Category Archives: comfort food

Little House on the Prairie: Best Books Ever?

For the past four days I’ve been rereading the Little House on the Prairie series. This has been the result of a “Whirl of Gaiety” in my non-reading life, to borrow the name of a book chapter. Since Friday I’ve attended an American Motown ball, a going away dinner and a themed birthday party called One Hundred Beers of Solitude (nobody was allowed to speak until 100 beers had collectively been consumed). WHEW. No wonder I needed something mellow, comforting and familiar to read while I recover from Socializing Overload, i.e. nasty hangovers. But to be honest, most of the time I feel like there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather read more.

Why am I so fascinated and intrigued by these books? Are they really (as I claim on my favorite books page) the Best Books Ever? Is my fondness merely the result of childhood nostalgia and the fact that Little House in the Big Woods is the first book I can remember reading by myself? I remember reading one sentence, “Supper was solemn,” taking it to my mother and asking what solemn was. In my head it was some kind of fish—not too bad; I guess I must have known what salmon was somehow (it was definitely not a dietary staple in Colombia). Fond childhood memories aside, why do I still dig these books now? I am almost TEN YEARS OLDER than Laura is in the last volume—let’s not go there.

I’d say the biggest reason to enjoy these books is the whole pioneer self-sufficiency thing. If I am really honest with myself, I tend to skim (and have always skimmed) the sections where Pa is making bullets, using a threshing machine to cut hay, building a house without nails, etc. But I approve in theory of these sections existing, as they’re a documentation of a time that no longer exists. These people were seriously hardcore and made EVERYTHING THEMSELVES. What I do love and never fail to read are the descriptions of preparing and serving food—Farmer Boy is particularly pornographic with this (maybe because it’s from a nine-year-old boy’s perspective? HA!).

There is also a weird 21-century part of me that loves the DIY character that these books embody. They bring back fond memories of Portland, the Burning Man culture that I so enjoyed but was never truly a part of, just hovering at the edges, observing. The kale gardens, the huge dirty houses filled with people with names like Unicorn who played the banjo, the non-profits that planted trees in sidewalk cracks. (It’s interesting to note that ‘Oregon’ is evoked throughout the LH series as the embodiment of the ultimate west, the last unsettled territory—my father likes to say that Oregon still embodies that character today). I would love to rewrite one of the Little House books, set it in a 22nd-century nuclear apocalyptic wasteland where all the crazy anarchists and permaculturists and hipster cheesmakers reign supreme, make it a real mad Philip K. Dick romp. Someday.

Another reason to appreciate the series is that each book has its own unique tone and theme, which makes them fun to read, because you are getting a different experience in each one. Little House in the Big Woods sets up the basic structure, a Black Swan Green-like description of a year, following the family throughout the seasons (when I was little I assigned a month to each of the thirteen chapters of Big Woods, September to September—this meant that spring didn’t happen till Chapter Nine in May, which made me NEVER want to live in Wisconsin, EVER. Imagine only getting four chapters worth of warm weather!!).  The latter books follow this year-in-a-life format, with the exception of The Long Winter, which focuses on a season. The cool thing about this 12-month structure is that it means all the books have a Christmas chapter, which also fascinated me as a child—imagine being thrilled to get a PENNY and a piece of Christmas candy in your stocking! This was in contrast to the 20th-century My Little Pony and Barbie gluttonous capitalism that was my experience—for shame!

Another interesting tidbit I learned is that Little House on the Prairie was originally supposed to be called Little House in Indian Territory, according to the very helpful appendix and timeline in the back of my library copy. This book is probably the most problematic in terms of, you know, the whole racism and colonization thing. In one of the latter books (can’t remember which one), the appendix  say that it used to contain the following sentence: “The land had no people, only animals and Indians.” In the 1940’s the editors decided to edit this out (with the author’s approval) because it was implying that Indians weren’t people (which obviously was what a lot of people believed—still believe today, even). So “people” was changed to “settlers.” I thought this fact was really interesting.

When I was little, my favorite books were one through four, obviously. Plum Creek might have been my favorite because it had lots of descriptions of going to school, to town, to birthday parties and playing in the creek, all of which I could relate to and found fascinating. I also remember being really traumatized by the idea of spending ALL DAY Sunday not moving or talking. How ‘bout that resilient pioneer character? I mean I spent my Sunday yesterday making Jamie Oliver’s chicken tikka masala, cooking quinoa and reading thousands of Hark! A Vagrant comics.

The books I like the best now are the Dakota ones. I was also impressed this time around with By the Shores of Silver Lake. To be honest, I think I’d never read this one in full, word to word, until now. It’s arguably a transitional novel, the one that carries us from the child’s perspective of Plum Creek to the more adult, mature point of view in The Long Winter (which is probably the strongest book in the series). I never dug Silver Creek as a child for maybe exactly that reason; the tone wasn’t as consistent as the others ones. But reading it in full for the first time, I really enjoyed it. The beginning is so dark, the darkest one of all the books. You are hit with triple whammies: Mary is BLIND and BALD, the family is as poor as heck and JACK THE LOYAL BULLDOG DIES! Man! And the book doesn’t even touch upon the fact that Laura had a baby brother that also died during that period.

