22 May, 2015

Tower of London

/ posted in: travel

The Tower of London was where we headed on our first full day in London.  In doing family research I found that my mother had relatives on both sides of her family imprisoned at the Tower.  I was hoping going here didn’t awaken some latent genetic desire to overthrow a monarchy in her.  (Try to overthrow the monarchy – be bad at it and get caught – get executed and have your family in disgrace – be descended from the female side of the remaining disgraced family who are able to find anyone to marry them at all so you eventually fall into poverty – and that’s why you head to the colonies as soon as they open for business and I’m American instead of in line for the throne in England.)

The Tower is a huge place with a lot going on.  We went first thing in the morning so we could take our time and not feel rushed.  We used our London Pass to get in.  There is an audioguide available for £4.  This was the only place we went where the guide wasn’t included in the ticket price.

A view of the Tower from outside

One of the first things that you see is the Traitor’s Gate. I’ve read enough historical fiction to know that this is where the prisoners came into the Tower. We paused here to see if my mother was going to be revealed as some sort of sleeper agent but she was fine.

If you are bad enough you get your own entrance from the Thames.

There is so much to see here that you really have to use the map to make sure you aren’t missing anything.

The Tower Green is the central area. This is where executions happened if the prisoner was so high profile that going to the regular place outside on Tower Hill was going to cause too many crowd control problems. The Green is surrounded by former Royal residences and homes of the current commanders of the guards and other Tower officials.

Guarding the boss’ house

The Yeoman Warders are military veterans who work here and live onsite with their families. (Read more about it – The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise) You can see a lot of their houses from the Wall Walk.

These are some sassy gnomes!

The Crown Jewels are on display here. You can’t take any pictures. This is a very crowded area so try to hit it at a time when there aren’t a lot of tour groups going in.

The Line of Kings is billed as the world’s oldest museum display. It shows armor and weapons throughout British history.

I just paid attention to the horses.

There is a dragon!

I always knew there had to be dragons in Britain!

We were so excited that there was a dragon that it wasn’t until we read the sign that we realized that it is made entirely of weapons. He has chain mail and shields and helmets. His toes are pistols.

This is my favorite museum sign of the trip.

I call this one “Sore Losers.”

I read it, pointed it out to my mother, and backed away slowly and tried not to be obviously American until I was a safe distance away.

Plan on 3-4 hours at least to visit the Tower especially if you are listening to the audioguide. We took time to sit on benches and listen to get a lot of the history.

Getting Here

Tower Gateway stop on the District or Circle lines of the Underground

Things To See

The Crown Jewels

The White Tower with displays of armor and coins

Tower Green where high profile executions were carried out

The Ravens – While the ravens are at the Tower, it will not fall

Royal Residences

Exhibits on Torture, the ravens, and the former zoo. The zoo one was closed when we were here and I was very sad.

More Info

The Tower’s website



20 May, 2015

Lots of G. Willow Wilson

/ posted in: Reading by G. Willow Wilson
(Blog, Twitter)

I happened to read two very different books by the same author back to back recently.

Alif the UnseenAlif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson


Alif is a young computer hacker in a place called only The City in the Middle East. His business is to set up secure networks for people whose websites would be shut down by the state. He isn’t an idealist. He doesn’t care what the content is. He enjoys the game of staying one step ahead of the government, especially the entity known as The Hand.

Alif has also just been dumped by his first love. She is a wealthy Arab woman. He is a poor Arab/Indian. She is being married to a high class Arab man. In a fit of pique, Alif writes a program that he installs on her computer that learns to recognize her wherever she is on the internet by her keystroke pattern and language use. The program is discovered by her fiance, who turns out to be The Hand, and is turned back on Alif and his friends in the Middle Eastern hacker community with deadly results.

Alif needs to fix this and the answer comes in an ancient book. On the surface it is stories of the jinn but the patterns in the book can be used to make the most sophisticated computer program ever — if Alif can run from the police and survive the jinn long enough to figure it out.

I’m not a super smart computer person so I don’t know if the part about coding with the book just didn’t make any sense or if I just didn’t understand it. What I did like about this book was the setting and the characters.

Alif starts out as a spoiled brat living in his parents’ house as a virtual hermit. He has contempt for the girl who lives next door, Dina. She is also Indian but has decided to veil herself against the wishes of her family and friends. Dina goes against western assumptions about women who veil as being passive victims. She is much smarter than Alif in practical matters and saves him several times when she is forced to run with him.

There is a Prince who has to give up some of his royal privileges and see how the people really live when he gets caught up in Alif’s plight. An iman shelters them one night and then is tortured for his complicity. He adds a philosophical weight to the story.

There is an unnamed western female convert who is living in The City to learn more about her new religion. She is pretty much useless except for using her White Privilege to get them into restricted areas. I found that interesting because the author is a white western convert who went to live in the Middle East for a while. Generally, if a character is like the author they are written more heroically.

The City is also a character. You learn about how life works for people in different sections of a Middle Eastern city. It also discusses what happens when a revolution happens and how that isn’t always what the organizers wanted to happen.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation WhyMs. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson

Kamala Khan is still learning about her new powers and figuring out how to be Ms Marvel and go to school. She finds out that teenagers in her city are disappearing and she decides to save them. But what if they don’t want to be saved?

She is tracking The Inventor when she meets her hero, Wolverine. She gushes over him and tells her about the fan fiction she writes about him. He is unimpressed. I love this part of her character. She is an obsessed fan who got super powers. She’s a geek and she acts like it.

The second part of the book has some insightful commentary on the media’s representation of teenagers as slackers and the consequences of that.

