Category Archives: books

I Google You

I have been fairly honest, blog-style, recently in discussing the fact that I have recently discovered that my ex-husband (back in America, where I am not) just got remarried and my discovery of this information came thanks to the wonders of the internet. Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered that one of my favorite Indy Rock Star artists had recorded a song called “I Google You”:

The lyrics are here.

Said Indy Rock Star is Amanda Palmer (twitter @amandapalmer) and she is my current muscial obsession (anyone who can write lyrics like, “who needs love when there’s Southern Comfort and who needs love when the sandwiches are wicked and they know you at the Mac store” AND sing them in a catchy tune that I cannot get out of my head wins it in my book!)

The Google-y lyrics were written by her fiancee, the amazing writer Neil Gaiman (twitter @neilhimself) who happens to have a kid that works at Google. He also manages to beat out Stephen Fry in some polls of “British superstars who tweet” even though he’s spent the last few decades living near my home town of Minneapolis. It’s all so web 2.0 and so romantic. (And I’ve been sucked into it totally for the last few months but we won’t go there!)

The bottom line is as such: Amanda Palmer is awesome, and her music is worth listening to. I need to stop Google-stalking my ex-husband, although I keep writing about it because I just found out he got remarried and I even managed to score a photo of the happy couple. And Neil Gaiman is more than worth a read, although most people know that. And Amanda Palmer is awesome, and her music is worth listening to. I’ll stop now.

Ten years ago I…

This whole 2010 thing is freaking me out a bit. I mean, I’m heading less than gracefully towards middle age. Or who knows where I’m going. I keep thinking about how different things are in 2010 compared with 2000, which makes me realize I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA where I’ll be in 2020. For example:

  • In 2000, I was married, living in a 3BR house that I owned with my husband. We had a dog, a car and an SUV (to help fill three car garage) and all the other trappings of a suburban existence (lawnmowers, snowblowers, etc. to also help fill the three car garage) . In 2010 I am divorced and living in a work-subsidized 1BR flat and I have neither pets nor vehicles.
  • In 2000, the only foreign country I had visited was Canada. In 2010, I live in Europe and have travelled extensively in Europe, Asia and Australia.
  • In 2000, I had a Master of Science degree and was a full time student. In 2010 I have a nearly 5-year old PhD and a full time job.
  • In 2000, I had four living grandparents. In 2010, I have one but she’s a spunky nonagenarian.
  • In 2000, I used dial up internet for email and web access at home. There was no Twitter, Facebook, or Blog in my life. In 2010, I mostly use wireless broadband to access social media and web 2.0 content, although sometimes I tweet or post a blog from my iPhone.
  • In 2000, I was a PC. In 2010, I’m a Mac.
  • In 2000, I was not a great cook and I sometimes made bread in a bread-machine from a just-add-water mix. In 2010, I am an improving and enthusiastic cook, and I make homemade bread on a whim many weeks, without having to take out a cookbook or actually measure much of anything.
  • In 2000, I had never recorded a CD. In 2010, I have two professional recordings on my CV, although I’m no longer finding myself with the time to do music at that level (but I hope to get back to doing at least something musical sometime soon).
  • In 2000, I only had a point and shoot camera. In 2010, I have both analog and digital SLRs but neither has been getting much use lately (darned job again!).
  • In 2000, I wore size (American) 6 jeans. In 2010, I don’t.
  • In 2000, I had never been to Texas. In 2010, that is still true, but I’m heading there tomorrow!
  • in 2000, I had never tasted single malt Scotch. In 2010, I rang in the New Year with a wee dram of Balvenie Double Wood, my current favorite.
  • In 2000, I owned a CD player and a VCR. In 2010, I play music over the Bose speakers on my iMac when home, and over an iPod with noise canceling headphones when on the road. Movies are DVDs or downloads/streaming over the internet.
  • In 2000, I wore contacts sometimes. In 2010, I wear glasses exclusively. (Not bifocals yet; I’m sure that’s coming in this decade, though!)
  • In 2000, I bought books. In 2010, I buy eBooks. (Hooray for the Christmas Kindle!)
  • In 2000, I did not know most of the people who are likely to read and comment on this little reflection. In 2010, I’m a very lucky expat blogger!

