Monday, August 25, 2008

Catching Up

It's been so long since my last blog that when I typed "g" into my browser, it didn't even remember that I had ever been to this website! I would offer a longer apology and explanation, except there's so many other things that I need to get down to.

First and foremost, the books. While I have not been blogging, I have been reading quite a bit. A quick rundown of the books I've been devouring, in no particular order because I can't even remember the order anymore:

(1) The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee is one of my favorite books I've read this summer. Lee starts out by exploring the history of the fortune cookie and ends up delving into Chinese culture in America and how Chinese food plays such a big part of it. My favorite thing about the book is that it sheds a huge amount of light into a culture that is all around us. Definitely, definitely pick this book up.

(2) I got my hands on an advanced reader's copy of What Rhymes with Bastard, a memoir by Linda Robertson. Rarely would I say this, but I wish I had never touched the thing. It comes out later this week, and I have a feeling that it will be one of those books hanging out at the front of your local Barnes and Noble. But really, folks, don't waste your time, unless you're just dying to read another book desperately trying to make a ridiculously bad situation into something clever. I don't know why there's this huge trend in memoirs toward drug abuse, bad relationships, joblessness looked at through a lens of humor and confusion. I found the main character wholly unrelatable, and though I tried to stick with the book, I finally through it across the room at page 144, when she bumps into her estranged husband and starts the same cycle of verbal abuse and hatred all over again. Reading this book is the equivalent of spending a night watching A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, Denise Richards: It's Complicated, and Living Lohan. I didn't pick it up again after throwing it across the room.

(2) A memoir that I enjoyed much more was The Cactus Eaters by Dan White. The book recounts White's decision to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail with his girlfriend. Part journal, part history lesson, and part adventure story, the book is a surprisingly quick read considering it comes in at exactly 400 pages. You find yourself rooting for him, even as he makes some ridiculous mistakes. He also doesn't take himself too seriously, and makes the trail, it's history, and his relationship with others on and after the trail very real.

(3) Taft by Ann Patchett. Let me start by saying, I love Ann Patchett. Her novel Bel Canto is on my list of all-time favorites (I've read it twice,) and I have always found that she is a master at making her characters live and breathe off the page. What she does with Taft is pretty incredible, telling a story of race, marriage, drug abuse, and parenthood without ever making you feel like she's set out with a theme. I love her characters, and I loved the decisions her characters make.

(4) So I'm almost embarrassed to admit I read Marley and Me by John Grogan. It's one of those books I would snobbishly avoid, like The DaVinci Code or anything by Nicholas Sparks. But, as a dogowner and doglover, this book has been recommended to me many times. I picked it up just to waste ten minutes while waiting for someone at the bookstore, and after reading just ten pages, decided to buy it. While there are many cheesy scenes, the book still managed to strike a chord with me. I will admit that in the end, I was laying in my bed with my dog, and crying over Marley. And I'm refusing to be embarrassed about it.

(6) Another one you must pick up is St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. This is by far and away the best collection of short stories I've read in years. There's a hint of the fantastical in every story, and many of them are nothing short of brilliant. This is definitely a contender for favorite book of the year, though there are still four months left to try to find something that surpasses Russell's work.

(7) One of my favorite authors is Tobias Wolff. His novel Old School is a somewhat romantic view of a boarding school, filled with students who love to learn and are passionate about their work. For booklovers, this is a fun one because it's set in the early 1960s and the students at this particular boarding school are given the opportunity to compete in contests with the rewards of meeting great authors of the time. The main character is writing, trying to win the opportunity to meet with Robert Frost, then Ayn Rand, then Hemingway. While the story is framed within the contexts of these individual contests, the setting is brilliantly drawn.

Beyond these books, I've devoured issues of the New Yorker, Paris Review, Granta, and One Story. So little time, so much I want to read.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fun and Learning at the New York Times

It started when I went to the New York Times website and saw the headline "When Ambassadors Had Rhythym" underneath a picture of Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet in the middle of a mob in Cairo. It was a feature about a soon-to-open photography exhibit about how the government used jazz musicians as ambassadors to improve the world's view of America during the Cold War.

Reading the article, not only did I have this huge sense of "Wow, I'm really learning something new today," but I was appalled by how our government used race in such a blatant way for their own benefit while at the same time denying rights to all. (And at the same time I wondered why I'm still capable of becoming appalled at such facts.)

This article had a slide show to accompany it, which was fantastic. Seeing the slide show made me want to travel to D.C. just to see the exhibit “Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World." You can check it out here.

