Non-fiction to take you away (even if you want to stay put)


With heat pulling my tender strands into frizzy curls already, it’s high time we talk about summer reading.

As a kid, I was the book geek already tearing through her assigned books before the current school year was over. I have fond memories of Dad taking my sister and me to Crown Books, the bookstore that sat where a Panera now resides, to thumb through their children’s and young adult section for the classics. We spent hours wandering the aisles — the first place I remember my parents giving us a tiny bit of independence. (Don’t worry: they were just around the corner, Dad in sports and Mom usually in magazines.)

I miss summer reading. That might be why I love reading review copies: it feels like I’m back in my English program in college, perhaps? With a stack of books I must read? At heart, I can be fairly indecisive about novels — and it often helps if I’m on a schedule. Who doesn’t benefit from a good deadline now and then?

I’ll admit that, you know, going rogue with my reading was definitely exciting post-college; I loved choosing books at random, especially when I worked at Borders, because it felt almost . . . illicit. After being handed a syllabus for so many years, doing what I wanted was exhilarating.

Now I’m tired and often cranky and don’t know what I want. I want someone to tell me what I want. Isn’t it funny how that works?

Anyway. Summer reading. Traveling! Adventure! With no one telling you what you must read, here I go giving you a list of sorts. But it’s a short one. Whether you’re readying for a plane ride or staying perched in your air-conditioned living room through September, don’t we all love a little escape through reading?

Flip-flops and sunscreen optional.

Awesome Non-Fiction
That Takes You Away
(Even If You Want to Stay Put)

Paris LettersParis Letters by Janice MacLeod — Bored by a humdrum advertising gig, Janice scrimps and saves enough to leave her desk job and book a flight for Europe. Falling hopelessly in love with Paris wasn’t part of her plan — and this artist’s journey was just beginning. Enchanting, romantic and fun, I’ve thought of this story often since finishing in the winter. It’s the perfect book in which to lose yourself — and live vicariously through another. (And then you can check out her blog to continue the fun.)

Walk in the WoodsA Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — Though I’m late to the Bryson fan club, he certainly has a new member. I inhaled most of this book coming back from California and wanted to don hiking boots by the time we touched down. The story of Bryson’s epic journey hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods manages to weave history, environmental issues and self-discovery into one moving, humorous package. Bryson’s language is evocative; you can almost feel the mosquitoes. (Better him than us.) Full review of this one to come once I’ve collected my thoughts!

The Lost GirlsThe Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner — All at a crossroads, three friends climb off the corporate ladder to go and explore the world. Their year-long journey takes them to Brazil, Kenya, Australia and more, and their story of friendship and living for today was inspirational. A heavy dose of armchair travel with this one: you’re all over the place!

Bank of BobThe International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris — Featured in my reading honors for 2013, Harris’ account of traveling to meet those he has assisted with microfinance loans bears mentioning again. A travel writer, Harris has an open mind when he begins making $25 loans through — and his story is heartwarming without drifting into condescension. Funds are paid back by small business owners: hardworking men and women whose lives are changed forever by the money Harris once spent on coffee. We journey with him to Nepal and Morocco, Cambodia and India. The lessons reach far beyond the page.

Any favorite travel reads to recommend?
Just summer books you love?

Book review: ‘Have Mother, Will Travel’ by Claire and Mia Fontaine

Have Mother, Will TravelMia and Claire Fontaine, a mother-daughter duo who “found” each other again after years of physical and drug abuse threatened to separate them forever, have settled into a familiar — and unfamiliar — rhythm. Now a decade out from her troubled past, Mia is a 25-year-0ld woman learning the ropes of adulthood after growing up too fast.

With her daughter now relatively settled, Claire needs a new focus — and has recently uprooted her life to move cross-country with her husband. Now planted in a fixer-upper with “potential” in Florida, 51-year-old Claire still vacillates between wanting to help her daughter and trying to let her come into her own. It isn’t easy.

