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Friday, July 29, 2005
old books & what drives the middle class

I am such a ditz. I wrote this post and then started mucking around in my files and somehow didn't save the changes, so now, I've got to reconstruct the whole thing. Here goes:

Paul Collins fooled me. You'd think that if a book is called Sixpence House that such a title would signify importance. Maybe it is, because I thought Collins and his wife would buy the decrepit thing so that they could live happily ever after in Hay-on-Wye. But, this house is three or four hundred years old. The cellar is a pond. The floors need replacing. There are other problems as well; the house adjacent to it is leaning on it. Collins and wife look for a house to buy but never find one. Their last hope is Sixpence House, a former pub. In the meantime, while house hunting, Collins and wife work on their respective books. Collins spends some time working in one of the secondhand bookstores and he ruminates on his finds in the moldy stacks and piles. The book was lovely. The writing was lovely. The sentiments were lovely. However, there were large portions of the book that didn't resonate with me. Collins demonstrated his knowledge of obscure nineteenth century literature throughout the book. I didn't find those parts too interesting. Otherwise, it was quite good. My recommendation is to skip the parts you don't like reading. I also liked that Collins didn't reduce the folks he met to stereotypes. It seems that nobody can Not mention the draftiness of UK homes, or the cold damp weather. Then there's the bit about mail slots: They have them, we have mail boxes. And they have friendly relationships with their postal carriers, too. There was a bit about toast. And Collins lauds the candies, especially the chocolates. His father told him that UK and American chocolates taste so different because there is more fat, and maybe something else, in American chocolates. The chocolate market in America is driven by buyers in the south and another region, where it gets mighty hot. Heat melts chocolate. The UK doesn't have heat, thus chocolate is a bit different there. That didn't drag on and on... Oh, another interesting thing that Collins shares is that when books are pulped, they are recycled into toilet paper. Wonder whose work I'm wiping myself with?

I'm on page thirty of On paradise drive: How we live now (and always have) in the future tense. This is an investigation of the middle class and suburbia. Apparently great cultural changes are produced in the suburbs now. Suburbs ar not derivative of thriving cultural urban centers anymore. Tennessee, along with Kansas and Rhode Island, lead the nation in oatmeal consumption. Brooks's book is filled with interesting trivia like that. Oh, and only 25% of Americans have college degrees. That shocked me; simply shocked me. I am living in a tower of some kind. And that was only from the introduction. In the first chapter Brooks breaks it down for the reader: He takes us in a minivan and drives us through the landscape. He categorizes the demographic groups in this way: Urban hipsters, the crunchies, professionals, immigrant enclaves, and suburban core. Imagine the urban hispters at the center and the subsequent groups radiating our from there like a target. Basically Brooks investigates whether Americans really are that shallow. It's hinted on the back jacket flap that "there is some deeper impulse throbbing in the heart of average Americans." What could it be? Greed? Lust? Pure Evil?

Thursday, July 28, 2005
men's books & men writing about books

Apparently there are some books that women never read. Terry Castle, a professor at Stanford, challenges women to read these fusty titles: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Face of Battle, The Garden of Eden, Memoirs of Hadrian, and The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. In my defense, as if I need one, I must say that I've had Hemingway's Garden of Eden checked out for at least a month or two and haven't gotten around to read it yet. It's on my short-term list, but I'm not aching to read it or anything. And Castle mentions one of my personal reasons why: "Is there any great male writer more vilified (unfairly) by female critics? Why care in 2005 about a hairy-chested old fatty lording it over a swordfish? Because he's sleek and magnificent and ineluctably weird. This unfinished novel, published posthumously, features a painfully mixed-up hero, a knockout scene of fetishistic haircutting, and sentences so beautiful one could cry. How did he ever get a reputation for machismo? Ladies, prepare to fantasize with Papa. He wants you to humiliate him."

One of the things that I enjoyed about Take big bites is that it was inspirational. It wasn't focused on food, though there are recipes included. And travel was an important part of the process that Ellerbee recommends. The process of growing older gracefully, that is.

