Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Naked Pictures of Famous People (Jon Stewart)

Let’s be up front about this: Jon Stewart is a genius, and The Daily Show is hilarious, and America: The Book is pretty damn funny too. Naked Pictures of Famous People is a short, oddball little book (18 pieces in 163 pages) from a pre–Daily Show Stewart, and it’s unfortunate that the two places I really laughed hard were the dedication page (“For my loves—Tracey, Stan, and Shamsky. No offense, Sportscenter.”) and the “Microsoft Word ’98 Suggested Spelling and Usage” at the end, a list of suggestions his computer had made for words and phrases appearing in the rest of the book, in no small part just because it’s funny to see some of those words reappear devoid of context (“Wilford Brimley” “WILLARD BRAMBLY”; “Jewey” “DEWEY”; “Chickenshit” “NO SUGGESTIONS”). Well, OK, and also “Martha Stewart’s Vagina,” a fake decorating article in extremely poor taste that is pretty hilarious too.*

The rest is kind of uneven, in some places thoroughly dated (“Vincent and Theo on AOL,” putting Vincent van Gogh into an AOL chat room, mainly to reveal that people in chat rooms tend not to communicate in the most literate possible language; “A Very Hanson Christmas, 1996–1999,” following several years of Hanson rise and fall through Christmas newsletters) and in others covering some pretty well-trodden territory even at the time (“Lack of Power: The Ford Tapes,” on Gerald Ford being somewhat of an ineffectual dimwit as president), although with a few bright spots along the way (“The Recipe,” an outline for creating a successful entertainment awards show, all the more funny now that Stewart has hosted the Oscars; “Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold,” about a man who has spent decades creating a monster in his parents’ basement for the sole purpose of turning it loose at his thirtieth high-school reunion).

So: Funny at times, but you can safely stick with The Daily Show and not feel like you’re missing out.

*Yes, you can guess what is being decorated.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Atonement (Ian McEwan)

I’d been meaning to read some McEwan for a while now, and the release of a movie version of Atonement coupled with the appearance of a 50-cent used copy at a local used-book store seemed as good an excuse as any. I haven’t seen the movie, but damn if this isn’t a great book.

Of its 350 pages, the first 175 are devoted to a single day at the Tallis household in 1935, in which a sequence of misunderstandings leads precocious, imaginative, and self-absorbed thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis to accuse her sister’s lover, Robbie Turner, of a crime he had nothing to do with, and convinces both herself and everyone else that Robbie was guilty. The second section follows Robbie, who who has since enlisted in the army in return for early release from prison, as he makes his way across France with two other men during the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940; the third shifts to an older Briony, working as a nurse in London, who as an adult has realized the enormity of the injustice she brought on Robbie and Cecilia.

That’s the outline of the plot, anyway, although trying to explain the book like that is a little like trying to explain the Grand Canyon by holding up a postcard. What makes Atonement so compelling is the depth and nuance of the characters’ internal lives, and the way even scenes in which nothing much outwardly happens offer McEwan a canvas to paint those interiors in rich detail. (I understand the movie is pretty good, but it’s difficult to imagine how the complex interplay of motivations, misconceptions, wrong ideas, and imagination that drive the novel could have possibly translated to the screen.) It’s by no means an upbeat book, but it is a tremendously satisfying and cathartic one, and I was more than a little sorry when it was over. So I guess I’ll have to keep my eyes out for Enduring Love, Amsterdam, and Saturday.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver)

Our town believes in good food. We are surrounded by farmland and work hard to keep the family farms alive, buying local and joining community supported agriculture programs. Our university partners with farmers on new projects and techniques for organic farming and provides information for value-added products. Two of our nationally renowned restaurants (L'Etoile and Harvest) focus on local food year-round. We aren't just consumers. We are creators. Our local pastamaker was an normal everyday guy until he returned from a trip to Italy with stars in his eyes and determination. Former chemistry teachers are reborn as specialty bakers. We have surplus of chocolatiers. Madison is a good place to eat.

Madison may be unique among cities, but it's clear that the focus on local food is growing nationwide. This current trend is something Barbara Kingsolver may not have imagined when she began writing her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, which chronicles her year of eating locally, growing much of her family's food in their own garden. The book begins with a couple chapters defending this decision, providing a synthesis of the information Michael Pollan presents in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma in a style that feels uncharacteristic for Kingsolver. Her books are full of beautiful, vivid prose that sucks you in on the first page. I was reluctant to read The Poisonwood Bible, an Oprah book club stamp on the cover providing more of a caution sign for me than one of approval, but loved the book, gushed about it the whole time I read it. So when I picked up Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I was not ready for what a friend referred to as "textbook" prose. This introduction may be useful for the Oprah Book Clubbers who don't know who Pollan is, or who aren't familiar with the arguments for eating local, but for others, who may feel disappointed at the beginning, I have one word for you: skim. Skim this part (and the well-meaning sidebars written by her husband and her oldest daughter) and you will be gratefully rewarded with the rest of the book, which reads the way I feel a Kingsolver book should.

In preparing for their year of eating locally, her daughter Lily, age 8, lover of chickens, decides to run an egg business. When Lily asks if she can have a horse, Kingsolver figures the best answer is to say that Lily can raise the money herself through her egg business. "When I was a kid, I would have accepted these incalculable vagaries without a second thought, understanding that maybe a horse was out there for me, but I'd just have to wait and see. The entrepreneurial gene apparently skips generations. Lily got out her notebook and started asking questions." After inquiring about the cost of a horse, the selling price of a dozen organic eggs, she went to her room to run through calculations.

In a while she popped out with another question.

"How much can you sell chicken meat for?"

"Oh," I said, trying to strike a morally neutral tone in my role as financial adviser, "organic chicken sells for a good bit. Maybe three dollars a pound. A good-size roasting bird might net you ten dollars, after you subtract your food costs."

She vanished again, for a very long time. I could almost hear the spiritual wresting match, poultry vs. equines, fur and feathers flying. Many hours later, at dinner, she announced: "Eggs and meat. We'll only kill the mean ones."

There are many fine, surprising, moments in this book, with constant reminders of the origins of food and food traditions, and the importance of food in our lives. Returning to traditional practices (homebaked bread, preparing the summer harvest food for winter storage) reminds Kingsolver of her own childhood rituals, such as harvesting apples, which then makes her turn to her own children:

I don't know what rituals my kids will carry into adulthood, whether they'll grow up attached to homemade pizza on Friday nights, or the scent of peppers roasting over a fire, or what. I do know that flavors work their won ways under the skin, into the heart of longing. Where my kids are concerned I find myself hoping for the simplest things: that if someday they crave orchards where their kids can climb into the branches and steal apples, the world will still have trees enough with arms to receive them.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

About Grace (Anthony Doerr)

I’m surprised it took me this long to get around to reading About Grace. Doerr’s story collection The Shell Collector was first-rate, and one of my favorites of the last five years or so. I think the title may have put me off a little bit—with apologies to Doerr, it sounds more than a little like a generic holiday-season romantic comedy, perhaps starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale.*

Which, of course, it’s absolutely nothing like, except maybe that there’s snow in it. About Grace is actually about David Winkler, an Anchorage “hydrologist” semi-obsessed with snow crystal formation and occasionally cursed with dreamlike visions of the future. It opens with Winkler on a plane back to America for the first time in twenty-five years, then backtracks to his life in Anchorage, where one of his visions led him into an affair with a married woman, Sandy, and then to run off with her to the Midwest. When they have a daughter (the eponymous Grace), he has a recurring vision of her drowning in a flood despite his attempts to save her. When the flood arrives, he decides that she might live if he does something—anything—except try to save her as he does in the dream. So he flees, eventually ending up in the Caribbean, where he lives the next several decades without knowing whether his daughter is alive or dead.

I wasn’t entirely sold on this book for the first hundred pages or so—the characters seemed, in a way, too much like characters in a literary novel, with passions that seemed too overtly symbolic (David with his water cycle and snow crystals, Sandy’s penchant for constructing enormous metal sculptures in their basement, to say nothing of the name of their daughter). But once it establishes David in the Caribbean, and was able to follow his purgatorial life there and then his later quest to find out whether his daughter is still alive, the book really hits its stride, and ends up in all sorts of surprising and satisfying places.

*Oh, wait, that was Serendipity.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Lovingkindness (Sharon Salzberg)

I do not do well with general news headlines. Stories of bombings, wars, possible wars, weapons, and crime do not agree with me, make me feel bad about the general state of the world, and leave me with an overall sense of helplessness about it. A while back, however, I found a strategy that helped me deal with those kinds of situations a little bit better. It was an article in Yoga Journal about the practice of metta, or lovingkindness. Basically, the article explained that when there is not much you can do about a situation (global ones, such as those mentioned above, or local ones, like a car accident you see on the way to work), you can still send your intentions to those affected by meditating on a phrase such as May you be at peace. As simple as it is, or as crazy as it may sound, this is very effective.

The book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg fully explains the practice of metta, including the different levels of meditation (lovingkindness for yourself, for close friends, even for your enemies). Salzberg's tone is straightforward and she provides real-life applications that make the material easier to understand.

