Saturday, December 13, 2008


I love to read the obituaries. For obvious reasons, they are an important vehicle to knowing what is going on in one's community. I often spot a friend's family member or an old co-worker who has died. I can more fully understand the story of my town that unfolds every day.

But in addition to that, obituaries are fascinating reading. Small stories of people's lives. Who were they? What did they enjoy? Who loved them? Who did they love?

In the olden days, the cause of death was always printed in the obituary but in the early 80's papers stopped the practice --probably driven by relatives who in the era of AIDS were embarrassed to have the cause of death publicly proclaimed. Cause of death became a private matter.

I love the long obituaries of women who you think never worked outside the home and there you find out they ran the PTO and the church bazaar and attended a book group and drove for meals on wheels and were active in the local historical society. I love reading professor's obituaries that list all the places to which they traveled and the books they wrote. I love the sweet tributes to young people who die. Touching people's lives for a small time but teaching them so much about the shortness and fragility of life.

People live such rich and full lives. I recently read that when George Harrison died the London Telegraph devoted 6 pages to his obituary. When Bob Hope died they devoted 2 pages to his. Most of us truly have a life story that could fill at least that much.

So, my early reviewer book for the month--interestingly enough is The Economist Book of Obituaries. This is a beautiful hardback book of 200 obituaries published by the Economist since 1994. This book is a obituary lovers dream and the writers of these mini-biographies painted fascinating portraits of famous and near famous people.

It is best read as a series of short biographies and it is fun to leaf through and pick out interesting ones. I have read about Brooke Astor and Alex the Parrot. I read the obituary of Steve Irwin and the guy who coined the term WASP.

If you like obituaries--you will love this beautiful book filled with well written stories of the famous and the near famous. If you like to write--take a turn at writing your obituary. What would you like it to say about you?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who is Joan Didion?

As a freshman in Journalism School more than 20 years ago, one of my professors produced a list of journalists, known for the literary style of their writing. He told us to begin reading these men and women. I noted that I had never heard of most of the names on the list and I also promptly forgot about it to go on to whatever was occupying my time in college. Imagine, time for reading, in college!?

The name Joan Didion was on the list and it has haunted me ever since. I saw her name everywhere and on everything. I began to understand she was a prolific writer but had no curiosity about her other than to note she must be pretty old.

Recently, I was reading someone's "top five books that changed my life" and here was a curious title: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live by Joan Didion.

It was this very provocative title that finally prompted me to check out a book from the library. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live is a non-fiction collection of 7 of Joan Didion's books which were compilations of her long essays and journalism pieces written since the mid 1960's.

She writes of celebrities (John Wayne and Joan Baez and Howard Hughes) and the hippy culture of California and scandalous murder trials. Her writing is clear and her stories are tightly woven. The writing has a kind of 1960's feel to it--the style and the topics and at times it feels like a there are a few too many acid trips, but it is important writing and as the stories travel on through the years her writing stays fresh and original.

The title of the book aptly describes the power of storytelling to heal, to entertain, to inform and to paint a compelling portrait of the world we inhabit. We DO tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Ms Didion won a National Book Award for her most recent book The Year of Magical Thinking. This is the account of the year after her husband of 40 years died and her daughter was gravely ill. Joan Didion was in her 70s when she wrote this. I am finally reading my college reading list, about 20 years late.

Discovering Didion's work after all these years is really a perfect illustration of how the perfect book arrives at your door just when you need to read it. What books have you read at the right time?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Soldiers Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

I am part of an early reviewer program. Once a month, a website that I belong to, posts a list of about 40-50 books that publishers are offering for early review. I request the ones I think I would like to read and at the end of the month I am notified if I get a book. The publisher mails me a free book and in return I write a review and post it on the website

There is no expectation that I write a positive review--only that i read and write about the book. For awhile I was getting a new book every month. I got to read some really good books and a few dogs. One--a terrible mystery--I could not get through and thus, I did not write a review, but for the most part, I read and wrote about everything that I was sent.

After about 6 months of not getting selected to review a book, I received Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet. Soldiers Heart is an English professor's memoir about her life teaching the cadets at West Point about literature and poetry.

Here's the funny thing about the book: it is not a new book. It has been on the market since 2006 and has won several prizes. I can't figure out why it is an early review. It might be because the book was just released in paperback with a new afterward by the author, but really, it has been out for awhile and has been fairly well received.

How do I know this? Well other than the fact that it says so on the cover of the book I received, it turns out I already bought the book when it first came out in hardback!. I actually bought the book as a gift for my mother two years ago for Christmas.

The idea itself is fascinating. Lets take a look at West Point--the place where army officers are trained to go to war--and hear an expert tell how soldiers learn to appreciate poetry. How do officers become "warrior-poets"? The book illustrates perfectly one of the lessons I am always trying to teach my advisees: the liberal arts teaches someone to think. If I were on the battlefield, I would feel more comfortable if the man or woman I was following thought critically about his situation-largely as taught by reading and writing.

