Tuesday Book Club: 2016 Update

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It’s been a big year of reading for me! I don’t know exactly what got me so in the spirit, but I feel like I’ve been on a roll, moving from one book to the next and feeling inspired by recommendations, bookshop browsing, and buying on a whim.

I’d like to read 50 books this year and my current track record suggests I just might make that goal. Below is a list of what I’ve read so far this year, and I’ve starred the books I’d highly recommend.

  1. Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford
  2. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
  3. How to be Both by Ali Smith
  4. Levels of Life by Julian Barnes
  5. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  6. It Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell*
  7. 10% Happier by Dan Harris
  8. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara*
  9. Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
  10. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
  11. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter*
  12. Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger
  13. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  14. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi*
  15. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  16. The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett*
  17. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
  18. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
  19. Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff
  20. Veronica by Mary Gaitskill
  21. The Psychopathy Test by Jon Ronson
  22. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Started but didn’t finish or read entirely: Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith and Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins.

A Little Life has been the real stunner this year–this book blew me away. So did When Breath Becomes Air, for that matter. I think this book is so important and the discussions that can come out of it are necessary and meaningful. The Versions of Us was such a quick read for me, so compelling. It’s very Sliding Doors-esque and would make for a great beach read.

For as much as I loved Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s follow-up novel, A God in Ruins, felt like such a disappointment. And I completely give up on Salinger. I just won’t do it anymore; life’s too short! And the two I didn’t finish: simply not what I was looking for, and I’m trying a new-to-me concept wherein I put down books I don’t like instead of muscling through them just to say I finished them. That’s not quality reading (at least not to me at this point).

I’m currently reading The Best American Travel Writing 2015 and I love how it’s opening my eyes to new forms of traveling and the documenting of such. It’s a great nightstand read. I’ve got a fresh stack of books sitting on the coffee table and I’m looking forward to making my way through it this summer. What about you? What are you reading? Anything you’d recommend?

A Boat Ride on Thunersee

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Last week I was joking with a friend who lives in LA that we finally reached 70 degrees and people were freaking out. It’s funny because it’s true. Friday through Sunday were blissfully perfect: 72 degrees and sunny. I think we all know by now how fleeting the beautiful weather can be in spring (the foreseeable forecast predicts rain every day for the next ten days and temperatures in the 50s) so we had better enjoy it while we can.

Adam and I have been talking for quite a while about taking a boat ride on the Lake Thun [“Thunersee” in German (pronounced TUNE-er-say). There are lots of different offers, from a Sunday morning brunch cruise to a Friday night fajita fest, but we went for the standard cruise from Thun to Interlaken, a two-hour ride. With a half-fare card the total is CHF 21.50 and if you get in line early enough on these especially lovely days you can snag a table and bring a picnic as long as you sit outside. (You can also reserve a table inside in advance, but you can’t bring your own food or drink.) We packed up bread, meat, cheese, fruit, Cheez-Its (!), and some cold drinks and met our friends Paige, Bryce, and Phil for the ride.

Before that, however, we stopped to walk around Thun, a very quaint city on the edge of the lake. Before moving here 6 years ago, I imagined this is what the scenery would be like: a modern mountain town on a lake, surrounded by snowy peaks.

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Thun is only 20 minutes away by train and it’s almost silly that we don’t come here more often. The old town is charming, and I’ve still never been to the castle, but I’m really interested in finding myself on the lake more often. In fact, if you were daring enough (and many, many people are), you can actually float down the Aare river starting in Thun and find yourself in Bern a few hours later. It’s a very popular summer activity and I won’t be too surprised if it finds its way onto our agenda this year.

And even if it doesn’t, I hope we’ll be back for another cruise.

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What’s a spring activity you’re looking forward to? Adam’s smoked pulled pork and we finally took our boat ride so I’m feeling pretty good so far. I’d love to get to the Rosengarten for a picnic dinner soon and fill up our flower boxes on the balcony!

So, uh, hey.

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Over the past couple weeks I have had several writing projects that kept me busy and left me so creatively drained that I convinced myself this space no longer existed. At first I felt bad about ignoring what has become an almost daily ritual to put thoughts out there, find inspiration, and simply share, but then I thought, No, just focus on the task at hand. I’m glad to report that as of Monday this round of articles is finished and I can take a little breather. Phew!

In betwixt all that writing I took lots of walking breaks when the weather permitted. It’s been pretty up and down around here and I think we all take advantage of the sunshine and steadily increasing warmth when they deign to show their faces. As my friend Sarah said, “There are lots of great things about Switzerland, but April and May are not among them.” Spring is fickle and we’re all shrugging into our (puffy) jackets long after many of us would like, but I know the really good times are just around the corner so we’ll press on.

