Life By Kristen

Go, and embrace your liberty. And see what wonderful things come of it. – Little Women

Book Review: Start Without Me

Synopsis: The author of the critically acclaimed The Book of Jonah explores questions of love and choice, disappointment and hope in the lives of two strangers who meet by chance in this mesmerizing tale that unfolds over one Thanksgiving day

Adam is a former musician and recovering alcoholic who is home for Thanksgiving for the first time in many years. Surrounded by his parents and siblings, nieces and nephews—all who have seen him at his worst—he can’t shake the feeling that no matter how hard he tries, he’ll always be the one who can’t get it right.

Marissa is a flight attendant whose marriage is strained by simmering tensions over race, class and ambition. Heading to her in-laws for their picture-perfect holiday family dinner, her anxiety is intensified by the knowledge she is pregnant from an impulsive one-night-stand.

In an airport restaurant on Thanksgiving morning, Adam and Marissa meet. Over the course of this day fraught with emotion and expectation, these two strangers will form an unlikely bond as they reckon with their family ties, their pasts, and the choices that will determine their way forward.

My review: 3 stars.

I always enjoy reading novels that are about family dynamics because they are always so fascinating and layered with interesting characters. This book does not disappoint in that way. Both characters that we get to know in-depth, Marissa and Adam, are deeply flawed, but fascinating. They aren’t entirely likable, but they aren’t depicted as horrible human beings either.

Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I always wonder about these “strangers meeting” novels where two people’s lives come together from a happenstance meeting. I don’t think I could ever meet a person and connect with them so well in a few minutes that I’d invite them to my Thanksgiving with family.

A lot of the Thanksgiving family drama of this book reminded me of one of my favorite ( and one of the few) movies about Thanksgiving, Home for the Holidays. It’s a Holly Hunter movie from the 1990s where Hunter’s character goes to her family’s Thanksgiving in her hometown after many years away. It’s about love, family, and all the mess that comes on Thanksgiving.

Fun thing about reading this book was I took it with us on our Vermont long weekend getaway to Brattleboro, so imagine my surprise when it turns out that Marissa is on her way to in-laws’ Thanksgiving right outside of the same place!

Buy the book!

As part of the TLC Book Tour for this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

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Weekend in Vermont

Q and I desperately needed some time away. After a tough summer, we decided just after Labor Day weekend to go away for the long weekend in October. We chose Southern Vermont because it wouldn’t be too long of a drive and would be a nice change of scenery. Honestly, I wanted so badly to get out of our rut, I would have taken a night away at a Holiday Inn off the highway somewhere.

We stayed in Brattleboro, Vermont– it’s just under a 3 hour drive from our house and we both had been there in our younger years and liked the place. It also was well-situated for short car rides to other spots that had things to do too. Downtown Brattleboro is a small New England city, but has some great food and beer spots, and a very active arts scene. Since it was the long weekend, there were a lot of people around and all the restaurants were packed.

Our weekend was spent, as most vacations are, eating and drinking. We really enjoyed the Whetstone Station Brewery, Saxon River Distillery, and Grafton Village Cheese Company. We stayed at the Latchis Hotel, which is right in downtown Brattleboro, which made it great for walking around and going to various spots without either of us worrying about how much we were drinking ( which, isn’t a lot anyway, but always nice to not have to think about driving and how many beers one of us can have). It rained most of the time, which happened when we went to Maine a few years ago on Columbus Day weekend too, so at least we’re consistent! We ended up driving into New Hampshire on the rainy day to see Keene, which is near where I went to college, so it was a nice little trip down memory lane for me. We ended up at one of my favorite bookstores, Toadstool Books, which I spent many hours in over my 4 years of college.

 

The foliage was just short of peak, so lots of muted colors and the cloudy skies made them seem a bit more gloomy than usual. Overall, we had a lovely weekend and it was a good reminder that we need to make more of an effort to break up our routines and get more fun into life!