Ms Samet is an excellent writer. He work is infused with lessons taught and learned through poetry and prose. She examines West Point from the point of view of courage and faith. She examines the experience of women at West Point and tells of hearing about 9/11 and some of her students who were killed in Iraq.

I do not think the new afterward added much to the work but overall, readers should find this story of life at West Point a compelling one.

The memoir is a lovely thing and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in seeing the inside of this military academy or is interested in the power and beauty of a liberal arts education.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving Reading

I am off to Ohio and Kentucky for Thanksgiving festivities. I brought three books with me. The first, which I finished quickly, was the new book out by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers. If you have read either of Mr. Gladwell's books then you will know his observations and essays on modern life and ways of thinking are fascinating. He knows how to tell a story.

Gladwell has a general theme--in the case of Outliers the theme is "what makes someone successful?"--then he he writes a series of stories and parables and case studies to illustrate his theme. Blink is about the power of intuition in making decisions. The Tipping Point is about how fads and ideas become popular.

Outliers, Gladwell's most personal book, keeps to the style of the previous two works. He writes about surprising ideas and interesting ways of looking at things. It will help you to understand the Beatles and Bill Gates and math in an entirely new way. I now know that the secret to success is 10,000 hours. I've only got about 9,000 more to go.

The second book I brought which I am halfway through is called "Soldiers Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point." by Elizabeth Samet. More on this later. I will review it as part of an agreement with an early reviewers program that I am a part of. (Free books in return for a review!)

The third book is a biography of the great etiquette expert Emily Post. I may not get to this in the wake of Black Friday shopping and a wedding later tonight.

But really, read Outliers. You'll be very happy you did. Then check out Gladwell's other two books. Available all over any bookstore and I am sure one can check them out after a short wait at the library.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Steve Martin Two-fer

I have always been interested in artists who can successfully cross genres. What is more interesting than a ballet dancer who likes to sing in a jazz band or a poet who can write short stories? It is interesting to see what an artist is like in another field. This is what first drew me to the novella Shopgirl by Steve Martin which I picked up for .25 cents at the Red Cross Book Fair.

One glance at the book jacket and I knew, yup, it was that Steve Martin: comedian, actor and general all around funny guy. I have always like Mr. Martin. His movies are generally feel good experiences and he has a kind and likable personality. I saw the movie Shopgirl several years ago and did not remember it very well, so I thought I would read the novella.

Not long after I bought the book I saw Martin interviewed on The Daily Show. John Stewart reminded the audience of Mr. Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up in which he recounts his life as a stand up comedian and how he got his start in the business. I decided to go on an all Steve Martin reading bonanza.

Shopgirl took place almost exclusively in the character's heads. The thoughts and actions and motivations of each character were first and foremost on the writer’s mind. Sure they went out to dinner, but they had few conversations and seemed to exist in a sort of dreamy, quiet world. It felt like everyone whispered and cried and sulked. It was a love story of sorts, and I can’t say I liked it, but it was an intriguing book. I think the movie may have been better.

I enjoyed Born Standing Up much more. Steve Martin is well educated and very smart and from this it is easy to see how he became a successful comedian. It is a lot of hard work, meeting the right people and being in the right place. Martin told a mostly chronological tale of how he got his start and what some of his early influences were. It was a compelling read that brought home how difficult the stand up life is. He talked about his years on Saturday night live and writing for the Sonny and Cher show. The most profound and revealing parts of this memoir are when he discusses his relationship with his parents. It felt like a tiny part of the whole story, but it many ways it loomed very large. These short sentences and remembrances of his parents were always moving. Perhaps what is most telling about this memoir is that Martin is not extraordinary in his drug use or his being abused or abusing people. He only behaves outrageously as a part of his act, but not as a fellow citizen of the planet. He just is a good hard-working man, and he can write well about how he got to where he is.

So there you have it—a pair of Steve Martin books. Now I’ll have to rent The Jerk.

Monday, October 27, 2008

In case you were wondering who I was voting for...

Bob Gonyea gets credit for the photo. Thanks Bob!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

I took a break from reading memoirs this past week to read a lovely work of historical fiction that was highly recommended to me by Sweetcakes.

I had to refrain from looking up Frank Lloyd Wright on the internet or learning anything about his real life as the story unfolded as I was tempted to do. Several readers warned me that it would spoil the end of the book for me.

This heartbreaking story was meticulously researched by Nancy Horan. She read newspaper accounts of the time, biographies of Frank Wright and Mamah Borthwick and also histories of early feminism. As I writer, I know that capturing this kind of story on paper is one of the most interesting and challenging to write. Ms. Horan has taken a true story of love, rebellion, feminism, tradgedy and social mores and imagined all the scenes that may have happened between the two lovers and the children and the spouses that were involved. It was a fascinating story and if you have not read it, I highly recommend it. Thanks Sweetcakes!

If you do not know the story of what happened to Frank and Mamah at Taliesen--read the book first and then go to Wikipedia for the story.

