The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma

Though I have a serious problem with ordering more books than I can handle through the library (ninety percent of my books are inter-library loans, twenty percent from out of state), I still have a problem with covers. I absolutely judge a book by it’s cover, and when I see one with an interesting cover and title and summary, well, what’s one more book on top of the four I already have? Such was the case for this book. And you all know I can’t resist books about books.

The Reading Promise is a memoir by Alice Ozma, who entered into a challenge with her father when she was in third grade that they would read together every day, for at least ten minutes, for one hundred straight days. When they completed their challenge, they decided that, rather than stop the fun, they would extend their challenge to one thousand days. Once they matched this number, and Alice was now in middle school, they decided to just continue reading indefinitely. As it turned out, they wouldn’t stop- wouldn’t miss a single day- until Alice’s eighteenth year, when she left home for college.

The story is told in a series of vignettes, arranged in basically chronological order, about where their life together went during the nine years of the Streak. Their books followed them through Mom leaving, Older Sister traveling to faraway lands, college, and ultimately, Serbia, and Dad’s job transforming into something he no longer wanted to claim. While he was reading aloud to his daughter every night, he was also reading the the underprivileged children who populated the school he worked at, as a librarian. Towards the end of the Streak and afterwards, when Alice was away from home, the principal of the school wanted him to gear his classes away from reading aloud and towards work on the new computers they had forced him to install. They would only allow him one storybook per class, no longer than five to ten minutes of reading. He took his complaints to the school board, only to be turned away, and finally he resigned from his position at the age of sixty-two.

One of the book’s main points is the numerous benefits of reading aloud to children. James and Alice are adamant believers that reading to children is crucial in their growth as readers. I haven’t researched this enough to list the psychological effects, but I imagine it promotes closeness between parent and child and creates a strong positive idea of reading as comforting and fun. By spending this time reading books to children when they’re little, books become lifelong friends and companions for the adults they become. That’s just theory, though.

Interestingly, just a few days after I returned this book, I was on the phone with the local library director, and apparently I had mentioned to someone a few days ago that I enjoy working with children and would like to read to them (this conversation was before I’d even read this book- I remember having it, but not with whom I was talking or where we were), and this person had apparently mentioned it to the library director so, since we were on the phone, he followed up on it, asking if I’d like to participate in storytime. My initial reaction was something akin to stagefright, but I battled it down because I do like children and picture books and this is a prime opportunity to read all the picturebooks I want to children. And after reading this book that was all about reading out loud, how could I refuse? So now I’ve committed to storytime once a month, every second Wednesday, starting in December. I’m looking forward to it!

Published in: on November 24, 2011 at 2:08 pm  Comments (1)  
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Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

If a book has been made into a well-known movie, it becomes next to impossible to find a nice picture of the actual cover of the book. It’s very annoying. Mine looked like this:

Girl, Interrupted is the memoir of Susanna Kaysen, who, when she was 18 in 1966, was committed to a mental institution. Questioning her sanity with unlikely clarity, Susanna familiarizes herself and us with the cast of patients living in her ward.

The story is told as a series of vignettes; each short chapter focuses on some element of life in the hospital, or a patient with an interesting story. Susanna tells us about Polly, who set herself on fire; Janet, an anorexic; Georgina, a schizophrenic and pathological liar; Valerie, the head nurse; and Lisa, the sociopath whose domineering charisma dominates life in the ward. Moving in something slightly resembling chronological order, Susanna paints for us a picture of life in the days before being committed, the over-two-years she spent in the hospital, and just a little bit of what she did in the 25 years between being released and writing her memoir. Her narrative is sprinkled with insights into what crazy and sane are, and why people react the way they do when they hear that she’s been in a mental hospital. She even describes some of her more insane episodes (such as the time she became convinced that there were no bones in her hand) with a dry noncommittance that borders on creepy.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while, because I broke one of my cardinal rules- seeing the movie first. (Note: there are some exceptions to this rule. I don’t actually intend to read Bambi.) I think I can be forgiven, as I had no idea at the time that the movie was based on a book. Needless to say, the two are… very different. I really enjoyed the movie when I saw it, and I also really enjoyed the book, but the two actually have very little in common. I’ll try to illustrate this with as few spoilers as possible.

For one thing, where the book is told sort of as a collection of short stories, the movie transforms them into a film with a coherent storyline- a progression from A to B to The End, if you will.

While the movie includes a few tiny things that Susanna mentioned (wristbanging, for example), and nodded towards events that they chose to exclude entirely (the bone incident), they did weave elements of the original story into what was almost a new story entirely. If anything, the movie fleshes out characters that are held somewhat at a distance in the book. The movie focuses very strongly on Susanna’s destructive relationship with Lisa, while the book made Lisa seem more like a force of nature- she was there and she was powerful, but she wasn’t the villain. She wasn’t blamed.

Then there were some elements of the movie that were completely fictionalized. Honestly, this annoyed me a little. I just try to distance the movie from the book and it’s all fine. As I’ve said, they’re both very good.

Here’s the trailer for the movie:

Also, it turns out you can watch the full movie on Youtube. Here’s the link.

A final note: The memoir gets its title from the painting Girl Interrupted at Her Music by Johannes Vermeer. In the book, Susanna ties a great amount of significance to seeing this painting at an art museum shortly before going to the hospital. Years later, she returns to the museum to see it again.

Published in: on October 18, 2011 at 10:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Hi, there. It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me. I am as aware and as frustrated by this as you are (probably more so). To be honest, I’ve had an excruciatingly hard time finishing a book for the past two weeks. I don’t know what it is, but I sent about six books back to the library unfinished- a couple unstarted, because I didn’t have the patience. Where I usually try to hang on to a book for 100 pages, I’ve recently only been able to read for 20 before I get fed up with an uninteresting book.

