Archive | book reviews

Confessions of a Third Culture Kid + A Book Giveaway

Update on 11.4.2014: The winner of the book giveaway, according to, is #10: Karen. Congratulations, Karen! I’ll email you to get your address. Thank you for all your wonderful, insightful, and beautiful comments, everyone!



On the L: With my siblings and dad at the pyramids circa 1996. I’m the one with the unfortunate bangs on the far left.
On the R: Back at the pyramids with Elliott and Lena (!) in 2010.

A recent Monday morning. Six women sat around a table, plates filled with food, ready to talk.

“Let’s get to know each other a little better by sharing about the cities we’ve lived in,” my new core group leader suggested, shifting the baby in her arms as she surveyed our small group. “Might but a fun way to tell our life stories. I’ll start…”

In my seat next to her, I tensed inwardly. I felt my otherness, my weirdness, slipping back over me. I had dressed like the others, talked like the others; I fit in, they thought. I looked the part. I looked like a nice, average American girl, just like everyone else in the group.

But that’s just part of my story. It’s only the last eight years of my life story, actually. The eight years that involve living in America, going to an American school, marrying a semi-American boy, and having two cute and semi-American children.

The 19 years before the last eight were what had me sweating.

I didn’t grow up in the States. I was born in Egypt and lived in Australia, Singapore, Pakistan, Singapore again, India, and Brazil all before I started college. It was a different life, a life studded with foods and holidays and cultures and languages that I can taste on my tongue, see in my memory, and long for without warning.

As I waited for my turn to share my life story last week, I remembered a book I was reading at home called Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging. The author, blogger Marilyn Gardner, is a friend of mine, and recently I had agreed to read and review her book. However, I had no idea how relevant the book would be to me. Marilyn also grew up overseas; she spent her childhood in Pakistan and her adulthood between Egypt, Pakistan, and the States. (Sound like someone you know?!)


With my dad when he graduated from the American University of Cairo in 1987.

In her book, Marilyn writes with poignant understanding about third culture kids: children who spent most of their childhoods outside their passport country. Her observations and anecdotes flooded me with memories, sometimes bringing me to tears, sometimes leaving me running to Elliott, saying, “Listen to this! I have felt this way and it’s so true!”

Here’s one of my favorite quotes (which perfectly captured how I felt that Monday as I prepared — again — to share my “third culture kid” childhood):

As a child raised between worlds… I was neither of one world nor the other; I occupied a culture between…. In this other world called the United States, the blue passport bearing my picture and various stamps told me, told the world, that I belonged. That I was a citizen. But I never felt like I belonged in this other world. At any given time I was less or more comfortable, but I always felt like a bit of a fake. I didn’t know how to buy clothes. I didn’t know how to dress for winter. I didn’t know the idioms, the slang that was so important at that age. I had no clue about pop culture. I was trying to fake it, trying to fit, but at heart an imposter.

I got it. I knew how the author felt. Especially in college, fresh from a childhood overseas, I struggled daily just to fit in. I worked so hard. What did the other students wear? What did they do in their free time? Where did they live? What did I need to do to fit in? I transformed my wardrobe, made friends, joined organizations, moved out of my far-away dorm into the center of student life. Packed my life full just to fit in, to lose my otherness, to stop feeling so awkward, so left out. So lonely.

I just wanted to belong.


My first smile on a bus in Cairo. I have a  feeling I will look exactly like this when I am 92 years old, plus wrinkles and including chub.

I’ve spent the last few years synthesizing my childhood and my future, trying to blend them into a cohesive whole. Elliott — my multifaceted, amazing husband and best friend — has enabled me to do this. To embrace our American-ness and combine it with a life overseas.

Marilyn’s book, though, brought back wave upon wave of memories. I remembered afresh the delight of living in another culture, of assimilating new and old, of learning to navigate a foreign land with ease and awareness. I remembered how my heart sings as I stride through international terminals, as I hand over my passport, as I find my seat on a plane, as I feel the dip and the lift as the plane climbs into the air. I remembered the deep pain of leaving a country behind forever, of re-entering the States, of reverse culture shock, and of feeling achingly far from home. Marilyn’s words, memories, and stories brought it all back.

Some passages in her book felt like I could have written them myself:

The day my passport expired and I realized there was no upcoming reason to renew it, I felt as if I had been robbed of my identity.

My passport was my grown-up teddy bear. [When it expired], I made up my mind that no matter what, I would not let my passport expire again. While I knew that my identity was far more than a document that had expired, the symbol represented too much of my life — people I loved, places I had been and pivotal events that shaped who I had become — to let go.

I am an invisible immigrant….. I can adapt a chocolate chip cookie recipe to taste good without brown sugar or chocolate chips. I can decode idioms in Arabic or Urdu. I am completely comfortable in crowded bazaars or navigating any major airport in the world. I can make an orange-cranberry salad without the cranberries…. And I understand the importance of identifying friends with commissary privileges and make sure they are invited to dinner so that next time I see them there will be cranberries for my orange-cranberry salad.

(All throughout my childhood I loved being friends with kids who had commissary privileges and could buy cranberry sauce and Blue Bunny ice cream and chocolate chips. And then in Italy I became the friend with commissary privileges… and it was glorious.)

Third culture kid envy… It is what I feel when my feet are trapped on the ground for too long while I watch others travel. It is what I feel when I hear others, sometimes worthy and sometimes not, talk about Pakistan or Egypt, my beloved places. It is what I taste when I hear that someone is going on a long trip, leaving from the international terminal just minutes from my house. It reaches crisis stage when I find out someone is moving overseas. And I so long and need to overcome this syndrome, but there are times when I think that it is impossible.

(Yes, it’s true. I’m not proud, but such envy has consumed me, especially since we moved back to the States this summer.)

What happens when the third culture kid becomes an adult and settles in their passport country? For a time everything seems backwards and contrary. Few of us had the dreams of owning our own homes, or becoming “successful” as defined by middle-class America. Our parents had lived counter-culture and had passed that on to us. Nothing really prepared us for a life in suburbs or small towns of the Western hemisphere.

Perhaps our unspoken fear is that if we learn to sing songs of joy in this new place, this new land, then we will forget the old, we will lose our identity, all that we know, all that is familiar. As one person put it: “I wanted to preserve my identity, to hold dear the soil in which my roots are settled, to Never Forget Who I Am. After all — my identity has come at such a high cost.

This past Monday, when my turn came to share my life story, I chose to start it in a new way. I chose not to blush, smooth over my strangeness, downplay the different childhood that I’d had. I chose to own it, to share it, to explain it and hold it out and offer it without reservation.

Take me or leave me, here I am.

“I’m a third culture kid,” I said. “I spent most of my life overseas until I started college, and I got back overseas as soon as I could after that. Living overseas is a huge part of my identity, and I want to live as much of my life outside of the U.S. as I can. My story starts in Egypt when my dad was in graduate school…”

May it not be too long (oh please, Lord, don’t let it be too long) before I’m standing in the international terminal of another airport, passport in hand, ready to fly away into the Great, Beautiful World once again.


image via

Would you like to win a copy of Marilyn’s beautiful book? For the third culture kids who read this blog (I know there are many of you!) or for the parents out there who long to raise kids overseas, this book is for you! Marilyn has an autographed copy just waiting to send to you.

Entering to win is easy. Just leave a comment in this post and tell me why you’d like to read this book!

Giveaway closes next Monday, November 3. Happy reading!

P.S. If you haven’t seen this crazy-but-true list yet, it’s guaranteed to put a few smiles and eye rolls on your third culture kid-lovin’ face.

70 :: in Army, book reviews, giveaway, home sweet home, memories, thoughts, travel

Five Books to Read This Summer


I think if I could travel the world, have a dog, and read books for the rest of my life,
I would be completely happy.

