reading round-up 2015, part I

One-fourth of 2015 has already blown by.

Apparently I had my nose in a book the entire time, which was a delightful way to spend one of the longer winters I can remember. (Since I obviously haven’t been writing much, I had to have been doing something, right?)

Here’s a quick round-up of what I read from January 1st through March 31st, complete with unbiased reviews. There’s lots of good stuff on this list; enjoy!

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. This epistolary (there’s your English lesson, folks) is a hilarious take on how educators get bogged down by department politics and life in the fishbowl of academia. While my life as a teacher was nothing compared to Professor Fitger’s, the story did ring true–one fall semester I wrote 27 letters of recommendation to 27 different colleges for just a handful students. This book is laugh-out-loud funny and a very fast read, and it’ll make you want to send a (heartfelt, well-penned) thank you note to anyone who’s ever publicly vouched for you. [Looking at you, Dr. Vance.]

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion. This was a quick beach read over New Year’s. Don is still as neurotic as he was in the first book, and Rosie is still as charming. In The Rosie Effect, it’s far more obvious that Don suffers from Asperger’s (his tics and quirks aren’t veiled as just tics and quirks anymore), and because of this, Don morphs (amazingly) into a more likable character. A good, easy read.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I have never, ever enjoyed scary books. In college, I had to put my assigned copy of Dracula outside of my room each night because it gave me nightmares (true story). So I have no idea why I spent this gray and cold winter cooped up with so many murder mysteries. Maybe I’m finally growing up. The Girl on the Train is a study of nut cases…of voyeurs, of obsessives, of psychotic levels of jealousy. It’s not gory, just weird. And it’ll make you realize just how well you handled that one big break-up you endured early in life.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam. The subtitle to this one is “OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought.” While having a huge rubbernecker factor to it (reading Adam’s meticulous patterns of living and germophobic ways was startling), the book also was filled with very scientific information about how someone develops true OCD. Not a light read; the technical language definitely served as speed bumps between all the juicy, “he really does that?” spectacles, but I’m glad I read it.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I loved this book about the art of ballet, the micromanaged lives of ballerinas, and a sneaky Russian defection. The story begins in the mid-1970’s and jumps around in time, much like a dancer on a stage. There’s a sordid affair, a career deferred, a token marriage, and a moving revelation. A terrific read.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I was officially the last person in the free world to read this one. While it certainly had its gritty moments (drug use? promiscuity?), Strayed’s bold journey to recenter herself was definitely well written and enjoyable. But I’m sure you knew that already. Like 2 years ago, actually.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Absolutely beautiful. I read this poetic, painful, heartbreakingly honest novel two times in two days. Seriously. I also dog-eared almost every other page for its incredibly mellifluous prose. This story of a marriage from beginning to end and back again will resonate with anyone who has been in love and had her (or his) heart broken.

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh. This time capsule of a novel takes place during a hot Louisiana summer in the late 1980’s. The facets of a horrible crime are slowly revealed, almost as slowly as the novel’s characters grow up. I’d read several advance reviews praising this novel, so I once again went against my literature of horror ban and gave it a go. I’d say this book is not so much a thriller as it is a study in adolescent obsession and how we tweak memory. An interesting, thought-provoking read.

Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg. One of the strangest books I’ve ever read. This post-apocalyptic tale starts off strong, with the protagonist being held against her will in a hospital housing individuals who have mysteriously survived the great flu epidemic which wiped out the rest of the population. Then Part II of the story comes along, and, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what happens. It reads like the trip down the tunnel in Willy Wonka’s boat. Read the first half and then move along to something else.

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley. Written by a Georgia girl and set in Athens–which were the 2 main reasons why I picked this one up. The premise is there:  a young wife with a terminal illness decides she is going to pick out her soon-to-be widower’s next wife. Though there are points that are forced and worthy of an eye roll, there are also some poignant sections that will make you think about very uncomfortable situations you’d typically care to avoid. I predict you’ll see this bright yellow book on lots of beach chairs this summer.

Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre. Go read this right now…like right this very minute. Few of us know enough about the war in Iraq. Even fewer understand what our soldiers face once they return home. This book is brilliant. Painful and raw and just brilliant.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I’ll be honest; I have never read any of Ms. Hannah’s previous 2,398 books because I feared they would be too girly and/or far too saccharine and romance-y. But I’m a sucker for a WWII novel. This one did not disappoint. It’s multilayered and fast paced and has some seriously strong female characters, one of whom runs an underground railroad of sorts to get downed pilots out of occupied France and back to the U.S. or England.