Friday, September 19, 2008

More New Technology

With a nod toward my better half who has been waving his reading device under my nose and calling me a luddite. I present this very funny You Tube Video:

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Trail of Books

The funny thing about reading Travels with Lizbeth by Lars Eighner is that I remember seeing it on all the bookstore shelves when it first came out in the early 90s. I looked at it often. I read the front and back cover and ultimately decided not to buy it or read it.

In my last book of the week, Empire of Scrounge, the author cites Lars Eighner and Travels with Lizbeth several times and a fellow reader mentioned she had the book. So 15 years later, I was once again presented with the opportunity to read a memoir about a man who lives for three years on the street with his dog Lizbeth.

It is a stunning memoir about homelessness and hope. Lars tells his story with frankness and honesty and not much self pity. The most compelling part of all this is that he does have the opportunity to get out of his predicament once in a while but he refuses because he cannot part with his dog--his companion. Lizbeth, if not the centerpiece of this fascinating story, is almost its reason for being. The shadow of this simple and loyal animal streches large over the memoir.

Mr. Ehrman reflects often on the necessity of staying clear of the law--if only because it would mean that if he were arrested, his dog would be taken to the pound and probably destroyed. He could not let that happen to her.

His forays into the dumpster and his ability to create homes for himself in parks and public spaces are the most interesting part of this story. Also, I wept at the hair raising account of how Lizbeth was almost put to sleep because the narrator did not have the money to get her out of "animal prison".

Well worth a trip to the library to find this older gem. It was a lesson in how some books come back to greet us--even after 15 years.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Reading Device? I don't think so...

The latest reading craze is a portable reading device. They are manufactured under several names--if you are an Amazon user you have probably heard of the Kindle.

My husband just bought one of these, and I must say that every thing that appalled me about a hand held internet reading device before one arrived in my home still appalls me now. This reading device is so repulsive--I could not even look at it. I won't bother to describe it or its features--mostly because just looking at it sends cold chills up and down my spine. Suffice to say, my husband is thrilled that at the push of a button you can download any book from among 160,000 titles and begin reading. No more driving to the bookstore or waiting in the library queue or waiting for your special order to arrive by mail. You just push a button a voila--the words are there on your screen.

I have begun to panic that this portable reading device is the beginning of the end for books and bookstores and libraries. My husband challenges me.

"Why do you care? Books are wasteful. They take up resources. With my reading device, no trees are cut down and no gas is wasted driving to the library."

Okay, I feel bad about that, but look what is at stake!

I love books. I love how they feel--smooth and cool. I love to turn pages and I love the way you can set them side by side on your shelves and reminisc about fond memories with favorite characters, or what you learned from some intrepid heroine. I love the different sizes and covers. I love the picture of the author on the back and I love how they smell. I have always worshipped at the altar of books, and I know that any answer can be found in a bookstore or a library--the shelves and aisles are filled with possibilities.

I cannot imagine having no books in my house. In the case of the portable reading device--I think you don't even get diskettes or computer chips. I think you simply get a little link to click on your hand held device.

I cannot imagine a sadder world than one where all my books are condensed to a few clicks on a computer screen. Can you?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Empire of Scrounge

Interested in Dumpster Diving? Love to pick through trash? Are your greatest treasures found free on the side of the road? Empire of Scrounge is a fascinating account of one man's 8 month odyssey through the trash bins and dumpsters of his town in Texas.

For those 8 months he made his living and took notes of the myraid of things he found--discarded. His stories of rescuing and living off of the abandoned detritus of America became a commentary on the wasteful consumer culture of which we are all a part.

This book asks us to take a serious look at what we consume and how we consume it. It also weaves an interesting tale about the intersection of what is legal and what is illegal as it crosses thresholds with trash dumpsters and found objects.

This book is available from NYU press.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


I just got tagged by an old friend from my res hall days. SSS worked for KT at the same time I did. I've been catching up with him lately at his blog All I'm Saying. I feel honored because SSS's blog is very very funny and thoughtful, and he has someone from every state and even a few other countries reading his blog. I have about 5 people who read my blog.

So here are the rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you.
2. Post these six rules on your blog.
3. Write 6 random things about yourself.
4. Tag 6 people at the end of your post and link to them.
5. Let each person you have tagged know by leaving a comment on their blog. 6. Let the tagger know when your entry is posted.

6 Random Things about myself:

1. KT from lucky girl is one of my top role models in life. She was one of my first bosses ever and she really taught me a lot about how to do work stuff. Unfortunately, I am only half the boss she ever was. I am lucky to have worked with her.

2. I have frequent insomnia. I don't use any medication or sleep aids. I just don't beleive in them. Maybe a cup of chammomile tea.

3. Best show ever: Battlestar Galactica (Modern version--not the cheesy one from the 70s.) Nothing like watching Starbuck kick a little cylon bootie.

4. It is almost November again. While I am excited for November to be over so we can get this election behind us, I am equally excited for: NANOWRIMO. I have actually won this contest three of the four years I have entered. For those of you squeamish about 50,000 words in 30 days. Try what my friend Steph did: Nanoblopomo!

