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My favorite things: Summer edition

Welcome to NYSummer is in full swing now, and as I sit here in shorts and a tank-top, I find it hard to believe just a few months ago I was bundled up in layer upon layer upon layer. Seasons are crazy, man. Especially when the only seasons you’ve previously known are hurricane season and not-hurricane season. (: I last did a roundup of current obsession in the dead of winter, so I figured it was high time for me to do another one.

1. The Morgan Library & Museum
Morgan LibraryOh my god, I am convinced this place was built just for me. I found out that JP Morgan — ya know, like the supah-famous banker — was a bit of a bibliophile and that nowadays his former home, library and study are a museum open to the public. And on Friday nights, you can get in for FREE-NINETY-NINE. My favorite price of admission! So of course I had to check this place out.

I was fully ready for a Beauty and the Beast-esque moment, in which I saw a glorious three-story private library filled with leather-bound, dusty tomes. But I got so, so much more out of my visit than that. First of all, the library room itself is GUH-OR-GOUS. The detail in the tapestry over the gargantuan fireplace and in the ceiling paintings is of the caliber typically reserved for cathedrals and other such places of worship. And who am I kidding? For me, visiting this library was a religious experience.

The museum is filled with exhibits about the history of the written word, including a Gutenberg Bible — Morgan owned three (!!!) — and a first edition of “The Star Spangled Banner” sheet music, complete with a typo. (Copy editors: important, since ALWAYS.) But the things that moved me most were handwritten drafts, edited galley proofs, journal entries, and personal letters from my favorite authors. The first one I saw was a draft of a Walt Whitman poem. I literally could not breathe when I saw it. I spent a whole semester in college studying Whitman, and to be less than a foot away from a piece of paper he touched was just too much.

I also saw scribbles from the likes of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and more! I thought my heart was going to explode, I really did. (Hello, Nerdiest Fangirl Ever, Party of One.) The thing that touched me the most about these artifacts were seeing how many revisions and insecurities these now-renowned writers had about their work. We like to think of genius as a gift, of something easy and lucky. But so many of the Great Literary Masterpieces are the product of So. Much. Hard. Work. I was completely floored.

The piece at the museum that was most memorable to me, however, was a collection of fragments of Sappho’s poetry recorded on papyrus in the third century B.C. I could not move when I saw those little scraps of paper. All I could think about was how absolutely incredible it is that humans have been creating stories for much more than 2,000 years, and what’s more, they’ve been so kind as to have them written down to share with others. And I still get to participate in this great scheme of storytelling, every time I edit a Word document or lay out a page in InDesign! I am humbled and blessed and awed. Human beings are amazing.

I just stood there in awe, and this stranger next to me also totally got it and was in awe, and then finally he said, “Absolutely incredible, isn’t it?” And I used all my energy to say, “Yes. Yes, it is.” HUMAN MOMENT OF CONNECTION, RIGHT THERE. I love museums.

 

2. Stay Gold – First Aid Kit

First-Aid-Kit-band-photosI saw these two lovely, folk-singing Swedish sisters at ACL in 2010 on my 21st birthday weekend. They were one of the morning performances, meaning they were not a big deal and pretty undiscovered. Two albums and four years later, they’ve come out with “Stay Gold,” and It. Is. Fantastic. I’ve been listening to it on repeat. These ladies have always had an incredible set of harmonious vocal chords, but they’ve really matured their songwriting with their latest album.

I saw them perform at Webster Hall a month or so ago, and I was blown away by how much their stage presence has developed. Also, they are adorable. They introduce their accompanists in unison and curtsy, etc. Love them! They make me long for a sister I can record albums with.

3. Friday Night Lights

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I can’t believe I’m addicted to a TV show about a fictional high school football team. But at the same time, I totally can. Friday Night Lights is one of the best representations of Middle America I’ve ever seen. I love how Texas-centric this show is (cowboy boots, country music, BBQ, H-E-B, a Dairy Queen thinly disguised as an “Alamo Freeze”), but in so, so many ways the town of Dillon reminds me of my own hometown of Niceville. I mean, we did go to state semi-finals and finals. But in Florida, not Texas. (I sat next to our Lyla Garrity in my Algebra II class, I swear! She was dating an older guy on the football team, was on the cheerleading squad, was the perfectly adorable Christian girl-next-door type, and her dad owned all the McDonald’s in the county.) Part of the reason I never wanted to watch this show, despite both Netflix’s and friends’ recommendations, is because I went to every single home and away football game at my high school as a member of the marching band. Why would I want to watch an imaginary team play?

tumblr_le9sttBSLS1qbujvho1_400Thankfully, this show is about much more than football. My favorite character, hands down, is Tami Taylor, the coach’s wife. She is so flawless as a wife, a mother, a guidance counselor/principal, a friend, a community member, you get the idea. Connie Britton is killing it in this role. Even when Tami makes mistakes, as humans do, Connie’s performance makes me support her 112%. Also, to be honest, I love the way she talks! I wish I could call my husband “hon” and not sound like a total drag queen. Tami & Eric’s marriage is perhaps the most authentic, exemplary  marriage I’ve seen presented on TV. They have their hurdles and challenges, but they are such respectful, loving, and sacrificial partners to each other. I’m not even embarrassed to say I think that they are great role models, even though they’re not…you know…real.