Feeling both physically and emotionally separated when Claire learns about the Global Scavenger Hunt, a real “Amazing Race”-style trip that takes travelers to four continents and ten countries in less than a month, she eagerly calls her daughter to gauge interest. They both feel disconnected after ending a whirlwind press tour for Come Back, a memoir they penned about Mia’s turbulent youth and sexual abuse, and want to start fresh. Claire sees this as an opportunity to get to know her daughter again — and differently this time.

Claire and Mia FontaineThey sign up. They embark. Starting in China and eventually winding their way through Malaysia, Nepal, Greece, France and more, the Fontaines explore different cultures, traditions, meals, gender roles — and the ever-changing dynamic between mothers and daughters.

Have Mother, Will Travel is a unique blend of memoir that both excites with its armchair travel opportunities and entices with its insights on the complicated, beautiful and challenging relationships between families. The women take turns narrating, each with a distinct voice and focus, we’re frequently treated to the “two sides to every story” lens as Mia and Claire discuss traveling, the past and their future.

What I loved most about the book — aside from, you know, the tantalizing descriptions of locales like Cairo and Athens — was how seamlessly the women shift from talking about their relationship to exploring the relationships all women share. As much an exploration of motherhood as a travel memoir, Have Mother, Will Travel offers so much food for thought regarding women’s roles in other nations, our perceptions as Americans (and what it means to be American) and the underlying responsibility humans have to one another.

Of the two voices, Claire — an erstwhile screenwriter — was the more literary. She offers gems like this:

“It’s not often mothers and daughters relate in silence. We speak our whole lives long in conversations reckless, tender, thoughtless, bold, honest, funny, hypersensitive, unconscious, cutting, healing. Our daughters hear us in utero long before they see us and we hear our mothers’ voices long after they’re gone. ‘I have conversations with my mom all the time,” my friend Leah recently told me. “She’s been dead twenty years and I still have things to say to her.'” (p. 117, hardcover edition)

I looked forward to their insights as American women abroad as much as their discussions of their personal relationship, though both were fascinating. While reading Come Back isn’t necessary to get the full breadth of Have Mother, Will Travel, I could see where really getting the pair’s back story would help to appreciate just how far they’ve come — and how far they have to go. Still, an introduction in this book helps set the stage for the ladies’ around-the-world adventure; I thought it was very well done. I felt dropped into the story without getting smacked over the head with too much telling, not enough showing.

And the story itself? It was interesting. Uplifting, different. Well-paced and well-researched, the Fontaines obviously spent a great deal of time reliving their experiences and expanding on them with local history. I loved the blend of fact and emotion — the swirl of Claire and Mia’s personal dynamics amidst the warm stone of Cairo’s ancient pyramids and the fragrant fields of Avignon. Claire often details their interactions with natives, too, and I loved the little stories of the people they met in remote locales.

If you love armchair travel and discussions of the tender but steadfast love fused by motherhood? Well, the Fontaines are ready to let you in. Have Mother, Will Travel was an engrossing read that delved deeper than I expected from the (pretty!) cover, and it’s one I would easily recommend to memoir lovers looking for some international flavor.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061688428 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthors’ Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Paris, My Sweet’ by Amy Thomas

Writer and foodie Amy Thomas has a longstanding love affair with Paris. The macarons, the handsome men, the atmosphere . . . si belle. After she embarks on a week of sweets for fun, an opportunity to return — full-time — sets her on a new path. As an advertising writer for Louis Vuitton, Thomas trades her busy life in New York City for a walk-up in the City of Light. And that’s only the beginning.

Amy Thomas’ Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate) is a sweet-as-candy, fun and hunger-inducing look at one woman’s journey through France’s capital city. Thomas is my kind of friend: someone with a talent for words and an insatiable hunger. I mean, her sweet tooth is epic — and after cautioning not to read some books on an empty stomach, this would absolutely fall into that category.

Thomas’ memoir is, in many ways, an exploration of what makes a place “home.” Coming from New York, where Amy is a successful singleton who doesn’t have much time or inclination to date, journeying to Paris means bidding adieu to her many friends and family — and discovering what it means to truly be on your own. Especially without a common language to bond them, Amy’s work environment is challenging — and interacting with the French can be difficult and confusing. She becomes more self-assured with time, eventually branching out to make new friends and puzzle out French behavior, but it takes a while. As all good things to do.

