Bookminded

books, art, culture, and other things I love

Month: August, 2014

The Weekender: Saying Goodbye to Summer.

I know that there are still three weeks until fall is “officially” here, however, I have always thought of Labor Day Weekend as the closing bookend to Memorial Day–the end of the summer season.

My memories from childhood Labor Day weekends include floating in the marsh creeks in my friend B’s dinghy.

Or sleeping over my neighborhood friend D.’s house on the Sunday night and watching hours of the Jerry Lewis Telethon in her basement rec room (for some reason this was an annual affair).

But more than anything, I remember being gripped by a strange sadness that summer was ending. I grew up on Cape Cod, so on Labor Day we would often go to the Route 6 overpass to hold signs or wave to the departing summer tourists. I remember one year seeing my neighbor with a sign that said “Good Riddance.” But I always wanted to say, “Wait, come back–there is more summer to be had by all.”

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The Weekender: What I’m Reading For The Long Weekend.

This weekend, I am hoping to read three books that have been in the “to read” basket beside my bed for some time.

The first is MWF Seeks BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertsche. This book, a memoir, recalls the yearlong period that Bertsche spent searching for a new friend after moving to Chicago to be with her now husband. The premise of the book is that she commits to meeting with one new person a week for a year to see if she is able to make any lasting friendships. As I know it can be tough to make real friends as adults (that is, a really close friend that is not based solely on convenience or proximity), I am interested to hear how Bertsche fared in her experiment.

Book #2 is A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon. This book has been described as offering a wonderful picture of male friendship. And truth be told, I bought it because a bookseller at RJ Julia in Madison, CT (my second favorite bookstore after Brookline Booksmith) told me that if I liked The Marriage Plot and Rules of Civility, I would love this. So there you go.

And the final book is one that I have been waiting to read for a while. Melanie Gideon’s Wife 22 is the picture of one woman’s marriage in the digital age. Main character Alice has been married for 20 years when she is asked to take part in a series of online surveys, to which she responds as “Wife 22.” The recipient of her responses “Researcher 101” seems to listen to her in a way her husband no longer does, and this affects Alice. A friend who recommended this book noted that it was funny and “spot on,” which landed it on my list.

What are you reading this weekend?

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Friday Culture Watch: What to Read, Listen, Make, and Do.

To Read.
Well. The Interwebs were all atwitter this morning with the news that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have (in the words of TMZ!) finally gotten married. You know you are so invested in this news. I read an interesting article today from The Atlantic that offers one theory about why we care about this story at all–it suggests that Jennifer Aniston is part of a monomyth (fans of Joseph Campbell will make the connection). Read it and see if you agree.

To Listen.
If you like wine and/or want to learn more about it without the attitude that comes along with it, check out the podcast Wine for Normal People. Elizabeth Schneider (the brains behind the podcast) is a Certified Sommelier, but a self-described “normal person” whose first foray into this world came when she took a course with her sister at the Boston Center for Adult Education to learn more about how to make informed wine selections. Now Schneider runs a blog and podcast and is working on a book for the rest of us “normal people” who enjoy a good glass of wine.

To Make.
If you are going to a Labor Day cookout this weekend and are tasked with bringing a dessert, try this no-bake option from Ina Garten. Mocha Chocolate Icebox Cake features Tate’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, Kahlua, and mascarpone cheese and is nothing short of delicious.

To Do.
Watch Saturday’s U.S. Open Tennis matchups, which promise to be exciting. Novak Djokovic vs. Sam Querrey and Serena Williams vs. Varvara Lepchenko. Who are you rooting for?

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Bookminded Recommends: Two Interesting Books About Maps.

This fall, I am starting a position at a new institution and while that is cause for celebration, there is also an element of feeling like I am a foreigner in a strange land. For the better part of decade at my former institution, the campus–its paths, buildings, and classrooms–were mapped onto my subconscious.