Metta isn't about putting a rosy twist on everything you see. It's about bringing a fuller sense of intention to your life, which lets you experience joy more fully and provides a better understanding of others and their own situations. Salzberg is clear that every life has wonderful moments and painful moments. She explains, however,

How we think, how we look at our lives, is all-important, and the degree of love we manifest determines the degree of spaciousness and freedom we can bring to life's events.

Imaging taking a very small glass of water and putting into it a teaspoon of salt. Because of the small size of the container, the teaspoon of salt is going to have a big impact upon the water. However, if you approach a much larger body of water, such as lake, and put into it that same teaspoonful of salt, it will not have the same intensity of impact, because of the vastness and openness of the vessel receiving it. Even when the salt remains the same, the spaciousness of the vessel receiving it changes everything.

Salzberg includes meditation exercises at the end of each chapter, which makes a good book to purchase for anyone interested in exploring metta.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Job Hopper (Ayun Halliday)

I have a really fabulous job. I think I appreciate how great it is because of my previous jobs: Once I was a temp at a dairy in El Paso and had to, using a typewriter, type price orders in Spanish on carbon paper for 12 hours straight in exchange for low pay and all the cottage cheese I could eat. I also taught kids with learning disabilities, which in theory was a noble enterprise, except when I learned that management had been Disney-fied, meaning that my time teaching a student was time I was "on stage" and the break room where I could grab a snack and a quick run to the bathroom was now the "green room." Oh, and then there was that little incident where a company I worked for went in major debt, got bought out by a new company that fired 60% of the staff, saying, "We're just asking you to step out of the boat. Once we earn more money, you can step back in." (No one bought the boat metaphor.)

So I could completely relate to Ayun Halliday's book Job Hopper: The Checkered Career of a Down-Market Dilettante. In her case, Halliday had a string of low-end day jobs to support herself while she was an actress for an experimental theatre group. While her jobs varied (nude model for an art class, security guard for a museum), her experience in the service industry provides some great stories:

The indecencies of Turman's service didn't rest entirely on my shoulders. Kyle could perform his duties with a somnabulist's grace, but all pretense of refinement hit the bricks the moment he opened his mouth.

CustomerContemplatingDessert: "Can you tell me a little more about this 'triple-layer Ghirardelli gateau with mocha-fudge ganache'?"

Kyle, after much consideration: "Wellll. . . it's a brown cake with brown icing."

As an example of some of her less-pedestrian jobs, she once spent a few hours being Bert from Sesame Street for a meet-and-greet event in a department store:

Without warning, she thrust the infant into my arms. To say I was ill prepared to receive this bundle grossly understates the situation. I hadn't held anyone that small since high school, when the neighbors, reassured by the presence of my mother right next door, had indulged my desire to earn a dollar an hour baby-sitting. The giant felt-and-papier-mache Bert head obscuring my vision did nothing to make me feel more confident that I would remember how. Equine in its ability to sense fear, the baby started to shriek and buck, twisting its muscular torso in its mad desire to get free of the monstrous creature who had taken it from its mother. It was like trying to haul a healthy young sea bass into a rowboat with my bare hands. Actually, bare hands would have come in handy right about then. The accuracy of my Muppet gloves put me at a distinct disadvantage for going the distance with that thrashing mass of fragile human tissue.

Reading this book I was reminded of how you can meet the strangest people in the workplace, people who you might never encounter otherwise, and how they can either make a bad situation bearable or much worse. I would say this book is like the movie Office Space. You'll laugh that much harder if the situations ring true.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Early Bird (Rodney Rothman)

Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement by Rodney Rothman was in the bundle of books I brought with me to the airport for our Christmas vacation. But before I talk about the actual book, let me explain a little about our Christmas vacation.

We dutifully arrived at the airport at 5 am for our 6:50 am flight only to discover that it was delayed for almost 4 hours because of dense fog. We stood in line for 2 hours to get rebooked since we were going to miss our connecting flight. We found out that our new flight would get us to Portland, our destination, about 5 hours later, which wasn't too bad. A lot of flights were canceled, so we considered ourselves lucky. We went to the gate, where I proceeded to read a good half of Early Bird before our new departure time.

But then our departure time came, and our outbound plane wasn't there. We noted that the fog outside appeared to be getting thicker.

About an hour or so later, the airline worker at the counter announced that the plane was in fact "here" if you count the airspace above us "here," but that it was circling above waiting for clearance to land. Everyone got excited, until a half an hour later when the airline worker announced that the plane above had to return to Minneapolis because it could not get enough clearance to land. Our flight was officially canceled. There was no chance for us getting out that day. They rebooked us for the next day.

We managed to stay remarkably calm throughout the experience. (We ended up not getting out the airport the next day either. It was basically the same story as above, but you can replace the word "fog" with "blowing snow and ice" and "incoming plane that had been circling now returning to Minneapolis" with "incoming plane that had been circling now diverted to Cedar Rapids"), and I can tell you, with some authority, that Early Bird is excellent airport reading material. I first heard of the book at an A.J. Jacobs/Logan Ward reading at the Wisconsin Book Festival in October.

While he's between jobs, Rothman, at the age of 28, decides to check out retired life in Florida, much to his friends' surprise. One thing he learns very quickly is that most of the retired people in his neighborhood think he's someone else's grandson, not a fellow retiree. And he finds trying to explain his situation to others to be challenging, but he eventually enters some of their inner circles, such as the group of ladies who sit around the pool daily to gossip.

He notes that the value of the early bird special is very important because very few people he meets actually cook. (And free food usually trumps healthy food.) But not everything is how he expects it to be. He's invited to a Senior League softball team and quickly finds out that these guys can outplay him any day, except the game is a little different:

The opposite side of the "strong arms/weak legs" issue is this---the hitters, once they put a ball in play, run very slowly. And the fielders, once they reach the ball, have the arm strength to fire the ball wherever it needs to go. So when people do get out, it's in ways I have never seen before---like someone hitting a line drive deep into the hole in left center, and then getting thrown out at first.

Rothman also spends his time trying figure out what he wants to do with his life, and everyone offers him advice. Many of the old men want to know why on Earth he's hanging around them instead of out in the world, dating every woman he meets. (This is what they would do, after all, if they were in his position, they say.)

My parents may be considered "older" by some people (not me), and I'm sure there are people their age living in retirement communities. But I can't even begin to picture my parents in a retirement community like the one in this book. My dad has an artificial leg and plays raquetball frequently. My stepmother is getting her volunteer EMT certification (and she's a member of the sheriff's posse). And I think the differences between my parents and the people in this book kept popping up in the back of my mind as I read. I found the book to be funny, but maybe I was expecting more; it didn't quite live up to my expectations. But I was certainly glad to have it in the airport, where it made the "holiday travel" a bit more bearable.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

No Touch Monkey! (Ayun Halliday)

Here's a little background on Ayun Halliday. She writes the Mother Superior column for Bust magazine and is also the creator of The East Village Inky (a zine started soon after the birth of her first child, India, aka "Inky"). You can read her bio for a full plate of information on her, but I'll say two important things here: she was a theater major at Northwestern and her husband wrote Urinetown! The Musical, which she refers to in one of her books as "the golden egg."

The Mother Superior column is where I first read Halliday, and it's a welcome respite from the Huggies commercial--style parenting familiar to many of us through commercials on HGTV, TLC, and the Oxygen network. I love her writing about her kids, so when I was loading up on books to read for my Christmas vacation [now forever known as The Incoming Plane(s) That Would Never Land], I got two of her books from the library. No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late details her adventures traveling overseas, usually on a very small budget.

It starts with stories of the Eurorail variety, sleeping in train stations, hanging out with boyfriends who eventually get replaced with different ones. And those are good, but I felt a definite shift about halfway through the book, when she tells a story about traveling to Paris with her mom. This and the stories that follow, which involve her husband Greg, are even better than the ones in the beginning.

In Sumatra, she dislocates her knee, which fills with fluid, and can't walk. With no Western-style hospital or doctor available, she eventually gets in touch with an Islamic holy man:

Without warning, he pounced, pinning my thigh to the mattress as he wrenched my shin like someone throwing the lever on a seldom-used electric chair. The dislocated knee snapped back into alignment with the resounding crack of a gunshot. The audience at the window burst into spontaneous applause while I gasped, trying to regain my composure following an exquisite blast of torture that was almost over before it had began. . . As far as I was concerned, the bone setter could have declared himself the great and powerful Oz right there, but as I suspected, he was not a man to milk it. Instead he gestured that I should take a few steps. Having played the titular role in the Indianapolis Junior Civic Theatre's production of Heidi, I could appreciate the drama inherent in the moment. Weak and wary of falling, I rose to my feet and staggered unassisted to Greg, just like Clara, the lame rich girl to whom Heidi's infection can-do spirit gives the courage to eighty-six that wheelchair.

It's a good, quick read, making my high school camping trip on a Mexican beach with my friend's overly religious family, the trip where one camper got stung by a poisonous scorpion, look like a cake walk.