Tag Archives: reading

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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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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Life, lately [picture post]

People can bash smartphone cameras and Instagram all they want, but it allows me to capture all those little private moments I truly savor and want to remember — the satisfaction of whipping up a delicious new recipe, the pleasure of updating a house style/grammar guide (oh, that’s just me?), the colors of fallen autumn leaves beneath my feet, the book quote that made me catch my breath. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

So here’s my life from mid-October to the present.

Traveling:

cali
Tacos, avocados everything, endless coastlines, sunshine rays, sunglasses, sunscreen, sundresses. California is good for the soul. I also befriended a cat, a dog, and a couple of horses.

sputnik

Commuting:

IMG_2052My first Monday back from our West Coast Trip, I waited for the fifth train to get home because they were all so packed. I kept going up and down from the local platform to the express. An exercise in patience.

Working:

IMG_2055“Touchscreen” is one word, kids. “Selfie” is the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year. Aren’t you glad there are people out there like me who care about these things? Grammar Queen status!

Concerting:

IMG_2076A year ago, the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit gave me the best 23rd birthday present a girl could ask for: the best concert ever. EVER. You can’t recreate the crowd and the interaction with the band of that night. Trust me, we’ve tried. We went to our fourth FR concert a few weeks ago. Always a wonderful show, but never as magical as my 23rd birthday. I still listen to their music basically every day. Check these guys out:

Leaf-ing:

IMG_2110Best season of the year! My birthday! Pumpkin everything! Leaves! Boots! Scarves! Sweater weather! Halloween! Thanksgiving! Don’t even try to argue with me.

Cheering:

IMG_2117…on the marathon runners, of course! Human beings are amazing.

Volunteering:

kismetI’m still volunteering with Anjellicle Cats Rescue, and loving it. I have made a number of sweet friends through this organization, and not just the feline kind!

IMG_2131I also started volunteering with a second group, PAWS NY (Pets Are Wonderful Support), which I actually found out about through a fellow rescue cat volunteer! This group provides free pet care to elderly and/or disabled NYC residents who are in financial need. This way, they can maintain the wonderfully beneficial bond with their pet. I’ve been walking little Charlie here, for a sweet lady and her bedridden sister who live a couple of blocks away. I’m becoming a dog person! What is happening?

Ali-stalking:

IMG_2080Because you didn’t really think I’d forget about my No. 1 fur baby, could you?

Discovering:

IMG_2142Serendipity is stumbling across the Breakfast At Tiffany’s apartment building on a stroll around the neighborhood. This, after stumbling across Cafe Lallo (yes, the one in You’ve Got Mail) in the Upper West Side the night before.

Exploring:

IMG_2109I wish I could live in Central Park. As long as Ali could come with me.

Holiday-ing:

IMG_2181Too soon, Tiffany’s. Too soon.

Reading:

No pictures for this one. But I do have recommendations! The Art of Racing in the Rain (for animal lovers), Bel Canto (for music lovers), and The Night Circus (for escapists). Currently exploring Mount Everest with Into Thin Air, to up my nonfiction ante.

Onwards to the next adventure! Tomorrow is a post-work happy hour with office friends, and Wednesday is “An Evening with David Sedaris” at Carnegie Hall. Thursday is rescue cats because I have to keep my coolness-to-nerdiness ratio in check.

IMG_2189

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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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Oh well, whatever, nevermind: Kurt Cobain obsession

I have this problem. Every now then I become obsessed with something, and then I have to know everything about it. Sometimes this works out in my favor, like when I was younger and wanted to learn EVERYTHING about Helen Keller after watching a PBS show about her and then got to write a report on her life for school.

I also went through a really intense Harry Potter phase (and by “phase,” I mean 6th grade through the present time, when I still like to relate everything in real life to a fictional wizarding world) and another phase in elementary school where I checked out every book on different breeds of dogs and cats and how to care for them. I was convinced I would become a veterinarian because of this. (When it turned out I feel faint at the sight of my own blood, I decided to turn this obsession with facts and knowledge into a more-fitting journalism career.)

What’s my latest obsession? I guess I gave this one away in the post title, but it’s Kurt Cobain. Kurt Cobain, as in the junkie lead singer of Nirvana. I know, right? So random. I was a toddler at the height of Nirvana’s musical career.

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But at the same time, it’s not so random. Sean had a poster of Kurt up in his dorm room for at least the first couple years we were dating, and included Nirvana’s cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” from their MTV Unplugged special on his very first mix CD to me. Like everyone else on the planet, I had seen the iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, with its anarchist cheerleaders and plaid-wearing rebellious teens.