Clearly we are not amazing picture-takers, as our selfies were all ridiculous looking from our height difference & those pesky power lines!

 

Book Review: The Fire by Night

Synopsis:  A powerful and evocative debut novel about two American military nurses during World War II that illuminates the unsung heroism of women who risked their lives in the fight—a riveting saga of friendship, valor, sacrifice, and survival combining the grit and selflessness of Band of Brothers with the emotional resonance of The Nightingale.

In war-torn France, Jo McMahon, an Italian-Irish girl from the tenements of Brooklyn, tends to six seriously wounded soldiers in a makeshift medical unit. Enemy bombs have destroyed her hospital convoy, and now Jo singlehandedly struggles to keep her patients and herself alive in a cramped and freezing tent close to German troops. There is a growing tenderness between her and one of her patients, a Scottish officer, but Jo’s heart is seared by the pain of all she has lost and seen. Nearing her breaking point, she fights to hold on to joyful memories of the past, to the times she shared with her best friend, Kay, whom she met in nursing school.

Half a world away in the Pacific, Kay is trapped in a squalid Japanese POW camp in Manila, one of thousands of Allied men, women, and children whose fates rest in the hands of a sadistic enemy. Far from the familiar safety of the small Pennsylvania coal town of her childhood, Kay clings to memories of her happy days posted in Hawaii, and the handsome flyer who swept her off her feet in the weeks before Pearl Harbor. Surrounded by cruelty and death, Kay battles to maintain her sanity and save lives as best she can . . . and live to see her beloved friend Jo once more.

When the conflict at last comes to an end, Jo and Kay discover that to achieve their own peace, they must find their place—and the hope of love—in a world that’s forever changed. With rich, superbly researched detail, Teresa Messineo’s thrilling novel brings to life the pain and uncertainty of war and the sustaining power of love and friendship, and illuminates the lives of the women who risked everything to save others during a horrifying time.

My review: 3.5 stars.

Probably not a shocker that I read yet another piece of historical fiction about World War II. This was especially interesting to me because of the undergraduate research I did on nurses during the war, as well as an exhibit that centered on the experience and World War II uniforms, belongings, and ephemera of one Army nurse who was the great aunt of my then roommate.

There are a lot of novels centered on World War II because of how tumultuous and life changing the time period was- it’s full of interesting people and stories that should be told. Fire by Night is a different spin on the World War II story not only because it’s coming from the perspective of the nurses, but also because it’s very detailed and well-researched, without being boring or too much like a history lesson. Fire by Night  is told by Jo and Kay in alternating chapters, and even though they are separated during the war, their experiences as nurses is very similar. It’s a novel about their experiences, but also about their friendship.

It’s the first book by this author and the reading guide and author’s interview at the back of the novel was quite telling about her writing and research experience. She spent 7 years (!) researching this book, and it’s obvious that she invested a lot of time in getting the details and information correct, which I greatly appreciate. I would love to know more about some of the people she interviewed and how much of their stories are reflected in the final text.

The details of the war, on both fronts, is so well-done that my weak stomach could not take a lot of the descriptions of the various medical scenarios both nurses are involved with. This made me have to skim some of the book more than I’d like, but some of the descriptions were just too vivid for me ( there’s a scene with Jo in Germany during an operation to take out a soldier’s appendix that really made me feel gross). I wouldn’t say that’s a reason to skip the book entirely, as I enjoyed the characters and this new perspective on a unique experience during World War II, but just be warned that if descriptions of blood and injuries bother you, it’s not a book to read while eating a meal!

Buy the book!


As part of the TLC Book Tour for this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Family History

If you’ve been reading this little space on the internet for any length of time, you know that family is one of the most important things in my life. I grew up in a close knit family that ate dinner together every night, and every Sunday with my grandparents. Holidays were spent with extended family and friends who became family. I take great pride in this and in my family’s history, as both sides of my family have interesting stories to be told. My mother is Canadian and her family immigrated to Nova Scotia from The Netherlands in the early 1950s. My father’s side is Portuguese and both of his grandparents came to Massachusetts from the Portuguese islands of the Azores in the 1920s.

I know a lot about my family history and have always taken great pride in my ethnic background being 50% Dutch and 50% Portuguese, though I don’t look Dutch in any way. Last winter as a bit of project to combat cabin fever, Q and I embarked upon doing his family’s genealogy, particularly trying to learn more about his paternal grandfather and that line of his family tree. That grandfather passed when Q was a teenager and there had always been a family story that the grandfather was actually Native American, and that Q’s great-grandfather was actually a STEP great grandfather. It turns out the latter part of the story is true, but we had a lot of trouble learning more about his grandfather. Since we were tooling around with all the Ancestry stuff, it seemed like a good idea for Q to take the Ancestry DNA test to see what his genetic ethnicity might be, in an effort to find out if the Native American story was correct.

It was not.

Q’s genetic makeup turned out to be mostly Eastern European, with a big concentration in Poland and the various Slavic countries. The mystery about his paternal grandfather persists, though we’re both enjoying trying to figure out the story more. Q’s DNA opened up another big can of worms though because his maternal grandfather had a Portuguese last name and while born in the United States, had parents who were born in the Azores. It looks like from the quick family tree research we’ve done on that side that perhaps those great-grandparents moved to the Azores from Scotland, so we’re going to spend our winter doing a lot of that digging for Q.

The interesting findings on Q made me so curious about myself and my genetic ethnicity because so much of my family’s history was already known to me. I was fascinated by the results which I’ve copied here:

Not surprising that I have so much Italy/Greece and Iberian Peninsula with my Portuguese heritage, and not totally shocking about North Africa either. But I was completely blown away by the 36% concentration of Great Britain. These types of things just go to show how interconnected the world was even thousands of years ago when explorers and conquerors traversed the globe to create empires and discover new lands.

Have you done any of the DNA services to find out more about your ethnic DNA? I’d love to hear more about it as this type of stuff is fascinating to me as a history buff.

 

 

 

I purchased two Ancestry DNA kits on my own and was not paid by Ancestry to promote their product and services. All opinions are unsolicited and my own. 

Friday Finds September 2017

I like to think I’m an organized person who doesn’t have a lot of unnecessary clutter, so I often get a bit anxious when I look in closets, the attic, or the basement and see stuff that doesn’t get used every day. It’s definitely my personality quirk and something I oddly enjoy, so I find myself randomly decluttering a lot, often without any rhyme or reason, so I like this list of questions to keep in mind when going through the closets and piles of stuff.

Something I never thought about in regards to hurricanes- what do zoos and aquariums do? I love that image of the flamingos in the bathroom.

I love seltzer. This is a new thing within the past year or so for me, and drinking it instead of sugary juices or bottled ice teas is part of my weight loss success. This piece is a bit long and not just about seltzer drinkers, but I found it interesting, especially since I’m a New England Polar Seltzer lover ( Cranberry Lime forever).

Speaking of New England foods, chances are if you grew up there, you had a Fluffernutter Sandwich. I actually hated them, but it was a staple of my brother’s diet for many years. Side note- Fluff is amazing in Rice Krispie treats and can take fudge to next level amazing because of the crazy amount of sugar in it.

Ever since leaving grad school, I have been calling myself a “lifelong learner.” Apparently, it’s healthy and good all around to be curious and love to learn. Related: how to cultivate curiosity.

I love ballet and cannot wait to finally get to see The Nutcracker as an adult this coming December. I heard this on NPR last week and loved hearing more about the shop that makes the New York City Ballet tutus (among other costumes).

As a lover of libraries and archives, this article about the NYC Public Library archives system and archivists was delightful.

Book Review: The Way to London

Synopsis:

From the author of Secrets of Nanreath Hall comes this gripping, beautifully written historical fiction novel set during World War II—the unforgettable story of a young woman who must leave Singapore and forge a new life in England.

