books, art, culture, and other things I love

Month: January, 2015

Friday Culture Watch: To Read, To Listen, To Make, To Do.

To Read.
Before the holidays I wrote a piece about the allegations about Bill Cosby, and expressed my sadness at the thought of a childhood hero falling short of one’s image of that person. There have been countless articles published (print and online) over the last few months, but Robert Huber’s piece, “Dr. Huxtable and Mr. Hyde,” from 2006’s Philadelphia Magazine, is really worth a read. It is quite surprising, actually, that Huber’s comprehensive feature did not receive more attention nine years ago when it was published.

To Listen.
Lamenting the loss of Thursday morning Serial updates in your podcast folder? Check out these eight literary podcasts selected by Electric Literature guaranteed to fill the void. There are several that I hadn’t heard of (like The Greenlight Bookstore’s Radio Hour and some that I already love like Longform or Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter’s A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment. (Hear their favorite reads of 2014 in Episode 11.) Are there any you would add to the list?

To Make.
Ocassionally my husband will wax nostalgic about a small butcher shop in his hometown of Madison, Connecticut where one could buy delicious stuffed pork chops and Chicken Cordon Bleu to cook at home. Last week I happened to see a recipe on Pinterest for a Chicken Cordon Bleu casserole, so I decided to give it a try. And it was delicious and super easy to make! Here is the recipe:

For the casserole:

  • 1 whole cooked chicken, bones removed, meat diced or shredded (rotisserie chicken is excellent, should have 5-6 cups)
  • 1/2 pound very thinly sliced deli-style honey ham, rough chopped
  • 1/4 pound thin sliced baby Swiss cheese

For the sauce:

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 3 1/4 cups milk
  • 2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper

For the topping:

  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed dried parsley or thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste

Assemble as follows: line bottom of baking dish with chicken pieces, add the layer of diced ham, and then a layer of Swiss cheese (either shredded or sliced is fine). Combine sauce ingredients on the stovetop (until thickened into the consistency of a good bechamel sauce) before pouring over baking dish ingredients. Finally, top with panko bread crumbs and a bit of thyme and bake at 375 degrees for 30 min. Delicious!


To Do.
This coming Sunday is the Super Bowl. And though my hometown team is playing, I confess that I will not be watching (I know, terrible, right?). Instead, I am planning to do my grocery shopping for the week (lame, but for the last few years that is what I’ve done!) or if I can find a likeminded friend to take in dinner and a movie, that is Plan B. I also found this (humorous) list: 45 Other Things To Do On Super Bowl Sunday, so here’s to having lots of choices!

Have a wonderful weekend!



My favorite read of 2015, already?

For the past several years, the first book that I finished in January has ended up being my “year’s best” for that particular year. In 2012, it was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, in 2013, Wendy Lawless’ Chanel Bonfire, and in 2014, it was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. This year, I predict that Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves will hold the same honor.

You know the kind of novels that you feel like you truly inhabit while you are reading them? Well for me, this was one of those for sure. The story starts off slow—as it carefully lays the groundwork for the book’s framework. We meet Eileen Timulty, the only daughter of Irish immigrant parents. Her father is the de facto mayor of their Bronx burrough while her mother is the long-suffering (sometimes alcoholic) wife that young Eileen must care for. Early on, Eileen is fully aware that this is not the life that she wants for herself and at this point another character enters the narrative, casting a long shadow into her future: The American Dream.

Eileen keeps out of trouble and stays focused, earning degrees that enable her to climb the management rungs as a nurse at the local hospitals. She marries a man, Ed, who is opposite to her father—even more so than she realizes—who is happy with his job as a community college Biology professor, his Jackson Heights apartment, and his wife and son, even as Eileen longs to move up the ladder. When Ed turns down a coveted faculty position at NYU and later, the deanship at Queens Community College, we think that this couple is mismatched and destined for failure.

And when Ed starts to exhibit strange, erratic behavior, we wonder whether this small family of three will implode against the backdrop of 80s upheaval.

A story about taking the long view—looking toward the future without denying one’s past. A story about love, and commitment, and finding peace in one’s choices. This novel had me up at 4 am to finish the final pages—and there I sat, crying—moved beyond measure by the way the author ended the story. Beautiful writing and a narrative that is much more than simple plot movement. Everything works together here to great effect—the post WWII American ideology, the setting of New York City and its suburbs, and most of all, its believable and endearing characters. Read this book—it just might be your favorite of 2015.

