2016 Book Challenge- A Book that Can be Finished in a Day

2016 Book Challenge- A Book that Can be Finished in a Day


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Another month has come and gone in Malaysia and with a slew of long weekends I’ve been able to add thirteen books to my “read” list for the year, even with it being the shortest month of the year. (One *huge* advantage to working for the State Department aboard is that we enjoy both US and host-country holidays.) Luckily, I had the bonus of Leap Year day this year, as the actual end of the month caught me by surprise and I really am getting this month’s challenge write-up taken care of as I put an X on the last day of the calendar page. (Yes, I still cling to actual print calendars rather than having moved everything in my life to a digital one. I have an adorable floral desk calendar at work that not only lets me easily look up appointment dates for callers, but that serves as home to my week count of scam calls/emails. I also have a spiral day planner that I use for my personal events- complete with binder clip on top for easy access to the right page. )

Once again, I read books from many of these categories, so I am just going to choose one and go with it. I am guessing by about November or December, this willy-nilly organization might bite me in the butt, but for now it is working. I decided to go with “A book you can finish in a day” and I actually had two strong contenders in for this title: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Washington’s Monument by John Steele Gordon. Ultimately, I decided I’m going to go with the first, as it has wider appeal, but history buffs and DC friends, be sure to check out Gordon’s new book- it just came out a few weeks ago.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi has made several “best new releases of 2016” lists, so I couldn’t wait for my library hold to come through. (As always, I have a full hold list and I swear about four come through at a time. There is never a trickle. It is drought and then deluge!) This is a beautifully written book by a man who dedicated his life to finding the intersection between our brains and our minds. A scholar of both literature and neurology, this book was a fascinating mix of references to classical literature and quite in-depth scientific processes. It has something for those of us who love literature and the empathy it brings to one’s life and the as well as those who are more hardwired for facts and figures. In what some see as a cruel twist of fate, and yet exactly what Kalanithi studied for years, he is forced to confront the mind/brain overlap when he is diagnosed with brain cancer in his mid-30s. When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s final thoughts on where his book studies and his personal experiences have left him in terms of what makes us who we are. The combination of philosophy, literature and science makes this a great read for lovers of fiction and non-fiction alike.

In Search of the End of the Sidewalk’s 2016 Reading Challenge

_____ A book published this year

_____A book you can finish in a day

_____A book you’ve been meaning to read

_____ A book recommended to you by a librarian

_____ A book you should have read in school

_____ A book chosen for you by your spouse/partner, best friend, child or sibling

_____ A book published before you were born

_____ A book that was banned at some point

_____ A book you abandoned previously

_____ A book you own but have never read

_____ A book that intimidates you

_____ A book you’ve read at least once



Heart Day Visit to the Fish Museum

Some people consider Valentine’s Day nothing more than a Hallmark holiday, pumped up and pushed by retailers to add to their retail bottom lines each year. There is definitely money to be made on chocolates and over-sized stuffed animals and roses each February, but if one overlooks the consumer-driven parts of the holiday and focuses on the heart of the day (heart…get it? Clever!), there is good to be found.

This year for Valentine’s Day, we decided to have a little blast from the past. Just days before the holiday, I realized that the first time we ever came to Malaysia was this exact time of year- Valentine’s and Chinese New Year in 2007. We were on winter break from our Peace Corps gig in Gansu and came south in search of sunshine and non-Chinese food with good friends. (It’s funny to look back at how exotic this whole region of the world seemed at the time. Since then, it has become like a second home, with frequent trips around Southeast Asia.)

It’s funny that I often can’t remember what I worked on two days ago, but I can remember that it was Valentine’s Day nine years ago exactly that we went to the KLCC Aquarium.  Mostly I remember this random fact because KL’s aquarium was the first one I had ever been to that had the underwater tunnel and it was covered in hearts for the holiday. I remember watching the sharks swim by the cutout hearts and thinking what a strange dichotomy the rows of scary teeth were with the adorable red and pink decorations. (Some in our party who are getting older each year and maybe losing their English language abilities called the aquarium the “fish museum” when we were talking about going over the weekend. After laughing hysterically, I came to realize that I kind of like that nomenclature better. Can we all agree to call aquariums “fish museums” from now on?)

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day 2016 than by recreating our day nine years ago? After a slow start to the morning, we headed down to KLCC for some lunch at one of the outdoor cafes that line the lower level of the mall, looking out over the plaza, water show and park. It was blazing hot out, but that is to be expected any day that the skies are blue and the sun is shining in the city. Lunch was relaxed and laid back, full of people watching (it was a people museum!) and talk of how we would be freezing in DC on Valentine’s Day 2017. That helps ease the burn of the sun. The fish museum was just a short walk away from where we had lunch and we were happy to find short lines, as it was a Sunday afternoon, which is prime fish-visiting time.

I may have loved the otters (not fish!) the most on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find other critters to stare at endlessly (a crazy active octopus and strange little rock fish ranked highly as well) and Thad is always fascinated by the jelly fish, a hypnotizing set of tanks. Of course, the highlight of the day was the underwater tunnel, as it is really the only thing I remember from our first visit, all those years ago. Disappointingly, there were no Valentine’s decorations strewn about this time around, but in a more regionally appropriate manner, many of the tanks did have Chinese New Year decorations, including golden monkeys (it is the year of the monkey!) and gold pieces of good luck (fish luck is important!)

Following our new tradition, we should visit the KLCC aquarium every nine years, on Valentine’s Day, to see the fish and other ocean critters and to have lunch/drinks on the plaza filled with fantastic people-watching specimens. The question is, if we stick with the Foreign Service lifestyle (which is the plan), where will we been nearly a decade from now? Wherever it is, we might need to look into a long weekend back to Malaysia!