On the eve of Pearl Harbor, impetuous and overindulged, Lucy Stanhope, the granddaughter of an earl, is living a life of pampered luxury in Singapore until one reckless act will change her life forever.

Exiled to England to stay with an aunt she barely remembers, Lucy never dreamed that she would be one of the last people to escape Singapore before war engulfs the entire island, and that her parents would disappear in the devastating aftermath. Now grief stricken and all alone, she must cope with the realities of a grim, battle-weary England.

Then she meets Bill, a young evacuee sent to the country to escape the Blitz, and in a moment of weakness, Lucy agrees to help him find his mother in London. The unlikely runaways take off on a seemingly simple journey across the country, but her world becomes even more complicated when she is reunited with an invalided soldier she knew in Singapore.

Now Lucy will be forced to finally confront the choices she has made if she ever hopes to have the future she yearns for.

My review: 4 stars.

I really do read a lot of historical fiction from World War II it seems. It’s such a fascinating time period to me as so much happens, not just in terms of the war and its effects, but with social and cultural change, especially for women. The many creative stories of World War II do not get old for me.

The Way to London is a great traveling story where the journey is not so much about getting to a particular geographic destination as it is about the journey to learn more about the main character of Lucy and how she becomes to know who she truly is as a result. The plot moves along fairly quickly; in fact, in the first few chapters, Lucy’s character has a lot of action and happenings that are quite dramatic.

I found Lucy to be quite annoying and rude in the earlier part of the novel, which is clearly intentional by the author because as various roadblocks (both literal and metaphorical) come into the path of Lucy and her traveling companion, the orphan Bill, the reader can “see” Lucy’s slow realizations, watching her grow up emotionally and psychologically on the trip to London.

The relationship between Lucy and Bill was enjoyable and made me think a lot about the movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks where the 3 siblings are evacuated to the country during the Blitz and end up with Angela Lansbury’s character, who over the course of the movie, becomes more charmed with the children. This is a bit different in that Lucy is aiding Billy to get back to his mother in London after being evacuated himself, but he’s definitely a handful for Lucy. It’s sort of perfect that Billy is such a little devilish prankster at times because I think it helps Lucy think more deeply about her own behavior and actions.

There is a small bit of a love story with Lucy and a character named Michael, who was in the war but sent home after contracting malaria. It was a light enough bit that helped move the story along and keep it interesting, but I disliked how part of Lucy’s awakening and becoming a better person was related to her wanting to measure up to the standards of Michael and wanting to impress him.

Overall, I definitely recommend if you’re looking for a quick read and enjoy the genre of World War II historical fiction with a strong female lead.

Buy the book!


As part of the TLC Book Tour for this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Seasonal Shifts

Despite the out of the ordinary high temps in my neck of the woods the past few days, my favorite season is upon us! Autumn brings gorgeous weather to still enjoy outdoor activities like apple picking and corn mazes, and just enough coolness at night to break out the fuzzy slippers and blankets without being cold all the time.

Not only am I looking forward to the various happenings of this season, but also happy to put the summer behind me. Don’t get me wrong- the weather was just my speed ( not too hot and humid and a few rainy days) and I did many things that I wanted to for the season (berry picking, beach, meals and/or drinks outside, small trips). But it was a summer of sadness, frustration, and unsettled feelings. The unexpected death of Q’s brother in law at the beginning of June really was a big whammy to the family, especially following a tumultuous spring for us that included other family deaths, the fire next door to our house, and unease about jobs. We spent more time with family this summer, which was needed for everyone, but we’re also dealing with issues with my partner’s ex-wife and Little Man. This is the hardest part of life right now, more even than my unsettled feelings about work, especially since we haven’t seen him in almost 2 months. It breaks my heart and I’m not sure if resolution is anywhere on the horizon.

