What I read in 2016: My year in books

imageAs I transferred this list from my moleskine journal, I realized what a diverse year of reading it has been and that many books still resonated long after the last page was turned. One measure of a life is the books that become tatooed indelibly to a moment in time.

I invite you to start the new year with one of my favorite reads or share with me one of yours. At the top of my 2017 list is Underground Railroad by Whitehead.

2016 Books:

Radiation  by Redniss. An art book about Marie Curie? You have to read this beautiful book to experience this author’s visual genius.

Me After you by J.J. Moyes.  If you enjoyed the first (Me Before You), this offers more of the same.

Windup Bird Chronicle by Murakami. Confession– I didn’t finish this book but after two years of tackling it, I decided I’ve read enough. My one Murakami novel fail.

*Americanah by Adiche. One of the best books I read this year. A different take on the black & immigrant experience

Shoemaker’s Wife by Trigiani

*Happy City by Charles Montgomery(NF). My new interest in understanding what makes  some cities/communities vibrant places.

Smart Streets by Schwartz (NF)  An amazing look at how highways destroyed American cities and how modern cities are fighting back through smart street design.

Eleanor and Park. A young adult novel but delightful

*Year of Fog  by Richmond.  I avoided this book for a few years for its subject matter–a child kidnapping– but it was worth the wait and not the depressing book you’d expect.

Elizabeth Costello by Coetze. A celebrated writer deals with aging through the lens of a Nobel-winning novelist.

Fates and Furies by Groff. Surprising, page turning story

*Nightingale by Hannah. Excellent novel of WWII in France where two sisters follow different paths of resistance.

Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Sadik-Khan(NF). How NYC transformed and human-scaled the city through innovative bike paths and traffic free zones

Girl on the Train by Hawkins. In the genre of Fates & Furies

*The Last Chinese Chef by Mones. If you’re a fan of novels with food subplots, this is a yummy one.

Sweet Tooth by McEwan

*The Nest by Sweeney. Middle age siblings deal with losing an expected inheritance

The Japanese Lover by Allende

*Book of Unknown Americans by Henriquez. Highly recommended immigant experience novel

Paris Architect by Belfoure. Brilliant novel that I hoped was based on a true story of Paris during WWII

Strange Library by Murakami.  I finished this one!

God of Small Things by Roy

Gratitude by Dr. Sacks.  I read this entire small volume while in the library by a master of the human condition

Black Widow by Silva. Always read Silva on long flights. This one doesn’t disappoint and sets you up for the next chapter of Israel’s #1 spy.

Vinegar Girl by Kingsolver

Marriage of Opposites by Hoffman

*Flight Behavior by Kingsolver.  Wonderful imaging of climate change’s impact in Appalachia.




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Tales from the road: Sorrento where the sky grieves with us

We arrive at Hotel Regina, a jewel box by the sea in Sorrento, where a two day day storm of infinite beauty and fury commences. Andy’s cold also begins its furious, dripping journey.

We are holed up in our glass encased room, only leaving for meals during merciful breaks in the torrential rains, lightning and thunder. Three of five meals are at Taverna Abruzzo in the harbor, both the best and closest restaurant to us as we are now well past tourist season and many places are closed. By our last supper, the owner is plying us with gifts of prosecco , fortified wine and limoncello. We stuff ourselves with pasta and clam sauce and fresh grilled sea bass.

What do we do all day in our room with a sea view? We take photos of the changing sky over Mount Vesuvius: The clouds, the rainbows, the sudden darkening skies before the clouds split open.

Watching the variable sky is vastly more interesting than surfing the few English language channels in Europe that only offer a steady diet of news; BBC America, CNN, Bloomberg,  Euronews. Not one hotel offers any English language entertainment and we cannot take any more mewling and puking news media. We are so done with pundits and polls and politics. The skies of Sorrento echo our tears and frustration.

We do, however, discover that our slow  internet supports  playing Ted Talks, podcasts and later we  expand to webisodes of “comedians in cars getting coffee” with Jerry Seinfeld., particularly enjoying the one with President Obama. I also read the extraordinary book “Flight Behavior” by Barbara Kingsolver and write this blog post. A. strums his portable guitar.  The days and the storm pass slowly.

Despite our plans, there would be no visit to Pompeii or Herculaneum on this leg of our journey. No drive to Positano or along the Amalfi Coast. No ferry to the Isle of Capri. There will just be rain outside our Sorrento windows and sniffles inside.

Yesterday, our last day, was a hard traveling one of trains and connections toward Rome where we end up stranded at a hotel near their airport. There is nothing else nearby.

A. is still sick so we eat at the hotel and retire early for our 4 am wake up call to begin the long flight home.

Before we turn out the light, we catch a youtube segment of Saturday Night Live. It is the opening with Kate McKinnon in her Hilary white suit singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelulah” in a moving elegy to all of our shared grief over an election lost.

It’s been a long, strange ride this trip and we are ready to come home.

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Tales from the road: Where the fates catch up to us in Italy

On U.S. election day, we flew from Athens, the birthplace of democratic ideals, to Naples, Italy, the land of emperors and Roman conquest. There’s an omen here, folks!

That night, we went to bed as America started voting. We woke at 5 am to learn that a stunning outcome was about to be confirmed. We were in shock.

We wandered Naples all day feeling like strangers in a strange land. And we felt our real home had become a strange land, too. We were grieving.

But even grievers gotta eat! We were in the birthplace of pizza after all. We waited an hour on line outside one of the top rated pizza tavernas in the city–Pizzeria da Michelle. When we were finally seated, we discovered there was exactly one item on the menu. No variations, no salad, nothing but margarita pizza. We ordered two. The sauce was amazing, the cheese was scattered over a thin blistered crust. You eat with a fork and knife and you say “”so that’s Neapolitan pizza!”

We returned to our room, listened to more heartbreaking news. We forced ourselves back out to visit the archaeological museum where giant roman statues of autocratic rulers and mythic gods in the evening-darkened rooms fed our sense of doom. Best to eat again!

Dinner was a garlicky comfort of pasta with clam sauce and grilled fish. Followed by gelato and pastries. Hey, we’re all alone here grieving.

The next day we explored all of Naples. It’s both a beautiful, historic city with spectacular views of Mount Vesuvius and the gleaming port and a gritty, less tourist-oriented urban center. What we could have done without is the “underground tour of Roman ruins.” Best ruins are above ground.

We catch a five pm, 45 minute ferry from Naples to Sorrento where our ginger gum helps reduce our motion sickness in the pre-storm waters.

All day yesterday, A. was feeling like he was getting sick. By night in Sorrento, he was. We had a good dinner at the port and went straight to bed.

Today, Friday, it is raining. A.  is definitely sick, I am fighting it. However, we are resting quite comfortably in our genteel hotel facing the sea with clear views of passing ferries, shocking rainbows and intermittent downpours. Its quite pretty and quiet here after bustling Naples.

I wash a few things in the bathroom sink. I write this blog post.

We are waiting for the sun to come out!

I mean this both literally and figuratively. We are ALL waiting…

One lesson of this trip, don’t travel out the of the country during presidential elections.

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Tales from the road: we prove them wrong about Athens

After 6 days of island hopping in Santorini and Crete, we return to Athens for three more nights.

We were told by friends and guidebooks (alas too late after we booked everything) that 3 days in Athens were plenty enough. How would we fill the next three?

Well, we ended up in a completely different and grittier part of town near crowded Monastiraki and the seedier Onomia neighborhood right next to the Central Marketplace where even taxi drivers didn’t want ro take us to go on our first round of the city!

We were in a gritty, graffiti ridden, urban zone and our hotel, though stylishly modern, was a giant step down from our posh Island stays and was also deep in the seedy zone.