About G. Willow Wilson


“G. Willow Wilson began her writing career at the age of 17, when she freelanced as a music and DJ critic for Boston’s Weekly Dig magazine. Since then, she’s written the Eisner Award-nominated comic book series Air and Mystic: The Tenth Apprentice and the graphic novel Cairo. Her first novel, Alif the Unseen, was a New York Times Notable book and winner of the 2013 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. She currently writes the bestselling monthly comic book series Ms. Marvel for Marvel Comics.

Willow spent her early and mid twenties living in Egypt and working as a journalist. Her articles about the Middle East and modern Islam have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly and the Canada National Post. Her memoir about life in Egypt during the waning years of the Mubarak regime, The Butterfly Mosque, was named a Seattle Times Best Book of 2010. “
from her website

Photo from her website. Credit Amber French

19 May, 2015

Exercise on Vacation

/ posted in: Fitness

Can you tell what days I was sightseeing on vacation?

Our high was over 20,000 steps and our low was 11,000. That’s 6-9 miles a day. I’m surprised it was that little.

Then I got home and my fitbit died. I feel naked without it. I changed the battery before the trip because it said it was running low and then it drained in less than two weeks. I guess this is an issue with this style so I’ll try to get it fixed.

I did lose 5 pounds on the trip from all the walking. We also didn’t eat much. When I go on vacation with the husband he plans his day around where we are going to eat lunch and dinner. My mother is the kind of person who eats a yogurt for breakfast and then when we next eat at 3 PM says, “Well, I’m full for the rest of the day.”

All the walking did end up making me really stiff though. I had to do some yoga focusing on hip openers about halfway through the trip. I couldn’t even get into the poses I was so unflexible at that point but getting close helped enough that I wasn’t in pain anymore.

Diet update – I’m supposed to be an a gluten-free vegan diet with no soy. That was hard on vacation. I could generally have vegan or gluten-free. Now that I’m home I’m back on the wagon and I’m trying to remember to take my supplements but I’m horrible about that. I didn’t feel horrible before so it hard to tell if I feel better. I haven’t had any reflux at all and no allergy symptoms but those weren’t consistent enough problems to be able to say that the diet change made them go away. My hands don’t hurt as much either.

Sauna – We are looking seriously into getting an infrared sauna at home. Does anyone have any experience with these? The husband has all kinds of pain issues and I just like to be warm.

18 May, 2015

What Would A.J Fikry Like?

/ posted in: Reading What Would A.J Fikry Like?The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
on 2014
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 260
Format: Paperback
A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner of Island Books, has recently endured some tough years: his wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and his prized possession--a rare edition of Poe poems--has been stolen. Over time, he has given up on people, and even the books in his store, instead of offering solace, are yet another reminder of a world that is changing too rapidly. Until a most unexpected occurrence gives him the chance to make his life over and see things anew.


“Mr. Fikry, please just tell me what you like.”

“Like,” he repeats with distaste.  “How about I tell you what I don’t like? I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism.  I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be — basically, gimmicks of any kind.  I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful — nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy.  Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying.  I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult.  I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages.  I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and — I imagine this goes without saying — vampires.  I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry, or translations.  I would prefer not to stock series, but the demands of the pocketbookrequire me to.  For your part, you needn’t tell me about the ‘next big series’ until it is ensconced on the New York Times Best Sellers list.”

Ah, the battle cry of the book snob! I only read serious fiction, dahling but not too long or too short.

A.J. Fikry has nothing but contempt for most people on the small island where he runs a book store. He spends most of his nights getting drunk and trying to kill himself slowly until a baby is left in his bookstore.

I almost stopped reading at this point. If I have a book snob battle cry, it definitely includes a refusal to read books where a baby is the magical answer that solves all life’s problems.

However, I liked that writing in the book, as evidenced by the quote above, so I gave it another chance. I liked the descriptions of the book store.

A.J. begins to stock books because he thinks the women will enjoy discussing them.  For a while, the circle responds to contemporary stories about overly capable women trapped in troubled marriages; they like if she has an affair — not that they themselves have (or will admit to having had) affairs.  The fun is in judging these women.  Women who abandon their children are a bridge too far, although husbands who have terrible accidents are usually received warmly (extra points if he dies, and she finds love again).

There is also a book group made up of law enforcement people who read crime stories and complain about poor procedure.  I can relate because that’s how I read medical books.

Overall, I liked the details of this book but was underwhelmed by the overall story.

Travel to England on a Budget
15 May, 2015

How We Saved Money on Our UK Trip

/ posted in: travel

I’m just back from my trip to the UK with my mother.  I’m going to doing a series of posts about the trip on Fridays in time for British Isles Friday.


When I started looking for flights from the U.S. to London I was getting quotes of $1200 – $1500.  Then I checked on Icelandair.  That airline doesn’t show up on websites like Kayak.  I knew about it because a group tour I was on in high school used it.

Because our travel dates were flexible, we were able to take advantage of a great deal.  We flew from Pittsburgh to Boston to Reykavik to London for $300.  For that price I was concerned that our seats may have been on the outside of the plane but they weren’t.  The return trip was $550 so we flew round trip for $850!

That price includes 2 checked bags for no additional fees too.

Icelandair advertises stopovers too.  You can stay in Iceland for up to 7 days with no increase in airfare.  I wanted to spend a few days playing with horses and soaking in geothermal pools but we couldn’t make our schedules work this trip.

They only fly from limited places in the U.S. but if you can get to those cities it is worth looking into.


I was traveling with my mother and not the husband so I wanted separate rooms.  I love to sleep and I snore and she is an insomniac so that would work best.

London hotel rooms are expensive so we weren’t going to get two.  I checked into AirBnB.  We ended up finding a one bedroom flat with a pull out couch for $150 a night.  That’s way more than I like to spend on lodging but it was cheap for London.  It wasn’t in the center of the city but it was near the Tower of London on the east side of town.  It was less than 5 minutes to an Underground stop (Tower Hill) so we could get anywhere.

