Sunday, August 13, 2017

Books of 2016

Consider the Lobster - David Foster Wallace
I think everything I've read so far by DFW has been essays, or short stories, so I'm interested to read something longer and see if I still like it as much. The essay here that made me read the entire book was "Up, Simba", a piece he wrote for Rolling Stone about John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. It's something like 60 pages, much of which I'm sure didn't make it into the magazine, and smart, hysterical, observant and mildly biting. If the writing makes you enjoy a topic you thought you'd otherwise not enjoy, it's done its job in my mind, and that's just what DFW does here.

The Thing Around Your Neck - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Also a series of essays. I didn't realize it was essays until about the third chapter, and I was wondering at what point the characters would start to tie together, and then I realized. Adichie was recommended to me by a friend, a smart friend who knows more about the world than I even know is possible to know, and then lent me three of her books to read. Makes me want to find out what people's favorite books are and then read them, solely based on who liked and recommended them. So far it's working out well, especially with this one. 

Smile While You're Lying - Chuck Thompson
This was a birthday present, and one of the more perfect ones I got this year. This book is a collection of all the travel stories the author couldn't sell to travel magazines. None of them have the typical "I learned something because I was out of my comfort zone" moral to them, and many of them are so unbelievable that you know they have to be true, because no one would come up with such anecdotes and crazy turns. I spent a good deal of this book laughing out loud, and fittingly, read most of it on a plane. My seatmates were obviously thrilled with the combination.

The Garden of Eden - Ernest Hemingway
I picked this up on accident at the library, but read the back of the book and was interested. The only other Hemingway book I'd read was The Old Man and the Sea, and I don't know whether it was because I was too young to understand it or just because I didn't like it, but I didn't like it, mostly because I found the writing boring, but I'm sure subject matter had something to do with it too. This book, however, wasn't like that at all and kept my attention and I laughed and was interesting and you'd never know it was written 50 years ago, it could have been written/taken place today. I guess that helps my list of classics (any book by Ernest counts as a classic, right?). 

The Solitude of Prime Numbers - Paolo Giordano
I wrote down more lines from this book than I have in a long time. It's introspective and I learned some Italian, and the writing was incredible. It made me think (hence the multiple quotes I wrote down from it) and probably a good book to go back and revisit in a while to see what else I can get from it. 

AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This was the first of three books I read by Adichie and by far the best. I learned a lot about Nigeria (Lagos particularly) and got a new perspective on how immigrants view America and experience life here. It's fiction you can learn something from because Adichie's speaking from her own experiences, ones that likely very few people have. I don't know that I ever learned any African history in school, so it was a tiny peek into what we all missed.

Where Good Ideas Come From - Steven Johnson
I read excerpts that were good enough to convince me to read the rest of the book, and it was one of those books that you read and only after you've read everything does it seem obvious. His main argument is that things don't just come to people, but instead, it's only after try after try after try and organic collaboration that the really great ideas of history have come about. Spoiler: there aren't really random "Eureka!" moments, but instead moments that are the culmination of collaboration, teamwork and thinking about the same issue, even if its unconsciously. Made me not want to worry about my problems that much, knowing that eventually I'll figure out a good idea.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
I read this in order to see the movie, but failed to have that happen. It's an interesting concept, I think, to tell a story that so many people lived through from a perspective which they didn't have. The main character, Oskar, spends a lot of time acting older than he is, and not just because of the situation in which he's found himself. Once I see the movie, I'll report back with a comparison.

Prophet's Prey - Sam Brower
I'd heard about this book for a long time and had been meaning to read it, and glad I did. While some parts were tough to get through, it was also interesting to read a couple of years removed from the actual events. It gave an interesting window to the FLDS, if anything, through the ways they treated the author, an outsider. At the same time, it gives an interesting perspective on the mainstream Mormons, both because of the history that's necessary to get through the book and the thoughts the FLDS have on the LDS. 

Leaving the Saints - Martha Beck
It'd been sitting on my list of books to read for a while and after reading Prophet's Prey, I figured it was time. Yes, despite the fact that Prophet's Prey is about the Fundamentalists and this book is about mainstream Mormons. It was an interesting story about a woman who leaves the Mormon Church, despite having a father who's pretty high up in the church's rankings. (Seems as if that's the way it often goes.) She chronicles her struggle with her family and with herself as she starts to reject almost everything she's ever known or believed, all the while the reader gets an inside glimpse at the Mormon Church.

Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë
A book that'd been sitting on my bookshelf for years, a small tattered copy of the classic. The most confusing part of this book, I'm not going to lie, was to distinguish between Hindley and Heathcliff, two of the main male characters - and that's not even to mention Hareton. Generally, what happens when I set out to read these classics is that I think I have an idea of what they're about, but turns out I was completely wrong and had no idea at all. At least now I might be more prepared for my next trivia night now. 

Lean In - Sheryl Sandberg
In case you haven't heard, Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and one of the highest women in tech right now. She was poached from Google when Mark Zuckerberg wanted to hire her, and she's worth tons. Her book sets out to show how she did it - how she got where she is without sacrificing herself or completely giving up her life. If anything, she writes about a lot of pushback in the industry, she has to push for what she wants and most of the time, it's accepted (probably because Mark seems like a chill guy and Facebook is quite the place to work, it seems). For me, just starting out, it was nothing but inspiration.

Permission Marketing - Seth Godin
I was reading this book as I was trying to buy a car and couldn't believe how much I agreed with it and how much they were failing at permission marketing to me. Essentially, get permission to market to people before you just shove things in their face. Getting the right information to the right people at the right time takes some reading of the other party, which is apparently something car salesmen have the stigma that they do. I had some bad experiences at two dealerships and one really good one and all I could do was compare them and restrain myself from calling back to tell them all to read this book and realize what they're doing wrong. Needless to say, they didn't get my permission, but tried to market to me anyhow.

Room - Emma Donoghue
I had picked this book up a couple of years ago from the "New" shelf at the library and remember reading the first couple of pages, but I didn't really get what was happening. Having more context about the book and knowing that it was written in the voice of a 5-year-old boy made a lot more sense when I read it this summer. It's a horrifying story but it has a lot of heartfelt themes and reminders about the innocence of life. It also made me ask a lot of questions about what we take for granted, what we don't question and how life works.

The Running Dream - Wendelin Van Draanen
I read this in two sittings - it was recommended to me by a preteen, and what a recommendation it was. A young girl who likes to run is in an accident - in which she loses her leg, and therefore, the ability to run as she knew it. While it's told from her young perspective, it was interesting to be able to ponder those questions for yourself - especially for me, as a runner. 
Grace: A Memoir - Grace Coddington
Everything I read and hear about Grace Coddington really does make me believe in being in the right place at the right time. I also think it was the golden age for fashion magazines (particularly Vogue) so it worked out even more in her favor. She's a very interesting person if nothing else, and an inspiration for working hard and working your way up. 

The Girl On The Train - Paula Hawkins
I typically like to avoid things that are the hippest things - assuming I guess that despite their hipness, they've only been made hip because of the bad taste of the masses. I'm finding that not to be true. I decided to read this after hearing a few people talking about it and knowing that the movie was going to come out soon. It's been compared to Gone Girl, and my experience from that told me that the book was going to be much better than the movie. Right now all I've seen is the trailer, but so far the book is blowing that out of the water. Excited to see the movie and what they do with it. I finally got my hands on the book on a Sunday afternoon, and finished it Tuesday night. Not only is it an easy, fast read, but it's compelling and interesting and you'll finish it even faster than you'll want to.
At Home - Bill Bryson
I'm working my way through all of Bill Bryson's books, and this one was not a disappointment. As is typical for Bryson, he goes into amazing detail on so many topics, from food storage to hallways, to Central Park's planning and the rate of stairway injuries. It really was more than just a book on the house, it was a book about facts, that he chose the house to center them around. If I were a note-taker, this book could take forever to read because of the overwhelming amount of facts within. This definitely will call for another read sometime soon. 

All Marketers Are Liars - Seth Godin
The irony of reading this during the car-buying process not only made me realize how poorly most lay-people do their marketing, but how much better it could be. It couldn't have been better timed, as I ended up disregarding certain dealerships because of their salespeople who seemed to know nothing about the way to market themselves, their cars, and their businesses. I realize that there are stereotypes about car salesmen for a reason, but there has to be a way to be a decent, not horrible, one. If only they'd read this book. 