— my sister, last week —

This past week I dove into the most wonderful group of novels, one after another, barely coming up for air between them, tearing through them hours on end, waking up early and going to sleep late to read and read and read. Afterwards I laughingly said I’d gone on a “book binge,” my first in a long time. I’d forgotten what that felt like.

So if you’re looking for some yummy reads, look no further! Here are five books I haven’t been able to put down:

I’ve talked about this one before because — oh! — I loved it so much. I laughed, cried, and left feeling like I’d made a new friend. It’s a warm, tender, open-armed memoir of the author’s life and kitchen table. It’s a manifesto for pouring wine, breaking bread, and making room for friends around your table and in your heart. Woven between the author’s favorite recipes are beautiful, honest stories from her own life. I made her lentil soup for dinner tonight!


This was a Book Club choice, and I was ambivalent… until I realized that it is based on a true story. And then I was blown away. It’s a sweeping Southern drama, telling the story of Sarah Grimke, born into Charleston belle privilege, and Handful, the slave she was gifted on her twelfth birthday. Sarah goes on to become one of the first female abolitionists, and her story is painful, riveting, and inspiring. Read it to be taught as well as to enjoy.

becca-garber-recommended-summer-reading-1 copy

It’s a short, easy read, but the fact that it is also based on extensive historical research makes it powerful and memorable. The book follows the story of Vivian, an orphan in NYC who is put on the infamous “orphan train” heading West to families in need of shop labor or farm hands. Some of the orphans’ stories are devastatingly sad, and Vivian’s takes sickening turns. But the ending is sweet and redemptive, and I loved the modern-day orphan story woven back and forth through the historical narrative. Read it!


This was one of the books from my book binge. I inhaled the 450-page novel in about 48 hours, scrambling to think of things for Lena and Gil to do by themselves so that I could just keep reading! The story begins in the 1960s when teenage Laurel, up in the tree house on her family’s property, witnesses her mother open the door to a strange man and then kill him in cold blood. Unable to forget the murder years later, Laurel goes on a quest to uncover her mother’s past, taking her deep into WWII London during the Blitz.

(Note: I also read The Forgotten Garden by the same author that week, and it was good too.)


What a treat. Reads like chick lit, but the author is smarter and keener, and she knows how to deal with deep heart issues while keeping the tone light and fun. The main character, Alice, hits her head and wakes up thinking that she is newlywed, pregnant, and completely happy… none of which are true because it’s actually 10 years later and she has three children, an estranged husband, and a lot of water under the bridge with her sister and friends. Will losing her memory let her to redeem her family, friends, and life? Or is it too late?

(Note: I also read the author’s newer book, The Husband’s Secret, and loved it almost as much. Highly recommend this one too!)

And here are a few more honorable mentions that I’ve loved over the past few years:

  1. A Severe Mercy — a true love story & the book Elliott and I read when we were falling in love
  2. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? — light, fun, mother-daughter story
  3. Unbroken — riveting WWII memoir (I think I was the last of my friends to read this)
  4. The Glass Castle — family, heartbreak, memoir
  5. The Light Between Oceans — infertility, love, & Australia
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale — distopia with a “Biblical” twist
  7. The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love — FAVORITE!!!
  8. Bringing Up Bébé — American vs. French parenting, ie. my kind of brain candy
  9. NutureShock: New Thinking About Children — game-changer for parents
  10. 84, Charing Cross Road — handwritten letters, books, love
  11. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster — EDGE OF MY SEAT
  12. My Life in France — Julia Child, FOOD, France

Do you have any recommendations for me? Happy reading!

14 :: in book reviews, goals, good reads

A Book Review :: Steady Days: A Journey Toward Intentional, Professional Motherhood


It was the subtitle that caught my attention: “A Journal Toward Intentional, Professional Motherhood.” Professional? What does it mean to be a professional mother?

Since I have set my career as a nurse aside during our time in Sicily, I guess I would call motherhood my profession. I mean… it’s what I do 24|7! I spend my days teaching, loving, feeding, dressing, and training up these two little people in my life. I want to do my job well. I want to be intentional and professional about it. Don’t you?

I ordered a used copy of Jamie’s book after I’d only been reading her blogs — Steady Mom and Simple Homeschool — for a little while. She is a wonderfully inspiring person; I love how her family of five is made up of four nationsSteady Days a super-easy read with chapters that are about two pages long. I read the book this weekend and felt refreshed and inspired afterwards, so I wanted to share it with you!

The gist of Jamie’s message is this: “We create Steady Days for our children by getting organized, retaining our enthusiasm, learning together, and making memories. When we balance these qualities together, we discover the gentle rhythm we long for.”

Part One: Getting Organized is my favorite. Jamie explains how she used to just drift from one activity to another, letting the day kind of unroll based on how she and her kids felt each day. (That feels familiar!) So Jamie encourages moms to evaluate their schedules — meal times, nap times, errands, activities outside the home — and create a rough routine for the mom and each child. She has heaps of suggestions for structured activities you can plan for during the otherwise “drifting time,” like room time, baking, art, video time, structured play, and free time.

She also encourages them to put this routine into a binder in order to keep your whole home organized. She keeps her shopping lists, meal plans, special dates organizer, important documents, weekly to do list, emergency phone numbers, and even take out menus in her binder. (Basically, she puts everything in her binder that I stick all over my fridge!) I’ve thought about making a “home management binder,” but I’ve never actually made it work. Have you?

I loved this quote: “Some people think that if they become organized, they will lose their spontaneity and passion for living…. This doesn’t have to be the case. Having a flexible structure helps you enjoy spontaneity. If you have taken time to be organized in things that matter most, then you will not feel behind. So when an opportunity comes your way, like the first warm day of spring or a special concert for the children, you can ditch the rest of your plans and go for it. You can enjoy without guilt, because your other responsibilities are up to date.

What if I actually send birthday cards and gifts on time? What if I actually planned ahead for a craft with my kids? What if I actually remembered my dental appointment… instead of missing it twice in a row?! What if I became more reliable, more steady, more organized? That would be a gift to so many, not just my immediate family!

In Part Two: Retaining Enthusiasm, Jamie talks about how to stay inspired as an intentional, professional mother. She encourages moms to embrace their roll as a mom… instead of whining about or regretting this demanding stage of life. She also uses a “Steady Blessings” list in her binder to remind her daily of things to be thankful for, and she keeps inspirational quotes and Scripture verses on cards and rotates one to meditate on each day.

(Just this last idea takes so much more organization than I have right now. Geez Louise! But as I read through her quotes and verses, I was inspired. We need to draw encouragement from true, deep sources, not just from mommy blogs.)

In Part Three: Learning Together, Jamie talks the importance of establishing good habits as well as demonstrating these habits to our children. She also shared ways that she and her children learn together through their “Steady Learning Board” and “Steady Learning Scrapbook,” which you can find more about through her Learning Together archives. I loved these suggestions for incorporating learning into everyday home life… and also for keeping artwork and craft projects organized.

Finally, in Part Four: Making Memories, Jamie talks about the importance of family traditions and about her “Look At Me” and “Mom’s Favorite Moments,” two ways she uses to keep track of her kids’ growth and development. Both of these look better than the current scattered artwork and scribbled lists of “funny things they say” that I keep tacked on my fridge… and then shove in some folder, never to be seen or enjoyed again.


I took great pride in my work as a nurse. I loved doing my job well, from the smallest tasks (arriving on time, wearing neat scrubs, always having a pen handy) to the most significant, like really listening to my patients or addressing an emergency with quick wits, hard-earned skills, and trained expertise. I loved being a nurse that others relied on and enjoyed working with. I loved being a nurse that my patients recommended or requested. I took great pride in my intentionality and my professionalism.

I want to be the same way as a mother. There are fewer boundaries here. The job description includes everything and the kitchen sink. There’s no place to clock out at the end of a long shift.

But whether I incorporate all of Jamie’s ideas or just a few into my life, I do want to incorporate this: a sense of pride in my work done well. I want to aspire to be organized, be enthusiastic, learn together, and make memories together. Unlike some jobs, this job will end — my kids won’t be young forever! And I only get once chance to do this well.

So here’s to be a steady mom! Are you with me?

8 :: in Becoming a Stay-at-Home Mom Series, book reviews, motherhood, thoughts

my 2013 goals in review


Biggest and proudest accomplishment of 2013: my contribution to creating and caring for this family of mine!

OK, after a year of work… 2013 is over, and it’s time to review my goals for this past year! Sharing them publicly with all of you is definitely a way to keep me accountable, and I think it helped me stay on track a little better this year than I did in 2012.

If you’d like to, I would love to hear about how well you accomplished your goals (or resolutions), or you could link to your blog posts about them in the comments, too!

Here’s how I did with my 2013 goals:

  • Love Elliott and Lena and our Baby Boy.  

Nothing like keeping my priorities straight! How can I measure this one?  I definitely found myself frequently stretched to love my family with patience, compassion, creativity, and humility, particularly when Gil was tiny and we were adjusting to being a family of four. Through it all, though, my love for my family has become deeper than ever, and I am more in love with Elliott and more invested in my whole family than I was a year before. It is wonderful to see my heart full to bursting with love… and then realize a year later that my love has miraculously grown.

  • Finish War and Peace!  

Fail. Total. Complete. Fail. I literally did not even open the book all year. I did move it from my bedside table (where it was mocking me) to the floor (where it continued to mock me) to the guest room (where I was grateful to finally forget about it). I’m hoping for better luck next year with me and Prince Andrei, Natasha, Pierre, Hélène, Nikolai, etc. etc. etc….

  • Read at least 10 classics that I haven’t read but have always wanted to read.

In the minutiae of motherhood, reading is a respite and a relief to me. (How alliterative! Now I’m on a roll.) Reading books continues my education in an academic sense even when the rest of my life is mostly preparing and cleaning up food, facilitating sleep, and providing wholesome and creativity activities for little minds. When my body is exhausted, I can rest with a book. Other than conversations with Elliott before we fall asleep — or sleep itself — I can’t think of a more restful activity for me.

I also have a deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment when I read the last page and close another book. I can’t quite describe it. It is an accomplishment that cannot be taken away from me, that cannot be undone by little fingers, that is recognized by everyone as a great achievement, and that contributes profoundly to who I am as a person.

I’ve set book reading goals for myself for two years in a row now. In 2012 I resolved to read a book a week for 52 books total, and this past year I resolved to read 40 books. At 11:33pm on December 31st, I finished my 45th book of 2013, including 10 classics. And oh, that feeling of achievement!  I’m so glad I did it, and I think I’ll set the same goal again next year. These are the classics that I read in 2013:

  1. A Passage to India by E.M. Forester
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  3. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  4. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  5. Confessions by St. Augustine
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  7. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  8. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  9. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  10. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

(I use this Book List Challenge to help me keep track of classics I’ve read and want to read. It’s not definitive, of course, but it is fun! I’ve read 50 of these books… 50 more to go.)

If you’d like to challenge yourself to read more in 2014, I highly recommend Goodreads. It’s like Facebook for bookworms! It’s a fantastic way to learn about new books, see what your friends are reading, keep track of your own reading (because otherwise I never remember), and set reading goals. You can become my friend on Goodreads right here.

  • Sell 50 handmade items either through craft fairs or through my Etsy shop.

I sold 56. Thank you to all of you who bought something from me!

  • Study Italian

I planned to complete this Italian workbook my goals for 2013 as well as the two volumes of Pimsleur Italian audio series. I finished the audio series but not the workbook. I did made good headway into it, though, so I think I’ll finish the book as one of my 2013 goals… before we leave Italy, of course!

