Saturday, February 25, 2006

Noncommute Books: Gardens and Crafts

McGee and Stuckey's The Bountiful Container

I've been wanting to have some version of a garden for years but a) I have no expertise at all, b) I'm lucky if I can keep a plant alive, and if I do, I believe it's more because of the plant's will to live than anything else, and c) I've never had any space. Our apartment has a large fenced-in patio that is perfect for plants, so over the past few months, I've been checking out books from the library about container gardening. The majority of them either have beautiful photographs but very little helpful content or overcomplicated content that is not helpful for a novice like me. I finally found the perfect book for anyone who wants to grow something edible in a container. It's so good, that I plan to purchase it for my own reference. The Bountiful Container is incredibly user friendly, tells you how to get started and what works best for where you live (or how much effort you want to exert).

Denyse Schmidt Quilts

Last year I learned how to sew and later purchased a sewing machine. And while there are plenty of people who love to quilt, I had never really had much desire to do it. (That said, I do appreciate all the hard work and skill of those who have made me quilts, and I appreciate them immensely.) Quilting is tedious, exacting work, and lots of books on the market are very country-fair-ish in design.

Then I found Denyse Schmidt Quilts, which I believe to be the most fabulous modern quilt book out there. To begin with, there are projects I can actually do in the book (simple and small, but still creative and beautiful) and there are also full-blown quilts if I ever get brave enough. Schmidt has a graphics design background and uses colors and patterns in a unique way. (She also gives a good brief primer on how to work with color in her style of quilting.) I don't think this book is for someone who is completely new to sewing (while she gives good instructions, there are some smaller steps she leaves out), and I wouldn't say the projects are necessarily easy (it's still a form of quilting, and there's a lot of steps before you actually sew), but it is the first quilting book I actually love.

Book Doctor (Esther Cohen)

I have to begin with a major disclaimer. I am not a fan of books about writers writing books. That said, there are sometimes exceptions to this (such as John Irving's The World According to Garp, which was the first book I read in high school that completely wowed me because it was considered "literature" even though it was so amazingly good).

One of my first jobs was as a managing editor for a national literary magazine. Our circulation was small, but we were listed in The Writer's Market (think of it as the yellow pages for a writer aspiring to be published), and we received a good deal of submissions. The best part of the submissions (from my point of view) were the cover letters, not the ones written professionally, but the ones who were trying to "grab our interest." It didn't help that, at the time, the example cover letter in The Writer's Market was so humorously off-target as to what magazines/journals were really looking for.

The query letters Arlette, the main character in Esther Cohen's Book Doctor, receives reminded me of the especially priceless cover letters we received. While they may seem over the top (such as the lawyer who has an idea for a book Firm: A Lawyer's Exercise Guide), she's nailed the tone and content perfectly. The letters are interspersed among the narrative, and to me they are the most entertaining and interesting part of the book.

Arlette is a book doctor, helping others write their stories, but of course she has a novel in her that she's trying to write. For me, the book wasn't visual or descriptive enough, and the characters did a lot of talking about big questions in big ways that didn't really ring true to life to me. But again, remember my disclaimer above.

There was also this really funny joke in a query letter Arlette receives. It's from a man who wants to write an Alzheimer's Joke Book:

"George Bush was upset. He hadn't been the President for a while, and he craved attention. A friend suggested he visit an old-age home in California. A guest appearance. The friend arranged for the visit. George got there and the people in the home were thrilled to see him. He shook hands all around, and listened to their praises. He felt much better very quickly, and was about to leave when he noticed an older woman in the corner, sitting all by herself. He walked over to her, intending to cheer her up. He smiled at her kindly, then said, 'Do you know who I am?' 'No,' she said, looking him in the eye. 'But if you ask at the front desk, they'll tell you."

Next book up: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

23 Days in July (John Wilcockson)

If you relish saying "Ivan Basso" the way that one OLN announcer does, if while barely going 15 mph on your own bike you feel like a daredevil, if you wake up early in the month of July to see the 7 am broadcast of the Tour, then 23 Days in July is for you. I think this would also be a good book for Tour novices who want to learn what this race is all about.

When I was growing up I remember my dad was a big bike enthusiast. He once road the Ragbrai, which is a week-long ride across Iowa. I also remember he had some big heavy rollers in the basement he used in the winter to ride on (looking back, those seem way more dangerous than today's bike trainers). Myself, I grew up with a banana seat pink Huffy but apparently gave up trying to learn (I still blame this somewhat on being the 4th of 4 children. I also think there must have been a winter in there somewhere where everyone forgot I didn't know how to ride). But I did finally learn how at age 25 (in the Jewish Community Center parking lot across the street from my apartment. Jim taught me. It took about a half an hour). Now I ride everywhere I can.

Wilcockson thinks we all have a little bit of that bike craze in us, and this is one of the reasons Lance is so popular. Most of us know how to ride a bike and while coasting down a hill we can all feel, even if just for a moment, a little taste of what he must feel on his bike. The book chronicles the 2004 Tour de France, with each chapter giving a snapshot of each day of racing. There is more about the Tour's history and other riders (including Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Tyler Hamilton) and less about Lance than I was expecting, but that wasn't a bad thing. And all that added information helped fill out the chapters, especially on the sprint days because, really, sprints aren't that exciting until the final end, and even then, those who are contending to win the Tour aren't usually involved. They're tucked away someplace safe in the pack surrounded by their teammates.

Other good books: Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season by Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King. O'Nan and King didn't know the 2004 season was going to be historic when they set out to write about it--they just really love baseball. I thought this was an enjoyable read, especially if you're a baseball fan (Well, I guess I can't really picture a non-baseball fan reading a book completely about baseball). There's a lot of great behind-the-scenes information and action in this, including when O'Nan came to be called "Net guy" by the Fenway crowd.

Next book up: Book Doctor by Esther Cohen

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

What Should I Do With My Life (Po Bronson)

When I originally picked up What Should I Do With My Life? I thought it was going to be full of success stories, you know, all those people out there who managed to make it. I thought it would be ultra-inspirational about the hard-won path to ultimate success and happiness. That's not what it is. And I think it's a more successful book because of that. Instead it's about people trying to answer that question. Some who find it easily, others who are still searching, and some who have answers presented to them many times but for various reasons choose to ignore them.

He uses the analogy of the box of assorted chocolates to discuss a particular group of people searching for their ultimate meaning in life. "Frustrated by their inability to see inside the dark chocolate coatings, they hang out around the box, watch other people's faces as they bite into the choices--'What did you get? Is it good? Is there another in the box just like it?'" He refers to these people as trying to "X-ray the chocolates," and he states (aware he may lose these particular people as readers), "I am not trying to X-ray the chocolates. I AM NOT GOING TO X-RAY THE CHOCOLATES."

Bronson wanted to interview a diverse group of people for this project. Friends of friends of friends passed along word of his project (via word of mouth and e-mail), and he met people all over the world who wanted to tell their stories. He became more than a journalist, had deep conversations with people, gave them advice, became their friends. He becomes so involved that he tells his own story as well.

He presents these people as the real people they are, and I came away from this book with a huge sense of empathy. He says the process of writing this book make him a better person. I think reading this book will not only make you more introspective on your own life, but will also help you relate even more to those around you.

Other good books: Very new-agey, a lot of fun if you embrace it, is The Artist's Way, a book that guides you to opening your life to your own creativity. There are daily and weekly "exercises" that help you discover your own creative self. I originally got this book when I was in college, and every once in a while I pull it out again and go through the program.

Next book up: 23 Days in July by John Wilcockson

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hidden Kitchens (Nikki Silva & Davia Nelson)

I’ll admit I’ve made plenty of fun at the George Foreman grill, especially when the assortment of colors became a major selling point. But after reading Hidden Kitchens, by Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson (a.k.a. The Kitchen Sisters), I discovered how important the George Foreman grill is to the homeless and those who have lower incomes. In one of those governmental paradoxes, low-income persons who are granted SROs (which are single occupancy rooms) don’t have access to kitchens and aren’t allowed to cook in their rooms, which means they have to eat out all the time (leading to less money saved and less healthy affordable food choices). To get around this, people in those situations have embraced the George Foreman grill. It can be stored easily, leaves no mess, and can make a hot, simple meal in a small amount of time.

Hidden Kitchens is a segment on NPR’s Morning Edition that travels the country (their locations are based mainly on voice mail messages left by listeners sharing their local hidden kitchen) searching for such varied kitchens as church fundraisers, streetcorner food carts that only operate at night, NASCAR kitchens, and the original chili queens of San Antonio. They’ve collected many of their stories, along with recipes and listener recipes, in a handsome hardcover published by Rodale. I’d almost put this book into the coffeetable category as the text is sparse on each page and there’s lots of photographs.

I liked this book, I didn’t love it (I’m afraid I’ve been spoiled by Calvin Trillin), but I thought it was well-produced and would be a good introduction to thinking about food more than just sustenance. I especially enjoyed the chapters on the urban forager Angelo Garro. Originally from Sicily, now living in San Francisco, he takes friends on wild fennel hunts (wild fennel grows all over coastal California) leading them around parking lots and under freeway overpasses. (Now I finally know what the plant is that smells like licorice on the bike path and by PacBell stadium). I was moved by the chapter about Georgia Gilmore, a lady who worked with Martin Luther King Jr in the civil rights movement, only the way she helped was by feeding everyone she could (including MLK Jr).

I appreciated that when the Kitchen Sisters asked for listener stories for their hidden kitchen quest, they requested no grandmother stories (not because they were mean spirited, but because they were afraid their staff wasn’t large enough to handle the amount of stories that would come in if they were allowed). Even then, people still called in with stories about their grandmothers. My grandmothers weren’t big cooks, but I’m lucky enough to have Jim’s grandmother who makes him cookies for his birthday and tells him he has to share with me (I consider myself very lucky indeed).

Next book up: What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Bronson

[Note: I feel the need to point out that this is not a self-help book (as the title implies) but rather an exploration of that big question and those who have tried to answer it. I’m adding this note because I feel very strange carrying around a book with that title and reading it on the train (though less weird than I would reading 23 Days in July (the book I'll be reading after this) about Lance Armstrong while riding in the bike car on the Caltrain. That's going too far.]