Where the heck was I reading?

We all know I’m slightly OCD about many things — among them lists and record-keeping. Being both an avid reader and an obsessive traveler, armchair and otherwise, I decided 2012 would be the year I kept track of all the places I “visited” through my reading.

Inspired by Aths, I kept a running Google map with the main locations of every book I read. Because some novels spanned several towns, states or countries, I chose to catalog the “main” setting and discard the others. If an exact location was never named, I “rounded up” to the state or closest town I could find. There were exceptions to that, though, and some places had no discernible setting — or more than one place was critical to the story. So I made allowances where I wanted.

In keeping this organized tally, I was most interested to see how diversified my reading was this year. Were most of my books set in New York City or London, as it often feels? Did I read novels set in any foreign countries? Were my characters of varying racial backgrounds, descents and interests?

The answer to all of the above, I’m happy to say, is yes! Though I did read many books set in New York (16), only one (!) was set in London. I know, I’m just . . . I can’t get over it. I read others set in England, of course, but only one book set in London? Really?

I scarcely know myself.

Of the 71 books I read this year, some of the more exotic locations included:

• Beijing and Shanghai, China
• Amsterdam, The Netherlands
• Gowna and Dublin, Ireland
• Vietnam
• Ghana, Africa
• Nagoya, Japan
• Madrid, Spain
• Porto Vergogna, Italy
• Kingsbridge and Milton, England
• Mumbai, India

Back stateside, my reading was pretty centered around California — not too surprising given my trip there last May. I read eight books set in the Golden State, several in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and also journeyed to destinations in states I’ve never seen in person. Among my American reading were spots in:

• Boston, Massachusetts
• St. Mary’s County and Annapolis, Maryland (home!)
• Atlanta, Georgia
• Hawaii
• Portland, Maine
• Wiscasset, Maine
• Chicago, Illinois
• Cleveland, Ohio
• Provo, Utah
• Kansas City, Missouri
• Malvern, Pennsylvania
• The Cascade Mountains of Oregon
• Dalhart, Texas
• Indiana
• Seattle, Washington

And for all the numbers fans out there . . .

28 percent of the settings were international
72 percent of the settings were in the United States

In 2013, I hope to expand my literary horizons and journey to many new and interesting locales! We’ll see how exotic I can get.

So what did I read in 2012?

1. Across The Universe by Beth Revis
2. History Of A Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason
3. What Came First by Carol Snow
4. Faith by Jennifer Haigh
5. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
6. Fatal Mistake by CB Lovejoy
7. Cinder by Marissa Meyer
8. Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney
9. The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene
10. Compulsively Mr. Darcy by Nina Benneton
11. Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by Kristina McMorris
12. How To Eat A Cupcake by Meg Donohue
13. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
14. The Civilized World by Susi Wyss
15. Gossip by Beth Gutcheon
16. Another Piece Of My Heart by Jane Green
17. All The Flowers In Shanghai by Duncan Jepson
18. The Singles by Meredith Goldstein
19. S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim by Cynthia Sass
20. Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
21. Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer
22. Apron Anxiety by Alyssa Shelasky
23. These Girls by Sarah Pekkanen
24. Bossypants by Tina Fey
25. Japan Took the J.A.P. Out Of Me by Lisa Cook
26. A Vacation On the Island of Ex-Boyfriends by Stacy Bierlein
27. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. by Sam Wasson
28. In The Bag by Kate Klise
29. An Object Of Beauty by Steve Martin
30. Then Came You by Jennifer Weiner
31. Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon
32. Where We Belong by Emily Giffin
33. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
34. Between You and Me by Emma McLaughlin, Nicola Kraus
35. We’ll Always Have Summer by Jenny Han
36. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
37. As Always, Jack by Emma Sweeney
38. And Laughter Fell From The Sky by Jyotsna Sreenivasan
39. Birthday Pie by Andrew Wooten
40. Heaven Is Here by Stephanie Nielson
41. Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
42. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
43. The Secret of Joy by Melissa Senate
44. The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar
45. Point, Click, Love by Molly Shapiro
46. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
47. Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
48. Populazzi by Elise Allen
49. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
50. The Care and Handling of Roses With Thorns by Margaret Dilloway
51. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
52. Sad Desk Salad by Jessica Grose
53. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
54. Objects of My Affection by Jill Smolinski
55. We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier by Celia Rivenbark
56. Black Heels to Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond
57. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
58. Harvest by Richard Horan
59. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
60. Lip Service by M.J. Rose
61. Love On the Big Screen by William Torgerson
62. I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert
63. You Tell Your Dog First by Alison Pace
64. The Good Woman by Jane Porter
65. Paris, My Sweet by Amy Thomas
66. Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
67. Lunch With Buddha by Roland Merullo
68. Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole Georges
69. I Kill Me by Tracy H. Tucker
70. The Wedding Beat by Devan Sipher
71. The Truth About Love and Lightning by Susan McBride

Prescription: balloon ride


I feel like I should be talking about Christmas, but all I’m thinking about are balloons.