What do you on a Saturday night in Athens? We did our laundry! And we used the laundromat’s free wifi to figure out how we’d survive the next couple days. We came up with a plan for Sunday that was nearly our best day ever!

Our Aegina Odyssey

Sunday morning, after breakfast, we took the train to the port of Piraeus to catch a ferry to the nearby island of Aegina (aka Pistachio Island). In 45 minutes on a hydrofoil, we are  out at sunny Aegina, a charming little island known for their local pistachios which hawkers offered samples of at every shop and stand.

We’ve been having a run of warm, sunny weather lately so we ambled the little town, then sat at a cafe and savored a cone of fresh pistachio and coffee gelatos while using their free wifi to plot our next moves.

We decided to rent a car for a couple of hours and visit the temple of Aphaia on the far side of the island. At $25E, it was cheaper than a cab! Barely 10 minutes later, we were in a green jalopy cruising across the island! Easy peasy.

The Temple of Aphaea was amazing. Like a mini Parthenon high atop the island with 360 views. And entrance was free, this being the first Sunday in November. Who knew!

We then drove the rest of the island, took lots of pix, returned the car in town  and strolled over to a homey fish tavern where an impromptu, authentic concert of regulars had the patrons singing along. We ordered fresh grilled sardines and a glass of wine, enjoyed the warm, late day lighting, the camaraderie, the music, the view and felt enormously lucky to be present in this moment.

To return, we took the slower 1:15 hour ferry back to Athens and were transfixed by the epic sunset that unfolded slowly over the entire ride.

We got back on the train but got off at our first Athens location (evagelisma station) and had italian food at Blu Codice, a restaurant I had eyed on our first round. It was delicious, quiet and the perfect way to end our 2nd day. It felt like a little vacation!

On Monday, our last day in Athens we plan to eat local , walk local neighborhoods and simply hang out like locals.

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Takes from the road: Finding our cave in Crete

Since we first met and married, we’d talk about running away to a cave in Crete whenever life got tough.

In these last tough days of the election, we are clearly happy to actually be in Crete and we have… Tada….found our cave!

Psychro cave is on the Lissithi plateau about 90 minutes of winding mountain road from Heraklio, Crete’s largest city. But we are way out in the high country where people are few and open space is all around.

 We climb a 15 minute rocky path to the mouth of the cave and then make our steep descent into a world of dark pools and scary, anthropomorphic stalagmites  and stalactites.

This cave is an ancient Minoan sacred place 5000 BC or so where sacrifices and rituals were held.  It is also reputed to be where Rhea gave birth to Zeus, who became the king of god on MountbOlympus.

After our descent, we surface again to drive another thrilling mountain road to the scenic seaside village of Agios Nikilaod where scary caves were replaced with the latest Wi-Fi scary news from the U.S.

If things go really bad on election day, we may ALL need to run away to a cave in Crete!

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Tales from the road: A rainy day in Santorini

Late season vacations offer many advantages: fewer crowds, easier access to popular sites and favored restaurants, lower prices on hotels and easier upgrades. They also mean more variable weather!
Yesterday, reports of rain ranged from 60% at 8 am to 80% by 11 am. We figured we’d play the odds and venture out in our new rain jackets for an early morning walk along Fira’s cliff-hugging, waterside promenade. The menacing clouds made for gorgeous photos of the volcano islands of the caldera.
Have I mentioned that there’s no such thing as a bad photographer on Santorini? Unless you are shooting the inside of a paper bag, you pretty much can’t help but catch a beautiful moment. There’s the blue domed, white walled churches spread across the island like Starbucks across NYC. There’s endless sea views, cliff dwellings, boats sailing, hidden alleys, weathered, painted doorways and charming shops. Even a pack of donkeys climbing the steep hills and the “hot patties” they leave behind the stone pathways are photo-worthy!
So, midway in our morning constitutional, 80% chances becomes 100% pouring rain and we hustle our way back to our car and head to the villa for breakfast.The glass surround of our dining room lets enjoy the wind and rain while we consume a daunting spread of breakfast offerings. We take our time!
Then back to our suite for a couple hours of creative pursuits. I to writing my blog about the previous days road trip and he to guitar playing. A bought a collapsible travel guitar he’s enjoying on its maiden journey (fits inside his carry on!).
Then, we do the second best thing you can do on a rainy day…we go wine tasting! The island is dotted with wonderful wineries growing its acclaimed assyrtiko white grapes in a ground-hugging farming style.

