Books of 2011


A view of some of the fabric I bought in Malawi, along with a collection of book reviews

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski — three out of five bananas

This is a book I have given as a gift several times, after having read the reviews. However, when I got around to reading it myself, it fell flat. Perhaps my expectations were too high? I remember when this novel was published, it was revered. So many raved about the author’s first novel. In truth, it is an interesting story. I’ve never read about a mute character before. However, it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the other fiction I’ve recently devoured.

Room by Emma Donoghue — five out of five bananas

This story is told from the perspective of a five year old boy — Jack. Jack’s mother gave birth to him in “room,” where she’s been kept captive for years. Jack is the product of her abuse. Jack’s perspective is one so unique and tender. His mother has gone to may creative lengths to keep his childhood — as limited as it is — special and important. I truly loved this story.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot — five out of five bananas

This nonfiction tale of the HeLa cells, taken without knowledge from an African American woman in the 1950s who was being treated for cervical cancer, is one all public and social workers in the United States should read. It shows how abuse of power and policy left a community distrustful of medicine for decades. It also shows how racism and classism are ever evolving and makes the reader question their own belief structures. It is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read and my admiration is sincere for Rebecca Skloot — who spent much of her life to date researching and writing this tale. A very, very important and smart read.

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon — two out of five bananas

Blah. Blah blah blah blah BLAH. I know as an author I cried when I read reviews like this and promised I wouldn’t ever write them again. I lied. Knowing this book on horse racing won the National Book Prize for 2010 makes me think my taste in novels is horrible because I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. In fact, this is the first book in recent history I immediately sold back to the store. Gordon doesn’t use quotation marks, which is so distracting from the story, I didn’t finish it. There are portions where the author’s poetic voice shines — and they are wonderful. But they are too few.The characters’ voices are varied, confusing and the nonsensical punctuation makes this story unreadable.

So much for National Book Prize judges.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson — three out of five bananas

I liked it. This mystery took about 150 pages to grab me, but then I couldn’t put it down. Additionally, the last 100 pages could have been summarized in about 20. That said, I can’t wait to see the films and read the next two books in the trilogy. I like the complexity of the characters, who are both admirable and incredibly flawed. I like the foreign setting. I like the fast paced nature of the story. I liked learning so much about Nordic culture.

Simply put, it is fun book candy.

Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan — four out of five bananas

If it hadn’t been for the last chapter of this book, I would have called it one of my top ten reads in the last year. The characters are fascinating. The writing is lyrical, sorrowful, beautiful and simply perfect in places. I have never read a book constructed in this fashion and I applaud Egan’s courage and brilliance for gracefully mastering new literary waters.

The only bummer was the last chapter. So — someone else read this one quickly and let me know what you think. It is my book club selection for February and I can’t wait another 4 weeks to talk about it.

I’m currently enjoying A Supremely Bad Idea and it is hilarious, as of page 15.


Reading more this year? Yes we can.


This Week in Numbers

Good to know

One of the many creative signs I saw in Malawi, along with the “Good Riddance Coffin Company.”

17: Miles run. Five days of running, 2 days the long loop, 3 days the short loop including one day of intervals

4: Glass of wine enjoyed in the moment

4: Glasses of wine I regret because apparently this little nasty stomach bug I can’t seem to shake really doesn’t like booze. Like fighting fish, they’ve battled. The stomach bug (nay, monster) won.

1: Wagon I’m officially on

2: Books read. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Reviews pending. Both worthy of reading today, if you haven’t.

$274: Dollars spent at Costco on items that apparently I needed in bulk. Sports bras, grape tomatoes, protein powder, and a new radio. I went to Costco my first day home and wandered in shock. It doesn’t take much time outside of the States to forget the sheer mass of consumerism that drives our culture. And, nearly $300 lighter, apparently I’m not immune. I am, however, well fed. And supported.

12: Miles biked. I am newly in love with Olive after listening to Finny go on about her whirlwind romance with Tulip. Hey, I’m living the weirdo dream too. We are weirdos together. We always have been.

1 (again): Netflix account canceled. Fewer movies. More books. One of my 2011 mantras.

8: fruit trees added to the community garden

12: chocolate cupcakes & 2: loaves of banana oatmeal almond cranberry bread baked. 0 consumed.

172: pounds. A few down since I puffed up my chest with “30 pound weight loss!” bravado. But not nearly enough to make me happy. And so, the week in numbers plods on, my resolve and discipline growing so my pants don’t.