On a slightly more lowbrow note, I wish someone had just said “Google image search ‘Tim Riggins'” to me about five years ago. Case. Closed. Sign me up to watch “this football show.”

tim rigginsSorry, but no one I knew in high school looked like THAT. That would be because this actor is at least five years older than me (nine, to be exact…Lawd!). Also Canadian, not Texan. Behold, the magical delusion of television!

Bonus points to Friday Night Lights for having a character go on to play for Texas A&M and for using actual Texas high school football footage as B-roll. One of my college friends (who, I would like to note, is one of two football players I’ve known who was not a total jerk) appears in the first season this way! Whooo.

But seriously, I cry an average of 1.2493 times per episode because the writing is so good/hormones. OK, and Coach Taylor’s speeches are the real deal. (He reminds me a lot of my high school band director. And I know music programs aren’t sports, but that man would either inspire or beat perfection and ambition into us, so help us, God. There are some teachers who view what they do as a job, and a select few others who few it as a vocation. You’ll know the latter when you meet them within minutes.) Living in a ginormous city, this makes me so nostalgic for small town life, where everyone not only knows everyone, but everyone genuinely cares about everyone. And where everyone is passionate about the same thing, at least for one night a week.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t stop watching this show. TEXAS FOREVER, JAY. TEXAS FOREVER, RIGS.

I’ll stop now, I swear.

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OK, now I’m for-reals done. I swear I roll my eyes at redneck, alcoholic jocks in real life, but on TV…

 

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Good reads: Book picks from the first half of 2014

Home

Six months into the year, I finally decided to end a three-month blogging hiatus to talk about that one thing I can always, always talk about: books. At the beginning of the year, I set a goal to read 40 books in 2014, with ambitions to read longer volumes like Lonesome Dove (which, to be fair, I did read in its entirety). But with just one full day left in June, my halfway mark, I’ve read a grand total of 26!

I really need some new hobbies.

Anyway, I wanted to call out a couple of my favorite reads so far this year, one novel and one nonfiction book. Beginning with the one I just finished this afternoon.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home“Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.” –Home

I’ve had this volume sitting on my bookshelf for years now. This is a quiet, simple book that demands the reader’s full attention, so you definitely have to be in the right mood for it. But, boy, give it some time to let these characters and their troubles simmer around in your soul, and you will be pleasantly surprised by the magnitude of this story’s power.

Home is a beautiful, heart-shattering retelling of the prodigal son parable, a slow-paced domestic tale about the aging Rev. Boughton and his troubled relationship with his forever-rebellious son. Told mostly through the eyes of Glory, the minister’s middle-aged daughter who has returned home to care for her aging father after suffering a tremendous heartbreak of her own, we watch as now-grown Jack Boughton returns to the family after a painful 20-year absence, bearing the emotional and physical scars of alcoholism, a 10-year prison sentence, a history shadowed with thievery and lies, and a lifelong sense of alienation from his own family’s home and faith. Rev. Boughton loves his prodigal son deeply, despite his many misgivings — most infamously his fathering a child with a young, poor farm girl in his youth — but still struggles to accept Jack’s rejection of Christianity. In fact, it is probably Jack’s struggle to accept the idea of salvation that hurts Boughton most deeply.

The novel is also the companion piece to Robinson’s second novel, GileadHome takes place in the same small Iowa town (called Gilead), and the main characters float between that story and this one, especially the town’s two aging former ministers: Rev. Boughton and his lifelong best friend, Rev. Ames. I like that despite the obvious religious undertones in books about two preachers’ families, Robinson’s novels are never preachy. If anything, her novels are an honest depiction of faith, of its failings as well as its triumphs.

Glory, Jack, and their father shuffle slowly from scene to scene in this book, from the front porch to the parlor to the kitchen, completing tedious rural chores like weeding the vegetable garden, scrubbing down the laundry, and fixing up the run-down family car. Lighthearted moments of recreation include impromptu performances of Sunday hymns and a reasonable game of checkers. Nothing much happens. But each character carries a great deal of hidden burdens and inner turmoil as they slowly, lovingly try to piece their family back together, as well as their own dignity — before it’s too late.