5. I really don't understand conservative Christianity. Wasn't Jesus a radical?

6. I have two overdue library books.

I will tag:

Steph at Steph's Cup of Tea.
Sweetcakes at Two Boys and a Beagle
Anna Pieka Valentine
Zenabu at What was I thinking?
Bloomington Girl

Thanks all!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Putting it Out There

I have been reading a lot lately about people who "put it out there". They wish for something or pray for something. They put out their wishes and wants and needs to the universe and wait for the response from God or the gods and it appears. I am not really sure how to put it out there. I guess I will blog about it.

I want to take a class on how to dance like they do in the musicals. I do not necessarily need to be on stage. I do not want to sing while I do it. I just want to move my body the way Meryl Streep does in Momma Mia. I want to do it to the beat of fun music and I want to do it with other people.

Years ago when I was a grad assistant at Collins, the students entered a dance competition called IU SING. The students choreographed two numbers. One was to Iko Iko and the other was to the Banana Boat song. (You know, Hey Mr. Talley Man talley me bananas). I joined them for rehearsals and performed at the competition and I enjoyed every minute of it.

So if I could design the class myself it would be someone who teaches us fun dances to fun familiar musical songs and we just dance them over and over until we get it right. Then we come back the next time and do it again. I've been searching different local organizations and cannot find much of a class that fits this description. Does anyone have any ideas?

Friday, August 15, 2008

What was your best summer read?

I am interested to hear what you read this summer? The best? The Worst?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Best Summer Read: Lost on Planet China by Maarten Troost

Maarten Troost wrote a great travel memoir a few years ago called The Sex Lives of Cannibals. It chronicled the two years he lived on a remote South Sea Island. Nothing I would ever want to do after reading his book. It sounded awful, but it was a fun read.

My husband picked up Lost on Planet China and I read it this summer very quickly. Our intrepid traveler spent a few months wondering around that enigmatic country known as China.

He is funny, thought provoking and simply a master at translating his own experiences to meaningful tales for the armchair traveler. You'll laugh; you'll cry; you'll want to run out and learn Mandarin.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Liquid Jade

I became a fan of tea because of two very special friends. I must admit, my drink of preference is coffee and my second choice is dry red wine. But for the sheer enjoyment of company and slowing down and feeling at peace, I am glad I discovered tea.

I have been to several tea shoppes, tea houses, tea parties and afternoon teas at fancy hotels. I am always carried away by the utter civility of it all. So this book caught my eye at the library a few weeks ago: Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West by Beatrice Hohenegger.

It is not a fast read, but Ms Hohenegger has many small chapters on the history of tea which have interesting tales about tea and its discovery and importance in the East and its arrival and importance in the west.

Here are a few nuggets from this fun history of tea:

*Lu Yu the tea sage wrote, "Drinking tea is an act of consciousness and a celebration of life."

*The Bodhidahrma first intertwined tea and meditation.

*A sincere heart is at the center of tea.

*In merry old England tea is credited with generating an early feminist movement.

I am off to brew a cuppa. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Wanted: A Transgendered Hero

This evening I was at a local cafe, enjoying a latte before I left for a writing circle that I was facilitating. I was reading and generally mulling over life when the owner of the cafe who happens to be a transgendered person (A man who dresses like a woman.) came over and started a conversation with me.

Somehow it came out that I was a writer and she quickly told me that she had a great idea for a novel, and would I write it?

"What is that?" I ask.

"Someone needs to write a novel where the hero is transgendered. All transgendered people in the movies or in books are weirdos or killers or evil. You need to write something that shows us in a positive light."

She quickly went away to bus some tables, but she had me thinking... are there positive images of transgendered people in the movies? Certainly there must be some. I offered Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie.

"Doesn't count," she said when she returned. "Dorothea wasn't really trans. Dustin Hoffman was playing a woman to get a job. Same with Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. It can't be a comedy. It has to be a real hero hero."

We paddled around a few other famous transgendered movie roles, but none of them fit my new friend's definition of positive role model and hero.

So now I am trying to decide how I would write this character. I would need to ask a lot of questions of transgendered people and find out exactly what's going on when they choose to don the clothing of another sex.

I told my friend that she should write the novel. She told me she couldn't write at all, and she was content to let it be my mission. Help me! I am stuck on a transgendered detective in a series of mystery novels. What sort of novel would you write if you were asked to tell a story of a transgendered hero?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Memoir -vs- Anti-memoir

I spent the better part of this past week reading two very compelling memoirs. The first was a slash and burn take no prisoners account of Marya Hornbacher's 10 year struggle with Anorexia and Bulimia called Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. Her stories of dieting down to a mere 52 pounds and ignoring all of the humans who wanted to help her was positively gruesome. The pleasure in reading was in the voyeurism of it all. What horrifying act can we watch the author perform this time? How can she further degrade her already abused body? Or better yet--How is it that she is so different than me?

It left me feeling sort of sick--the literary equivalent of watching the ambulance race up to a bad car wreck. In fact, many memoirs leave me with that same feeling: I read this because these true stories of other people's lives are so hideous and chilling that I can't help but look and read.

