Friday, April 29, 2016

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Instead of the crazy lady in the SUV who thinks I’m the “b%*&h” who stole her boyfriend in junior high….

My encounter with the strange neighbor was foremost in my mind as I picked up Peter Lovenheim’s book In the Neighborhood. As he writes, it is rare for most Americans to know their neighbors. Even with social media apps trying to fill the gap (my Next Door update just informed me there is a “Creepy guy at 160th & meridian Little Ceasers”),  we are clueless as to who might be living a few doors down. He aptly observes that it often takes a natural disaster or tragedy to bring people out from behind closed doors.

I’ve experienced this first hand when it took a flood to meet my neighbors in Japan. More recently, a mild winter snowstorm brought the neighborhood kids out to shovel sidewalks and gave my kids an introduction to our latest neighborhood in Washington.

Lovenheim’s premise is that it shouldn’t take a tragic event or extreme weather for us to meet those living in close proximity. In fact, he wonders that if neighbors do know one another better they could be instrumental in providing a haven before tragedy strikes.

Lovenheim, going through his own separation, was influenced by a murder down the street to set out to meet his neighbors. Not only did he meet them, he even convinced some of them to let him spend the night and observe a day in their lives. His book is an account of those encounters as well as a brief examination of the influence our suburban lifestyles have on isolating ourselves from those around us.

In reaching out to his neighbors, not only did he benefit from finding friendship, he was able to connect others who had much in common. His book teaches us that nodding to the woman who walks her dog every evening is a start, but not an end. 

So even though I am now avoiding eye contact with anyone driving an SUV on my street, I probably will be braver about saying hello to the dog walkers and stroller moms I see on my afternoon walk. And maybe soon this "housing community" will actually start feeling like a community. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

"A palimpsest of old logging roads and game trails"

I met a lumberjack once. He lived in Oregon, sported an impressive beard, and ate vegan store brand Oreo’s. He recounted the dangers of his job - among them the brutal exposure to the elements on a daily basis.  

Peter Geye captures the brutality and desperation of men who worked in the lumber camps at the turn of the century. His novel The Lighthouse Road is set in 1890s and 1920s Minnesota. It follows the immigration of a young woman from Norway who finds work as a cook in the lumber camp.  She gives birth to a son. After her death, her son Odd is adopted by the town. When he’s older, he supports himself as a fisherman.  Odd falls in love with a woman who knew his mother and eventually learns the truth behind her death even as he’s facing the reality of raising his own son alone.

In the tradition of books by Annie Proulx, Jim Harrison, Charles Frazier, and Jeffrey Lent, The Lighthouse Road explores the effects of one’s environment on family, identity, and survival.  Its characters build boats by hand, travel by dog sled, fight wolves, and survive Atlantic crossings on one jar of sheep’s milk. With a spare yet vivid writing style, Geye captures a harsh reality that is both appalling and appealing. 

Not unlike a vegan Oreo. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Think of me with my nose in a book"

It has taken several weeks, but I have completed the challenge of reading a book over 500 pages long. It’s accompanied me on Sunday rainy afternoon reading sprees, flights to and from Chicago, kept me occupied on sick bed stints (as watcher and watchee), and been a constant companion at myriad baseball practices.  

In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, we go back to nineteenth century England. The Napoleonic Wars are raging and the politicians are wringing their hands. Enter Mr. Norrell, a magician with not only a formidable library, but practical powers as well.  After being introduced to London’s social scene, he quickly becomes a celebrity.

Meanwhile Jonathan Strange has also been mastering the dark arts. Inevitably, as the only two real magicians left in England, the men cross paths and Strange is taken under the wing of Norrell as a pupil. However, as Strange’s powers increase, he parts ways with Norrell. Whose brand of magic will win out without destroying everyone in their inner circle?

At 1024 pages, this is certainly not a book for reading in one sitting. However, every time I opened it, I was surprised, horrified, or fascinated by the next turn of events in these two men’s lives. Clarke breaks up the potential monotony of battle scenes and drawing room intrigues with wry humor and clever twists. This book transports the reader to another time, place, and even dimension, and proves a pleasant distraction from that delayed flight or overzealous little league coach. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

We are Family

Taking a break from my reading challenge, I delved into a few books recently that made me ponder the various permutations of family.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson examines the consequences of growing up with performance artist parents.

After Birth by Elisa Albert is an honest look at the shock and awe of having a baby.

Spinster by Kate Bolick reports on the women who helped shaped her life and the passion to be found in remaining single.

Swing Low: A Life by Miriam Toews lovingly describes the life of her father and ruminates on his last days and death. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Sweet and Salty Squid Candies

I turn 41 today. If I were to write a food memoir, it would have to include these moments...That simple Spanish breakfast I had in Madrid when I was 8.  The baklava I tried in Greece when I was 20. That apple empanada I inhaled outside a Oaxaca bakery when I was 28. Those sweet potato fries in Ann Arbor when I was 37. Since 1) I can’t draw and 2) these were all pre-Instagram, they’ll have to remain in my memory (and thighs).

Luckily for us, Lucy Knisley can draw (and cook) and has captured her unforgettable food experiences in Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. She charmingly illustrates her childhood growing up with foodie parents, her teen rebellion in sneaking McDonald’s fries on a trip to Rome with her father, and first adult job as a cheese monger. Each chapter has a nice finish with a step by step depiction of a favorite recipe. The strata of huevos rancheros on page 75 will have you digging out the frying pan and adding queso fresco to your shopping list. Trust me. 

Since I'll be in Chicago next week, I've already earmarked page 159 for ideas of foods to try while I'm there. More memories in the making. 

Friday, March 11, 2016


In keeping with my reading challenge for 2016, I decided to read “a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years.” My choice? Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson since it was a NYPL pick and conveniently already on my daughter’s bookshelf.

Astrid and Nicole have been best friends since first grade. Now that they are 12, their different interests are pulling them in two directions. After Astrid’s mom takes them to see a roller derby, Astrid decides her destiny lies in being a roller girl. Nicole, disappointingly, decides to stick with dance camp with arch nemesis Rachel. Showing up for camp alone is one thing, but Astrid quickly realizes that showing up for camp with weak skating skills might be worse. As the summer progresses, however, Astrid becomes more confident on skates (and off) through the support of her teammates, her new friend Zoey, and motivational messages from derby star Rainbow Bite.

The author Victoria Jamieson, in addition to being an illustrator, is also a member of the Rose City Rollers Derby League.  Her experience shines through the stars of pain liberally sprinkled through the pages and the mantras of tougher, stronger, and fearless echoing over the rink. However, she also perfectly captures preteen Astrid’s world outside the rink. Everything from saying hi to a boy to a shopping trip with her mom is, well, awkward.  

I may not be ready to try out for a roller derby league, but this book definitely made me want to check out what it's all a bout.  

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Eyes Have It

This week’s challenge was to read a book that was adapted into a movie and then watch the movie. I went about this challenge backwards since the movies showed up on the reserve shelf at the library before the books were available. This may have skewed the results, but in both cases the visual images from the movies stuck with me long after I had finished reading the printed page.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The HBO adaptation wins out partly due to the Maine scenery and the kitsch of the seventies (and later) set pieces, but mostly due to the strong performances by actors Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins as Olive and Henry.  Zoe Kazan is also mesmerizing as shop girl Denise Thibodeau who works in Henry’s pharmacy. Reading the book, it’s interesting to note which characters made it into the script and which were left as background players. Most regretfully is Angela who has a sizable backstory in the novel, but merely shows up as a lounge singer in the miniseries.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

In the movie version of this book, the um, movies, make it all worthwhile. High school students Greg and Earl spend their free time making parodies of classic movies. When Greg’s mom asks him to befriend a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer, Greg reluctantly agrees. Where other story lines would turn this scenario into a romantic comedy, Greg wryly notes, Greg and Rachel simply become friends. When Greg is asked to make a movie for Rachel, he balks, stalls, and even gnashes his teeth, but ends up making a beautiful piece he shows Rachel in her final moments. Apart from the movies within a movie, one of my favorite scenes is Greg’s discovery after Rachel’s death of her whimsical creations.