Sunday, October 29, 2006

Lost and Found (Carolyn Parkhurst)

I haven't read very much fiction lately, so I was looking forward to Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst. All I knew about it was that it was about contestants on a reality TV show and it had gotten good reviews, which was enough for me to want to read it. The first chapter begins from the point of view of a mother who is competing on the show with her teenage daughter, and by page six, the reader finds out their big story, the reason why they're on the show, which is that the daughter was pregnant and had a baby with the mother unaware of this until the night she gave birth. This information was presented so dramatically that I wasn't sure I could handle the rest of the book if it was all this emotionally supercharged.

Luckily, a few of the other contestants in the show (including the daughter) also take turns telling their stories in the chapters (former child actors, a "saved" gay man and lesbian woman now married to each other), and while I still felt there were uber-dramatical moments throughout, it got better and better, and I had a hard time putting this book down. I was sucked in and had a lot of gasp-out-loud moments. This book would be a good one for traveling or when you have an afternoon or two where you don't have to be anywhere or do anything and you can lose yourself in a book.

There'll be a slight haitus for the blog while Jim and I head to Hawaii to enjoy hikes in dormant volcano, a tour of a goat cheese farm where we'll get to help herd the goats and feed them, and various kinds of water activities. Mahalo!

Next book up: Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball by Molly O'Neill

Friday, October 27, 2006

Galloway's Book on Running (Jeff Galloway)

A few weeks ago, I found myself awake at 5 am on a cold, dark morning in downtown San Jose with a bunch of other green T shirt-clad people who were volunteering for the San Jose Rock n' Roll Half-Marathon. (For those of you not familiar with a Rock n' Roll marathon, it is a marathon where a live band plays at each mile, and there's usually a big concert at the end.) Even though my friend Ashley and I had volunteered for the finish line portion of the race, we still had to be there by 5 am. Luckily, though, we ended up with an even better job. We were two of the three official timers for Meb Keflezghi, who won the silver medal back in Athens for the marathon. He was trying to set a new 10-mile record, so we stood at the 10-mile marker, stopwatches in hand, index fingers poised, and clicked the millisecond worth of time that his chest crossed our line. (Meb was not having the best day and he was the third elite runner to cross the 10-mile line, so he did not set a new record.)

Once our official job was over, we stood at the 10-mile marker and cheered on everyone who ran by, and it made for an inspiring day. There was a blind runner aided by a guide who ran directly in front of him, while they each held onto a pole in each hand. There was a woman with a prosthetic running leg, and her running partner was completing the race barefoot. There were old and young runners, runners in great shape and those who were really struggling. We cheered on friends, and after a couple hours of watching people stream by, we thought, you know, maybe we can do this, too.

I was never an athletic kid. At all. Jim has fond memories of his elementary school PE class, with juggling, roller skating, and hula hooping. I remember being picked last for softball, being hit again and again by a stiff gray foam dodgeball, and hanging on a rope I couldn't climb until they told me I could let go. But a couple years ago, I found myself in great shape (thanks to the Monkey Bar Gym in Madison, Wisconsin) and decided I wanted to run. I completed two 5 Ks, and even an 8 K, but then didn't run regularly after that.

But I learned something very valuable from some of the half-marathoners. You don't have to run the whole time. There's this wonderful formula called the "5-1" where you run for 5 minutes, walk for 1 minute, and then repeat until you finish the race. I had never heard of this before and had always thought of walking during running as giving up (whenever I stopped to walk I could never get up the energy to run again). Well, according to Jeff Galloway, one of the reasons that the 5-1 works is that you start taking the walk breaks before you're really tired, so you keep your endurance but you give yourself a breather and you work all your leg muscles, which helps from cramping or overuse. I find that the best part of the 5-1 is that 5 minutes seems doable. Running 3 more miles may not, but 5 minutes? I can do that.

In Galloway's Book on Running, the original edition coming out in 1987, Jeff Galloway presents what was probably at that time a fairly revolutionary program of running. Not only does he talk about the walk breaks (which he even recommends to elite runners, though with a less than a minute walk in between the runs), he also talks about how it can be better to run every other day than everyday.