So admittedly many of these changes have been in more than just my world: technology has moved on, society has moved on, the world is a different place after a decade. But it does sure make me aware of how little I can predict about where I’ll be, what I’ll be doing, and what life will look like more generally in another decade!

Best wishes to everyone for the new year, and feel free to leave your own “In 2000 I … but in 2010 I …” in the comments! I’d love to know what big changes others have found in their lives over this first decade of the new millennium!

Life’s a beach

I’m back in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, my absolute favorite place to get a little R&R. Although the internet access is intermittent at best, so my apologies if you are expecting to hear from me by email or any web medium! Life will be back to normal soon enough–I’ll be back in England at work, and commenting on the growing rumbles about American Healthcare Reform and the inevitable comparisons with the NHS. I have a few things to say on this subject 🙂 But not until I’ve put a few more miles on my legs. Beach for me means regular 6 mile walks, semi-regular 10+ mile bike rides, plenty of swimming and surfing, and lots of cooking. And reading books about cooking. I am obsessed with Tony Bourdain. I have a strange obsession with chefs who swear a lot, apparently, since I’m also secretly quite fond of Gordon Ramsay. But at the moment, it’s all Tony in my dreams. And England seems a distant, hazy place, and one in which I’m not 100% sure what’s going on. I really do have a transient life, where living out of a suitcase starts to feel normal after a while. And I can’t decide if that’s a good or a bad thing sometimes.

Expat blogger book review

I picked up a book at Glasgow’s Waterstone’s for the train ride home on Sunday, and it was a good read.

The book, Petite Anglaise, as usual shares the name of the blog that inspired it, but this was a book with a different story than the usual blog book: instead of being a compendium drawn from blog posts, the story was a narrative about the blog, the blogger, and how the blog changed her life. Well, up to a point: the real story got going right at the timepoint when the book finished, when the author was dooced, revealed in terms of previously anonymous identity, successfully took legal action for wrongful dismissal and won, wrote about this in several major newspapers, and generally got her life sorted out and embarked on a new career as a writer.

The memoir was excellent, honest, and funny; the stories about the blogger’s/author’s daughter had me in stitches. Her (Catherine Sanderson’s) novel is due to be released this summer, and there is lots of big news lately on the personal front (as I discovered when I obsessively read the blog for several hours after returning from Glasgow). I “became a fan” on facebook and highly recommend that you do too, after you’ve read and loved the book 🙂 After all, we expat bloggers have to stick together, and musing on one’s life in a strange land should not be a reason to lose your livelihood.

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.)

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.

Review: Rules, Britannia

I have gobbled up the books on living in the UK for American expats, and the latest was no exception. My only beef with these books is why did I not find them BEFORE I moved here and did the trial by fire thing instead!

Rules, Britannia” is a very good book in terms of information. There is a great deal of detail here that I have learned in two years of UK existence but that I could have learned from the book. It is encyclopedic in nature, being mostly bulleted lists instead of narrative prose, so it forms the ideal reference text to any person facing this sort of challenge in terms of moving. The book has a very different appeal than “Watching the English” which is one of my other bibles for life in Britain, but I’m glad to add “Rules, Britannia” to my recommendation list.

Americans criticizing Brits

I occasionally take some flak for my criticism of the locals and their traditions, but I invite anyone who thinks I am critical to have a go at the new book “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British” by Sarah Lyall. Some of it I have found very informative, like the chapter on the reform of the House of Lords, which was well researched and full of amusing commentary. But some of the other chapters are remarkably harsh to the point of being downright vitriolic. The writing is quite good, as one perhaps might expect given the author’s status as a London-based writer for the NY Times. A few interesting tidbits, excerpted from a review:

“We look to the future; they look to the past,” she writes. “We run for election; they stand for it. We noisily and proudly proclaim our Americanness; they shuffle their feet and apologize for their Britishness.”

