Monthly Archives: February 2009

Books meme

This morning, after reading about the new Kindle (which is sort of a US only product at the moment) I decided to download an eBook reader for the iPhone/iPod touch, and to download some classics from the Gutenburg Project which are thus freely available. I currently have waaaaay too many books in my British flat; they are threatening to take over the room, so it seemed a good idea.


I then remembered the “100 Books” meme and decided this was a good way to try and pick some things to download; I’m posting this more as a note to myself than anything else, however I’d also love suggestions of other classics that are not on this list but that are highly recommended by someone who reads this blog. I also note that there are several versions of this list floating around and I don’t know which one this is. Today I downloaded “Ethan Frome,” and “Portrait of a Lady” which are two classics I’ve never gotten around to but which are not on this list.

Meme Instructions:

  1. Look at the list and put an ‘x’ after those you have read.
  2. Add a ‘+’ to the ones you LOVE.
  3. Star (*) those you plan on reading.

Note, spelling errors on the list are not mine; I copied it off another blog and tried to correct the obvious ones but I probably did not catch them all!

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen x+
  2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien x
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte *
  4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling (never plan to read–sorry!)
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee x
  6. The Bible x (well, large chunks of it)
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte *
  8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell x
  9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
  10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens x
  11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott x
  12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
  13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
  14. Complete Works of Shakespeare x (again, a large chunk of it)
  15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
  16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien x
  17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger x
  19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell x+++ (still my fave of all time)
  22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald x
  23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
  24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy x
  25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky x
  28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck x
  29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll x
  30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame x
  31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy x++
  32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens x
  33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis x
  34. Emma – Jane Austen x+
  35. Persuasion – Jane Austen x+
  36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis x
  37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
  39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden x+
  40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne x
  41. Animal Farm – George Orwell x
  42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
  43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
  45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery x+
  47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding x
  50. Atonement – Ian McEwan
  51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  52. Dune – Frank Herbert
  53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen x+
  55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
  56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens x
  58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
  60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez x
  61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck x
  62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov x+
  63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
  65. Count of Monte Cristo – Aleandre Dumas
  66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
  67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding x+
  69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
  70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
  72. Dracula – Bram Stoker x
  73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett x+
  74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson x
  75. Ulysses – James Joyce x
  76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
  78. Germinal – Emile Zola
  79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  80. Possession – AS Byatt
  81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens x
  82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
  87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White x
  88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
  89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle x (large chunks of it)
  90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
  91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery x
  93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
  94. Watership Down – Richard Adams
  95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
  97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare x
  99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl x+
  100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

I’ve bought both Bronte books for my e-reader and should get started on them shortly. I have another bout of back-to-back European travel coming up (Eindhoven then Scotland then Switzerland again) so I plan to make good use of all that spare time. But seriously, all other recommendations welcome. Some of my own favorite classics are not on this list, like Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, anything by Solzhenitsyn (yes I love Russian Literature, it’s true) and the Master and Margarita by Bulgakov (still one of the best books I’ve ever read, and re-read, etc.)

Whither the weather

There was a major winter storm in Minnesota yesterday, and now the cold is setting in. Today my transplanted self had to give a lecture in a different part of town than I’m normally in, and given the ambient warmth and sunshine I decided to walk back to the office instead of cabbing it as I had there. And I had left my coat and scarf in the office, and didn’t need them on the 3 mile walk. The English spring report: crocuses are out, as are snowdrops and the daffodils are up and getting ready to bloom in the next few days. The English spring comes early, and lulls us into thinking that the summer will be warm (it won’t). But on a day like today, I didn’t at all mind being here instead of in Minneapolis.

You say potato, I say…

Actually, it’s you (Brits) say “Pancake” and I say “Crepe.” I had seen so many pancakes and pancake stories floating around here this week, and when staring uninspiredly at a package of asparagus in my fridge tonight, decided to confirm my suspicions. I googled “English pancake recipe” and came up with Delia’s, which I noted looked remarkably familiar in all ways but one. The ingredients list is identical to what’s in my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (well, once you’ve converted all the metric into amounts to mix my measuring cups) except for the method: in America we mix dry (flour and salt) and wet (milk and egg) ingredients separately, then combine, while here apparently the flour with salt gets slowly mixed into the beaten egg then the milk added. Regardless, it was a classic crepe recipe, and I filled mine with crispy asparagus spears and drizzled hollandaise sauce over the top. (No, not caster sugar, I don’t like sweet things and besides that always makes me think of actually eating crepes in Paris, which are still thinner than anything I have managed at home no matter how hard I swirl the pan.) But totally yummy for an easy dinner. But why the name? Is it because there is so much animosity between the Brits and the French? I will still call these “English pancakes” crepes, as for me a pancake has buttermilk and is thick and stacked.

Yesterday was… ?