  •  Learn more about and practice the manual settings on my camera.

I did do this, but I am still scratching the surface of the manual settings. I know this is the next big step for me in improving my photography (umm… duh), but I have such a comfort zone with the automatic settings on my DSLR and find it hard to imagine that my fumbling with the manual settings will really change my photographs very much. I know that’s not true. Right?

  • Launch my blog on a new website.  

Done as of January 28th, 2013 (< also the day I announced Gil’s birth). I still don’t feel as comfortable with WordPress as I did with Blogspot, but I am grateful to own all my content and to have complete power over the look of my website.

Maybe I’ll beautify a few things around here in 2014. If you have any blog-improvement suggestions (like formatting or helpful features or whatnot), I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Publish a piece of writing (fiction or non-fiction) in a non-blog setting.  

Nope. Sigh. I did read a piece of my writing at our church’s women’s Christmas event, so maybe this goal was partially accomplished. But speaking vs. writing wasn’t exactly what I was intending when I made this goal, so I think I’ll try again in 2014.


So that was 2013! Tomorrow I’ll publish my list of goals for 2014. I’m still working on writing some of them, but other goals are underway already. Again, if you’d like to share your 2013 or 2014 goals, I’d love to hear about them!

6 :: in Becoming a Stay-at-Home Mom Series, book reviews, good reads, motherhood, thoughts

Book Review: “The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love”


“I got a stack of books at the library,” I told Elliott on a video chat last week.  “I’m so excited to read them.”  My eyes ran over the stack lovingly: The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton, The Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg.

“Don’t tell me,” Elliott predicted, “it’s a bunch of non-fiction by random people.”

I glanced at the stack of books again in astonishment.  Ummm… yep.  They all were.  Well well well.  Guess he knows me!

I started one of the books, but it was downstairs one night while I was nursing Gil, so I picked up The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love.  Right from the first lines of the Prologue, I was hooked:

“Saturday night, midwinter.  The farmhouse has been dark for hours and the crew has all gone home.  We light a fire and open two bottles of our friend Brian’s homemade beer, and as I wash up the milking things Mark begins to cook for me, a farmer’s expression of intimacy.  He is perfectly sure of himself in the kitchen, wasting no movement, and watching him fills me with a combination of admiration and lust, like a rock star’s groupie.  He has chosen a fine-looking chuck steak from the side of beef we butchered this week and has brought an assembly of vegetables from the root cellar.  Humming, he rummages through the fridge and comes out with a pint of rich, gelatinous chicken stock and a pomegranate, the latter a gift from my friend Amelia, who brought it up from New York City….”

Thus begins the beautiful memoir of Kristin Kimball, a NYC writer who went looking for a young farmer to interview about the burgeoning back-to-the-land movement.  When she left Mark’s farm in Pennsylvania, she walked away with more than a story.  Within two years, the two of them were leasing their own farm in the North Country of New York state with the ambitious plan of creating a farm that would provide virtually all the food their subscribers needed to live: vegetables, fruits, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, all kinds and cuts of meat, and even maple syrup.

Their story of their first year of farming together — complete with their beautiful wedding in the barn loft — kept me captured for all of two days.  I could hardly put the book down.  It wasn’t just the fact that this was a classic story of desperate humans working with nature, creating something beautiful out of something equally beautiful and yet just as broken as themselves.  It was also Kristin Kimball’s writing, her exquisite skill with words.  I read a few pages aloud at dinner to my family, and they sighed and smiled through the whole reading before applauding at the end.

Like many of us, Elliott and I harbor our own dreams of having a small “farm” one day: a vegetable garden for fresh produce, chickens for eggs and meat, goats for milk and cheese, and maybe a Jersey cow to try our hands at butter and fresh milk.  This beautiful memoir fanned the flame of those dreams.  Now we just need the kids to grow up a bit so they can gather the eggs each morning…

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17 :: in book reviews

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