Monday, December 31, 2012

My Berlin Kitchen

I love me a good book on cooking/baking. My Berlin Kitchen is a new memoir by the blogger behind the Wednesday Chef. Luisa chronicles her post college years of trying to figure her life, career, and relationships with her parents and her boyfriends. All while also trying to discover where exactly in the world she belongs (having grown up between America and Germany).

Each chapter is a really easy read, very much the style I have come to expect by lady food bloggers who have cranked out memoirs. There is a certain recipe to these books I think. 

1 girl who doesn't quite fit in anywhere but the kitchen
1/4 of a life crisis
2.5 trips to Paris
-1 job
2 or more relationships going wrong
3 cookie recipes

Mix the above. Blog until frothy. Garnish with wedding. 

And as one who stress-bakes cookies like a bandit, I can relate to them easily, even if my family cooking/baking traditions rely heavily on gravy/Crisco. At the end of almost every chapter there is a recipe or two that had been featured. I dutifully copied several into my kitchen binder and even managed to make one of the easier ones, Omelette Confiture. Whisked egg cooked and rolled up like a crepe with tart jam and a sprinkle of powdered sugar. It was such a big hit between Geoff and I that I think it might be the only way I want eggs from now on. I am excited to try a few other recipes. 

Weiss' life is spent in many parts of the world, and the book makes me long to see more of Europe. Europeans clearly still have a much better sense of community than most of America, Weiss talks about how neighbors would have large parties for each other and the delight in cooking and eating with her different family members. It being the holidays now, I found myself drawn to her descriptions of varied holiday traditions she has experienced. I'm really planning on recreating the German Doughnut one where a plate full of jam-filled doughnuts is served and everyone bites to discover who got the doughnut full of mustard. 

This isn't a very heavy book (despite all of the German cooking) but rather a nice read that goes where you expect it will. I do want to state that while I understand the publishing appeal for these lady blogging books to end almost immediately after the woman gets married, it really gets my goat. Sometimes it's best to make substitutions.

Sunday, December 30, 2012


Even English majors miss things sometimes and I have to admit that for most of my life I thought George Eliot was a man. I knew nothing about her and only new passingly that Middlemarch was in fact, a book. But after finding out that Eliot was in face a woman, and hearing that Middlemarch was like Tolstoy writing with Austen themes, I went out and grabbed it.

"The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with those nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship  be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same."

Middlemarch is set in 1830-1832 and deals with the people of this provincial town. Primarily on three(ish) couples and how they navigate issues of status, religion, education, reform, and finical woes to name a few.
Dorothea is a upper class lady who marries an old cranky man in a misplaced idea that marrying him would give her more opportunity to do good deeds. She, surprise, does not get fulfillment out of this relationship but keeps up her duty because hello, it is her duty. But then there is her husband's dashing, penniless cousin,Will Ladislaw, running around...

"There is hardly any contract more depressing to a young ardent creature than that of a mind in which years full of knowledge seem to have issued in a blank absence of interest or sympathy. "

A new idealist Doctor comes to Middlemarch and sweeps the most beautiful girl in town off her feet, despite his determination not to marry until he makes a world-wide breakthrough in medical reform. But Rosamond is the most spoiled pretty thing that she cries and gets her way. Good luck curing typhoid fever when your wife thinks doctors are icky and neither of you can stop spending money.And she has been seeing a lot of that Will Ladislaw lately...

"And Rosamond could say the right thing; for she was clever with that sort of cleverness which catches every tone except the humorous. Happily she never attempted to joke, and this perhaps was the most decisive mark of her cleverness."

Mary I-Don't-Want-No-Scrubs Garth has the short straw in status and wealth compared to the other two gals, but she knows exactly what she wants in a man and is not going to settle. Rosamond's brother Fred has been in love with Mary since they were children, but his family would not want him to marry so beneath them and Mary doesn't want to marry some idle guy who she cannot respect. Apparently she doesn't have time for Ladislaw.

"Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers, but, dressed in their small wardrobe of notions, bring their provisions to a common table and mess together, feeding out of the common store according to their appetite."

There is so much more to this book (murder? blackmail! bankruptcy!), but I love the three relationships. I guess there is a fourth since Dorothea's sister Ceclia also gets married and quickly turns into the 1800's version of a facebook mom. I'm not too up the history of the British political system so that wasn't really the big draw for me. But Eliot addresses so many things with this book without really going off on a tirade at any point. It felt at times very similar to reading Austin, but broader. Austin only really ever gives us the women's side of things, but Eliot shows scenes of men without any women around and captures them very well. Austen might work on her two inches of ivory but Eliot uses the whole china cupboard.

All in all, worth being on all of the best book lists that it is on.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Fair Play

Tove Jansson was a Finish artist best known for her Moomin cartoons. They are adorable little hippo-like creatures that I am fascinated with. Jansson also wrote fiction both for children and adults. Not all of her works are available in English (yet I hope) but I have read The Summer Book before. I always check for her at the used bookstores and was thrilled to find Fair Play while holiday shopping.

Fair Play is a collection of stories about two women who live in connected apartments and work on their own artistic projects. It explores how their lives intersect, how their relationship nurtures each other's creativity, and how they spend their lives together while maintaining their own solitude.

"There are empty spaces that must be respected - those often long periods when a person can't see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone."

Not much happens in the way of action, different characters come to visit and the two do take a trip to Arizona, but the beauty of Jansson's writing is just in the detailed picture of place and characters she paints. The way the two women talk to each other is captured so well, you can feel the tension when things are not right with only a few sparse sentences.

"'This happens all the time,' said Jonna. 'Again and again. Now, once and for all, try to write down the meaning of life and then take a photocopy so you can use it again next time.'"

Fair Play has interesting pieces on how difficult it can be for two artists to function together. They each so desperately need space to create on their own but love each other very much. "The Letter", the final story is so perfect to me. They know each other so well that tiny shifts in behavior are noticed quickly and agonized over. Their distance is necessary but also difficult to handle at times. But the women love each other enough that they can respect the need to not always be together physically, without the worry that the other will drift away emotionally.

"She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love." 

I'm not certain that I can describe this book well enough to do it justice, but let me just say that I want to curl up and live inside Jansson's writing. Highly recommend.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Too Good to be True

I came to Too Good To Be True from a review in a magazine. I can't remember which magazine, but I adore the cover art of this book and it is about a writer's journey after success has failed so I jumped on it. Benjamin Anastas had some literary success at the end of the 90's and then is attempting to claw his way back despite his second novel's luke-warm reception.

I had several issues with this short memoir.

One seems to be common in the men's writer memoir book that I have read a bit of this year: the writer does not find the need to have a day job for their creative endeavors, despite having a child. If they were single and child-free, then I could smile at your plight to keep your New York City apartment and have no job security. If you are in your late twenties then to me it is a bummer but an acceptable act to carry your change to the coinstar machine in order to pay for gas. Not so much when you have a kid. Now I am not suggesting that it isn't ok to be poor and be a parent, or if someone is unable to work enough to feed their kid. But I will not and cannot feel bad for Anastas when he, an able-body adult, does not get any job he can get so he can buy the food his kid wants.

The apparent reason that Anastas does not get a day job is the other big problem that I have with this memoir. He wants to be a literary success but does not seem to need to be a writer. He talks about writing as if it has always been something he forces himself to do because he wants the perks of writing a well beloved book. But, I feel no love of writing from him. For some reason he wants that career so badly but he doesn't communicate the way that writing moves him. Without great love or obsession, the sympathetic struggling artist is a hard sell. Which is a shame, because I can glean from this book that Anastas does have skill with writing.

I'm not even going to touch the relationship issues this guy has - ok no, I lie, he tells his ex-wife (pregnant by him) that if she goes away on vacation with another man that she is KIDNAPPING HIS UNBORN BABY.

In other news, my lack of laptop has been solved by Black Friday madness so now back to my regular postings!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

An Uncommon Woman

I am usually not much of a history buff. But I have a huge thing for the podcast, the History Chicks, which discusses women in history. Their podcasts are always interesting and cover a wide range of women, both real and fictional, throughout history. That being said, they have not covered the Empress Frederick. At least not yet. They do however, have two on Queen Victoria which talk a bit about her oldest daughter, the subject of An Uncommon Woman, the Empress Frederick.

To say this is a biography is putting it mildly. This is a hefty book that covers the span of Victoria, daughter of Victoria and Albert and wife to Fritz, the prince of Prussia. Not really knowing much about pre-WWI European history, I learned a lot. Before reading this, all I could tell you about the Kaiser was that I thought he liked parades and that Otto von Bismark had in fact been a real person. In fact I thought that there was only ONE Kaiser. But this book gave such an expansive picture that I now know that both of those two should have been smacked silly. Constantly.

"Bismark has made us great and powerful, but he has robbed us of our friends, they sympathies of the world, and - our conscience."

"For Bismark that was neither good nor evil, only allegiance to the Fatherland."

Victoria has a hard time. She is raised from birth to do great things for her father's homeland of Prussia, to bring them into a new age of liberalism and unification to Germany. She married not only for the greatness of the political match, but for love as well. She grew up with very involved parents who she admired until her death. They both had very high hopes for their eldest child to do great things for Prussia and Germany.

However, Fritz's father, Kaiser Wilhelm I, hung on to life like the current Queen of England and did not see eye to eye with his son and daughter-in-law. His Chancellor, Bismark, ran the show, waged war, encouraged racism and censorship, created treaties, and spread rumor about Vicky and Fritz to the public. Her son, Willy, grew up to be the biggest snot I have ever read about and he wanted to take over after his grandfather's death instead of letting his father rule.

