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.

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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

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!

2009’s Best Book Title (Spring Break Read-a-thon, Installment III)

come-on-shore

My favorite book title of all time may just be Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, with Brock Clark’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England coming in a close second. Now I’ve got a worthy number three, in Christina Thompson’s Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story.

The colorful title, Thompson explains, is “what Darwin [as in Charles Darwin] said that Cook [as in Captain James Cook] said the Maori [as in the original inhabitants of New Zealand] said at that interesting moment when the Europeans [as in explorers, colonists, and, ultimately, conquerors] first appeared.” Darwin sailed the Beagle to New Zealand in 1835, with Cook’s 1769 experience with the native New Zealanders clearly in mind.

Past encounters had taught Darwin and other explorers that the canoe travelling, spear and club brandishing Maoris were bold, warlike, belligerent, sometime cannibals who could surprise one as much with their willingness to do business as with their deadly cunning and guile. Ultimately, unfair land deals, foreign disease, and intertribal conflict pushed the Maoris from their place as New Zealand’s power brokers.

What’s interesting about Thompson’s approach is that she sprinkles her account of New Zealand’s history, people groups, and cultural evolution with the history, people groups, and cultural evolution of something much more personal: her modern-day marriage to a Maori man, who goes by the oddly non-native sounding name of Seven.

Thompson’s treatment of meeting and later marrying Seven is fairly dry and romance free—strange to hear a relationship recounted with such clinical objectivity. We don’t really learn much about why the two are attracted to each other, what prompts their decision to fuse their two lives, and what, if any, problems they encounter (sure, Seven watches more monster truck racing than his wife—now editor of the Harvard Reviewcan understand, but really, it comes out sounding like no big deal).

What Thompson does give us, though, is the story of two people whose individual lives may not seem monumental, but, put in the context of New Zealand’s history and world geography, their relationship is epic. While Thompson comes off as a little bit of a cold, academic, practically minded (somewhat stereotypical) New Englander, her husband comes off as a laid back, live in the moment, never in the rat-race Pacific Islander; together they are a curious example of cultural opposites attracting, and, for whatever differences there may be, they’ve obviously make it work.

Whatever your level of interest may be in the subject or the book, I am curious about one thing: what’s your favorite book title? Go ahead…post a comment!

Yeah, What Were You Thinking? (Spring Break Read-a-thon, Installment I)

bad-boyfriend-book

Considering how I’ve had books on the brain (but no time to read them), I thought that Spring Break would be a good time to catch up on all that reading I’ve been missing. A trip to the local library turned up a couple of interesting selections, which I’ll try to chronicle here as I read them.

First, we’ve got What Was I Thinking? 58 Bad Boyfriend Stories, edited by Barbara Davilman and Liz Dubelman. The book has contributions from Dubelman, Carrie Fisher, and 56 other women whom I’ve not heard of, but now have gotten to know on a level of intimacy with which I’m honestly more than a bit uncomfortable.

This “everyone has a story” collection of personal essays (of interest to me as I am a writer of personal essays) seems to do a pretty comprehensive job breaking down the stuff of the modern male/female relationship. From it, I’ve learned that men, or at least the ones with whom the book’s contributors have broken up, fall into one of four categories. They are either (a) dumb, as in prone to use the word ‘stigmata’ when they really mean ‘stigma,’ (b) cheap, as in they would rather live in their cars than pay rent, (c) completely self-absorbed, as in they never call, or, if they do, it’s so that you can have a chat with the live-in girlfriend, with the hopes that the two of you may someday become friends, or (d) deviant, as in…well, I won’t go into detail on this one.

What’s startling about the book is that almost every story has a “That’s when I knew” moment—”when he said the baby had changed my life, but not his”…”when the car stalled in the Vegas wedding chapel drive-up line, and we had to get a jump-start from 2 Elvis impersonators”…”when his mother told me that he’d fallen off the roof as a child and never quite been right again”…”that’s when I knew I needed to get out, and fast.”