Finally I found one that I actually wanted to finish, but I didn’t have the time. Or energy. I’ve been working a lot recently, and actually doing a lot with people I don’t work with, and I’ve been able to read perhaps a chapter a day since last Wednesday. I’ve also been trying to see movies that people push at me, and I was inspired to be a bit crafty with a pair of jeans.

So this is the book that I was actually able to finish. The copy that I read from didn’t have a cover, so I’m breaking my usual rule about posting the exact copy that I read; mine was just a black hardcover. It’s a very recent publication, though, and I think this might actually be the only cover out there:

I was hoping to break out of my funk by returning to a genre which has, an overwhelming amount of time, served me well: memoir. I found a book which sounded kind of like a dream, and it reminded me of those fantastic, escapist memoirs I’ve been enamored with. It’s not a foodie book, but it does cater to my other favorite hobby: reading. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is about a mother of four boys who decides to read one book a day, for one year.

There’s a lot of backstory to this decision; her beloved older sister has recently perished to cancer. Nina hopes that be indulging heavily in their shared refuge of books, she will be able to accept her sister’s loss and her continued presence. Specifically, she looks for books that she could have shared with Anne-Marie.

Personally (perhaps because I have three of them, one being a twin), I am completely enamored with sisterhood. I love the idea of sisters, and the fact of them, and that even though they know you in and out they’ll still be seen in public with you. I’ve never been in love (and I don’t know if that would actually change anything, but), the most meaningful relationship in my life right now is the one between me and my sisters. So right at the beginning of the book, when Nina is describing life with Anne-Marie’s illness and eventual death, I felt her pain so sharply I couldn’t breathe. I very nearly cried. I don’t know how to explain it except that while I was reading, Anne-Marie was Emma. Or Julia. Or Sarah. I felt for Nina because I could imagine myself in her situation, with my own sister in pain. Dying.

Then there was the reading. Nina Sankovitch is the epitomal bookworm; raised from childhood with books in her life, and then repeating these lessons with her own boys. A woman who actually could read a book a day for a year without ever needing to throw it down and do something else, who could read an entire novel in one day and still have time for a life with her family (admittedly, she didn’t work during this year).

After a few chapters, though, something annoying became very apparent: she would turn every single book into some kind of metaphor for her life. In some way, it would teach her a lesson that would help her move along. To say this was ‘annoying’ is not entirely accurate, but after a while I would come across her, “My year of reading was traveling across the ocean with a tiger,” and I would just kind of roll my eyes. I’m impressed that she could find so much from her books, but it got a little tedious. However, there was quite enough substance in this to keep the reader going. The book was really more an analysis of love, life, and grief than it was a story with a plot.

The flashbacks were the most interesting part of the book. Every few pages, something would relate to something else; a lesson she read in a book would remind her of a lesson her father had learned in Poland during WWII. She would link kindness to kindness; pain to pain; adventure to adventure; this was the most story-like part of the book, since a flashback is a story. If that made any sense at all.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book. Oh, and I found this interesting: she started off her year of reading- the very first day- with The Elegance of the Hedgehog. And I was just like, “Hey, I read that!” I was pleased. She followed up shortly with a Dick Francis book (my mom’s favorite author), and Watership Down (my brother’s favorite book). Small world, I think.

Next, I’m flashing back to middle school. There’s this book I first tried to read- and couldn’t finish- in sixth grade. Then in seventh grade (age eleven, or thereabouts), I borrowed it again, read it through, and loved it. So I borrowed it last week from the library; I hope it’s as good now as it was then.

French Dirt by Richard Goodman

Guys, don’t live in Maine. I know everyone talks about the brutal winters, but this summer is killing me. It’s been above ninety (about 32 degrees Celsius, for my not-American readers) regularly between the hours of eleven and eight. The air does not cool down until the sun disappears over that horizon. And it was in this weather that a friend and I decided to make the hour-long drive from Gardiner to Albion in a beast of a monster car that lacked air conditioning.

We were going to Albion to visit my sister, who works on a farm, outdoors, all day. So I’m going to stop complaining right about here, as I sit typing on my computer directly under a ceiling fan on ‘hi’.

From Albion, we drove to Banger (which is almost longer than the drive from Gardiner to Albion, but at least we were on the highway- I spent the entire time lying in the backseat with my feet out the window) to go to the mall. For those unaware, I am a rigorous saver of money. I’m very good at not spending money on what I don’t need. Emma, my sister, was determined that I spend some of this hard-earned dough, so she took me to a book store. Specifically, she took me to the Borders in Bangor.

I have a system when it comes to buying books: I very rarely buy a book I haven’t read, because I’ve discovered with startling consistency that I’m much less likely to read it, finish it, or like it if I spend money first. I don’t understand exactly, but it means that I spend a lot of time at the library (there’s something nobody knew. Shocker. Also, what’s the verb form of the word ‘patron’? I don’t think I’m patronizing the library, but I might be). If I read a book and really like it, then I’ll go spend money on it. So yesterday at Borders, I finally bought myself a copy of Water for Elephants. It’s nice to have.

Let’s talk about Borders. I’m sure most of you are aware that the entire superchain has recently gone out of business. Right now, everything in their stores is at least ten percent off, and many things are marked down even further. I was surprised when I heard their initial announcement about closing one third of their stores, but I was shocked when I heard that they were all going down.

I would like to state right now that what I’m about to say is entirely unresearched, and if I’m completely wrong in my ignorance, feel free to comment. I’d be happy to discuss this, but I’m not researching right now. I’m sleep deprived and I will bite you.

I think that Borders’ downfall is the fault of ereaders. But not just ereaders; also Netflix, and iTunes. With our relatively new ability to bring everything to us in the blink of an eye, superstar bookstores are feeling the pressure.

So are independent bookstores doomed? I don’t think so, but I can’t really explain why. Basically I think there’s a big enough percentage of people who really want these places to stay open. A few might fall through the cracks here and there, but for the most part I think they’re safe because they fill a little niche market.