In Bath we got a one bedroom suite in a house about a mile from the center of town for $122 a night.  It had a pull out couch too and a wonderful bath tub.


This is a place where we could have saved more by planning ahead but I didn’t want to be tied to a time that we had to get on a train.  We bought our train tickets on a day of travel.  If being scheduled doesn’t bother you, you can google train times and buy tickets in advanced at a reduced rate.

London Pass

We debated this one for a while.  The London Pass is a card you buy that lets you get into a lot of attractions at a free or reduced rate.  I’m generally skeptical of “deals” like this but I sat down and figured out what attractions it covers that we were planning on going to.  I added up their admission prices and that total was more than the cost of the pass so we bought it.  If you aren’t planning on doing a lot of touristy stuff, your mileage may vary.

It helped psychologically too.  We are cheap people.  Having to pay every time we went somewhere would have worn me down.  Flashing a card and pretending we were getting in free was much better.

I just added it all up to see if we saved.  We had a six day London Pass that cost £116.  We got a 10% discount so it was £104.40. (Google for discount codes.  They seem to be available often. )  We would have spent £112.50 on regular admissions.  That isn’t a huge savings but it was easier than having to pay each time.

You can get an Oyster Travel Card with the London pass. We didn’t.  We got a separate Visitor Oyster Card for the Underground.  The card that you can buy with the Pass is limited to travel in a few zones.  Most of the touristy stuff is in zone 1.  We knew that we were going to be taking the Underground from Heathrow which is zone 6.  We could have bought it at the first stop but it just easier to not have to negotiate everything when we’d been traveling for most of a day. We had a travel card preloaded with enough money to get us to our flat.

13 May, 2015

Just Take My Money Then

/ posted in: Current EventsReading Just Take My Money ThenA Path Appears by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
on September 23rd 2014
Genres: Nonfiction
ISBN: 0385349912
Pages: 400
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library
An essential, galvanizing narrative about making a difference here and abroad--a road map to becoming the most effective global citizens we can be. In their number one New York Times best seller Half the Sky, husband-and-wife team Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn brought to light struggles faced by women and girls around the globe, and showcased individuals and institu­tions working to address oppression and expand opportunity. A Path Appears is even more ambi­tious in scale: nothing less than a sweeping tap­estry of people who are making the world a better place and a guide to the ways that we can do the same--whether with a donation of $5 or $5 mil­lion, with our time, by capitalizing on our skills as individuals, or by using the resources of our businesses. With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, identify successful local and global initia­tives, and share astonishing stories from the front lines of social progress. We see the compelling, in­spiring truth of how real people have changed the world, upending the idea that one person can't make a difference. We meet people like Dr. Gary Slutkin, who devel­oped his landmark Cure Violence program to combat inner-city conflicts in the United States by applying principles of epidemiology; Lester Strong, who left a career as a high-powered television anchor to run an organization bringing in older Americans to tu­tor students in public schools across the country; MIT development economist Esther Duflo, whose pioneering studies of aid effectiveness have revealed new truths about, among other things, the power of hope; and Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede, who are transforming Kenya's most notorious slum by ex­panding educational opportunities for girls. A Path Appears offers practical, results-driven advice on how best each of us can give and reveals the lasting benefits we gain in return. Kristof and WuDunn know better than most how many urgent challenges communities around the world face to­day. Here they offer a timely beacon of hope for our collective future.

Don’t read this book if you don’t want to spend money.

The book takes a hard look at aid organizations around the world to see if they are doing what they set out to do.  Then they look at the reasons for the successes and the failures.

I had not heard of most the organizations that are profiled here.  I was looking for a new organization to support and I found one.  Shining Hope for Communities uses their girls’ schools in Kenya as a hub for community services.  It shows that the school for girls is an important place.

“From the school, SHOFCO extends holistic community services beyond the families of students to the entire community. We identify the services people value most, like clean water, quality health care, and economic empowerment opportunities.

SHOFCO raises the overall health of the community by providing access to free health care, clean water, sanitation education and toilet facilities. We empower the community through valuable public resources including computer and library access, adult education, and group savings and loans. We foster community fellowship though soccer teams, youth programs, and women’s empowerment groups. Today, these integrated services transform urban communities.”

from the website

The book also looks at why people give to charities and uses that research as a way to entice people to give more.  It looks at the issue of whether charities should be run like businesses and whether charities that are run like that are punished.  There was a 3 part PBS documentary featuring several of the organizations featured in the book that is available online.

take my money




About Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Sheryl WuDunn

Sheryl WuDunn, the first Asian-American reporter to win a Pulitzer Prize, is a business executive, lecturer, and best-selling author. Currently, she is a senior managing director with Mid-Market Securities, an investment banking boutique, helping growth companies, including those operating in the emerging markets. She also worked at The New York Times as both an executive and journalist: in management roles in both the Strategic Planning and Circulation Sales departments at The Times; as editor for international markets, energy and industry; as The Times’ first anchor of an evening news headline program for a digital cable TV channel, the Discovery-Times; and as a foreign correspondent for The Times in Tokyo and Beijing, where she wrote about economic, financial, political, and social issues. She is co-author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times since November 2001, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who writes op-ed columns that appear twice a week. In 1990, Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, previously a Times journalist, won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square movement. Kristof won a second Pulitzer in 2006 for what the judges called “his graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on genocide in Darfur.”

PicMonkey Collage
11 May, 2015

Reviewing Unreviewable Books

/ posted in: Reading

Do you ever read a book and think, “There is no way I can ever review this?”

Kylie Chan has written 3 series of books that are set in Hong Kong and feature Chinese mythology and Taoist spirits.  I read and reviewed the first book but it was hard.  I didn’t review the next two.  They happen immediately after the first book and there is no way to explain what happened without in depth knowledge of the first book.