#GIRLBOSS - Sophia Amoruso
I'd heard a lot about the book and Sophia and there's no time like the present to read about women who made things happen themselves. I really know nothing about fashion and wasn't that interested in the actual fashion portion, it was interesting to read how much of it she made happen and how much of it was situational and generally just happenstance and good timing. Her message was basically that it's not going to be easy, you gotta work for things and most importantly, know what you're good at and what you need help with in order to succeed.

Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I saved this Adichie book for last because I thought I would like it the least (solid tactic, I thought) but it turned out that this was basically tied for my favorite with Americanah. It's a shame how much isn't taught about other countries' and continents' wars within the American school system. I don't know that I could have even told you what Biafra was before I read any of Adichie's work, a sad state of affairs indeed. Just means I need to read it again and recommend it to anyone who wouldn't otherwise be paying attention to things that aren't thrown in our faces. 
The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson - Jeffrey Toobin
My interest in this book came after watching ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary on the whole OJ debacle: O.J.: Made in America. Then I watched The People v. O.J. Simpson on FX, which is based on this book, so figured I'd need to get all the fact somewhere. Jeffrey Toobin clearly did his homework when this trial was going on and he's an excellent writer too. It's somewhat frustrating reading a book you'll already know the outcome of, but learning all the evidence that wasn't shown in the shows or is widely known in public was very interesting. He also did a fantastic job during the entire book remaining neutral, showing both sides of the case and the trial, despite ultimately sharing his opinion at the
(very) end of the book.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Last details of Germany part 2

From a blog post that's been waiting to be posted for months...

On my last week, I took a walk around the Altstadt in Düsseldorf. It always made me laugh when people said Germany wasn't old enough, as compared to France or some other places, but to me, it looks old, and certainly a lot older than half of the US.

Ice cream delivered to me by my colleagues on my last day. The ice cream trip wasn't for me, I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and benefitted.

A hike on my last day. It was described to me as a "short hike" at only four hours, as opposed to a long hike at eight hours. Not only does this not look like the hiking I'm used to, but a four hour walk in the woods sounded like a lot when they told me about it. The day of, however, it went a lot faster than I thought it would.

Two hours into it, they warned me about ticks, telling me that when I got home, I'd have to do a thorough check of myself to make sure no ticks got into my clothes and bit me.

I may or may not have spent the rest of the day worried that a tick bit me, and I wouldn't start showing signs until I was onboard the 12-hour flight the next day back to the US. I can happily say now that I survived.

It'd rained and the woods were a little muddy, but the air was cool and we saw no one else. I'm not sure there was a more German way to end my last day in Germany.

It was the last time I'd see scenes like this in a while.

Found this guy in the mud, and Frank picked him up to say hi to everyone.

We passed this stone, and someone said "oh, a border stone" (in German), and because it translates exactly the same, I had to ask myself a few times, "what's a border stone?" 

Turns out it's exactly what you think it is. We crossed the border right into Holland, and this was the marking. A border stone. 

We brought snacks, and Johann was pleased with that.

Nature. Not sure how the shopping cart got all the way out here, as we were nowhere near civilization, but it was a little oxymoronic.

I have a picture of me when I was about seven, standing underneath a circle cactus. Now I have one under a circle ivy. Not sure how it got there, but it made for a great picture. 

Martin, Johann and Judith were the greatest. Their inclusion of me in everything that entire summer was literally the icing on the cake.

Frank was such a sport, and happy to include me, always educate me and fill me in on whatever. He was great, and the best boss I could have asked for. 

The next day, it was my last day. It was freezing and rained, which seemed to match my general feeling about the day. I cried, so that was accurate.

Johann made it to the airport for my goodbye, despite a looming lunchtime and a nap routine that couldn't be broken. That kid and his smiles.

Wasn't hard to get him to smile, and we stood there pointing out different things in the airport, laughing the entire time. The skytrain was his personal favorite. Mine was the giant families with enormous suitcases wrapped in saran wrap. 

I'd cried already that day, that morning when I gave them a card, thanking them for everything they'd done and basically telling them that they were some of the coolest, most generous and patient people I'd ever met. They waited with me while I checked in, walked me to security, and didn't let go of my hugs when they lasted way too long because of my tears.

Judith explained to Johann that I had to go through security, so it was time to say goodbye, and in his little innocent voice, he asked "" ("with?"). The last few weeks I was there, he was very intent on going everywhere with me. She told him that no, he couldn't go with me, and while I was recovering from my own tears, started crying. That didn't help much with my own, and I started crying all over again.

