Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes
I’m not a runner, so why would I pick up a book titled Ultramarathon Man? I had recently seen the documentary of the same name about Dean Karnaze’s quest to run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, and his family’s support of this challenge. I was curious about what makes Dean run and how he does it. The book takes place much earlier than the documentary, and talks about why someone might attempt endurance running. Dean had a happy upbringing until his sister died at 18. He ran one year of cross-country in high school, then stopped running when his coach left. He had a wife and a busy job at a corporation in San Francisco. Then he turned 30. After his birthday party, he literally started running all night. Running is clearly a stress reliever for Dean, and he likes the solitude. But it’s also a huge challenge and isn’t always fun, even for him. He decides to see how far he can run, and participates in a 50 mile race, in preparation for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Along the way his wife Julie becomes a dentist, and they have two children. His family, including his Greek-American parents, are very supportive, and act as support crew on his races. He shares the agonies of long-distance running with the readers, the blisters and cramps, thirst, dizziness and more. A more entertaining part is how he fuels his runs, including getting pizza and cheesecake delivered to him along an empty highway, and eating them on the run. He runs for charity, but also to make his life more meaningful and fulfilled. He feels most alive when he runs, especially at night, continuing to work during the day. I still don’t know how he does it, although I have learned that ultramarathons (any race longer than 26.2 miles) have become increasingly popular and even runners in their 60s compete. The book really kept my interest and I wanted to find out what Dean would attempt next. How about running a marathon to the South Pole? Affirmative. For more about Dean and endurance running, visit his website.
On the Noodle Road: from Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu
Chinese American food writer Jen Lin-Liu, founder of a cooking school in Beijing, is looking for her next project. She decides to travel the Silk Road from China to Europe, eating noodles, meeting chefs, and researching the origins of pasta. No, Marco Polo didn’t bring pasta to Italy from China, but both countries have similar noodle dishes. Jen has recently married American writer Craig, and isn’t sure how her desire to travel will affect their marriage, and where they will settle down to live as a couple. Traveling to western China, she asks two chefs from the cooking school to accompany her, and they eat and cook their way west. On the rest of her journey, sometimes her husband accompanies her, and for a while his parents, but the rest of the time she travels alone. Her journey includes Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. She meets hospitable people almost everywhere, and enjoys many home-cooked meals and access to restaurant chefs and kitchens. A variety of regional foods are vividly described, and a number of recipes are included. While the spices and meats change, many of the dishes are quite similar. Unexpectedly, rice and flat breads replace noodles for a good part of the trip.
As much a memoir as culinary travel narrative, Jen is curious about the role of women in the different countries she visits, and how they mix work, marriage, and raising a family. She learns that even seemingly modern men expect their wives to be very traditional, and that mother-in-laws rule in Central Asia. There is a funny scene when Jen doesn’t take her Western mother-in-law’s good advice, and is sorry the next day. In Iran, Jen and Craig feel uneasy, partly because they are required to have a government sponsored tour guide. After reaching Istanbul, they fly home to Beijing for the winter. Jen returns in the spring to visit Turkey, Greece, and Italy, where Craig joins her for the end of the journey. No questions about the origins of pasta are resolved, but many excellent meals are enjoyed along the way.
Approaching 70, author/journalist Philip Caputo decides it’s time to realize a dream; to drive from Key West, Florida to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. He reads up on the history and literature of the places he might visit, rents a vintage Airstream trailer, and finally asks his wife Leslie if she can join him on the trip and help take care of their two dogs. Leslie, a magazine editor, had already figured out a plan to work part-time while on the road.
They try to avoid expressways, but sometimes use them. Traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway, they are amazed by its beauty and lack of commercial development. A highlight is traveling the Lewis and Clark trail. Along the way, Caputo interviews 80 Americans, asking them what unites or divides us as a country. Their answers are varied, and thought-provoking. They visit small towns, national parks, reservations, historical monuments, and sample lots of regional food specialties. Traveling and camping with a small trailer and two dogs isn’t always easy, but it’s often funny, such as when Leslie meets “Mothra”, a huge moth, in a campground shower.