This is a book with little plot, but much to reveal about humanity — about brokenness and hope, about sin and forgiveness, about regret and grace. If you trod along through this novel patiently, you will be rewarded with the best kind of weep at the end, I promise.

This author has a new novel coming out the day before my birthday this year (!!!), called Lila, about the rough upbringing and mysterious past of Rev. Ames young wife. I can’t wait to see what humble and beautiful prose Ms. Robinson has in store for us.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

Nothing to EnvyThis is an utterly gripping, terrifying nonfiction book about a real place deeply enshrouded in mystery to outsiders: North Korea. Journalist Barbara Demick follows six ordinary North Korean citizens who defect from their country, following their escape from the crushing dictatorship to the outside world.

I loved that this story reads a lot like a novel. When we are introduced to the main characters, they are young and joyfully being indoctrinated into the North Korean ideology. As their stories progress, and they begin to question everything they know — coming to some pretty shattering realizations — I got chills. Chills, I tell you!

The breadth and depth of North Korean propaganda is fascinating and eerie and horrifying all at once. It’s hard as an American to imagine a country in which the political leader goes so far as to eradicate all religions, rob such faiths of their powerful symbolism and mythologies, and utilize them to make his citizens unfailingly loyal to the state. North Koreans even refer to the current calendar year based on the birth year of Kim Il-sung. (I’m getting the chills again.) This book completely immerses the reader in that culture of utter obliviousness and forced patriotism. This is the kind of stuff I wish kids — and by “kids,” I mean high school students — were required to read in school. Totally eye-opening.

I read this after reading the novel The Orphan Master’s Son for my book club, which is a novel that takes place in North Korea and which was pretty good, especially insofar as it made me desperately curious to know more about the real North Korea. I also watched two documentaries about North Korea, National Geographic’s “Inside North Korea,” which was like a crash course to North Korea, and “A State of Mind,” which follows two North Korean schoolgirls as they prepare for their gymnastics routine in the Mass Games, the world’s largest choreographed performance held in honor of Kim Jong-Il’s birthday each year. Did I mention it’s UTTERLY TERRIFYING?

“Inside North Korea” has a whole plot line about some kind-hearted doctors giving free cataract-removal surgery to North Koreans and then they have this big “unveiling” of the newly healed eyes, and each person hysterically thanks the “Most Glorious Leader” (that’s Kim Jong-Il, in this case) for their restored vision and cries and does praise-dances like they’re a bunch of born-again Christians getting baptized in the Mississippi on an Easter Sunday. Except they’re talking about their dictator. The guy who starves them, manipulates all their media and education, and… well, there come those chills again…

Mass Games

Lots of people doing things in unison at the Mass Games to celebrate the “Most Glorious Leader.” Giving me nightmares, and stuff.

So basically I went on this really big “learn everything about North Korea” kick for a few months, and now I’ll never sleep peacefully at night again.

Sorry to end on such a depressing note. What’s your, uh, favorite uplifting read you’ve finished lately?

 

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My favorite things: Winter discoveries

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Carl Schurz Park, our neighborhood park, after a recent snowfall

After what felt like six months of winter, today it is sunny and a glorious 48 degrees outside (who would’ve thought 48 degrees could feel glorious?). We’ve started our Saturday with homemade peanut butter oatmeal banana pancakes and French press coffee, I’ve been cuddling with Ali and reading a fascinating book (Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick), and this afternoon I’m taking Charlie-dog for a walk. As it turns out though, all this time cooped up has been a good opportunity for making discoveries.

Here are a few of my favorite (new) things:

1. The ‘Before’ film trilogy (Before SunriseBefore Sunset, and Before Midnight):

Before SunriseThese are some of the most romantic films I’ve ever seen (Sean enjoyed them too! added bonus!). In Before Sunrise (1995), young 20-something American Jesse crosses paths with French college student Celine on a train crossing Europe, and the two end up spending a day and night together wandering the streets of Vienna. Most of the movie is just the two talking about everything and nothing together, and the dialogue is just fascinating. The kind of conversations you’d love to eavesdrop on the bus and would be saddened when the two got off an earlier stop than you. And the chemistry between the two is just so palpable, you’re dying to find out if they get together in the end.