Is Barnes & Noble about to go down? No, because they’ve cashed in on the ereader market. I remember the first time I entered B&N and saw the hardcover table replaced with a Nook station I was absolutely horrified, but now I’m mostly indifferent. I’m not about to switch to an ereader, in any case. B&N is safe because they’ve marketed the most popular ereader out there, and they’re making good money off the sales of Nooks and eBooks.

About an hour ago, I didn’t know if Borders had actually attempted to cash in on the eReader revolution. I had assumed not, because I’d never heard of an eReader developed by Borders, but a quick search on their website quickly corrected me. Borders did make an eReader- it’s called Kobo. It sells for almost the same price as the Nook and Kindle, but for some reason it never took off. As I said, I’d never heard of it.

So, to sum this all up, I don’t think the downfall of Borders is the bird in the room that signals death. I think Borders’ failure is Borders’ folly.

French Dirt is a book my father gave me a few months ago, right in the middle of my foodie-memoir spree, attesting that “gardening seems like the next step.” The book is a memoir by Richard Goodman, who took a year with his girlfriend, Iggy, to stay in a village known as St. S├ębastien de Caisson, population 211. They rented a quaint little stone building with two stories, a fireplace, and friendly neighbors. Soon, Richard finds himself falling in love with the strong, earthy gardeners that fill the village, and dreams of having on himself. At the end of the year, he’ll return to New York City, and the possibility of his creating a garden to rival what he’s seen will all but vanish. Generously, a friend gives him the land he needs to get started. It’s a small patch in the middle of a larger field, located near a healthy stream. He works.

At first, this seemed like the first sort of quick read that I would be able to get through quickly after being unable to finish a few novels previously. Indeed, I read the first half or so in more or less one sitting. After that, though, my pace stuttered to a painful crawl. I could say I was busy, because I probably was, but I managed to read about twenty pages in three days, and my interest was waning. Yesterday, my bookmark fell out somewhere around the 130-page mark, and I didn’t both to find my exactly place again. I picked up at page 155, and finished it a few hours later. It’s a slim novel, only 201 pages, with unusually wide margins. It is a quick read.

However, just because it didn’t keep me attached doesn’t mean the book is without merit. I think that if you were interested in gardening, you would find this book as interesting and inspirational as I find any of my cooking books. Richard’s accomplishment- he did create a thriving, impressive garden in the south of France, despite having next to no experience, a brutal summer, and conflicting opinions flying at him from every direction- is worthy of praise. He writes about it with passion and affection and a fun tone that makes the book an enjoyable read. I wish that I could care a little more about his success.

Richard also writes very warmly about everyone he met in France- he literally liked every single one of them, and he tried to get to know them all closely. In a village of only 211 people, it was’t entirely difficult, and everyone was willing to lend him a hand where they could. Everyone has a history and a garden. Everyone has time for a chat and food to spare. It was very friendly, very quaint. It can make one nostalgic for France, even if you’ve never been there.

Okay, next on the list is a book I got from the library because I need something to read while all of my out-of-states books take their sweet time getting here. This one (French Dirt) actually came from my pile of books that I own and which is oft neglected because I can’t stay out of the library for more than three or four days. The pile is getting smaller, because I never add to it and very occasionally subtract from it.

Goodnight, Wesley. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.

Published in: on July 23, 2011 at 7:12 pm  Comments (1)  
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Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (and Psychonauts)

Note: If you don’t want to read me gushing about a video game (that you should play), just scroll down to the cover of the book, as always.

Hi, everyone. It’s a bit a while, hasn’t it? Let me tell you what’s been up.

As soon as I finished Peony in Love, I picked up a book that I actually owned, called The Alphabet Sisters, which was fanciful and girly and the kind of story that I would watch in a two-hour movie, but not a 300-page book. Still, because the 100-page mark was actually interesting, I made it to about 150 pages before deciding to drop it. And that took me about five days. Five reading days, I should say, because when I was perhaps ten pages into that book, my brother started poking me about playing Psychonauts.

I spent the next three solid days immersed in a complete video game trance.

Just to be clear: I am not a video gamer. This is not some hidden facet of my personality that I have never revealed to anyone, it’s actually not there. I so very rarely play video games, and when I do, I am so very bad at them. But Psychonauts was different.

(Yes, I am actually about to review this video game along with my book. Are you convinced that this is worth your time?)

Psychonauts is about a kid named Razputin (Raz) who breaks into a summer camp for kids with psychic powers. He’s run away from the circus where he was raised to learn to harness the innate talents that are shunned in his world, and to become a psychonaut- psychic soldiers that defend the government, basically. So, your job as the player is to take Raz through camp, learning all the psychic powers you need along the way.

Things don’t go as smoothly as you would hope. Within his first few hours at camp, Raz discovers a plot to steal the brains of the kids. So of course, he has to get them back, find out who’s behind this, and stop them. And learn all the psychic powers necessary for becoming a psychonaut. And since he snuck into the camp, the teachers called his dad, who’s now on his way to pick him up. So Raz has to accomplish all of this in one night.

It’s actually hard to explain this next part, even though it’s where all of the action of the game takes place: since this is psychic warfare, the entire thing happens in peoples’ minds. Specifically, crazy peoples’ minds. It just kind of turns out that way. Shortly after the “basic braining” tutorial level, Raz receives a little door that he can attach to peoples’ heads to enter their minds. Every mind is a completely fleshed out world, each animated differently, and each one works differently. The strategies that got you through Boyd’s mind won’t even touch Fred’s crazy. You have to progress through the minds of the crazy people to find the mastermind behind the brainstealing plan.

It’s completely brilliant.

Now here’s the thing: if you’re like me and not exactly compatible with video games, that’s okay! For the most part, this game is very playable. I beat almost the entire thing all on my own, with no help from my brother (the part at which he did help me was actually where he was watching me play and asked me to let him give it a shot. I did not, in any way, beg for his help, as I have in the past). The very end was the hardest part. If you’re interested, Yahtzee actually praised the game in a very entertaining review of his. He’s a bit more articulate on what makes this game so good.

Lastly, I will say this: Psychonauts is fifteen hours of gameplay, and I beat the entire thing in one weekend. And I wanted more. I would have gladly atrophied in front of it if it had been four times that length. I did not want this game to end. I have to admit that I don’t get that feeling from books quite as often as I would like. Even when I really, really love a book and end up recommending it to everyone I talk to, I’m usually not too torn up about it finishing it. With Psychonauts, I didn’t know what to do next.

Actually, now that I think about it, I can guess why that is. With books, I always know what I’m going to do next. There will always be more. I usually have my next one checked out well before finishing my current one. Psychonauts made me love gaming, but after I was done, there was nothing else to do. It took me about a day of doing absolutely nothing to get over it. In retrospect, this might have been what condemned The Alphabet Sisters.

I’m not going to become a rabid gamer. But seriously, if you’re going to play just one video game all the way through, let it be Psychonauts. For me.

This one I first heard about in an ad for Audible (distributor of audiobooks) that preceded an episode of The Moth, and the title so intrigued me that I actually managed to not forget it for the entire hour long car ride to Poland and then look it up. Then I put it on my list to check out later. I even checked my library’s online catalog to make sure they had it. Still, it’s been a couple of months.

This book is a (foodie) memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton about how she kind to accidentally became a cook and suddenly found herself opening a first-class restaurant in New York City. Her story, from the get-go, is completely fascinating. She had the sort of childhood that only exists in novels. Her mother was a very elegant French woman, and her father a very vague, outlandish gentleman. She grew up the youngest of five children in a very small town in Vermont, living in an old silk mill converted into a house. The mill rested on several acres of land through which the children ran barefoot all day, every day, when not at school. Several times a year, their father would through big, festive parties and lamb roasts and events. It was almost magical.

Then, when she was thirteen, out of nowhere, her parents split up. Somewhere in there, she and her older brother, Simon (fifteen), were temporarily forgotten about, and left to fend for themselves. Gabrielle fell into a bad crowd (in more than one way), and began taking waitressing jobs and lying about her age. She learned how to cook the food left in their house, and the vegetables that grew every year in the garden her mother had left behind. As she got older, she calmed herself down and started taking respectable jobs- more often than not landing in a kitchen.

And that’s how one begins. A few times, Gabrielle got tired of her place in the kitchen and started to travel. Somehow, she always ended up back where she started, slightly changed. She would go to strange places and try their foods, going after the experience of eating a slice of warm mozzarella and a baked potato in a Dutch bakery that sells drugs legally. Later, when she returned to New York, it was these feelings, from all over the world, that she longed to recreate in her restaurant. It actually reminded me of The Gourmet Rhapsody, in a way, as that book was like a concentrated look at all of the different, most memorable meal experiences he’d had in his life. I think that Gabrielle Hamilton would like The Gourmet Rhapsody.

Gabrielle did go on to open the five-star restaurant Prune. It’s so well known that if you type “prune” into Google, it will suggest “prune restaurant.” The website is worth a look.

She did also eventually get married (after several years as a lesbian) and have a couple of sons. At that point, the book became an exploration of family, love, and loneliness. Her marriage was unconventional at best, and she admits basically up front, and to her husband when he proposes, that she will probably never feel anything more for him than warm fondness. Much of the time, she can’t even muster that. It’s interesting to me that, though her home life was so unusual, she was still very capable of mothering her sons.

So, what I can say about this book: it is foodie, it is a very unusual story, the writing is good. It did drag a tiny bit at the end. But it was actually very readable, and I enjoyed it.

Published in: on June 7, 2011 at 8:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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My Life in France by Julia Child

Oof, I am beyond tired. I finished this book at 11:30 last night and then went straight to bed. I’ve had a long weekend. It wasn’t as restful as I usually like. Even though it was fun, I felt seriously drained at the end of the day.

This weekend there was cake- we made a 12-inch and a 10-inch and stacked them, frosted them, decorated them…. It looked very nice. I was, you know, mostly pleased with how it came out. I’m still annoyed that the frosting coat isn’t coming out smooth, but our cake this week was moist and dense and tasy, and we fed it to a large number of people. The difference this weekend is that, on Saturday, I had friends over to keep me company and observe the process and all the work that goes into Cake Day every week (I’m not actually sure people understand how many hours of sheer labor are put into this project), and they stayed the night so they could watch me complete the decorating the next morning, and then eat cake and join the party later. We had a good time, and it was fun- there were lost of teenagers and youths, so we played games in the yard while the adults (and some of the youths who refused to participate) watched.

Then around five, I was more-or-less ready to be in a completely empty, quiet house and read, but half the crowd was hanging around to watch a movie. So I separated, found someplace quiet to read, and felt tired. They were finally gone by around 7:30, and at that point I just gave up for the night. I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t even migrating to Gardiner, as I usually do on Sundays. It became one of those nights where you just want to sleep in your own bed, you know? I’m sure you know.

Instead, I watched two episodes of Doctor Who and read the last twenty pages of this book.

Then I overslept thirty minutes this morning. Dammit.

My Life in France is Julia Child’s memoir. My third memoir in a row- I never realized how much potential this genre had, but it’s completely fascinating.

Some background. Julia Child was born on August 15th in 1912 and grew up in Pasadena, California with absolutely no interest in cooking. She went to Smith College, and more or less spent the first thirty years of her life being taken care of and with very little direction. Her father was a very devoted Republican who expected her to marry a devoted Republican and continue exactly the life he had expected of her. Instead, she married Paul Child, whom she met while doing government work in China in her early thirties. They were married when she was thirty-five, and then they traveled together, he doing government work, she having fun, looking for projects, and being there for him. This is when she first visited France.

Her love for the cuisine was immediate. Her first meal in France, right off the plane, was sole muniere. It wasn’t long after that first day that she enrolled in the Cordon Bleu cooking school, under the tutelage of chef Max Bugnard. Here’s a picture of them together:

If you’ve seen the movie, you probably just did a double-take. The book is riddled with pictures of all of the main characters (except for Paul, because he was always behind the camera), and it suddenly becomes clear what an effort the casting people put into finding actors who really looked like these historical characters whom they were portraying.

Soon after she graduated from the Cordon Bleu (or perhaps soon before.. hm) Julia met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, two French cooking enthusiasts who were attempting to write a cookbook for Americans who liked French food. They had had many problems with publishing, though, and finally asked Julia to help them, both with the cooking and developing of recipes, and as a sort of American eye on their French techniques. Delighted, Julia threw herself head-first into what became something like a twelve year project of research, developing, testing, traveling, and writing. She absolutely loved it.

That’s the beginning, anyway. I feel like I can’t spoil you on this because it’s all history, and everyone knows that her book was ridiculously well-received, and that she got a cooking show out of it- right in the early days of television, too. But it was so interesting to read it in her words, to see her reflections on the way things had gone.

As memoirs go, I’ve noticed that they tend one of two ways (note that I’ve read several memoirs, but I haven’t really read a lot of memoirs, and this is just my observation). They can either have a very storylike quality, and read like a novel- Julie & Julia, or Lunch in Paris, for example- or they can read like someone telling their story, which is what this was like. Julia narrated her story as a methodical series of points, this led to this which happened on this date here, etc. Kind of like a history, only to each event she added much description and commentary. It was a colorful, fun, and wonderfully enjoyable read!

Here’s something else: Julia wrote this memoir when she was ninety-one. She wrote it with her great-grand-nephew, actually, and died before she could see it published. But at ninety-one, she was still able to supply an entire book of memories- very specific ones, with dates, locations. She remembered everything on the menu on a particular day. It’s amazing how solid her mind must have stayed. Pictures and letters tell so much, you know, but you couldn’t have created a book like this without real memories behind them.

On the other hand, Julia was literally creating this book at the end of her timeline. In the epilogue, she wrote about how age was coming on them. She said that she and Paul (who was ten years her senior, even) had reached that time of life where people they had known for years were starting to slip off into the “Great Blue Yonder”. She wrote about Simca, who was a fighter, finally succumbing to illness, and her brother- and sister-in-law both dying of cancer. The final passage of the book was very heavy. You could tell how she felt on this matter- she had lived a long, very full life, even without children (which she did lament, in a few places), but now all of her loved ones had passed on, or were too old to visit her. It was sad, but not tragic.

All in all, I found her story very inspirational. Here is a woman who managed to take life and, even starting late, turn it into something with endless joy, adventure, and good food. Rest in peace, Julia Child.

Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 9:42 am  Comments (2)  
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Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard

Today has been eventful. I spent the earlier part of the day in Portland, sitting quietly in Mom’s office waiting for her to be done with work so that we could go to William-Sonoma at the mall (I’ve never been there). A Chinese woman talked us into buying very sparkly hairpins from a kiosk. Then we drove home and, on the way, stopped to pick up my bike from the shop. I rode that the rest of the way home, stopping for a short time to visit my newest friend, Pauline, who is 86 and lives down the road from me. She’s a very sweet lady and her kids don’t visit her, so I do instead. After that I biked to the library, but halfway there I realized that there was something very wrong with my bike. The tire was on loose. As soon as I tried to take it up a hill, it tilted and started rubbing against the frame. I was pissed, and I walked the bike the rest of the way to the library. It’s there now, locked to the bikestand, until we can borrow someone’s truck and pick it up.

This was all very stressful because my plan was to got the library via bike and return via bike and for the entire excursion to take no more than an hour, since I had two hours before I had to meet with my teacher and go meet my observing expert for my astronomy class. I got my brother to pick me up from the library, and half an hour later I was in Readfield with my teacher and we were on our way to Norridgewock, which is a good hour’s drive or so.

For those who don’t know, I’ve been taking an astronomy class this semester and it is finally drawing to a close. This class has been completely kicking my butt and I have not enjoyed a second of it, and now it’s almost done. Tonight I went to meet a local expert who has a private observatory and I had to prove to him that I could find constellations and things… I actually did much better than I thought I would do. Looking in the night sky, I was able to find Ursas Major and Minor, Leo Major (Leo Minor is an annoying bugger who continuously evades me), Corvus, Auriga, Cassiopeia, Corona Borealis, Bootes, and Hydra. Kind of. Hydra snakes across the entire annoying sky and I personally find it almost impossible to follow, especially with light pollution.

I am so tired.

Now, this past week has been school vacation for us here in Maine, and I haven’t baked that much because I’m trying to be good or something, but I’ve been in a very foodie mood anyway, which is likely why I got through this book so fast.

This one’s been in the pile for at least a couple months, I think. I bought it at the same time as I bought Cleaving, if that helps you put it in perspective. I was in a very foodie mood that way as well, which of course made me daring enough to buy a book I’d never read before. Gasp!

I know.

Not only another foodie book- but another memoir as well! I’m getting predictable or something. But actually, as I read this one, I was kind of stunned by how amazingly relevant it was to my life.

I just turned on my hyper playlist to wake me up enough to get into this review. Okay, here we go.

I really enjoyed this book, but it’s not one I’ll recommend to people because it’s very slice-of-life with no real plot. It’s about this woman, Elizabeth Bard (yar), who took a trip to Paris one summer, had lunch with an attractive French man, and then never left. Okay, she did leave, but ultimately she wound up in Paris, married to her attractive French man. From this point (page four or so), the book is about an American adapting to living in Paris- getting to know France, as she says, one meal at a time.

Is it ironic that I keep reading foodie books about food I can’t pronounce?

My current life’s goal is to live in Ireland- there’s even a culinary school there I want to go to, that I need to save the money for- and more than one person has kind of looked at me funny when I explained that situation. Ireland is not exactly known for it’s haute cuisine. I sort of brush them off and say that gourmet food exists everywhere, but as I was reading this book I was kind of like, “This, this is why I don’t want to live in France.”

Now, that’s not entirely fair, since I had nothing against France before I read this book and I still don’t, but it definitely doesn’t seem like the place for me. Artsy, sure. Foodie, duh. But also kind of…. elitist. And this is the part where I mention that I personally have never been to France and my only experience with true French people was unbelievably pleasant and wonderful, but this is the impression that I got from the book, which is what this space is for talking about.

Elizabeth’s husband, Gwendal, explained to her that when he was in grade school and he told a teacher what he wanted to do when he grew up, that teacher told him that the job was impossible to get and would not make much money anyway, and actually told him he couldn’t do it. Gwendal, raised French, chose another job with which he would be able to earn more money, leaving his dream behind. To an American raised with a “follow your dreams” attitude, even if those dreams lead you to a wacky culinary school in Ireland, I actually couldn’t believe that teachers would discourage children from what they want to do.

Another thing about France is that the women there are very petite and healthy and if you’re big-boned, they think you’re fat. That was the response Elizabeth got, anyway, and she explained that she had never even had body issues in America, the country geared towards helping teenagers develop body issues and eating disorders. Even if I were to turn my lifestyle completely around and love all of the fat on my body, I would not be skinny enough to not have French women look down on me, and I definitely don’t need that kind of pressure all the time.

The third and final thing is that, in all of the books I’ve read about French food, this is the first one where the cuisine has actually seemed intimidating. It’s been unfathomable, unpredictable, even baffling, but this is the first book with recipes that I actually felt incapable of succeeding with if I really tried, you know? I mean, I could probably punch out an aspic, with a little effort. I would never want to, but the process makes sense to me. In this book, there were a few recipes which I would like to try, but for the most part every meal in this book is a big ordeal for a bunch of people really meant to impress.

I’ll try these, at some point- if I really want to be able to cook, I can’t run away from every recipe free of pasta and shrimp. Try new things! Yes. Tomorrow. Because I am very tired tonight.

This was a very good book for people interested in other cultures, and food, and love. And also moving to a new country. Like I said, relevant to my life, more than a little. Goodnight, all.

Published in: on April 23, 2011 at 12:48 am  Comments (11)  
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Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

I don’t even know where to start except, hey, who loves grandparents? Grandparents are amazing. Let’s just all agree on that statement, okay? Grandparents are amazing. They deserve love and hugs and ladybugs.

The past few days have been fuzzy for me and I really don’t remember what I’ve done. Yesterday was cake day and yes, it was fun, frustrating, there was yelling and three runs to the store- that’s how cake day goes. This week was twelve inches, red velvet with buttercream frosting. I fed nine people with it, and half of it was left. I need more people to feed cake to. Really.

Today, thoroughly annoyed at how long this book was taking me, I sat down and very steadfastly read the last sixty pages.

This one is yet another memoir about a woman, Deborah Rodriguez, who traveled to Afghanistan with a non-government organization (NGO) that was going to build a clinic to improve the quality of life of the Afghanis. That would have been all well and good, if Debbie had had any practical skills that made her helpful in the effort of building and maintaining a clinic- but she was a hairdresser. Surrounded by doctors and dentists and surgeons, she was a hairdresser, chosen for some reason to go on a mission Afghanistan. Still wanting to help, she decides to offer what assistance she can by giving haircuts and manicures to NGO missionaries.

That’s only the beginning of the story. Debbie becomes friendly with many Afghanis in her first few months in the country, and she realizes how stacked the gender powers are here. Men have all the power, and women, practically none. She decides she has to do something to enable the women in the country, to help them get jobs and earn money for their family’s, to empower them and make them strong. She opens a beauty school to teach the Afghan women how to do hair and makeup and run their own salons.

Still it’s not that easy. Debbie is a foreigner, a Westerner, at least partially exempt from the strict gender guidelines followed in Afghanistan. In this country, women are dogs or slaves who are sold into marriages with wealthy men who could be loving, but are more often cruel and violent. They must get permission from their husbands to attend Debbie’s beauty school, by convincing their husbands that they can earn money for the family.

Oftentimes, they can. Vanity is a big deal in Afghanistan, despite the fact that women are required to cover most of their skin all of the time. Afghani makeup is loud, gaudy, and colorful compared to the typical American “au natural” look. Afghani brides in particular need to be very, very bedazzled for their engagement parties, which are celebrated prior to the wedding.

This is the kind of book that I find really fascinating because it explores a culture about which I know absolutely nothing. As usual with these sorts of things, it didn’t take me long to realize that we here in America have it nice. We’re allowed ample self-pampering and vanity, and we dress to impress and appeal sexy. We get to date whom we’re interested in, and decide whom we want to marry. If our partner is cruel to us, we can leave them. These are all privileges that Afghani women don’t have.

I always find myself a little surprised when I read a memoir, particularly when I didn’t know it was a memoir until I was fifty pages in. I have nothing against memoirs; they’re just as exciting as novels. It’s like what they say on The Moth when they’re signing off (does anyone listen to The Moth? It’s great, I love it, google it), “Thank you for listening, and we hope you have a story-worthy week.” Memoirs are about story-worthy weeks, or months, or in this case, years. When you’re living the novel, you get to turn it into a memoir.