Like the zoo. Without cages. Or popcorn.


I took these photos! Which just goes to show you, even a complete fool with a good camera and far too much courage can get some fun shots traveling Africa.


Lone dude


Baby Giraffe





Hello, gorgeous

Big boy

Giraffe are not native to Malawi. They were imported to one of the parks I visited. They are the most majestic animals I’ve ever been near. The zebra were skittish, but curious too. The hippo were like fat mobsters just waiting for me to make one rude comment about their Italian grandmothers so they could storm the beach and have a snack. The wildebeest, cape buffalo, warthogs and monkeys all looked at the camera with complete boredom. I was interrupting their spring feast and they couldn’t be bothered.

But the elephants! Well, the elephants were huge and terrifying. Their size and power is something you cannot imagine until you are within sight. The elephant I photographed is a teenage male in musk. Testosterone is pouring out of the glands on his face. The poor thing desperately needed some loving. (His “fifth leg” was abundantly clear, as Matt so eloquently put it.) Typically when male elephants have this surge of hormone, they return to the herd to make babies. But for whatever reason, this teenager was babysitting several young ellies. I could only imagine a pimply faced kid, sulking at a park watching his younger brothers.

The night we spent in tents at Majete National Park was particularly noisy when this angry teen came trumpeting through the camp. They say elephants trumpet. Really, it sounded like he was snorting, crying and screaming for relief. The rest of the jungle fell immediately silent.

I truly wish I’d studied forestry and was working as a ranger in Africa. To be in that setting daily would be a dream.


Even their butts are perfect! God, I love Africa.


Garden Glory

It’s the craziest thing, being tucked in to bed in my tiny home in the middle of a 3 million person city. The silence is making me sad. In contrast to the chorus of tree frogs that sang me to sleep each night and the staccato of bird song to which I woke to each morning — I’m so surprised how very quiet this American life of mine is.

Garage tree

This tree shaded my bedroom windows. It is the perfect tree — large limbs reaching toward the sky in a dozen directions, home to a handful of bird nests.

I miss this tree. And the giant hardwoods down by the river. And the flamboyant trees in full fiery orange glow. And even the dumb, non-native eucalyptus trees that line the roads on the tea estates.

I’m in a bit of a post-vacation funk, one that can only be described as self-absorbed and pathetic. All the same, I’m looking at my holiday photos with such desire to return! Take more! Feel that African sun warm my face and the rain cool my flip flopped toes. Alas, this is as close as we are coming today to those glorious gardens, where I spent days reading, day dreaming and watching the butterflies and dragonflies compete in one triumphant pageant of biology.

Garden glory

Garden Glory

Garden Glory

Garden Glory

Garden Glory

Garden Glory

Garden Glory

Garden Glory

Garden Glory

Garden Glory

Garden Glory



I spent an afternoon walking the Limbe Golf Course in Blantyre with the Pink Golfer last week.

On lookers

I love the caddies looking on from the club house in this shot. Everyone knows Matt. He’s likely the only boy from Blantyre playing professional golf in the States.


His caddy Lucky — in the background — walked the course barefoot while he carried Matt’s bag. Lucky was a trouper, to say the least. He made US$15 in kwacha that day. Considering the daily minimum wage in Malawi is US$1, it was quite the day. That said, carrying Matt’s bag for 18 holes of golf in humid, sticky Blantyre would be torture for most. Lucky took it all in stride and smiled with a wide grin full of bright white teeth. He was a good guy but quickly tired from also burdening my constant questions. He soon figured out the best way to shake me was to stay ahead. By the 16th hole, I’d given up on his life story and was clanking the ice in my gin and tonic back in the club house.

(What? I’m not a groupie. I was there for the walk. And I was sweaty. And gin and tonic helps prevent malaria.)

Nice Up keep

The course maintenance left quite a bit to be desired. Granted, the rainy season in any tropical country must cause havoc on golf courses. Unlike the course in Mozambique I’ve seen, the groundskeepers here had lawn mowers. In Beira, they use shears.

With unemployment rates in the 80-90% range, someone is willing to cut a golf course by hand. Can you imagine? FOR ONE DOLLAR A DAY?

