Friday, March 18, 2011

Drowning in Books: Part One

Here's my problem. I'm drowning in books. Can't keep my head above water. In an ideal world I would find interesting books, read them, and then tell you about the best of the best. But with my "side job" working forty hours a week, and a very sick dog this week, and other things that fall into the category called "life," I am hopelessly behind. And I really, really want to read these books.

So I'm going to try something new. I am going to go through these stacks of books one by one and tell you about them. Briefly. And then you can decide whether you want to track them down or not.

Of course, if you want a tried and true "best of the best" book, you can always go to my shelfari book shelf at Those books have all been read by me and deemed worthy of the shelf.


Broken: A Love Story by Lisa Jones

I first heard about this true story from Head Butler, and you can read the fabulous write-up here. This is from the inside cover : "Writer Lisa Jones went to Wyoming for a four-day magazine assignment and came home four years later with a new life. At a dusty corral on the Wind River Indian Reservation, she met Standford Addison, a Northern Arapaho who seemed to transform everything around him. He gentled horses rather than breaking them by force. It was said that he could heal people of everything from cancer to bipolar disorder. He did all this from a wheelchair; he had been a quadriplegic for more than twenty years."

Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness by Dominique Browning

From the inside cover: "For over a decade, Dominique Browning was editor-in-chief of Conde Nast's House & Garden. One Monday morning in November 2007, the magazine folded and she was told she had four days to pack up her office. Like thousands who followed her, she was out of work. Overnight, her driven, purposes-filled days vanished. With her children leaving home, and a long relationship ending, the structure of her days disappeared. She fell into a panic of loss - but found humor despite everything, discovering a deeper joy than any she had known."

Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer

I am midway through this book and I find it engaging and achingly familiar, due to my eight years in a yoga studio (now closed - that's the "aching" part). But you don't have to be a yoga student to enjoy Dederer's clever writing and her description of her Seattle suburban life with husband and child, her struggles with her marriage, and her extended family that includes two dads, who aren't gay. Intrigued? So am I. This is one book I am going to try to finish, and soon.

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadverdent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

Anthony Bourdain, chef and author of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, said of this book, "Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. EVER. Gabrielle Hamilton packs more heart, soul, and pure power into one beautifully crafted page than I've accomplished in my entire writing career. [This] is the work of an uncompromising chef and a prodigiously talented writer. I am choked with envy."

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

From the inside cover: "Seventy-seven -year-old Marylou Ahearn is going to kill Dr. Wilson Spriggs, come hell or high water. In 1953, he gave her a radioactive cocktail - without her consent as part of a secret government study - that had horrible consequences. Fifty years later, she is still ticked off, and now that she has recently discovered where he lives, she's on a mission...Told from the varied perspectives of an incredible cast of endearing oddballs, this lively, intricately plotted, laugh-out-loud novel beats with the heart of a genuinely affecting family drama."

The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten

Weingarten is a nationally syndicated humor columnist and writer for The Washington Post. This book is a collection of his best writing. The title refers to a question Weingarten tried to answer: what would happen if you put a world-renowned musician in a Washington, D.C. subway station? Would anyone notice? To find the answer he engaged Joshua Bell and set him up with a hat at his feet. Other notable essays include "The Great Zucchini," about a hugely popular children's birthday party entertainer who had some serious personal flaws, and my favorite (so far, because I still have to finish the book), "The Ghost of the Hardy Boys," in which Weingarten revisit his favorite boyhood literature only to discover what bad literature it really is, and goes in search of the author, who has a very surprising story to tell. I truly love Weingarten's writing. It is immediately engaging and accessible. He comes across as someone you would love to sit and talk to over coffee.

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

I was fascinated when I heard that Steve Martin was a serious art collector. Such a different side to the zany comedian he presented to the world. Then he started writing books. He is the author of the novellas Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company, plays, children's books, and a memoir. An accomplished actor. And he recently released a CD of banjo music. Is there anything this man can't do?

His latest work of fiction delves deep into the world of art galleries and the buying and selling of major works of art. It follows twenty-something Lacey Yeager as she ascends the personal and professional heights available to her in the New York City art world. I can't wait to get to this book.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland is the author of one of my favorite historical novels, The Passion of Artemesia. In fact, it was one of the first historical novels I ever read, and it opened my eyes to this genre and led to The Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Other Boleyn Girl, among others.

In the late 1800's, Louis Comfort Tiffany was becoming famous for his innovative stained-glass windows. But behind the scenes was Clara Driscoll, head of his women's division, who conceives of and designs nearly all of the lamps for which he is remembered. This is the story of Clara's struggle to make her art come alive in a world that had few options for women who wanted to both work and have a family.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I probably would have passed this book up, except that Deb P. told me it was fascinating, and it is showing up on several "Best Books of 2010" lists. Puzzling, since the subject matter is so odd. But from all the buzz I am convinced it is worth a look.

Henrietta Lacks had cervical cancer, and her cells (now called HeLa) have been used for more than 60 years to advance modern medicine in the areas of cancer, viruses, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. The cells have been bought and sold a billion times. Her family did not know of her "immortality" until more than twenty years after her death, and they never saw any of the profits from the multi-million dollar industry that her cells launched. This is the story of the Lacks family past and present, the birth of the bioethics industry, and the dark history in our country of experimentation on African Americans.

Coming soon: Drowning in Books: Part Two

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Two Movies. Couldn't Be More Different. Highly Recommended.

Here I go. This blog has only been up for about two months, and I am going to risk my street cred by suggesting you watch a movie that I initially thought was a teen flick. Well, it is a teen flick, but it has so much in it for adults to enjoy, and the cast is so talented, and the writing so good, that, well, here's the trailer for Easy A:

The star of this movie is Emma Stone, who you probably didn't see or notice in the movies Zombieland and Superbad. She certainly wasn't on my radar screen. But the minute she fills the screen at the start of this film you know this is one intelligent, young actress, and a budding Lucille Ball to boot. I won't go into the plot, because you can get that from the trailer and it isn't brain surgery. What this movie is, however, is extremely funny and surprising. Surprising because Stone is one hell of an actress and comedienne. Surprising because her hippie-dippy, very funny, too good to be true parents are played by Stanley Tucci (Julie and Julia, The Lovely Bones) and Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Pieces of April), two actors usually found in much more serious movies but here, having the time of their lives. Her favorite teacher is Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), and her guidance counselor is Lisa Kudrow (Friends).

This is the perfect Friday night movie to kick back with after a long week and really have a good laugh. You won't be disappointed. And watch for Ms. Stone in the lead role ("Skeeter" Phelan) of the movie version of The Help, coming out soon. (Though not soon enough for those of us who have devoured the book.) Allison Janney plays her mother, and Sissy Spacek is Missus Walters.

Bringing up Sissy Spacek gives me the perfect segue into a discussion of this next movie that couldn't be more different from Easy A. It's called Get Low, and it stars Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray.

Let me say at the outset that I have had a crush on Robert Duvall since Lonesome Dove. I just love watching him work. He has a non-acting way of acting that shouldn't be as good as it is. But it is. And the crustier the character, the better. He was recently in Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges, but he was clean cut and sensible. Kinda boring. But show me a Robert Duvall who hasn't shaved in weeks and has a crazy twinkle in his eye, and I am entranced.

Well, this role in Get Low may be the epitome of crusty and crazy for him, and he hits it right out of the park. It is a period drama, based on a true story of a 1930s Tennessee hermit named Felix Bush (Duvall). Bush decided that he wanted to throw his own funeral so he could hear what people had to say to him.

When I first saw Duvall in this movie I wanted to gasp in shock and disbelief. His hair is long, his beard is long. He looks ancient and decrepit. (This is the point where, seeing an actor I really like looking old and haggard, I silently pray that it is mostly make-up.) He has been keeping to himself for 30 years because of an incident long ago that left his true love dead, and he blames himself. Duvall is simply a wonder to watch in this role, and I kept wondering, is it possible that this performance COMPLETELY missed the Oscar nominations? How did that happen?

Sissy Spacek (glowing, but again, please let those wrinkles be make-up) comes to town and reunites with Duvall. They had a relationship 30 or 40 years ago, and Spacek is the sister of the woman who died. Spacek is dignified and beautiful and her eyes are like deep pools of water that hold a torrent of emotion.

Bill Murray is the town funeral director who agrees to set up this strange party for Duvall. When I see Bill Murray in a movie I expect to see irreverence and comedy, and that was true here, but in such a restrained way that Murray supplies this character with deep emotion and humanity. As I watched him tiptoe up to a situation that could easily be a comedic moment for him, and then treat it with the utmost warmth and respect by underplaying it, I wanted to yell "Bravo!"

The trailer makes this look like it is a much lighter movie than it is. Don't be fooled. It isn't what I would call dark, but it is pretty serious. And definitely worth your time. Be sure to check the special features to hear how the story was written, and listen to a panel discussion with the actors, producers, and the first-time director.

And that music that will haunt you at the end? Alison Krauss singing "Lay My Burden Down."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thinking About Reading "The Glass Castle?" Stop. Read This Book First

Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle" was published in 2005. It tells the harrowing story of Walls' upbringing in which she and her siblings were often left to take care of each other and fend for themselves while their eccentric parents lived out their own ideas of freedom, which usually included abject poverty.

The book starts out with the adult Walls riding in a taxi on her way to a fancy evening out in New York when she spies her mother digging through a dumpster. She is appalled, but not surprised. Her parents have chosen to live as part of the homeless for many years and are deaf to the offers of assistance from their children. How did things get to this desperate state of affairs? This is the story of "The Glass Castle," starting with Walls' childhood.

I had decided not to read "The Glass Castle," even though it was getting rave reviews and a lot of press. It just sounded too depressing.

Then in 2009 Walls published "Half Broke Horses." It is a "true-life novel" that tells the story of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. She originally sat down to write her mother's story, but her mother kept insisting that it was really Jeannette's grandmother who had lead the interesting life. Walls' interest was piqued, especially since her mother had often told her that she was a lot like her grandmother. Through countless sessions interviewing her mother she got most of the story, but not enough to write her biography. And so the "true-life novel" label.

Wall's grandmother was born in 1901 in the Southwest, and like the women who would come after her, she defied conventional living. From the front cover of the book,  "By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town - riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get her job. She learned to drive a car and fly a plane. She survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and heartbreaking personal tragedy. She also ran a vast ranch in Arizona with her husband Jim."

I loved this book. I loved this book so much I wanted to sleep with it. In the same way that my then five-year-old son slept with his new Batmobile when he got it. In the same way that I loved the Little House on the Prairie books when I was in grade school. Finding that glimpse of another time and another way of living so fascinating, because it was a time that was almost within reach yet still foreign enough to be exotic.

"Half Broke Horses" ends with the marriage of Lily's rebellious (surprised?) daughter, Rosemary. Rosemary is Jeanette Walls' mother, the homeless woman she spies at the beginning of "The Glass Castle."

Well, now I had to find out how point A got to point B, so I dug into "The Glass Castle" feeling like I already knew the characters. And I was not disappointed. It's a story that is at times hard to believe, and you will ask yourself, where was Child Protective Services during these kids' lives? But it is also a story of Wall's journey out of her beginnings and into a new life. Highly recommended.

So this is my pitch. If you haven't read "The Glass Castle" yet, read "Half Broke Horses" first and have an ever richer experience of both books.

Just sayin'.

Riding With Masoud: The Next Day

I get a daily email from, which is a website that represents the Abraham-Hicks material, which I have found to be extremely useful - ok, life changing. The morning after I wrote "Riding With Masoud" this quote came to my inbox. To me, it could not have been more appropriate.