Today, as I walked around New Campus, I struggled to find where I needed to go and the online map I pulled up on my iPhone was of no help. I looked around for an outdoor campus map, but didn’t see one and had a moment of panic–until a grad student took pity on me and pointed me in the right direction.

This got me thinking about maps–not just printed maps or digital maps–but the maps that we hold in our subconscious. How we remember things is based on how we map them out in our minds. There are physical cues, for sure, and the mnemonic technique of mind mapping information, but we also intuitively function as mental cartographers to develop our own personal geographies. In recent years, I have read two interesting books on the topic: the first is Katharine Harmon’s You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, which features over 100 interesting maps for places and memories both real and imagined. The other is Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination in which he suggests that cartographers and fiction writers share similar strategies for getting the mind from point A to point B without extraneous information. Turchi notes that both cartography and writing involve purposeful omission; both require compression; both are subjective in their perspective, orientation, and emphasis; and both create illusions.

 


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Current Events: Beyoncé’s Feminine Mystique

Last year, Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) celebrated its 50th anniversary, and this past Sunday, while slithering across a stage in a shimmering bodysuit, superstar singer Beyoncé proclaimed herself a FEMINIST as she swayed in front of the illuminated backdrop of the stage where she performed as part of the MTV Video Music Awards. This moment came midway through a medley of the singer’s latest album as she performed the song “Flawless,” which features a sample of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 TED talk, “We should all be feminists.”

Photo: Getty Images.

Photo: Getty Images.

Freidan’s work articulates the “problem that has no name”—specifically, the growing dissatisfaction felt by many suburban housewives of the mid-twentieth century—“a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning…the silent question—‘Is this all?’” and today, writers like Adichie boldly resist prescribed gender roles by suggesting that girls should be taught that they are not defined by their sex. This is certainly important.

Adichie says, “We teach females, that in relationships, ‘compromise’ is what women do. We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs, or for accomplishments — which I think can be a good thing — but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are…We police girls. We praise girls for virginity, but we don’t praise boys for virginity…” All of this is true—there is most definitely a cultural double standard of expectations for the sexuality of genders (e.g. a woman who is sexually active runs the risk of being labeled a slut or worse, a whore—while her male counterpart is a stud or one who has “game”). It makes sense, then, that women may want to appropriate these cultural perceptions and rework them. To proclaim that women can be successful, competitive, strong, and sexual.

Or not.

By many women, Beyoncé has been vaunted not only for her star power nor her own admonitions (“Respect that, bow down bitches. I took some time to live my life. But don’t think I’m just his little wife.”) but rather, for her unabashed public embrace of a multifaceted femininity. She is Mrs. Carter, yet she is Queen Bey. She is a businesswoman and a mother. She is a God-fearing Christian and a sexual being. I get it. But the appropriation—and reworking—of the language and tropes of the oppressor by the (previously) oppressed is nothing new (listen to any rap music or activist rhetoric from the gay community as evidence). And after watching Beyoncé’s most recent performance, I am not convinced that it is an effective strategy. Of course, many would argue that she is not only a Video Vanguard, but a cultural force rewriting womanhood. For example, The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti proclaims that Beyoncé’s feminist act at the VMAs “leads the way for other women” and Slate’s Amanda Marcotte suggests that Bey gave viewers “a pretty good education” on feminism through her performance.

To me, a performance at an event where attendees sport $56K manicures is not real life. And by offering only extremes—a heartfelt tribute to your daughter and a robust celebration of carnal experience—seems to me to be overstating the case. The loudest voice isn’t always the most thoughtful. We get it, Beyoncé Knowles Carter isn’t just one thing—none of us are. And though there is an element of spectacle that the stage requires, I wonder if feminism is more effectively grown in more deep-rooted ways such as the sort that Freidan advocates for in her final chapter of The Feminine Mystique. She writes, “The time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.” This is still true—but women (and men) don’t need to defer to one bedazzled spokesperson to rally the cause—it must come from within.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it important to emphasize the extremes of female possibility to undermine prescribed gender expectations for women?

Memoir Monday: Aspirational Reading Like a #GIRLBOSS.

