru in mid-November, but I still managed to make it through nine books, including two YA reads. It was yet another good month on my bookshelf; no duds in the bunch!  

And before we get into my reads, just a quick note that today is my favorite day of the month: Book of the Month Club's book reveal day! Use my referral code to get three months for $30, plus a BoTM tote. I'm obsessed & know you will be, too.

Now, onto it. And tell me: What are you reading? 

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

This was a good enough read, but I really wanted to like it more than I did. When a sleeping infant disappears from her crib one night, her parents are the main suspects. What will the secrets they're hiding from one another reveal? It was a fast-paced story, but the writing felt elementary: short sentences, a lot of action but very little emotion. I probably wouldn't pick up another book by this author if this is her usual writing style. ★★★★☆

Evelyn, After by Victoria Helen Stone 

Still not sure how I feel about this BookBub buy, which some Goodreads reviewers have characterized as a "psychological thriller." I think it's more along the lines of the women-finding-themselves genre, set to the tune of a mystery. Evelyn learns that her husband, a renowned psychiatrist, is having an affair with one of his patients, a local teacher, & that together, they've committed a terrible crime. Evelyn is conflicted between healing & pursuing revenge - & ultimately does both. ★★★★☆

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

It took me just three hours to finish this YA novel about a teenage girl with a rare illness, which is equal parts family drama, angsty love story, & "Whoa, OK" twists. It was a little unrealistic, but that didn't keep me from enjoying the characters of Madeline, who's allergic to the outdoors, Olly, the next-door neighbor she loves from afar, & Carla, the nurse who's cared for her her whole life. It's also peppered with diary-style doodles drawn by Yoon's husband, which I loved. ★★★★☆

Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door by Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, Hurst Laviana, & L. Kelly 

A real uplifting read, right? I know, but I've had a longtime interest in serial killers (less creepy than it sounds, I swear). This was an incredibly written account of a decades-long hunt for BTK killer Dennis Rader, & the telling of the story is a collaboration - as was the case, in many ways - between Kansas journalists & investigators. It was difficult to read, of course, but a fascinating one. ★★★★★

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero

Proving that she's way more than just a pretty Hollywood face, this Orange is the New Black actress puts pen to paper to tell the devastating, painful story of her family's real-life immigration struggles. When she was 14, Guerrero's parents were deported to Colombia, leaving her - a born-and-raised Bostonian - to grow up fast &, eventually, to try to take on the broken system that failed her family. Well-written, spunky, heartbreaking, honest, inspiring... a real must-read. ★★★★☆

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Dunbar is one of 10 black students to attend a previously all-white high school in Virginia; Hairston is the daughter of the bigoted editor of the local newspaper. When they're paired together for a school project, they have to face their differences & rethink their belief systems, & then, plot twist: They begin to fall in love. This is a really out-of-the-box look at racism, queerness, hatred, love, fairness, & a whole host of other serious topics wrapped up in one really well-done YA novel. ★★★★☆

Girl Underwater by Claire Kells

Another YA book, this one about a college swimmer who is one of five survivors of a plane crash in the Rockies. I started to read it on the flight home from Peru & then thought better of it! It was so well-done, so gripping - it flashes between Claire's days trying to survive & her time at home trying to recover - but I found the ending so disappointingly lacking that it colored the whole story for me. ★★★☆☆

Don't You Cry by Mary Kubica

I read & (mostly) enjoyed Kubica's debut novel The Good Girl in April, so I was eager to try her next book. It was strangely compelling even though I found it, at times, to be overwritten & rambling (& the main character to be a total idiot). Kubica has a way with words & such a way with cliffhangers; this book literally kept me reading until hours past my bedtime because I just couldn't put it down until I knew how it ended! ★★★★☆

Before He Kills by Blake Pierce

This book needed a better editor, as I spotted multiple typos while reading, but the story itself was well-written & entertaining enough. It's the first in a new mystery series featuring 25-year-old ingenue Detective Mackenzie White, & while much of it felt predictable & a little bit trite, it was compelling enough, again, to keep me up at night to see what came next. For $4, I may buy the next book in the series. ★★★☆☆

Comment to tell me what you're reading, then add me on Goodreads to keep in touch & see what I've read in months past.