In this book, I learned how much you need to run a week to progress toward a goal for a race or to keep weight off. He goes into the science behind what happens to your body when you run, how to be faster, how to find the right pair of shoes, how to prevent injury, and his wife talks about the differences between men running and women running. The best thing I learned from this book is that you only have to run 3 times a week (two 30-45 min runs and then one long run) to run a half-marathon or even a full marathon. And (even better), you should not run your long run fast when training. It should be slow. Galloway's book does give some advice to elite athletes, but I feel like his main audience is what he refers to as the "neighborhood runner," and he's all for people running throughout their lives (he gives plenty examples of people who start running very late in life and have great experiences).

And for those who are afraid running for 5 minutes at a time seems too long, don't worry. Galloway recommends that beginning runners start walking first, and running just a bit at a time (even as little as 30 seconds at a time) and then working up to more. When I first started running again a few weeks ago, I started with a 2-1 and worked up to the 5-1. I have to say, I've had a lot more fun running these past few weeks than I ever had before. I'm going to do my first-ever 10K on Thanksgiving morning, which really, is just a very good excuse to eat a lot of pie later in the day. And I am training for a half-marathon in February up in Golden Gate Park, and my goal isn't to finish fast, but just to finish.

Next book up: Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Lost Continent (Bill Bryson)

In A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson is excited. So excited in fact, that you, the reader, get really excited (enough to want to start a Bill Bryson fan club).

In The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, he's not excited. He's young and brash, easily annoyed, disrespectful, quick to judge, and frankly no fun to be around. I did not find the first half of this book to be very entertaining or funny (though I felt that was the intention). Now, I may be especially biased about this, I'm well aware. Let me explain.

I am, like Bill Bryson, from Iowa. However, he is from Des Moines (king of all the cities in Iowa in terms of bigness and prides itself for being bigger than any other city in Iowa), whereas I am from Davenport (a medium-sized Iowa city that would be small in most other states but prides itself in being near a muddy river and being bigger than the small towns in Iowa). And, just like your family, you can complain all you want, but no one can make fun of them but you.

Technically then, Bill Bryson qualifies to make fun of the Midwest, but the problem is that he has been out of the country, living in England, for a long time, so he's especially put off by American life for most of the book as he takes a 38-state tour of the country via car for 300-some pages. Single-person road trips can make people cranky, and I feel like he's covered too much material. I found the second part of the book better, but not enough to recommend it. Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation does a great job presenting somewhat similar material in a more focused, and more entertaining way.

Next book up: Galloway's Book on Running by Jeff Galloway

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Interview: Chad Davidson and John Poch

Poets Chad Davidson and John Poch teamed up to write their new book, Hockey Haiku: The Essential Collection, and I may not know much about hockey, but I do like the haiku, am a big fan of Chad and John, and happen to know they're writing is excellent. They were kind enough to brave the time zone differences (me in California, Chad in Georgia, and John in Spain) to talk about their book with me.

MD: Are you afraid of Canadians?

Chad: It's not so much fear as a guarded fascination. During my years researching for this book at the Hockey Haiku Institute in Nova Scotia, I came to be drawn to their peculiar customs. I once perchanced to see two Canadians conversing in what appeared to be a foreign tongue. Turns out it was a form of French spoken in part of that great land. Who would have guessed the Canadians possessed so much interest! Endlessly evocative, I must say. Stories of cannibalism circulate, of course, but these seem mere rumor, near myth, in fact.

John: I’m afraid of many Canadians but not of anybody from Winnipeg. With hockey haiku, in general, one learns not to be afraid, but to embrace ones fears. What is a tough check on the boards to me? Nothing, I get back up. The same goes for writing a difficult haiku and failing to find that third line. Back to the question, though, one should generally fear Canadians more than Americans.

MD: Who is the bigger hockey fan of the two of you?

John: I know very little about hockey. Wallace Stevens said that one of the sources of poetry is ignorance, so I find myself more adept at understanding hockey haiku than Chad, at times. We are different kinds of fans, for sure. Chad likes to sit in fancy schmanzy press boxes with private bathrooms while I like my face pressed up against the glass, feeling the percussion of the sticks on the ice, the vibration of the Zamboni as it sweeps by, the blood sweat and tears of the players and my fellow comrades in the pit. It’s primal, really. Chad does spend time down below with us, but he does like to hang out with the bigwigs now and then. He wears cologne while I prefer Speedstick alone.

Chad: I am, of course. John has no skill at all. Fan skill, that is. He has no sense of rhythm when we have to clap our hands at games after a goal, has no real taste for Molson Ice, and also hates hot dogs.

MD: Do you think people who aren't schooled in poetry (but are very schooled in, say, the San Jose Sharks) would enjoy this book?