I'm halfway through Sixpence house: lost in a town of books. It's about a man who leaves San Francisco for Hay-on-Wye, the famous town of booksellers in Wales, or is it in England? No matter, it's on the border. The river runs between them. He moves his family there and falls into a job in one of the bookstores as the American literature specialist. He organizes their stock and finds a few rare items. He and his wife try to buy a home, but haven't succeeded yet. He says that books are the cellars of civilization: when cultures crumble away, their books remain out of sheer stupid solidity. I may take a break from reading library books for a while. I have quite a queue of Rebecca-owned books to read. Plus, when I scan the spines of library books that I have, none jump out at me. Being unexcited by books is sad.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005
the book that changed the world

Subtitles that changed the world...an article at the Boston Globe covers the trend in subtitles and gives a long list of books that have changed the world.

After weeks of delay, I received the new Tyler Florence cookbook. It's called Eat this book: Cooking with global fresh flavors. I didn't have time to open it and drool on all its pages last night, so I brought it with me to work today in hopes of getting a spare moment or two to flip through the mouth-watering photographs.

Linda Ellerbee's book Take big bites is so much fun. She has this way of writing that's colloquial but sophisticated Then too, Ellerbee's got a knack for making me feel like I'm standing right there, or better yet, that I'm her traveling companion. Did I mention the recipes? I haven't decided whether to write many down. There is a garlic cream soup that she had in San Miguel that she raved about...maybe that one for starters. One of my favorite chapters is where she spent the one hundredth anniversary celebration of the Statue of Liberty on Malcolm Forbes's boat. He plied her with beluga. She was prepared to hate him. But even without the caviar, she thought he was a delightful man. And the book isn't only about happy days. Ellerbee describes her visit to inner city Baltimore where she helps feed homeless folks and speaks about the true hunger of poverty.

Monday, July 25, 2005
to meat or not to meat

This weekend I had one of those bad reading experiences. There was only one, thankfully. I saw A reading diary when I was in Missouri last month and didn't buy it because when traveling, I try to conserve my cash and suitcase space. I wrote the title in my little black book where I note things to read, xmas lists, stores to visit while in Boston, knitting pattern instructions, movie times, the variety of license plates noticed while traveling, and other miscellaneous things. Then, I requested the book via ILL. It is due soon, so I figured it best to begin reading it. Alberto Manguel's premise is a good one: To write a commonplace book of sorts. Each month he re-read a book, but kept a diary along with his reading. That way, he connected wisdom from each book with world events or his personal events. In the introduction he wrote that reading is a conversation. And, I completely agree. I was not prepared for the conversation. I had not read any of the books that he read or wrote about: Wind in the Willows, Don Quixote, Surfacing, etc. Perhaps there was a cultural divide; he's Argentinean, or a gender divide; he's male. Or, it could be generational; I think he's the same age as my grandfather. Somewhere I've encountered a saying along the lines of "right book, right reader," and this was the case of "wrong book, wrong reader." I struggled through it. Around page forty-five I contemplated whether to stop reading the book. But, I went on. Then when I was three-fourths of the way through the book, I almost put it down again, but thought what a shame it would be since I'd made it so far at that point. Next time, I shall use some judgment and not read more than I can handle. I'm sure this book is wonderful if a reader connects with it, but I could not. My distance from the texts he wrote of prevented me from understanding the connections that he drew between the book and world issues. I enjoyed his daily ramblings of a personal nature about the cat who came to visit, his lovely garden, and his travels. And then, too, I have no idea who he is. He named a few important names and is obviously well-connected.

Next, my reading became a little meatier. The meat you eat: How corporate farming has endangered America's food supply is another book I discovered in Missouri, but at UM's fabulous bookstore. It's a real bookstore with loads of magazines AND a Clinique counter. There were no real surprises in this book although I learned that livestock do not procreate naturally. It's all done artificially these days. The interesting thing about hogs and pigs is that the semen in gathered from the animal by masturbating it. And who does this? Women. Apparently women have "the right touch" for the job. I found that rather peculiar and wondered if having men perform that function somehow suggested bestiality or homo-bestiality and that's why women got the job. The book provides a great introduction to the issues surrounding the meat, egg, and dairy industry in America. The introduction is by Wendell Berry. It was no surprise to me that agribusiness is the most evil thing in the land. They destroy the land, overproduce products, force small farmers out of business, and treat their workers like slaves.