Please note that my "What I Read in..." posts include Amazon affiliate links to the titles I discuss. If you buy a book using one of these links, I will receive a small percentage of commission. Please don't feel any obligation to use these links, but please also don't judge me too harshly for including them.    

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

#GivingTuesday: A Look at My Post-Election Donation Plans


When I left for Peru, I knew I was likely to get questions from locals about the recent U.S. presidential elections. I was already planning to make donations to a few progressive organizations in the wake of the results, but as I headed abroad, I promised myself I'd donate to a different progressive organization in honor of each Peruvian who asked me how I felt about having Donald Trump as president (I still can barely write that).

On #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving, I wanted to share with you the donations I'll be making & the people whose stories inspired them. 

For Victor, the friendly, outdoorsy tour guide who led us up Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world, I'll be donating to EarthJustice.

For Nadia, the Cusco-born tour guide & mother of two who's looking for a job that will let her spend more time with her family, I'll be donating to EMILY's List.

For Joaquin, the twentysomething Mexican immigrant who's now an American citizen living in San Diego, I'll be donating to the Immigrant Legal Resource Society.

For Joaquin's mom, who lives in Mexico & worries that a border wall would impact her ability to travel for work, even on her legal worker visa, I'll be donating to Border Angels.

For the Frenchman whose name I didn't catch, who is scared for his daughter living in Florida & who, separately, insisted that American food is disgusting, I'll be donating to Feeding America.

For Francesca, my brother's 8-year-old niece who is now afraid to visit Disney World after learning of a hate crime against a Latino American man, I'll be donating to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

For Belein & Pablo, the psychiatrist & her boyfriend who sat next to us at the wedding, I'll be donating to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI).

And finally, I plan to donate to Planned Parenthood on a regular basis, with others rotating dependent on current events & my liberal whims.

Am I rich? No, not at all. Some of these donations may be as small as $10, & they won't all come out of my wallet on the same day. But I'm committed to making sure I do my financial part, no matter how small, to contribute to the ongoing strength & success of progressive organizations doing important on-the-ground work, especially in the scary era of President Donald Trump.

If you're looking for an organization to support, check out Jezebel's incomplete but very worthwhile "A  List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support."

What organizations get your hard-earned dollars? Did you make any special donations for #GivingTuesday... or in the wake of the election results?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

My 2016 Cleveland Gift Guide: Give a Little CLE this Holiday!


First things first: This post is not sponsored in any way. It's just a list I cultivated, of gift ideas, products, & local companies that I like, & no one is paying me to say so. I think that's important to say when sharing content like this.

With that out of the way: Here are 15 of my favorite Cleveland-themed gifts, whether they're made here, feature here, or otherwise celebrate life here. As you stock up on holiday gifts for the Clevelanders in your life, consider adding one of these unexpected CLE gifts to the mix - & hey, if you're not sure what to buy me, well, I want just about everything on this list!

 

Weird Beard Candle Co. Peanut Butter Coffee Porter Soy Candle

Forget BuzzFeed's "homesick" candle recommendation (since when does Ohio smell like honeysuckle?) & go a little bit more legit. If you've ever enjoyed a pint (or two or three) of Willoughby Brewing Co.'s Peanut Butter Coffee Porter ($14), you'll love the scent of the 8oz soy candle it inspired. I burn it throughout the winter to keep my apartment smelling cozy & delicious & extraordinarily Clevelandy.

The 2017 Cleveland Independents Deck

I received this in my stocking last Christmas & was so excited - what a cool idea! A bunch of independent Cleveland restaurants banded together to create this deck of cards - 52, like a normal deck - that offers savings at 49 of Northeast Ohio's best restaurants. The deck itself costs just ($30), & each card saves you $10 on any $30 food purchase (tax & gratuity not included) at a different local joint. There are even two jokers so you can get repeat savings at your faves!