Even though in the opening to her book, #GIRLBOSS, author Sophia Amoruso tells the reader that it is “not a memoir,” it bears some resemblance to the form because it focuses on a part of the whole life–in Amoruso’s case, the founding of her company NastyGal.

For those that don’t follow fashion, NastyGal is an online purveyor of apparel and accessories that Amoruso started in 2007 as an eBay store selling vintage clothing. At the time, she was making $13/hour checking student IDs at an art school in California so she could get health insurance.

In 2012, NastyGal had over 100 million dollars in sales. Amoruso did this on her own–leveling the power of social media (My Space, back then) to work for her, and with not one penny of debt. Amazing. She is referred to by some as the “Cinderella of tech” and has been endlessly profiled and lauded for her focus and work ethic that has made NastyGal one of the fastest growing retailers in the industry.

In #GIRLBOSS, Amoruso explains how she did it–and she offers advice for women (and men) that translates to any industry.

Part manifesto, part personal narrative, #GIRLBOSS is the perfect book for a Monday morning to get you thinking about how you are going to grow your business, shine at the office, or start your next project. Amoruso shows that it really is possible to succeed without a college degree, a trust fund, or a start up investor (Amoruso had none of these). It is said that the internet may well be the great leveler, and NastyGirl’s success would certainly serve as Exhibit A for that argument.

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The Weekender: Yet Another Reason I Heart NYC.

NYC creative director Yosef Lerner knew that there is a peculiar rule for NYC Subway conductors. Every station has a black-and-white striped board on the platform wall in the middle of the station. This board is aligned with the center of the train, which is where the conductor sits. At every station, conductors must point out the window in order to prove that they are awake and alert.

So Lerner came up with a project idea and “The New York Subway Signs Experiment” was born. With the help of his friend Rosie Sacktor, they stood in front of those black-and-white striped boards and held up funny signs like “Point here if you are dead sexy,” or “Point here if you are not wearing pants.” Watch the video below to see the great reactions from NYC subway conductors. Priceless! (Thanks to my friend E. for sharing this.)
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The Weekender: Why Do We Like What We Like?

In April, as I moved through the hushed galleries of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a piece of art caught my eye. I walked over to look at it more closely. The colors, a cool mix of pastels and marine hued oil paint came together in a thick impasto on the large rectangular canvas.

I quickly snapped a photo of the painting and the nameplate before I was reprimanded by the collection’s guard and as I walked away, I took one last look as I moved through the doorway.
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When asked later what had moved me about the piece (enough to risk pulling out my iPhone so I could document the source), I had a difficult time explaining. It was the colors. The texture. The size.

But was it also the value or the uniqueness of the material object of an original painting? The fact that it hung in a famous museum in a room adjacent to a cool marble courtyard? I don’t know.

Dr. Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University and author of the book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like suggests that our reasons for liking what we like reveal a more complicated response than one might think. In his book, he recounts a story about a guy who went into a D.C. Metro stop wearing a baseball cap and carrying a violin. He set up his violin case, added some change and over the next 45 minutes, played his violin. In that time, over 1,000 people passed through the station and he came away with $32 in tips. The subway fiddler was none other than violinist Joshua Bell, who had just played Boston’s Symphony Hall a few nights before. So if our “liking” of things is truly based on an authentic response, then why didn’t Bell get a standing ovation in the Metro?

Well, it turns out that maybe our likes aren’t so authentic after all. Bloom is not the first person to make such an argument (particularly in the case of visual art—Walter Benjamin and John Berger offer insight into the complex relationship between art and its perceived value and how that influences an audience’s response), but he addresses the topic from a psychological angle. Why we like what we like, says Bloom, is due to the fact that “[our likes are] based on what we believe that thing to be.”