I did stumble across another memoir this week and the author--the child of a celebrity has chosen to call it an anti-memoir. I suppose because it is not really about an awful life. I am not reading it becuase it is horrifying and over the top, I am reading it because it is well written and actually this man could be like me or any one of my friends. He has normal friends and small problems and he writes about them with sincerity and pathos and they are interspersed with his tales of growing up with a celebrity dad. I am surprised at how much good writing and real life tales actually are more enjoyable than the terrifying ones.

This is not a daddy dearest tell all, this is not stories of his horrible addictions or wanton life. This is just a dad who has written an anti-memoir. A story for the rest of us.

So please go to the library and check out: My Incredibly Wonderful, Miserable Life: an anti-memoir by Adam Nimoy (that's right, Mr. Spock's son)

Why I love the Library

I have made good use of my public library over these past few months.

When I hear about a good book on the radio or via a fellow reader, I go immediately to the on-line card catalog at the library. I find it and place a request. The library notifies me when it is ready and waiting at the circulation desk. I have a running list of about 10 books and every few days I get a note in my email in-box that the book I want is ready.

It has been a good habit to get into this summer. I have spent a lot less on books at Borders and enjoyed them just as much. The library has a more varied and older selection so when I started to feel the need to take a look at Wendell Berry stories and essays, I did not have to buy them all to figure out I only wanted one or two of them.

Viva the library!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Greetings friends and bloggers! Apologies for lack of posting over these past few months. I have been reading, but I am in a grand state of ennui. I have not felt much like posting. I suspect my summer blues have to do with the absence of my bi-weekly writing commitment which kept me swirling in words. I suffer from the I-do-not-have-a-deadline brand of writer's block.

Today I write to tell you about two memoirs I read this summer about father's and sons. Beautiful Boy by David Sheff chronicles the angst of a father as he sees his son and his family through the son's troubling drug addiction. The Film Club by David Gilmour is a father's story of letting his son quit high school as long as the son promises not to do drugs and watches three films a day with him. The father knows something about the history of film and so he gives the son a film education. The kid turns out okay and the father has really special memories of watching great movies with his son.

I am addicted to memoir. Watching the gruesome turns and twists of real lives seems to be holding most of my reading attention these days--even as it sort of pisses me off. I have yet to hit any kind of adolescent rebellion. Maybe that's what I need to do to write: Rebel against something.

Check these memoirs out. I will have another favorite for you in a few days.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Homegirl by Judith Matloff

I enjoy memoirs that I can easily picture myself living. Although I do not live in Manhattan nor have I ever bought and rehabbed a Victorian crack den in the middle of a crack infested neighborhood, I could do that. I could buy an old beat up house and live in less than favorable circumstances while I fixed it up like Judith Matloff in her lovely personal story Homegirl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block.

Ms Matloff has moved to New York City after a whole other lifetime living abroad and reporting on wars and natural disasters for various newspapers. She and her husband want to settle down and start a family which involves buying a house in their now chosen home of New York. Judith rationalizes that she has been in war zones and faced down militias, why should she worry about living on a block with drug dealers?

As I predicted from the start, after a few years of sweat and toil she and her husband come to have a beautiful home and family and come to have a real love for their strange neighborhood of misfits and crack addicts. They make friends, watch as stores come into the neighborhood, become activists for drug free neighborhoods, walk the dog and weather 9-11 together.

I loved the narrator’s insecurities about living there after she made the decision to buy, and I love watching her life take root. The whole story is delightful and page turning. About the only confusion I have is her ambivalence about the drug dealers who inhabit her street. On the one hand she befriends some of them and learns to use them to help her keep the addicts off her front steps and keep the crime away from the hood. She laments over one of them named Miguel who disappears suddenly. She even searches for him in the Dominican Republic when she goes there on business. On the other hand she openly hates them and works to rid her neighborhood of them. She rejoices when the undercover narcotics cops announce there is no more work to do in her neighborhood. Perhaps it is this very tension in the story that makes the story so compelling. Isn’t this basic truth for all of us? The very things we hate are somehow secretly so much a part of us that we really have a hard time not loving them. Or something like that. Read this one. It is enjoyable.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Time Bandit

I love books that chronicle what people do for a living. I have read books on waiting tables, housecleaning, cooking at a five star restaurant and stripping. I enjoy reading about people who can describe what they do in a compelling manner.

Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand have done this for the world of commercial fishing on the Bering Sea. (Read: very dangerous and very cold.) I enjoyed the book and all the stories involved more than I thought I would, but I still struggled to finish the book. The novel is arranged around the framing device of one of the two brothers stranded at sea on a fishing boat awaiting rescue. The bulk of the chapters are from this lost fisherman’s point of view. A few others look at fishing from the rescuers viewpoint or from the view point of the other brother who is living in Indiana on his horse ranch. The beginning of most chapters is the brother talking about drifting alone on the sea and then moves into his stream of conscious thoughts and memories about fishing.