I went through security, and as I was loading my things onto the conveyor belt, the security worker saw my tears and asked me (in German) if everything was okay. I nodded, told him it was a sad day, and kept doing my thing. He then said something in English, and when I responded to the English question too, he was shocked, and said "oh, you speak English!"

Though all I wanted to do was cry, his mistaking me for a German, and believing it even after I spoke to him, was the perfect send-off.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Last details of Germany

In my last few weeks of being in Germany, in my little village, I started to realize how much I'd miss it. It wasn't all about my little trips to other European countries, that I would miss, but my running routes through neighborhoods, my walk to the train and the people who I was surrounded by for the two months I was there.

This was the main street of the town, which I almost never saw more populated than this. There was a book store, a restaurant, a church, some bars, a bank and a ton of other things I never went into. 

There was a town celebration at one point, but I ended up forgetting about it and not going, until I realized when I heard fireworks go off deep into the night that that was in fact the night.

I loved the cobblestone streets and sidewalks and the flowers and the fact that cars couldn't drive on half of the streets. (I didn't have to drive so it wasn't a problem, but it was sort of annoying when we had to go way out of our way just to get home, when it was on the other side of a street, but we just couldn't get there.)

We had cake and coffee a lot in the afternoon, it seemed like there was always a reason for celebration. In Germany, apparently it's customary to bring in a cake for yourself when it's your birthday, you have a baby, you're quitting or really any reason at all. And then sometimes we just had cake just because. I enjoyed those afternoons.

The TVs were on in my office all the time, just without sound. You could tune the headsets in so that you could hear, which we did a few times. Being in Germany during the 2015 Greece financial crisis and then during the beginning of the real Syrian refugee crisis in Germany was a fascinating time to be there. Germans, as I found, are very intelligent and informed people who care about the government and social issues and want to be informed.

I asked a lot of questions and learned a ton.

And then when the first republican debate happened, I answered a lot of questions and taught a lot.

It took me a day to watch it, as it was on in the middle of the night in Germany, and I had to then find it on YouTube, but I did and then answered even more questions. (They were mostly shocked that Donald Trump was even allowed in the US, much less that people agreed with him.)

The view of Düsseldorf from the 13th floor of my office. It had a nice outdoor patio and we chose a nice day to go see everything.

It was apparently a "dry" summer, but some days it poured and poured and poured some more. I watched more rain than ever, and borrowed a few raincoats and umbrellas.

Altstadt is Düsseldorf's "downtown" and sort of touristy, but also has legitimate restaurants and bars and clubs and shops. I went on my first day in Düsseldorf and then ventured out there to get obligatory gifts and just to see what was there during my last few days.

While most Germans will scoff at the idea that Germany is old, I thought it was beautiful and picturesque and even if these buildings weren't the oldest in Europe, they're still built to look like it and certainly older than the western USA.

These trees were my favorite. They look good from next to them, as well as underneath them, but from across the water, they still look good.

Before I left, I knew I had to get a picture with these guys. I worked with these four more than anyone else, as I joined their team.

From left to right:

Gefion was helpful, kind and went out of her way to include me on meetings and always took time to introduce me and explain things. She also had me read a letter from the SEC one of the first days I was there, and then translate it into my rudimentary financial German and giver her a synopsis so that we were both on the same page, and that gave me a lot of hope.

Chris was the one I spent the most time with, and he was hysterical and thought I was hysterical too (whether that was because of my German abilities, we have yet to know). He was helpful and nice and so very patient and always, always made sure I knew what I was doing and that I had someone to go to lunch with.

Frank was the boss, and also my neighbor. He was serious and wanted to get things done right, but also silly and funny and so kindhearted. I was his neighbor, and he invited me to come over and sit in the yard with them before/after dinner, eat dinner and lunch with them, stay with them, go on trips with them, and generally just make sure that my time in Germany was good but also authentic. With two daughters my age, he knew how to interact with me and that was important, but more importantly, he is a very kind person and I get excited when I get messages from him these days.

Ophelia was more or less a savior to me. Frank had told me there was a Canadian, but it was well into my first day before she asked me if I'd rather speak English with her, and she might have regretted that after a while. We ate lunch together and talked about the differences between Germans and everyone else, language barriers and cultural differences. She made sure I understood the conversation and was the first to help me translate things and make sure I was understood. She made me believe that it was possible for me to live in Germany and survive, and I loved her for that.

I don't know who started this but it was probably Frank.

And on the other side of me, again, from left to right: Mo, Karin and Franco.

Mo would spend hours each day talking to me, about German life, American life, finance, my German knowledge, grammar, jokes, travel, you name it, we talked about it. There was a point every afternoon that he would look over and ask me something about America, ask for my opinion, or just show me something. Mo was the most patient person, and was willing to wait for me to get the right words together so that we could laugh together instead of just me laughing at whatever I had tried to say. The day I got my mom to send me a picture of the backyard featuring our pool was one of the better days of my relationship with Mo. He lost it, and I had to show everyone that picture. Google Maps just wasn't good enough for him, seeing neighborhoods with pools just wasn't good enough, he needed the panorama that my mom sent. He was great, and I was lucky to have sat next to him during those months.

Karin was gone for my first two weeks, so by the time she came back, I was settled and thought I knew what was going on, only to have another face to meet. Karin was, disregarding Mo, the sweetest. She'd been to Arizona, and told me about her time in Tucson and driving on the I-10 (I was amazed she remembered) to the Grand Canyon (for part of it). She, like Mo, was interested in my life and wanted to know about my weekends and my plans for the rest of the summer and was so, so patient with me and my German, which was the most helpful thing anyone could do.

Franco was something else. He is one of those people who is always smiling, like he's just so pleased with life and people and can't stop being happy to be alive. His face, by far, was the most encouraging thing, and hearing him pick up the phone to speak in Italian, then switch to English, hang up and turn around and speak in German? That helped a lot. It wasn't until my last day that I found out Franco had worked with my uncle when my uncle worked for this bank in London. He had many contacts at the bank (and it's how I got the job), but I figured out pretty early who knew him and who didn't. I never thought to ask Franco, until he overheard me the last day saying goodbye to others who wished me and my uncle well, so that was just a small testament to Franco. Stayed at the company for all those years, and isn't one to brag about it, but stands out just the same.

And then one day, I got invited by a co-worker to go to a gasometer, which I had never heard of and had no idea what it could be. (Not sure if that's because I don't live in a industrial area or just because they're rare? I'll see when the next time I encounter a gasometer is.)

Oberhausen is 25 miles away from Düsseldorf, and it was explained to me as the "Detroit of Germany." (Maybe if I lived in Detroit I would have known what a gasometer was.) I guess it's a mining/industry town, which works well because it's on the river, and now both of those industries have gone down considerably (at least there) so the city is having a bit of a rough time.

But! What they do have is a gasometer, which is essentially a silo that's used to hold gas. The roof can move up and down, in order to compress the gas depending on how much there was, and I'm not really sure about the details or mechanics of storing gas, but it seems like it was quite the thing to do back in the day.

The gasometer has now been converted to hold exhibitions and art shows and events. With walls that are only millimeters thick, it's not great for the real art, as it's freezing inside when it's freezing outside, and hot inside when it's hot outside. It was pouring and freezing the day we went, but the inside was decent.

The exhibit was called "Die Schöne schein" or "The beautiful shine", and was a collection of some of the most iconic and beautify artwork in the world. Because of the non-perfect indoor conditions, these were all high-resolution photos and reproductions of the actual art pieces. The great thing was that if you wanted to see all of these in person, you'd have to go to a million museums in a ton of different countries and it'd take more than a few hours in the afternoon.

There's a rooftop observatory! It was raining and the clouds didn't help us out much, but you can see some plans in the distance on the right. It was green and pretty and I might have been the only one to think that.

As if there wasn't enough water from the rain, there's the Rhine.

This was a kind of light show, very unique and awesome. In the middle of the gasometer, it was something like 14 stories high, and what the artists did, using those 14 stories' worth of round walls, was create a light show with music. On each section of the wall, different patterns would come from the top, middle, bottom or in from the sides, choreographed with the music. It was too dark to take a video, but this picture worked out well because the walls were almost completely lit with green.

This one is from the top, looking down into the cylinder, but we spent probably close to 20 minutes laying at the bottom, on the giant pillows they had set up, looking up to the ceiling and being sort of mesmerized by the lights and sounds and sound of the rain hitting the steel sides of the building.

A view from the outside.

And on to finish my last week in Germany...