I've had Ruth Reichl's Garlic and sapphires for at least a month. This was the first I've read of her work, though I recall reading an excerpt from the book somewhere, a few months before it was published. Before Reichl became the food critic for the NYT, she was the food critic for the LA Times. The transition from west coast to east coast was taxing for Reichl. One of the problems was that all the restaurants in NYC had her photo tacked inside the kitchen and they knew details about her life. She knew that food critics get special treatment and that colors their reviews. To counter this, she adopted various disguises so that she would not be made. The book contains several of the reviews published by the NYT as well as background information on all that went into reviewing, like the three plus trips she makes to restaurants, adventures to the wig stores, and introducing her son to fabulous hash browns. Garlic and sapphires was very entertaining. Reichl's writing was good, her stories were interesting, and the recipes that she included appear promising. I wrote down the ones for new york cheesecake and gougeres. The best part of the book is when her dining experience as an anonymous person differs from that of her food-critic-self. As a regular person, she got bad tables, poor service, cold food, smaller portions, and meals of questionable quality. And when a restaurant's service and food are dependent upon the diner's identity, Reichl marked them down, or withdrew a star from their rating.

I'm halfway through Linda Ellerbee's book Take big bites: Adventures around the world and across the table. It is more about traveling than about food, but that's okay because Ellerbee has been everywhere. Ellerbee writes that traveling alone is the best way to do it. Then you meet strangers and talk to them. Also, your plans are completely your own, there's no "What shall we do today, dear?" or arguments over which landmark to tour. In her second chapter "Table for one," she shares her experience at a three-star rated restaurant located on the Amalfi Coast, Don Alfonso 1890. She says this about the experience: "Gandhi said there are limits to self-indulgence, none to self-restraint. I feel certain that had he been with me that day he might have been persuaded to reverse that thought. Sometimes in life, if you're lucky, you are allowed to understand you are where you most want to be at that moment." Besides serving her an outstanding meal and not letting her pay for it, because "cooking is a too hard thing to do for money only" the owners became good friends with her. After the WTC bombings their letter was the first to arrive at her home asking whether she was okay.

And then, is it any wonder that women buy the most books? They're practically turning the publishing industry upon its ear, or ass. Women prefer to read books written by women. Apparently in the 1960s most of the books were bought and written by men, but since women are money makers, they have spending power. "Women readers now outnumber men and they tend to seek out writers who know their own world at first hand. Women tend to find a lot of male writers boyish, macho and a little too interested in violence. The believe their books are too dependent on quick thrills." Of course, those are British women, but I'm sure that the same trend applies to America.

Thursday, July 21, 2005
bless the beasties & the babies

Reading aloud soothes the savage beasties.

Light on snow was a quick and easy read. It's twelve-year-old Nicky's coming-of-age story. After the deaths of her mother and infant sister, Nicky and her father leave the city (yes, that city, is there another?) and move north to New Hampshire. I learned that folks from New Hampshire call their southern neighbors Massholes. Clever, clever. Nicky feels a bit isolated. She and her father live in isolated cottage. They get snowed in a lot. She doesn't have as many friends or sleep-overs as she in her previous life. But, this is how her father deals with the grief of losing his wife and child; that and making Shaker-style furniture. One day as they snowshoe through the woods behind their house, they hear a cry. They think it's a cat, but then it turns out to be a baby. They rescue it and take it to the emergency room. They meet one of the state policemen who is charged with finding who abandoned the baby. A week passes. A couple shows up at their house to buy furniture; their living room serves as a showroom. The next day a young woman appears in search of furniture too. It comes out that she's the woman who abandoned Baby Doris, as the social services folks named her. The state policeman sniffs around their cottage. This was not Shreve's strongest work. However, I did want to learn what happens to the characters.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005
when bad things happen to good characters

I stayed up until 1-ish this morning to finish the Ha-ha. It is the best work of fiction I've read this year. Of course, the worst thing about Howard's situation is that he cannot explain himself and when bad things happen, and he gets freaked out and turns into the stereotypical vet in the midst of a meltdown, then his life spirals out of his tenuous control. The story was wonderful and gratifying. The writing was excellent, though at one chapter near the end, I skimmed because I didn't appreciate what the author did. Conflict rages in the present and what does King do? He has Howie remember a past event that has some relation to what's going on presently, but I didn't need that information. I wanted to know what was happening in the present. Sometimes writers get in the way of their stories. There was enough suspense, I didn't need delay on top of that. I knew something horrible had to happen to give the story major conflict, and I'll not go into details here, but I was afraid for old Howie for a few chapters.

Though I haven't started it yet, Anita Shreve's Light on snow is next in my queue. Despite her past books being picked for Oprah's club, and their possessing an air of bestsellerdom, the plots are usually provocative. Shreve is a good writer. Her books are highly accessible to all sorts of readers. And when I'm immersed in one, it's difficult to extract myself from it; they hold my attention. Without any foreknowledge of it's premise, I checked the book out from the library. This one is about a father and daughter who find a baby in the woods. It reminded me of a Little House on the Prairie episode where Laura finds a baby in the woods while she and Pa are hunting or fishing. In the days of three channels and maybe PBS, the options were fewer and LHOTP was the groove that rocked my world.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005
mix ingredients thoroughly

This is new: Most books stink because any idiot can write a book. Ingredients: A pc and a big ego.

A trip to the beach: Living on island time in the Caribbean was entertaining. Plus, I got a few new recipes that I can't wait to try. Several drink recipes like rum punch and banana cabanas, one for banana bread, one for Thai snapper, and another for cornbread.

I'm loving the Ha-ha. Howard was mentally impaired on his sixteenth day in Vietnam. He barely communicates, though his thoughts are lucid. He's still friends with the girl he loved in high school, but her sister dragged her off to detox a few days ago. Sylvia asks Howard to care for her nine year old multi-racial son. Howard lives in the huge Victorian house that his parents left to him. His right hand woman is Laurel, a young Vietnamese woman, who helps him live; she rooms there, too. Then there are two loser guys who also rent rooms in the house. They might be artists. Ryan, the boy, draws them together and they form a strange little family unit all their own as they tend to his needs. And Howard, well, his day job is lawn boy for a bunch of nuns. It may get a bit weirder. I hope so.

Monday, July 18, 2005
boom boom boom

At first I wasn't sure that I'd like Queen of dreams. But, it turned out good. Rakhi struggles for inspiration as an artist. Her ex-husband ingratiates himself with her parents, whom she's sure love him more than her. Their daughter seems to prefer her father as well. Besides being a painter, she owns a coffee shop in Berkeley with her best friend. She spends more and more time at the shop trying to make sure it doesn't go under when a diabolical coffee chain, Java, opens across the street. Scenes in the book are sensually drawn with lots of attention to color and aromas. Rahki's mother has a gift of dream interpretation. Actually, it's more than that. She dreams about peoples lives and then they come to her or she contacts them and she helps them. An air of otherworldliness infuses the book. And there's some 9/11 issues that emerge near the end of the book that lent a new perspective on the event.

How I came to read Riding the bus with my sister I'll never remember. It's non-fiction, and when Ian saw me reading it, he told me that it was a Hallmark movie. Yuck. That almost made me put it aside. I read on. Rachel and Beth are sisters. They both live in Pennsylvania in separate cities. Rachel writes. Beth is unemployed, but fills her day riding the public transit system in her town. The thing is, Rachel hasn't spent much time with Beth in recent years because dealing with Beth's developmental disability frustrates Rachel and the rest of her family. Beth has mild mental retardation and refuses to work; she'd rather ride the buses and chat with the drivers. Rachel promises Beth to ride the buses with her for one year. In that time, Rachel learns that not all the bus drivers are kind, but that Beth managed to meet the best ones; the ones that Rachel calls professors or philosophers. In the end, after many months of trying experiences, Rachel gains some measure of peace with her relationship with Beth after she determines that the drivers provide a network of support. The writing is good, and Rachel doesn't gloss over the bumps in her and Beth's relationship. She shares her failure to understand whether Beth's inability to open her mind to new things is because of her brain or if it's just Beth's personality. But then, she really doesn't understand developmental disabilities, either. But, she reads and researches and asks Beth's case workers for advice in the best way to deal with Beth.

Lost in the forest is the first Sue Miller book I've read. It was strangely satisfying, but then after finishing it, I was grumpy. Maybe it was me. The book is set in Napa Valley and the reader learns the story from several perspectives. Eva is the mother in the book and she owns a lovely bookstore. Mark is Eva's ex and father of Eva's two daughters Emily and Daisy. The story's perspective bounces between Eva and Mark and Daisy, the tall, gawky fifteen year-old who is coming into her own. The trouble starts when Eva's second husband John dies. The girls, and their half-brother Theo, move in with Mark for a few days. The book doesn't completely focus on Daisy's problems, though her love affair with an inappropriate man provides the major conflict. Throughout the book, the reader learns each character's difficulties, thus making it fully fleshed out story. The end was a bit disappointing. It should have ended; there was no need for anything more. But the last chapter, sort of wrapped things up; caught the reader up with how the characters' lives evolved and where they were now.

Now I'm in the last third of A trip to the beach: Living on island time in the Caribbean. Bob and Melanie fell in love with Anguilla and dreamed of opening a beach shack where they could make their living selling beer and burgers to tourists. Instead, they ended up opening a something-star restaurant when the fellow they're leasing from demands $2K a month in rent. The book reinforces the concept of island time: the unhurried lifestyle that the Anguillians lead. Bob and Melanie's plans are thwarted again and again by the limited supplies of lumber and industrial kitchen equipment, food, and plants on the island. They travel to St. Martin and eventually to Miami for everything. Finally, the restaurant is open and a huge success. Mel shares several of her recipes in the book. The emphasis on food is fabulous. Who knows what will happen next?

Thursday, July 14, 2005
into a book grumpily

Instead of toying with the idea of writing a memoir of my life on an Alaskan island, I may start writing. My horoscope this morning leads me in that direction: An archaeologist found 2,000-year-old date seeds in an excavation at King Herod's palace on Israel's Mount Masada. He brought them back to a lab at his university and left them in a drawer. They eventually caught the attention of botanist Elaine Solowey, who decided to see if they'd grow. Seven months later, one plant was over a foot tall and had six healthy leaves. An ancient seed, lifeless for so long, had bloomed. I foresee a comparable development in your life, Leo: You will retrieve a dormant kernel or fading ember from the past and bring it to vibrant life. After all, the world doesn't have enough memoirs already.

I've never had a love-hate relationship with reading; it's mostly all love. But, I tell you, it seems that I cannot connect with the right book. It's unfair to books, and their writers, when I'm disappointed because they don't write the book I hoped for. This is the case with Into a Paris quartier. It's perfectly lovely, filled with history and architecture and culture. I hoped for more anecdote. My eyes widen when a sentence or two of anecdote swims to the surface. Basically, Johnson writes about the history of St.-Germain; its founders, its denizens, its streets. The other thing is that I haven't visited Paris in almost two decades. I have no point of reference for the landmarks she writes about. This book might be better if consulted while actually in Paris.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005
hitting bottom

My interest in reading plummeted. It was that Merde book that did it. But, I decided to leave it for now and start anew on something else: Diane Johnson's Into a Paris quartier. It is not fiction; its dewey number is 944.361.

Friday, July 8, 2005
mostly about writing

The fabulous fiction edition of the Atlantic is out now. Lots of stories look appealing, plus there are essays by writers on the writing life. One called "The Perils of Literary Success" is by Curtis Sittenfield whose book Prep launched her career: Over the next several weeks Prep became a New York Times best seller, Paramount Pictures optioned the movie rights, and foreign rights were sold in thirteen countries.

Mary Gordon weighs in on moral fiction, saying that it morality is complex and that folks who care about serious fiction are "...drastically marginal in the culture in which we live." She blames technology for putting us/them on the edge. Morality is boring. It spawns good works, but no artistry or creativity. But, Gordon writes, our culture chooses beauty over goodness.

And then, my favorite Rick Moody contributes an essay called "Writers and Mentors." He writes about studying under Angela Carter and others. Carter guided his reading by suggesting that he try Jean Genet's The thief's journal, William Burroughs' s Naked lunch, and "everything by Bruno Schulz." Then he talks about the MFA program he attended at Columbia, which was quite interesting. And then he suggests ideas for the reform of writing workshops and MFA programs.

I'll have to read the stories later, when I have time. Will probably find a copy of the magazine in print because that's my reading preference. Reading online is ...dreary and deadening to the soul. Well, to my soul.

LA Weekly has an interview with the author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I've requested that my library buy.

In the world of prizes for writers, artists, etc. women get short shrift and are overlooked as men take all the booty. Also, books written by men are less intimate than those written by women. "Men's texts referred typically to sex, exteriors, violence, work and tools. Women's texts referred typically to relationships, interior, clothing, children. Women inside. Men outside."

Last night after succumbing to a few hours of the television I gladly turned to A year in the merde, one of the latest memoirs on living in Paris. Strangely, it has its own wikipeida entry. I'm confused. I've only ever seen this book in the travel sections of bookstores, so what I thought was a memoir is actually fiction. I'm disappointed and not amused. Merde=shit. Much of what Paul West, the Brit who works in Paris for a year, complains about it the copious amount of dog shit that litters the streets. Invariably, he steps in it every time. It's quite witty. I liked the part where he learns that the best way to deal with the French is to quit smiling. If you smile all the time, the French believe that you are retarded. Also, he learns to stop being nice. French waiters and his underlings at work respond better to nastiness. The revelation that the book is fiction will likely change my approach to reading the book. I feel incredibly stupid. Somehow I didn't realize that the author's name and the character's name are not the same. It's been a tiring week and clutter is piling up. I'm not at my best.

Thursday, July 7, 2005
beans, drugs, rock n roll, & Beijing

Ooopsie. Several books appear on shelves with the same cover; same stock photography that is. That's worse than arriving at a party to find someone wearing the same dress because it's so permanent.

I forgot to mention one highly irritating thing about Back from the land: The use of Bean boots. Everybody wore boots from L.L. Bean. Most occasions wherein the author, or folks she knew, dealt with work or weather, those Bean boots were there, snuggling their feet. If I'd had it in me, I would have counted the number of times it appeared in the text, but after a while, I tried to skim over the B-word. I estimate that it popped up a dozen or so times, and that was far too many Beans for me. Perhaps the 1970s was a time when Bean items were uncommon and that is why the author found them so remarkable.

Natasha and other stories was something I picked off the new books shelf at the public library and took home. The collection was quite good; satisfying even, in a way that many short stories I've read fail to satisfy. All the stories share the same protagonist, same point of view. It reads almost like a novel, a coming-of-age novel, with the reader meeting Mark at a tender age; six or seven or eight, and ending at a future point in his thirties? My favorite chapter/story is the title one, "Natasha." It's the only one from Mark's teen years and its filled with sex and drugs, no rock and roll. Mark and his family are Jewish immigrants to Toronto from Latvia. His uncle finds a mail-order bride from Moscow and she arrive with fourteen year old daughter Natasha in tow. Mark's mother makes him befriend her, and they spend lots of time on beanbags in his darkened basement. She's a former teen-porn star. You can see how things might go from there. Another favorite is "Minyan" which takes place at a B'nai Brith retirement facility and centers around Mark's visitation to his grandfather after his grandmother passes. The synagogue at the facility regularly fails to have enough male attendants for minyan. Mark meets two old guys who live together; share the same one-bedroom apartment. Many of the residents are horrified by that. There's more, but I don't want to spoil its ending. What I liked about the stories is that they were short and to the point and that the dialogue was sparse and didn't get in the way of the narrator's story. After I finished each story, I knew what happened and how it affected Mark. That's not always the case with some of the more obtuse, "literary" short stories that when I finish reading I'm left wondering what even happened, what the point of the story was.

At least three of the last four books I've read were by Jewish writers. I'm pondering whether I'm drawn to Jewish writers or if there are simply more Jewish writers than any other kind of writer out there. I don't expect an answer or a resolution, it's merely an observation.

Last week I bought Foreign babes in Beijing: Behind the scenes of new China. I forget how I read or heard about it. But I put it in my B&N basket online but didn't buy it. I found it locally at my regular bookstore, then sat and read the first dozen pages to determine whether I connected with the writer. I did. I'm anxious to read it, but I have too many other obligations; library books almost due that I should speed-read first. Sigh, what is this duty I feel for library books when I have plenty of lovely unread books of my own to read?

Wednesday, July 6, 2005
out damned spot

Reading Back from the land was not as much fun as I hoped it would be. Loads of information in there about the hippies who dropped out of society to live a better, more natural life, but I'm not sure I liked its arrangement. It is part memoir, part anecdote from the author's cohort of back-to-the-landers, and part sociopolitical commentary. It was well-rounded, for sure, and it probably accomplished what the author set out to do. Mostly, I was impatient. I understood all of the sociopolitical set up, so I was more interested in memoir, and really the book's thesis, why they left the land. It's an excellent book on the 1970s back to the land movement though. Agnew's research is great and she quotes from standard and non-standard sources and provides notes in the back. A bibliography would have pleased me to no end. She traced the history of the back to the land movement to the Nearings, which I had some knowledge of. As I read, I criticized her for lack of gender, race, and class analysis. But, then she slipped in a bit of class analysis in the poverty chapter and that made me happy. She talked about how Dorothy Alison's experience of poverty was much different from the "voluntary poverty" of the back-to-the-landers. It helped if you had a bit of a nest-egg when you went to the land because you could live there longer. Many of the folks were too idealistic, imagining that they could live off the grid, out of the capitalistic system, etc. But then most men and women ended up "working out" at minimum wage jobs in rural areas where there was no other kind of work. And most of these folks were highly educated and gave up great-paying jobs with benefits to move to the country. However, she glossed over what I consider the main issue of the back to the land movement: Gender. She wrote about how women got stuck doing all the nasty chores like emptying the piss bucket, scrubbing the laundry, spending three hours making a small amount of ketchup "naturally" when it sold for 75 cents at the grocery (quite a waste of woman's labor). And most of the women gave it up because it was not their dream and their liberal hippy husbands/partners just didn't get it. So, lots of anecdotes about the rough work, but no analysis of how it was gendered work and why the labor was not distributed equally. So why did they go back? It was too much work; too much constant struggle for survival. There was no time to enjoy the peace because of physical exhaustion. It was too isolated; they missed culture and being connected to others. They learned that they could not escape from the real world of capitalism. Many returned to the RW and entered academia. Three women who shared their stories were librarians. Many of the others were artists, crafts folk, writers, poets, architects, cooks, etc.