The way that the books deal with dark and troubling aspects of pioneer life is also interesting to me. I wonder if some people would argue that the books “gloss” over the violent and disturbing realities of pioneer life. A good indicator of when the book is about to Go Somewhere Dark is when Ma says, “Charles,” in a pointed voice, and then Pa proceeds to give the girls a lecture. Don’t go near the railway camp where all the men are; they use rough language (is rough language code for they’ll rape you?). Don’t untie Jack the bulldog when the Indians come by; bad things will happen (like a complete MASSACRE). I guess from my very biased, Big Fan perspective, I would say that the books don’t gloss darkness over, but merely reveal it from a child’s perspective.  We hear about crazy violent dangerous stuff the same way a pioneer child would: in tiny hints and glimpses, overheard fragments in conversations between the Grown-Ups. Another intriguing tidbit revealed by the appendix is the fact that one anecdote that is constantly referred to in Plum Creek was actually much darker and sinister in real life. The anecdote in question is a story Laura overhears about a group of four kids whose Pa and Ma don’t make it home from town because of a blizzard. In the book the kids end up burning all the furniture but surviving; in real life, the appendix claims, they all froze to death, one surviving with a gangrenous arm.

In summary, I would love to read a really dark pioneer life novel (I’m sure one is out there somewhere), but since these books were written for kids during the Great Depression, you can’t fault them for not doing something that they aren’t intended to do. Fortunately the books have just enough hints at darkness and death to make them deliciously intriguing to kids, without making them deeply disturbing (I don’t think I personally would have been disturbed by them as a kid; on the contrary I would have eaten it up—but c’est la vie).

What the books DO emphasize very well (and what makes their case for being the Best Books Ever) is their rhythm and consistency. Bad stuff is always happening, but as Almanzo says in the last book in the series, “The fly at the bottom of the wheel will one day be at the top.” (What is this fly? Who nailed it to the bottom of the wheel? WHO WOULD DO THAT?) There are grasshoppers, prairie fires, fever ‘n ague, blizzards, but then Ma always says “Mercy Charles!” or “All’s well that ends well,” and then Pa takes out his fiddle and plays. The winter is long, but spring always comes. There are ponies to ride and tame, infinite prairie land to explore, and if there’s just enough money and ways to make ends meet, just maybe there’ll be some calico for Christmas.

The other main reason that I enjoy reading these books and will definitely make my future-possible kids read them is that Laura herself is a great character, and that’s where the true story of the series lies: her transition from child to adult. She’s a great character for young girls to relate to because she’s naughty, she fidgets, she resents older sister Mary’s golden curls and goody-goody two-shoes nature, she does stupid things and gets into trouble, she’s headstrong and independent yet also shy and terrified. Good books result from good characters—I think that’s the one shared characteristic of any work of fiction vying to be considered the Best Book Ever.

The last thing I would like to say is that this time around when rereading, my favorite part was when Pa would shake his head and say “Tenderfeet!”, in reference to pioneers who like had no idea what they were doing. I like that word and am going to start using it more often in my own daily vocabulary. I have no idea when or in what context, but I just love the way it sounds: “Tenderfeet!”

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Filed under books, comfort food, review

Jurassic Park Reflections

Jurassic Park is the first adult novel I can remember reading. I mean REALLY reading, as in from cover to cover.

The first novel I can remember flipping through was Little House on the Prairie. I was young enough (three? Four?) that I didn’t understand all the words yet, so I made up the story as I went along, looking at the pictures. I remember one picture, in the first chapter, of Laura running through the woods while Ma looks into a hole in a tree, both of them surrounded by grey grainy dots. I think they were smoking a pig, but back then for me it became a scene of them being attacked by killer murderous bees (I’d confused the smoke for bees in the picture, obviously).

There are two other Big People novels I can remember looking through. One was Pride and Prejudice, pulled from its dusty, musty-smelling place out of my mother’s bookshelf, where it stood proudly with its creased spine alongside all her D.H. Lawrence and Dickens opuses. I didn’t understand a word of what was going on, but I remember being fascinated by the orange Penguin Classic cover, and just the words, pages and pages of words in their tiny grey font! What were they saying? So different from my beloved Roald Dahl novels or The Adventures of Tintin! The other novel I remember looking through was The Color Purple. Its opening first sentences, referring to fathers and rape (a word that I didn’t fully understand, but nevertheless still sensed to be “bad”), scared me so bad I went out into the garden shed at our house in England and hid it there. Years later I went back in to check to see if it was still there, and it was, dusty and cobwebby and the pages stuck together as though they’d been glued.

I must have been something like five or six years old when I read Jurassic Park, since the book jacket claims its publishing date as 1990. I pulled it out of the bookshelves at the Baptist expat church we used to attend (I remember the long car rides to get there, up the hills into the bumpy Northern part of Cali, always made me horribly carsick. It didn’t help that we always went to Dunkin Doughnuts as soon as church service was over). The book’s cover, with its stark black bony dinosaur, looked exciting and promising enough to make my heart thump in eager anticipation. Apart from introducing me to DNA, this was also the novel that taught me to swear (it’s pretty surprising, retrospectively, that it doesn’t contain a single F-bomb). I remember my sister getting in trouble for asking my little brother What the hell are you talking about? And me teaching our friends at recess how to use Jesus Christ! as a profanity—I have the Ed Regis awaiting the T-Rex in the car scene to thank for that.

For these beloved memories as well as others, Jurassic Park will always hold a sentimental place in my heart. I re-watched the movie last night with some friends and was pumping my fist in the air and shouting out “YES!” after countless scenes. Best of all is the part when the T-Rex is roaring with a dead velociraptor and the fossil bones of its long-dead ancestors at its feet, while a sign flutters down from a ceiling that says WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. What else can one say in response to such a gem of a scene except “Yes”!!!