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Another thriller chock full of psychopaths? Really? I read this whodunit in about 48 hours, and then passed it off to Russ, who actually read it, too. The novel jumps around among various narrators, most of whom are less than reliable and several of whom wind up dead. All sorts of twists and turns take place…both rapidly and rather creatively. This book is a great, fast, train wreck of a read.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Phillip Sendker. A bit of a modern-day fairy tale that definitely requires a willing suspension of disbelief, this saga of star-crossed lovers is poetic but feels forced and overly dramatic. Set predominantly in Burma, the novel waggles between modern day and the 1950’s and piques the reader’s interest out of the gate when a successful New York lawyer–with nothing more than a decade’s old address on a mysterious envelope–heads off to Burma in search of her father who apparently up and disappeared into thin air. What slowly unravels in the next 200 or so pages is an interesting–if highly romanticized–meditation on true love.

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. A dense, complicated puzzle mystery about the Shroud of Turin. This one is deeply laced with Biblical history, so at times it feels like you’re reading an exegesis of the New Testament. The rest of the time you’ll think you’re knee deep in a Dan Brown page turner. Either way, I found this story of an Eastern Catholic priest and his Western Catholic brother (who is also a priest) utterly fascinating.

Around the World in 50 Years by Albert Podell. A few quick caveats about this non-fiction tale:  A) the author obviously has serious cash to be able to travel to every country in the world; and B) because of the aforementioned hefty bank account, the author also obviously doesn’t give a flying fig about offending anyone. He comes across as a total chauvinistic toad, a rich punk used to getting his way right this very minute or else he’ll pitch the mother of all adult temper tantrums; however, I loved this book because of the adventures Podell endures, particularly when traveling to the Nasty Nine (including Yemen and Somalia) and other ridiculously remote places on the map. He goes all in on the culture of a region, too, dining on everything under the sun and attending things like voodoo rituals and tribal funerals. If you enjoy tales about traveling, you’ll love this one. It is absolutely fascinating, even if you do want to cheer against Podell at times.

16 books in 3 months.

(Russ is thrilled that I’ll be cycling some of the stacks of books out of our room now.)

Happy reading!

spring break 2015, part II (“who goes to Cancun anymore?”)

On Wednesday morning of our Spring Break adventure, we packed it up and headed south to Mayakoba. We checked in to the Fairmont and headed straight to the pool. The main pool has a water slide, so the boys were thrilled. After lunch, we headed down to the ocean.

Mayakoba is situated in the jungle and consists of 3 resorts, all very spaced out. In fact, to even get around the Fairmont, you had to take shuttle carts (or bicycles or walk a very long way).

I’d read that the beaches in Mayakoba were not as spectacular as the ones in Cancun, and the reviews were correct. The ocean was a lot rougher, and the beach was a lot smaller.

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don’t get me wrong; it’s still a beach, so that by default makes it pretty awesome…

Guests at the Fairmont have the option to take a boat tour around the property. We grabbed the last boat of the day and settled back for a relaxing jungle cruise. The area is gorgeous and lush and chock full of critters.

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turtle on a crocodile

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crocodile sunning himself

We headed back to our room to shower and get situated for dinner. We had no advance reservations in Mayakoba, but because we’d been able to switch reservations and get new reservations so easily in Cancun, I was not worried.

That was a mistake.

The concierge was zero help, as was Open Table. So the first night, we ate dinner at Las Brisas at the Fairmont. While the ambiance was excellent, the food was nothing to really write home about.

We got back to our room and I managed to lock in a reservation at the highly recommended Italian restaurant at the Rosewood for the following evening.

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the Mayan worry-doll was a nice touch from the turn-down service

We had our biggest adventure yet booked for the next day. We were picked up at our hotel at 8am and joined a group consisting of a couple from North Dakota, a couple from Mexico City, and a couple from Santiago, Chile. Our driver took us an hour south to a jungle near the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum.

First up, rappelling.