Writing to Remember.

At my first college internship, I worked on the Obit Desk at a large metro newspaper North of Boston. From the perspective of a twenty-year-old, the job was the worst: the hours were bad (I had to be there by 6 am and it was a 40-minute drive from my Boston apartment), my supervisor was unfriendly, and my work (fact-checking obituaries) was uninspiring. Occasionally I would encounter an obituary that was interesting, and written with care—but the majority seemed to be routine catalogues of the basic biographical details of one’s lives. Sure, space came at a premium—submissions were billed by the line—but I often wondered why these remembrances didn’t try harder. There are likely many reasons that obituaries do not evidence literary flourish. Families and loved ones, exhausted from long illnesses or shocked by sudden deaths may lack the time and energy to memorialize the departed with anything more than the basics. Family connections and service times. But for each of those basic markers, there was an individual and interesting life that has a story.

When my grandmother died a few years back, I wrote her obituary. After my long ago stint at the obit desk, I knew what I didn’t want it to be. I wanted it to give readers that happened upon the entry a glimpse of who she really was, that is, though “Known to her many friends as Marge, she took great pleasure in answering to her other names: Mom, Gramma, and Great-Gramma” and to get a sense of how much she was cherished, “Her granddaughters fondly remember her as one who taught them grandmotherly things like baking and needlework (at both of which she was an expert) but also as someone who would serve M&Ms for breakfast, buy them their first lipsticks, and animatedly chat long distance when they phoned home from college. They both considered her an important friend and confidante.”

It was the most important thing I was ever tasked with writing.

Elissa Ely also knows how important these stories are. She writes The Remembrance Project for WBUR, for which she composes short essays based on the lives of individuals nominated by a loved one. If you haven’t followed this series yet, I highly recommend it—it is quite moving. This week’s piece on Lawrence Dorey had me in tears as a listened to its audio version on the radio. Each essay is beautifully done, but this one stuck with me (I think it was the mention of his connection with his granddaughter that got me).

Reading interrupted.

So I was all set to read Matthew Gilbert’s book Off the Leash—then this happened:

Clearly, Hildy can’t be trusted alone with good reading material or she’ll try to eat it for lunch. Boo!


Bookminded Recommends: WBUR’s Digital Bookshelf.

Truth be told, I am never at a loss for book recommendations. I always have some books “on tap”–whether they be in the stack on my bedside table (that was a fib–I actually have a stack and a bin beside it!), scribbled in my planner after a friend recommends a title, on my bookshelves, or in my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. But sometimes I will hear something on my local NPR station, WBUR, about a book or an author and think it might be something that I would like to read. Often I am in the car and will forget to look them up after the fact. So that is why I am so excited about this: WBUR’s new Digital Bookshelf! 

Books are divided up by category and if you click on the book cover, it will also show links to WBUR coverage on the book–either show podcasts or articles. Such a great way to collect all of that content in one place–check it out!

My out-of-control bedside stack, which shows my range of reading genres--everything from the NYT to Joel Osteen! :)

My out-of-control bedside stack, which shows my range of reading genres–everything from the NYT to Joel Osteen! 🙂

Memoir Monday: A book and its film.

Two years ago, I read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, which catalogues her time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. And last night, I saw the movie based on the book.

I had read a few reviews when the book was released, but wasn’t inspired to pick it up until one day I held the book in my hand at the bookstore and read its opening pages.

“I was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from my husband, and working as a waitress, as low and mixed-up as I’d ever been in my life. Each day I felt as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well, I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? I’d been so many things already. A loving wife and an adulteress. A beloved daughter who now spent holidays alone. An ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling dangerously with drugs and sleeping with two many men…As a teen, I lived back-to-the-land style in the Minnesota northwoods in a house that didn’t have an indoor toilet, electricity, or running water. In spite of this, I’d become a high school cheerleader and homecoming queen, and then I went off to college and became a left-wing feminist radical. But a woman who walks alone in the wilderness for eleven hundred miles? I’d never been anything like that before. I had nothing to lose by giving it a whirl.”

And with that, I was hooked. I will tell you what it is not: it is not a saccharine, feel-good book about someone who decides to embark on a “life adventure” with book advance in hand and then write about it. Instead, the reader understands that this was a journey that the author had to take—to save her life.

