Book jacket: Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlinWhen I was approaching 30, I left a job in Seattle and moved to Portland to become a woodworker.  I spent the last of my cashed out 401k on a table saw, hung my hand tools neatly on pegboard and slowly and with great discipline became a master carpenter.  Not true.  I spent about a month dressed in overalls, creating little more than sawdust before stopping to admire my tools with a self-congratulatory glass(es) of wine. And then I panicked and signed on with a temp agency to do mind-numbing office work.

Nina MacLaughlin carried out what I only fantasized about.  After spending much of her 20s working as a journalist in Boston she realized that somewhere along the line, the work that had once inspired her, had grown oppressive.  Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter is her memoir of what happened when she quit her desk job and traded in her cubicle and computer for a hammer, a tile saw and a 50lb bag of grout.

Picking up Hammer Head, I felt an immediate kinship and let’s face it- envy for MacLaughlin.  We share an enormous satisfaction in mastering a new tool and an appreciation for the unique history and warmth that radiates off of a freshly-sanded plank of wood. But by the end, it was her boss Mary that I fell in love with. It was Mary’s Craigslist ad: Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply, that started MacLaughlin’s journey.  Not much of a talker, Mary offered only the simplest instruction and encouragement (“Be smarter than the tools”), but abundant patience and quiet humor. McLaughlin's inspiring memoir is as much about her own leap of faith towards meaningful work, as it is a love letter to her straight shooting and unflappable mentor.

Oh why weren’t you in Portland in 2001, Mary?

 

Check out this list for more memoirs that will inspire you to follow your bliss.

If my husband were to send me flowers at work (please don’t), I’d likely hide them away in a closet.  Not one for overt romantic gestures, it’s unlikely that I’d ever pick up a romance book for the romance.  Yet occasionally I do find myself enjoying a love story, especially if it has an international setting and an unusual narrative.  Here are three surprising, globe-trotting love stories that I’ve enjoyed recently.  But should you read them?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

Book jacket: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno GarciaSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Three misfit teens in Mexico City explore the magical power of music and unintentionally alter the course of their lives.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: Your own life carries a mixtape soundtrack. You enjoy stories where reality is suspended only momentarily to make room for a bit of magic. You love YA books, remember being a surly misfit teenager yourself or maybe still are a surly misfit teenager.

Maybe not: You have little patience for adolescent struggles and need your fiction believable. What you’re really looking for is a book that evokes a sense of place.

 

Book jacket: A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: An ill-suited lover opens up the world and enlivens the city of Delhi for a restless young woman none too keen on having an arranged marriage.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: You like your characters a little dark, reckless and unpredictable.  You take delight in beautiful writing and vivid descriptions of foreign cities. You enjoy psychological stories and pondering women’s roles around the world. You just want to hold this gorgeous, compact and gold-flecked book in your hands.

Maybe not: Unhealthy relationships that play with power balance leave you cold. You need a more cohesive plot and less psychological (and ahem sexual) exploring.

 

Book jacket: I Am China by Xiaolu GuoI Am China by Xiaolu Guo: A London translator takes an unusual assignment translating the journal and letters of a punk rock musician and soon finds herself immersed in the story of two Chinese lovers.

Should you read it?

Absolutely: Chinese punk rockers alone is intrigue enough. You love a slow-to-unravel mystery and a novel in letters. Language and the complexities of translation intrigue you. You like a little revolution with your romance.

Maybe not:  You can’t forgive an underdeveloped character and need a faster pace to keep you interested.

Photograph of a young boy arranging fabric in preparation to sew.I love making anything with my hands. So when my six-year-old son asks, “Can we make me an Ant-Man costume?”, my answer is always going to be an enthusiastic, “Yeah we can!”

There was a time when I would take control of these projects.  I’d Google images of Ant-Man, obsess about the right fabric and approach, until I found myself sitting at the sewing machine alone, while my son had long since moved on to his Legos.

Now I understand that my job is to dump a bag of fabric out on the table and as my son says, “Just stop freaking out so much about it.”  Sure, I help with the sewing machine.  He drives the pedal and I keep my fingers out of the way and try not to sweat the fact that the bobbin tension is completely out of whack.  

Our new laissez-faire family craft time doesn’t mean I’ve stopped seeking out fresh ideas and inspiration for projects.  Martha Stewart’s Favorite Crafts for Kids offers a bonanza of ideas for kids and parents.  I just make sure to check my inner Martha when it’s time to get gluing.

Side by Side by Tsia Carson is a great resource for matching projects that parents and kids can do separately but together.  One particularly endearing kid-project involves embroidering a leaf.  This is a woman who knows about managing expectations!

And when I just want to be inspired, blogger and illustrator Merrilee Liddiard’s Playful is so Anthropologie-beautiful I could weep.  But then I’ll get over it, enjoy watching my son dart about in what only started out as an Ant-Man costume, and “just stop freaking out so much about it.”

Do you stay up at night wondering how much longer the North Korean government can survive or how much their average citizen knows about the world beyond their borders? I do.

It’s not that it's unusual for my reading habits to snowball into mini research projects. The perfect puff pastry, Mormon fundamentalism, abstract expressionists- they’ve all occupied months of my life. But who would want to read deeply about a loathsome totalitarian state with an abhorrent human rights record and a comically absurd dynasty of dictators?  Well I would for one and certainly I'm not alone. Whether you're interested in global issues, survivor stories or political satire that crosses over into reality, when it comes to North Korea, there are countless avenues to explore.

If like me, you're curious to understand what life is like in one of the world's most closed off countries, start with Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.  Her book follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years, providing an extraordinarily comprehensive view of the country and a great meshing of politics and history with moving personal stories.  It also happens to come highly recommended by David Sedaris.

Looking for a little more insight into the Kim family regime? Check out A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress and A Young Dictator’s Rise to Power. It's a first book by film producer Paul Fischer and among the most suspenseful true life thrillers I’ve ever read.  Long as it is, the title only begins to suggest the unbelievable journey this surreal story takes you on. 

Curious to know more? Check out this list for more recommended books and documentaries to further your understanding of North Korea.

Book Jacket: The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan DaumWhen a loved one receives bad news at the doctor’s office, you should squeeze their hand and give them a steely glance that says, “I’m here with you.  We’ll beat this thing.”

Throughout this life, you’re supposed to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to achieve real growth and we all want to grow, right?

If you survive a life-threatening event, you’re expected to live each day thereafter with gratitude and heightened perspective.  

It’s these preassigned responses to human experiences that Meghan Daum challenges in her latest collection of personal essays, The Unspeakable: and Other Subjects of Discussion.  

Covering topics that range from cream of mushroom soup casserole to waking up from a medically induced coma,  Daum’s writing is funny, but not frivolous. I loved her keen recognition of the absurd and her unapologetic honesty. As a fellow Gen Xer, I also relished her many 1970s-80s pop culture references. What I loved most about these essays however, is how moving they were. How they started off so specific and individual and ended with broader truths that left me considering the emotional expectations we have of ourselves.

It’s true that the topics covered in The Unspeakable, aren't the type of thing that people readily talk about.  But they are precisely the type of subjects that lead to the best conversations you have with your closest friend. The kind where you can confess to dreading what you're supposed to be looking forward to; Where you can laugh inappropriately and be completely yourself. Maybe not your most becoming self, but your most human self.

 

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