Ohio-Shaped Beercap Map

Put your favorite state on display alongside all your favorite craft brews! This beercap map has room for 93 caps, & I personally like the vibe of the wooden ones ($39) - which is good, because their steel option ($49) isn't available in the shape of Ohio. Confession: I'm eyeing one of these as an eventual gift to myself, but then I'd have to stop drinking more than just Miller Lite & Dortmunder Gold... 

  

Personalized shipments from Cleveland in a Box

I've now sent two of these customizable Cleveland boxes as gifts, one to a friend living out of state & another to friends who just bought a house. Choose from their selections of local & iconic Cleveland goods, from Dichotomy Popcorn to Cleveland tees to Pope's Hot sauce & beyond. It's $30 for a box of five items or $50 for a box of 10 - & they ship worldwide! 


Limited-Edition Jewelry from Bombay Taxi

This online boutique owned by my friend Shibani, an Indian immigrant & bad-ass Cleveland entrepreneur, carries limited-edition pieces hand-crafted by Indians artisans & imported from India. The ring I just bought from her is no longer available (because limited edition!), but my other faves are the Ilene ring ($25), the Huma ring ($30), & the Jiah necklace ($35). Support a Cleveland biz & invest in some year-round sparkle. 

"Cleveland 'Til I Die" Shirt from Fresh Brewed Tees

I always joke about how much people from Cleveland love wearing their Cleveland pride across their chests - but it's true, & I'm one of them. This company is one of my favorites of the many T-shirt companies out there, &this tee ($26.99) is just one of a few that I own from them.

 

Booze from Cleveland Whiskey

This local booze brand came onto the scene in 2013, & its patented technology to accelerate the maturation and flavor development of distilled spirits has earned it kudos from Forbes & Thrillist. This year, Cleveland Whiskey was named Whiskey Innovator of the Year at the 2016 Berlin International Spirits Competition. Pick up a bottle & take a swig of the Buckeye State.

Ohio Print Coasters from OhioExplored.com

This set of five exquisitely carved wooden coasters ($40) comes from the shop of one of my favorite Instagram accounts, @ohioexplored. They're made to order, which gives you just barely enough time to score them in time for holiday delivery - but they're pretty enough to be worth the wait. 

Subscription to Cleveland Magazine

Full disclosure: I interned here in the summer of 2007, just before I first moved to D.C., & it marked the summer I fell in love with the CLE. I still read the magazine religiously to see what's new & cool not just in Cleveland but across Northeast Ohio. A new yearlong subscription is $14, which is 75% off the cover price. 


Cocktail Goodies from Pope's Kitchen

Your booze deserves the best - & the Clevelandiest! Put together a gift basket of mixers from Pope's, a growing regional brand that uses fresh local ingredients in all their products. Try the Bloody Mary or chill a little with the Mellow Mary ($4-$11); get sugared up with the Strawberry Daiquiri mix ($11); or go a little unusual with a syrup like like lavender lemon or orange habanero ($10).
 

"Happy in CLE" Necklace by Oceanne Jewelry 

There are tons of of Cleveland-themed jewelry designers out there, but this French artist is one of my favorites, & I just love this delicate, gold-plated bar with hand-stamped lettering ($44). If you're looking for other state-themed jewelry, try the Ohio Love necklace ($30), the silver Cleveland Babe necklace ($44), or the Cleveland is My Paris necklace ($48).

Tickets & Memberships

Instead of loading up your loved ones with more stuff, consider investing in experiences instead. Check out tickets to shows at Playhouse Square or Cavs games, or memberships to any of Cleveland's many museums, the Botanical Gardens, the Zoological Society, the Great Lakes Science Center, the Cleveland Orchestra... the list is endless.

 

Great Lakes Brewery's Beer School

By now, most Cleveland's have been on GLBC's brewery tour - but did you know you can step it up a notch? Beer School ($35) provides a full tour of the production brewery & a tasting of six beers. plus a two-hour course (snacks included!) on the history of the company & the brewing process. All guests leave with a T-shirt, a tasting glass, and some serious beer knowledge.