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In the sequel, Before Sunset (2004), Jesse and Celine, now in their 30s, reunite in Paris for an afternoon — nearly 10 years after that fateful night in Vienna. Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke are just as wonderful together, as always.

before-midnight-1And in the final installment (although I hope it’s really not the final final installment), Before Midnight (2013), we follow Celine and Jesse, now 40-somethings, for a day in southern Greece. We just watched this one last night, and let me tell you, these movies just keep getting better and better. I won’t spoil anything about this one for anyone though. It is just such a cool idea to follow the same two characters and their changing relationship over the decades; Delphy and Hawke also helped write the scripts for the second and third films. I just love both these characters so much, and each film is a wonderful emotional journey full of comedic, poignant, and bittersweet moments. The series seems to be both answering and begging the questions: Is there such a thing as a soul mate? Or is love just a matter of chance? Are relationships dependent upon some amount of fate, or are they ultimately the product of intentional commitment?

2. Brushing up on my French on Duolingo

tumblr_n19bpkxqWP1sgr8axo1_500A few of my college friends were getting really competitive about something called “Duolingo” about a month ago, and I had no idea what they were talking about. It turns out it’s a free language learning website/app that provides free education and also harnesses brain power to translate web pages into various languages. I took the French placement test and have been hooked ever since. I don’t think it’s so good for learning a new foreign language, but it is pretty effective for review. I have bought a few French review workbooks over the past couple of years, but nothing has motivated me so much as a little friendly competition and game-like elements. Some of the sentences are laughably random though, since I’m pretty sure they’re pulled from eclectic websites. C’est la fille qui peut lire un menu. “This is the daughter who can read a menu.” Okay, then.

3. Nora Ephron’s writing

IMG_2648I can’t believe it took me approximately a half-million views of You’ve Got Mail to realize that Nora Ephron also has published collections of essays. I borrowed a copy of I Remember Nothing from the library and positively devoured it in one day. I’ve loved David Sedaris’ essays for what feels like ages, and Nora is the female equivalent of that. She had one essay, in particular, “Journalism: A Love Story,” which I really loved. She writes about her enchantment with the speed of the newsroom, and her rise from mail room clerk in an era when female college graduates were confined to the lowest ranks of news organizations, to successful byline-boasting reporter.

I feel like Nora Ephron and I could have been really good friends, despite the age difference. She writes that her ideal afternoon would be a frozen custard from Shake Shack, followed by a Lactaid, followed by a walk through Central Park. Yes, we would have gotten along just splendidly.

4. Bob Dylan

IMG_2695I’m positively dying to read Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles, Part One, but after fruitless attempts to obtain either a library or a bookstore copy, I’m settling for the lovely box set of Dylan’s records Sean bought with some of his birthday money. This is another one of those things, like Nora Ephron, that’s I’m kicking myself for taking so long to try out. I love American folk music, and Bob Dylan is one of the originals. Of course, everyone and their mother has heard a Dylan song at some point in their lives, whether they were aware of it or not, but I never really listened to it, you know? I’m considering listening to all his early stuff an education in and of itself. Major props to the movie Inside Llewyn Davis for kindling my newfound interest in Greenwich Village of the ’60s and the birth of the American folk movement.

5. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

191132747_0322_Bernadette_Where_tcm20-1862557This book was so much fun! I’ve been wanting to read it for quite some time now, after much praise among my neighborhood book club. This is the zany tale of eccentric middle-aged mother Bernadette, who lives as a practical recluse and then disappears altogether, just days before a family cruise to Antarctica, leaving her gifted 13-year-old daughter, Bee, to follow a hilarious paper trail of emails, memos, news articles, and more to find out just what happened to her mother.

The author, Maria Semple, was a writer for the TV show Arrested Development, whose quirky humor I adore, and that really shines through in this book. It also predominately takes place in Seattle, and I recognized a surprising number of restaurants, cafes, and notable places from our honeymoon there, which only added extra appeal for me. Unlike Gone Girl or some other mystery thrillers I’ve read recently, this book manages to remain lighthearted. The core story of Bee’s admiration of and loyalty to her mother, despite all of her flaws, is charming too, of course. Recommended for anyone who enjoys chortling and smiling; also good for childhood fans of Nancy Drew.

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Let’s hope that spring is just around the corner!

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It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living: Lonesome Dove

book coverI did it! I read all 950-ish pages of Larry McMurtry’s Western epic Lonesome Dove! So glad to kick that one off the bucket list.

And guys! I really, really, really enjoyed this novel. I never in 1,000 years — okay, maybe I’m being a tad dramatic — would have thought I’d enjoy an essential cowboys-versus-Indians book as much as I just did. This book was everything I had hoped Lord of the Rings would be, but just wasn’t for me (sorry): page-turning adventure, breathtaking landscape descriptions, tragic tales of lost loves, incomparable character development, and a bromance to end all bromances. Probably Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call would shoot me down if they knew I referred to their fierce loyalty and decades-long friendship as a “bromance,” but that’s what I’m gonna call it.