Of course, at the end of the slide show, the NY Times always teases you with a list of other slide shows they have, so I end up sitting at the computer for an additional 30 minutes just looking at the pictures. Though in a completely separate vein, another interesting one was Book Review's Booty. My favorite part is their plans for J.M. Coetzee.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier

Bouillier's memoir The Mystery Guest is unlike anything I've ever read in that it is so intensely personal, almost to an embarrassing degree. But I couldn't put it down. Bouillier details the abrupt end to a four-year relationship and the sudden reintroduction of his former lover into his life when she calls to invite him to be a "mystery guest" at a birthday party.

After the phone call, Bouillier seems to make us privy to every single thought he has before, during, and after the party. He lets the reader see his obsession with finding answers to his questions about his past relationship, and his process for actually coming to answers that satisfy himself.

The story is unique in that it is almost entirely exposition of his thoughts, but is still spellbinding in its own way. In the end, I'm sure everyone can see a part of themselves in Bouillier, whether they would want to admit it or not.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In The News

What is reported on television and in our newspapers has been a topic of conversation more and more during the past few years. With a war and an administration embroiled in many questionable practices, it's interesting to see what is actually hitting the front pages of our newspapers.

Sherry Ricchiardi has a story in the current issue of American Journalism Review that confronts this issue head on. Ricchiardi writes about newspaper coverage of the war, specifically how it has all but disappeared. Why don't we care enough about this war to involve ourselves in it's realities? As someone who is always seeking out new, off-the-beaten-path reading, it surprises me how much I just accept what is handed to me in terms of news. Rarely do I seek out more information. I don't trust the news sources around me, but I'm not taking steps to further my knowledge either. And I'm pretty sure that this is the norm.

I struggle with the fact that information equals business. Just like clothing stores are going to sell what's fashionable using appealing marketing strategies, news organizations are going to sell stories that are "fashionable" and use appealing marketing strategies. And just like in the cases of fast foods and other consumer goods, neither the producer nor the consumer is taking responsibility.

Ricchiardi outlines why news organizations have neglected war coverage and poses many questions for her readers to think about. In the end, it seems the only solution for bringing war coverage, and hopefully more awareness of the war, is the fact that it will probably come up as a campaign issue in the coming months. Other than that, it seems that as far as the news goes, it will be business as usual.

For more information:
Read Sherry Ricchiardi's article here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

How You Should Spend 15 Minutes of Today

"Patriots" by Patrick Dacey is an incredibly detailed snapshot of the relationship of two women who have been neighbors for years. Each woman struggles with her own demons, and Dacey tells the story with humor while exploring the sorrow of both characters. The writing is incredibly tight; he is able to explain the history of these two women in just 15 minutes.

Dacey also delves into the symbolism of the ribbons people stick on their cars, details one of the funniest arguments I've ever read, and has many great lines, such as this one the main character says after describing how her husband left her: "I'll tell you this, if my husband was shot dead more people would've come over and said how sorry they were."

"Patriots" is the second installment of BOMB magazine's Fiction for Driving Across America series. Listen to it here. While I enjoyed his reading, it did throw me a little bit initially when I heard a male reading the part and realized a full minute or two into the story that the narrator was actually female. Either way, it's a great way to spend fifteen minutes.

For more information:
Listen to the first installment of Fiction for Driving Across America

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


The topic of prom has come up continuously in my life since yesterday. My students' prom is next Wednesday, in the book I'm currently reading a girl holds her own prom so she can dance with her ghostly lover, and one of my favorite bloggers recently covered prom as well.

Carrie Brownstein writes Monitor Mix on NPR's website. I've read and loved it from her first post. She opens this entry recapping a newspaper article about prom themes at Oregon High Schools. My own prom theme was "A Night to Remember," but I wish that I went to the school that had the theme "Jurassic Prom -- 65 Million Years in the Making."

Once you get past the list of themes though, Brownstein has some interesting things to say about how music effects us, especially when it comes to the traditions surrounding prom. Definitely take a look.

Monday, June 16, 2008

My Summer Lovin'

I find that the most difficult thing in my reading life is resisting the urge to impulse buy books wherever I see them: on the $1 shelves outside of The Strand, lying on the sidewalk next to trinkets and old board games at a stoop sale, or anywhere else a book might be spotted. A close second in difficulty level is resisting the urge to buy magazines advertising books to read for the summer.