One of the things I really liked about Jurassic Park (and still like!) is the way it blends fascinating informational passages about science with exciting genre-fiction type action and suspense. My favorite passages in the book as a youngster were the rockstar mathematician’s long rants while high on morphine and explanations of chaos theory—he truly is the best character, no wonder Crichton brought him back from the dead for the sequel. I really love books that make me feel like I’m drowning in knowledge or like my head is spinning with information: Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before is another good example of this kind of knowledge-immersive novel (on the flip side, his Foucault’s Pendullum is SO information packed it’s like a sandwich that’s crammed with too many ingredients; I’ve never been able to finish it). For a while I thought I wanted to be a biologist, and I wonder now if books like Jurassic Park had something to do with that, as crazy as it sounds. It was fiction that made science interesting to me. I found this magic in brief flashes in my biology textbooks, but it was unfortunately never attainable during the long and tedious lab sessions (which is probably for the best; I would be SO unhappy right now if I were stuck working in labs all day!). My biology love lives on though; I would really love to write a historical fiction novel one day about medieval scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries, but only if I could do it in a vaguely modern style (a la Amadeus, with all my monk scientists talking like stoned, sassy hippies).

Jurassic Park is also sentimental to me because it’s like a talisman that carries through time. Haha, that makes it sound like one of the Horucruxes from the Harry Potter series, but whatever. JP reminds me that I’ve always been a reader and I always will be one. It’s a comforting though to hold on to, that no matter what happens in life, I have this to depend on: I am a reader, a writer, a book lover. I love socializing, activity, talking with people and adventuring, but at my heart’s core what I really want to do at the end of the day is hide away from the crowds and stick my nose into Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney.

I recognize other readers I run into like kindred spirits. It’s like a Gaydar. For example, during homework help hour at my job, I always like to check in with J. and his daily progress through Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series. “I’ve finished the first one!” he told me last week, and I pressed my hands over my ears pleadingly. “Don’t spoil it for me!” I really need to pay my library fines so that I can place them on hold, read them and then have a conversation with him about it… God knows if there’s anybody else in his life who is willing to talk to him about books, you know? Hopefully there is…

I also love working with P., so eccentric and tormented by his math homework from his accelerated program at school. “Gah!” he scowls, reading the word problems. “That’s RETARDED.” He always gives me little sideways hugs with his skinny little arms, and it’s always surprising for me to see him in the gym, running and sweaty and shouting and throwing squishy white foam balls at other kids’ heads: it just seems like such a dissonant, contrasting environment, for a kid that I know to be so wicked smart and nerdy. Good for him, I guess, getting both the jock and the book thang down.

So yeah, I recognize myself in these kids as my peers, my descendants. A similar act of recognition happened to me yesterday, at our service project community field trip. At one point, R. (one particularly feisty little girl) disappeared along with J.D. (a kid who’s of our biggest characters). I found them lurking among the trees by the blue plastic portapotties, frowning intensely into the underbrush. “Come on guys,” I said. “Thirty minutes left. Let’s give it all we’ve got. Tear that mean ol’ blackberry off those pear trees.”

“I saw,” R. whispered huskily, “something black. Darting among the trees over there.”

I said something lame about werewolves not coming out among the daylight. “But look at those crosses,” R. said. “Look.” She pointed at one, two, three: I looked and saw some random planks of wood propped up against each other among the trees; remnants of some long ago abandoned gardening project, probably. To me they looked like unfinished chicken coops.

I was sort of at a loss of words of how to reply to her. The last thing I wanted to tell her was Oh, that’s nothing, don’t be silly. That’s not REALLY a graveyard. The last thing I want to do is look a child in the eye and tell them, It’s not what you think it is. It’s just this other mundane, boring, wordly thing. Don’t let your imagination carry you away. It was, like, a kid using her imagination! Right in front of me! Who was I to tell her not to use it? I kind of wanted to cry a little, actually (Wow, I really AM getting horribly mushy and soft in the middle! Like all those tomatoes rotting on our front porch banister!).

Anyway, I somehow managed to usher both her and the silent wide-eyed J.D. back to our worksite. But it stuck with me. I love that idea, that you can look at a bunch of crappy moldy planks of wood in a forest and see a graveyard. I did the same thing when I was her age. I do the same thing, still. I look at R. and her werewolf and graveyard visions, and J. hunched over his copy of The Hunger Games, and P. frowning and yelling over his math problems, and I think, These are my people. These kids may not recognize me yet, but I definitely recognize them. We are one and the same. Thinkers, dreamers, inventors of stuff that isn’t really there, head constantly in the clouds and too smart for our own damn good.

I don’t really know how to end this entry now. In my yoga class the other day the teacher talked a little bit about this quote from Joseph Campbell:

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about.

“An experience of being alive.” I like that. I don’t really know how to connect that to anything that’s been said before, but I still like it.

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Filed under comfort food, experience, kids, meaning, pondering, silly

The Whole Story

I love Ali Smith. The first work of hers that I read was a novel called “The Accidental,” for a literature class called “Fiction and Time,” during my semester abroad in England, at University of East Anglia. I’d never read anything like it. I loved it, and list it on my favorite books list on this blog. I went on to read “Hotel World,” which I also loved, in all its “Mrs. Dalloway” canon-like homage, and then I read this short story collection, “The Whole Story,” while I was recovering from a pretty nasty break-up. After finishing two Lorrie Moore collections, I was still in the mood for some good old female-penned fiction, so of course Ali Smith was one first to come to mind. Not only does she remind me how fun it is to read stuff written by women, but how fun it is to read contemporary writers. I really should do it more often, if I can ever get myself back into a stable reading rhythm again… oh well, baby steps, right?

I like the quote that precedes the collection, by a Brazilian author called Clarice Lispector: Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It makes me think of Molly Bloom’s closing monologue in “Ulysses,” and then in turn of the sexy Kate Bush song: “mmmm, yes.” I feel like this quote is relevant to the collection because it seems to be asking when does the “story” truly begin: with the creation of molecules? With prehistory? With the prehistory of prehistory? With the “yes” uttered by God… Sophia… quantum physics… oh man, who knows.

The opening story (called “The Universal Story”–its place at the beginning definitely doesn’t feel like an accident!) is a good way to set up these themes for the rest of the book. The story asks good questions about when does a story truly begin, by using a series of false starts. “There was a man who dwelt by a churchyard. Well, no okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.” (1) And then it goes on from there, to a woman who lived by a cemetery, to a woman who lived by–no, in–a second-hand bookshop, to the life of an edition of The Great Gatsby, to the life of a common domestic house fly, to the customer who comes in to by a copy of the book because his sister is a performance artist building a boat made solely out of editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American opus. Using the Great Gatsby is an appropriate choice, as not only is it a reflection of the book’s closing lines (“beating back ceaselessly into the past” or so on), but it’s also a nice image: a boat made entirely out of books, carrying us away (not to spoil anything, but it unsurprisingly just ends up sinking in the English channel).

Maybe this summary doesn’t make this story sound like much. In this case, I would say that this story is a good example of how it’s not so much what a story is about, but rather how it is about it. I’m really not the kind of person who’s delighted by the trumping of style over substance… in fact, I would say that I’m pretty much over magical realism altogether, unless it is very, very well done. But for some reason Ali Smith pleases rather than frustrates me. She makes reading fiction fun. These stories make me feel good about myself and happy to be alive–I really can’t think of a better reason to recommend her other than that. They’re just delightful. They’re fun to read!

For example, take the story “May,” which has one of the best examples of Smith’s enviable ability to write killer opening lines: “I tell you. I fell in love with a tree. I couldn’t not. It was in blossom.” (45) Oh man! This may very well be my favorite story in the collection. There’s just so much to unpack here, about nature and technology and alienation and capitalism. One of my favorite parts of the story is also a good example of one of my favorite things about Smith in general: she has this technique where 1) we don’t know the gender of the narrator, 2) the narrator constantly refers to an unnamed “you,” their romantic partner, and 3) the 2nd half of the story is narrated by the subject of the previous narrator’s “you,” so that the new “you” becomes the first narrator. I just find this technique to be a really unique and powerful way of narrator–what is storytelling, if not talking to a “you”? And how awesome is it that the “you” character gets to narrate themselves, at the end? So in this case, after listening to the first narrator expound upon how he/she fell in love with a tree, the 2nd half of the story is from their partner’s perspective, which is even more interesting: how do you deal with your boyfriend/girlfriend, if they claim to be in love with a tree? This is an example of a magic-realism element that is handled quite well by Smith, in a way that is sweet and realistic rather than annoying. What’s so weird about falling in love with a tree anyway? In the story it isn’t treated all too differently than if the character was having an affair with a person. I also like how Smith puts people/tree relationships in context by referring to other stories and myths, such as the one with Daphne, which in turn makes it seem less weird.

Pretty much all my favorite stories in this collection are the ones that use this “you” mid-story switching technique. The one where the narrator is trying to get home on the Tube, and thinks that they see Death (“You know he’s Death because when he smiles, your cell phone goes dead.”). The one called “Believe Me”, which opens with these lines: “I’m having an affair, I said. No you’re not, you said.” (119) There’s other stories, too: the one where the main character is haunted by a band of Scottish bagpipers in full regalia (this is the most magical realism story of the lot). The one about the three Scottish sisters, and their random dead-end jobs working in fast food restaurants or as the coffee-drink vendor on a Loch Ness monster tour ferry. The weirdest story to me is “Erosive,” which is divided in three sections, “middle,” “end,” “beginning,” but still doesn’t seem to have any order: I can’t figure out if this story is about killing ants that are killing your apple tree, what it feels to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, or some weird combination of the two.

My favorite passage in the entire collection comes from “Believe Me,” which reminds me of something out of a Sarah Kane monologue:

“I can read you like a book and because the thing about a beloved book, if it’s a good one, is that it shifts like music; you think you know it, you’ve read it so many times, of course you know it, of course the pleasure of it is in how well you know it, but then you hear in the background, the thing you never heard in it before, and with the turn of a page you see a combination of words you know you’ve never seen before, you thought you knew this book but it dazzles you with the different book it is, yet again, and not just that but the different person you have become, the different person you are now, reading it again, and you, my love, are an excellent book for me, and then us both together, which takes some talent with rhythm, but luckily we are quite talented at reading each other.” (127)

Aaaah! Talk about making my heart stop… man, imagine someone writing that in an e-mail for you, or a text message, or a postcard. It makes my heart hurt just to think about it. I wanna write something like this myself, but for me, rather than for some stupid boy. Maybe the highest compliment that can be paid to Ali Smith is that she makes me feel inspired enough about fiction that I want to pick up my pencil and start writing again, myself. I’m getting there… it’s like that Buddhist expression: “Wherever you go, there you are.” You have to make YOURSELF the unattainable, idealized “you” that you long for and address and narrate to… you know? It’s like what one of the many, many self-help books I have read in the past two months said: YOU have to make yourself the hero of your own story, rather than some random other person who is supposed to swoop in and save the day and make everything all better with a band-aid and a cookie and a kiss on the cheek. The things that you long that have in a relationship, the qualities that you long to see manifested in other people, are typically the qualities you want to see manifested in yourself. The best thing about this is that YOU CAN DO IT YOURSELF, rather than wait for someone else to do it FOR you!! Like: don’t wait for someone to write a poetic love letter to you comparing you to a well-read book… do it yourself! What an important realization, to think that YOU are that person to whom you are narrating and addressing and directing your life towards… not someone else.

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Filed under Ali Smith, books, comfort food, contemporary, quotes, review, short stories

Self-Help

I finally finished a book, for the first time since I read Dave Eggers’ The Wild Things in one sitting on May 10th (according to GoodReads, which I still oh so diligently update, even in these days of sorrow and strife). Yay!

The book in question was the short story collection by Lorrie Moore, Self-Help, which I believe is her very first book. It was a reading assignment from the brand spanking new women-only book club I just joined (we’re meeting at my house next Tuesday!). Self-Help contains the first story I ever read by Moore, the wonderful “How to be a Writer.” (“You’re Ugly, Too” is my other all-time favorite Moore piece, which sets the bar high for stories about pulling little black hairs from your chin.) Even though I first read it yonks ago, all the way back in one of CTY’s nerd camp summer sessions, it still contains the best advice about writing I’ve read in its gem of a first sentence (“First, try to be something, anything, else.”)

I really liked most of the short stories in this book. My favorites were the ones that follow the same method of “How to Be a Writer,” narrated in the second-person, Choose Your Own Adventure style. The only full length novel I’ve ever read that was narrated in this manner was written by Tom Robbins (“Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas”? Was that it? I remember enjoying it but I would probably appreciate all the extraterrestrial kidnappings and Timothy Leary references now as my post-college self, as opposed to my sixth-grade self). We’ve done some exercises in my creative expressions class, writing in the second person, and it’s interesting to consider what the style does to your writing. It always makes me feel so… I dunno. Like what’s happening in the story is so immediate. The other thing that’s really weird, is that even though the story is narrated as “you,” it’s not like Choose Your Own Adventure, where the characters are completely bland and you can just insert yourself in them–thus replacing the “you” character as “me”, seeing yourself as the deep space explorer, the deep sea diver. In these Lorrie Moore stories, the “you” characters have very distinctive personalities: brothers wounded in the Vietnam war, names like Trudy, mothers that die of cancer and heart problems. So when I read “you,” I don’t really think “WHO ME?”, it’s more like “oh ok this distinct female character who’s being addressed as you.” Anyway… it’s an interesting technique.

God, I just love female authors like Lorrie Moore, Melissa Bank and Ali Smith who can write such cutting and funny and emotionally devastating sentences that just feel so true. Maybe for the next month or so I should try reading only female authors and see what effect it has on my emotional state. Of all the stories in this book, I HIGHLY recommend tracking down and reading the last one, “To Fill.” It is just a killer.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll just quote one little bit, from page 138 (it’s not even the best part of the story, but it still made me LOL, and it feels good to LOL these days):

He’s not really interested in what’s inside, complains Amahara. I want a guy who wants my heart, you know? I want him to look for my heart.
You know when he’s fumbling with your breasts? I flutter my eyes at Amahara. He’s looking for your heart. They all do that.
What a bitter hag I have become.
Amahara grins. He’s really into orange.
But what does that mean, into orange?
Like really into it. She smiles enigmatically.
The color?
Yeah. Really into it.
But what do you mean? His car? His hair? Your hair?
His life, she says dramatically. He’s really into it.
Into it, I repeat dumbly, believing I am trying to understand; what is wrong with me, I thought we were on speaking terms, what are speaking terms am I on them with anyone am I from outer space, is she?
I can’t believe, I say firmly, hoping it will pass, that a person could be so into it.
For damn sure, says Amahara.

Love it. I also loved “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Lorrie Moore is the only writer I have ever encountered who possesses such a wonderful understanding of the love that exists in the relationship between a girl and her cat, and I am so, so grateful for that.

I’m currently reading A Gate at the Stairs now (Moore’s latest novel). By currently reading I mean I’ve read the first two pages : ) I think maybe I’ll read some works by Jennifer Egan next; I really enjoyed all her short stories that appeared in the New Yorker and Tin Drum. I have an ENORMOUS stack of library books currently sitting on the shelf that makes me feel horribly GUILTY: The Lost City of Z, Imperial (I should just give up the ghost on this one and return it, seriously), Valis, The Spell of the Sensuous, The Secret Life of Plants, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History, The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Eaarth, The Yellow Wind, The Farmworker’s Journey, Anna Karenina, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East. Fourteen books!!! My GOD! How many more times will the library let me renew them without impunity? I had to return The Pedagogy of the Oppressed yesterday, which had remained unread for a good two months, and I fear that this is to be the fate of many others……………….

Some random images of what comes up in the google image search for “Self-Help.”

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Filed under books, comfort food, depression, self-help, short stories, women writers

Reading Murakami and Steinbeck in Nuevo LaredoReading


This novel begins with such a normal scene: the narrator in the kitchen, boiling spaghetti and listening to an opera, “which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”(5) There’s absolutely no indication in the first 100+ pages that the story is going to end as weirdly as it does.

This was absolutely the most perfect book in the world for me to read at this particular point in my life. The friend who gave it to me told me he’d read it during a time in which his “flow was obstructed,” and I guess the same goes for me. There was just something so warm and reassuring about reading this book. I would be in the office or in the field all day in Nuevo Laredo, learning all these new concepts and absorbing all these incredibly draining, intense experiences, and yet, at the end of the day it would all be okay, because I knew I could come home to my little apartment, sit on my beat-up couch, eat my cornflakes and yogurt and read another 100 pages of Wind-Up Bird. It was like coming home to cuddle a stuffed animal, albeit one that talked a lot about the Japanese military efforts in Manchukuo.

I loved reading this book. *Loved* it. I wanted to hug it to the chest and clap my hands gleefully with happiness, like a happy seal. I love all the different Joycean techniques Murakami employs to tell his tale: computer chats, letters, newspapers, hallucinatory dream sequences. It feels important that the story begins with a very straightforward, realistic narrative that is almost boring in its simplicity: a man begins searching for his wife’s missing cat. In the last couple of chapters, you’re no longer sure if what’s going on is happenning in this world, a parallel universe, inside somebody’s head, or inside several people’s heads (that’s about as spoiler free as I can be). Also, as a history geek, I loved reading the parts about the Japanese army in Mongolia or the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the prison camps in Siberia. There’s so many parts of the world and of history that I have yet to learn about…

My absolutely favorite thing in the world about Murakami is all his descriptions of what the characters eat. A ham, tomato and cheese sandwich. Stir fried green peppers. Coffee, constantly. These little details sounds so simple, and yet they add so much to the story: it grounds it in something that’s so real and very much every day. The literary cliche gods help me, but I have to call it Kafkaesque: we believe all the crazy things that happen later, because everything that happens early on is so credible, to the point of being monotonous almost. It really is clever technique.

This is a very postmodern novel in the sense that it deals a lot with the question of the self. As in, do we actually have one? Can you ever actually “know” yourself, let alone another person? More than anything else, I think this is the central question of the novel. It reminded me a lot of Tori Amos’ concept album, American Doll Posse, in which she assumes the persona of five different female archetypes, each representing a different side to the female personality. This idea of having several different selves, as opposed to one that is already neatly, conveniently formed, is a theme I believe I’ve already brought up in this blog. I really like the idea of having this “wise self” inside of me, this very pure, intuitive wisdom that I can turn to, time and time again, in order to reassure myself and calm myself down, make myself feel like everything is going to be all right. What about all my other selves? Is complete integration an illusion? Is being mildly fragmented the best that any of us can ever hope for? The question feels even more relevant if you consider victims of trauma like war (as in Wind-Up Bird) or rape (as in American Doll Posse). Trauma can shatter you, splinter you apart. How do you go about rebuilding yourself, making yourself whole again?


This idea of rebuilding and coming together appears in a very different form of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the other book I looked forward to coming home and reading these past few weeks. Steinbeck is about as straightforward as narrative realism gets, not much I can call postmodern here (though please feel free to correct me!). I liked how this book made me want to listen to Bruce Springsteen (which makes sense, since Bruce Springsteen has obviously read Steinbeck. I was surprised by how easily you could update The Grapes of Wrath to a 21st-century tale of immigration to the U.S., if you just substituted the Joads for a Mexican family, changed Okies to mojados, throw in a scene of crossing the Rio Grande.

Oh, it just makes me sad, it makes me angry, it makes me want to—I don’t know, I was going to write “run into the street, burn something, write to a Congressman,” but to be completely honest, what it makes me want to do is read more. I want to read more about the history of labor movements in the early 20th century, I want to read more about the development of 21st-century immigration policy, I want to read more about socialism. I want to sit up late reading drinking my carrot juice, underlining passages in pencil and maybe even scrawling a note to myself in the side margins (yes, I am thus revealing myself to be a book vandal!). I want to read and think and write my thoughts down and them talk about them, late into the night with other people. And then I want them to give me more books to read and tell me, “I think that you would like these ones.” More than anything else it makes me feel hopeful and happy to think that there are other people like this in the world, other people who can relate to the feeling of your heart beating as you hand a book over to another person, the words in your throat bursting with eagerness as you say “oh! This one—you really need to read this one!” What would the world be like, after all, without all these people who want to read great books and think silly thoughts about them and then go out and do completely random-seeming things like intern for a microfinance institution in a border city?

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Filed under bruce springsteen, comfort food, Nuevo Laredo, social justice

People Who Don’t Know the Answers

If I could write fiction like any author, I’d want to write like Anne Tyler. The first Tyler novel I ever read was Saint Maybe, which my sister checked out of the Colegio Bolivar library. It’s the same copy I have with me now; I guess one of us in an act out of an audacious sense of entitlement must have stolen it. If you look at the little flap of paper in the back (how old-fashioned and antique that seems now!), where the librarian would stamp the due date under FECHA DE VENCIMIENTO, the earliest date is 24 March 1998—more than ten years ago! Next to the due date we were supposed to write the grade we were in (who knows why), so there is also a historical record of the changes in my sister’s handwriting as well as mine. The small squat sixes of sixth grade, the taller and more elegant eights of eighth grade. A single thin nine. I guess it was after ninth grade, once we realized that we were the only people checking the book out, over and over again, that we decided that we were the proper owners of the book. Sorry, Bolivar library, forgive us! If it’s any consolation/defense, it has definitely found a loving home in our bookshelves.

I started re-reading Anne Tyler at exactly the right time. I’ve been sick since Sunday with an upper respiratory tract infection. TMI Warning I’ve been producing all this absolutely grotesque green phlegm, with the consistency of yogurt End TMI. It’s equal parts fascinating and disgusting—I am kind of amazed that something like this could come out of my body. On Friday night I took some Dayquil, drank some Visoda and bravely went out on the town with Corey for a birthday night of dancing at the 80’s dance night at the Crystal Ballroom. In the middle of “Burning Down the House,” I slipped on a puddle of water and dislocated my left knee, the same knee I’ve been injuring chronically since high school. This is at least the fourth time it’s been sprained. It’s much better today than yesterday, but it still feels weird, all stretched and unsteady. I’m taking Matt’s joints rehabilitation vitamin pills and icing it a lot. I can sort of hobble now, which is a big improvement.

Thus it feels like subconscious psychic foreshadowing on my part that I had the foresight to check out all these Tyler novels last week, like The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I re-read Tourist , lived vicariously through Macon’s injury and recovery and am now plunging eagerly through Dinner, which I’m not sure if I’ve ever read completely. I have this weird deja-vu feeling reading it, so I’m thinking that maybe I started reading it at some point, but just never finished.

There is something so wonderful and comforting about an Anne Tyler novel. When I’m keeping an injured leg elevated about heart level to encourage reduced swelling while reaching for the roll of toilet paper and hacking my guts out, I can’t think think of any other author I’d rather read. “The perseverance of human beings suddenly amazed him,” realizes one of the characters in Dinner. It’s this perseverance and doggedness that Tyler is particularly skilled at highlighting. Or as a character in Tourist observes,

‘You ever wonder what a Martian might think if he happened to land near an emergency room? He’d seen an ambulance whizzing in and everybody running out to meet it, tearing the doors open, grabbing up the stretcher, scurrying along with it. ‘Why,’ he’d say, what a helpful planet, what kind and helpful creatures.’ He’d never guess that we’re not always that way; that we had to, oh, put aside our natural selves to do it. ‘What a helpful race of human beings,’ a Martian would say. Don’t you think so?’

It’s just really nice to read books about people who are genuinely trying to be good, even if their actions don’t always make it seem that way. Tyler has a lot of love for her characters and it shines through in a way that makes me think of that famous quote about Salinger, that he loved his characters more than God loved them. (Further research led me to learn that this quote was by John Updike, and was meant as a criticism of Salinger. I never liked your writing anyway, Updike.)

Saint Maybe particularly hit home for me at this point in my life, mainly because it’s about a character who spends most of the book taking care of children who are not his own. Ian’s wry observations about taking care of children had me nodding my head vigorously, yes, yes:

He wondered how people endured children on a long-term basis—the monotony and irritation and confinement of them.
You could never call it a penance, to have to take care of these three. They were all that gave his life color, and energy, and… well, life.
It wasn’t easy. A lot of it was just plain boring. Just providing a warm body, just being there; anyone could have done it. And then other parts were terrifying. Kids get into so much! They start to matter so much. Some days I felt like a fireman or a lifeguard or something—all that tedium, broken up by little spurts of high drama.

The other part of the book that drew a straight line between my heart and the pages were the sections about the incertitude of knowing. A lot of the book is about learning how people who seem to “know all the answers” really, well, don’t. In fact, nobody does. Understanding the meaning of someone or something in your life is eventually understood as something that’s ultimately impossible to do:

Apparently, he thought, there were some people in this world who simply never came clear. Reverend Emmett, Mr. Brant, the overlapping shifts of foreigners… In the end you had to accept that the day would never arrive when you finally understood what they were all about. For some reason, this made him supremely happy.

It’s the “happy” part that’s key. Ian’s main conflict in this book is kicked off by the “arrogant certitude” with which he informs his brother that his wife is cheating on him. At the time, he feels like he definitively “knows” this as a fact, but over time he has to admit that no, he really doesn’t know it at all. More than anything else, this book seems to me now to be about surrendering that need for possessive control, to “know” how things are and how things are going to turn out. In the opening pages, Ian is described as someone who is always imaginng his life as seen from a distance, as observed by an outsider:

There were moments when he believed that someday, somehow, he was going to end up famous. Famous for what, he couldn’t quite say; but he’d be walking up the back steps or something and all at once he would imagine a camera zooming in on him, filming his life story. He imagined the level, cultured voice of his biographer saying, ‘Ian climbed the steps. He opened the door. He entered the kitchen.’

This passage really hit home for me with a particularly sharp pang because I used to do the same thing as a really little kid. I’d make lists of all the novels I was going to write. Sitting on the toilet or high up in the mango tree in the yard, I’d talk to myself and answer questions about my life, pretending I was being interviewed on a talkshow or by a reporter. Yeah, I was a particulary imaginative kid, but more than that, I had this ambitious, feroscious drive in me that I had to *BE* someone, you know? My ego was a hungry-hungry-hippo, and it wanted to feed. It still does.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about ego lately (thanks Siddhartha!). When you graduate from college, you’re really forced to think about what you want to do in a grandiose, epic fashion: “so are you going to be one of those people who are going to *BE* somebody??” the ego hungrily, greedily chatters at you. “You’re not just going to waste and fritter your days/years away, right? You’re going to *DO* something, right?? You’re going to be GREAT!!” Sometimes this voice is helpful, because it can drive you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. Other times, it can be quite exhausting. Your ego is always demanding knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, defitive plans, facts, schedules. Sometimes you just can’t have that in life, though.

In Saint Maybe, another one of the main lessons that Ian learns is about “leaning into his burden.” About viewing it as a gift, rather than a weight. This is the only life you’ll have. So you might as well not get stressed out about things, you know? Next week I won’t be working as a prestigious research assistant with a really important professor in a well-known university, but I will be building submaries with third graders. And for now, that’s enough. It’s enough for now to listen to Alex Murdoch’s “Orange Sky” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier” on Corey’s pandora country music station and daydream about the piece of bread with melted cheese I’m about to get up and make myself in a minute. Maybe this afternoon I’ll work on some applications for some potentially cool summer/fall stuff. And maybe learn the Higitus Figitus.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

–T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone (found on Slate’s The Happiness Project blog, my latest fascination/addiction)

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Filed under books, comfort food, future, really deep thoughts, review

Chick Lit for the Soul


If you have a vagina and are kind of hippy-dippy, chances are you will probably enjoy this book. I’ve devoured it with great relish over the past day and a half. I picked it up in one of my BFF’s bedroom while I was waiting to go to dim sum the other morning. It was given to her as a gift from another BFF. It has a little price sticker on it in pounds, so I guess she must have bought it in England somewhere. How appropriate that this book has been passed on hand to hand (I was going to write “vagina to vagina,” but that is a little too reminiscent of that line from “Me, You and Everybody We Know.” If you’ve seen that movie, you should know what I’m talking about). The cover proudly boasts a quote from Julia Roberts of all people, exclaiming “It’s what I’m giving all my girl friends” in elegant red cursive. (there’s also a rave from Minnie Driver, but really, who cares about her?)

This is the kind of book I would expect to be enthusiastically praised by sources such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s website. I am very sorry to say that in a fit of interest last December, I signed up for the weekly newsletter. Now, there’s been a lot written about this stupid website. What interests me is not so much what it says about this weird alien blond creature, but more what my interest in it says about me. I may not be qualified to give a stirring cultural analysis on the mindset of early-20’s females, but gosh darn it, I sure can blab about myself.

Anyway, so basically this book and this website appealed to me as escapist fantasies. It is so, so, nice–almost pornographic–to indulge in these things, to imagine oneself doing them. My BFF’s favorite part of the book is the first section, where Gilbert is in Italy, pigging out on pasta, pizza and all those wonderful carbs. But my favorite part of the book is the middle section, where she’s in an ashram in India, mainly because it sounds so foreign and strange to me (which is not to say that I’mm pigging out on carbs all the time–I wish!). It’s just so appealing. It makes me think, “Damn! I wish I had the money to buy a ticket to India and the time to live in an Ashram and the mindset and capacity to meditate so much!” Yoga has loosened up my hamstrings enough so that I can touch my toes, and that’s pretty much it. On that same note, Maybe I’m just strange, but I really enjoy reading Gwynie’s recommended recipies for her post-Christmas fast/cleanse and her favorite workout exercise videos. It makes me think “Damn! I wish I had the time and the money to buy almond milk and miso soup and all those other crazy ingredients, and work out that much and do all those crazy ridiculous butt crunches where I’m kicking out my legs behind me and boy, does that exercise look like it would really hurt my knee.”

I guess on one hand it’s nice that my fantasies are of doing hippy dippy stuff (like cleanses and intense meditation retreats), as opposed to, I dunno, buying shoes. It just makes me feel good, you know? I loved sinking into this book and Gilbert’s funny, witty, wise tone and her amusing anecdotes like a warm fuzzy blanket. This book came along for me at the exactly right time in my life, much in the same way as Melissa Banks’ The Wonder Spot. I remember reading Banks lying on my stomach in my bed in England, post-breakup, and reading chapter after chapter and just nodding “mm-hmm–been there, done that.” My sister underlined several passages in pencil and wrote “That’s me” for some particularly eerily parallel scenes. The same thing happenned to me with EPL: it’s just creepy how Gilbert writes about some of the exact same things that I’ve experienced, specifically in the quest for inner peace, fufillment, stability, strength, and all those other good strong-sounding one-syllable words.

I remember finishing TWC, closing it and then sitting up and feeling if not exactly compeltely healed, at least a little more than before (Steve Martin’s Shopgirl was also a most unexpected big stepping stone in the heart healing process for me). And then taking out my journal and writing it down: I feel better. That’s the same feeling that Eat Pray Love gave me: it just made me feel better, having something so enjoyable to read on the Max, something that taught me about all these interesting things I’ve been wondering and thinking about lately, like yoga and ashrams and traveling in Asia and Eastern religions and all those other hippy dippy young adult quest things. Again, I repeat: if you have a vagina and are becoming increasingly hippy dippy in your old (young) adult age, you will probably find yourselve folding over page corners or underlining a lot of passages in this book, because they will more than likely really hit home for you.

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