The plot is almost mind-boggling simple for a book of this length: two former captains of the Texas Rangers, past their heyday of driving out Mexicans and the Comanche from Texas, are running a sad cattle company in a hoinky-doink bordertown called Lonesome Dove when their old pal Jake Spoon turns up, on the run from the law in Arkansas for accidentally gunning down a man, and then plants the idea of rounding up some boys and some cattle and heading to Montana, where the land is free for the taking for those willing to brave the wild, unsettled frontier. Commence really long cross-country cattle drive.

Or as Gus puts it simply, “‘Call’s gone to round up a dern bunch of cowboys so we can head out for Montana with a dern bunch of cows and suffer for the rest of our lives.'”

Gus McCrae

Gus McCrae

Although all the gun-slinging, cattle-wrangling and prairie-traversing really did rope me in (hardy har har, see what I did there? With my cowboy-appropriate puns?), what kept me going through this brick of a book were the characters. My God, if those men didn’t feel real to me by the end. I had to stop and stare at the walls a bit in recovery when I finished, which is always a sign of a book that has taken me taken me to new places and introduced me to people that I’m not quite ready to let go of just yet.

For a very male-dominated book, as you can imagine, the female characters were so fleshed out! I loved sassy, strong-spirited Clara, and my heart broke time and time again for the beautiful, withdrawn prostitute Lorena, forever betrayed and hurt by men. All of the characters were so well-developed, you fully understood their motivations, even when they made terrible, immoral choices. I think that is a tremendous accomplishment on the author’s part.

But my absolute favorite character was Gus. He is easily one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, right up there with Atticus Finch and Harry freaking Potter. That is a pretty big deal.

I usually HATE when authors spend ages describing the geography of the characters’ surroundings (cough cough, Tolkein, I’m lookin’ at you, cough cough). But in this case, the geography was so much more than mountains or valleys or plains. The geography deeply affected the characters’ well-being, both physically and psychologically. And maybe I’m a little prone to be moved by descriptions of the American frontier than, say, Middle-earth. Speaking of which, I loved the epigraph to Lonesome Dove, especially after finishing the whole book:

“All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” -T.K. Whipple, Study Out the Land

I can tell why this novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. More so than an epic journey, it is a moving portrait of a special time in our history. Moving a bunch (and I mean a bunch) of cattle to uncharted land and battling both the elements and rightful native owners of that land was a big deal. And it makes for a gripping, memorable read.

This book made me laugh out loud in public, and also cry. And gasp. Any book that does that is more than worth your while, in my opinion. I can’t wait to watch the miniseries on Netflix!

Pro tip: The phrase “uva uvam viviendo varia fit” that is written on the sign for the Hat Creek Cattle Co. in Lonesome Dove is a butchering of the Latin for “a grape is changed by living with other grapes,” or more straightforwardly, “we are changed by those around us.” Yeah, just let that sink in for a while within the context of the story. You’re welcome.

P.S. Sean’s friend Patrick called me immediately after learning I’d finished this book to discuss it because he also loved it so much. I love that.

P.P.S. Texas forever.

lonesome dove

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Favorite nonfiction reads of 2013

I’ve read 46 books so far this year, toward my goal of 50. I’ve been challenging myself to read longer books, classics, and especially nonfiction this year, so although I don’t think I’ll reach the same book total as last year (52), I have read more pages in less time! This year I participated in two book clubs: the mail-based one with college friends and a neighborhood book and pub club, which have both motivated me to delve into titles I might not otherwise choose on my own.

My main reading goal this year was to read 20 nonfiction books, and I’ve read 18 so far! I haven’t been a big nonfiction reader since high school and college required textbooks made nonfiction seem dull and tedious, although I have remained quite the news junkie and a devoted subscriber to various newspapers and magazines. Not to mention that my entire career revolves around nonfiction!

This year I discovered some truly great nonfiction reads: gripping, moving, inspiring, well-written stories that resonate all the more because they are true. I’ve learned about things I would have never imagined: the astronaut selection process, the intricacies of mountaineering, the social strata of Mumbai slums, the symbolism of street art, the security levels in mental hospital wards. I got a lot of suggestions from the book The New New Journalism, which is an anthology of interviews with contemporary non-fiction writers about their research and writing processes. Highly recommended for writers and readers alike.

Here are my five favorites from this year:

1. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in The Bronx by Adrian LeBlanc

510TA2HMBJLWow. I cannot say enough good things about this incredible family saga. This is the kind of book that sinks into your skin and stays with you for a very long time after. Random Family is the sprawling tale of three generations of a Puerto Rican family and their intertwining stories as they navigate all of life’s triumphs and obstacles in the South Bronx, one of the nation’s most notoriously rough urban neighborhoods. This book reveals a hidden world of gang culture, state prisons, drug rings and addictions, the welfare and food stamp system, teen pregnancy, and all other intricacies of poverty…right here in New York City.