The summer lists are different from everything else in the way they are categorized. After all, it is the only season in which "beach reads" are highlighted above all else. Oprah has 27 she's recommending, NPR has recommended reads and excerpts from some of their favorites, USA Today has a summer books preview with a great layout, and even CNN is reporting on the reading lists that other magazines have released!

So, what better to do than add to the madness. Here's a little list of my own containing the books I hope to spend time with this summer.

(1) Reread Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, then follow up with March by Geraldine Brooks. March is about the father from Little Women, who was fighting in the Civil War. I loved Little Women as a child and have a cherished copy given to me by my grandmother, and I am always riveted by Geraldine Brooks' writing. Really, what better way is there to start of the summer?

(2) My next selection wins for both longest book for the summer and longest title. The Paris Review Book: of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, Travels, the Art of Writing, and Everything Else in the World Since 1953 is a collectin of work published in The Paris Review. I have read two short pieces from it over the last few months but would love to dig in and read every bit of it.

(3) Bottlemania by Elizabeth Royte. I loved Garbage Land for it's in depth exploration of a part of my daily world. I'm fairly certain that Bottlemania will do the same thing.

(4) Taft by Ann Patchett. I've read her novel Bel Canto twice. Her writing is absolutely wonderful and the path she takes you on is unexpected in realistic ways that makes you want to keep going back for more.

(5) Finally, I want to read The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. I've wanted to read this for ages and have finally purchased a copy. I love that it takes a look at something we all take for granted. The dictionary is such a commonplace thing that we never stop to recognize how amazing it actually is.

I'm leaving the rest of my reading options open because who ever really knows that books are going to perk my interest and inspire another impulse buy.

For more information:
NPR Summer Books 2008
USA Today Summer Books Preview
CNN reports

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fun Article in New York Magazine

I'm not a huge follower of Broadway. Typically there are just a bunch of shows I've thought about seeing, and very few that I actually go to. Out of my entire time living in New York, I've seen one musical (compared to the six I saw on Broadway when I was living in a completely different region of the country.)

Anyhow, New York Magazine has an entertaining guessing game called Improbable Broadway Musicals: The Quiz! in this week's issue. Take a look and see how well you do. My performance was pretty awful, but not as awful as some of the ideas that really are going to be showing up on Broadway soon.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

It was nearly two months ago that my book club decided to read Nicola Barker's Darkmans, a story so strange that it has captivated me for over 600 pages. (I still have another 200 to go.) When Sylvia Brownrigg reviewed the book for the NY Times, she stated that "to suggest that this dazzling, complex novel has anything quite as conventional as a plot would be misleading."

As I near the end, I find myself continuously trying to create a plot out of the insane happenstance that drives the novel. On more than one occasion, I have thought that Nicola Barker must have manipulated the story to be able to use an idea for a character or a situation that she just loved. And even though there's plenty of nonsense, loose ends that refuse to be tied up, and a complete resistance to the structure I've been taught since grade school, I have loved reading this book.

It seems that one of the attractions of a book is the ability to hold in the plam of your hand a tidy, complete story where everything makes sense. Everything happens for a reason, everyone has motives that are initally clear or become clear over time, and frequently nothing insignificant happens. But Barker absolutely refuses to follow any of these rules.

On a brief hiatus from the novel, I picked up a Granta's Best Young British Novelists from 1993. Barker had a short story called "The Balance" in the issue. The story also broke all rules for structure and plot, but for me the story didn't work. It was confusing and oddly self-aware, and in the end, I didn't enjoy reading it.

Darkmans, on the other hand, works without fail. While there have been points that I have wondered "what the hell is going on here" or "where is Barker taking me," I have completely enjoyed reading it. Her characters are complicated and funny, and they drive the novel, even if you have no idea where you're going.

For more information:
Interview in which Nicola Barker says she doesn't think she would want to read her own books
Barker on being nominated for the Man Booker Prize for Darkmans

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Reading A Speech

You may know already that J.K. Rowling spoke at Harvard's commencement last week. What I somehow did not expect was that some Harvard graduates did not think she was of high enough caliber to speak at their commencement.

Harvard's previous commencement speakers have consisted of Nobel prize winners, political leaders, and business powerhouses. It's safe to say that Rowling will probably never earn a Nobel for her work, but does that actually devalue it?

I would expect deeper thinking from a Harvard graduate. It's absurdly short-sighted to write off her work as meaningless because it's children's literature or fantastical fiction. Even Harvard's president stated that "No one in our time has done more to inspire young people to … read." Really, is there anything more powerful than the reading we do as children? I wonder if anything those graduates read during their college experience effected them as much as the first time they encountered Where the Red Fern Grows or Anne of Green Gables.