In the last week I read books 4 – 7.  It was one of the times when you read one and then immediately download the next one because you are mentally stuck in the world and want to see what happens.  I kept thinking that I was reading a lot of pages of nothing I could talk about without sounding like a complete idiot.

Let’s see:

  • Some of the characters are immortal so they keep getting killed in battle and have to be processed through Hell which is really annoying the Celestial Judge because it keeps happening.
  • Most of the Gods can change their gender which is nothing because they can also change into animals.  Yes, they discuss the sexual ramifications of that.
  • There are sentient stones that can also turn into people and they run computer networks.  They are led by The Grandmother whose Earthly form is Uluru.  She’s scary when she is mad.
  • By now even the main human character is turning into a snake at times and keeps getting IV infusions of demon essence against her will.
  • Riding on clouds is a preferred form of long distance travel.
  • There is a gay African-American man who is paralyzed who is now Immortal after fighting it for 9 years in Hell who can now turn into a lion and is dating an Immortal male turtle shen who is thousands of years old and they just adopted a toddler.  That’s just one storyline.

See, unexplainable but diverse as all get out and they entertained me to no end.

I often have this problems when reviewing series, especially ones that have a lot of books.  The Dresden Files comes to mind.  I love them and when a new one comes out I want to fangirl all over it.  But, no one is going to understand unless they are up to book 15 or whatever it is now.  Even talking about characters at this point can be major spoilers since it shows who lives.

How do you review books in long running series?


08 May, 2015

Random Things That Annoy Me

/ posted in: Just for Fun
  • People smooshing people’s names together to show that they are a couple.  Just stop.

“A portmanteau or portmanteau word, also called a blend in linguistics,[1] is a combination of taking parts (but not all) of two (or more) words or their sounds (morphemes) and their meanings into a single new word.” 

Thank you Wikipedia for the language lesson but I still don’t like it.

  • Adding -gate to the end of a word to signify a scandal.  Also just stop.

“I see a lot of times when something is a politically-oriented scandal that the suffix ‑gate is added to the end of the word the scandal revolves around.

Examples include:

Learn your history so you don’t end up sounding stupid on the internet.

  • Blogspot comment boxes that don’t have a option for Name/URL and require to have a Google account to leave a comment.  Add extra annoyance points if using your AIM account is an option but URL isn’t.  Does anyone still have an AIM account?
  • Ads that come up on the bottom of the page I’m trying to read and cover most of the page
  • Floating social media icons on the left side of a blog post that cover whatever you are trying to read so you can only read the two lines on the very top of the page
  • Posts that are slideshows and videos that don’t give you a transcript option.  Videos take too long.  Let me read your information.
  • Posts about how seeing other people’s good news on social media is depressing.  Really?  What’s wrong with people? It isn’t a zero sum game.  Other people’s happiness doesn’t need to depress yours.


  • Same thing to the people in an article I read about how people who make fancy lunches for their kids are just show offs who want other parents to feel bad. Um, maybe they just like to cook and want their kids to eat healthy.  Not everything is about you, other people!
  • This ad.

    It is for an app version of our lab website so we can check lab results on our days off while hiking. At least the dog is enjoying the view.  Screw work-life balance!

06 May, 2015


/ posted in: Reading DuneDune by Frank Herbert
on 1965
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
ISBN: 0340839937
Pages: 604
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
This Hugo and Nebula Award winner is widely to be considered the most prescient SF novel ever. It tells the sweeping tale of a desert planet called Arrakis, the focus of an intricate power struggle in a byzantine interstellar empire. Arrakis is the sole source of Melange, the "spice of spices." Melange is necessary for interstellar travel and grants psychic powers and longevity, so whoever controls it wields great influence. The troubles begin when stewardship of Arrakis is transferred by the Emperor from the Harkonnen Noble House to House Atreides. The Harkonnens don't want to give up their privileges, however, and through sabotage and treachery they cast young Duke Paul Atreides out into the planet's harsh environment to die. There he falls in with the Fremen, a tribe of desert dwellers who become the basis of the army with which he will reclaim what's rightfully his. Paul Atreides, though, is far more than just a usurped duke. He might be the end product of a very long-term genetic experiment designed to breed a super human; he might be a messiah. His struggle is at the center of a nexus of powerful people and events, and the repercussions will be felt throughout the Imperium.

I first heard of Dune as a kid because a friend had comic books of the story that he showed me. All I remembered from it is that there were giant worms.

From Dune Quotes

Let’s just take a minute to appreciate the obsessive fandom that produces anatomical drawings of fictional worms.

When I heard that there was a Dune read a long going on I decided it would be a good time to go back and read a classic sci-fi book.

Overall, I enjoyed the story and the writing but there were a few things that bothered me.

1.  You know immediately who the bad guy is.  You are given access to the thoughts of all the characters so no one’s motives are a secret.  So even though “Who is the traitor?” is a major plot point, the reader knows from the very beginning.  There isn’t any suspense.  In case you are missing the obvious, each chapter starts with a passage from a book that was written about this period that gives even more facts before they happen.

2.  The characterization of women in the book is problematic.  There are very powerful women here who drive the movement of the story.  However, if you aren’t one of them, you are property who are given as a matter of course to whoever kills your previous man.  The author writes about them almost like they have to be there for breeding purposes and they do all the stuff in the background because someone has to.  This is definitely a male-centric novel which read a little strange to me because so much sci-fi that I read now is female-centric.

My favorite part of the book was the Freman.  They are the native race of the planet.  They are completely underestimated by the ruling class.  They have discovered ways to live and thrive in the desert that the other consider impossible.  They also have a dream of changing their world and are working steadily towards it with single-minded purpose as a society even though it is expected to take over 300 years to bear fruit.