You cannot find someone, even if they deserve it, as your enemy and stay Connected with who you are at the same time, because your Source will not take sides like that. No one can stay connected to Source Energy, and push hard against someone else. There are these battles that are fought in the name of "God," and all of these prayers that say, "God is on our side," and we say, god is not on your side, nor is god on the side of those who fight against you. god does not take those sides.
--- Abraham
Excerpted from the workshop in Orlando, FL on Saturday, December 15th, 2001

Riding With Masoud

My husband and I are getting ready for our annual trip from Minnesota to Florida to stay with his parents for a week. I have the task of calling for a taxi, so I look online for a taxi service in the area. I find Northwest Taxi and Limo and request a pickup for the following morning at 5 a.m.. I am assuming we'll get a taxi, so when a town car shows up, I’m slightly afraid I’ve made a mistake and this will be costly. But I hate taxis and taxi rides, so I hope for the best.

A small, smiling, middle-aged man of Middle Eastern descent gets out of the car, introduces himself and shakes our hand. He’s wearing an oversized gray Columbia parka and glasses that sit low on his nose. While he handles the luggage we climb into the back of the car and it’s spacious with nice leather seats.

(It is during these times that I feel the awkward separation between who I am as a comfortable, suburban, white woman, and who this person is as an immigrant to this country, depending on driving a cab for his livelihood.)

It is also that weird time of the day where it is too early for other people to be out and about, too early for light in the sky, and too early for my brain to be working very well. I feel a little punch drunk when we have to get up this early to catch a flight and I’m never quite sure what I’m going to say.

I ask our driver where he is from, and he tells us Iran, but he has lived in Minnesota for twenty-five years and loves it here. I ask him if he has any family here, and he says no, all of his family is back in Iran, and he is afraid at this point that if he went back to visit he would not be able to leave again. He tells us that he really doesn't want to live there anymore because of the restrictive government. But he talks again about how much he loves Minnesota. In fact, he says, he moved to Atlanta this winter and only lasted three weeks. He missed Minnesota too much and moved back.

We tell him about living in a duplex next to Iranian neighbors during the years when were newlyweds and then young parents in San Francisco. I describe the wonderful smells of Persian cooking that would drift over from their side of the duplex, and how we always hoped they would invite us over for dinner. We tell him we know all about tadiq (ta-deek), the wonderful crust of rice at the bottom of the pan that was crispy and fought over at the dinner table. He can’t believe we know about tadiq and keeps exclaiming about it. “Oh, you know about tadiq! That is so beautiful!”

Now that we have established this rapport I get up the nerve to ask him about the taxi versus limo rates, and which one we are getting. He assures us we are getting taxi rates and not to worry about it.

When we arrive at the airport he tells us to call him when we return and he will pick us up. He asks when we arrive. He says he will be waiting in the cell phone lot and to call him when we get our luggage.

While waiting for our return flight to Minneapolis, I text my friend Deb.
Me: In Tampa airport. Yay.
Deb: ETA?
Me: 2:30 landing. Ready to get back to my routine. The one I complain about. hahahahahaha
Deb: Safe travels. It's frickin' snowing here.
(I should mention that the day after we left for Tampa the Twin Cities area received 15-18” of snow.)

Taxiing to the gate, I text:
Me: Back on cold, frozen land again. Where’s the sun? I need spring rolls.

We get off the plane in Minneapolis and I ask my husband, Ian, if he saved the number of the guy who picked us up. He says yes, and we make our way to the baggage area. As we walk behind a row of seats I spot our driver, at least I think it is him, sitting and waiting. I tug on my husband's sleeve and say, isn't that our guy? He looks and says yes, and stops me from going around the front of the seats to greet him until he can pull out his card and find his name. It is Masoud. I walk around the front of the chairs and cock my head to one side and smile, and indeed it is Masoud, who decided to park and come in and wait for us.