We try two: Domaine Sigales where our tasting menu was topped off with the best anchovy and tomato crostinis ever. Then we drive to Artspace where the historic winery’s interior has become a contemporary art gallery. Our engaging host Esmerelda tells us about the wines, the history, her recipe for tomato sauce and gives us a tasting of their wines all for just 5 euros!

We exit the winery at 4:30 and, miraculously, the  rain has stopped.

Later, we head to dinner at Metaxma Mas, a popular locals eatery. Unfortunately, it isn’t popular with google maps and we get hella lost on dark, winding roads and Andy must summon his superhero clutch skills to get us back on track! Finally, we park at a church, head down a dark, steep alley and end up at a cozy spot with excellent grilled octopus and a lamb shank for him.

We drive back to Fira for a last, quick walk along the now dark promenade and home to pack up our clean laundry that was just delivered.

And that’s how you spend a rainy day in Santorini.

Today, we head to Crete!

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Tales from the road: Secrets of Santorini

We are in a villa facing the sea and small islands. We are in a volcano caldera. We are above water. The volcano is below. We are in one of the most beautiful places on earth. All of the above are true. We are in Santorini. Our villa is Lilium Santorini.

If you drove from top to bottom of Santorini without stopping, you could cover the island in one hour. But it is the stops at beaches, the crumbling castles, the wine, the food and ooohhh the sunsets that make the island a multi-day affair. Affair is the operative word because this island is filled with seductions.

If you can drive stick and arent fazed by narrow, winding roads, definitely rent a car!
On our first full day, we started by driving south. We soon stopped to traverse the winding paths to a Venetian palace in Emporeio. Fifteen minutes from there, we arrived at the black beach of Perivelos where we went for a long walk and got a free foot massage from the black pumice beach. Then we drove thru the more touristy Perissa beach and crossed the bottom of the Island to the red rock beaches of Akrotiri.

Then back up the highway to stop at our villa south of the main town of Fira (great gelato and our first night’s fabulous meal at Salt & Pepper) After a gelato stop again, we then drove late day to the northern tip town of Oia about 30 minutes away. The sea is almost always in view on this small island.

Oia is the northernmost town with the legendary scene (in countless postcards and paintings) of three blue domed churches facing the sea. It is also legendary for its views of the caldera (volcanic sea cauldron) at sunset. Our mission: to find the iconic blue churches before sunset.

It wasn’t easy! We saw postcards of the scene in every shop as we traversed the winding paths and stairs facing the caldera in Oia. We asked people who gave contradictory advice. We rushed hither and yon stopping only to take yet another scenic shot. We were getting hot and testy as the sun dropped ever lower and our scene was ever elusive.

And then we saw a group of Japanese tourists and a wedding couple excitedly pouring down yet another staircase. We decided to follow them. As we wound down the steps, we saw it. Our shining blue domed churches, our setting sun, our ecstatic lighting. We pushed into the throng and started shooting (photos) and didn’t stop till the sun did!

We drove back in the dark totally elated. And hungry!

Dinner that night was at Aroma Avlis in Exo Gonia– winery by day, restaurant by night. Salad with grilled haloumi cheese on top, white eggplant in red sauce, shrimp & pasta for me and lamb stew for him. Chocolate mousse for both. And spectacular white wine.

Then back to our villa for a night of deep sleep. Rain expected for the next day.

Things you must consume on Santorini:
Salads with grilled cheese
White eggplant
Grilled fish
White wines from local vineyards

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