To welcome in the new season and to try to be positive and move forward, we’re going away for the long weekend in October to try to break up the routine, hoping a change in scenery and some time away from home will give us an energy boost. Little Man turns 9 at the end of October, and I pray we’ll be able to celebrate that with him. Q and I are hosting Thanksgiving for the first time with both of our families and while I know it’s going to be a bit crazy, I’m pretty excited for it too.

Wishing you an autumn filled with lots of apples and pumpkins!

Book Review: Cassidy Lane

A few months back I reviewed Maria Murnane’s novels Wait for the Rain  and Bridges, both of which I enjoyed, so when the author got in touch about reading another one of her titles, I jumped at the chance.

Here’s the book synopsis:

Best-selling author Cassidy Lane walks into her 20thhigh school reunion with several novels under her belt, but no date on her arm, and deep down she still feels like the smart girl no one asked to the prom.

Then handsome Brandon Forrester confesses his teenage crush, and soon Cassidy finds herself swept up in a modern-day fairytale romance not unlike the tales she spins for a living. While their relationship blossoms, however, the new book she’s writing isn’t going as well, and for the first time in her career she considers crafting an ending that doesn’t end with a proverbial walk into the sunset. Contemplating the simultaneous reversal of her own romantic fortune and that of her protagonist’s is daunting, but maybe it’s time for both her writing and her personal life to take a new path. Or is it?

My review: 4 stars.

If a book and its characters stay with you after you’ve turned the final page, I count that as a great reading experience. This book was the perfect, feel-good read for a weekend after a few personally stressful weeks.

While I wanted more love story and interaction between the main character Cassidy and her love interest Brandon, the book was an enjoyable read. I especially enjoyed the honest, realistic view not just of romance and dating in this modern age, but also that the book didn’t have the stereotypical happy ending. I think with many books where there is a love story of some sort that it can often be the easy way out in terms of story resolution to just make the two love interests get together, putting aside any issues or differences that made up the main plot of a novel. Murnane doesn’t fall into that trap and knows her readers are smarter than that.

Speaking of realistic depictions of life, there is a great scene towards the end of the book between Cassidy, her best friend Patti, and Patti’s friend Amy, where they are discussing the realities of love and marriage, expectations, and so on. I laughed out loud at a particular line that Patti says about how no one talks about the realities of marriage when someone has had an enormous burrito for dinner. Of course, Q didn’t think it was as funny when I told him why I was laughing.  Humor aside, that whole interaction between the three ladies was one of the most memorable and insightful ones in the entire novel, especially this quote which resonates so much with where I am in life right now:

” No one has everything. I know it hurts right now, and I’m not discounting your feelings. But when you look at the whole picture, romance is just one part of life. It may not be clicking the way you want it to right now, but don’t forget to appreciate the things that are clicking, because they’re just as important.”

Wise words that I needed to hear ( though in my case, it’s the romance that is clicking and the other part of life that are out of sync!)

Overall, I’d definitely recommend Murnane’s books and hope to read some of her other titles in the future, as she has a great combination of humor and heart.

At a Career Crossroads

I cannot remember when I decided that I wanted to work in a museum, but it was likely sometime in college. I have loved history for as long as I can remember, and in high school was inspired by Ken Burns’ PBS work. There must have been a moment when I thought I’d like to work in a museum because the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, I interned at a museum site, getting paid peanuts ( I think it was $750 for the entire summer). I had more projects in the field during college and landing a grant-funded full time job that started the Monday after I graduated from college. (P.S. if you’re youngish and reading this, do not do this. You will work your whole life, so you can take a week or two off before starting a full time job!) I went right from undergrad to graduate school to get my Master’s in order to have a decent career in the museum world. All combined, I’ve been doing this work for 14 years.

And I’m thinking my run might be up.

Maybe it is burnout or that it’s just time for a change. Both are likely true. Next week marks 9 years at one place, which is unbelievable to me since when I was hired, I thought this was a 3-5 year job. Sure, life has thrown its fair share of curve balls my way and the job has changed a lot from when I first started. And my place of employment is at a huge transition point too, which isn’t feeling as exciting as I think it probably could be to me if I felt like this is where I need to be or if  the work felt challenging like it did before.