I was at meetings in East London yesterday, which I do about once every month or two, and these events inevitably end in the pub with the group. I managed to divulge one of those little pieces of Americana that I don’t even think about as being unusual, but it shocked the assembled Britain-dwelling (although not all Britain-born) masses into silence, and left everyone staring at me with their jaws hanging floorward. They were discussing “pancake day” (Shrove Tuesday) and how they needed to go home and make pancakes. I had been seeing signs in the kitchenware shop down the street from me advertising pancake day and trying to sell pancake-making implements, but I had certainly not heard of “pancake day” before moving here and it’s not something I would have thought of yesterday. I was, however, from reading American papers, aware that it was Mardi Gras. Someone must have asked me in passing if the Americans celebrated pancake day, to which I replied (too hastily), “No, but today there will be loads of girls in New Orleans for Mardi Gras drinking too much and lifting their shirts to flash strangers.”

Yeah, you could have heard a pin drop. Oops. But, it’s true, New Orleans is the only place I can think of where people plan in advance to go out drinking and purposefully not be wearing bras for this adventurous practice. I have not been to NoLa for Mardi Gras, although I was there one year for a conference that fell close to St. Patrick’s day, which I have been assured was very Mardi Gras-like, including a parade, beads, t*ts, the whole thing. The conversation moved on to discuss Carnivale and the fact that there were a variety of interesting things happening yesterday depending on where you were. It’s a pretty funny cultural commentary, I thought: the Brits are eating pancakes while the Americans, North and South, are flashing a lot of skin at passers-by. Hmmm. Not sure what that means. But Lent starts today regardless of what you did yesterday.

Manna from heaven


This amazing gift arrived today from Almost American (a Brit in the US) and it absolutely made my day; nothing is better than a bit of home, especially from a fellow blogger. I have been stunned in the last few months by the sense of community in the expat blogging world; I’m always amused when I comment on a post in the general category of UK/US expat blog exchanges that I read, and I realize that I know several names or handles within the commenters. What a pleasant surprise it has been for me to find that the expat community can be so strong; I have several “facebook friends” within as well as sympathetic voices commenting when I need a little pick-me-up. But let’s face it, four boxes of Cheez-its will last me for several weeks, especially if I ration them like a responsible adult, so I will be reminded for weeks to come of the kindness of not-quite-strangers. To me, cheese-flavored crackers from America truly equates to Manna from Heaven.

The trouble with expat friends

The trouble with expat friends is that they are more likely than other friends to move to another country! I had dinner last night with one of my favorite “real-life” (as opposed to blog-life) expat friends, who is an EU person living in England, but is about to move to Japan. Yes it’s temporary, yes she’ll be back in the UK after a year or two if things work out according to plan, but it does highlight the issue of being a displaced person who befriends other displaced persons. We are all so mobile, you never know where we might end up next!

A rave review

I just finished the utterly fantastic book, “Postcards from Across the Pond” (link is to the blog of the same name) by Michael Harling.

I have read a number of books on the US/UK expat experience as well as on the Brits/England in general, but this one takes the cake–it is hands down the best overall summary of what an American living here would notice and find amusing. And I say amusing, because it’s Harling’s light-hearted tone and wry observations done in the context of admiration, unlike, say, Sarah Lyall’s frequently condescending tone. The book is laugh-out-loud funny in places, the writing is crisp and the stories are brilliant. Of course, I now realize that I could never turn my blog into a book, as many of the same things seem to amuse and confound me and Michael, perhaps providing a reminder that there are some generalities to the expat experience, especially for an American in the UK.

After two and a half years here, I feel as though my overall attitude is similar to Harling’s, in that I am mostly amused at the crazy things I notice and that surprise me; in the early days I was admittedly frequently angry and disgusted because life was proving remarkably difficult (e.g. the whole bank account/credit card fiasco). Yes at times I am critical of the locals, especially on topics about which I care deeply (access to quality education regardless of parental income) but most of the time I too am wryly amused. Reading Harling’s book brought back a memory from last week that I neglected to blog about, which was wandering aimlessly around Manchester in the dark because there are frequently no stand alone street signs in UK cities, and you have to hopefully look for the names of streets to be on placards on the side of buildings, which are not always there on each corner. I had a map and still ended up making two wrong turns, which is quite unusual for me, normally pretty good at navigation (and having won orienteering medals in girl scouts!) but the streets being unlabeled and not at right angles definitely did me in. I know I keep getting off topic here so I’ll conclude this ramble with one more bit of praise for the book; almost every single anecdote made me feel like nodding, yep, I agree, been there, done that, wondered that, rolled my eyes at that, so for any new American expats in the UK or those considering taking the plunge, this book is mandatory reading.