This book is the first in the original author’s series of six and spawned a lot of other books in this universe also.  I might be interested in reading some of the newer ones to see if different authors address some of the issues I had, but I’m not sure if I’d be totally lost or not.

About Frank Herbert

“Franklin Patrick Herbert, Jr. (October 8, 1920 – February 11, 1986) was an American science fiction writer best known for the novel Dune and its five sequels. Though he became famous for science fiction, he was also a newspaper journalist, photographer, short story writer, book reviewer, ecological consultant and lecturer.

The Dune saga, set in the distant future and taking place over millennia, deals with complex themes such as human survival and evolution, ecology, and the intersection of religion, politics and power. Dune itself is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time[1] and the series is widely considered to be amongst the classics of the genre.” from Wikipedia

05 May, 2015

The Residence

/ posted in: Reading The ResidenceThe Residence by Kate Andersen Brower
(Twitter)on April 7th 2015
Genres: History, Nonfiction
ISBN: 0062305190
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
Source: Book Tour
America's first families are among the most private public figures on earth. From the mystique of the glamorous Kennedys to the tumult that surrounded Bill and Hillary Clinton during the president's impeachment to the historic yet polarizing residency of Barack and Michelle Obama, each new administration brings a unique set of personalities to the White House—and a new set of challenges to the fiercely loyal and hardworking people who serve them: the White House residence staff.No one understands the president of the United States, and his family, like the men and women who make the White House run every day. Now, for the first time, their stories of fifty years, ten administrations, and countless crises, large and small, are told in The Residence. Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews with butlers, maids, chefs, florists, doormen, and other staffers—as well as former first ladies and first family members—Kate Andersen Brower, who covered President Obama's first term, offers a group portrait of the dedicated professionals who orchestrate lavish state dinners; stand ready during meetings with foreign dignitaries; care for the president and first lady's young children; and cater to every need the first couple may have, however sublime or, on occasion, ridiculous.In the voices of the residence workers themselves—sometimes wry, often affectionate, always gracious and proud—here are stories of:

The Kennedys—from intimate glimpses of their marriage to the chaotic days after JFK's assassination

The Johnsons—featuring the bizarre saga of LBJ's obsession with the White House plumbing

The Nixons—including Richard Nixon's unexpected appearance in the White House kitchen the morning he resigned

The Reagans—from a fire that endangered Ronald Reagan late in his second term to Nancy's control of details large and small

The Clintons—whose private battles, marked by shouting matches and flying objects, unsettled residence workers

The Obamas—who danced to Mary J. Blige on their first night in the White House

And just as compelling are the stories of the workers themselves, including Storeroom Manager Bill Hamilton, who served eleven presidents over fifty-five years; Executive Housekeeper Christine Limerick, who married a fellow residence worker; Chief Usher Stephen Rochon, who became the first African American to hold the post; Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, who feuded fiercely with Executive Chef Walter Scheib; and Butler James Ramsey, who made friends with presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and whose spirit animated the White House through six administrations before his death in 2014. Working tirelessly to provide impeccable service and earning the trust and undying admiration of each new first family, these extraordinary White House workers served every day in the midst of history—and lived to tell the tales.

The Residence is an interesting look into the life of The White House. It is a subject that has always interested me. I’ve read books about the lives of the First Ladies by Margaret Truman and watched an old mini-series on White House staff. This book only covers the time served by living members of the White House staff.

You get the impression that they are trying not to come right out and say bad things but they let it be known who they liked and who they didn’t.

It is a quick and entertaining read for anyone who likes history. The husband is currently reading and enjoying it and he is planning on passing it on to a friend.

tlc tour host

About Kate Andersen Brower

Kate Andersen Brower spent four years covering the Obama White House for Bloomberg News and is a former CBS News staffer and Fox News producer. She lives outside Washington, D.C., with her husband and their two young children.

04 May, 2015

Save the Animals!

/ posted in: Reading

One of the things that will make me abandon a book faster than anything else is cruelty to animals.  I can’t handle it.  Do you want to slaughter an entire village?  Fine, just don’t shoot a horse on your way out of town for fun.  (Is it any wonder that I’m a vet and not a human doctor?)

catslap I loathe this child!

The two most traumatizing movie scenes in the history of time for me are in the Neverending Story when the horse gets sucked into the quicksand and in Dances With Wolves when they shoot the horse and leave his body for the vultures to eat.  That scene caused me to be a nervous wreck when Spirit died and there were a few hours before the people came to get his body.  No vultures (and we had a resident population) were going to eat my baby!

Even though Sheila loved it, I didn’t get through the first few chapters of The Knife of Never Letting Go because the kid was nasty to his dog.  He could hear his thoughts and kept kicking at him and yelling at him.  Nasty little human!

The only thing that got me through Backseat Saints is having been a reader of the author’s blog for a long time.  I know she loves her dogs so I very grudgingly moved past shooting her dog (just a flesh wound).

I’ve never been able to read Watership Down because I’m too scared that something bad will happen to the bunnies.

Any time an animal is prominently brought into a story, I worry about its safety.  Is there a term that is the equivalent of women in refrigerators for animals? I think it is time for the animals to fight back!



My safe author is James Rollins.  He writes thrillers that tend to prominently feature animals but they are safe.  I think this is because he is a vet too.  His characters will shoot humans but the animals will be fine.  We must have the same hangups!  If he ever betrays my simple trust in him, I’ll lose all hope.

Does this bother you too?  Are there other books that I should never, ever read because of what happens to the animals?


03 May, 2015

Last Week in Review

/ posted in: Reading

Book Posts This Week

Vanilla – The history and growing of my favorite flavor and aroma

I’m Off Then – A German comedian decides to tackle the Camino de Santiago in spite of being out of shape and recovering from surgery

Missoula – The story of a Montana college town that had a horrible record on prosecuting sexual assaults

Travel Reading – How do you decide what books to take with you when you travel?