The memoir Wild is beautifully written and emotionally evocative—so too is its film representation. Reese Witherspoon pulls off the role of Strayed convincingly (note that Strayed herself appears in the opening scene as the woman driving the pickup truck that drops RW off!) and the visual rendering of the narrative and landscape are real and resonant. Some of the flashback scenes are actually hard to watch as they don’t shy away from the gritty reality of the author’s experience previous to her four-months-long hike.

Read the book, if you haven’t yet—and then go see the movie. Both are very much worth your time.

My January reading shortlist.

What is on your reading shortlist at the moment? Today, I thought I would share my current and next two reads for the month:

1. Right now, I am finishing up Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, which I am absolutely loving. I’ll admit, I picked up the novel based on reading these two things first: this piece from The Atlantic’s “The Wire” and then this NYT review. I would say it falls neatly into the sub genre  of multigenerational family dramas, but it is not melodramatic or predictable. It is very well written with believable dialogue–I almost don’t want it to end!

2. Next up is Katie Crouch’s Abroad, which I picked up because the book jacket made reference to the fact that the novel’s plot was inspired by recent headlines (ala Amanda Knox) and follows Irish university student Tabitha as she studies abroad in Grifonia, Italy.  Read the Publishers Weekly review here.

3. Finally, I am looking forward to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I honestly don’t know much about this book except that my friend K. gave it five stars on Goodreads. (Which she NEVER does, ha ha–so it must be great.) Read the NYT review here.

I have plenty of books on tap that I could read next, but I am interested in what others might recommend as a next read. What have you been reading lately? Anything you would recommend for my next read?

And I thought I would share this from Type Bookstore in Toronto. If you haven’t seen it before, watch it–so cute!



Some thoughts on winter.

No one likes a complainer, but I can’t keep it in any longer: I hate winter! There, I said it.

Last weekend I asked my husband to give me just three positives about the season. He had two: Christmas and fireplaces. I said that those didn’t really count because I meant positives about the weather of the season (we could have Christmas and a fireplace in the Caribbean).

There are so many things on my con list: the excess of “stuff” (coats, hats, mittens, boots, etc.), the dry skin, the chapped lips, the static-crazed hair, the barren landscape. I could go on.

I looked for some literary quotes about winter and though I didn’t come up cold (HA!), they were few and far between. Most focused on perseverance. I suppose that’s a holdover from the Puritan ideology of steadfastness?

Here are a few:

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”

Anne Bradstreet, The Works of Anne Bradstreet

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to the West Wind

“Are the days of winter sunshine just as sad for you, too? When it is misty, in the evenings, and I am out walking by myself, it seems to me that the rain is falling through my heart and causing it to crumble into ruins.”

Gustave Flaubert

“Nothing is as tedious as the limping days,
When snowdrifts yearly cover all the ways,
And ennui, sour fruit of incurious gloom
Assumes control of fate’s immortal loom”

Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen

I like Eliot’s approach:

“I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.”

T.S. Eliot

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

And since I must endure it, at least for a few more months, this is going to be my reverse psychological approach:

“I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!


Bookminded Recommends: Empire.

The nineties were my college years and they were also (in my opinion) some of the best years for hip-hop and R&B. Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Tevin Campbell, and others were on regular repeat on my dorm room stereo. And listening to this album–well, it just takes me back.

So when I saw a promo for the new Lee Daniels produced series Empire, which centers around a hip hop record company founded in the nineties, I was intrigued. The basic premise of the show is this: Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the head of Empire Enterprises, a business that has brought him great success. He has three grown sons, a beautiful fiancé, and a business that continues to grow. But he also has a past that threatens the life he has built–as well as a future that is uncertain (I don’t want to give too much away here). Part of his past arrives at the beginning of the opening episode in the form of Cookie Lyon (Teraji P. Henson), Lyon’s former wife and mother of his children. She has been in prison for the last seventeen years on drug charges from back when they were a struggling married couple with three young children and a dream. The only problem is that that dream, to start a record company, was funded with the money from Cookie’s illegal dealings. And upon her release, she comes back to claim half of the company–using that information as leverage.