LeBlanc won all sorts of journalism awards for this work, and with good reason. The portraits of her characters are rich and honest: I found myself rooting for somewhat naive, optimistic teenage Coco and her various children, clinging to every hope that they would just survive. But some of the other characters I absolutely loathed. Yes, there are welfare queens and crack addicts in this book, but there are also just people. It helps the reader understand the crippling hopelessness and insurmountable challenges of poverty in a way that mere statistics and headlines can’t capture. I raced through this book in three days and didn’t want to let go…and I still can’t, really. Read more about Random Family here.

(P.S. The New York Times just published an absolutely wonderfully written, LENGTHY expose on the current state of homeless children in the city, focusing on a portrait of one girl, Dasani, and her family. It’s like a crash course for Random Family. Check it out here. Hope for print journalism!)

2. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

emperor-of-all-maladiesConfession: I’ve never been that interested in science. It has never fascinated or enthralled me the way it has a number of my peers. But I think if a book like Emperor of All Maladies had existed when I was studying, say, high school biology, my entire outlook would have been transformed for the better.

This is an incredible feat of historical and scientific research: a massive biopic of cancer from its first recorded victims, throughout the constant battle for a cure, to modern-day medicine’s astonishing abilities — and shortcomings. What I loved about this book is that it wasn’t just about the development of chemotherapy or experiments conducted on childhood leukemia victims, it also analyzed the intersection of the disease with culture. Mukherjee, an oncologist himself, delves into the origins of cancer’s first poster child, the foundation of the American Cancer Society, the explosion of fundraising for breast cancer research. It is all truly, truly fascinating. A book for everyone because I am certain that everyone has had their life impacted by cancer, in one way or another. Read more here.

3. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

220px-DWCityI love books that focus entirely on one specific moment in history and really dig deep into the details. This book juxtaposes the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect in charge of constructing the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, and H.H. Holmes, America’s first known serial killer. The biographies intersect only slightly — Holmes constructs a “murder hotel” to lure in his victims who are visiting the nearby World’s Fair — so the construction of the book is a little odd, but as Larson explains, he chose these two contrasting stories to highlight the stark contrast in how men choose to live their lives. There are men who live to illuminate the world (literally, in Burnham’s case) by sharing their genius, and there are men who live only to bring darkness and death.

The H.H. Holmes chapters were obviously edge-of-your-seat material, and the kind of thing that infiltrated my nightmares for a bit after, but I really enjoyed the World’s Fair bits, too. Burnham and his team — which included Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius who gave us Central Park in New York — were racing against the clock, limited resources, an uncooperative climate and landscape to construct a miniature city so magnificent and inspiring that it would put all the nay-sayers in NYC and D.C. (two much more developed and reputable American cities at the time) to shame. A treat for all history buffs. Read more here.

4. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

urlI wrote a lengthy post about this book earlier this year after reading it. I would still heartily recommend it. So, so, so powerful. After you read it, watch this CBS story about Louis Zamperini, see what a humble and grateful man he is and his relationship with the author of his biography, and cry all over again. GAH.

You will have a lot of feels from reading this book, but the good feels outweigh the bad ones, I promise. Zamperini is incredible, his story is incredible, this book is incredibly put together and well-researched. It has also sparked my interest in reading Seabiscuit (Hillenbrand’s other bestseller) and other military nonfiction, like Flags of Our Fathers, which is awaiting me on my bookshelf. Check out Unbroken here.

5. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

urlThis darling little gem is a must for book lovers! This is the record of letter-based correspondence between Ms. Helene Hanff of New York, an avid reader, and stodgy bookshop employee Frank Doel of London that begins as purely business relationship and blooms into a charming long-distance, long-lasting friendship. (Warning: Quite a bittersweet ending.) It’s almost too whimsically wonderful to be true. Check it out here.

What are your favorite non-fiction reads?

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Honeysuckle and Dirty Drawers: ‘The Sound and the Fury’

It’s been a busy summer, full of many happy things, but especially books. When the humidity and oppressive heat and pestering mosquitoes roll in, I can’t help but want to dive into some Southern lit and hear the drawled out vowels lift themselves from the pages.

This summer I finally conquered Gone With the Wind (final thoughts: glad to cross it off the list, but ehhhh) and re-read Flannery O’Connor’s delightfully dark collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find (highly recommend). I guess I’m just more of a Southern Gothic than magnolias-and-moonlight kind of girl.

Eden Gardens State Park 018

Confession: Every time I read a Southern Gothic book, this is the setting I visualize: this is an old home near my hometown in Florida, and is now part of a state park (Eden Gardens in Santa Rosa Beach). I mean, just look at this property!