Personally, I feel like I’m living a chick flick with this weekly cake thing. You know the one, where the woman gets commissioned to bake a cake and she doesn’t know how (check) so she decides that the only way she’s going to learn is to bake one every weekend (check), so that she can practice all of the sizing, get the baking times, the batter amounts, and learn the tips before the big day (check), but she now has a whole bunch of cake that she needs to feed to people (check) so she starts inviting a gazillion people over to her house every weekend (check) including people she doesn’t know very well (check). Soon, somehow, the man of her dreams hears about it and shows up to eat her cake, and they have a gorgeous chick-flick ending (uncheck).

This would be made even better if she was new to her town and didn’t know anyone, so she establishes a cast of friends by inviting them all over for cake.

Next in line is a foodie book. No wait, actually, I’m currently reading something very short that my sister gave me. I’ll include it in the foodie review post. Tonight, though, I’m going to relax, drink my cocoa, and watch some Criminal Minds. Or a chick flick.

Published in: on April 17, 2011 at 10:14 pm  Comments (4)  
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Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

You know what the thing is? I should really cut the bitching about all the work I have to do. Because it IS a lot of work, I DO always have SOMETHING waiting to be done, and EVERY bit of it is a drag, but I still have hours to sit and read and, today, cook. Appropriately, too.

Though actually, this week, following a few conversations with my mom about “after high-school plans,” I find myself REALLY looking forward to my gap year. Yes, I’m taking a gap year- but I’m graduating a year early, I feel like I deserve it, and I really don’t want to start college now. I want time. I want to go backpacking through Europe with five dollars to my name. Or something like that.

New resolution: embrace challenges. To me, this specifically means that when I see something completely kickass awesome online, I won’t go, “Wow, that’s cool. Whoever made this has some serious talent.” Instead, I’ll go, “I wonder how that was done. I bet I could do that- I have hands, don’t I?” Because, really, that’s all it takes. And some supplies. I need to stop being afraid of supplies I’ve never used before.

Yes, I am actually sickeningly optimistic right now. I really just want to finish school. In the meantime, I decided to reread a book I knew would put me in a good mood- I like it so much I actually purchased a copy.

Oh, another thing before I get started; my mom read my Alice review and told me, as I kind of already knew, that what I’m writing aren’t really reviews- they’re kind of details of my emotional reactions to the book. But frankly, I don’t feel the need to change that. If anything, it’s probably more interesting- call me a hypocrite, but I don’t even read that many review blogs. What I have here is more personal, and isn’t that a bit more enjoyable to read? Anyway.

So, who here’s seen the movie? I love the movie! The movie definitely puts a more pleasant spin on things than the book does. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Julie & Julia is a memoir by Julie Powell about the year she turned thirty, when she decided (rather spontaneously, actually) that she was going to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume I” in a year.

542 recipes.

365 days.

To put a spin on things- to document, to make it substantial- Julie decided she would write about her culinary forays on a blog, called “The Julie/Julia Project.” It took a bit of time, but it soon became a sensation, with regular followers commenting and discussing and giving input, and even making donations and sending anonymous packages and other creepy stalker things.

So, let’s talk about the movie: I saw the movie first, and I just went on a Julie/Julia bender. I read the book, watched a bunch of old French Chef episodes, watched the movie three or four more times, and more after that, and I’ll probably watch it again sometime this week. I don’t know what it was about the movie that got to me so strongly, but after reading the book I have a bit of a better idea. And if you’ve read the book, this might sound just a little bit ridiculous.

I find the story very inspirational. Reading it literally makes me want to get up and do things, and that’s happened both times. Just watch, Julie & Julia is going to become my feel-good reading material of choice. It’s ridiculous. Part of the reason it’s so crazy is because, from an objective standpoint, if you read the book, take in everything that happens over the year (because the movie was mostly about the food; the book is about the year, where food happened to play a hefty role), and the way she handles every frustration- she didn’t actually seem to be enjoying herself. Yet at the end, she attests that the experience, that Julia, has changed her life, and it’s clearly a mark of my naivety that I don’t entirely see how. My best guess is that she’s been inspired to better living, the same way I have.

You know another thing? She didn’t seem that likeable. I mean, she was by no means a horrible person you should hide your children from, of course she’s not, and she’s actually probably a fine person. I suppose what I mean is that I doubt she and I would get along as friends. Okay, this is absolutely not coming out the way I mean it to. She’s just very different than me, and if it had been me deciding to do an insane project while working an insane job at insane hours, the book would probably be a little differently. Actually, there would probably not even be a book, because I’m not as stubborn as she is and would have given up. She actually makes a point of this in several places, citing previous times in her life when she made terrible decisions and then refused to quit, despite being miserable, and everyone in her life urging her to just quit already. She’s very stubborn. She also whines a lot. But so do I. I think I’m going to end this trail of thought now, because it’s not serving the purpose I wanted it to serve.

Julie Powell is not a quitter.

Anyway, after reading this book- well, while reading this book, I very much desired to cook. I do like to cook, and bake, and I like food a lot (this book is more enjoyable if you’re a foodie) and especially chocolate. I have a massive sweettooth. In face, I’m pretty sure I have sweet teeth. Thirty-two of them, to be exact. And a bit of the tongue as well. So it was only fitting that I broke my kitchen vigil with this recipe for chocolate-orange cheesecake. Those came out of the oven, but I haven’t tried them yet. But it’s interesting, because when we were shopping for the ingredients we ran into several hurdles; we were missing exactly three of the eight components of this dessert: almond flour, orange extract, and coconut (which I actually passed up because I hate coconut). My mom took that moment to decide that this was probably a good time to return home, check the recipe, and maybe come back for ingredients later, but I didn’t want to. I said I could compensate for the missing ingredients, and so I did. Instead of coconut, I put graham cracker crumbs in the crust. Instead of almond flour, I used regular, with some extra brown-sugar to make up for the lack of sweetness. I bought two oranges and zested them. The batter tasted awesome. I do hope they came out well, you know, if only so I can be right.

See, I can blog about food, too.

Really, though, I love this book. I’m in a good mood for having read it. It was clever, funny, gross (one word: maggots), and I really have to mention here, but Julie Powell has a serious way with words! See, there’s something about writing which I’ve noticed; it’s not about bringing out your scariest vocabulary to give the idea that you’re one of the elite. There’s an amount of understatement that, when used effectively, lulls your reader into a zone of comfort so they don’t even realize how thoroughly your words are massaging their minds. It’s about choosing exactly the right word for exactly what you need. It’s a gift.

Everybody read this book. Watch the movie. In no particular order.

Next up: a classic, and a V-recommended. The library is one of my dearest friends.

Dear Julie: If you’re still in the blogosphere and you ever see this, please don’t take offense. I’m just a naive book blogger whose gimmick is saying the first thing that comes to her mind. Organization and reason aren’t part of the game. I really did find your book inspiring, and it caused me to make delicious cheesecake.

Published in: on February 4, 2011 at 10:49 pm  Comments (4)  
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Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs

Alright. I have to steady myself to write this, which for me means beginning paragraphs with useless expletives. My mind feels like mush. This book has rendered me incapable of independent thought. I’m not entirely sure how it’s accomplished this. But anyway.

I hope everyone reading this had an awesome holiday, even though it’s actually been less than a week since the last time I updated this, and that was actually after Christmas, but then I didn’t wish anybody anything so I’ll say it now. Especially with people being forced back to school and such. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday that will help you get through the next long months. I had an awesome Christmas, and the thought of going back to school makes me want to weep.

My hope was that my books would arrive from the library last week, so to fill that time I was catching up on some online reading that I’ve been neglecting in favor of books. Fanfictions are my guilty pleasure, though I’ve mostly gotten over how dorky I look mentioning it to very literary folk. Some fanfiction writers are actually incredibly skilled, and if they would just change some names, they could absolutely get published. This is what I would do if I were a very skilled fanfiction writer. Only they would have to get it published as erotica.

Guilty pleasure, like I said.

However, after 150,000 words of fanfiction (I have no idea how many pages that is), my books had still not arrived and I was missing the sensation of paper, the sweet susurration of the flipping pages, and my eyes were tired of the wall of text that represents a fanfiction. So I skipped on ahead and began the next book in my pile, which has actually been in my pile, neglected, for about a month now.

Okay, first of all I feel like I should warn that this book is absolutely not family friendly, but the review should be. Still, if that kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, you can pass this one up entirely. I won’t feel insulted. This book is not for everyone.

Magical Thinking is basically a memoir told in excerpts of the life of Augusten Burroughs. It is darkly humorous and disturbed. I actually chose to read it because I first heard a quote taken from it, which I liked quite a lot: “I like flaws, and am more comfortable around people who have them. I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” I read that on a tattoo, googled it, and recognized the cover as a book I’d seen lying around my dad’s house, and borrowed it.

I’m really not sure what I was expecting out of this book. I was hoping to like it, but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. Really, I loved this book. I read it in three days, and that was forcing myself to slow down. The short-story style of writing made it incredibly easy to advance through. His style of writing is something like, “Well, this wasn’t funny at the time, but if you want to laugh at it, that’s okay.” I don’t think any of it was, for me, ‘laugh out loud’ funny, but it was definitely amusing. The places that had me smiling or laughing (if it happened) were mostly because of how he chose to word this event or that to make it sound more ridiculous.

Have you ever read a David Sedaris book? Augusten Burroughs is a lot like him, only much darker. I actually realized this comparison very early in and had trouble articulating the difference between them when talking to my sister about how much I loved this book. You see, I’ve read two or three David Sedaris books (one I listened to on audiobook between Maine and New York, both ways), but it’s been a while. His books were laugh-out-loud funny. He wrote about situations that you can’t stop reading about, but would never want to experience yourself, and that’s just what Augusten Burroughs does. Only his situations are way darker, and you come out feeling sort of sorry for him. He has a lot more issues than David Sedaris.

The thing that makes these books so fascinating is that it really seems like he’s not hiding anything, but he’s at least half-crazy. And he’s going through it all with this startling clarity of having it in the past, having been through it. He’s a very good writer, that is, he definitely knows his way around language. It’s part of what makes it so compelling. He could tell these stories in a much more straight forward way, but he colors them with this fantastic language. And it’s not even just using pretentiously long words. It actually feels like he writes exactly as it comes to his head, which, after the editing process and everything that happens, may or may not be true. But there’s just a very fascinating voice behind his writing which I absolutely could not resist.

But. But. I’ll warn you again. He does talk blatantly about every single one of his issues. He writes two stories about his fascination with transsexuals, a few about his misadventures in the world of gay romance, and then about half of the book is filled with more domestic stories of his life with his boyfriend where he talks a lot about dealing with residual issues from his childhood traumas, interrupted by one funny chapter describing what it’s like to be famous.

I’m tempted to read his other memoir, Running with Scissors, which would be even darker and I might not actually be able to write a review of it. I know the premise. Google it if you’re interested. But I would like to read it at some point, and I just checked my local library’s online catalogue, and they have it.

Anyway, for now, I’ve got two books in my pile. I got B&N gift cards for Christmas, and I used them to buy four books- three books I love but don’t own, and one I have yet to read, by one of my favorite authoresses. So I’ve got that, and another in my pile that my dad bought me, which is quite a short book and should not take very long to read.

I really enjoyed this week. There was a lot of reading. Chocolate. Tumbling. I really don’t want to go back to school. It’s almost back to where it was last week, where the very thought of school just made me feel like melting from the inside out. I hate school more than the average teenager. But anyway.

On a side note: WordPress has a very odd spellchecker. It didn’t recognize ‘susurration’ or ‘catalogue,’ but it recognized ‘authoresses,’ which is a word I thought I made up because I never hear it spoken in conversation to refer to a lady author.

Published in: on January 4, 2011 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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