A real reason to criticize British two tap sinks

There’s a mini epidemic of Norovirus where I live in the UK, and the CDC’s best advice for avoiding it is to wash your hands thoroughly and often, with lots of soap and lots of warm water. Anyone ever tried to do this with British sinks, in which the hot and cold taps are separate, such that you can’t possibly hold your soapy hands under the running water to rinse? Absolutely diabolical. I’ve come to the realization that personal hygeine in the form of hand-washing in the UK is not common, as this is already my second brush with this particular virus (characterized by projectile vomiting, lovely!) since moving to the UK. The fact that the “fecal-oral route” is the most prevalent means of transmitting the virus makes me feel sick. Previously I only heard about it from cruise ships or nursing homes. But with two tap sinks, it’s no wonder that the virus spreads so easily… and let’s not mention population density. Flying over the UK you see vast amounts of green followed by tiny and densely-packed towns. The UK is lucky that SARS has not been a problem here _yet_ since the local population density is certainly conducive to the spread of communicable diseases. My plan for the weekend? Stay inside, continue to wash hands frequently, no matter how painful, with my hot-and-cold water taps, and hope for the best. Drinking only bottled water and eating only self-prepared food. The virus got me last time, but I hope that it won’t make it into my tiny flat this time.

On Teaching and Learning

There is a report in the Guardian this morning on the sorry state of primary school education in Britain. This is one of those cases where I found my culture shock at moving to the UK to be the greatest: they have a completely different idea of what schooling means, both in primary and secondary school, and it’s probably at least partly related to a University system that has so little to do with an American university that it’s not recognizable. I truly was not expecting such immense philosophical differences in the field of education, nor have I been able to be convinced since being here that the English system is a particularly effective one when it comes to true teaching and learning. It involves specialization at a very young age and lots of stressful examinations, which is one of the key points in the Guardian piece.

For background for those unfamiliar with the English system, the end of a “general” education is at age 16, as the years from 16-18 involve detailed studying of only three or four subjects, and in the area in which you will major at University. University has no “general education” element, which results in a 3-year instead of 4-year Bachelors degree. I am not questioning the qualifications of these students compared with American degrees, but the philosophy is just so different that I have a difficult time comprehending. (Perhaps one or more of my friendly British readers will provide some commentary, especially those cases where both systems have been experienced directly!)

One of the most pressing issues in all of this is the UK’s emphasis on examinations. I can honestly say that there were only a few times in my life where I had a reasonably stressful examination, all above the age of 15 or 16 and never for more than a day: the PSAT, which determines a scholarship for University, the ACT, which determines part of Uni entrance competitiveness, and the GRE for grad school admissions. We had standardized testing in the schools, but it was not stressful, at least not for me (who knows what the teachers felt!) I don’t feel as though the student body in general was particularly fussed about these exams, it merely represented a day in which we did not have our normal classes at the normal times.

My views of my American education are quite positive. The emphasis on learning instead of examining meant that we had far more of our total outcome for any subject based on projects, reports, take-home examinations where libraries could be consulted and the overall level of creative thinking was high. Exams were one small part of the picture, at all levels including high school and University. And the broader curriculum meant that I was able, as a science/math geek, to still take English literature, Russian language and literature, psychology and sociology as subjects at University level, even though technically they have nothing to do with my Engineering degree. How less broad my education would have been without that needed diversion and distraction from purely math and physics! And how better prepared I was for working in the real world, where outcomes in jobs are most certainly not evaluated by formal seated examinations!

I do not mean to cause offense by criticizing a system that is not my own. But I put this out there because I am honestly having a difficult time understanding the merits of this heavy testing schedule for children, and clearly I’m not alone–as is reflected in the Guardian piece–since the criticism for testing children so much is now reaching fever pitch. I had a casual conversation with a friend a few weeks ago in which she said that if she had kids she would have to leave the UK, as she could not subject them to this system. I had not thought of it in quite such stark terms (not having or planning on kids myself) but I could see her point, and it came back to me in reading this Guardian piece right now. It brings up broader philosophical points too: what is the role of education, and how does that role change in primary school, secondary school and University-level education? My own grandparents only went through American “8th grade” living out in the wilderness of southwestern Minnesota, although they did supplement their educations several times each later in life. It’s clear that with the passage of time, over the last 50 years especially but 100 years as well, that the importance of University education has increased, which has increased the pressure on students at younger ages to consider their competitiveness for Uni admissions. But at what point do we have to stop and say that up until the age of 18, we are still dealing with CHILDREN here, and take some of the pressures off to allow for the enjoyment of freedom that one never sees again with the commencement of one’s working days?

Ah, Heathrow

The conflicting reports continue to come in. Heathrow was named the world’s most annoying airport this week, in a survey relating to passport lines and baggage claims. But a friend flew through there this week and claimed the overall experience to be much improved in the T5 era. Who knows–haven’t been through T5 yet myself. Second and third on the annoyance list were JFK (which I somehow miraculously have never flown into) and LAX. But in good news for we massively evil and polluting types, long haul flights in premium economy may soon join business class in having lie-flat beds, at least on the A380 where bunk beds are being considered. I’m a frequent traveller back to the states, and while I have no issues with the relatively short flight there during the day, the return trip over night does seem to mess me up to the point that I’ve been looking into upgrading my return with miles now that I’ve made it into the silver class on BA. Perhaps I can dream of a day when this will not be the case. Or perhaps the route will never be judged long enough to deserve such luxuries, and I will be forced to live with the lacking night’s sleep for as long as I live on this small island.