Sunshine Quotations

We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm – yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.”
— E.M. Forster (A Room With a View)

You are the only shadow standing in your own sunshine.”
Fabio Viviani (Top Chef)

What I’ve Read and What I’m (possibly) Reading Next

I just put five books on hold with the Dover Public Library.

Am I nuts?

One minor lull in the work schedule and I think that it’s going to be read, read, read all the time. Like it’s my hobby. Like I do it for fun. Like I wouldn’t rather be lazy and watch TV. Like what I read last wasn’t Anthony Bourdain’s latest memoir, Medium Raw, in which I skipped over the section about his favorite international meals because I didn’t want to expand my brain in any way whatsoever.

Admittedly, I was coming off of a bit of a mental workout, with two brain books back to back. I’ve been thinking about the brain so much that my amygdala hurts.

Brain book number one was the memoir/self-help book My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, suggested by me for my book club. My take on it: the author’s account of her stroke was at the same time chilling and informative, but I think her takeaway that we can all cultivate peace by retraining our thought patterns is idealistic (and easy for her to say, considering that the stroke brought her back to un-embittered square one).

Brain book number two was the phobia memoir/scientific exploration I Wish I Could Be There, by composer Allen Shawn (brother of the lisping actor/playwright Wallace Shawn of such films as The Princess Bride and My Dinner with Andre–admittedly the sibling connection being the book’s main draw for shallow me). My take on it: while I have never had to turn my car around because of severe travel-related panic attack symptoms, I have experienced said symptoms in other situations, and I am glad to know that I am not (a) the only one, (b) crazy, and (c) curable by means of Jill Bolte Taylor’s “Whistle a happy tune” philosophy of life.

So, next on the hit parade (if whatever my new book club selection doesn’t take up all my time) are:

1. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese
2. The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman
3. The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore
4. True Grit, by Charles Portis
5. Twin, a Memoir, by Allen Shawn

Not a brain in sight. Nice.

Food for Thought: My 2010 Summer Reading List

If 2009 was my Harry Potter summer, then I declare 2010 to be the summer of food—consumed not by my mouth (oh, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of that), but by my brain, in the form of my (drum roll, please) summer reading list.

This weekend, reading Waiter Rantwaiter/writer Steve Dublanica’s tell-it-like-it-is memoir of his experiences as a 38-year-old waiter—I was finally inspired with a summer reading theme: I’ll read all things food. Maybe not cookbooks or menus or blah blah blah exposes about how corn products are taking the American diet and economy to heck in a grocery basket (been there, read that). No, what I’m planning to read are the books that will jolt me vicariously out of my Applebee’s existence, where dinner out at Chick-fil-A is a highlight, and vault me into the fine dining stratosphere of truffle oil and water waiters…if only in my mind.

I’m making note of the titles that appear under the names of those other-worldly TV food competition judges, and I’ll dedicate my summer relaxing time to actually reading them. That’ll plow me through such selections as The Man Who Ate Everything, written by the culinarily gifted, but supremely socially uncomfortable Jeffrey Steingarten, sometime judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America. His is just one book in what I like to call The Man Who genre, which includes the actual titles The Man Who Was Thursday, The Man Who Mistoook His Wife for a Hat, and the not so well known, but soon to be published The Man Who Slathered His Wife in Mayo Because He Thought she was a Tomato Sandwich.

Another Man Who book on my list is The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner, by critic and Top Chef: Masters judge Jay Rayner. I don’t know Mr. Rayner personally, and I have not yet read his book, but I suspect that, by the looks of him, he could follow up this book with a second, entitled, The Man Who Wore His Hair Such That the Stray Strand in His Soup Was Probably His Own.

Also on my reading list is rock ‘n roll Jersey-ite turned New Yorker/world traveler Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which I will read while wearing the Ramones t-shirt that I do not yet own but saw on a guy down the shore on Sunday night. Speaking of the shore, let me tell you, nothing’s more evocative of fine dining than the guy on the porch of the bungalow next door—the Bourdain sound-alike—who roasts hot dogs (6 feet away from the pillow where I’m resting my head) while singing the old “Hello Mudda, hello Fadda…” song.

Also on the list are be-hatted restaurant critic Gael Greene’s book, Insatiable and critic Frank Bruni’s, Born Round. Oh, and Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia belongs on the list as well, probably along with Julia Child’s My Life in France. I’m not a huge Julia Child fan (nor am I NOT a fan), but either way, her memoir should prove to be a nice side dish in an otherwise yummy summer.

Readers, I don’t know if you care to come along for the journey, but if you wish to read along with me, please let me know—we can get together to share a meal to discuss what we’ve read! Unless, of course, you are overseas, in which case you could buy me a meal from your favorite restaurant, pack it in dry ice, and send it to me along with a video of yourself describing your reflections onthe book, which I would watch while eating.

It should make for an interesting summer.

A little light reading

In this busy week during which I have realized some new and exciting challenges in my life (all good, all good), I also found myself power reading my Book Club’s March selection, Little Women. Not surprisingly, the busy-ness of the week and the stupor in which I found myself after completing the eternally long biography, Edgar A. Poe: A Mournful and Neverending Remembrance (which I’d been reading since January), I miscalculated the number of pages per day I’d have to read of LW in order to have it completed for today’s meeting. Starting on Monday, and allowing four days for reading, I calculated that I’d need to read 170 pages per day to get through the book’s 775 pages. Whether or not you’re on the ball mathematically, the calculator in your head is probably exuding smoke and making strange pinging noises right about now, because, alas, 170 times 4 is only…680: 95 pages short of the end of the book.

It reminds me of the time I was reading Steinbeck’s mammoth East of Eden and realized somewhere in the 600’s that the book was 900 pages long, not 700 as I had thought. Like a blind man whose sense of hearing has taken over, so are the halves of my brain.

So, even though I’m shy of the finish line, and even though I have left my book at the home in which we met, still, I can say that I found Little Women thoroughly delightful and refreshing. Reading it as an adult, I’ve realized that it’s not a book for children or adults, but one for all ages. There are so many things about the March family that I hadn’t see back in 7th grade: Marmee confessed to a temper, Father was an army chaplain, Meg struggled to prioritize her husband, Jo was right to turn Laurie down, Beth made an incredible showing of accepting her terminal illness, and Amy didn’t exactly steal Laurie away. It’s funny—the characters are drawn in so much more relief for me now. I am reminded of my re-reading of Catcher in the Rye several years ago; as a married woman and mother, I realized that Holden Caulfield was kind of an irresponsible jerk and not exactly the relationship material that the teenage me had dreamed he might be.

In a reading year when I was practically knocked off my chair with the shockingly unsettling revelations in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I must say that it was a pleasure to have a truly rated G read. I’m wondering whether, if I lived there in my reading chair all the time, I would be a generally cheerier person. It’s hard to know, I think. Still, I’m thankful to have (almost) read Little Women, and I’m looking forward to finishing it…too bad it’s back on Jennifer’s coffee table. Oh well.

For those of you who may be interested, the next few months of Book Club selections stack up as follows:

April – The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (a novel) by Jamie Ford
May – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (a mystery) by Alan Bradley
June – Waiter Rant (a memoir) by Steve Dublanica

Trivial correspondence, everlasting significance

Today over my honey nut cheerios and hot chocolate, I was reading Kenneth Silverman’s Edgar A. Poe, A Biography: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. Light breakfast fare, right?

The story is that I gave a copy of this very book to my sister-in-law, Beth, for Christmas, not because she is an Edgar Allan Poe buff, but because of the Poe/Baltimore connection (Poe is buried in Baltimore) in which I thought she’d be interested. Plus, on January 19, 2010, Poe would have been 201 years old, so what better time to get reacquainted with one of the most famous and second only to John Waters as the creepiest Baltimorean of all time? When Beth opened the book she asked if I’d read it, and I replied, sheepishly, that I hadn’t, but that I would, and I am now making good on that promise.

What little I know of Poe is this: (1) His Baltimore home is in a really not-so-nice neighborhood. (2) He coined the often used word ‘tintinnabulation.’ (3) I would think twice before hiring him as a builder (you never know what you might find later in those walls).

So I’m reading the bio, in which E.A.P. is now about 3 years old, abandoned by his dad and orphaned by his mom. He’s living with guardians by the name of Allan. Dig this description of the wife, Fanny:

“She busied herself sewing, purchasing rugs and mirrors, ordering fruit cakes or quarts of strawberry ice cream and custard…the many spelling errors in her surviving letters suggest a limited education…Although often flirtatious and high-spirited, Fanny was also chronically subject to accidents (at one time she fractured her face) and to illnesses that her family and friends believed were often imaginary.”

The notes, appendices, and index in this book go on for more than 100 pages, but oddly there is no reference to anything like The Comprehensive Life and Times of Accident-prone Homemaker Mrs. Fanny Allan, so I can only assume that Silverman put together this ridiculous caricature of poor Fanny based on scraps of letters, records of belongings, and assorted 19th century receipts.

I cringe to think, were my children to become famous at some point, what such research might turn up on me 200 years after the fact. Something, I presume, like this:

Mrs. Scheir busied herself playing tennis, watching Tivo, and, at the advice of her friends, purchasing red shoes and ‘bling’…the many references to Jack Bauer on her surviving blog entries suggest an unhealthy affection for a flawed and fictional man…Although often externally cheerful and active, Cheryl was chronically subject to bouts of laziness and idleness (she once went 5 days without getting up from beneath her electric blanket) and to blathering talking jags that her family and friends thought were not only repetitive but wholly pointless and tiresome.”

Of most concern to me is the possible discovery of a note from the children that is now residing on a magnet board in my dining room. It reads,

HELP! Will Die if not interjected with Love by Mom and Dad!
-Hayley and Jake
P.S. Now!”

Oy. My historical reputation is shot.

In love with “Peony”? Not so much

Back in the 90’s I saw a movie called Truly Madly Deeply, which starred a pre-Professor Snape Alan Rickman as the main female character’s boyfriend. The bad news: the boyfriend died. The good news: the boyfriend returned! The really bad news: the dead boyfriend brought along all of his sad, cold, bored, dead buddies, who just wanted to hang out in the girlfriend’s apartment watching videos.

Except in soap operas and perhaps on Lost, when it comes to dead characters, even if they return as ghosts, you know that they’re pretty much still dead and, slacker ghost buddies or not, that they are not good candidates for long term relationships. Lisa See’s book Peony in Love covers the subject of ghost love against the backdrop of seventeenth century China, and, let me tell you, when it comes to life or death in the environment See portrays, I’m thinking that, given a choice, life and death come out in a (pardon me here) dead heat.

I’ll try not to spoil the story too much, but on the side of life, you’ve got women’s not-so-nice lot, in the form of foot binding, restriction of movement, segregation from men, arranged marriage, the overvaluing of male children and devaluing of female, rampant anorexia, ridiculously oppressive superstition about absolutely everything, and even the expectation that suicide beats the soiling and shame associated with rape. On the death side, you’ve got eternal wandering, eternal hunger, dependence on the neglectful living for a proper place in the afterlife, continuing competition and jealousies with the rest of the dead, and the very romantic practice of ghost marriage with a straw dummy as the stand-in for the already dead bride (lovely!).

In the book, See is giving us a picture of a culture otherwise unfamiliar to us Westerners. I get that. What I don’t get is why See, in an otherwise incredibly inventive story, continually returns to the themes of female infighting, oppression against women perpetrated by other women, and romantic love as so over-arching and women so prone to lovesickness, that being in love could be a lifetime obsession or a deadly proposition. She throws some bones to women, but they’re not enough to make us readers feel like she wants us to do more than just contextualize the practices she’s described and, in doing so, dismiss our repulsion of them.

In an interview about the novel, she says, “My point here is that other countries and cultures have different belief systems. One isn’t right and the other wrong…” Institutionalized sexism and racism are still wrong, no matter what a culture’s beliefs may be. The character of Peony in Peony In Love grew in a lot of ways over the course of the novel, but, for me, she fell somewhat short of that realization.

It’s how it is about it


“I don’t hate my brother. If anything, I may pity him. He’s a complete idiot, and he’s the one who hates me.”

“He hates you?”

“Precisely. I think that’s why he came back here. So that he could spend his last years hating me at close quarters.”

I reflected at last month’s book club meeting that maybe one of the reasons I stopped reading (and essentially couldn’t stand) Pillars of the Earth was because of the violence against women that it portrayed.

Let me now retract that.

Consider movie critic Roger Ebert’s take on the content of film: “It’s not what a movie is about. It’s how it is about it.”

Reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m struck that violence against women (which this book has, in buckets—not literal buckets, but close) can be handled as engaging rather than unilaterally offensive, placed into context, and used for developing respectable characterizations and not just as a device for hurtling along the plot. I can’t say that I’m in love with the lifestyles of Larsson’s various characters (whose respective theme songs—trust me on this one—could be “Love the one you’re with,” “You give love a bad name,” and “Love stinks.”). But I have to admit that after a while—even with the story’s (spoiler warning!) crazed creeps and the women they’ve trapped—I couldn’t put the book down…and didn’t feel like I needed to take a shower when I finally did.

The original Swedish edition of Dragon Tattoo bore the title Men who Hate Women, which, while accurate (in spades), is not exactly the kind of thing that will keep Americans in suspense. I’m not making a feminist commentary here; it’s just that I think Americans may like a little mystery in their mysteries. With the less direct title, I, for one, was surprised at the extent to which one limited group of men in the book could hate women…and how those women (or one in particular) chose so creatively to respond.

Yes, I enjoyed reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Would I recommend it? Well, yeah, but with a strong graphic content warning.

Another point of interest for me was that this is one of those rare books I could imagine a man reading. Let’s face it—so much of today’s fiction is written for a women’s audience. But I could see a man reading and enjoying this combination mystery, family epic, detective novel, crime story, corporate morality tale, and miniature computer catalog (I swear, I’ve never seen the word “iBook” in print so many times in one place). I do have qualms about the sinister ground it covers, but, hey, I can’t police the conscience of the entire reading universe.

On now to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. That one can’t be so edgy. Not, I guess, unless the original title was UK Women Who Stabbed Their Men With Dull Potato Peelers while Reading Collections of Charles Lamb in their Blood-Soaked Nighties. I’ll let you know on that one, one way or the other.

More Summer Reading—but Not for the Faint of Heart


A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face.  It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.                   -Edward P. Morgan

As I offer this quotation to you and read it again myself, I’m struck with the vicarious nature of the reading experience. People who know my reading habits will know that I’m not one to shy away from the controversial, the violent, the depressing, or the very ugly side of human experience—not in my reading at least. Books, especially non-fiction ones, take me to places I’ll never go and let me live lives that are nothing like my own. They let me touch the extremes of human existence. And they let me do it at a good, safe distance.

Reading Alice Sebold‘s Lucky, though, I found myself in one of the darkest places of my reading career. In Lucky, Sebold (author of 2002’s The Lovely Bones) tells her own story of being raped by a stranger at the end of her freshman year in college; she reports the incident, remains at school, and pursues prosecution of the man responsible. In this powerful memoir where she recounts the violence she experienced (a story that made me come this close to giving the gift of mace to all the 2009 graduates I know), Sebold also explores the surprising cross-section of reactions that come from family, friends, acquaintances, and herself: surprisingly, Mom and Dad don’t accompany her to the initial phases of the trial; her older sister maintains pangs of sibling rivalry; friends not able to stomach the experience are dismissed; her own clear-headed pursuit of justice careens off into the thicket of self-destruction.

This book made we wonder not, what would I have done if I had been attacked like Alice (that is a vision too frightening to entertain), but rather, what would I have done if I were Alice’s friend? Would the 19-year-old me have known the right words to say and the right things to do, the things that would have encouraged and empowered Alice? Would the 40 -year-old me know that “remember everything” is good advice to a young girl who can’t come to class because she’s off to i.d. her attacker? Would any incarnation of me have a voice, a presence, a mite to contribute to a person whose emotional terrain has been forever altered (though in ways it seems remarkably unaltered) by her experience?