Wonder spot was particularly brilliant. The writing was excellent, seamless. I could not put it down, although I did once or twice to visit the bathroom. I'm not sure if its a collection of linked stories, or a novel. But, I don't have to define it to enjoy it. Banks's first book, Girls guide to hunting and fishing, was over-rated in my estimation; it didn't particularly appeal to me but was notable for heralding the chick lit genre, of which I am not enamored .Wonder spot was wonderful, if you like coming of age stories, which are almost my favorite kind among them all. It follows Sophie Applebaum from age 12 or 13 until she's in her 30s or 40s; I wasn't quite clear. It chronicles her relationships with friends, siblings, brothers, family members, and boyfriends. First we're with her in each of her excruciating Hebrew classes which she escapes to smoke cigarettes with one of the "Foxes," a formerly-cool girl from her elementary school. The chapters skip a few years, monumental years and relationships, but not to worry, it's still captured my interest. My favorite chapter was called Teen something. Sophie takes a painting class at the New School and meets the fabulous Bobby Guest. She characterizes their rapport as junior high but they're both in their thirties. That chapter's energy was palpable. The characters were believable and easy to love or hate. Sophie's quest for love relationships was uninspired as a plot device, but what else can one expect from our culture/society? That's just the way of things; women pursue love, men pursue careers. Our literature reflects those choices.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005
water water everywhere

With all the time I spent crossing the Mississippi last month, I'm astonished that I heard nothing about John Wray's fabulous PR stunt. He built a raft and floated down the Mississippi for several weeks. Wary is a writer and he convinced Knopf to spend $5,200 for the voyage, which docked in four places for readings of his new book Canaan's Tongue. The only successful one was far off-river in Oxford, Miss. Wray and his craft-mates say the experience is glorious and incredible.

Food Inc. continued along the same neutral vein in its discussion of GMs and transgenic foods and the issues surrounding their feasibility for feeding Americans and starving Africans.The writing was good. The author made a "wait and see" sort of case, but explained how the technology can be used for good and for evil. I was pleased to be done with it though, I yearned to read something slightly more fun, less heavy.

An embarrassment of mangoes: A Caribbean interlude was just that, fun. The author and her husband quit their publishing jobs in Toronto, buy a 42-foot sloop, and sail from Maine to Trinidad. They spend about a year on the trip down and a second year for the trip north.And they spend a few months in between in Grenada. The writing is lively and the content is filled with factual and anecdotal tidbits that make the book work on many levels. The best thing about the book is that a majority of the prose is concerned with food and building relationships with Grenadines, which apparently is unusual for cruisers (who usually ignore native peoples). From almost the first few chapters, I read about soft-shell crab that the couple ate at Smith Island in Chesapeake Bay, and then there are shrimp grits, and it goes on and on like this. Much of what the couple ate is fish they caught or that others caught and sold to them boat to boat. Each chapter boasts a draw and the one that I read aloud to Ian, "That Demon Rum," featured history and anecdotes about rum distilleries. For the most part the author focused on the pleasant aspects of the trip. There were a few frightful passages and headaches with equipment failure, but I wonder if the author told us the whole story. Sometimes I wished for more and wondered why it wasn't there. However, the book is quite fat and could sustain a reader for a few days. And, the nautical terms and techniques were about right. Though I don't feel like I learned anything new in that department, it wasn't overdone and confusing like other "at sea" books I've read.





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