January Reading Update

31 Jan

If I’m going to give myself a reading challenge, it’s only fair that I check in from time to time and give a progress report. In the spirit of Nick Hornby, I’ll also note if I bought any books–after all, one of my goals is to read what I already own and clear out the shelves a little bit, so buying books, while fun, isn’t exactly something I’m trying to do this year, unless, of course, I read everything I own, at which point, I may start thinking about rereading some books or making good use of the library.

That said, here’s January’s update.

Books bought: zero (!) – Right on plan

Books read: five

States covered: three

Countries covered: two

This month’s reading list:

  • Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins (Connecticut)
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls – David Sedaris (New York)
  • Ready Player One - Ernest Cline (Ohio)
  • The Mormon Murders – Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith (Naifeh was born in Tehran, Iran; Smith was born in New York)
  • The Secret Olympian – Anon (United Kingdom – Anonymous author was a member of Team GB in Athens)

It was a really good month for reading. I blew through the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy, only to discover that book two is a “to be continued” tome, rather than a stand-alone piece. I’ll have to get Mockingjay to round out the series, but that’s not an especially high task on my to do list. Still, I’m enjoying the series so far.

Sedaris is good, as always. I’m reading him for structure more these days, and so his books have a permanent spot on my shelf.

Ready Player One is a book I’d remotely heard about as being good, remembered that fact while I was at Powell’s during my August book-buying binge (the Sedaris book was part of that too….and now that I look at the photo again, I’ve read seven of them, which is quite a feat, given my track record). “Good” is an understatement. This book was so much fun to read–if you’re a 1980’s kid, you’ll love all of the references in this futuristic look at the world when virtual reality has taken over. This found a permanent spot on my shelf.

I’ve owned The Mormon Murders for probably a good ten years. I bought it at the Newberry Library Book Fair, probably in 2001 or 2002, a little after my friend Missy and I had taken a road trip to Salt Lake City and encountered full-on Mormonism for the first time. At the time, I did a little more reading about Mormons, and that’s when I bought this book. It’s taken me this long to want to read it. Why? I don’t know — it was a mighty good read. The authors write about this big trial from the 1980s when a guy named Mark Hofmann, who forged a bunch of documents–particularly supposed early Mormon texts–and then when he was caught in this huge spiral of deceit, set off a few pipe bombs, killing a couple of people and injuring himself. It was an amazing story. Also interesting is that on the book jacket, Naifeh is listed as being a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma. That was one of the reasons I picked up this book — I’d be able to check off Oklahoma. But I suppose that if your book comes out in 1988, you probably don’t want to mention you were born in Iran. Interesting how history can change over time.

Since I have Olympic Fever, I wanted to read a book that was in my Olympic pile (that is, a pile of books about the Olympics, not a pile of Olympic proportions…though I have that too).  The Boy got me this one for Christmas, and it’s a decent read–a little bit behind the scenes of being an Olympian, albeit, not a famous one. Interesting look at what it takes to be at the elite levels of sport, although I wasn’t quite sure it really needed to be anonymously written.

So that’s January. I’ve covered a few northern states and a couple of countries. I almost feel like the Iran entry is cheating–Naifeh is the son of a diplomat, and that’s just where he ended up being born. But rules are rules, so that’s that.

What’s up for February? I’m not quite sure yet. I’m currently reading a first draft of a novel a friend wrote, and I owe another writer friend a look at her novel too. Then we’ll see what captures my fancy. What have you been reading, and where’s it from?

Dueling Fevers

24 Jan

Every four years, a horrible thing happens: The Winter Olympics collide with Oscar Season.

This used to be a more dire situation for me. I used to be a movie junkie, and I’d have a huge Oscar party every year. Attendees dress up like nominated movie characters, and I’d have themed food, games, and champagne. When I had it at my apartment, I’d rent a big screen TV. Then I started having it in a private room of a bar, which allowed for more people and fun.

Martin Scorsese changed all of that. I don’t know how I sat through all of “Gangs of New York.” Perhaps it was trying to see if Cameron Diaz’ accent ever got better. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but after that dreadful experience–luckily at a cheap movie theatre–I stopped going to the movies so much. Every time I wanted to go, it had to be something I really wanted to see because not much was worth the $10 price of admission.

That hasn’t really changed today, and ticket prices have gotten a little bit higher, lessening my desire to see many movies. I’ve only seen a few this year; however, that general malaise I have about the movie industry goes out the window when the Academy Award nominations are announced. I’m excited for the nominees, and these are the movies that have been deemed to be good. This is my short list of what to bother with.