To clarify, by “obsession,” I don’t mean that I am in love with Kurt (weird posthumous crush) or idolize him as a person. I don’t even think he’s a good role model, overall. But there are things I admire about him and his legacy. Mainly, I am fascinated by him.

I think obsession really took hold on our honeymoon in Seattle. We spent a good part of a day at the Experience Music Project, a museum known for its extensive Nirvana exhibit. We both love music, Sean had that Kurt Cobain poster; it only seemed fitting.

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The guitar Kurt Cobain played in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video at the Experience Music Project.

I absolutely devoured that exhibit. I read every plaque, every caption, and gobbled up Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl’s commentary on the iPod mini commentary we shelled out extra money for. My eyes were totally opened to the profound impact Nirvana and the Northwest underground music scene’s impact on the music industry. Since I was old enough to care about what music I listened to, I’ve been a diehard supporter of indie bands on indie labels. I firmly believe that that is where real, raw, honest music is made by talented people who are not slaves to the Top 40 charts and the mass-marketing of corporate labels. Learning about the DIY fanzines of Seattle during the emergence of the grunge scene and about how Kurt made his own Sharpie-scrawled T-shirts in support of favorite bands like Mudhoney and The Melvins warmed my heart.

But as I’m sure you know, everyone has heard of Nirvana. Indie darlings they are not. Some may call them sell-outs. That’s what’s so incredible about them. They might not have been the most talented, best band ever, but for whatever reason, they blew up the music charts with music that was too messy, too obscure compared with the pop favorites of the time. They proved that people, especially young people, can recognize real passion and talent when they encounter it. I mean, “Nevermind” beat out Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous.” That is a HUGE deal. And you get to see things like that with bands like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons passing up autotuned Katy Perry and her merry clan of bubblegum pop clones.

I left the museum with a new and profound respect for Kurt Cobain and his fellow Nirvana bandmates. I realized I listen to several bands off the Sub Pop (short for “Subterranean Pop”) label — like Death Cab for Cutie and Iron & Wine — the very label Nirvana got started with, for years.

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Shortly after we got home from our Pacific Northwest trip, I sped through the Nirvana biography The Chosen Rejects. It wasn’t great, but it was a great crash-course for a newbie like me.

And then last week, I buckled down and read the 400+ page definitive biography of Kurt Cobain, Charles R. Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven.

Oh my word. I am so haunted by this story.

a4d4f3f38440508402ca704205ee8058I know that everything in that book had to be approved by Courtney Love, Kurt’s widow, who is kind of insane, but still. I couldn’t help but be sucked into the story of this sort of antihero, the loser who played his guitar endlessly, eventually destroyed his life and fame with drugs, and blamed everything on his parents’ divorce and criticism of him as a child.

There is a lot of darkness in this book, to be certain. It was emotionally difficult to get through at times. Like when Kurt learns Courtney is pregnant, and fears because they were both doing heroin at the time of the baby’s conception, she will be born a “flipper baby” — a birth defect in which an infant is born without arms, something Kurt was obsessed with sketching in his personal journals. Did you know Kurt spend several years living off and on out of his car because he couldn’t even get a job hosing down dog kennels? The first time a Nirvana song was every played on the radio — a college station — he personally dropped off the demo disc and called in a few hours later to anonymously request the single.

I seriously can’t get this book out of my head. It’s not that the writing is truly exceptional — personally, most rock ‘n roll journalism is on par with that of sports coverage — but there are so many details and quotes you get the idea that this was really someone’s life. And it’s hard to let that go.

So even though I was 5 years old when Kurt Cobain took his own life (although some conspiracy theorists will claim Courtney hired a hit-man to murder Kurt), I can’t help but wonder if something could have been done to save this troubled man. Also, how weird is it I read this book during the week of the 19th anniversary of Kurt’s death? Of all the other weeks…

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At least we’ll always have the music. Nirvana’s — and all the underground classics in the making that came after. Here’s my current favorite Nirvana song.

Next I’ll have to tackle Bob Spitz’ massive biography of The Beatles, Sean’s current obsession. (:

P.S. We have the DVD of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance sitting on our bookshelf, and I can’t wait to watch it. I already watched a Netflix documentary about the making of “Nevermind.” Like I said: I am a girl obsessed.

P.P.S. A Nirvana interview at the MTV Music Awards. Love it. “I’ve already won two of these things so far, and I’ve got three toilets. And I’ve got two in each toilet. So now that I’ve won a third, they all match.”

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