Speaking of, I’ve been holding tight to some fun news (mostly just for me) since Christmas and now that it’s really, definitely, finally happening I feel like I can share: my sister and brother-in-law are living in Geneva this summer while my sister finishes up graduate school!! In less than two weeks they will be less than two hours from us and I am so excited it’s embarrassing. There were a few snafus along the way trying to secure a work permit and entrance visa (let’s not dive into the horridly expensive apartment search…) but it’s all worked out and this will be the Summer of Fun, I just know it. If you’ve followed along in this space for any length of time you may know how much I adore and cherish my sister and having her here for a couple months will be the greatest gift. I can’t wait for a sister squeeze.

We also have lots of visitors coming this summer and I’m eager to share Bern with them and show them around Switzerland. Forget the Summer of Fun, this will be the Summer of Kristina! I’m knocking on the compressed wood chips of my desk right now with the hopes that things keep going right around here–an especially lovely concept given how tough last year was. Adam and I are feeling incredibly grateful for the bright and sunny start of this year (wait, it’s May…that happened fast.)

So! There will be lots to document this summer! Trips and weekend fun and hugs and grilling and planting (the bare balcony is calling). I truly cannot wait.

Today is a holiday so Adam is setting up the smoker for pork shoulder and we’re having friends over for pulled pork sandwiches later today. It’s sunny and glorious outside so I’m taking off! Hope you’re well and I’m wishing you–well in advance–a fantastic summer ahead.

Roasted Chicken and Monday (?!) Links

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This weekend I tried a one-pan dish in the name of less: less mess and less work for the dishwasher (ahem, Adam). Chicken thighs and drumsticks (bone in and skin on!) and sliced potatoes are marinated in cumin and harissa for several hours before being roasted on one big sheet pan. Halfway through cooking, top with sliced leeks that have the slightest hint of lemon zest and olive oil. Plate it all atop a bed of fresh spinach (my own interpretation–I don’t like arugula, which the recipe calls for) and drizzle with a yogurt-dill sauce. Saturday night just got a little sexier.

You can find the details for the recipe here and I’d highly encourage you to give it a try one busy weeknight, or on the weekend when you have a little more time for a chilled glass of white wine and a playlist.

How was your weekend? Besides making this delicious dinner, we bummed around Bern with friends on Saturday and stayed crazy lazy yesterday during an all-day rain fest. We watched Brooklyn (I cried, obviously), read books, and Adam made homemade tagliatelle last night for dinner. Success! I have to say, as much as I like these homebody weekends, I am looking forward to better weather and the chance to get out an explore more. We’re trying to plan a fun little excursion in May–any ideas?

I’ve had a file of links on my desktop for three weeks now so let’s go ahead and clear that out. Below are a few items of note that somewhat recently caught my eye.

This song will wake up your Monday.

I never tire of Tina Fey interviews.

A revised edition of 36 hours in Zurich.

An unlikely survivor of the New York City Macy’s renovation. (Thanks, Matt!)

What exactly is turbulence? Surprisingly, learning this really relaxed me, as I tend to be a nervous flier.

Unicorns existed! (spoiler: they looked insane)

The Times are heavily featured in this week’s round-up, so if you read just one article make it this primer on climate change. It’s informative without being sensational and makes a great case for the urgency of the situation.

This guide to email sign-offs made me laugh out loud. I will forever sign off with “All the best”

New bikini!

How to style like a Swede.

Trying the Pomodoro Technique to help me get through writing a tricky article. Must. Find. Motivation.

Matty Matheson does not make diet food and I love him for it. Watching him cook anything (in this instance, steak and potatoes) is a treat. warning: ample profanity : )

I hope you all have a great week!

Sunday Snaps

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Yesterday was the perrrfect day. It was sunny and just warm enough to shed layers on a long afternoon walk with the rest of Bern. The city is fragrant and alive–this time of year is gorgeous.

We had a very slow weekend, which was lovely: biscuits and gravy for brunch on the balcony; movie night; friends over for chicken enchiladas (a good excuse to break out the salsa we’ve been saving since we brought it back from the US at Christmas!); long walks outside along the river. I love spring! But I think I love summer even more. Bring on the warmer temperatures and picnics in the rose garden!

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Today Adam and I are celebrating our meetiversary! Six years ago we met on a blind date at an Italian restaurant in Zurich. We walked along the lake and traded travel stories and I pretended not to be impressed by the very handsome, very tall man I was on a date with. We hugged goodbye with plans to see each other again soon and I blushed an embarrassing shade of red (that was not lost on Adam). I was toast. I knew right away that Adam was someone special, and I even commented to my sister shortly after that date that I was sure I would marry him.