Of course, if that short list is pretty long, I have a bit of movie viewing to cram in during the nomination season. This year is no exception. I’d like to see at least eight of the nominated pictures, and on paper, that’s not such a daunting task….until you realize that the Olympics are on as well.

We’re in the run up to Sochi, and I’m so excited to watch–and become an instant expert on–obscure winter sports. I want to see how Sochi does as a host, how it deals with security threats, and how all the money it’s put toward these Games is actually spent. I want to spend hours watching television, looking for obscure glimpses of judges and officials, wondering how they get to that level. It’s been a while since I threw a big party, so a few friends are helping put together an epic one for the Opening Ceremonies. I’ve got Olympic Fever to the max.

When Olympic Fever collides with Oscar Fever, it’s tough. Real tough. While I still love the movies, they may continue to sit on the back burner. Double the Fever can be double the fun, but we’ll see if I test that theory.

Event Alert: Story Club Boston – Jan. 9

7 Jan

I’ll be one of the featured performers in Story Club Boston’s January show, which is happening this Thursday, Jan. 9 at ImprovBoston (40 Prospect St., Cambridge). The theme of this month’s show is “Let’s Try This Again,” about do-overs and reprieves. I’ll be sharing one of my roller derby officiating stories, in which I tell about one of my worst officiating mistakes.

If you’re in the area, please come! Tickets are $12.

2014 Reading Challenge

6 Jan

Happy New Year!

Most years I make resolutions, and one of them is usually to “read more” or “to read the books I own.” If you’ve been following along, in 2013 I visited a lot of bookstores and bought a lot of books. I haven’t even mentioned my trip to Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, PA or the annual day-after-Christmas family trip to Barnes & Noble.  Oddly enough, neither resulted in major purchases, which is probably a good thing.

Needless to say, my stack of “to read” books is very tall. It’s literally a teetering stack sitting on my office floor — I don’t even have room on my shelves for these new books, so I want to read them and make some decisions as to what stays on the shelves or what goes.

That’s all fine and dandy, except then I read a couple of Media Bistro blogs about geographical reading challenges. The first is from Somerset Books in Texas and is a “50 states” challenge: Read one book by an author from every state in the country. Birthplace defines where an author’s from. The second is a journalist’s personal challenge to read a book from every country in the world.

While they’re both really intriguing, I’m still more concerned with reading what I own; however, it’d be interesting to see how my stacks and shelves of unread books fit into these two challenges. I’ve decided to track them here, and I invite you to play along. I’d love to see where your reading takes you this year and get some ideas for new books to read. To me it doesn’t matter if the book is fiction or non-fiction (I’ve got some of both). I’m just curious to see how much of the country I’ll cover. I’ve got some international authors as well, so I may add countries as I go along, and maybe even provinces, if I’ve got a bunch of books from one particular country.

I don’t plan to let the “50 books in a year” concept hold me back either. I have real doubts as to whether I’ll read 50 books. I’ve tried it before–years ago I signed up for a newspaper columnist’s “do something now” challenge, vowing to read a book a week.  It wasn’t long before I couldn’t keep up, and that’s when the challenge stopped being enjoyable, and I soon quit. Last year I read maybe 15 or so books, and I consider that to be a pretty good year. I just would like to track what I’ve read in a manner that Goodreads doesn’t do and see if I need to expand my reading horizons just a little more. No pressure otherwise. If you feel the same way, please join in.


Office Holiday Parties – Freelancer Style

20 Dec

Before I started freelancing, I worked at a large consulting firm. Around this time of year that meant a swanky office holiday party in some fabulous venue, complete with delicious food, free-flowing drinks, a band and dancing in your finest holiday dress. It was pretty sweet.

People sometimes ask me what it’s like to be a freelancer and if it’s lonely working by yourself, particularly at this time of year when everyone else is having afternoons off for the holiday team lunch or enjoying a fancy dinner on the company dime. For me it’s not a big deal because I actually do still have an office holiday party. I happen to share office space with a small consulting firm called Sneetch & Co., and we have a joint office party to celebrate the end of the year.

And if you think your office party gets a little raucous, you’ve got nothing on these guys. I’m lucky that I’m not nursing a killer hangover, what with the cocktails that got served up and the crazy dancing that took place.