 April in Review

I finished 15 books.

  • 2 were audiobooks and one was a graphic novel.
  • Six were nonfiction.
  • They were set in Hong Kong, U.S., Spain, Madagascar, Sweden, England, and some fantasy lands.
  • Four were written by men.
  • Two were translations – German and Swedish.
  • All of the authors were white except for 2 Asian women

Reading This Week

Like the Travel Reading post says I’m going to England this week.  I have my plane reading ready.  It includes the books from that post and:

Alif the UnseenAlif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson


“In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.”

I loved this author’s memoir and Ms. Marvel so I’m interested to see what her novels are like.

01 May, 2015

Travel Reading

/ posted in: Readingtravel

On Monday my mother and I leave for England and Wales.  I haven’t given any thought to what I’m wearing yet but I have obsessed over the important stuff – What am I taking to read?

This is the hardest part of planning for me.  How many paper books and how many on the iPad?  I am taking a very small suitcase so there isn’t room for extra just in case books but I worry about iPod battery life on long flights with layovers.  I’m a total mood reader too so I worry that I won’t want what I have when I get to the time I planned on reading it.

Here’s the plan so far.

The Storied Life of A.J. FikryThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

This is my paper book. I found it at my neighborhood Little Free Library.

Since the trip was inspired by my grandmother’s Regency romances, I figured I had to have a few of those. I downloaded two from my library. It was hard to choose. I’m not up on the genre to know what is good. Obviously, I picked so well that the titles I chose don’t even show up on Goodreads.

Then I figured I need a good book for our time in London. It took some thinking but I came up with one where London is definitely a character.

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is never a wrong time to reread Neverwhere. I love this book but always felt like I’m probably missing some of the jokes because I don’t know London well. This seemed like a good accompaniment to walking around London.

How do you choose what kind of books to take on a trip?

30 Apr, 2015


/ posted in: Current EventsReading MissoulaMissoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
on 2015
Genres: Nonfiction
ISBN: 9780385538732
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Missoula, Montana, is a typical college town, with a highly regarded state university, bucolic surroundings, a lively social scene, and an excellent football team the Grizzlies with a rabid fan base.

The Department of Justice investigated 350 sexual assaults reported to the Missoula police between January 2008 and May 2012. Few of these assaults were properly handled by either the university or local authorities. In this, Missoula is also typical.

A DOJ report released in December of 2014 estimates 110,000 women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are raped each year. Krakauer’s devastating narrative of what happened in Missoula makes clear why rape is so prevalent on American campuses, and why rape victims are so reluctant to report assault.

“Rape is a much more common crime than most people realize, and women of college age are most frequently the victims.” 

That is the opening line of the author’s note at the beginning of the book and symbolic of what disturbed me about this book.

“(After hearing a friend’s rape story), I was angry with myself for being so uninformed – not only about her ordeal but about non-stranger rape in general.  So I resolved to learn what I could about it.  I did a lot of reading, and I sought out rape survivors who were willing to share their stories.  Writing this book was an outgrowth of that quest.

As the scope of my research expanded, I was stunned to discover that many of my acquaintances, and even several women in my own family, had been sexually assaulted by men they trusted.  The more I listened to these women’s accounts, the more disturbed I became.  I’d had no idea that rape was so prevalent, or could cause such deep and intractable pain.  My ignorance was inexcusable, and it made me ashamed.”  page 348

How?  How do you not know this?

As horrible as the events described in this book are, I was never surprised and that’s sad.  I kept thinking, “Yeah, and?” waiting for something to happen that was supposed to be a revelation.  Sadly, it was just same old same old.  Women aren’t believed.  People think women make up rape stories for attention and to ruin nice men’s lives.  Rapes aren’t prosecuted.  (I admit to being slightly surprised that it was a female assistant DA who was the biggest impediment to bringing rape cases to trial.)

The author does a good job detailing what happened to women in Missoula who reported rapes.  I guess if you don’t know about this issue this book would be an eye-opener. I guess if you’ve never had to give a thought to your safety when alone with a person bigger and stronger than you then it might be surprising.

Does still it take a book by a prominent male writer to shed light on an issue that women have been living with forever?  He writes about the work of Gwen Florio, a female journalist in Missoula who was covering this as it happened.  I would have like to see her interviewed in this book instead of just using her research as a source.  Here’s her statement on the book.

(Spoiler) If you have the stomach for it, check out this article.  It is about how hard it is for one of the accused rapists discussed in the book.  The publication of this book brings up all kinds of stuff he’d rather not remember.  Notice there isn’t a word in the article about the woman involved.



About Jon Krakauer

“Jon Krakauer is an American writer and mountaineer, well-known for outdoor and mountain-climbing writing.” from Goodreads

29 Apr, 2015

I’m Off Then – Traveling the Camino de Santiago

/ posted in: Reading I’m Off Then – Traveling the Camino de SantiagoI'm Off Then by Hape Kerkeling
on June 16th 2009
Genres: Nonfiction
ISBN: 1416553878
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
From one of Germany’s most beloved celebrities, a cross between Bill Bryson and Paulo Coelho. It has sold over 3 million copies and been translated into eleven different languages. Pilgrims have increased along the Camino by 20 percent since the book was published. Hape Kerkeling’s spiritual epiphany has struck a nerve. Overweight, overworked, and physically unfit, Kerkeling was an unlikely candidate to make the arduous pilgrimage across the French Alps to the Spanish Shrine of St. James, a 1,200-year-old journey undertaken by nearly 100,000 people every year. But that didn’t stop him from getting off the couch and walking. Along the way, lonely and searching for meaning, he began the journal that turned into this utterly frank, engaging book. Simply by struggling with his physical limitations and the rigors of long-distance walking, he discovered a deep sense of peace that transformed his life and allowed him to forgive himself, and others, more readily. He learned something every day, and he took to finishing each entry with his daily lessons. Filled with quirky fellow pilgrims, historic landscapes, and Kerkeling’s self-deprecating sense of humor, I’m Off Then is an inspiring travelogue, a publishing phenomenon, and a spiritual journey unlike any other.