Harry Potter roped in people of all generations, but especially captured the imaginations of children. In thinking about the structure of the Harry Potter books, what is most amazing is the complexity of the culture that Rowling created. She delves into politics, discrimination, and freedom of speech. That world is just as real as ours.

Better yet, and somehow denied by the graduates who couldn't appreciate their fortune in seeing Rowling speak, is that by allowing children to be part of such a complex world, she is pushing her readers to be the future Nobel prize winners, political leaders, and business powerhouses. Or, if they're lucky, the next J.K. Rowling.

For more info:
Watch or read J.K. Rowling's speech

Friday, May 2, 2008


When I am grieving, I find that I turn to books, stories, poems, anything with words to lose myself in. Tomorrow I am attending a funeral for a baby in the morning and a wake for the father of a coworker in the evening. While I'm at work, I find I cannot concentrate. There is a sadness to everything that is somehow made even sadder by the fact that it will pass. During a break in the day, I picked up this week's copy of The New Yorker and tried to find something to take my mind off the events of yesterday. Instead, I found a poem by Matthew Dickman called "Grief." One of the amazing powers of the written word is its ability to make the day you are dwelling in okay. As if the words are actually saying: "It's okay to feel this way or be this way." And while I do not feel better necessarily, I feel a little bit more accepting.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Short Story Obsession

Recently I bought a bunch of old issues of Granta magazine online and have been reveling in my love for the short story.

It all started with the Best New American Voices 2008. I was about to get it on a whim, then I saw that it contained a story by Garth Risk Hallberg, whose book A Field Guide to the North American Family was one of my favorite reads of 2007. He also blogs for The Millions, which I read every time it updates. Anyway, buying the book suddenly went from whim to intentional purchase...and since then there's been no turning back. Every spare second has been spent with a short story.

While I devoured a few stories in the Best New American Voices collection, I have been completely overcome by the Grantas I purchased. I don't know how they are so consistently good. It's the same way I feel about the New Yorker and the Colbert Report. Day after day, week after week, or quarter after quarter, you can count on great writing and interesting choices. For now the Best of Young British Novelists 2003 is sitting on the coffee table, and a story by Ben Rice is calling my name. If you listen carefully, you'll probably hear it calling your name, too.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

And I Always Wondered...

From time to time I do buy a copy of a book with the "Questions for Discussion" section in the back. Typically I'll read one or two after finishing the book, all the time asking myself Who writes these things?

Well, Joe Queenan doesn't just set out to answer that question, but also tries his own hand at the task in this Sunday's NY Times Book Review. I was a fan of Queenan already, but this essay just doubled my love for his work.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Interview with Jad Abumrad

I'm a huge fan of the radio show Radio Lab, which takes on a variety of subjects (such as laughter, sleep, or as I recently blogged about society's reaction to the War of the Worlds broadcast.) This week, Boldtype's Toby Warner interviews Radio Lab host Jad Abumrad, who explains how storytelling is just like composing music. Take a look here.

Garden In My Laptop?

I've been resistant to the idea of reading books online, and while I've been amazed by products such as the Kindle, I'm still pretty adamant about reading books while holding the real deal in my hand. Sure, I'll use the computer to read a few newspaper articles in the morning, random magazine articles, essays, blogs...but it's a little more difficult to curl up with your laptop and read for an hour (or several.)

However, today was the first day I visited Google Book Search. The homepage didn't show anything that I was all that interested in reading, so I looked for something I've been wanting to read for a while, the collection edited by Dave Eggers, The Best American Nonrequired Reading. The most recent edition I could find in my quick search was from 2003, but I was immediately able to access the whole text.

I'm sure there about a million arguments for why books should not be available online, but I have two things to say in defense of free online reading. First, it's highly unlikely that I would read the entire book online. What's far more likely to occur is that I will try it out, read a few pages or click on (one of my favorite features on the search tool) the "Popular Passages" link. If it piqued my interest, I would do one of two things: click on the link in the sidebar to actually buy the book OR go to the bookstore and buy it there, where I would probably succumb to temptation and purchase at least two or three other books at the same time.

Second, Google has better predictive software than anything I else I ever come across. I imagine a perfect Google world in which they find books that I might never find myself, recommending little known authors that become some of my favorites. Of course, this is just a little daydream. But if anyone can fulfill it, I think it's Google.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Subway Chronicles edited by Jacquelin Cangro

On a recent trip to the NYC Transit Museum, I picked up a book of collected essays called The Subway Chronicles. I was especially excited to see that two of my favorite authors, Francine Prose and Calvin Trillin, has pieces in the book.