I cannot even remember all the museum jobs I’ve applied for, phone/Skype/in-person interviewed at, and mostly felt disappointed about in some way over the past 2 years. With the exception of a few that would have been exciting only because they would have involved a big move, I knew pretty quickly that I didn’t want the jobs. That lack of interest, dedication, and enthusiasm was likely clear to the people interviewing me too.

A few times I’ve started down the road of “doing the work” to figure out what could be next and I actually settled on the idea of writing full-time. I spent a good portion of the past few years trying to build a client base and writing interesting things in various places. But what I found about myself is that while writing for other people comes easily, I don’t have the “hustle” aspect required to make a freelance career to bring in the money I need. While I have the discipline to get the work done, I don’t have the drive for networking, selling myself/products, or pushing for that “next big thing.” I love to write and found that writing for other people was leaving me with almost no creative fuel to write for myself, either in my journal, here, or on my short story and novel ideas.

People who navigate a career change/pivot/reworking inspire me, but also make me feel overwhelmed with possibility, doubt, and fear. There are days I don’t even know where to start even in terms of job searching sites since I’ve spent my entire working career in such a niche field that there are specialized job boards for it.

Stories like these women who go from running art galleries to running restaurants are amazing, but my pragmatic brain stops me from applying these possibilities to my life every single time. I know so much of what I don’t want to do ( not interested in going back to school), but am paralyzed with possibility for what I could do. I’m not in a financial situation where I could take some time off from work minus a week or so to contemplate what could be next. I’m often mentally and emotionally drained after my day job that even finding my 5 things to be grateful for each night seems like a chore.

I don’t want you to think I’m in this dismal place, but I am at a moment where I’m trying to decide what’s best for me and how I want the rest of my life to look. I’m blessed with an abundance of possibility, which is also what is paralyzing me. I have a partner who is pretty much willing to follow me wherever I want– in fact, in our 4.5 years together, we’ve already contemplated a few big moves together, and with only one or two exceptions, he’s been game for whatever. I also know that I’m lucky to have the ability to dream big and take my time figuring things out because I am employed and educated, giving me more advantages than a lot of other people.

So what’s next? Who knows. I really am trying to explore possibilities- I’m reading A LOT about other types of jobs and things people do, and looking at what brings me joy outside of work that might equate into a real job. I’m not really giving myself a firm timeline, though we have a time frame in mind for selling the house, but that’s more based on the mortgage rate than anything else.

The signs are all there– more and more things showing up in social media about making the leap, following your heart, etc. The desire is there on my part and my partner. I’m putting the intention out there to the universe, with my mind set on a goal that isn’t quite formed yet.

August in Review, September Preview

The two things I’m most proud of from August:

  • Setting some more work boundaries
  • Work night routine mashup- some nights we did chores around house, others we watched movies, or I went for walks. But we didn’t just sit around like blobs!

The two things I’m most grateful for from August:

  • A few long weekends that were much needed
  • Martha’s Vineyard

The lesson I learned and am carrying forward with me from August: I am my own worst critic and don’t give myself enough credit for a lot of things

My intention for September: Be honest and intentional in work, life, and self

One thing I aim to do everyday in September is: practice gratitude and prayer

Because I am brave, here are 2 new things I will do in September:

  • Every month I’ve said it, but this month it will happen- send out 2 short stories
  • Apply for jobs outside my comfort zone/current field

The one book I definitely want to read in September is: 4th Harry Potter!

Something I want to experiment with in September is: no clothes shopping. I’ve done it before, but then as I lost weight, I had to buy wardrobe staples. This summer I’ve taken advantage of far too many sales for no reason other than online shopping is often my boredom fighter!

Just for fun, I will: go apple picking.

As an act of intentional kindness, I will: make donations to Hurricane Harvey relief.

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