The stories are narrated as sort of fishing tall tales. Big men who do a big scary job make big money and get big drunk and get into big fights and go through wives and women like underwear. At first they were funny and interesting. I loved reading about the rules and regulations of commercial fishing, the way the crew worked for 96 hours in all kinds of horrid conditions to bring the catch in, how the boat and crew worked together, how the industry is regulated, the grocery expedition to stock the boat for the voyage, the mindset of a fisherman and how they built their boat with their dad. Many many of the tales were true and touching and fascinating.

After awhile though, I got tired of reading about the fistfights and the bars and the men they saved from freezing in the Bering sea. I think this points to the biggest problem with the narrative and that is the framing device. I think a better way to organize this account of fishing on the Bering Sea would be just to give me 12 chapters each organized around a part of the fisherman’s life. The slow meandering build-up to the fisherman’s rescue really took away from the rest of the story. I did not think for a minute that he would not be rescued. Better save that tale for one independent chapter.

All in all, I am glad to have met these two brothers and learned something more of the price they pay to bring fish to our tables. I realized at the end that these two men are featured in a Discovery Channel show called “The Deadliest Catch.” Check it out!

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Zookeepers Wife by Diane Ackerman

Anyone who has read The Natural History of the Senses knows that Diane Ackerman has a magical way of describing senses and the natural world. I first read this work more than 10 years ago and it has stuck with me for a long time.

I was drawn to The Zookeeper's Wife when I saw that it was Ackerman telling the story. She does not dissappoint. She writes a non-fiction account of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, a Polish couple who run the Warsaw Zoo. When the Third Reich invades Warsaw and begins dismantling life for Poles and Jews, Jan and Antonina use their once beautiful zoo to help hundreds of Jews escape Warsaw and thier inevitable fate during the Holocaust.

Ackerman bases this beautiful book on Antonina's diaries and fills in the blanks with meticulous research about Warsaw, the Jewish ghetto and the world of Zoo's at the middle of the 20th century.

What arises is a beautiful tale of one couple's heroic acts in the middle of a strange otherwordly paradise which they created in the middle of a surreal kind of hell.

Ackerman not only tells thier tale but helps us understand what exactly they were up against during the war. She paints a vivid picture of Warsaw and the Poles resistance to Hitler and the Gestapo.

Jan Zabinski after the war was commemorated Righteous Among the Nations.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Speaking of the Shoe Muse

here is a poem I wrote in my Wednesday writing class. Susan read it aloud during class and I kind of liked it. Here it is:

You don’t know what came over you
when you saw those sparkling red pumps--
Candy-apple red, three inch spiked heels,
shinier than the ruby slippers,
narrower than a ballet shoe.

A deep longing sprang up from somewhere
you could not remember.
Your size 11 feet always gave you
lessons in humility, never grace.

The desire ran so deep and so thick
that now your dreams are filled with red shoes,
And the muse whispers “shoes”
on her weekend nights off.

Imagine, as I know you will,
picking up prescriptions and
dropping off dry cleaning, and you suddenly
see something shine in a store window
and remember what you cannot have:

The taut muscular stomach of a pretty boy you once knew
The feel of a baby sucking at your breast
The ability to dance high on tip-toe,
a slender hipbone jutting out
above the waistband of your jeans

All your longing seems focused on lightness
On being no denser than a piece of fine silk
On floating somehow, impossibly, on a cloud
or being dangled by fine wires as you pretend to
fly across a stage on extended calf muscles.
All your longing points you at smallness,
Points you at bright high heeled sparkly shoes
That all size sevens wear.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Birthday books

I celebrated my birthday this week.(They say 43 is the new 23!) I received some very beautiful and thoughtful gifts from my friends and husband. Steph gave a donation to Heifer International in my name. Kim (aka sweetcakes) made me a lovely chicken tea cozy. My husband gave me a DVD I had been wanting to watch. Also flowers, a picture and frame of some friends, a button box and some lovely cards. It was a very nice day.

I usually treat myself to books since those are some of my favorite things to shop for. I picked out a current memoir called: Beautiful Boy by David Sheff. A book of short stories by Elizabeth Berg. Another memoir by autistic animal behaviorist Temple Grandin called Animals in Translation and finally another memoir by surgeon Atul Gawande called Better. I hope to be recommending another book of the week very soon.

I do love memoirs and so far Beautiful Boy is promising to be very compelling. I did end up taking back a book. It looked funny, but after I read a chapter I decided it was vapid and lacking all meaning and the funny could not make up for the sick feeling I felt when I read it. So, I won't even tell you what it was called lest you waste your money on it. Lets not give this writer her due.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Off the Deep End by W. Hodding Carter

Lately memoirs take on this form: find something outrageous and nearly impossible (but not totally impossible) to do. Do it. Write about how hard it was to do it. I have read memoirs of families who gave up buying everything except basic necessities for one year, gave up using electricity for a year, gave up buying anything made in China for a year, read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, walked across the country, and cooked all the recipes from Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking over the course of one year.

Hodding Carter has the latest entry into the memoir-turns-daring-do saga, he is going to train for and compete in swimming at the 2008 summer Olympics at age 45. The advanced copy I read does not include the final chapter which will relate his encounter at the Olympic swimming trials. I can’t really say if the final chapter would have made a difference in how I feel about his story.