"Certainly, no royal woman of her day had been more meticulously prepared for a throne - or more quickly deprived of it."

I'm not going to go into too much more depth than that because I have about 20 pages of notes from this book and I think that Pakula does such a great job as it is. Victoria is a truly interesting woman who was born to do so much and never really given the opportunity to share her intellect with the world.

As I said, I have not been much of a history buff, but I tore through this book. The little details of history are just as interesting as you would find in a novel. For example, the "Weisse Dame" is the ghost of a white lady that would appear to male members of the Hollenzollerns before they would die. One of them died a few days after his wife ran into his room in her underwear and he believed she was the Weisse Dame.

I have another big history book on my table, Russia and the Russians: A History, which I am now very excited to read. Any other history books that are worth checking out?

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Innocent Libertine

Colette is a fascinating woman and I am very excited to read a biography of hers that I am waiting to come in through library loan. She performed at Moulin Rouge, wrote erotic literature in the early 1900's, had an affair with her stepson, and hid some of her Jewish friends in her attic during World War II.

The Innocent Libertine is really two short novels, Minne and Les Egarements de Minne,  that Colette combined after they had been published separately. They go together beautifully into one long arc for Minne.

In Minne, she starts as a young women who lives a very rich inner life. She lives with her mother in Paris and becomes obsessed with a gang of street thugs. Their leader, Curly, is the main object of her affection and she creates a great love between them in her mind without ever speaking to him. Every action she takes has such importance in to her every noise outside is just one step closer to bringing her and Curly together. When he disappears, she becomes ill and they go to the country with her uncle and cousin.

"She felt herself on the threshold of another life, on the verge of initiation into sacred mysteries."

There she spends her time lying fantastically and her cousin, Antoine, grows to desire her immensely. She dismisses him because to her she is already engaged to Curly (a man she had never spoken to). When she returns home, she leaves her house during the night to chase after Curly and gets a very harsh dose of reality. The Paris streets are not the place for a young girl.

In Les Egarements de Minnne, or Part Two, Minne is grown up some and married. Yet she is having a string of affairs in search of achieving an orgasm. Jealous of the sexual joy the men she sleeps with have, she believes that if she just finds the right man she will be able to feel the same. Her husband grows jealous and attempts to recreate her as the innocent girl he is in love with.

"After all, that boy is as nice as anything! He was dying of pleasure in my arms and there was I waiting and saying to myself: 'Obviously, it's not unpleasant... but show me something better!"

Colette is sexy and exciting without being smutty, even if there is a naked lady lounging on the cover. Minne's tale really is lovely and came to a very stratifying ending, if you catch my drift.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Recent Buys & the Ladies of Grace Adieu

I always manage to find a few things. I love Colette and try to grab her books when I see them. I got The Pure and the Impure and The Innocent Libertine from her. I'm about halfway through The Innocent Libertine and really enjoying it. Her stuff is pretty sexy, but without the shame of reading 50 Shades of Grey. I'll review it in a few days probably.

Michael Chabon's Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands for the man and I will probably end up reading it too. I really enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and have just picked up any of his books I find for cheap since.

The final book in the pile is Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu. I'll do a short review of it here since I powered through it hours after buying it. Clarke wrote Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell which I have not read, but now want to.

From the back cover, this book is reviewed by Spectator as so: "These tales read as if Jane Austen had rewritten the Brothers Grimm ... wonderful!" I think this sums up the book very well. There are eight beautiful little stories that mix the romanticism of Austen with the the magic of Grimm. The land of Faerie is someplace you can cross over to on your way to tea with the King and end up stuck for months until your love frees you by smashing a hornet's nest.

Clarke has a real flair for writing dialogue and sucked me in. She also has that way of describing a character to you totally with just a phrase or two.

"The governess was not much liked in the village. She was too tall, too fond of books, too grave, and, a curious thing, never smiled unless there was something to smile at."

If you are a fellow fan of Austen, but like a little more darkness, this is book is for you.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Open City

I saw this book or a profile of Teju Cole on someone's tumblr and was already adding books to my online library account so I threw this one on there too. Just listen to Cole's author bio from the book:

"Teju Cole was raised in Nigeria and came to the United States in 1992. He is a writer, photographer and professional historian of early Netherlandish art. Open City is his first novel. He lives in New York City."

Sounds like a super, super interesting dude. Which I am sure he is. Because if reading part of this book taught me anything it is that this guy thinks a lot more than I do.

The novel follows a young man, Julius, who takes long walks in NYC to clear his mind from work as a physiologist and his recent break up.

I made it to about page 45 before I threw it down and just could not pick it back up. I wanted to like this book so badly, but it is just not meant to be. The main character is so, so smart and came off way too pretentious for me. Every where he went made him think of an aria from some obscure opera and the architecture of Atlantis from a woodcut in a rare volume of a book in Hindi that you, dear reader, are not smart enough to understand. Couldn't he just walk into a room and say to himself, "oh man I'm really glad they have salt and pepper kettle chips. Those are my fav."