Now that I’m fully recovered, I wanted to share some pictures to give you a little idea of how freelancers celebrate the holidays. Happy holidays to you and yours from me and Sneetch & Co.!

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Postcard from Milwaukee

22 Nov

I didn’t expect to go to Milwaukee and come home with a suitcase like I’d been to Portland. That is, I bought books. A lot of them.

My name is Jill, and I have a problem.

I should’ve expected this. Milwaukee is full of beer, and I’d planned on going on the Lakefront Brewery tour, so I should’ve known that at some point I’d get the hankering to go book shopping.

For those of you planning on going to Milwaukee, go on the Lakefront tour. It’s $7, you get four samples of beer and a coupon to have more free beer at one of many local establishments. You can also turn in your ticket for a free pint glass afterward. If you happen to get tour guide Josh, you’re in for a good time. Let’s face it, if you’ve been on one brewery tour, you’ve been on most of them. Josh made this one a lot of fun, and I spent more time laughing than I did drinking, which says something, since we did take a break mid-tour to get another pour.

At any rate, once I was finished with the tour and with my freebie beer, which I enjoyed at the Milwaukee Brat House along with a bowl of beer cheese soup, I was definitely in a mood to buy books. Or book. So I thought.

On the trip I’d brought along Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, a really fun read. I was on track to finish it before my flights, so I wanted something else on hand, as I’d already gone through the in-flight magazine.

I made my way over to Downtown Books, a really nice used bookstore with super tall shelves and corners of discovery. I did really well with sticking to my plan to buy only one book, until I rounded one of these corners and found some intriguing looking food writing.

I bought four books.

This I thought would be OK, until I got to the Milwaukee airport.

On the day I left Milwaukee, the weather was crummy–snowing, cold, wet. After eating a late breakfast and getting some pastries from the Milwaukee Public Market, I didn’t have much else to do, so I headed to the airport early.

I had no idea there was a used bookstore in the airport itself. I had three hours to kill. After I found Renaissance Books, I thought I was going to miss my flight. Needless to say, I found some interesting stuff–a couple of fencing books for the Boy, a Navy SEALS workout book, a U.S. Olympic yearbook from 1960 and a reprint of the WPA Guide to Massachusetts. It was quite the haul, and a good one at that.

I keep thinking that I’m making progress with reading my pile of books, and I am. I’m just building the pile a little faster than I can read it. Perhaps the lesson is to stop mixing booze and books, as fun as it may be. Somehow, that’s a lesson I don’t really want to learn.


My Book du Jour

28 Oct

I recently finished a book from the stack I purchased at Powell’s this past August. This in itself can be a feat–I have books on my bookshelf that have competed with each other for years to get my attention, to no avail. I was interested in them enough to purchase them, but in waiting for the right moment where I’ll break down and actually read them (which is usually “not now,” since I’m catching up on another book), they’ve bided their time, promising not to let their covers get sun damaged before I can crack them open.

I’d say this book was special, but they’re all special, aren’t they? Even the books that are downright awful–they’re special in their own way. However, it was a book that spoke to me ever since I saw it while browsing the shelves at Porter Square Books. I didn’t buy it then, but it was important enough for me to write down the title and promise myself I’d find it later: Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton. I’m glad that Powell’s came through for me and had a used copy for sale (sorry, PSB) so that I could get to it more quickly then never.

Suffice it to say, I fell in love with this book. I wanted to devour it, yet I never wanted it to end. Why? It captured how I feel when I swim. Shapton, who tried out for the Canadian Olympic team twice and is now a writer and illustrator, told of her time in swimming through glimpses at her life. It’s not an inspirational tome, nor is it one to help you improve your swimming; however it floats along and pulls you in, much like the sport itself.

I was an age-group swimmer for several years, so I understand the regimented workouts, the frozen hair in the winter, rinsing out swimsuits and putting them on while still damp, things that Shapton notes. While I never pursued swimming beyond age 12, I still love to swim laps–sometimes even creating my own workout with kick board and pull buoy–or go for a long swim in a pond or lake.

When I swim, I don’t really think of anything. Sometimes I’ll work through a writing piece or project. Sometimes I hear music playing in my head. But mostly it’s nothingness. It’s me and the pool and the stroke, and to be honest, that’s one thing I love about swimming. This book captured that feeling of nothingness and made me want to read page after page, just like I will swim lap after lap, taking it all in and letting the words wash over me.

I’d like to read it again soon. While the odds of that happening are very slim, considering the fight that’s going on to get to the top of my reading list, Swimming Studies instantly got a prime spot on my bookshelf, where I can see it daily and let the memory of Shapton’s words wash over me.