For much of the book I really did not like Mr. Carter. He struck me as a 43 year old frat boy who was having a hard time accepting middle age. The fact that he kept admitting his frat boy tendencies did nothing to endear me to him. The technical aspects of swimming were not interesting for me—they may be for seasoned swimmers—and a lot of the book seemed bogged down by details of stroke and times and races. It was hard to get through. There were a few interesting adventures most notably his swimming from island to island in the Caribbean in a sort of swimming trek adventure and also his relay swim around Manhattan Island. Even during these adventures he seemed like a puffed up school boy. The kind I mostly try to avoid.

Just the same, being about 45 myself, I hope he is able to make the Olympics. I will watch for him, and I will pick up the book when it is out to see if I can find out his fate at the trials. I will also send this book to an old friend who is an avid swimmer. Perhaps she will understand some of the swimming-speak and relate to him a bit more. ( )

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What the Frak is Going on?

This is a cool video of my new favorite TV show. Battlestar Galactica Rules. Who knew I was a Sci-Fi Geek?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What Shamu Taught me About Life Love and Marriage

Amy Sutherland was a journalist who decided to write a book about animal training. She went to one of the only animal training schools in the country. She wrote a book about it called: Kicked, Bitten and Scratched: Life Lessons at the World's Premier School for Animal Trainers which I understand is an excellent book. She also wrote a tiny little article for the NY Times about using animal training techniques on her husband and friends and found the way to instant fame. Her article for the NYT was the most emailed article in 2006. Check it out.

This book is a longer length work based on the article. A lot of the information is intuitive, but when put in the perspective of training people, it sheds a whole new light on human relationships. One letter to the editor in the Times reminds readers that Sutherland did not really change her husband, she changed how she acted and reacted to her husband which in turn prompted new and better responses from him. This is a fascinating book, and my husband doesn't know it but I have started "shamuing" him. If you don't have time to read the book, at least read the article. People are, afterall, animals too.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tea Party

I realize that tea parties are off topic for this blog. Since I have met and gotten to know Steph and Sweetcakes, I have taken an interest in the elegant and charming and relaxing practice of afternoon tea.

My sister-in-law and I treated our mother-in-law and her friend to afternoon tea at the Orchid Room at the Hilton Netherland Hotel in Cincinnati. Of all the tea houses and tea rooms I have been to with Steph and Sweetcakes, this is probably the best. I can't wait to take them there.

Simple but time tested loose leaf teas were on the menu:

An individual plate of savories for each guest. Note to tea party goers: If you are a vegetarian order the vegetarian option in advance.

A huge assortment of breads, scones and pastries. This was more than all of us could eat.

An added bonus was that our server Michael knew tea well and presented all of our food and tea with a flourish. Here he is showing a member of our party one plate of the breads and scones:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I finally broke 300 on this geography game that also helps alleviate world poverty.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


I am fascinated with writers who write about other writers. I loved Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and was stunned at her tragic death. What was more fascinating was the look inside her life by best friend and fellow writer Ann Patchett in the memoir Truth and Beauty.

I have just finished reading Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen. Ms Kamen tells the story of Iris Chang the writer of the famous and internationally best selling historical work called The Rape of Nanking. Iris Chang tragically took her own life in 2004. This beautiful tribute to Iris and her work explains what she stood for and what demons may have possessed her at the end when she shot herself.

I loved Iris. I hardly knew her yet I loved the person she was. I loved how she sought out documents at archives and interviewed people so she could tell their story. I loved that she could not shut herself off from the horror and tragedy and that she let it take hold of her and shape her life and her work. Of course, I do not like where it led her in the end, but her story in all its sadness is a tale worth telling.

I suppose the allure of these memoirs by friends of writers gives us a glimmer of the truth behind the star. The other allure is the discussion of female friendship at its most complex and endearing. What woman among us does not have a best friend we could write a novel about? If we did, what would we say? What documents could we produce that would tell the world her story? What letters are hidden in our attic? What friends would we interview? What memories could we pull up from our crazy life together?

Finding Iris Chang is a story of a great woman who died too soon. It is all the more enjoyable told from an insider’s perspective.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

I received an early review copy of this book and was interested to note that it was a highly sought after book. I was one of 20 lucky library thing reviewers to receive it. I thought perhaps it might be because I live in Bloomington, Indiana the location of the Kinsey Institute and one of Mary Roach’s subjects in the early chapters of her book.

Whatever the cause, I was thrilled to get the chance to read this fascinating look at how sex research is done and how scientists throughout the ages have viewed sex. What makes it imminently readable is that Roach has the perfect sense of humor and quite literally inserts herself into the science whenever she can. If research about sex seems awkward then it is so much easier to write about and read about when we picture this woman boldly going where no one has gone before, into the sex lab with microphone and notebook, ready to take pictures, make notes and even in a few circumstances participate in the research in order to see it and understand it in action.

Although I enjoyed every chapter, especially her footnotes, most notable was the chapter on MRI’s and coital imaging in which she got her husband to join her in the MRI machine. I also loved the story about the career of Middle Eastern doctor and sex researcher Ahmed Shafik who researches sex undercover. If you think finding subjects for sex research in the west is difficult, imagine trying to do it in a Muslim country.