Eden Gardens State Park 009

There’s just something about the racism, the crippling weight of tradition, the sweltering heat, and the unwavering pride that makes for some wonderfully brooding, depressing reading.

And nothing embodies that more than this book:

sound_and_the_furyI’ve read a lot of Faulkner before — his short stories, As I Lay Dying (multiple times), Light in August (and wrote an in-depth analysis on unwed, pregnant Lena Grove I’m awfully proud of), and Go Down, Moses. These things happen when you go through your high school and college education in the South, and opt to take an honors-level Southern Lit class.

But somehow I’d never delved into that novel for which Faulkner is most known, his “magnum opus” if you will, The Sound and The Fury. I kept seeing it pop up on “100 greatest novels of all time” types of lists, like the one compiled by the Modern LibaryThe Sound and the Fury is No. 6, and I’d read all of the books above it except No. 1, James Joyce’s Ulysses, which even I, a prolific reader, am quite intimidated by.

The most I knew about this book previously was the title was inspired by that quote from Shakespeare (Macbeth, I believe):

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

So I started reading the Faulkner book, and get this: the first chapter is from the point of view of a 30-year-old mentally challenged man. It literally begins with a tale told by “an idiot.” This first chapter (of four) was my absolute favorite. Because Benjy, “the man-child,” has no concept of time, he flows through various memories, sometimes shifting time periods mid-sentence, as various sensory cues in his present-day environment — and later, visual images in his memories — bring other related memories back to the surface.

Like I said, I’ve read Faulkner before, but nothing like that. It was simultaneously very frustrating and deeply engrossing. Even though this chapter doesn’t make full sense until the reader progresses through the remainder of the novel and its other three perspectives, you instantly are overwhelmed with a sense of despair and hopelessness that continues throughout the book. Benjy is constantly wailing, and someone is always telling him to hush. At some point, you feel like you kind of need to wail in pain, too.

With patience and concentration, the puzzle pieces of the story fall together. (I once heard someone say everyone tells you Faulkner is like a puzzle missing a few pieces, but they believe it’s more like a complete puzzle, just with a completely different picture than you thought you were laboring over.) On one level, this is the story of the gradual decay and decline of a great “noble” Southern family in the grueling post-Civil War years. Surprise, surprise there, I know.

But I think on a greater level, this story is applicable to all of mankind as we become slaves to our own selfishness and that greatest, most heartless master of all, Time:

“A man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired but then time is your misfortune.” –The Sound and the Fury

I don’t want to give too much away, but I was describing it to Sean and said, “It’s got everything depressing you can imagine — depression, alcoholism, suicide, bankruptcy, gambling, sexual promiscuity, illegitimate children, divorce, implied incest, castration, racism, mental retardation, you name it. And it’s amazing.”

I mean, there’s a part where the smell of honeysuckles is mentioned again and again in a very choking sense (“Liquid putrefaction like drowned things floating like pale rubber flabbily filled getting the odor of honeysuckle all mixed up … I had to pant to get any air at all out of that thick gray honeysuckle … Honeysuckle was the saddest odor of all, I think”). I mean, you could write a whole essay on the honeysuckle imagery in Quentin’s neurotic, pre-suicide chapter! English major alert, over here.

You could also write many papers about how the brothers’ glimpse of their sister Caddy’s dirty drawers in the childhood memory from the first chapter is incredible foreboding for her later promiscuity and the family’s corrosion. Not that I’d want to write a paper, buuuut my brain thinks these ways, unfortunately.

Anyway, this is just to say that The Sound and the Fury is well-worth its acclaim as a modern American classic. And it is definitively a part of the American South canon. It’s a book that demands to be read and re-read, processed, digested, manipulated.

But like I said, I’m a sucker for Southern Gothic. Sean’s waiting for me to just go ahead and get my PhD in the subject.

southern litP.S. Have you seen the trailer for James Franco’s attempt at translating As I Lay Dying to film? I’m a little wary, but I’ll probably watch it anyway, having read the book at least four times.

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Being an author groupie: David Sedaris love

Hello, dear blog. How I have neglected thee. Let’s talk about one of my favorite semi-famous people.

David Sedaris

This evening I was re-reading one of my favorite David Sedaris’ books, Me Talk Pretty One Day, the copy of which is on loan to me via Lech-brary (my “book club” of sorts with college friends via snail mail) from my friend Amanda, who accompanied me the first time I got to meet David Sedaris. And then I realized I was using the same bookmark I’ve been using for the past month — a bookmark advertising an Evening with David Sedaris at Carnegie Hall — that David Sedaris himself placed in my copy of his latest work, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, when I went to see him a second time for his Brooklyn book signing last month.

cear_sedaris_01_h

Oh, and that Carnegie Hall event? I’m going to that too, thanks to Sean surprising me with tickets (that were supposed to be for my birthday, which is why I’m no longer allowed to open the mail). Is it possible to be an author groupie?