Next time my latte is served cold, someone cuts me off in traffic or forgets to send a thank you card — I’m going to remember this. Oh selfish self, your life is so damn charmed. Don’t let the tedium of the first world ever make you think your life is anything less than fortunate. The day you pick up a pair of scissors and set off to cut six miles worth of Bermuda by hand for the grand reward of $1, you may cry a little pitiful tear for your existence. Until then, please keep the complaints to a minimum.


Probably. Ha! Dear Carlsberg, you need a new marketing team — for certain.

Gin + Tonic

You’re welcome.



+ Arrivals

A few photos from my African holiday; more details to come when both my head and body are back on Arizona time.



Sitting in front of the departure board at Heathrow is one of my favorite moments in international travel. I imagine what I’d do if I were arriving in those cities — what I’d see, where I’d go, who I’d meet, what I’d learn and what I’d eat.


Beaded Nelson Mandela

Since my last trip through South Africa, the World Cup has come and gone. The improvements to the airport are phenomenal — including one gigantic beaded Nelson Mandela. Who doesn’t need a handicraft world leader?




My new happy place: Lake Malawi.

Spear fisherman


Becky + Shaun

Becks + Matty’s brother, Shaun.


Old + new friends. British Becky and I could be “besties” if we lived in the same city — or continent. I really enjoyed spending time with a diverse new group of folks on this trip.



There have been many, many days traveling when I wish my family was by my side to share in something spectacular. However, nothing to date has ever made me as family-sick as this weekend’s safari to the Majete and Nyala Parks in Malawi. My mom would have been over the moon for the cadre of babies on display. My dad and brother wouldn’t have been able to sit still with the countless animals in sight. Baboon, nyala, ellies, giraffe, hippo, zebra, buffalo, wildebeasts — the parks were teaming with spring bounty.

A sneak peek until I can get home, process these photos and post with a high speed connection.

Baby Girafa!


Ellies (+ baby ellies)

Best safaris yet, by far. Nothing beats seeing baby elephant, zebra and giraffe in the wild. What a blessed trip!



We are preparing to go on safari for the next couple of days, and I don’t have time to write much. But oh goodness, the stories I have to tell from this crazy week! A preview:

Limbe Country Club

Jack fruit

Breakfast fruit

garden creatures

Tea fields

I see Africa

Golfing with the boys at the Limbe Country Club (including Lucky, the barefoot caddy) :: jackfruit + jungle walks :: mulberries + stocking a Malawian pantry :: snails + nannying :: tea fields :: africa! or gum tree bark. Your choice.

Not photographed: the incident of the rabid dog in the night (aka, the time Matt screamed for guns + ran into the darkness with a loaded shotgun), lightning bug drive, the incident of the wild animal sneaking in the kitchen window, the British tea girls visit, the gorgeous Indian doctor, and Isidingo!


Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

The boys

Blue Lagoon



I’ve been swimming here, almost every day. We go for a long walk on the estate, up through the gum trees, through the hills of pine that will be felled to fill the burners to dry the tea, and over the river until we find a calm pool. Yesterday, we walked for more than an hour, eventually making our own path down to the river. One footstep at a time, we wiggled across a large tree — a natural bridge that reminded me of  that scene in Dirty Dancing — until we reached the center of the river where the tree arched upward and we were left to swing our legs below to find tips of rocks to make our way across. By the time we got to the other side, my heart was pounding and my arms were tired from hauling myself (and the weenie dog Chappie) up and over the logs and rocks.

But the water, oh — the water. It is crystal clear and ice cold. It rushes past peacefully in the pools and is such a relief after a long, hot sweaty hike. It is just such a peaceful new routine. This morning I hope to add yoga to the mix when we return. A bit of stretching on the lawn will keep the gardener entertained, and we’ll more than likely have an audience of vervet monkeys too.

When I’m not napping or swimming or day dreaming, I’ve been writing. I’m working on my second novel and slowly, it is plodding forward. There was so much to learn from publishing the first novel. My writing is stronger and my characters are more defined. I’m being more thoughtful of the plot and how I want the story to develop. Like “Under the Same Moon,” I have a beginning and an ending. The trick is not to let too many side characters take over the show in the middle. Focusing on developing three characters and making sure each page I’ve written somehow advances their stories is my mission.

After about three hours of this, I fall over dead tired. My body is on vacation. My brain is at boot camp.

I recognize how very fortunate I am to have the chance to take nearly a month off to write, much less doing so in such a lovely environment. This is a charmed life!