Unfortunately, one wonders about some of the essayists, like the woman who got married after 4 days to a man whose political and social views she’d never vetted, the woman who only really engages with her husband romantically when she’s finally lost the 15 pounds (and then doesn’t find him that appealing), and the woman whose first red flag was that her husband-to-be asked her to wear the top of her two-piece wedding ensemble backwards so that he wouldn’t have to look at the embroidery on the front.

It seems to me that many of the writers broke up with their men over things that are forgiven daily by spouses who really love each other (not the wedding dress thing, though, right?). If I held my poor husband to some of these women’s standards (or he, in turn, held me…to the standards, that is), then we would have broken up about 21 years ago, and we’ve only known each other slightly longer than that. Even as I read the book I thought, if any of these women were living in my body, and were bugged by a guy (or two kids) who talked to them while they were reading, then that would be 18 years of marriage, completely down the drain.

Still, it was a fun read, and an eye-opener, to the real experiences—and real attitudes—of the men and women all around me. I had to do my own censoring, so be warned; it’s definitely rated R. As bummed as it made me about the state of the world’s messed-up idea of relationships, I did come away glad—glad that I am me, living in my (mostly) happy marriage. Sometimes, my husband and I may not forgive until we’ve gone through some not-so-nice fireworks, but forgive we do, and at least we’re not planning on going anywhere.

With that, have you got any bad boyfriend stories to share? I’d love to read them…Rated G, of course.

Summer Reading List: Suggestions Wanted (it’s never too early to start!)

book-sunglasses-beach_h528

OK, everybody, I’ve got enough books on my what-I-want-to-read list that I’m officially open to suggestions for summer reading. I know we’re 3 months away, but considering that I’m only on page 15 of a 111-page edition of The Little Prince (which I’ve been “reading” for 2 weeks), I think that the summer is a do-able target. Plus, right now my “to read” pile is 5 books deep, so I figure that there’s almost no way I’ll get through what I’ve got already, unless I do some serious advance planning.

In a typical weekend at the beach I can blow through 3-4 books (Archie comics not included), so the more suggestions I get from you, the more time I’ll have to spend at the beach, which will really work out for me. I like fiction and non-fiction, love essay collections on just about anything, enjoy memoirs, and am always interested in international or historical topics. I’m open to classics, especially ones that I read in high school and may get a new perspective on the second time around.

I really don’t like sci-fi or fantasy unless it is very L-I-T-E; if it’s about another world or got its own language I’m probably not going to hang on for very long. I really don’t love self-help or life enrichment books, especially ones that start every chapter with an anecdote from the life of a now-disillusioned former beauty queen or a man who is married to a woman that he admires to the point of nausea (mine, not his).

I have a sweet spot for project books (like The Know-It-All, in which AJ Jacobs reflects on reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica; Driving Mr. Albert, in which journalist Michael Paterniti drives cross country with Albert Einstein’s Brain; and Sacred Sea, in which writer and radio producer Peter Thomson road trips it to Lake Baikal in Siberia and learns that if someone offers you vodka on the Trans-Siberian railway, you shouldn’t say ‘yes,’ but you really can’t say ‘no.’). I also like to rip off high school summer reading lists, because they’re way more interesting now than in my all-women’s Catholic high school days.

But enough about me, I want to hear from you.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

From Andie: All Creature Great and Small

From Meg: Reading Lolita in Tehran

From Shannon: Silent to the Bone

From Kristin: Lucky

From Luke: John Adams

From Carol: Pillars of the Earth

From Hayley: The Harry Potter Series

From me: Don Quixote, The Three Musketeers, The Grapes of Wrath (it’s been 21 years since I didn’t read that last one in high school; considering we’re in the midst of “The Great Recession,” it seems like it’s about time)

Drop me a line, and, if possible, loan me the book—I’m looking forward to your suggestions!!