Bookminded

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:

Ingredients
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!

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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.
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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).
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Reading interrupted.

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

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

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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.
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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!

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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?
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Memoir Monday: Some thoughts on loss and an essay.

Often on Mondays I write about memoirs that I have recently read, but today, I am using this as a space to share some thoughts and a personal essay of my own. Some readers may know that I have been working on a book length memoir for the last year; in addition to that, I have–almost by accident–assembled a series of essays on loss.

This was not an intentional thematic exercise—rather, I found that I kept writing these short essays that I felt compelled to write, but inexplicably so. Considered individually, they were about some moments that I hadn’t thought about in years and some that were much more recent: the loss of a dear friend to colon cancer; miscarriage; the death of a beloved uncle just a few days after Christmas.

When I was out walking last week, I had a realization: all of these short essays were about loss of some sort. And upon further reflection, I suppose I felt so compelled to write about them because I am not one to share those things willingly.

Once I finish my full-length memoir manuscript, I intend to return to these pieces to put them together into some sort of format—an essay collection, most likely. I will share some in this space from time to time as well.

Today I will share the first of these pieces which I started writing a year ago this week. First, however, a bit of context: a year ago, I woke to the news that someone I dated years ago had died unexpectedly. Though we hadn’t seen each other in years and years, I felt a profound sense of loss that I couldn’t easily explain. And in addition, I felt really weird about it–as if I didn’t have a right to be sad. Because really, who was I in that moment? But I did feel sad–for many reasons. For the tragedy of the death itself, but also for feeling like I had lost a piece of my history. I know that probably isn’t a satisfying explanation, but maybe part of the reason that is the case is that there isn’t a place for mourners that fall outside of the expected framework.

Culturally, there seems to be categories of what I would call “acceptable mourners”: spouses, children, immediate family, close friends, etc. But sometimes others of us who are no longer part of the “inner circle” can still feel such sadness when confronted by the loss of people from our distant past. I witnessed this firsthand last week when a cousin’s ex-husband sobbed at my uncle’s funeral and in his grief, recognized some of my own. It is almost like grieving for the immediate loss of the person and the loss of the person in your day-to-day life in the first place, if that makes sense.

Here is my essay.

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“You Must Remember This”

Since you first met me, I moved 14 times (can’t commit), got married (well, maybe I can), had two kids, and finished three degrees. I made lots of bad choices and a handful of good ones. I have been working on a book while teaching freshmen how to write but my own inner critic still gets in the way. You’d definitely find the irony there. I still crack up at Eddie Murphy movies. Occasionally sneak a cigarette though I quit before Y2K. Still count down until summers on Cape Cod.

And I have always held on to a piece of you.

It is tucked away in a box; the opening parenthesis to my adult life. (Of course the writer in me would think in metaphorical terms.) In a closet or an attic, you are always there—part of a physical time capsule from two long-ago years. Filled with photos and movie tickets and a beer tab or two, every few years I discover it and am filled with nostalgia for my younger self with lots to learn.

Two months ago you lost your wife to cancer. We hadn’t seen each other for years, but I sent you a note. My heart broke for you, the young man I once knew.  Then last week, I woke up to a flurry of texts and the horrible news that you had died too. You weren’t even 40.

Incomprehensible.

I canceled my classes on Friday to attend your funeral. I considered mascara, but then judged it “too much” and smoothed down the seams of my black wool dress. An old friend that knew you picked me up. We’d lost touch too, but she reached out as soon as she heard, remembering our connected past. It is funny how that works. We sat arm in arm in the pew, sharing a packet of tissues to dab the corners of our eyes. Your baby brother, now a man, gave a eulogy that brought laughter to an otherwise somber affair. One of the stories he told was one that I knew and I laughed out loud thirty seconds too late, because I was remembering you tell it the first time.

Afterward I went to lunch with the friend. After telling the waiter that I wasn’t “a day drinker in real life” he winked and brought me two glasses of white wine in succession. We reminisced on your presence in our lives, dusting cobwebs off old details.

I pulled out pictures from my purse that I fanned out on the table like a cliché. You—tall and so handsome. Me—young and carefree.  Us—arms entwined. A declaration: I once knew you best.

“Remind me how you first met,” the friend said, and I told her our story.

It was two days after my high school graduation and a welcome warm night. A fitting backdrop for the Main Street, Hyannis crawl: a teenage rite of passage on Cape Cod. Throngs of flip-flopped teens cruised up and down the street on foot, as was the custom, but only you caught my glance. Freckled and sunburned with coppery curls, twinkling eyes. After a few passes you stopped and said hello. I took in your Sambas and untucked button down as personality cues: soccer player (check), casually stylish (check check). You were with a posse of longtime buddies that hung back, me with a neighborhood friend that did the same.