The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage across northern Spain to the cathedral in Santiago.

In 2001 German comedian Hape Kerkeling decided almost on a whim to make the trip. He was out of shape and recovering from gall bladder surgery. He wasn’t looking for spiritual enlightenment. He just needed to get away.  He started in St. Jean Pied de Port in France near the Spanish border.

I liked this book because he does the pilgrimage like I would. He doesn’t stay in the refugios set up for travelers. He stays in whatever hotels he can find. He takes lots of rest days, especially if he drank too much the night before. At the beginning, he cheats a lot by taking public transportation to skip hard sections. He also gets really mad at people treating dogs poorly along the way. He finds a lot of his fellow pilgrims insufferable if not downright crazy but makes a few good friends along the way.

As the walk goes on he gets in a bit better shape and is able to complete the official part of the pilgrimage. In order to get a certificate of completion, you have to prove that you have walked the last 100 km by getting stamps in each of the towns.

I loved the fact that he didn’t let his new friends, who were from England and New Zealand, know that he was famous in Germany so they were puzzled by how excited German people seemed to get when they saw another German hiker.   He’d hide giving autographs by saying that people just wanted directions.

I was bit hesitant to pick this book up because I was afraid of comparing it to Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods about the Appalachian trail, which is a book I love.  This is a very different book but it didn’t suffer from the comparison.  It made me want to go out and walk for days.

28 Apr, 2015

What I Learned from a Trip to the Naturopath

/ posted in: Food

I recently decided to go have myself checked out by a naturopathic doctor.  I didn’t have any specific ailments but just wanted a check up.  I filled out a long questionnaire and had some hair and blood testing done.

I got my results a few weeks later.  I’m a long term vegetarian so I was interested in seeing what my hair mineral analysis said about my diet.  I’m pretty much spot-on where I should be for all nutrients.  Take that diet doubters!  The only thing that is abnormal is that I have slightly high copper.

I also did a blood test to look for food sensitivities.  These aren’t full on allergic reactions that send you to the hospital but foods that irritate your digestive system.  I had an idea what it was going to find.  My last meal before going to get my results was pizza with cheese dipping sauce and some tapioca pudding.

Like I expected I reacted to dairy.  I reacted to everything they test in the dairy category.  I reacted even worse to eggs.  That surprised me.  I don’t show the physical symptoms that I get from dairy with eggs.

I’m not too upset about that.  I’m vegan at home 95% of the time anyway.  I use almond milk all the time instead of cow milk.  That’s lovely except my most reactive thing was almond followed closely by soy.  I guess coconut milk it is for me.

I also reacted badly to gluten and whole wheat and spelt.  Great.  So we are up to gluten-free vegan.  I still wasn’t upset and this sort of surprised the doctor.  She said people sometimes cry when she gives results.  I told her at the last visit that I don’t get stressed. She didn’t know that I’ve done this before.  When I did the Whole Life Challenge it ended up being basically a gluten-free vegan challenge for me.  I did it twice for 2 months at a time.  I know what to do.  I also know that I drop weight easily if I stick to it so I believe these results.  I just get lazy and stop cooking food that I know is best for me.

Then things started to get rude.  I was reactive to peanuts.  I use peanut butter sometimes on the toast I’m no longer having or in smoothies.

After all this, the thing that really got me was that I was reactive to mushrooms.  Mushrooms!  I love mushrooms.  I was going to get some mushroom spore inoculated logs for my garden this year and grow my own because I eat so many.  At least cocoa and olives didn’t upset my sensitive self or there would be no point in going on.

I started the elimination diet immediately. She also gave me some supplements to support better digestion and to help support the liver.  My cholesterol is high but the rest of the liver enzymes are good so we are doing some liver detox to see if it can handle the cholesterol and copper clearing a bit better.


27 Apr, 2015

Plain Vanilla?

/ posted in: Reading Plain Vanilla?Vanilla by Tim Ecott
on 2005-03
Genres: Nonfiction
ISBN: 080214201X
Pages: 278
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
From the islands of Tahiti to the botanical gardens of London and Paris, "Vanilla traces the story of the vanilla plant and its secretive trade, from the golden cups of Aztee emperors to the ice-cream dishes of U.S. presidents. Vanilla has mystified and tantalized man for centuries. The only orchid that porduces and agriculturally valuable crop. vanilla can mask unpleasant tastes and smells, but also makes pleasant tastes stronger, smoother, and longer lasting. Because of its over four hundred separate flavor components. choosing premium-quality vanilla beans is as complex as judging the aroma and taste of fine wine. Vanilla finds its way into over half of all dessert products sold worldwide, from ice cream to chocolate mousse, as well as the finest perfumes., well-known brands of rum and vodka, and even Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Americans consume more vanilla than anyone else on Earth--a fact that has helped drive the price of vanilla beans and flavor extracts to an all-time high, and forced growers and traders to mount armed guard over their plants in the tropical jungle. The traders who travel the world in search of America's favorite flavor are a small and secretive elite. From Papantla in Mexico--"the city that perfumed the world"--to the South Seas, Madagascar, and the Indian Ocean islands, "Vanilla is a globe-trotting adventure that follows buccancers, aristocrats, and gourmets. all in search of the ice cream orchid.