Plus he referenced one of my literary nemeses,  J. M. Coetzee. So odd were not in Cole's favor. Please note that I cannot stand Coetzee due to the fact that I once had to read and write a paper on The Life and Times Of Micheal K. which I hated.

So, alas, I will not be finishing this one. But don't take my word for it, this book got a lot of good reviews on Goodreads and frankly you might be smarter than me. By the way, here is my goodreads page if you just can't wait to see what I am reading.

Is it hard for anyone else to give up on a book once you have started? I usually can't put something down when I reach a quarter of the way through. But there are some notable exceptions, mainly Moby Dick, which I had one freaking chapter left and just did not read it out of spite. How far would you read before you have to finish?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How to Be a Woman

I'm not really sure how I heard about Caitlin Moran, probably in a review of How to Be a Woman from Bitch magazine (which you really, really should check out) and I found it in the new section of my library. I have not enjoyed a book so much in a long time.

"What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be. Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are."

Moran chronicles growing up in a poor family in England and how she comes to be a strident feminist. And covers why you should be one too. I have no problems calling myself a feminist and still found Moran making me think deeper about certain issues. For example, why the hell do I keep trying to wear heels when I stand on the sides of my feet making anything but flats impossible. Or, why isn't there porn out there where people actually desire and enjoy each other? Is that too much to ask for? Apparently yes, which is why there is fanficiton I guess.

"When a woman says, 'I have nothing to wear!', what she really means is, 'There's nothing here for who I'm supposed to be today."

I read a lot of this book at my mother's house, with her and I sitting on a giant bean-bag chair passing the book back and forth laughing so hard I thought I would pee. Moran has a great way of dealing with serious issues of sexism, growing up poor, bad relationships, and abortion all with humor. Also she offers up a ton of new names for certain parts of the female anatomy.

My husband really enjoyed the bits that I read out loud to him and after I finished he picked it up and started. So not just for women this one! I highly, highly suggest this book to everyone.

Moran's website:

Friday, October 19, 2012

Walden and Civil Disobedience

I'm fairly partial to books that deal with going green and trying to live a more eco-friendly life and the one I have been reading lately (My Green Manifesto by David Gessner) mentioned Thoreau a lot. Now I am fairly sure that I had to read "Civil Disobedience" for at least one class in high school but all I could remember was that he had a pretty fine time when he was in jail for not paying taxes. Clearly time to revisit.

Walden chronicles Thoreau's time spent living out in the woods at Walden Pond, in a very simple house with very little modern comforts. Thoreau strives to be self-reliant and grows his own food and builds his own chimney. He details his spending and income, the reactions from town members to his behavior, and the ever changing and beautiful nature he is immersed in.

"We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and not spend our time in atoning fro the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in the winter while it is already spring."

I had a strange time with this book. I enjoyed a lot of it, but at times my mind tended to wander and it felt more like I was reading it because I had to. The parts that I enjoyed though, I really enjoyed. I often had to pause and think about how Thoreau would hate, hate today's America and wonder how he would feel about certain men running for president..

"Most think that they are above being supported by the town, but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means, which should be more disreputable."

"Civil Disobiedence" was much easier for me to clip through. I love Thoreau's activism and his determination not to be part of the Mexican War or part of slavery by withholding his taxes. I wish I had a voice like his to read about today's politics.

"Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."

This really spoke to me. I try to live my life by certain principals that often get teased or questioned by certain family members of mine. For example, I think factory farming is gross and harmful to both the people who work there and the animals that are mistreated and so I pay more to get my meat from local farmers who are scratching out a living practicing real animal husbandry. I'm currently trying to get my workplace to take me seriously about getting the maintenance staff to stop putting blank pieces of paper at the bottom of every cubicle garbage can at work after they empty them and promote recycling more. Every day I am trying more and more to walk the walk and while I cannot change the world, or my family, or my workplace, in one day, that is no excuse to stop trying or just stop caring.

If you don't have time for the whole book, at least give "Civil Disobedience" a read. I think this work is important, and deserves serious consideration.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

a Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

I spotted this book at a used book store not too long ago and thought it looked weird and interesting and  then I promptly put it down and forgot about it for awhile. Last week I stumbled across it in the library and decided to give it a shot. I'm perpetually drawn to anything with a Russian or Eastern European slant so I thought it would be a winner.

Long story short - it wasn't. But maybe it is just me, since the book had been short-listed for the Orange prize and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. But the whole thing just felt sloppy to me. The story revolves around a family of two estranged sisters and one elderly father who is getting married to a woman from Ukraine (where he is from). The action is set in England and the characters have had to deal with the affects of the revolution in Ukraine and now the gold digger, Valentina, who seems to love showing everyone her augmented boobs while she demands more and more money from her new husband. The sisters want Valentina out and reconnect over their mutual disgust at the relationship their father has with this woman.

The book is told in choppy segments, mostly from the point of view of the younger sister. I have hardly any real sense of what she is like, and yet manage not to like her. She has a closer relationship with her father (supposedly) but seems to switch from really caring to not caring at all and from oh-I-hate-her to walking down the street arm-in-arm with no explanation. Also WHO THE HELL PICKS UP A USED CONDOM OF THEIR FATHER'S? EW. This was not in any sexual scene at all so it wasn't as gross as you might think but it was pretty big on the ick-factor, which is rampant in this book. The elderly father is naked a whole lot and it was just too much.

I finished this book because I have a hard time not finishing a book. I could have pushed this up from a two-star to three-star had there not been the last chapter on their. The one prior was the most interesting part of the book to me, a simple sum up of the two sisters lives. And then just puff and more naked old guy. I feel that this story had so much potential but the book doesn't do it any justice.

In a nutshell: meh.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Things that really matter

I picked up this book due to a recommendation I heard from Lexicon Valley, a Slate podcast about language which is super interesting. A Jane Austen Education follows William Weresiewicz as he works on his dissertation. He begins graduate school disliking Austen basically on principal, preferring more modern and complicated works like Ulysses. This is a view I have gotten from a lot of people (mostly men) who think that Austen is boring.

Each chapter covers one of Austen's books and is tied to how Weresiewicz grows from a young adult into a well rounded person. The transition that he goes through is especially interesting to me since I feel that I am in the same age of change as he was. For example, this really hit home for me:

"When you're young - when you're in high school and college and even your early twenties - you take your friends for granted. Of course they'll always be there. You take friends for granted. Why would you ever have trouble making new ones? Then all of a sudden - and it can feel very sudden indeed - everybody's gone. Some have moved, some have married, everyone's busy, and the crowd of potential friends by which you've always been surrounded has evaporated." 

One thing I was grateful about was that despite these books being around for forever and having so many adaptations of them, Weresiewicz never gives away the ending to any of them. Which is great because I have a confession to make. I, lover of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen in general, have never read two of her books. Mansfield Park and Persuasion have just never made it onto my selves and after reading this book, I am committed to buying, reading, and loving them. I also think I might dust of an Austen biography that has been sitting on my selves for a long time.

A full Austen loving convert, Weresiewicz ties in thoughtful pieces of critical reading of her works and information about her life in a way that I think would be accessible even to those who aren't Austen crazy. I highly suggest it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Rasputin's Daughter

It's a truth universally acknowledged that I am a big Russia fan right? So when I heard from NPR that there was a book coming out that was a historical fiction piece told from the point of view of Rasputin's daughter Masha, I had to read it.

This book is told after Rasputin is killed (by poisoning, stabbing, AND drowning) when Masha and her sister are sent to live with the Tsar and his family. This is when the Russian Revolution is happening and the Romanovs are sequestered in one of their palaces basically waiting for a way to flee the country, or for their deaths.

Masha spends the majority of her time with the tsaravich (or crown prince), Alexei. Alexei was a hemophiliac and the tsarina (his mother, Alexandra) basically went bat-shit crazy trying anything to heal her son. When Rasputin was alive this meant that she had him visiting the palace all of the time to try to heal Alexei. After Rasputin died, she had Masha take over.

Masha doesn't kid anyone and knows that she does not have the same mystical powers that she believes her father had. But she does tell Alexei stories to keep his mind from the fact that they will probably all be murdered. They tell tales of what he would do if he had never had hemophilia and she tells him the tales her father told her of his travels and revelations. As things become more and more dire for the Romanovs, Masha and Alexei become closer and closer emotionally and physically.

And then the inevitable happens.

The book is interesting and had me hanging on to what was happening, especially towards the end when things were hitting the fan for the Romanov family. I have this picture of Russian life in my head that is by no means acurate, and to read about the tsaravich day dreaming about Buffalo Bill Cody and Rasputin driving a car just kind of boggles my mind. I also had no idea that Masha went on to be a circus act!

If you are looking for something that feels Russian without the denseness of a classic piece of Russian Lit, I would suggest this book, but it isn't a favorite of mine. My biggest complaint is that the narrator seemed too detached from what was happening around her, especially with Alexei. I wanted more from her. Things were too loose and I am not sure what the Masha of the book took away from her life experience. A bit of a let down, but still interesting.

Monday, July 16, 2012

No thanks

I've been reading a lot of books on how to live more in tune with the earth and how to escape consumerism and saw this book at the library. The thought of living in a 12 by 12 house off the grid seemed just what I wanted to read and I picked it up and dove right in.

Talk abut a major let down. First of all, this guy Powers doesn't live in a 12 by 12 house, he just stays at one  for what seems like a couple of months. The house is owned by a lady who is a doctor yet chooses to take an extremely low salary to avoid taxes going to war and lives in this house full time. I would have loved to read about book about her. Powers doesn't have to worry about any income during this time and never satisfactorily addresses this point to me. Part of getting "beyond the american dream" seems to me to be getting past the debt and obligations that most Americans have accumulated.

I really liked the first few chapters of this book in spite of this, but then I started to really, really dislike Powers' writing style and frankly him. His choice of anecdotes about rural North Carolina seem only to encourage the racism that he claims to be against. He goes on about how much good he does in the world for people (while plugging his other books far too often) and yet doesn't seem to help those around him. His neighbor Jose makes beautiful furniture but is struggling to make ends met and Powers can't buy something as a gift for his mom? He clearly isn't hurting too bad if he can just up and not work for half a year.

While I certainly can stomach new age hippisms, Powers conversations with the gal he is in a "relationship" with made me roll my eyes constantly. He starts their conversations with questions like "What is sin?" or "What is the shape of the world?" and it just seems so pretentious. Then when he leaves the 12 by 12, despite jerking this girl around for half a year he leaves:

"And hour passed with Leah, in silence. We watched the creek's flow, and I knew that there's no greater gift to the world and to others than being true to your deepest self. So many times, out of fear of loneliness or other negative emotions, we form relationships that are good enough, but untrue to our uniqueness. Doing so risks flattening ourselves."

I'm pretty sure if a dude wrote that about me I would track him down and punch him.

And then, three-quarters of the way through the book, he reveals that he has a daughter in another country. Powers goes on and on from this point about how much he loves her and hurts at the distance between them BUT CHOOSES TO LIVE IN ANOTHER COUNTRY. No mention of how he is paying child support during his time at the 12 by 12.

All in all this guy sounds like a pretentious douche. The idea of this book was so interesting to me, but it did not come anywhere near what I wanted to learn. Maybe he does do a lot of good in the world (he certainly talks about doing so) but it is hard to get past the fact that he does so without walking the walk.

This is a problem I have found with a lot of this environmental back to the land memoirs. There is some point in many of them that they just fall flat and do not connect with me. I keep reading them because I want to learn something about how I want to live my life and how to get out from what society tells me, but I have yet to find it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Literature isn't innocent

This is my second Bolano book, one that my man kept suggesting to me with the words, "I promise it is not about decetives." I finally relented and finished this one much, much fast than 2666.

"he theorized that we underprivileged youth were left with no alternative but the literary avant-guard."

The first section of this book follows the diary of 17 year old Juan Garcia Madero, a boy in college in Mexico City in the 70s who quickly gets caught up in the world of the veseral realist poets. It takes him all of about two days to drop out of law school to sit at cafes all day writing poems and hoping to run into these visceral realists. After befriending and joining the poetic movement, Juan becomes romantically involved with a woman in the group, Maria Font, and a waitress. Maria's father is entangled in the fate of a prositute escaping from her pimp and Mr. Font enlists the head visceral realists, Aturo Belano and Ulises Lima.

"Because it is one thing to fool yourself and another thing entirely to feel every body else. The whole visceral realism thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless."

This sections was written in diary style, with entries for every day, some very short and others several pages long. This was a little different than I expected from Bolano, who in 2666 wrote for pages and pages and pages without so much as a line break.

"But usually I only think of her 4 or 5 times, and each memory, each memory capsule, is approximately 2 minutes long, although I an't say for sure because a little while ago someone stole my watch and keeping time on one's own is risky."

The second section is a huge span of time (twenty years) and told in testimonies from a huge array of characters, all relating their experience with either Belano or Lima or both. They start in Mexico City, searching for information on Cesarea Tinajero, a woman who was a part of a small visceral realist movement in the twenties. The two young men then travel to Europe and travel to Paris, Tel Aviv, Vienna, Barcelona, and back to Mexico (for Lima at least). They live a bohieman hippy artistic lifestyle and interact with an intense array of characters, with the required sketchy characters.

"You can woo a girl with a poem, but you can't hold on to her with a poem. Not even with a poetry movement."

These testimonies are hard to keep track of, some narrators we come back to and some we leave after a few pages. Many were in the stories of others and it was so interesting to see them tell a version of what was happening to another's.

"Which is to day boys, I saw our struggles and dreams all tangled up in the same failure, and that failure was called joy."

The final section again is told in the same way by Juan Garcia Madero as we see the three visceral realists and the prostitute, Lupe, as they travel all over Mexico both searching for Cesarea Tinajero and fleeing from Lupe's pimp. I won't spoil the ending, but the ending is really not the point of this book. To be frank, I would have to go look to see what actually happens with the very end. I remember the climax of part three but after that I am not so sure.

"But poetry (real poetry) is like that: you can sense it, you can feel it in the air, the way they say certain highly attuned animals (snakes, worms, rats, and some birds) can detect an earthquake."

But there is so much of this book, and Bolano's writing style, that I find so incredibly fascinating. I feel like he breaks so many of the rules of good writing I have in my head, and yet I still love it. Reading his work is living having a vivid dream or an intense fever. I have no clue what it means, but I feel so strongly that this is one of the most important writers I have read.

"I was just trying to die as myself, not as an ear on the edge of a chasm."

Also of interest, the character Aturo Belano is in fact the narrator of 2666, which I am not going to lie, blows my mind a bit. I want to read some serious critical anaylisis of these books along with everything else this man has written. I will leave you with this line that is the most beautiful thought:

"(every book in the world is out there waiting to be read by me)"

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thanks for the lentils

As many of you might guess, I have a thing for graphic novels and cartoons of all sorts. After picking up and loving Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, I heard about her cartoon, Dykes to Watch Out For. One inter-library loan later and I was in possession of the Essential Dykes to Watch Our For.

You might be able to guess from the title that this book is about lesbians, but it is so much more than that. The variety of characters we meet and love cover a spectrum of sexuality and gender identity. They have the same troubles as everyone else, cheating, loneliness, fear of commitment, rage against the government, death of pets and loved ones, and the raising of children (both planned and unplanned). The art is solid and lovely, and Bechdel's attention is amazing.

Mo is our main character and we follow her and her anxiety cloud from being single to in a realtionship and back again and her career at Madwimmin bookstore. Her friends and their friends have strong story lines that I had an easy time connecting with. I never felt like a character was as throw-away character, each was complex and genuine.

I would highly, highly suggest this series to anyone. It's a perfect book to curl up with in an armchair with a cup of tea and NPR playing in the background.

If the name Bechdel sounds familiar, it might be because of the Bechdel test for movies. The test has three rules:

  • The movie has to have two (named) women in it
  • These women have to talk to each other
  • About something other than a man
It is really, really shocking how few movies pass this test, which Bechdel wrote about in one of her strips. 

Also a link to her blog because I think she is pretty neat: dykestowatchoutfor 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

a sky is so small

Aside from being a total fox, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, or just Colette as she is known, was an amazing writer. I first read My Mother's House and Sido and just wanted to curl up in this world with these beautiful french provincial characters. There is not a whole lot going on plot wise in these stories, the main thrust is characters. As I am a seriously character-driven reader, I adored her writing. I scoped out the local Half-Price books and found her collection of short stories, The Tender Shoot, and dove in.

The first of the short stories, "Belle-Vista",  follows Colette at a provincial hotel as she waits for her house to be worked on by contractors. The hotel is run by a lesbian couple that befriends Colette. They have another guest, a man named M. Daste, who provides special intrigue for Colette. 

"If I observed M. Daste more carefully than he deserved, it was because I am always terrified, when chance throws me among unknown people, of discovering some monstrosity in them. I search them to the core with a sharp, distasteful eye as one does a dressing-table drawer in a hotel bedroom. No old dressings? No hair-pins, no broken buttons, no crumbs of tobacco? Then I breath again and do not give it a second thought."

The second short stories is "Gribiche". Colette spent some time in theatre productions and ran into many interesting characters there. Gribiche was a young woman who worked there and had an acident. While bringing flowers and a collection of money for her, it becomes apparent that Gribiche is having an abortion aided by her mother (who does this for a living) and no doctor's aid. This is a great example on how unsafe abortions can be when they are no provided by trained medical professional and I will give you two guesses as to how young Gribiche fares. 

"These memories are distant, but precise. they rise out of the fog that inevitably drowns the long days of that particular time, the monotonous amusements of dress rehearsals and suppers at Pousset's, my alternations between animal gaiety and confused unhappiness, the split in my nature between a wild, frightened creature and one with a vast capacity for illusion. But it is a fog that leaves the faces of my friends intact and shinning clear."  - "The Kepi"

"The Rendezvous" is a story that does not have Colette as a character but rather follows a group of four on a vacation. One of the men and woman ,Bernard and Rose, are in a covert affair and arrange to met at night through meaningful looks. However when they reach the meeting point, a young man who was their guide earlier is there bleeding profusely. Bernard wants Rose to run back for help while he stops the bleeding but Rose is appaled by the fact that people will know she was out there with him and what a scandal that will be to her family. This causes Bernard to see her in a new light and he is left with the decision to help a man he does not know who is bleeding to death or to escort the woman he loves back to the hotel. 

I am going to skip a few short stories in this collection, not because I did not love them, but because I don't want this blog post to be to long to handle. "Rainy Moon" is a beautiful story about Colette interacting with two sisters who live in the house that she used to live in. One of these sisters is going through a severe breakdown and the other thinks she is using sorcery to kill her estranged husband.  In "Green Sealing Wax" we get another slice of Colette's parents and I just adore Sido and was so happy to see her again. The last two stories, "The Sick Child" and "The Photographer's Missus", both compliment each other well I think. In both we get a inside glimpse into two people who are eager for death and come face-to-face with it. 

"'What do you expect?' said my mother. 'She's an old maid.'
'But Mamma, she's married!'
'Do you really imagine,' retorted Sido acidly, 'people stop being old maids for a little thing like that?'

I really, really enjoyed this book and cannot wait to read more of Colette. Apparently she is best know for her work Gigi which was taken and turned to a play and musical, so I think I need to check that out. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

I could lift it alright

I have never seen or read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest but I knew that it was one of those classics and frankly after drowning myself in a lot of science fiction I threw this little paperback in my bag and tore through it.

The book takes place in the 1960's in mental institution. We see this world threw the eyes of Chief Bromden, a Native American who is a giant of a man and yet pretends to be deaf and mute to get through life in this institution ruled by Nurse Ratched, who is a horrible as her name sounds. A new, and presumably mentally stable, man named McMurphy comes into the ward and proceeds to turn things on it's head. He fights against the system, and yet the deck is so stacked against him that we know he will not succeed.

"He's shown us what a little bravado and courage could accomplish, and we thought he'd taught us how to use it. All the way to the coast we had fun pretending to be brave. When people at a stop light would stare at us and our green uniforms we'd do just like he did, sit up straight and strong and tough-looking and put a big grin on our face and stare straight back at them till their motors died and their windows sunstreaked and they were left sitting when the light changed, upset bad by what a tough bunch of monkeys was just now not three feet from them, and help nowhere in sight."

Bromden sees society as a great Combine that chews up those that do not function as "normal" people. Through him we see the way that other patients were unable to fit due to a myriad of issues and who have their spirits raised and dashed by the coming of McMurphy. McMurphy uses them at the same time tries to help them, and although his motives seem to be almost all selfish, he does seem to be working for the good of those on the ward. In the end McMurphy cannot escape the Combine now that he is in the ward anymore than the rest of them can.

"Yes. This is what I know. The ward is a factory for the Combine. It's fixing up the mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is.When a complete product goes back out into society, all fixed up and good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse's heart; something that came in all twisted different is now a functioning adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold."

I really, really enjoyed this book. I think that I like most books about how society treats those that are mentally unbalanced (the Bell Jar, Girl, Interrupted, Fingersmith, and others) and this one had me right there with the patients. Nurse Ratched is so realistic that she could be prowling the wards today, albeit she would have to use much more tact to not get caught condoning orderlies raping patients. The lack of control of the patients and the absolute tyranny of the staff makes for a fascinating and terrifying environment.

There is a reason this book is on lists of great books. I highly suggest it. I really want to check the movie out and see how it compares up. Has anyone seen it?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

I had made something out of my own voice

First book of the year!

I picked up Good Eggs a Memoir by Phoebe Potts after a review from Bitch Magazine. The story follows Pheobe and her hubby as they try to have a baby, using all of our medical advancements. The graphic novel also shows Potts' journey to her current career, her journey in religion,  and battles with depression over the years.

I am a big lover of graphic novels, but I had a hard time reading this one for a couple of reasons. The text was off putting and there was a little too much white-girl whining

The text was hard to read, squished and some of the letters looked so strange that I had to really focus to figure out what was being said. The art was interesting, nothing breathtaking but cute and funny.

Potts' volunteer work has her set up as a martyr to public good, but I just kept thinking, "Yeah it sucks that your job stinks, but you have an easy out anytime you want - you just go spend a year in Panama to learn to speak Spanish and then live at your parents for months without a job"  I cannot relate to this. Yes, real life is hard, especially if you are trying to please other people and dealing with depression, however, I could not understand a lot of these choices. You have great insurance that helps with infertility procedures while desperately trying to get pregnant and you just quit because you need art? Maybe I am being too harsh.

I know nothing about the troubles of getting pregnant and it was interesting to learn just how many hoops some people have to jump through just to have a kid. I also felt that Potts dealing with depression was handled very truthfully and well. I wish that there had been more humor; some choice moments come through for me but with all of the heavy problems in her life (I haven't even mentioned her father's cancer) story-wise it would have been nice to have more balance. I needed to smile more, and the drawings of sperm just were not enough.

It's worth checking this book out - especially if you are interested in stories of artificial insemination and like stories that end differently than you expect them to.

First book of the new year checked off. I'm wrapped up in A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin right now and it is roughly three million pages so we'll see when I finish.

Monday, January 9, 2012


I realize that I have not updated this blog in forever, but I want to let you know that this year one of my goals is to blog about the books I read more. So look forward to it!

Right now I just finished the Adolescent by Dostoevsky and am currently reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's  Nest by Ken Kesey and the Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. Both are amazing so far.

Any recommendations for this year's reads?