It’s been seven months since Spencer and I sailed above Napa Valley in a hot air balloon — for, like, 45 minutes. Total. But those 45 minutes were absolutely life-affirming, and if I’d ever had any doubt that sometimes serenity can be found in the oddest of places? That would be it.

Eh, I’m dealing with some not-so-fun health issues at the moment. Nothing serious, don’t worry, but it’s jarring to find myself making medical appointments and getting tests and looking up insurance stuff. Filing claims — and realizing that I am the “policy holder.” It makes me feel both impossibly adult and impossibly young. I keep waiting for my organized, efficient and awesome mom to swoop in and handle all this for me, you know?

Sucks growing up.

I realize I’m pretty fortunate to never have had a brush with medical problems before — aside from some carpal stuff from too much crochet and piano in my youth. Never broke a bone, never stayed in a hospital. Aside from a few falls off the ol’ bike and the skinned knees that accompany them, I graduated from youth without any major setbacks.

Though I will be A-OK in no time, I feel weird and a little scared — because I need to start making some major life changes. That’s what’s shaken me up, I think — not even the problem itself, but what it means. Now in my late twenties, my body’s youthful exuberance is no longer something I can take for granted. When I talked to my friend Brandon about my current troubles, he smiled sympathetically. “You’ll be okay,” he said. “It happens. It’s just, you know, part of getting older.”

Getting older.

I won’t just “bounce back” from illnesses. Poor diet choices won’t just . . . melt away, dissolved by walks around campus or the playground. I mean, I’ve gained a significant amount of weight since college. Forty pounds, actually. Forty pounds.


So: balloons! I return to balloons. They’re colorful. They make me happy. They’re something to remind me of all the fun life has to offer — the unexpected adventures; the good times and moments of Zen. Riding in that balloon with Spencer was quite Zen for me — so much so that I have a big print of the balloons next to my desk. I look at it often, especially when I’m feeling less-than-sparkly, and I remember.

What it was like to drift with no particular destination — and no control over how you’ll get there.

And I know I’ll feel that warm sun on my face again.

Colorful balloon

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: Views of Tuscany in 2007

On a dreary week in November, I found myself thinking about my family’s Italian vacation in 2007 — and got a hankering to look through my old photos. Considering I’ve become thoroughly obsessed with photography in recent years, I edited a few with my new knowledge — and loved reminiscing about my first time in Europe. These shots were taken in San Gimignano, just before the clouds broke and the fog burned off.

For more about the trip and my process of editing old pictures, check out this post I wrote for my photography club’s site. And for more Wordless Wednesday, visit here!

Napa Valley comes to life in ‘The Good Woman’

A fellow blogger and fellow Meg created a feature I’m thrilled to run with: Literary Locale, which focuses on the settings of the books we’re currently reading. Visit A Bookish Affair to join in the fun.

Paging through Jane Porter’s The Good Woman, set in Napa Valley, it’s impossible not to feel the warm California sun on your face.

Main character Meg (good name!) works at a winery with an irresistible pair of brothers, offering tastings to tourists and marketing the vineyard’s signature wines. Having visited Napa and Sonoma last summer, I had such an immediate and visceral reaction to this story. It was really good — juicy and evocative and emotional and intense — but I’ll get to all that in a full review Monday.

For now? Let’s talk Napa. As I was reading The Good Woman, Nicholson Ranch was completely in my head. It was one of the early stops on our vacation — and couldn’t have been more picturesque and stunning. Hard to imagine what could have bee more “Napa”-esque than Nicholson, honestly, and I loved our visit here — from the tour of the wine cellars to the fabulous lunch to the walk among the vines.

Though I’m not the biggest wine drinker you’ll ever meet, I just love the atmosphere of a vineyard. It’s intoxicating. And for an East Coast girl used to the bustle and chaos of a metropolitan area, the free and easy vibe of vintners hanging out in the warm, dry heat is very alluring. More than once on that trip, I pictured packing up my books and boots due west. It’s just hard to feel unhappy in a place like that. And, you know, the copious amounts of wine don’t hurt.

Something the fictional Meg and I have in common!

So what’s up with Napa? Well, Napa County was one of California’s original counties — created along with California’s statehood in 1850. Though the first commercial vineyard was established in 1858, Napa has only been heavily promoting its bustling wine industry since the 1960s. Hard to believe an area so synonymous with vineyards has only been around half a century, but hey — they’re obviously doin’ something right.

The area’s wine prowess can be attributed to its unique combination of geography, Mediterranean climate and geology of Northern California, according to Wikipedia — all of which combine to grow quality wine grapes. Today, Napa is home to more than 450 wineries that grow many varieties of grapes, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel and more.

By the end of our stay in Napa, it felt like we’d sampled them all — especially as we coasted along on the Wine Train, where I had the most delicious cheese platter of all time. I was actually wine-d out by the time we left for Sacramento, and that’s really saying something.

Not a bad one in the lot.

Experiences, not things

Nothing beats seeing London for the first time.

Except maybe seeing it the second time.

The first came during a family vacation in 2007. Fresh from my college graduation and still bearing that the-world-is-my-oyster glow, my parents, sister and I hopped on a plane across the Atlantic. It was my first truly international experience. (Sorry, Canada; you’re our lovely northern neighbor, but I don’t count Toronto. Plus, you’re all so nice and I didn’t experience any culture shock. So.)

Arriving at Gatwick Airport around 6 a.m. local time, we immediately experienced the joy of being barked at in a British accent, having to throw ourselves on a busy commuter train and the shock of seeing a woman’s unclothed torso in a city newspaper — but it was no matter. I was too distracted by the “Mary Poppins”-esque buildings sailing past our windows to care much. The sunrise was just beginning to bathe the towns in pinks and golds. I sucked in a breath. I felt . . . away. So far away. From my world, my life, my worries. It was like I’d stepped out of a Megan-shaped skin for a much-needed break.

That joy was a drug.

And it’s why I travel. Why I’d rather empty my checking account on experiences instead of possessions. Why I’ll likely never have a McMansion or a fancy car or a housekeeping staff. (That and, you know, I’m a writer. I’m not exactly bathing in cash.) But that’s not important to me. I don’t need a Coach bag for each arm, don’t need fancy shoes or expensive hair treatments. What I need is my passport, my camera, my man and a plan. I’d rather be out and experiencing life than watching it on my expensive television. I’d rather be elsewhere than wandering my expensive house, trapped and anxious as a caged animal.

When I returned to England to see a friend studying abroad in 2009, I worried London might have lost some of its shiny-slick appeal. But I was as excited to get away then as I had been years before — and that was my first solo trip, the first time I’d gone anywhere alone. When Stacy met me at Heathrow, standing in the international arrivals area, I almost cried. It felt like a turning point: a before and after. I will always remember her face, that hug.

The details of that trip can’t be separated from my emotional responses. I can’t recall the cute British hot-dog vendor in Hyde Park without remembering the thrill of being single for the first time in my young adulthood. When I went home days later with a numb toe, the pinched nerve from too much walking in flip-flops was a bonus souvenir — and I nursed it proudly.

And I still can’t listen to Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” without remembering that terrifying, amazing moment of riding back to Heathrow Airport alone — save my iPod. And giant suitcase stuffed with English candy, London piggy banks and snowglobes. I chose that soundtrack specifically for that moment: the song I wanted to play me home.

I bought my plane ticket to England and the return fare home. But that pure moment? The euphoria of being 24 at that specific time and place? It couldn’t be purchased. It wasn’t for sale.

“Buy experiences, not things,” financial editor and expert Jean Chatzky told USA Weekend. “Spending on experiences makes people happier than spending on things. Things get broken and go out of style. Experiences get better every time you talk about them.”

And that last bit is probably why I write, too.

Just another day at Yosemite

What could I possibly say about Yosemite National Park that far more talented people haven’t already offered?

That’s how I feel thinking about Yosemite: speechless. Tiny. Powerless. A speck in the universe — one small person, a woman trying to hold up her chin in the shadows of something so much larger than myself. Of all the places we visited in California, all beautiful, it was Yosemite that made the biggest impression on me.

In the weeks since we returned home, I’ve found myself incessantly Googling the park and its waterfalls. I wrote a column about it for the paper. Yosemite is now my screensaver. My precious photos are stacked in folders so I can look at them often, remembering our all-too-brief time in the park. It flashed by in an instant.