I have loved David Sedaris since I was in high school, when we read one of his essays in AP English. Being a nerd, I immediately checked out every book of his they had at our local public library. I fell in love. Such intelligent humor, such astute observations, such thought-provoking musings, all neatly wrapped up in short essays you can devour in under 15 minutes a piece.

People often ask me if I think I’d ever write a book. (Yes, really. It always makes me feel flustered and slack-jawed.) And if I ever did, it would be something along the lines of what Sedaris writes. I would never, ever, ever attempt to duplicate the craft he has so trademarked and mastered, but what he writes about — his life, real characters, everyday trials and emotions — that’s what captivates me. That’s what I know I can capture on a page. It’s like journalism, only you’re allowed to say when certain kinds of people annoy you, haha.

The first time I met David (we’re tooootally on a first-name basis now, of course), I was most awkward. This was my senior year of college, and I skipped an afternoon class and switched out of my college newspaper duties to drive with Amanda down to Houston for that night’s event. We got to the theater hall reeeeally early, and quickly realized we were BY FAR the youngest people there. But it didn’t matter because just there was David Sedaris, the man who had so wittily narrated the stories I loved, who had made me laugh out loud in public on the bus, who inspired me to write about the everyday book-worthy stories happening all around us everywhere we look and go.

At this particular event, he was offering each guest either a dirty or clean joke. I opted for clean. “Didya hear the one about the corduroy pillows?” he asked, while drawing a sketch of wart-nosed witch in my copy of When You Are Engulfed in Flames with Sharpie.

“Um,” was my oh-so-charming response.

“They made headlines.”

Signed books swag.

Signed books swag.

Amanda burst out laughing, probably because I failed to laugh, too busy sweating profusely and trying not to gush out excessive praise to this stranger. Only later would I realize the irony of the joke, unbeknownst to Sedaris, as I would spend the next two years of my life writing headlines as a reporter and copy editor. (Not making them, thankfully.) If anyone should get and appreciate a good headline pun, IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME.

This second time around, in Brooklyn’s tech-hip DUMBO neighborhood, I was going to play it cool. Even though I went alone, everything seemed to be going better. The crowd was mostly 20- and 30-somethings in jeans and thrift store sneakers. David engaged the audience in a gut-busting Q&A (“Did you ever draw or write anything in someone’s book at a signing that they didn’t like?”), read a poignant and hilarious chapter out of his new book about airplane travel and the limbo of airports, and shared some snippets of his diary entries from his worldwide tour.

Then I waited in line for more than two hours to meet a man I had already embarrassed myself in front of.

When I finally stood before him, he was eating a salad for a very late lunch and held up a Saran-wrapped deli cookie. “Are you hungry? Would you like my cookie?”

OH MY GOD, DAVID SEDARIS, YOU CANNOT OFFER ME YOUR COOKIE.

I will take that cookie home and keep it for decades until it is an archaic rock, and I will be the weirdo who brings it out when I have guests. “See this?” I’ll croon, gently stroking its stale, moldy surface. “This baked good was given to me personally by THE David Sedaris, most esteemed author of our present time. In my most authoritative opinion.”

Not a pretty picture.

“No, I’m fine,” I lied, praying my stomach didn’t growl audibly in the next five minutes.

Here’s the thing: David Sedaris spends at least five minutes with every. single. one. of his event attendees. Hence, the two-hour wait. But those five minutes are so, so worth it because he makes you feel like you matter. And the thing is, you really do matter to him, because these days he gets a lot of his writing material from the people he meets while traveling. He otherwise lives a fairly isolated life with his life partner in a tiny “hamlet” in southern England.

On this occasion, he talked to me about why he likes going to Le Pain Quotidian (because their oatmeal is excellent and you get to sit at a large table with strangers) and whether I was going to read his book or the one I was already reading (The Great Gatsby) on the train ride back to the Upper East Side.

I’m pretty sure after he meets me a third time at Carnegie Hall, we’ll basically be besties. (:

I highly recommend any of Sedaris’ books. My personal favorites are Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and When You Are Engulfed in Flames. And listening to him narrate his “Santaland Diaries” — the tale of his days as one of Santa’s elves at Macy’s flagship NYC store, made famous on NPR’s “This American Life” — has become a holiday tradition for me.

Here’s a fun interview from May that David Sedaris did with Jon Stewart, in which he talks about his hilarious book tour experiences:

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