While I enjoyed reading about the road trip, it was the historical background Caputo shares with the reader that made the biggest impression on me, from learning about the Lewis & Clark expedition, the Nebraska setting for Willa Cather’s books, researching a soldier at the Battle of Little Bighorn, information about the national parks, and more. The small towns in decline were quite a contrast to communities like Grand Island, Nebraska, a multicultural melting pot with immigrants from many parts of the world recruited for factory jobs. References to other travel writers and memories of growing up in Chicago and Westchester round out the book. I think both history buffs and armchair travelers would find The Longest Road well worth reading, as well as anyone interested in reading about what other Americans think about our country today. Read more about the book and watch a book trailer on the author’s website.
The Tao of Martha, by Jen Lancaster
Jen, a Chicago area writer, closes out a very bad year by deciding to tackle her house, garden, and life with tips from Martha Stewart. She figures that if Martha can bounce back from adversity, the practical advice in her books and magazines should help Jen. For his New Year’s resolution, her laid-back husband Fletch resolves to grow a beard. Jen is funny, tends to take on more than she can handle, swears a lot, and is devoted to her dogs, especially Maisy, who has major health issues. Guests arriving for a party are likely to be handed a recipe card and directed to the kitchen. Thinking like Martha helps Jen clear out her kitchen’s “Drawer of Shame”, organize and decorate her house, learn about gardening, throw some great parties, become an obsessive disaster prepper, and get her priorities straight when life throws her a curve, such as forgetting that Thanksgiving was just around the corner. Jen finds that while learning new crafts can be rewarding, if you’re not having fun, it’s not for you. For example, pumpkin carving is tough and messy, but decorating pumpkins and gourds with glitter is a breeze. And if you’re going to stop wasting food and cook more, you might as well learn to make comfort foods that are expensive to buy, such as cheesecake. I enjoyed this entertaining and insightful memoir of the year Jen chose organization and happiness.
A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford
Does the title have you picturing Julie Andrews, the singing nanny in The Sound of Music? Try listening to the audiobook; the narrator sounds like her. Brenda Ashford, age 92, looks back at her happy childhood, her very long career as a British nanny, and her training at the famed Norland Institute, whose motto is “love never faileth” and which banned spanking. Brenda learned to love babies when her little brother David was born. Not as quick at book learning as her sister Kathleen, who became a midwife, Brenda was thrilled to be admitted to the Norland Institute in 1939. From learning nursery management, cooking, laundry, storytelling, sewing, and working in a hospital’s children’s ward, the teen received a thorough education. Then war disrupted life, with the students taking care of children evacuated from London’s East End and living on a country estate. All of her evaluations are included, along with tidbits of nanny’s wisdom, a daily schedule at each job, and several recipes for “puddings”. Her first several families are described, with the focus on the day and night nurseries and the children. Her heart is broken along the way, she learns to manage an early daycare, called a war nursery, and to care for and cuddle many, many babies. Her work schedule sounds exhausting, with very little time off. Her relief when electric irons become available is evident. Eventually she finds a family to belong to, and later even cares for their grandbabies when she’s 80! A charming read for Anglophiles.
Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail by Suzanne Roberts
Did you enjoy reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed? Then Almost Somewhere is the perfect readalike, about young women hiking in the wilderness. In 1993, Suzanne, Erika, and Dionne finish college and decide to spend a month hiking the John Muir trail from Mount Whitney to Yosemite. Erika is in charge, Suzanne is the slightly clutzy dreamer, and Dionne has never been backpacking before (a secret from Erika). Like Cheryl Strayed, Suzanne has an oversize backpack, but spends much less time writing about blisters or the contents of her pack, just worrying about her swollen knee and Dionne’s eating disorder. The women hike with two guys for the first part of the trip, including a stranger who Suzanne finds disturbing, and there’s concern that their food supply will run short. It’s not until the women start hiking as a threesome that they work as a team rather than competing with each other for attention from the guys. They have interactions with bears, other hikers and campers, and struggle to finish the hike through some stunning wilderness scenery and nine mountain passes. For more about the journey, visit the author’s website.