I’ll continue to wonder, I think, glad that Alice had friends who offered her just the right words at just the right time. I’ll wonder, knowing that in a world colored by profound wrong, sometimes even the right words are the wrong words. I’ll wonder whether my words would ever be the right words, and I’ll hope that whatever they are, those words will never have to be spoken.

Who’s Your Favorite Book Character of All-Time?

flying booksHey, any of you book fans out there may want to ponder this one for the long weekend…

Literary agent Nathan Bransford recently posed the question on his blog: who is your favorite all-time character in a novel? (Answers from his readers can be found here.)

My favorites?
– Lee, the Chinese Servant from Steinbeck’s East of Eden
– Mr. Baer from Little Women
– Holden Caulfield (I know, I know…)
– Jughead from Archie (does he count?!?!)

I’m sure there are more, but I suddenly can’t remember any character from any other book I’ve ever read. What’s going on with that?

In any case, send me a comment with your answer–I’d love to know who your favorites are!

Pluto, Little Pluto

The Pluto Files

Once upon a time in our solar system, couldn’t make do without 9. But Pluto’s not a planet now, so 8’ll do fine.”

-from the Barenaked Ladies song, 789

I’ll admit that I was with America in its indignant reaction to Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet back in 2006. The decision, made official by a vote of the International Astronomical Union’s members, was preceded by a quietly bubbling controversy surrounding the redesign of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History in 2000.

The museum’s then-new Scales of the Universe exhibit grouped Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars as terrestrial planets, and Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus as gas giant or Jovian planets. But, over the course of a year, astute visitors, many of them children, would count up the planets and come up with only 8, leading them to make the observation, “Did they forget about Pluto?”

In his surprisingly light and lively book, The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, recounts the science that left dwarf planet Pluto in a class, it would seem, by itself. By reviewing Pluto’s ups and downs, from its discovery back in 1930 to its entrenchment in pop culture, and, ultimately, to its central role in the first major cosmic recategorization dustup of the 21st century, Tyson explores the powerful forces exerted on space science by tradition, sentiment, enculturation, and even universally memorized solar system mnemonics.

What I love about this book is that it’s full of factoids (like these—By mass, Pluto is mostly rock, but by volume, it’s mostly ice; and, after the discovery of the planet qua asteroid Ceres back in 1801, the planetary count skyrocketed to 23, only to be knocked back down to 8 when all the asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter were deleted from the planetary roster). It also weaves in fun tidbits (Like in 2006, the seven dwarves invited Pluto to join them, making the count of both dwarves and the planets an even 8; and, in the midst of the controversy, Stephen Colbert gave this shout-out to Pluto’s fellow Kuiper belt object 2003 UB313, which is now known as the dwarf planet Eris: “Hey 2003 UB313, if that is your real name, you’re not a planet you’re just a lazy comet. Your mama’s so ugly, she named you 2003 UB313!”).

For me, the thought-provoking part of the book came when it shed light on revolutions in science. When Copernicus proposed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, for example, he was changing a long-held paradigm. Art, literature, commercial branding, and even the religion of the time might have held on to the “Earth is the center” model, but that wasn’t going to change the fact that the paradigm was wrong. The same is true of Pluto. We can think what we will about its planethood (and grieve that “My Very Elegant Mother Just Sent Us Nothing” doesn’t have the ring of its former 9 word incarnation), but none of that changes the fact that Pluto is more like the other icy objects in the Kuiper belt that lies beyond Neptune than it is like its former planetary colleagues.

Tyson doesn’t come out and say this, but the way I look at it we’re Americans (those of us who live in America, at least), and if we can recast used cars as “pre-owned,” garbage men as “sanitation engineers,” and the artist currently known as “Prince” as the successor to the artist formerly known as “Prince,” then I’m sure that we can get the hang of this dwarf planet thing.

Just don’t ask me to call the Lehigh Engineers the “Brown and White.” That was just wrong.

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