Vanilla is my favorite scent.  I choose it for candles and air fresheners and perfumes and body washes.  I love vanilla flavored food and drinks.  My mother used to laugh at me because I’d go to ice cream parlors and pick vanilla out of the all the flavors.

Did you know:

  • Vanilla was first used in Mexico to flavor chocolate drinks?
  • The vanilla orchid can only be fertilized by a specific bee species in central America which made growing it anywhere else impossible until a young slave boy in Reunion figured out how to fertilize it by hand?
  • Vanilla is hard to grow but the real art comes in slowly drying the pods after they are picked?
  • So much money can be made selling vanilla that warehouses where pods are kept have to be constantly guarded so people don’t steal it?
  • Buying vanilla is mostly a cash business so it is not unusual for buyers to be robbed or murdered sort of like drug dealers?

My vanilla is from Madagascar, where most of the commercial crops comes from now.  In honor of this book I made some vanilla chia seed pudding to enjoy and added some extra vanilla to really appreciate the flavor that is so difficult to make.

About Tim Ecott

“Tim Ecott grew up in Ireland, the Far East and Africa. He studied Social Anthropology and then worked in the film industry before joining the BBC World Service. As a programme maker and correspondent in Africa he specialised in reporting from the Indian Ocean islands for more than a decade.

Based in London, Tim Ecott continues to contribute to BBC programmes, and his journalism has appeared widely in British and international publications.” from his agents’ website

26 Apr, 2015

Last Week in Review

/ posted in: Reading

Book Posts This Week

Library Scavenger Hunt

Why I DNF books

A Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop

Get Over Yourself

Guest Posts

I wrote a post for Alexa about A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Reading This Week

Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's MemoirCommitted: A Rabble-Rouser’s Memoir by Dan Mathews


“”Committed” is a bold, offbeat, globe-trotting memoir that shows how the most ridiculed punching bag in high school became an internationally renowned crusader for the most downtrodden individuals of all — animals. This irresistibly entertaining book recounts the random incidents and soul-searching that inspired a reluctant party boy to devote his life to a cause, without ever abandoning his sense of mischief and fun. “Everyone has a tense moment in their career that makes them wonder, how the hell did I get into this mess?” writes Mathews. “For me, it was when I was dressed as a carrot to promote vegetarianism outside an elementary school in Des Moines, and a pack of obese pig farmers showed up and peeled off slices of bologna for kids to throw at me.”

Listening To This Week

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating OpportunityA Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas D. Kristof


“An essential, galvanizing narrative about making a difference here and abroad—a road map to becoming the most effective global citizens we can be.

In their number one New York Times best seller Half the Sky, husband-and-wife team Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn brought to light struggles faced by women and girls around the globe, and showcased individuals and institu­tions working to address oppression and expand opportunity. A Path Appears is even more ambi­tious in scale: nothing less than a sweeping tap­estry of people who are making the world a better place and a guide to the ways that we can do the same—whether with a donation of $5 or $5 mil­lion, with our time, by capitalizing on our skills as individuals, or by using the resources of our businesses.”


25 Apr, 2015

Garden Plan

/ posted in: Gardening

That was what the back of my yard looked like. (I took this picture from a second story deck. There aren’t power lines near the ground.) It is horrible for gardening. There is English ivy coming from a neighbor’s yard that climbs everything. We’ve made progress in getting it off the big oak trees. It is part shade. I tried to plant a garden in the sunniest part and everything got eaten by varmints.

I decided to tackle it this year. I cleared out all the little scrub volunteer trees. I want to make this food producing so I took some inspiration from Paradise Lot and ordered some paw paw trees.

Paw Paws are native fruit trees that make a fruit that supposedly tastes like bananas and mangos. I ordered bare root, grafted trees.

They look dead.

They are about 5 feet tall so hopefully they will survive and give fruit in a few years.

I also got some roses this year. I love them and I found two sunny places in the front yard that should work for them.

The existing plants have really taken off this week even though it has been cold enough to see some snow flakes.

The hostas are insane and need divided.

I wasn’t even sure if the astilbes were still alive last week and now they look like this.

I’ve given up trying to plant other food in the back yard. I’m doing containers this year on the back deck because there is sun and it is safe.

The container on the left has kale and lettuce. The one on the right has strawberries. I left the strawberry one at the base of the stairs to the deck for one night and some nasty rodent pulled out two of the plants. I replanted and they are doing well now.

This is basil, lavender, and some cute decorative plants.

24 Apr, 2015

Get Over Yourself

/ posted in: Reading Get Over YourselfGet Over Yourself by Jeremy Whitley
Also by this author: Save Yourself
on July 30th 2013
Genres: Comics & Graphic Novels, Fantasy
ISBN: 098596524X
Pages: 128
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
Princess Adrienne is back and she's bringing back her dragon Sparky and girl-blacksmith Bedelia! This time they're out to save the first of Adrienne's sisters, Angelica. Unfortunately, Angelica is the most beautiful girl in the whole kingdom and she knows it. Not only will Adrienne have to fight her jealousy of the attention Angelica gets, but she'll have to face Angelica's mysterious guardian. Meanwhile, Adrienne's father has hired a motley crew of bounty hunters to track down the knight he believes killed his daughter. What he doesn't know is that the knight he is after is Adrienne! Collecting issues 1–4 of volume 2, Princeless Book 2: Get Over Yourself is 100 pages of feel-good, girl-powered adventure for young readers or comic fans of any age.

Adrienne is back! Now she decides to rescue her oldest sister only to find that Angelica doesn’t want rescued. Why would she? A village of artists has set up camp around her tower because she is their muse. All she does is walk around all day and look beautiful.

It is up to Adrienne to convince her that there is more to life than that even if Angelica’s life does look pretty good.

The Princeless series continues to be a great, quick read celebrating the power of women.