Overall, I was surprised by the consistent quality of the essays contained within this volume. The Calvin Trillin piece had me laughing (and only strengthened what I refer to as "my old man crush," brought about by his straight-forward humor and complete honesty.) "What I Feared" by Elise Juska was a great find as well.

The book was inspired by essays submitted to, a website founded by Cangro in 2002. The website is also fantastic, complete with more essays, poetry, "Top 5" lists, and more. Click here to check it out.

I initially decided to just read one essay a day as a little treat to myself when I got home from work. However, on the third day, I just started reading it whenever I had the opportunity. Definitely a great find.

Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of those authors I can't get enough of. I read Interpreter of Maladies shortly after it won the pulitzer and read The Namesake as soon as it came out. Now, she has another book of short stories that I can't wait to get my hands on. The Atlantic has an interesting interview with her in this month's edition. I find her attitude towards her work fascinating.

Last year when the movie The Namesake came out, I saw Lahiri and director Mira Nair speak about the process of creating the movie. As a writer, Lahiri is one of those people who I would love to emulate. And as a reader, I can't wait to go to the bookstore and pick up the new book.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Dealbreakers

An essay in yesterday's New York Times discusses the influence of a person's literary tastes on your decision whether to date them or not. As a person who would never date someone who said his favorite book is The DaVinci Code, I definitely related to the article. Of course, my book requirements haven't always worked out as anticipated, but it's probably just as good, if not better than any other way to judge the quality of a potential mate. Read the article here.

A Fine Line

I like to listen to podcasts on my 30-minute walk to work. This morning's selection was one of my favorites, an episode of Radio Lab. This particular episode was about the 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds and why so many people would believe that the fictional story on the radio was really happening.

Before I go on, I want to mention a time when I heard a fictional story and believed it to be true. It was on another walk to work a couple months ago that I was listening to a story by Brian Udall on This American Life. It was a strange tale told by a man whose developmentally disabled brother keeps a pet armadillo. I happened to miss the little sentence at the beginning of the piece explaining that it was fictional, so by the end of the story (and the end of my walk to work) I was holding back tears, completely horrified at a particular scene in which the armadillo is nearly killed.

After the story concluded, Ira Glass closed the show and once again mentioned that the story was a fictional piece originally published in 1999. I suddenly felt tricked and quite stupid, but if anything, the little incident taught me that what the reader/listener brings to the table greatly influences their perception of the story. I was expecting another installment of the nonfiction work that I always hear on This American Life, so I believed everything, no matter how far-fetched.

Which makes me think that I would have been one of those people in 1938 who, after listening to the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, called the police and asked if I would be safer on the roof or in my fallout shelter. The Radio Lab episode does a fantastic job of recreating the world of 1938 and explaining why, given events of the time period, people would believe a story that many of them had read at some point during the previous 40 years. It goes on to address how Orson Wells updated the story for the infamous broadcast and the potential for such panic to occur again from fiction. Listening to the original broadcast is one of those things I've always meant to do but never gotten around to. I'm glad that I was reintroduced to it through Radio Lab, because I appreciate the circumstances much, much more. Take a listen when you have a little time.

For more information:
Radio Lab #403: War of the Worlds
Listen to Brian Udall's story Resurrection

Thursday, March 27, 2008

How We Keep Our Books

When I have a book that is especially inspirational to me, I write all over it. I underline, circle, bracket, and write out thoughts about certain passages. But I almost never dogear a page. For some reason, it seems wrong to damage a book in that way, while putting my pen to the paper seems like no damage at all. Sometimes I think writing in my books is almost like marking my territory, because these are the books I am the least likely to share with others. They become so private that I am far more likely to buy a friend a copy of the book than lend them my own.

I had a roommate in college whose religion taught her to respect all texts. One day, a textbook was on the floor of our cluttered dorm room and another friend actually stepped on it. My roommate gasped loudly and froze, then said a quick prayer of apology.

I have always been fascinated by this behavior, and wondered at our own disregard of all tomes. But today I was forced to wonder about a different way of viewing novels. I have never heard of "altered books," but apparently it is a thriving art. I found this altered books blog, which showed several examples of people turning the pages of novels into visual poems of a sort. I find myself less sad than completely intrigued, and also a bit interested in trying it myself...until I think about what book I would use. And my mind goes blank, because I can't actually imagine physically marking in a book in a way that covered up an author's words. I'm definitely curious to find out more about this trend.