Her analysis on this subject is the best I have read yet, because it attacks the reasons behind the attitude. And I did laugh out loud when she commented on Britain as a “formerly industrialized nation” particularly given my past complaints about the lacking engineering culture here in the UK.

“Brits,” she explains, “are supposed to pretend that achievement comes without effort; boasting is the height of poor manners. It makes you seem aggressive, ambitious, self-regarding, puffed up — verging on American.”

I’d say as an American expat working in Britain this is potentially the biggest minefield I’ve encountered. The path to success in the states is paved with shameless self-promotion. This is probably the path to career suicide in the UK.

But the tone of the book is best summarized in a much more biting review:

In the 19th century, Britain ruled a global empire while its aristocratic leaders swaggered around boasting that great nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.

In the 21st century, Britain has no empire and needs all the friends it can get.

The Anglo Files will not encourage many to sign up. Sarah Lyall’s “Field Guide” leaves you in no doubt of why the British lost their empire while simultaneously raising questions about how upper-class twits could have acquired one in the first place.

Personally I found it funny in places but overall a bit too harsh. The first few chapters made for very difficult reading, and I did not find most of it as helpful or explanatory as the Kate Fox classic “Watching the English”. There are many books on moving to the UK from the US, and this is probably mid-way down my list of suggestions, but not at all a necessary “field guide” so much as a bitter ‘memoir’ of the author’s personal frustrations.

Expat Books

I have claimed that no book has helped me more in my adjustment to life in the UK than Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” and I stand by that assessment. However, I do also love to read less scholarly books about travel and relocation, and I just finished a few. I refer the reader back to my favorite travel memoirs, which still stand–these new kids on the block (ha! everything old is new again) are nothing compared with my classics.

  • “Our own piece of Paris” by Ellie Nielson. A mildly amusing tale of an Australian family’s quest to find the perfect apartment in Paris. They have all the money in the world and a quite surreal lifestyle as far as I can tell. Two stars out of four.
  • “La vie Parisienne” by Janelle McCulloch. The book is beautifully produced and seems promising until it’s read. The author is affectatious and irritating at times, but the late chapters on the expat life are some of the truest words I have seen in print on this experience. One and a half stars of four.

The odd thing about both of the above-mentioned books is that the concern Aussies in Paris, which is also the subject of Sarah Turnbull’s “Almost French” from my original list (which are all four stars). What I really need are more wry commentaries on Americans trying to live in the UK, where on earth are they?

Three things

And these three things are not related and I’m not going to pretend that they are!

Thing 1: This book, “Rules, Brittania” looks like fun.  I’ll have to grab a copy and see what I’ve been doing wrong these last (almost) two years.  When you search for it on Amazon you get a bunch of other guides for expats living abroad, including recent editions of both London and England specific books.  Now why on earth did it not occur to me to look for something like this BEFORE I actually moved?  Oh the heartache I could have saved.  It makes me feel remarkably naive.

Thing 2: In amusing UK-US visa news, Boy George was denied a US visa for concerts this summer.

Thing 3: I apparently was reasonably lucky that my transatlantic flight on 14th June was NOT one of those much affected by the controversial presidential visit that went through Heathrow that weekend.  My flight was slightly delayed but we actually landed on time due to a huge bird (first time I’ve been on a 747 on the transatlantic route!) and a wicked tailwind.  But how stupid, just because the prez was going to dinner at Windsor Castle the British Airports Authority did not  mind disrupting the travel plans of 40,000 paying consumers?  Priorities, people.  But oh how very British, bending over backwards for the rich and famous at the expense of everyman.