This book is laugh out loud funny, captivating and very relevant to most of our lives and relationships.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Some of you found the short essay I submitted to the NPR "In Character Blog" on my old childhood favorite Harriet the Spy.

In case you did not--here it is: Harriet the Spy Essay

NPR did a feature this morning on the character!!! Listen here.

Although they did not mention that it was MY idea, I still feel great that they picked her. The piece is terrific. Much better than my essay. Of course they had more words to use. My limit was 150. Thanks to MKP for alerting me to this mornings broadcast.

Also I found this website paying tribute to Louise Fitzhugh:

Go Harriet!

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur

The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari is a beautiful and harrowing tale of one man’s attempt to bring the story of Darfur to the rest of the world. Daoud Hari tells his tale in simple precise words. His story is lyrical and very easy to read and understand. It is a primer in understanding the complexities behind the politics of this region.

In one of the final lines of the book Hari writes, "This is not a simple tale of genocide. This is a complex tale of genocide.”

One of the most obvious causes of the horrible acts of murder upon the people of Darfur is the world’s unbridled greed and avaricious consumption of oil. It is a fact we must tell ourselves daily; that one of the reasons that Hari’s tale is so complex is that the very people he is appealing to for help are complicit in the causes of the genocide. Sometimes its hard to put it all in perspective. This genocide is not just something "they" are doing to each other. In many ways, we are partners in this horror.

This book goes on sale March 18.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Try to write your life story in 6 words

NPR featured a book which compiled hundreds of life stories all 6 words long.

Check it out here:

What is your life story in 6 words?

Mine is:

She wanted to be a sleuth.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I am on an NPR Blog!

Seems like a good way to start my new sleuthing blog!

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Church of 80% Sincerity

The man who wrote this book spoke at my church last Easter Sunday. His story had most of the members of the congregation weeping and laughing. The opportunity to hear such a wise and funny man does not come ones way very often. I would imagine most members of the congregation felt, as I did, that they had received a real gift.

I met David Roche's daughter in town just before Christmas and she mentioned that he was to publish his memoir. I was able to get in touch with his publicist and read an advance copy.

The book comes out on february 5th. I highly recommend this memoir.

Friday, January 18, 2008

In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto by Michael Pollan

I could not wait to purchase Michael Pollan's new book In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto. It is a short read and builds upon many of the themes he explores in depth in Omnivores Dilemma, but it is not ever a rehash of Omnivores Dilemma. It is fresh and original.

After years of reading and taking in articles and ideas about nutrition and nutrition science, it was enlightening to finally understand that the emperor has no clothes. Nutrition science is ruining food and the enjoyment of food and is largely bogus.

Pollan probably could better support his thesis, but it was enough evidence for me. I also appreciated the last part with recommendations on how to eat. Not a diet, but more advice for shopping and living that will bring you the most health and the most enjoyment out of food.

I find Pollan's works all to be fascinating discussions of food and the implications of consumption in the larger world. I highly recommend this.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

I have so little time to read all the books and articles I would love to read, that the real measure of my enjoyment of a particular book is whether I finish it or not. After about thirty pages of Dreamers of the Day, I knew without a doubt that I cared what happened to the protagonist, Agnes Shanklin, and I wanted to see her intrepid self through to the very end of the novel.

Agnes survives the influenza epidemic of 1918 as the rest of her family succumbs. She inherits a small fortune and after a few years of settling her family's affairs decides to travel to Egypt and the Holy Land. Once abroad, she meets up with TE Lawrence and Gertrude Bell and begins to touch the story of the building of the modern middle east. Agnes’s role in the affair is minimal, but she is eyewitness to the great deeds and events which set the course for the rest of us and our current state of affairs with the middle east.

Dreamers of the Day is part love story, part coming of age story, part history and part modern morality tale for those of us trying to make sense of the current war that rages on. I found the tale most engrossing when it told of Agnes’s exploits and her own self-realization. It slowed a bit when the characters turned didactic. When Lawrence and Churchill and cronies took turns spelling out the history and politics of the region my interest flagged.

The hardest part to make sense of was, in fact, the ending. As happy as I was to see that Agnes turned out okay, I did not love that at the end she was narrating from beyond the grave: a device that was apparently used to be able to tie together the Cairo conference with the current battles and politics of the region all by the same first person narrator. I finally did get why the author chose to use this rather clunky narrative form, and after I was used to it I enjoyed it. Russell should have ended the story after Agnes left Cairo and returned to Ohio and added a brief epilogue.

All in all, I did very much enjoy Dreamers of the Day. I became intrigued by TE Lawrence and Gertrude Bell and the history of Iraq which is so much in the news all the time. I loved Agnes who can be classified as a woman ahead of her time. I loved that Agnes spent her early years in Cleveland, the city near where I grew up. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, a good romance or simply a rare 1920’s woman’s coming of age story. Now, I want to go rent Lawrence of Arabia.