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, With Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
Elizabeth is an American journalist living in England when she meets Gwendal at a conference. His hippy parents live in Brittany, but he’s a Ph.D. student living in a tiny studio apartment in Paris. The pair fall in love, Elizabeth moves to Paris, and feels like a fish out of water. The food is delicious, but the language barrier and culture differences make for a rough and lonely transition. Elizabeth is frustrated at the red tape that makes it difficult for her to work, learns that in Paris the customer is not always right and struggles as a freelance writer, while Gwendal is completely unambitious, although he’s the one who ends up visiting Hollywood. The meeting of Elizabeth’s Jewish mother and Gwendal’s mother is a great scene, and Elizabeth describes the people, settings, and food vividly. Eventually Elizabeth realizes that she can cook and write about food and life in France as a career and finally settles in, but not without losing a new family member. Many memorable meals are described, with recipes. Visit her blog for photos and more recipes. She comments that her husband hasn’t eaten hot food in three years because she’s always taking photos before serving meals. This book was published in 2010, but I missed hearing about it then; I’m happy my sister recently suggested that I read Lunch in Paris.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Wild describes the real life journey of one woman on a 1,100 mile solitary hike through California, Oregon, and Washington in the ’90s. After her mother dies suddenly from cancer, twenty-two year old Cheryl Strayed’s (a name the author fittingly chooses for herself) life falls apart. Her once tight-knit family soon scatters away from her, she continually cheats on her seemingly “perfect” husband time and again, and after her marriage dissolves, she jumps into a toxic relationship that results in a dangerous heroin habit. Thus, four years later and with nothing left to lose, Strayed decides to hike the massive Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on her own, despite her utter lack of preparedness (or a proper fitting pair of boots). Strayed weaves her past with her present as she tackles the trail, meets eccentric and amiable characters along the way, and not so amiable characters in rattlesnakes, bears, and other critters. Strayed tells her story with brutal honesty, never sugarcoating her own shortcomings and mistakes, as well as with a skilled storyteller’s voice. You will find yourself rooting for Strayed as she hitchhikes to and from the PCT, small towns and remote campsites, constantly struggling to get by on $20 or less at a time. But most of all, you will root for Strayed to find in the PCT what it is she needs to move on with her life. Wild is an Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection.
Candyfreak by Steve Almond
I like the subtitle of Steve Almond’s book: a journey through the chocolate underbelly of America. Even though Steve doesn’t like coconut, you can guess what his nickname was as a kid, which is clear in the name of his website: www.stevealmondjoy.com. He would like readers to know a few important facts about himself, especially that he has “eaten a piece of candy every single day of his entire life.” He has a high metabolism and isn’t overweight, but spent much of the 1970s at the dentist having cavities filled. He thinks about candy a lot, and has an awesome stash of candy.
Steve wasn’t very happy as a boy or a teen, so he ate lots of candy. Halloween was definitely his favorite day of the year. A journalist looking for his next writing project, Steve wondered what happened to some of the candy bars he enjoyed as a kid that were no longer available. He explores the twentieth century history of candy in America by visiting several family owned candy factories, and meeting other candyfreaks like himself. His writing is both funny and sad, and most of all delicious. His descriptions of how candy is made and how he would go into a trance watching it are well worth reading, especially if you remember spending your allowance on candy and comics. Readers of Candyfreak will be happy to know that since the book was published in 2004, Steve has gotten married and now has two young children. He’s still writing, and undoubtedly, still eating lots of candy.
Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin takes another look at happiness, after her 2009 book, The Happiness Project. When her younger daughter starts kindergarten, Gretchen decides to take the next nine months to focus on happiness within the home and family. She describes herself quite frankly: how she’s trying to use her “mean face” less often to her family, how a perfect day is one spent at home, that she doesn’t like to make phone calls, and dreads driving (not so surprising as she lives in New York City). Older daughter Eliza and Gretchen go on Wednesday afternoon adventures together, often to museums. Gretchen collaborates on a children’s book project with her sister, finally deals with the backlog of family photos, and asks her family to knock on her office door so she can greet them more pleasantly.
I like her suggestions to keep clearing clutter, focus on your family’s happiness, be yourself, and how spending fifteen minutes a day on something you’d rather put off can actually make you happier. I enjoyed her explorations of good scents, having a miniature landscape created for the family, and how she practiced under-reacting to problems. She decided to celebrate minor holidays with festive breakfasts, and make the family happier by emailing anecdotes and cute pictures of the girls, including young Eleanor’s first loose tooth. I suggest starting with her first book, The Happiness Project, but I enjoyed another visit with Gretchen and more ideas to make home a happy, peaceful place. Read more at the author’s website.