He is so happy to see us and we have a cheerful reunion. He offers to wait with us and help us with our bags. I need a restroom and a Starbucks, so I offer to get him something and he asks for a small black coffee. When I return the luggage has still not appeared so we commiserate about the 18 inches of snow that has fallen since we left. But he wants to talk about cheerier things so he asks us about our trip. I explain that my in-laws live in a senior community, so it was VERY quiet, maybe TOO quiet, but that right before we left we spent an evening, just the two of us, on the main street of downtown Sarasota, and explain how it was very European, with all the shops and restaurants open to the evening air, and people of all ages eating on the sidewalks, and music coming from the bars.

(As we are talking there is a part of my brain that is wondering what people are thinking about the three of us. Do they have a private chauffeur? Is he their employee? There is a young guy standing fairly close to us against a pillar and looking strangely at Masoud. Does he have a thing against Middle Easterners? It all feels strange, but we really like Masoud. He is instantly likeable and friendly. So we go with the flow.)

Masoud thinks that Sarasota sounds wonderful and suggests we buy a house down there and he could come and be our chauffeur. He said he had bought five Powerball tickets and they were drawing tonight, so if he won we could do that. We say that sounds great.

When I mention that we have a 21 year old son who lives in Chicago, he mentions that he is 52 and still has the mind of a child, and what can he do about that? We tell him we are both also 52, and he says, “Oh, that is so cute!” But we kid him that he is the oldest because his birthday comes in January, before ours. And he says, “That is why I am driving you!”

Now the luggage is coming off the belt and I say to Ian that I am craving spring rolls and there is only an empty frig at home. Masoud asks where we like to get spring rolls and I tell him the location of our favorite Thai restaurant. He suggests that we stop on the way home because of course we won't want to go out again tonight (it is cold and snowing-again). I hesitate but say, well, it IS on the way home, and he says, sure, sure, we will do that! You can call from the car! He really seems to want to take care of us. I’m wondering what this detour will cost us and if Ian will be mad I’m going ahead with this. We get back in the comfortable town car and I dial up our favorite Thai restaurant and put in our usual order. I offer to get Masoud something but he declines. I tell him he'll be sorry when he smells the takeout I bring back in the car.

When we pull in to the restaurant he jumps out to get my door, and again I think, jeez, this is awkward. Who am I to have a driver who gets my door?

Me: Yes, heading for spring rolls with our driver. Great story to tell. He’s taking us there on our way home so I don’t have to go out again. His name is Masoud.
Deb: You at spring roll-ville yet?
Me: No, why?
Deb: Where is Masoud taking you?
Me: Thai Curry House, our favorite.
Deb: Will he wait or join you?
Me: Wait while I pick up takeout. I called it in. We’re in his town car. This is a story for sure.
Deb: Better forward me his license plate #.
Me: hahahahahahahaha why? I only meet good people! Gotta pay. I’ll check in with you later, k?
Deb: Does his car say taxi on it?: Does his car say taxi on it?
At this point I show my husband the phone and he takes it from me and texts: Jihadi Taxi Co..

Leaving the restaurant with the food I decide to tell Masoud that I have been texting with my girlfriend this whole time and she is asking where he is taking us, and if his car says taxi on the side. “I think she is afraid you are kidnapping us!” We all have a good laugh over that one.

Masoud wants to know how I had found this restaurant. I have to think, and then tell him it was because I used to paint with some artists nearby and we would come here for lunch. He tells us that his sister in Iran has just called him, and his twenty-four year old niece, who is an artist, is locked in her room and won't come out. She was harassed by the Islamic Fundamentalist authorities while driving her car, because, they said, her head scarf was not pulled down far enough on her forehead. She talked back to them, and told them that this was her car, her private property, and she could do anything she wanted inside of her car. (When I hear this I become extremely alarmed about where this story is going.) They commented that she had a smart mouth on her, and what was she doing with that dog in the front seat? Didn't she know that it was illegal to have dogs out in public? She again said that this car was her private property and she could do what she wanted. So they took her dog, which she had raised since a puppy. And now she won't come out of her room.

Masoud said his sister wanted him to talk to her, and he said, "I don't know what I am going to say!"