Though I adored the many mentions of Paris’ insanely awesome desserts (and New York’s, too), I ultimately finished this story wanting a little more. Amy is very likeable and kind, but the story lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. I suppose I was naively waiting for her to fall in love, get a big promotion, stumble into ownership of a bakery. Something. I read too much fiction, I guess. Because I’ll say this for Paris, My Sweet: Amy feels very authentic, and her tale is realistic. For most, a handsome foreigner doesn’t lock eyes with us across a vanilla cupcake and bed us within the hour. A snooty widow doesn’t take a shine to us, leaving her beloved bistro to the adorable American upon her death. If we stumble, no one is there to catch us. We just figure it out.

Yes — for most of us? We’re just taking chances. Putting one foot in front of another. Looking for opportunities with the knowledge they may not come. And as Amy cavorts through Paris — sometimes muddling through as an expat; sometimes having the croissant-eating time of her life — I was right there with her. Paris comes alive through Thomas’ tales, and I loved visiting as she pedals the winding streets, slogs up to her apartment and plunks down to watch the city come alive from her window.

It all felt very intoxicating. And though I wish the plot itself was a little more exciting, I state that knowing life is often that way: sometimes a sweet frosted thing, perfect and knowable — but more often a gamble, a few stolen chances. Thomas does a great job of drawing you into her tale . . . and getting you hungry for those lovely macarons. Francophiles, foodies and armchair travelers will find Amy a willing and lovely narrator, and her memoir a sweet adventure.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402264119 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for my honest review

The long-standing books on my nightstand

I used to be a book monogamist. When I picked up a novel, I read it to completion; and when I was done with that single story, I moved on to the next one. Before blogging, my “to be read” stack was about three or four books. As my stash depleted, I’d pop over to Borders (RIP, old friend) and grab another novel from the three-for-two table.

Not anymore.

Books line most surfaces of my room, listing to one side in awkward stacks. I recently combed my bookcase and donated about 70 novels to the public library for their Saturday used book sales (so if you’re in Maryland, it could be your lucky day). My bookcase is neater, for sure, and no longer double- and triple-stacked. But I will never, ever run out of books.

Beside the bookcase is a green and pink table. In addition to my journals, cosmetics and old photographs are the novels on my proverbial nighstand. Four books are always ready to provide my pre-sleeping entertainment. Or, more specifically, my non-entertainment. These are my soothing books.

I’m a skittish reader. Suspenseful stories, emotional stories — these do not make for a pleasant sleeping environment. And as I have to read before bed every night (without fail), I have to carefully choose which books to peruse before it’s lights out. Anything high-stakes or high-drama will likely keep me up until the middle of the night, determined to finish, so I have to choose books that amble along at a gentle pace.

And I have a few of them. Julia Child’s My Life In France is my ultimate bedtime read. Lush, evocative and brimming with enough fabulous food to make your stomach ache, her memoir of living and cooking with her husband in and around Paris is fabulous. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe she accurately recalled so many specific details of her time there (my own hang-up regarding memoirs), but I guess my time in France would be forever etched in my mind, too. I’m about 150 pages in and never want it to end, so I savor each morsel a page or two at a time. It’s been on my nighstand for about a year.

Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz is a novel I’ve been reading off and on for years, too. In the mood to read more non-fiction, I bought it on a whim and was sucked into the world of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who had a rather interesting love story. They’re not at the center of the book, though they are principle characters — and I’ve enjoyed reading more about an author I’ve loved so much.

At the Book Blogger Convention last May, I met Jim Higley at an author roundtable. There to discuss Bobblehead Dad: 25 Life Lessons I Forgot I Knew, his own memoir, I was fascinated by Higley’s story as a columnist-turned-author and peppered him with questions about the process (sorry, Jim!). Beyond my interest in his publication story, Higley is a fascinating man who embraced life — and parenthood — even more fully after a cancer diagnosis and major change in his family. He was such a warm person and hugged me after I talked with him about my own life, which meant so much to me. His vignettes are very poignant, and I’ve also savored them slowly.

And what nightstand of Meg’s would be complete without a book on Niagara Falls? Long fascinated with the area, my boyfriend actually had a copy of Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies that I pilfered years back. It’s not always the most compelling reading, being weighed down at points by an exhaustive history of the falls, but I’m still plugging away and hope to finish (and return it, Spence!) someday.

So there you have it — four books, all non-fiction. I’m actually more likely to savor and enjoy memoirs over a prolonged period than I am a novel; with fiction, either it grabs me or it doesn’t. I’m more forgiving with non-fiction. If it doesn’t capture my interest immediately, I don’t chuck it; the book is simply set aside for when I’m in more of a “mood” to enjoy such a thing. And I eventually do.


Do you have certain books you read before bed? Are you more forgiving with slightly boring non-fiction than fiction?

Book review: ‘The Lost Girls’ by Jen Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner

Three friends are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime: a year’s free pass away from friends, family and work obligations; a chance to see the world and participate in customs once viewed only on TV shows or in novels.

The catch? Well, there isn’t one — except for the fact that Holly, Jen and Amanda are all choosing to leave behind their relatively stable lives in New York City to pursue an uncharted course. All headed toward a dreaded quarter-life crisis, the ladies ponder what their next steps will be: in their relationships, cutthroat jobs and busy existences away from home. A journey away from it all seems like an opportunity they can’t let escape.

And so begins Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner’s The Lost Girls, a travel memoir about friendship, acceptance, culture and life on the road. Through the pages of this 500-page tome, we dance with locals in Brazil, assist nurses and the sick in Kenya, study yoga in India and so, so much more. It’s a lengthy book but a worthwhile read, and one that had me eager to collect a few more stamps on my passport.

Just not quite the way they did.

Could I imagine essentially “quitting” my life for a year to travel the globe, meeting strangers and sleeping in hostels and using a bathroom that isn’t really a “bathroom” at all? Absolutely not. In the year in which Amanda, Jen and Holly plan their trek, they save money relentlessly — and vow to live as cheaply as possible while traversing the countries they start to call home. It’s impossible not to draw parallels between The Lost Girls and Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s chronicle of her time traveling after a painful divorce. Though none of the authors leave New York in search of enlightenment persay, quite the way I believe Gilbert did, they still come home completely different people.

Not that that’s any shock.

The memoir is told in chapters alternating between Jen, Holly and Amanda’s points of view and, as a reader, I thought this worked well; we get to hear everyone’s side of the story. At times I struggled to distinguish between each narrator’s voice, though I think that’s a testament to their similar writing talents and friendship; though their opinions of each place differed, their presentation was largely the same.

I related most to Holly, a writer struggling to sustain her passionate but distant relationship with boyfriend Elan, an actor. Holly was the bold and athletic member of their trio, always managing to get in a run or embark on a new project — regardless of the country where they were currently storing their backpacks. More than anything, I admired the ladies’ ability to live simply but beautifully — and to be brave and bold enough to attempt something this adventurous.

As a book, their tales felt a little long . . . and, at times, repetitive. New country. New people. New guys. Throw into a pot and simmer, then serve and repeat. But that didn’t mean I didn’t still enjoy the story overall and curiously read about each new experience — because it was fun and total escapism, plus it portrayed their friendships both positively and negatively . . . so, you know, realistically. Though they don’t sugarcoat their experiences in developing countries, they’re always careful to highlight both the challenges and triumphs in each place — and I felt like, overall, I got a good feel for each of their destinations.

My favorite chapter dealt with Amanda, Jen and Holly’s time in Kenya, where they volunteered with a nonprofit and worked with young women living at a nearby boarding school and given the chance for a real education. The students’ fascination with Western women and American culture was eye-opening, and I loved the scene where the authors are able to share music through their iPods with the girls or actually watch a movie — something the Kenyan girls had never experienced. Simple things we take for granted. Simple concepts that are anything but simple elsewhere in the world.

Don’t be too discouraged by its girth and my drawbacks — despite the size of The Lost Girls, this travel memoir is very readable, interesting and compelling . . . especially to twenty-somethings with a taste for the open road and desire to think about what comes “next.” I enjoyed the epilogue, too; a satisfying conclusion to a satisfying journey.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061997390 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours