Archive for the ‘Reading Rainbow’ Category

Reading Rainbow: What I Read This Summer

September 22, 2014

This summer marked a return to reading — specifically a return to reading novels. I spent many hours outside on our deck or perched on a beach chair at Tahoe relishing that disorienting and liberating feeling of falling under a writer’s spell and then getting to live in that writer’s world for a little while.

The novels I read this summer were thoroughly engrossing to read, but I found some more satisfying than others. These were my favorites:

roundhouseThe Round House
Louise Erdrich

Probably my favorite of the seven novels I read this summer was The Round House. I’m not usually a Louise Erdrich fan, but this book was just about everything I look for in a novel: compelling, touching, enlightening, well-paced, and all loose ends creatively and satisfyingly tied up by the end. I also happen to love books that have a younger protagonist so it didn’t hurt that the main character is Joe, a 13-year-old boy whose life is turned upside down when his mother is attacked.

The story takes place in classic Erdrich territory — in a Native American community in North Dakota — and the setting offers an additional twist to the story: who has jurisdiction over Joe’s mother’s case given that no one knows if she was attacked on Indian territory, Federal land or state property? The crime gives the story the urgency of a who-dun-it, while Joe’s relationship with his friends and his extended family give the book more emotional heft than a mere mystery.

alllightAll the Light that We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

I thought there was nothing else to say about World War II, but this book proved me wrong. Rather than delving into the horrors of the war — Hitler, the concentration camps — the book focuses on the experiences of ordinary people on both sides of the war.

Through the lives of a French girl and a German boy, both of whom come of age during the war, we see that in both countries, some people suffered and others prospered. In small French towns, there were those who organized and participated in a German resistance, and there were also people who turned on their own countrymen to curry favor with the Germans. For some German boys, like Werner, the war offered an opportunity– it was an alternative to working in the dangerous coal mines, but the war dashes the opportunities of more scholarly boys who weren’t cut out to be soldiers.

Perhaps the most moving part of the book, to me, was the stories after the war. A German woman travels to France and worries that the French will judge her for her country’s actions during the war, and a French woman who is so shaped by her experiences during war that she’s uneasy about living in a world where people’s lives weren’t shaped by the same kind of loss and survival. The book is written so lightly that it often feels like it’s just skimming the surface, and yet it carries an enormous weight.

lowlandThe Lowland
Jhumpa Lahiri

In many ways, The Lowlands is a classic Lahiri piece: as with her other books, this novel has Indian-born characters who end up working in academia on the East Coast. But even with those somewhat predictable elements, the book is an absorbing tale about how two brothers who are inseparable as children grow apart from each other as they get older, particularly during a period of political upheaval in India, and the unusual ways that the brothers remain connected to each other even as one moves to the U.S.

burgessThe Burgess Boys
Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys also focuses on sibling relationships. In this case, two brothers who come back to their small Maine hometown to help their sister when her son gets into trouble. The son’s trouble is emblematic of the town’s struggle to come to terms with a recent influx of Somalis.

With the siblings, the small town, and the Somalis, Strout cleverly plays with the idea of being an outsider. We soon see that the Somalis aren’t the only people who feel out of place. Other characters also feel like outsiders in their own families, in their hometowns or in the big city.

Runner Up

americanahAmericanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah was one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read in a long time. Seeing America through the eyes of a Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. for college really made me think about what I assume about people who live in Africa — Are they educated? Can they vote? But while the book felt like an important read, it wasn’t necessarily the best story. The parts of the book that focus on race in America were powerfully written, but the actual story felt too thin to me.

(All images from Powell.com)

Reading Rainbow: Two Good Novels

March 18, 2013

It’s rare these days to come across books that I really love, but I lucked out and read these two great novels on the beach in Hawaii:

historyoflove The History of Love

Please tell me you’ve already read “The History of Love.” I have no idea why it took me so long to read it because it is so good — a beautiful story (about love, of course, but also about loss), that is beautifully written and features two of my favorite kinds of narrators: a sweet old man and a determined young girl. (I laughed out loud reading the old man’s opinions of telemarketers: “They’re always calling to sell. Once they said if I sent in a check for $99, I’d be preapproved for a credit card, and I said, Right, sure, and if I step under a pigeon I’m preapproved for a load of shit.”) The old man and the young girl are both dealing with loss as best they can, and their stories and their histories tie together in such a surprising and satisfying way. “The History of Love” is easily the best book I’ve read since Barbara Kingsolver’s “Lacuna” or Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone.”

blackwaterlightship

Blackwater Lightship

Colm Toibin’s “Blackwater Lightship” is a story about family, specifically one small Irish family — a daughter, son, mother, and grandmother, who are not a particularly close (the daughter hasn’t spoken to mother in years; the mother and grandmother only learn that the son is gay when he is in the hospital with AIDS). When the son invites his family and his friends to care for him at his grandmother’s house in on the coast, we see that this is also a story about family-of-origin vs. family-of-choice. What could be a heavy story of serious illness and long-simmering family resentments is made light by funny, often classic Irish moments, like when Granny learns perhaps more than she wanted to know about homosexuality from the son’s friends, or when the son’s friends and family all join together to prevent Granny’s nosy neighbors from finding out who exactly is staying in Granny’s house.

Reading Rainbow: 2010 Favorites

January 28, 2011

It feels a little silly to write about what I read last year now that I’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna. It outshines everything else I’ve read recently and I think it even outshines most of her prior novels (with the exception of Animal Dreams which remains a favorite).

Lacuna was pretty much everything I want a novel to be: through very memorable characters, it brought to life places I’ve never been (Mexico City and Asheville, NC) and it looked back at history in a way that shed new light on the present.  But there are still some very worthwhile things about my other favorite 2010 reads: One Day and The Commitment.

One Day by David Nicholls
This book got under my skin in a way that few books have — perhaps because One Day echoed certain elements of Mr. WholeHog and I’s story: it  follows the lives of two people who connect early on and, although their lives go in different directions, they stay in contact, always flirting with the idea of becoming more than friends.

It’s easy to dismiss the book because the crux of the story isn’t new and because it reads almost too easily (Nick Hornby called it “the perfect beach read for people who are normally repelled by the very idea of beach reads“), but One Day accomplishes something surprisingly rare: it offers a realistic look at the confusing and difficult process of becoming an adult, an area that too few other books try to tackle.

The Commitment by Dan Savage
The Commitment chronicles Savage’s thoughts on whether or not to marry his partner of 10 years. For me, this wasn’t a very compelling premise. Marriage is such personal choice, why would I care how one person makes that choice? Especially if that one person is Dan Savage, a writer perhaps better known for answering questions about whether or not one could make cheese from human breast milk.

But to my surprise, Savage turned out to be exactly the right person to write about marriage after all. He  doesn’t pretend that marriage is perfect. Instead, he looks at the reality of marriage and acknowledges that some marriages end in divorce, some aren’t monogamous, some don’t produce children and that not all marriages are between a man and a woman.  His clear-eyed-look at marriage  isn’t at all disheartening. Instead, it’s funny, hopeful and true. The book gave me a greater appreciation of marriage — and of Savage’s talents as a writer — and it inspired much of what I said at my sister’s wedding ceremony.

(Note: my sister believes that The Commitment may mention gay sex too often for some readers. Having read Dorothy Allison, I found The Commitment quite tame.)

Short Story I can’t seem to forget “Foster” by Claire Keegan in the New Yorker was easily one of the most memorable reads of 2010.

Reading Rainbow: Vacation Reads

October 8, 2009

Vacation us one of the few times of  year that I read as much as I used to. I’ve read five books since Tahoe in July: Olive Kittredge, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Farm City, Zeitoun, and My Life in France. (I also got about two-thirds of the way through Don DeLillo’s Falling Man but I’m not sure I’ll pick it back up. Although I loved the excerpt of Falling Man in The New Yorker, the book has mostly confirmed that I’m not a DeLillo fan.)

olive

My favorite was Olive Kittredge. I’m a sucker for interconnected stories, and I also have a real weakness for books that I think of as “quiet books”, books where the drama stems from elements of everyday life: a parent coping with a child that chooses a different life than they expected, maybe, or the confusion of finding oneself alone after many years of marriage.

Olive Kittredge doesn’t have to create drama through a traumatic event like a kidnapping, a drowning, or some sort of abuse, instead Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel makes normal life riveting. The stories that make up Olive Kittredge offer a  look at marriage, shown from many different perspectives and at many different stages. The book also focuses on the often-lonely lives of older people, people who are no longer defined by their roles as mother or wife, daughter or son. (Reading Olive Kittredge made me much more sympathetic to some of my older relatives.)

My other fiction choice, Oscar Wao, was ultimately disappointing. Those who haven’t read much Latin American/Caribbean fiction will probably enjoy it more than I did, but aside from the copious Eggers-style footnotes, I found much of the storyline similar to that of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, or Edwidge Danicat’s novels and stories.

zeitoun I thought I’d already heard every hell that Hurricane Katrina wrought — and then I read Zeitoun.

Zeitoun tells a story that the media missed: the story of one man, a pillar of the community, who stays in New Orleans despite the calls to evacuate because as a popular local contractor, he feels responsible for his home and the many homes in the area that he worked on. But what unfolds after the levees fall sends Zeitoun and his family on a totally different American journey.

Dave Eggers latest is nowhere near as brutal (or as moving) as What is the What, but it’s just as compelling a story. Worth reading.

farmcity As a farmer-obsessed reader, Farm City was an easy choice. I was charmed initially by how the first part of the book echoed moments of my own childhood. (Like author Novella Carpenter, my parents were novice farmers for a time. Like Novella as the book begins, we had a cardboard box of baby chicks under our kitchen table.) But Novella took her farm far beyond poultry: she harvests honey from her bees. She raises rabbits and eventually struggles to keep up with the appetite and the strength of two huge pigs. While my parents brought chickens to their rural one-acre “ranch-ette” as my grandfather called it, Novella’s farm is in Oakland — and her adventures as an urban farmer are entertaining and inspiring.

mylifeinfrance I love the idea that a perfect meal or a trip to a new place can change one’s life but I don’t often think of it as reality. Julia Child, though, had just this experience as she documents in My Life in France. Her life was changed by a meal (sole meuniere) and a place (France).

I felt a little strange about bringing it with me to Italy (shouldn’t I be reading something called My Life in Italy?) and I still cringe at buying a best seller (especially at a time when so many other best sellers are vampire books), but My Life in France turned out to be a perfect travel book because it celebrates all the things one hopes to find when traveling: new people, new foods, and, often, a new lease on life.

The Test is Over

October 3, 2009

On Monday, for the first time in nearly 10 months, I woke up in San Francisco.

Yes, before we left for Italy, we signed a lease on a flat in Noe Valley. Timing-wise, it was ridiculous. We went to Italy for two weeks, came back and immediately started packing.  But despite the work that moving inevitably involves (even when you hire movers and have parents to help), I’ve been pretty blissed out about being back in the City.

It’s just so darn pretty here. Instead of riding BART alongside highways and over industrial areas, I take the J Church now which takes an almost comically lovely route past Victorian homes and along the brilliant green Dolores Park where you get a view of the city skyline.

I’m inspired by this city in a way I didn’t adequately appreciate until I didn’t live here.IMG_0349

But this isn’t meant to be a list of all that I prefer about San Francisco. In fact, thanks to Julia Child’s book, My Life in France, I’m thinking more positively about Oakland.

Despite the title, My Life in France isn’t just about France. In the book, Julia and her husband, Paul, also live in Germany, Norway and the U.S. and I couldn’t help but notice that she found something to appreciate about every place she lived.

She acknowledged that France was her true home (she called it her ‘spiritual home’ but I loathe the word spiritual), but in Germany, she relished the sausages and the beer. In Norway, she appreciated the excellent fish. And, of course, in France, she delighted in almost everything.

Reading her enthusiasm for all the places she lived encouraged me think a little differently about my life in Oakland. It wasn’t my ideal home, but there were things I liked about it.

My bike rides may never be as idyllic as they were in the East Bay, riding through lower Rockridge and down the wide, leafy Elmwood streets. Even the short ride to the Temescal Farmers Market went down quiet streets lined with mostly charming little houses. And I really appreciated being just a quick bike-ride away from a decent farmers market.

I’ll miss being able to pop into Bakesale Betty for one of their excellent fried chicken sandwiches (I made sure to have one before moving). I still want to try more of their pies since I liked the blueberry pie we had on the Fourth of July (and I especially liked that we were able to spontaneously bike over and pick up a pie on a holiday).

For more fried chicken, I’d love to go back to Brown Sugar Kitchen, a great, old-diner feeling place in the midst of a very industrial area. I really liked the combination of  fried chicken, a cornmeal waffle and apple cider-syrup: fat, salt and sugar all on one plate.

La Farine is no Tartine, but it was convenient and rarely crowded and there’s a certain comfort in knowing that a slice of lemon cheesecake is just a few blocks away.

Aside from food, service in the East Bay was often unbelievably nice. Even though Bakesale Betty often had Tartine-style lines, there was none of the Tartine-style attitude or indifference.

One of the things that initially drew me to the East Bay was the Craftsman homes (in fact, it still calls me. On returning to Oakland since the move, I still thought to myself, “This looks like a nice place to live.”)  But I didn’t realize how many stunning Art Deco buildings are in downtown Oakland, like the green I. Magnin building.

I’m tempted to joke about the Fox theater sign (what city needs a giant neon sign to tell you where you are?!), but the truth is, it’s awesome. I also love the Tribune sign and tower. It feels like something out of a comic book.

IMG_0277

There’s a small part of me that feels like perhaps we didn’t give the East Bay the chance it deserved, but I mostly feel like we knew immediately that it wasn’t right for us and the nearly 10 months we spent there were plenty.

The differences are immediate. The hardware store in our SF neighborhood is open on Sundays, and the corner market is open at 10:30pm. Across the street, a chef picks vegetables from a rooftop garden. A man sits on the corner and plays guitar at night.

That first morning back in SF, I woke up coughing and congested so I stayed home from work. I sat on the couch, left by the movers in the middle of the living room, surrounded by boxes and packing material and a ladder. From my landlord’s basement recording studio, I could hear the faint sounds of bluegrass music. I could hear the J Church streetcar clatter down Church Street. To some people, maybe these sounds would be disruptive. But to my ears, it was the happy sound of other people, of life, nearby.

Cookbooks

October 8, 2007

The internet has become a good source for recipes and cooking instructions. In fact, some of my very favorite recipes are from the ‘net, but the web will never fully replace my cookbooks.

I love cookbooks. Even before I liked to cook, I liked to look through cookbooks. A good cookbook is a necessity in any kitchen, and yet it can be surprisingly hard to find to find a cookbook that you can turn to with almost any question or any ingredient. I feel lucky to have three such cookbooks.

The Zuni Café Cookbook – This cookbook garnered a lot of attention and from my experience, it deserves it all. The recipes are decidedly not 30 minute meals. This is a cookbook where the recipe for hamburgers starts with instructions for grinding your own meat. It’s exceedingly comprehensive and a great resource. I haven’t tried to make my own duck confit, but I know where I could find detailed instructions.

These are some of our very favorite meals.

Favorite Recipes –

  • Pasta alla Carbonara – God damn it, this is good. Eggs, fresh ricotta, favas (such a brilliant replacement for peas!), and bacon. My kind of meal.
  • Artichokes with Mint and Olives – This dish usually takes me to the end of my cooking rope. It takes longer than I ever expect and with more irritating steps than you can imagine, but the end result is so worth it. We make it every artichoke season.
  • Chicken Bouillabase – Mr. WholeHog isn’t the biggest fan of chicken but this rich onion-y chicken soup won him over.
  • The Famous Roast Chicken.

Gourmet – The giant yellow Gourmet cookbook has been criticized for not having any pictures, but what it lacks in pictures, it makes up for in its sheer number of recipes. Gourmet covers every meal from breakfast through dessert. This is my go-to when I have an ingredient I’m not sure what to do with or if I need some new ideas for pancakes or cookies.

Favorite Recipes

The Cheese Board Collective Works – I had to actually look up the official name of this cookbook since to me, it’s just the Arizmendi cookbook. (A quick history: The Cheeseboard in Berkeley begat Arizmendi Bakery, once my cherished neighborhood bakery and now one of the two best bakeries in SF.)

Arizmendi makes a terrific pizza, rustic scones (their corn-cherry is a classic) and I can’t explain what makes their brioche knots so addictive, you’ll just have to try them yourself. The recipes for all of these treats are found in this cookbook, as well as recipes for bread dought and pizza dough, cookies and, randomly, two salsa recipes. You’ll also find information on cooperatives and on cheese here.

I’ve mainly stuck with the scone and muffin recipes. I particularly like that they give instructions for both mixing by hand and with a mixer, since I avoid using machines whenever possible.

Favorite Recipes

  • Maple Pecan Scones – The scones are glazed in a mixture of maple syrup and powdered sugar, so you know they’re delicious. Don’t sub in even a little whole wheat flour as we did once. Baking is no time for nutrition!
  • Pear Pecan Muffins

All images from Powells, the best online source for books. These books can be purchased via Powells.com, of course, or from your local, independent bookstore.

Beach Books

July 11, 2007

I recently spent a weekend by a friend’s pool and later this week, we head off to Tahoe. The only trouble is, I don’t know what to read.

This dilemma is pretty rare for me since I worked in bookstores for years before I went corporate. Perhaps because of my time in bookstores, the typical books marketed as beach-worthy don’t appeal to me. I have no interest in legal dramas and I’d rather read US Weekly than a trite romance. I have a total and complete weakness for trashy celebrity gossip mags, and yet I don’t want a beachside literature class either. I’m not looking for, say, War & Peace or Moby Dick. (I did re-read The Great Gatsby recently and was surprised to find it a very good read).

I also require a selection of books since I’ve had the misfortune of bringing one book and finding it a complete struggle, or the equally irritating experience of bringing one terrific book and reading it obsessively so that the book is finished before the vacation.

For others looking for a good read this summer, I have a few recommendations:

It may be strange to toss a tragedy or two in your beach bag, but that’s exactly what I’m suggesting you do. Both of the following books are rooted in tragedy – the Sudan and the aftermath of 9/11 — but the stories are hopeful and compelling, and the characters are among the very best companions you could ask for.

what.jpg WHAT IS THE WHAT

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

I didn’t expect to love it. When I received this book, I sighed and thought, “I don’t want to read about Africa.” And I put it on the shelf assuming I would never actually read it because who ever wants to read about Africa? Then I opened it and was totally enthralled. I bought two more copies even before I’d finished the book and gave one to my mom and one to my sister. My mom called me shortly after because she was having the same experience I did: she couldn’t believe the pull of this book, the skill of the writing and the humanity and the humility of the narrator, Valentino Achak Deng. That the book is based on the true story of just makes it that much more meaningful.

If you read one book this summer – if you read one book this year — let it be this one.

 

incredibly.jpgINCREDIBLY LOUD AND EXTREMELY CLOSE

I have a serious weakness for child narrators (To Kill A Mockingbird, anyone?) and Oskar, the protagonist of Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close is particularly endearing. (I’ve considered adopting his use of “Shiitake!” as an alternative to saying shit). He’s a precocious kid trying to cope with losing his dad. Running parallel to Oskar’s story is the story of Oskar’s grandmother and her loss that stretches back to World War II. Despite the grief inherent in the story, this isn’t a depressing book because you’re with Oskar.

All book images from http://www.powells.com