Once we made it to Yosemite Valley, a perilous drive on our tour bus from Tioga Pass, Spencer and I practically ran from our group to see Yosemite Falls. I’m a wee bit obsessed with cataracts . . . and I guess that’s an understatement. I’m a waterfall chaser. If there’s rushing water to be found, I will seek it out — and photograph the heck out of it (see: my long-standing fascination with Niagara Falls). I’m most happy standing by the roar of falling water with spray dusting my shoulders.

So how did Yosemite Falls measure up? Very, very well. After walking an easy path up to the base of the lower falls, I could only stand in awe. It’s cliche, I know, but sometimes you can’t look up into the face of Mother Nature and think anything but, “Wow.”

I’m not outdoorsy. I hate bugs, can’t bear the thought of using the restroom outdoors, need a clean bed and pillow on which to rest at night. I don’t swim or hike or climb things. Generally speaking? I’m pretty lazy. I don’t like getting sweaty and am pretty annoying when I’m hot and thirsty.

But put a waterfall sighting within my grasp and I’ll be bumping tourists off paths through sheer determination alone.

Waterfalls aside, Yosemite is a truly magical place. Just driving around on a bus left me awestruck, staring out the windows at scenes like this:

I mean, really.

I’m going to be honest with you: since returning home to Maryland, I’ve thought about why I live on the East Coast. My answers are vast and varied, starting and ending — most importantly — with the fact that Washington, D.C., is my home. The only place I’ve ever lived. The only place I’ve ever known, and where my family and friends are. It’s where I work. Where I’ve started my career. Where I’ve built relationships. It’s where Spencer is.

But sometimes when we travel — taking in other vistas, other views — it’s easy to imagine yourself somewhere else, doing something else. Like building a camp and squatting illegally in a national park, say. Living off the land. Photographing streams. Scaling cliff faces and wandering the Sierra Nevada — a miniature (and female) John Muir.

Sometimes places call to you, grabbing your hand and refusing to let go.

I’ll always remember holding Spencer’s hand as we walked to the base of that waterfall. And my heavy, heavy heart as we turned to go.

Still looking up

On your bucket list: Ride in a hot air balloon.

Standing on a precipice looking down, I get what can only be called “tingly feet.” In addition to my sweaty palms and upset stomach, my toes literally begin to tingle — almost as if they know what it’s like to fall.

It’s a pins-and-needles sensation I know all too well. Like many a reasonable human being, I’m afraid of heights. I remember willing myself to step out onto the glass floor of Toronto’s CN Tower and feeling like I was going to be sick. In Chicago, looking down from atop the Sears Tower (or Willis Tower? When did that name change happen? Oh. 2009) gave me a raging case of tingly feet. It’s vertigo to the extreme.

So why do I then insist on partaking in adventures like hot air balloon rides? Because I don’t want my nerves to run me. Like most of my weird anxieties, I’m locked in an eternal struggle trying to act like a rational person . . . so I can’t let my mind and its always-on panic button keep me from trying things. If my crazy brain had its way, I would be locked up tight in my childhood bedroom clutching my sock monkeys and a list of pros/cons for taking a shower. The point is to open the gates and seize the day, just as the Newsies insist.

So when Spence and I were in California, we signed up to take a hot air balloon ride in Napa Valley. Rising for an awful 4 a.m. wake-up time that morning, I tried to piece together why the balloon escapade seemed like such a brilliant idea — but when we made it outside of Winters, Calif., and stepped into the brilliant sunshine, I remembered why I’d been so excited about the ride in the first place.

We almost didn’t get to go. Stepping out of the shuttle van on site, thick fog was rolling into the valley. Clouds hovered, blocking the colors of sunrise, and our group of six worried we wouldn’t have time to take the balloon ride and get back with our tour group by 9 a.m. Some schedule finagling fixed that, though, and I was back to being giddy when we arrived to see the giant, colorful balloons inflating against the crystal blue sky.

Up in the air, I wasn’t thinking about heights — or falling. I wasn’t thinking about fear. I was looking out at the city in the distance, at the farms and fields below us, at my boyfriend with a wide smile on his face. “I can’t believe how quiet it is,” Spencer said, and he was right — nothing but vast and epic silence as we drifted on a breeze, all of us snapping photos and staring with open mouths. It was the most at peace I’ve felt in months.

The next time you’re updating your bucket list, grab your pen — or your typing fingers — and add “HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE” in fat block letters. Don’t overanalyze it. Even with a bumpy landing that sent me sailing against the rigid basket, I was pumped enough to have gone straight back up into the air.

And I never did get tingly feet. I was only looking out — and up.