Back to my painting. The artist that painted Ocean Park No. 87 was Richard Diebenkorn, an American painter that worked with oils and was part of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Apparently the Ocean Park series was what catapulted him to international fame. But I didn’t know any of this when I caught a glimpse of the painting. And it didn’t make me like it any more. But perhaps Bloom would argue that my knowing that the painting was “museum-worthy” made me look at it in the first place.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Have you read Bloom’s book? Why do you think we like what we like?

Friday Culture Watch: What to Read, Listen, Make, and Do.

To Read
Vogue readers, rejoice! The September Issue has dropped. So you may not have time or energy for much else this weekend.

Photo credit: Bryanboy.com.

Photo credit: Bryanboy.com.

But in case you do, be sure to read the New York Times Magazine‘s feature on Sarah Burton by Andrew O’Hagan, “The Genius Next Door.” Burton is the head designer for Alexander McQueen who finished the annual collection after his untimely death three years ago. She also designed one of the most photographed dresses of the recent past: the wedding gown of The Duchess of Cambridge. In the cutthroat world of high fashion, Burton is seen as somewhat of an anomaly–a genuinely nice person. In fact, when the interviewer asks her who she would name as her hero, she gives the following response: “I think my dad is my hero,” she said. “He works so hard, and he never lies. He believes in family. He’s always been totally fair. And he treats everybody in the family equally.” 

To Listen
Lenny Kravitz (otherwise known as the Hunger Games‘ Cinna) still has it. Though his new album won’t be released in its entirety until late September, three songs from the forthcoming Strut have been released. (PS: How is he 50 years old?)
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Listen to the audio of the album’s title song here:

To Make
Try a Pimm’s Cup. Wimbledon may be weeks behind us and summer is waning, but there are still plenty of warm sunsets where you can enjoy the classic British cocktail featured at the premier annual tennis contest. It is said that over 80,000 pints are sold to spectators at Wimbledon each year! Invented in the 1840s by James Pimm at the Oyster Bar in London, this drink is refreshing and light–this is the perfect drink to sip while enjoying civilized conversation.

Photo credit: Whitneyinchicago.

Photo credit: Whitneyinchicago.

If you’ve never tried Pimm’s No. 1, it is hard to describe. It is gin-based, but it has an herbal flavor. The recipe is top-secret (supposedly only 6 people know the formula!) but when combined with mixers, it has a lovely taste that is neither sweet nor too heavy. The standard recipe for a Pimm’s Cup is appended below (note: the cucumber garnish and lots of ice are key), but you can play around with the mixers to get the proportion that you like. I like mine with a bit of lemonade and ginger ale.

Pimm’s Cup Cocktail Recipe

Servings: 1
Prep Time: 5 mins
Total Time: 5 mins

Ingredients

  • 2 oz Pimms No. 1
  • 3 oz lemonade
  • cucumber slice for garnish
  • lemon wedge / lime wedge / mint / apple slice / orange slice, for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Fill a Collins glass with ice.
2. Pour the Pimms No. 1 into the glass with the lemonade and stir and shake together.
3. Top off the mixture with club soda or if you prefer a sweeter cocktail, top off with Sprite or lemon-lime soda. Stir lightly but do not shake.
4. Garnish with a few slices of cucumber, lemon wedge and a few sprigs of mint (optional). Be sure to garnish with lots of fruit (apples, oranges, lemons) to bring out the fruit flavor from Pimms No. 1.

To Do
Catalog your home library. Years ago I bought some software at the NYPL called “Home Library System” or something similar. Of course it was an impulse buy of $100 (I blame it on the aura of the NYPL) and I never used it because the task seemed too daunting. Looking at my bookshelves the other day, I was thinking that it might be time to come up with *some* sort of organizational system as I spent more than an hour the other day looking for a T.S. Eliot book so I could find a particular poem. Now if I had just had a “poetry” section, this would have been easy.

Apartment Therapy has some good suggestions for organizing book collections–here and here. A few years ago, organizing books by color was a very designery thing to do–but I tend to think that organizing by genre would be more useful. And I am interested in trying out this software from Delicious Library. 

Photo credit:  Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times.

Photo credit: Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times.

Have a fabulous weekend!