Adam, it’s been the best six years. Looking forward to many, many more, my love.

In the Kitchen: Recipe Fails

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For all our enthusiasm in the kitchen, it’s important, for me anyway, to acknowledge that things go wrong. Not everything can turn out so perfectly the first time. Ideas are big and ambitious! And the execution, unfortunately, can leave a lot to be desired.

Adam has been wanting to make smash burgers for a long time and we finally set aside Saturday night to make a couple of double-decker burgers and french fries. I will say at the beginning that, and I think Adam might agree, if we could find the right fatty, marbled beef, everything would have turned out so much better. As it is, Switzerland excels at extraordinarily healthy and lean grass-fed beef. And this is great in almost all circumstances besides juicy burgers. So Adam went to the butcher and had them grind a fattier cut of beef in the hopes that we might get that fattiness you want in a smash burger.

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A quick note: the beauty of this type of burger is that it is smashed onto an extremely hot pan and mostly cooks in its own fat in a very short amount of time–usually less than two minutes. You are looking for crispy (not burnt!) edges and a cooked-through burger. It’s generously seasoned with salt and pepper but otherwise undisturbed. You’ll get great beef flavor this way.

In short, what the butcher ground was fine, but not nearly fatty enough and we ended up with simultaneously charred and undercooked burgers with very little flavor. Adam tried another round on the grill (pre-smashed super thin) and they were better, but still not at all what he wanted.

I don’t want to take a defeatist attitude but my gut (haha) tells me that smash burgers just might not happen for us here. If you’re cooking them in the US you’ll want to buy 80-20 ground chuck–a ratio that is completely unheard of here. Here’s a good recipe to try.

Still, it’s always fun to try new things in the kitchen, even if they don’t always work out how you want them to. Any flops you’ve experienced? Or, any ambitious recipes you’re hoping to try soon? Adam mentioned this morning that he’d like to give biscuits and gravy another go… I’m game!

Tuesday Book Club: When Breath Becomes Air

I first heard of Paul Kalanithi’s fatal lung cancer diagnosis through the piece he wrote for the New York Times, titled, “How Long Have I Got Left?” As a 36-year-old surgical resident, nearing the end of his residency, he wanted to know what this harrowing diagnosis meant for his career but also for his personal life. Should he continue practicing surgery? Write the book he always wanted to write? Start a family? Yet his doctor would not give him any survival statistics, much less a life sentence.

With a little help from a successful treatment, Kalanithi decided he would pursue the writing project he had always imagined, though I’m guessing his earlier dreams were not so focused on mortality and how he would face his own young death. Still, his book is magnificent. His natural inquisitiveness and desire to learn and challenge accepted wisdom is brave and admirable. His desire to dig deep into his illness and premature death is to be marveled at. I cannot imagine taking such a brave and confident stance in the face of such diagnosis and circumstance.

When Breath Becomes Air is a meditation on mortality and our relationship with death. Like Atul Gawande, Kalanithi suggests, pleas almost, that we shouldn’t allow stigma surrounding death to persist. It will happen to all of us, sooner or later, so why aren’t we talking about it more? And why are we making it so uncomfortable, prolonged, and difficult? There are arguments for better palliative care and hospice and making decisions that will allow for a better quality of life, not just quantity of life. And I must say his arguments are compelling.

Less than two years after Kalanithi received his diagnosis he died. I knew this going into the book, and still! the book felt suspenseful. His voice was so strong and clear, I kept thinking to myself (and saying to Adam), I can’t believe he’s dead. I cannot believe his wisdom was lost to us so quickly.

Lucy wrote the epilogue to his book (which was finished posthumously) and she describes his final days and hours in great detail. I sat reading with tears streaming down my cheeks, devastated by her loss. They decided to have a child while he was feeling better , and imagining him leaving behind an eight-month-old daughter broke my heart, as did imaging Lucy now parenting solo. Her bravery, like his, is astounding and beautiful. Her emotions at losing her young husband are raw and real. A doctor herself, she understood so many of her husband’s desires to live a full life, not just a long one. I think they both can teach us so much about quality of life.

You can read Lucy’s essay here, which was published the same day as Paul’s book. And this interview with her was also so insightful. Lastly, her twin sister Joanna, the blogger behind A Cup of Jo, teamed up with interior designer Jenny Komenda to makeover Lucy’s apartment after Paul’s death. She wanted the space to feel alive and fresh, and to become a place that would help her and her young daughter begin anew while still honoring memories of Paul. The makeover is so moving.

I loved this book. Along with Being Mortal, it should be required reading for anyone who is facing a serious illness or death, or has a loved one in a similar position. I would highly recommend it.

(image of Paul Kalanithi via The New York Times // image of book via A Cup of Jo)