I asked what it would take for her to leave the country. He said you had to have a "good cause." I asked what that meant and he said it meant you had a lot of money, and you could hire a good lawyer to get you through the system. He explained that not only was it difficult to get out of Iran, but it was a bigger problem to get into the United States from Iran, since the terrorist attacks. You could get in if you were sponsored, but it had to be an immediate relative like a parent or sibling. He said she is in her third year of college and excels at all her classes, but especially art, which is her major. She wants to come here to continue her studies.

I couldn't imagine how frustrating it must be for a talented twenty-four year old woman to feel so trapped. I told him to give her a message, from one artist to another. I told him to tell her that it is her art that will save her, and to never give up her art. That no matter what is happening outside, she needs her art to find peace of mind inside. He said he will tell her. He said she is selling some paintings now and says she is saving for a plane ticket to the U.S., but what was left unsaid by both of us was her slim chance of ever making that trip.

Somehow the talk turned to things happening in the world, and he said that the earth was not going to be gentle and understanding forever. That one day things would change. A long time from now, but gradually. He talked about how we are just a very tiny galaxy amongst a million other galaxies out there. I asked if he ever wanted to know, as I did, what other galaxies looked like. He said he would like to travel to Jupiter because he heard it had sixteen moons, and wouldn't it be nice to sit outside with your coffee and look up at sixteen moons? I explained that I would like to see other galaxies that had produced life forms like the earth had, but they certainly wouldn't be exactly the same, and I am curious what their worlds look like.

He said that someday we will know these things but that right now our brains aren't big enough to understand these things. I said, you mean we aren't ready to comprehend worlds beyond our own? He said, yes, you know, just like the computer. The knowledge was always there but we weren't ready to see it. So, I said, it is like when society is ready for a new concept, then we manifest it? Yes, he said.

I am reveling in this moment. I am a Midwestern white woman from the suburbs, having a metaphysical discussion with this man from Iran, and we are on exactly the same page.

As we enter our neighborhood I take a risk and decide to tell Masoud that when my girfriend asked if his car had "taxi" on the side, my husband had texted her, "Yes. Jihadi Taxi." I held my breath for a moment but he laughed really hard, saying, "jihadi taxi, hahaha." Then we talk about something else and he comes back to the joke, except this time he says, "Al Qaeda taxi," and we say, very quickly, no, no, we didn't say Al Qaeda (as if this was much, much worse), we said Jihadi Taxi. But then a moment later I say, I suppose you could call it Al Qaeda taxi too," and we all laugh, and I think, this whole conversation is so surreal but so good, and I suggest that if the friend he is in business with has his own town car then his could be Al Qaeda Taxi and Masoud‘s could be the Jihadi Taxi. He said that the next time he comes to pick us up he is going to put that on his car. I said that I would call all the neighbors out to see. (And, my husband mumbles, the next call we get is from the FBI.)

Now we are in the driveway. He oohs and aahs over our ancient dog, who comes out to greet us, saying “hello baby,“ which endears him to me even more. I tell him, Masoud, you are the best and we will always call you when we need a ride to the airport. I want to hug him but I don’t know if it is alright, so I shake his hand instead. He said it was strange, but he felt like he has known us a long time. I said, well, there are a lot of us who have known each other for a long time. He said, yes. And he was gone.

Later that night in a phone call to my Mother I was relating the story of our ride with Masoud, still high from the experience. There was silence on the other end of the line. Then she told me that warnings had been in the news lately, especially for women, to never get in a car that didn’t specifically say “taxi” on the side, because people were being driven off to unknown places and meeting horrible fates. I replied that no, I hadn’t heard about that.

The next day I meet my texting friend at the Y and it turns out she was seriously worried about my safety, having heard the same reports my mother had. She talks about how easy it is to be “courted” by people like this to carry drugs or other things. We argue about it. Whether I had been foolish. I become quite upset and confused but during my workout I decide this is more about her fear than my foolishness.

Because that’s not the world I live in. And neither does Masoud.

Quote of the day

"Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it." -- P. J. O'Rourke, American political satirist, journalist, and author.

(Thank you to Linda Shaw for sharing this.)