Chad: Definitely. Look, there are two kinds of hockey haiku fans out there. There are the fiercely aggressive and loyal fans--the type who tattoo certain hockey haiku on their thighs and chant them to the harvest moon. There are also, though, the more common, staid varieties, people like you and me who, as chance may have it, work in San Jose, St. Paul, or New York, who work at desk jobs, perhaps, whose only source of joy is that fleeting sense of satisfaction amid the workday when a moment of clarity transports us to that peaceful realm known as hockey haiku. Religions have been formed around less.

MD: I think hockey season is just starting up, is that correct? Did you guys plan for the book to be released at the beginning of the season?

John: We planned for it to be released during the playoffs and the run into the Stanley Cup, but the editors at St. Martin’s realized what a good stocking stuffer it would be for every little hockey hooligan out there just waiting for his boot (in Canada they hang boots over the fireplace rather than stockings) to be full of hockey haiku. The kids love it. They can’t get enough, and we should be thankful to St. Martin’s for realizing this. We get caught up in the game and forget about things like money. We’re poets, after all.

MD: I have to say that there are people who are bigger hockey fans out there than me. I'm a baseball girl myself. Do you see a baseball haiku book on the horizon?

Chad: After Davey Lopes' classic Baseball Haiku Quarterly went under in '79, I am sure we all had visions of reviving it, or, better, trying ourhands at an anthology. Really, though, if you look at the baseball haiku that have been promoted as of late--mostly in the Northeastern schools, I think it's fallen away. It's become too disembodied. They've lost a sense of the populace, what Williams called "the pressure of reality." Some of the South American baseball haiku, especially those indebted to Marquez and the magical realists, are quite stunning.

MD: Can you write a haiku for me about the sad state of this past Cubs season and perhaps their hopeful rebirth for the next?

Chad: No, but what comes to mind is Yezzy Gradebill's classic haiku on just that subject: Chicago snow falls / long past spring, past summer cubs / still at mother's teats.

MD: Thanks for that. Back to hockey, any predictions for this season?

Chad: What with the book's release and our Japanese tour poised to begin, I haven't had a chance to look over my stats, yet. I hope, childishly, for Modano to play on another winning Stars team.

MD: I think it’s great the two of you did this project together. Do you see any other joint projects in the future?

John: Well, we can’t talk about too many of them, as others will want to swoop in and try their hand at what we alone can do. I do know that we’re a little dismayed that we’ve left out the Kyoto school from this anthology, but the poems are so singular and foreign to the American cultures, we just didn’t think anyone but a scholar would realize the beauty. But we’re beginning to think otherwise. You can’t underestimate hockey fans. Zamboni, after all, the word itself, comes out of an ancient Kyoto haiku. Most people think it’s Italian.

MD: Given this is for a website about book reviews, could you recommend a book?

Chad: I think Fivolovic's last collection of hockey haiku, The Path Sick Senators Took, is perhaps his most challenging. It's not the type of hockey haiku you relax with. It demands a lot of its readers, sort of the Scotty Bowman of recent hockey haiku collections, but it pays off in spades.

John: Black Ice. It’s the story of the rise and fall of former Dallas Stars net minder Eddie Belfour and his current recovery from substance addictions. Do you know what’s bringing him out of his depression and addiction? Yes, of course, we all have heard. Practicing hockey haiku in the mornings and evenings, when he would normally be out cruising the seediest parts of town looking for the biggest bouncer he could find to challenge to a bare-fisted brouhaha. Eddie Belfour has also started quoting famous Presidents at lunch. I’ve heard this is a favorite of his that he is bringing onto the ice this season to mess with the offensive linemen who deign sidle up to him: As FDR said: “I’ve seen war and I’ve seen Eleanor. I’ll take war!”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Two for the Road (Jane and Michael Stern)

I grew up in a town in Iowa where it was a big deal when we got an Olive Garden. (As a kid, I thought it was a very fancy restaurant.) We did have some national chain restaurants, but mostly of the fast-food persuasion. Instead we had family-owned restaurants, ones we went to after dance recitals to get ice cream sundaes and others that for some reason served a kind of fish called smelt, which I cannot judge because I have not tasted it, but the name alone doesn't bode well.

In Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food, Jane and Michael Stern's memoir of their lives on the road as food writers, they take you back to a time before Olive Gardens, when almost every roadside restaurant served up local specialities. When they decided to write a national food guide in the 1970s, they had no idea what they were doing, so they decided the best thing would be to write about ALL the restaurants (they had never been outside the East Coast before), and so started a long span of eating 12 meals a day (they do detail in the book how this is humanly possible). They went to restaurants where they'd be the only strangers and Midwestern cafes where the salads contained no lettuce but instead gobs of mayonnaise, marshmallows, and sugar. (The chapters on Midwestern food especially hit home. Just a few years ago when my grandmother passed away, the sweet older ladies at her church prepared our family a salad luncheon following the funeral, and there was a lot of mayonnaise, a lot of marshmallows, and meat in places you'd never even think of. I went straight for the homemade pie.)

This pre-Olive Garden world may seem foreign, but I think there's still enough small, local restaurants around. In Iowa City, for example, there's this diner that serves pie milkshakes. When you order, you tell them what kind of milkshake you want and then you ask what kind of freshly baked pie they have that day. They make the milkshake, then take a piece of pie, put it in with the milkshake and blend it all together. We had vanilla with apple pie. It was the best milkshake I ever had.

From their years of experience, they also discuss the art of menu writing ("we cater to prim Donnas"), signs of a bad hotel (a TV that's chained to the wall), and signs of a good restaurant (a handmade larger than life pig wearing an apron on the roof). This book is a quick, fun read with a lot of nostalgia.

Next book up: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Salt: A World History (Mark Kurlansky)

This is how I usually check books out at the library: I have a list of books I want to read, I search for them on the San Jose library web site. If they have it, I request it and depending on it's status (check shelves, current unavailable, on hold), it could be ready in a couple days to a couple weeks. Sometimes I come home from a trip to the library with an insurmountable pile of books, both ones I've requested and ones that caught my eye on the new book shelf. Three weeks seems like a long time unless you have a really big pile or a couple of very long books. And with Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, I sadly learned that there was a limit to the number of times you can renew a book online.

I made it about halfway through the book before it was due. Jim pointed out, (and to his credit, he was most likely right) that I probably could have taken the book in and renewed it in person, as long as there wasn't another hold on it. But, I have to tell you, as much great history as in this book, it was lengthy, and there wasn't any big impetus for me to keep reading, other than the looming due date. I loved the old recipes in the book, and I feel like there were so many small gems of stories in it that I don't want to discourage anyone from reading it. Maybe the best advice I can give is not to read it during the baseball playoffs. Yes. That's advice I can stand behind.

Next book up: Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food by Jane and Michael Stern

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson)

I going to start a personal campaign to have Bill Bryson rewrite all the science textbooks the American public school system makes children read. All of them. And while he's at it, maybe he could also rewrite all the history textbooks, too. Why? He's exciting writer. A great one, too. And he takes topics that have been treated poorly in the past by other writers, or deemed too abstract or too scientific for nongeniuses, and he makes them not only accessible, but interesting, and dare I say, cool.

I highly recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything. I may even start a Bill Bryson fan club. (I realize I've only read this one book of his, but I plan to read many more in the near future. And, I just found out on Powell's website, he's a fellow Iowan!) This book is not small (but when you think about it trying to cover "nearly everything" isn't a very small task), but it didn't feel like a chore to get through at all. It has the right mix of hard science with historial, yet very lively, anecdotes, and explanation. I will admit I had some what I will call wimpy moments---I did not enjoy the chapters on the supervolcanoes and the who-knows-when-they-will-come-at-a-moment's-notice-and-destroy-us-all asteroids/comets. But then again, I don't like scary movies. Overall, it was highly enjoyable, with way too much information to cover it all here. I will, however, share some personal favorite moments:

  • The planet Uranus was discovered in 1781. However, the discoverer wanted to call it George. (Luckily he was "overruled.")
  • "In 1785, [Dr. James Parkinson] became possibly the only person in history to win a natural history museum in a raffle."
  • As mentioned in Strathern's book, the distinction between chemistry and alchemy was a tough one in the beginning. "Into the eighteen century scholars could feel oddly comfortable in both camps---like the German Johann Becher, who produced an unexceptionable work on mineralogy called Physica Subterranea, but who also was certain that, given the right materials, he could make himself invisible."
  • "Physicists are notoriously scornful of scientists from other fields. When the wife of the great Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli left him for a chemist, he was staggered with disbelief. 'Had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood,' he remarked in wonder to a friend. 'But a chemist. . . "
Next book up: Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky