books, art, culture, and other things I love

Month: June, 2014

Memoir Monday: All Good Things

This weekend I finished Sarah Turnbull’s All Good Things: From Paris to Tahiti, Life and Longing, a follow up to her 2004 memoir Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris. In the last book, journalist Turnbull recounts her experience meeting Parisian attorney, Frédéric, by chance in Bucharest and then taking him up on his offer to visit him in Paris. Though she is initially supposed to stay only a week, Turnbull ends up falling in love with Frédéric, navigating culture shock (the author is Australian) and moving to Paris. For good, we think, until we read this follow-up memoir.

In All Good Things, as Sarah and Frédéric are settling into their recently renovated apartment and enjoying life with their Westie named Maddie (even as they continue to long for a baby), a job opportunity comes up for Frédéric to open a new office for his law firm in Tahiti. They embrace the adventure–figuring they will stay there for three years and then come back to Paris to pick up life where it left off.

Paul Gauguin, 1891. "Femmes de Tahiti"

Paul Gauguin, 1891. “Femmes de Tahiti”

Sarah’s plan is to work on her novel (she brings boxes of research materials along to support this endeavor) but like most best laid plans, the universe has other ideas in mind. There is a subtle use of narrative suspense woven into this memoir, so I will hold back on the spoilers. Trumbull’s writing is descriptive, yet not overdone. Her description of the people and places that populate the island community that they call home are both highly visual and evocative.

The vivid landscape and colorful culture are also explored through Turnbull’s deftly woven history of artists Paul Gaugin and Henri Matisse’s visits to Tahiti–both of whom were heavily influenced by their surroundings.

Henri Matisse, 1905. "The Joy of Life"

Henri Matisse, 1905. “The Joy of Life”

For a thoughtful escape to the Polynesian isles that explores creative and maternal longing, All Good Things is worth the read.


A good day for (reading about) baseball.

I am a baseball fan.

The game is how I mark the start of spring (even if the weather in New England has other ideas); how I know summer is here (hello ball games at Fenway Park, or listening to the radio broadcast with Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien); and how I know fall has arrived (earlier or later, depending on the Red Sox’s access to the post season).

One of our local sports radio programs, Toucher and Rich on 98.5 The Sports Hub, has a feature called “Ask a Pink Hat” that I find hilarious, despite its (admittedly) stereotypic framework. The formula is simple: a female game attendee (usually in–you guessed it–a pink hat) is interviewed upon leaving the ball park. Often times the women will incorrectly answer some simple baseball questions (after self identifying as “wicked big fans”) or talk about how X is her favorite player (usually someone who has either been traded several seasons ago, or someone who she can’t name his position). I have long been hoping that I will get stopped on the way out of Fenway to change the average of incorrect responses!

This has been a big weekend in my house as my hometown team is playing a three-game series with The New York Yankees, of which my husband is a fan. Definitely makes for a lot of trash talking around these parts (!). Game #3 is tonight!

This morning, the New York Times Book Review included a review of The Devil’s Snake Curve: A Fan’s Notes from Left Field by Josh Ostergaard. Reviewer Jeff Turrentine notes that in baseball, “someone always loses,” and describes Ostergaard’s work as “a brainy meta-baseball book for people who spend more than a fleeting moment thinking about all those losers. [The book] will receive an especially warm welcome from those who sincerely love the fame but resist easy analogies comparing its slow, idiosyncratic progress to the slow, idiosyncratic progress of the American experiment” (16).

Turrentine also points out that in 1954 French cultural historian Jacques Barzun once noted “whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” and we have seen the intersection between the storied American pastime and stories themselves for decades. For textual evidence of this, I would suggest the book Baseball: A Literary Anthology (edited by Nicholas Dawidoff), which includes work from Philip Roth, Amiri Baraka, Don Delillo, John Updike, and others.

Two other books (novels) about baseball that I have read and would highly recommend are Chad Harbach’s (co-founder of literary magazine n+1) The Art of Fielding, which is an engrossing (and beautifully written) novel about baseball and relationships–set on a small college campus and David-James Duncan’s The Brothers Ka multilayered, multigenerational story in which baseball serves as the central metaphor.


Prints for Readers



I love art that depicts books and reading (obviously), and these three pieces are happily at home in my living room amongst the physical (3-D) books that also reside there. Next week, I will feature photos of my home bookshelves, so stay tuned!

The bookshelf print is from Jane Mount’s “Ideal Bookshelf” series. (Check out her book, My Ideal Bookshelf, too.) The lower print  by Tatsuro Kiuchi is titled “In the Library” and can be found here. Both were framed and matted (by moi) in simple frames (under $10/each) found at Michael’s craft store.

The “Read Instead” print is from San Francisco-based BOOK/SHOP. I displayed it in a simple white wood IKEA frame.



Poems for a Friday

My first introduction to poetry was through my Italian grandfather. An unlikely man of letters, when I was about five or six, he brought home a well worn copy of The Best Loved Poems of the English Language from the “swap shop” at the town dump (this was a small shed where residents would leave items they thought still had some value–even if they didn’t want them themselves). I would climb into his lap in his brown leather recliner and listen while he read aloud.

The Romantics seemed to have his heart. Coleridge was a favorite, as was Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. This from a man who had less than ten years of formal education and earned his living as a union ironworker. I never asked him what prompted him to bring the book home that day and why it remained one of his prized possessions.It was the only book he ever owned.

I like to think that this early exposure to poetry is an important part of my inheritance and perhaps why I have an appreciation for the form.

Last year, an artist friend gifted me a copy of  The Half-Finished Heaven, a collection of Tomas Transtömer’s most loved poems. This week, my eyes fell on the book on a shelf and I have been rereading it, remembering how much I enjoyed it the first time. The collection, selected and translated by Robert Bly, contains many standouts, but the poem “Solitude” is my favorite. It begins like this:

Right here I was nearly killed one night in February,
My car slewed on the ice, sideways,
into the other lane. The oncoming cars–
their headlights–came nearer.

My name, my daughters, my job
slipped free and fell behind silently,
farther and father back. I was anonymous,
like a schoolboy in a lot surrounded by enemies.

For some reason, this poem made me recall Harriet Lane’s book Alys, Always, which I read a year or two ago. Aside from the fact that the novel begins with a car crash, here is no textual connection between the two pieces, but to me, the tone of the poem and the novel’s opening chapter is similar.

In 2011, in his eightieth year, Transtömer won the Nobel Prize  for Literature. Before that, I confess that I was not so familiar with his work. I am pleased, however, that this honor has garnered new readers for this important contemporary poet.

The end of an era?

For a few years after college, I worked for a scientific journal whose North American headquarters was located at a local university. It was there, in a creative writing class, that I met K.–who happened to work in the Dean’s Office two floors down from me. We became fast friends, cemented in part because of our love of reading. Now a lot of people say that they “love to read,” but those declarations often fall into the category of the type like “I love puppies!” or “I love music”–the generic kind that you echo to friendly acquaintances.

Well K. was a bona fide readaholic–a person who as a child, had wished for two heads so she could read more than one book simultaneously (!). Several (ahem) years later, she is still one of my best friends–and along with our mutual friend D., members of a very short list from whom I will confidently take a book recommendation.

In the first few months that we knew each other,  K. and I discovered that another thing we had in common was an irrational love for magazines. We were equal opportunity as far as they were concerned–devouring all of the standard fashion glossies: Vogue, Elle, Bazaar, W (I could go on). But our stacks would also be filled with European imports of said fashion glossies as well as newsweeklies and celebrity rags. I remember the day when we discovered the inaugural issue of Lucky in the Coolidge Corner CVS.

Every Thursday at lunch, I would swing by her office and we would walk to Back Bay to the (now closed) Copley Square Newsstand on Dartmouth Street where we would load up on our favorite weeklies, as they were all released on Thursdays. Our stacks always included US Weekly, People, and yes, the occasional Enquirer (research, we liked to say).

The newsstand on Dartmouth Street looked just like this one.

The newsstand on Dartmouth Street looked just like this one.

The rest of the workday would be filled with great anticipation for when I would get home from work and start working my way though my stack of magazines. If I had a tiring day, I would skip straight to the US Weekly, where I could just flip through the pages, glancing at the photos (Stars Like Us! Baby Bump Watch!), or, if I still felt focused, I would go to The New Yorker or The Atlantic.

When the Dartmouth Street newsstand shuttered, I knew things were changing. It was swiftly followed by rumors that the venerable Out of Town News in Cambridge’s Harvard Square would be closing. But the newsstand, owned by Sheldon Cohen from 1955-1994 (now owned and leased out by the City of Cambridge) has remained in business–largely because of public outcry. Out of Town News has loyal patrons (it is still my favorite place to go to pick up The International Herald Tribune, or my favorite Italian crossword magazine), but nearly half of the business’ revenue now comes from refreshments and souvenir sales. Times have changed, that is for certain. The question is, will the newsstand–and the print periodical survive?

In the second half of 2013, newsstand sales of magazines dipped 11.1%, according to a February 2014 report by the Alliance for Audited Media. There have been steady gains in digital replica editions, but despite the increase, digital sales only represent about 3.5% of the total sales for most magazines.

Are we coming to the end of an era?

Are we coming to the end of an era?

I, for one, still continue to purchase print magazines with aplomb–even if I have to endure the clucking of Rose, the cashier at my local drugstore as she mutters, “Thirty dollars. On magazines” as I check out.

My magazine backlog that I plan to get through this weekend.

My magazine backlog that I plan to get through this weekend.

What about you, readers? Do you buy print magazines? Do you get them from a newsstand? If you have made the switch to digital access of magazines, how does the experience compare?

The Opposite of Loneliness.

I knew nothing about Marina Keegan’s collection of essays and stories, The Opposite of Loneliness until I started reading the introduction by Anne Fadiman. I had passed the book in a display twice at my favorite bookstore (shout out to Brookline Booksmith!), and last week, when I spotted it at my local library, I added it to my stack. Truth be told, there were two reasons for this: one, I saw Fadiman’s name and figured that if she was going to put her name on something it must be good; and two, the jacket cover recalled a photo that one might see on The Sartorialist or Humans of New York (more on my fangirl-like affinity toward those blogs another time). And perhaps there was a third and final reason: the positive associations of having seen it first in Brookline Booksmith.

Whatever the overriding reason, I brought the book home with me. Yesterday I opened the cover and started reading. By page six of the introduction, my eyes had welled up with tears.

The title was taken from the essay by the same name that Keegan (Yale ’12) wrote for a special edition of the Yale Daily News in May of 2012 that was distributed at commencement. The opening line, “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life” (1).

Photo by Joy Shan.

Photo by Joy Shan.

Keegan died five days later.

As Fadiman writes in her introduction, “When a young person dies, much of the tragedy lies in her promise: what she would have done. But Marina left what she had already done: an entire body of writing, far more than could fit between these covers” (xvii).

I stayed up late last night finishing this collection because I couldn’t stop until I finished. Some standouts (aside from the title essay): “Winter Break”; “Hail, Full of Grace”; “Sclerotherapy”; “Putting the “Fun” Back in Eschatology”; “Even Artichokes Have Doubts”; and “The Art of Observation”.

Bookcase Envy!

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Memoir Monday: Delancey

On Saturday night, I went to the Boston restaurant Sorriso for a friend’s birthday party and I had the most delicious pizza. Normally I eat like a bird at these kind of gatherings (the type where there are so many fun people to chat with that you don’t want to stop to eat), but this time, I couldn’t help myself! I ate six (yes, SIX) pieces of pizza–a fact my husband marveled over. I had pizza with fresh mozzarella, with aged mozzarella, and my favorite–a pizza bianco with fresh ricotta. And then this morning, I finished Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage by Molly Wizenberg, in which the author writes about the process of opening up her husband Brandon’s Seattle pizza restaurant by the same name. So I have had pizza on the brain! I have already put a visit to one of my favorite local places, OTTO, on the list for this week.

Readers may be familiar with Wizenberg’s delightful food blog, Orangette. I have been reading it for a number of years and also enjoyed her first book, A Homemade Life, which I have gifted several foodie friends. In Delancey, the writing is similarly engaging and colloquial (much like the style of her blog) and contains numerous simple recipes. I, for one, am definitely going to try “The Benjamin Wayne Smith” cocktail, a drink introduced by a friend that overheard these instructions given by another patron to the bartender at the Palena Cafe in D.C.: “…I overheard a man in a cowboy hat order his martini like this: “Take the cheapest gin you have, crush a garlic clove, add a few grinds of black pepper, and shake with ice. Strain it into an ‘up’ glass. Take the clove from the shaker and add it to the glass.” Add that to the list for this week as well!

Note my personal homage to Delancey's Seattle home (A Starbucks DoubleShot Espresso). :)

Note my personal homage to Delancey’s Seattle home (A Starbucks DoubleShot Espresso). 🙂

Whether you are a closet restauranteur (I was, until I read about the process!), an avowed foodie, or simply a reader that appreciates an upbeat memoir, Delancey is worth your time.

(Though you may find yourself in the kitchen as soon as you finish–experimenting with salt/water/flour ratios in your homemade pizza dough.)

YA and Grownups

On Friday morning, at 10 am, I slipped into an air conditioned theater armed with a bottled water and a packet of tissues and settled into my seat ready for a good cry. The feature film that I had come to see was the film adaptation of John Green’s 2012 YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars. I had read the book, so I knew what to expect. It is simultaneously heart wrenching and hopeful. The former, obvious, as the protagonist has terminal cancer–but the latter, implicit, in the book’s overarching message that those who leave this world live on in the ones who loved them.


I enjoy the occasional YA novel, not because they reflect my life now, as a grown woman–but how they cast light on the sadness, silliness, and (yes) stupidity of adolescence. Though last week, Slate’s Ruth Graham published a piece titled “Against YA,” where she argues that adults “should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was intended for children.” Graham goes on to note that YA often suffers from a lack of critical reflection–that is, while the novels may be immersive (sending readers into the minds of teenagers), they do little (or nothing) to acknowledge the kind of perspective that an adult has gained in the intervening years. While I take Graham’s point, I would offer that some–like myself–read YA because we want to take a break from the adult mindset for a time and be transported into those moments of butterflies and first crushes and teenage angst. Because real life is always waiting for us after we turn the final page.

Readers are leaders.

A few years ago, I heard about the wonderful work started by Ron Tibbetts in his establishment of the Oasis Coalition, what is believed to be the first book club for the homeless population in Boston. The group has been featured on NPR, in The Boston Globe, and other media outlets. From Oasis’ website:

“The Book Club brings together a small group of people, homeless and housed, to discuss and critique any book they choose.  This group has read works of classical and contemporary writers, and has embraced participants across the economic and social spectrums.  Open and respectful conversations inspire new levels of self-respect and a sense of self-worth, and provide an opportunity for developing relationships.  The value of the program to some of its participants is best summarized in the words of one member who, when asked to join, remarked, “Imagine that. Someone’s finally realized that some of us can read.””

Yesterday, I also read this inspirational story about Philani, a homeless man from Johannesburg, South Africa, who reviews books instead of begging. He will review a book from his ever-changing library (he has read all of the books he offers) and then offer the book for sale. To children, however, he gifts his books–believing that they should have access to free reading material.

Philiani and his sidewalk bookshop.

Philiani and his sidewalk bookshop.

Philani says, “Reading is not harmful. There’s no such thing as harmful knowledge. This thing is only going to make you a better person.” So beautiful.