The literary tie-in with the series is that it is loosely based on both Shakespeare’s King Lear and James Goldman’s 1966 play, A Lion in Winter. Though Empire offers a melodramatic, nighttime soap take on these analogues, the musical backdrop (produced by Timbaland) and the acting (Howard and Henson, who previously starred together in Hustle and Flow have great chemistry) is so far enough to sustain this viewer. The first episode is available online here.

Have you seen Empire? If so, what did you think?


Three New Historical Novels to Entertain and Educate.

In his Ars Poetica, Horace wrote that the purpose of literature in general (poetry more specifically) is to “delight and to teach.” So last month, when I was asked to read and review advance copies of three historical novels (two based on actual events), I jumped at the chance. All three are now available for pre-order and will be available in bookstores next month.

The three books were the following: Amherst, The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell, and Jam! On the Vine.

Out of the three books, I preferred Amherst–I think that aside from a few minor issues, the book is well-written, and will likely have broad appeal. The other two have potential (and deal with fascinating historical issues, obviously), but don’t offer the same cohesive narrative found in Amherst.

The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell by William Klaber
Historically-grounded works that engage with cultural norms and behaviors through a fictional lens can be very interesting; fiction offers an alternate (and often enlightening) perspective with which to consider actual events. Such is the case with William Klaber’s The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell. The mid nineteenth-century story of Lucy Lobdell is a true one. She left her home and her family in upstate New York and took on a new identity as a man named Joseph Lobdell. These days, such gender conversion narratives are not uncommon in fiction or nonfiction, but given the time and the context of Lucy Lobdell’s experience, there was nothing to which she–or others–could compare her inclinations. Klaber’s novel is thoroughly researched and as such, sheds light on the period and as such, would be well suited to read as part of a book club or even in an academic setting, in a history or women’s studies course. My only critique of this book pertains to its narrative voice. At times it is quite reportorial (e.g. I went here, I did this, etc.) rather than reflective of the inner voice that was likely Lucy Lobdell’s. All-in-all, a thought-provoking read, but not as narratively engaging as it could be.

Jam! On the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett
Ivoe Williams is an unlikely journalist. She comes of age in the Jim-Crow South, and though she earns a college scholarship and gains an education, her humble hometown of origin doesn’t offer much in the way of opportunity. In LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s Jam! On the Vine, we see William’s determination and drive lead her to establish the first female-run African American newspaper along with her former teacher (and now lover), Ona. As a result of publicly speaking her mind, however, Williams is harassed and assaulted by those who wish to silence her message. Still, she perseveres, believing that her mission, “to set forth those facts and arguments that show the dangers and consequences of race prejudice, particularly as manifested toward colored citizens” is one that cannot be derailed. The book moves from Texas to Kansas City to Paris and through various family stories while constructing a compelling character that we get to know through snippets of her own journal entries and articles. A story about a strong woman who defies cultural, racial, and gender stereotypes, Jam! On the Vine is a read that fans of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou will enjoy.

Amherst by William Nicholson
In William Nicholson’s new mise en abyme, Amherst, Alice Dickinson is a young Londoner with a creative spirit. An advertising executive by day, she decides to take a mini-sabbatical to research her screenplay idea–which is a film based on the real-life historical account of the affair between Emily Dickinson’s married brother Austin and Mabel Todd, a faculty wife at Amherst College. Though I have studied (and taught) Dickinson through the years, I was not aware of this relationship between her brother and Mabel Todd–which caused quite a scandal in its day. In fact, my reading of this novel inspired me to do some historical research of the letters between the two involved parties. Part fictionalized history and part contemporary story about a twenty-something woman who finds her own life mirroring Mabel’s when she becomes involved with a married Amherst faculty member herself, Nicholson neatly weaves the two narratives together with cohesion. Despite the asynchronous nature of the stories, for the most part, this works well. I did, however, prefer the historical sections as those seemed more authentic and interesting. For example at times the contemporary dialogue seems formulaic and stilted. For example, witness this exchange between Alice and her romantic interest:
“You’re very beautiful.”
“Why say that?”
“I was hoping to surprise you.”
“Say that to your girlfriends. Say it to your wife.”
“You’re beautiful in the way the young Virginia Woolf was beautiful.”
“Why are you doing this, Nick? Is this your famous technique in action?”

Despite some of these moments that miss the mark, this novel captured my interest from the beginning. I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of historical fiction more generally, and literary history more specifically.

So there you go–three books to be on the lookout for!