Bonus Postcard from Pittsburgh

23 Oct
pierogi grilled cheese

The Pittsburgh grilled cheese from Hemingway’s, minus the kraut.

We were only in Pittsburgh for a  couple of days, so I didn’t get a chance to verify this, but Pittsburgh does not exactly scream “foodie city” to me. From my experience, Pittsburgh is a food town, an eating town (and yes, I know it’s a city, but somehow “town” seems kind of an appropriate descriptor). It’s a town that says, “I need to forge some steel and build a bridge! I need FOOD! SUSTENANCE!”

And in that sense, it totally delivered. From the few meals I ate in Pittsburgh, I was astounded at the amount of stuff in sandwiches. Yes, I know that by definition, a sandwich has stuff in it. That is the nature of two slices of bread with fillings. But in Pittsburgh, there was stuff in my sandwich that I normally would’ve expected to get on the side. For example, I didn’t have to choose whether I wanted pierogis or grilled cheese. I could get pierogis in my grilled cheese.


Primanti Bros. Pitts-burgher cheese steak

Also take the legendary Primanti Bros., which serves sandwiches filled with meat, fries and cole slaw on two pieces of waxed paper. Who needs sides, when you could shovel your meal into your entire mouth in a few bites and get back to the mill (or, as Primanti notes, back to truckin’)?

This type of food may not be popular to write about. It doesn’t come with reductions, and nothing is deconstructed, but it certainly had a quality to it that made you understand the city a little better. Eating like this made me feel more connected to the city, to its past — and in the case of Church Brew Works’ pierogi pizza I also ate (and most of which I carted home on a nine-hour drive because that deliciousness couldn’t go to waste)– of what Pittsburgh hopes to be.

Stories through food. Pittsburgh, yours is pretty interesting.

Postcard from Pittsburgh

17 Oct




It does sound a little weird to say we took a 9+ hour road trip to see a giant rubber duck, but that’s what the Boy and I decided to do to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Oh, we had friends to visit, food to try, and a museum to visit, but the duck was my priority.

Pittsburgh is the first American city to get The Rubber Duck Project, Florentijn Hofman’s 40′ tall rubber duck that floated on the Allegheny River by Point State Park, where the three rivers in Pittsburgh meet. It’s a lovely location — bridges to one side, Heinz Field behind it. You can go and sit on on the revetment along the river, watch the duck and take some pictures. And you smile, because you can’t help but smile. The duck is adorable.

The park also has some great people watching. It’s fun to see the duck’s effect on others. Families take group pictures. A bride and groom took some wedding photos. And everybody’s happy. The whimsy of the entire piece just makes your day.

Was it worth the long drive? I’d say yes, although we did a bunch of other things in Pittsburgh that made for an enjoyable weekend. But the duck was pretty awesome. If you get the chance, go — it’s only in town through the 20th.  Maybe it’ll pop up in another city soon…hmm, sounds like a reason to hit the road again!

Postcard from Asheville

11 Oct


Asheville can be summed up in two words: Gravy flight. We found Biscuit Head on our third day in Asheville. The previous two we had gone to a nearby Waffle House, which was chosen for its proximity to the hotel and quick service in order to get our group to the roller derby venue on time for the day’s bouts. While my taste buds were sad I didn’t get more biscuity meals, my waistline is a little relieved. Asheville’s food certainly did a number on me.

Anyway, Biscuit Head’s gravy flight was pretty amazing. I chose the smoked tomato creole, the sausage gravy, and a goat cheese gravy. While I did scope out the restaurant’s jam bar, I didn’t have enough room in my stomach to really sample much beyond some bacon chocolate goodness. Even though I would’ve gladly ordered more, I thought I’d have to ask someone to roll me out the door.

I didn’t know what to expect from Asheville, but a place like Biscuit Head wasn’t it (seems logical though, right?) — the Asheville I experienced was a lot more hippieish hipster than I expected, with some flashes of the old monied South thrown in. For every chichi place I went to, like the fantastic bookstore/champagne bar, there was a funky experience to balance it out, like the couple sitting on a bench where the woman was topless and the man was wearing a bra. It’s almost as if its motto is “Asheville: It’ll make you think twice.”

Hopefully I’ll go back someday and spend more time exploring the city than its roller derby venue. Asheville has an interesting vibe, and I wouldn’t mind getting to know the place a little better.


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