A Christmas Story Leg Lamp

As I demonstrated in last year's leg lamp round-up post, Clevelanders love their leg lamps. The movie A Christmas Story was filmed in my neighborhood, actually, & is now a local museum. The full size is 50" & costs a whopping $199.99, but if that's too much for you, try the other options, including a desk lamp ($99) & a nightlight ($14.99). Careful, it's frah-jeeee-lay!

The Guardians Wall Clock by Christina Sadowski

This Etsy seller has tons of Cleveland-related inventory, but this 10" wall clock is my favorite ($45). It's available in black or white frames, with hands to match, & featuring a gorgeous image of the Guardians of Traffic that watch over downtown Cleveland's Lorain-Carnegie Bridge.

There you have it! Will any of these make it under your tree this year (or next to your menorah, depending on how you handle the holiday season)? And if you've got Cleveland favorites, tell me: What other CLE-themed gifts would you add to the list?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Trip 18 Years in the Making: I Went to Peru!


As a kid, I always told my mom I wanted an older brother. "Even if you got a brother," my mom told me, "he wouldn't be older than you." Damn you, science.

But then I found a loophole.

The summer before I started high school, my friend Emily told me about two foreign exchange students who'd been attending her church. One of them didn't have a host family yet, she said, so he was staying with the other student's host family. If he couldn't be placed with a family of his own soon, he'd be sent to another city - or even back to his home country of Peru.

"We have to take him!" I told my mom. I outlined all the reasons why we were a perfect potential host family: We had the space, & we had the time. I was going to be in high school, too, so she wouldn't have to deal with two different schools. And we'd been a little bit lonely ever since my dad died three years ago; wouldn't this be an adventure? We needed it, I insisted, & he needed us.

We met with Paolo at a local Dairy Queen. He spoke approximately no English, & as a 14-year-old almost-freshman, I had just three years of middle-school Spanish. In other words, we could barely communicate. He'd brought a book with him, a photography book about his hometown: "Es la ciudad blanca," he told us, pointing at images of grandiose white stone buildings. The White City, it was called.

He was so eager, so polite, & as soon as my mom dropped him off at his temporary host family's home, she confirmed it to me: "We have to take him."

I can't find an HS pic, but this is from Paolo's 2012 visit.
In the year Paolo lived with us, the three of us became a family - full stop. He & I argued like siblings, but we got along like siblings, too. When news reports said a serial killer was riding the rails & killing families that lived near train tracks, Paolo let me sleep on the floor of his bedroom because I was so afraid. We went to Disney World, where we tried on new accents every time we spoke to a stranger; we went to Washington, D.C., where I dared him to tell some tourist she looked like a celebrity. When he finally left to return to Peru, I cried for nearly three days straight.

Paolo got married last Saturday in his hometown of Arequipa, the White City I'd heard so much about for the last 18 years. And as he & his wife Ulda made it official, my mom, my aunt, my uncle, & I were all there to see it & to celebrate with them. After almost two decades, we made it to Peru.

We visited the top of Machu Picchu & boated across Lake Titicaca. We explored Inca ruins & petted llamas. We stayed in a hotel that used to be a monastery & another that was a mint. We drank coca tea & ate quinoa everything. And at the end of the trip, our trip culminated in a grand finale celebrating Paolo & Ulda's love. "This is my little sister!" he said as he introduced me to his friends. And when we left the wedding reception for our hotel that night, I cried again, just like that 14-year-old kid who didn't know how many years it would be before she got to see her big brother again.

I came home exhausted & battling a nasty cold, as I always seem to do when I get home from a big trip. But this was, truly, the trip of a lifetime for my mom & me, & even I, a prolific writer, can't fully express how much it all meant to me to be able to see Peru & to be there for my big brother's wedding.

If you follow me on Instagram, you've already seen a lot of these photos on my #goldbigsdoperu hashtag, but here's a more complete look. Come to think of it, maybe I don't get to call it "the trip of a lifetime" if I plan to go back as soon as humanly possible?





 






 

 









 















 





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