You were staying at a friend’s cottage and invited me to come back. I must have called my parents from a payphone—not sure what I said except to know that it wasn’t the truth. Long after the others were asleep, we sat on a jetty under the canopy of moonlight and talked about our plans. Which didn’t go much further than the summer at that time. A shame, now that I think back. But in that moment we had our whole lives laid out in front of us. And the beauty was that it was there for the taking.

You enthusiastically agreed to babysit with me the next day. “Are you sure?” I wondered aloud, “It won’t be fun.” “But you’ll be there,” you said. And I swooned. We took the boys, 2 and 4, to a botanical garden with a café and a carousel. You paid with a fist full of singles—your tips from selling Cokes at Fenway Park. The boys clambered over me with sticky hands and faces, eyeing you skeptically. “I feel like the absentee dad,” you said, “with these kids that don’t know me.” I said, “Just wait, they will love you.”  I already did.

And so began my first romance that bloomed outside the confines of my small Cape Cod town. You were from “off-Cape,” from “over the Bridge.”  With a life and a family and friends that soon took me in and made me feel like someone new.

On 4th of July weekend, we went to see a late night screening of Casablanca, rereleased for its 50th anniversary, at the now defunct Airport Cinema in Hyannis. You patted my arm with recognition when “It Had To Be You,” was played in Rick’s Bar—remembering its place in When Harry Met Sally.  I struggled to keep my eyes open as you nudged me awake whispering, “You can’t miss this, it’s a classic!” The black and white feature became part of our vocabulary.  An inside joke. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” you would toast for the rest of the summer.

Do you remember the night I drove from the Cape just to see you at work? We sat in the empty seats, after the ballpark cleared out watching the grounds crew clear the field until the lights went out and the Citgo sign peeked out from behind the Green Monster. At eighteen, everything is magic.

You were the first and last guy to break my heart.

I sobbed in the shower over our first breakup, two weeks before I went to college for the first time. I didn’t want to go. Couldn’t believe that it was over.

By October, we had reconnected—thanks to your older sister, a senior at my college, who facilitated the exchange of our newly acquired dorm phone numbers at your request. But not before scribbling “The Jerk” in parentheses beneath your name.

I ignored her penciled warning and we soon fell into a pattern of togetherness and misunderstandings that spanned two summers. “I am DONE!” I wrote in my journal on March 10, 1993. But a few pages later, I had changed my mind.

There were hours we spent lying on the floor with stacks of CDs—where we would play each other our favorite songs, dissecting their lyrics. And the night I called you after class to ask you to come to a Valentine’s Day dance as my date and you seemed surprised that I had any doubt. At the dance, my roommate took our photo. You have your arm around me while telling a story and I am looking up at you, clearly enthralled. You were wearing a tie but forgot your jacket. Something that would bother me now but I didn’t care then. I was just happy to be on your arm. You said I looked beautiful.

But then there were silences. Silly fights and late night calls. Each of us dealing with our own disappointments, but lacking the know-how to figure things out. We were playing adults but without any roadmap. Eventually we called it quits for good. And neither of us had to say it out loud.

I missed you like crazy, but was too stubborn to say it. Instead I kissed your best friend. Called you a jerk.

“You know that you are the female version of me, right?” you once said. Maybe that is what destined us to failure. Though for many years I would think that we would find each other again and laugh over the time we spent apart.

During the decade we lost touch we grew up—into the adults we were meant to be. Educated, employed, responsible. When you married, your sister sent me a photo of you and your bride.  “That’s kind of weird,” said my sister. But I didn’t think so. It was closing the door.  Your wise sister, she knew.

Not long ago, you sent me a Facebook message that said simply, “hi. driving down (or being) down the cape always brings back the good memories.” Your words stayed with me for days. Which memories, I wondered.  But I never asked.  Were they the same as mine?

One night—were we juniors by then?—your sister had a party and I arrived late. I recognized you first by the back of your head. Standing by the keg, making everyone laugh. We hadn’t spoken for almost a year. My nerves made me defensive. I acted like someone else. You told me that night that I was cold and sarcastic.  (I was only afraid of you calling my bluff.)

I never got to tell you the truth. But if I could, I would tell you this: my heart—it is my most vulnerable part. And it once loved you. I still have the box to prove it.

If I close my eyes it comes back. The sound of your voice. The curve of your smile. The pitch of your laugh. And if I had the chance, I would say, “Play it again, Sam.”

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