Valentine’s Day 2007- Kuala Lumpur Convention Center Aquarium

Valentine’s Day 2016- Kuala Lumpur Convention Center Aquarium

Valentine’s Day 2025- ???

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Caldwell Perspective Review- Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

As a new side-gig, I am now writing a short monthly book review for The Caldwell Perspective, a hometown newspaper. Here’s February’s review and a link to the online paper:


Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

Review by Michelle Ross (www.insearchoftheendofthesidewalk.com)

Jenny Lawson’s second book, Furiously Happy, is a hilarious look at life through the eyes of someone struggling with crippling social anxiety and depression. While the topic seems heavy, Lawson does an amazing job of taking her readers on a journey through mental illness, the good times and the bad, letting them peek into her world for a few moments of sheer craziness. Between her obsession with all things taxidermy (she only purchases ones that are proven to have died of natural causes) to her belief that flight attendants should get to bop one passenger, per flight, on the head for their stupidity, this book has something to make everyone smile.

Glibness aside, Lawson doesn’t shy away from the dark side of her mental illness, letting readers in on her own struggles to keep from cutting herself and her desire to lock herself away in her home for days on end. This book takes readers on a roller coaster of emotions, much like Lawson’s illness does in her own life, but in the end, learning to laugh at her own crazy antics is at the core of her tale.

Public reading warning: You will laugh out loud, making yourself look ridiculous. Ignore the stares. This book is worth a bit of public humiliation.

“Sometimes stunned silence is better than applause.”
― Jenny LawsonFuriously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things


Never Say Never

Never say never.

Three words that are good to live by, and yet so often are ignored, usually by me.

Even though I love to travel and am up for strange experiences, trying new things and always on the lookout for the quirky, there is another side of me that is weirdly neurotic about things having to be a certain way. For example, I have these four pink bowls that have cute little cartoon owls on their inside bottoms. I bought these bowls almost five years ago when we were living in Oakwood Crystal City and Thad was going through training in preparation for his tour in Chengdu. The Oakwood-provided bowls just didn’t cut it for my daily breakfast cereal consumption, so one day early on, I schlepped myself to the nearest Target on the public bus and bought a few household items, including new bowls. These were not only adorable, but the perfect size for breakfast. I bought four. These are my cereal bowls and have been for nearly five years; I eat Rice Crispies or cornflakes or Marshmallow Maties out of them every morning that I am home. Four bowls mean I must do my dishes at least every four days. (Without kids, you don’t generate nearly as many dishes as a big family, so have a whole lot more wiggle room on the dishwashing front!) A few weeks ago, three days into the cycle, Thad said he was going to make some soup. (He was having wisdom teeth issues, which have since been relieved by pulling two of the offending chompers.) I knew he was going to grab the first bowl he saw, so I purposely moved my adorable cereal bowl out of line-of-sight so he would have to go with one of the boring blue plastic bowls (which were part of a wedding gift we received nearly 18 years ago!) or the black ceramic ones (which were his before we were even married). And yet, half an hour later, when he came into the living room, guess what he was holding in his hand?! My cereal bowl! Needless to say, I gave him a terrible time about it, telling him I was going to starve in the morning now that I didn’t have my go-to breakfast dish. He did kindly wash it out and return it to the cupboard (probably a little annoyed at my reaction) so I would not waste away the next morning, but the point here isn’t that he ate soup out of the wrong bowl, but that my brain can be weirdly rigid about certain things, usually ones of little importance.

Why does this all matter? And what does it have to do with “never say never”?

You see, we’ve been going to Thailand for vacations for almost a decade now. (We went with friends when we were in Peace Corps, a couple of times for blue skies and sunshine when we were in Chengdu and now that it is just a hop, jump and skip away, a few times for long weekends.) On each of these trips, I’ve giggled and possibly made remarks about all of the backpackers dressed in what I call “elephant pants.” They are not designated as such because they make the wearer look large, but rather because a good percentage of them are decorated in a variety of elephant patterns. These pants are lightweight cotton, usually have elastic/drawstring tops and elastic ankles. They look extremely comfortable, but also look like pants for hobos. It is ridiculous how many tourist women (and a few men!) you see wearing these things in SE Asia, but especially in Thailand.

I’ve always mocked elephant pants.

Until two weeks ago.

When we went to Chiang Mai for my birthday weekend (click here to see a post about our awesome elephant trek), we wandered the night markets three different evenings. Of course, they were filled with the usual souvenir items: t-shirts, knock-off handbags, some artwork, strange leather good, etc. But nothing was more prevalent than elephant pants.

I held firm for two nights, but on our last night in town, I did the thing I said I would never do. I bought elephant pants.

They were only $3.

I couldn’t resist the bargain.

And they did look awfully comfortable.

(To be perfectly honest, I bought three pair. But only one pair had elephants on it.)

When I got back to our boutique hotel in the old town, I immediately changed into my new pants. It was nirvana. They were amazing! So lightweight. So comfortable. And a good length for my long legs.

I swore I would never own elephant pants. Now, these are my go-to outfit when I get home from the embassy each day. As long as we are not headed out for drinks or dinner after work, I go from my dress and heels right to elephant pants and a tank top. They are more comfortable than any pair of shorts or capris and nothing says a night of happiness with a good book than comfy pants adorned with pachyderms.

Lesson learned: Don’t knock the elephant pants until you’ve lounged a minute or two in their heavenliness.

(Disclaimer: I do not have a single picture of me in these glorious pants, as they are pretty much just lazy-day wear for me, but I did find these on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Premium-Elephant-Trousers-Bohemian-Buddhist/dp/B00O7RG2UE. Apparently you can buy them for $20. At least I got a good deal as I ate crow.)

elephant pants