Well, actually, the first real part of the adventure was the 4×4 ride into the jungle. Our tour guide called the vehicle a Unimog. It was bouncy, fast, and without a doubt not very safe.

Then rappelling.

Into a deep hole that was filled with freezing cold water.

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I cannot believe I actually did this.

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You know it’s going to be cold when the helper-dude is wearing a wetsuit.

After the rappelling, we climbed an extremely rickety, homemade ladder/gangway type thing and zip lined through the jungle.

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The final zip line ended in another cave filled with freezing water.

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Then we donned snorkel gear and snorkeled in an underground river. Cold. But amazing.

After that, we ate an authentic Mayan lunch prepared in the middle of the jungle.

Yes, you read that correctly. And the biggest miracle isn’t that we all survived unscathed, it’s that every single person in our family actually ate the food without complaining. Even Jack.

After lunch, we hiked through the jungle to another cenote where some type of Mayan ceremony was performed that involved a whole lot of incense.

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Then we reloaded the crazy Unimog and reboarded the minibus which took us on down to Tulum.

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The ruins at Tulum were pretty incredible. If you know anything about the Mayans then you know that they were some seriously mean folks. The boys were fascinated by the guide’s tales of human sacrifice and whatnot.

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Theo was convinced these were bloody handprints on the wall of the temple where the Mayans sacrificed humans.

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While our tour guide spoke, this critter scampered by only about 10 feet away from me. 
It’s a coatimundi. Ok, then.

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Tulum was fascinating but very, very hot.

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After the official tour, we were able to explore the ruins a bit ourselves. The walled city goes right up to the beach. The water here was as incredible as it was in Cancun.

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Back at the tour group meet-up spot, there was a Mexican market and Voladores–these Mayans below who climbed a tall pole and then spun their way down. The boys were mesmerized.

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The Mexican market was the best place for buying souvenirs, but after all the craziness of the day, I was not fired up about bartering in Spanish. Plus, we only had a few minutes left before the ride back to Mayakoba so we opted to let the boys change into dry clothes instead.

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The only poorly translated sign we saw the whole time in Mexico…if you care about that.

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We got back to the room, showered up, and rested until time for dinner. Everyone was very excited about the Italian restaurant.

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But we got there and the restaurant didn’t have our reservation. And I wasn’t able to convince them that because their restaurant was empty and because it was only 6:00 that they most likely could stuff us in the corner where we’d eat very quickly and then be on our way. Instead, they sent us across the resort to what they called “the Asian restaurant” and said we could eat at the Italian place the following night.

Agave Azul was good–and the boys love Asian food–but it was definitely a 180 from what we were expecting that night. We ate quickly and headed back to the Fairmont for the night.

The next day was our last day in Mexico. We spent the entire day camped out by the pool.

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And I’m happy to report that our meal that night at the Italian restaurant, Casa del Lago, was just as great as we’d anticipated it would be.

Our flight home was uneventful until we got to baggage claim.

We saw Dikembe Mutombo in the international terminal last year when we flew home from London. Russ sent Theo up to him to give him his trademark finger-wagging/”no, no, no!” to which Dikembe responded by giving Theo a high-five. We didn’t take a picture though and then kicked ourselves afterwards for not being brave enough to ask for one.

We did not make that mistake again when we saw him this year.

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Mr. Mutombo is a supremely nice (and good-natured) fellow–all 7’2″ of him.
(Notice Jack’s hand…no, no, no!)

All in all, our trip to Mexico was fantastic, and we are very glad we split our time between two different resorts. The jungle adventure was the highlight; it was absolutely packed with activity, and the boys had a blast. The Thai restaurant in Cancun was our favorite meal, hands down. We spent much more time on the beach in Cancun than we did in Mayakoba, but our rooms in Mayakoba were much more unique (the bathroom itself featured an entire wall–floor to ceiling–of glass), and Mayakoba was much less crowded. We somehow managed to get the best of both worlds–beach and jungle, touristy and secluded–by splitting up our trip, even though switching hotels midway through a trip is something we have never, ever wanted to do before.

In a nutshell, we’d recommend this trip to just about anyone. The only thing we’d do differently would be to bring along a full calendar of dinner reservations and a full stash of medicines for stomach ailments. Otherwise, we wouldn’t change a thing.

So who goes to Cancun anymore?

Well, we did.

And we’d do it again in a heartbeat.