Monday, December 27, 2010

Although of Course, You End Up Becoming Yourself

This book consists almost entirely of transcriptions of conversations between David Foster Wallace and a Rolling Stone writer who was sent to profile him toward the end of his Infinite Jest book tour. It makes me want to put it down and pick up Infinite Jest again. Every time they talk about it I'm like "Infinite Jest -- now *there's* a book. Why am I reading this crap?"

Got some good holiday loot this year -- Big Girls Don't Cry by Rebecca Traister, Just Kids by Patti Smith (another New York story), Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges and some Laurie Notaro for the plane or for relaxing at cocktail hour in the suburbs.

Tomorrow: back to New York.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Super Sad True Love Story

Did not live up to the hype, but I liked it okay.

The author, Gary Shteyngart, managed to take subjects that can trigger a good old rant from yours truly -- stupid trendy NYC bars and their even stupider names, "the kids" walking around practically naked, overreliance on the Internet -- and, by satirizing them in what I thought was an alarmist, clumsy and tone-deaf way, make me downright defensive of young people today.

I am re-reading Female Chauvanist Pigs by Ariel Levy and when I'm done I'm going to have more to say about exactly how Shteyngart gets it wrong.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

According to the records I keep on Goodreads, I read a book just about every two weeks. So I'll probably read about 25 books this year. It doesn't sound like a lot, does it?

I just finished An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel. I started reading it because a friend left it in my apartment, and also it's a lightweight paperback, perfect for schlepping back and forth to work for lunch break reading. It's extremely well written, but the affect is flat.

Here's a good example:
"They were brown lace-up shoes, like school shoes. The laces were very badly knotted. Julia picked at them. Her occupation made her look humble, like someone in the New Testament."

Mantel paints a beautiful picture. But everything in the book is like this. The main character describes the scene in front of her, nothing further.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

New York stories

So much of what I've watched and read since moving to New York -- a year ago tomorrow! -- have been New York stories. That's partially because so much takes place here, of course. I would have read Freedom, where maybe 1/3 of the novel is set in New York, whether I was here or not. Probably still would have gone to see the Wall Street sequel. Maybe would have read Liar's Poker. But then, I definitely would not have read There's A Road To Everywhere Except Where You Came From, and probably not Super Sad True Love Story, which I started the other day, either.

Freedom and Liar's Poker are excellent books, and also universal stories. You don't need to have ever been to New York to enjoy them. Super Sad True Love Story is so far ... kind of an angry but not really on-the-nose joke about New York today. I have to think more about it. There's A Road To Everywhere rings completely true, and it should -- it's a memoir about the recent past.

But today I saw a movie that surpasses them all in terms of being so true to life it could be a documentary. It's called Tiny Furniture, and the set-up is a standard one: twenty-something returns home from college, directionless, to live with mom, takes up with crazy friend, meets bad news guys. Everything that is said and done I swear I have already seen said and done. Yet it feels original. Not-quite-right New York movies show people living in sprawling spaces with a sort of gleaming minimalist aesthetic. But this tony Tribeca loft was lined with storage cupboards and the daughters' rooms were really just one room with a fake wall down the middle. Young actors bitch about staying in Bushwick. A drug-addled daughter of privilege complains about how weird her mom's gotten since taking up with the Landmark Forum. One character doesn't know the difference between Ohio and Ontario. Manhattan dwellers take cabs home from Dumbo instead of the train. They never make little references to the 6 or the L to make it sound real -- they don't have to, because everything they say and do sounds real. Highly and completely recommended.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


A tale of two readings in two nights in the same part of Brooklyn that one might think would appeal to the same crowd:

Tuesday night: The Best American Music Writing, guest edited by Ann Powers
The name Ann Powers has appeared in this blog before; I read her memoir Weird Like Us almost two years ago and on whole quite enjoyed it. So when I saw she was going to be part of a free reading in Brooklyn on a night where I had no particular plans, I couldn't think of a reason not to go. Next time, I will have plenty.
Ms. Powers had a generally likable demeanor (she just hosted, didn't read her own work) and the writing presented was fine. But the venue made the experience a none too pleasant one. It was way too dark, but with harsh lighting on the stage so you had to shield your eyes or squint to look at whoever was talking. Before the reading, which started late, a DJ (who turned out to be one of the writers) played loud, bad hip hop music to a crowd of largely 30-something white people who think they're still cool because they can wear jeans to work -- because they're writers and they work from home. I hate listening to all-hip hop playlists in 95% white crowds, especially white people with money like this bunch. These people would never consider going to an actual hip hop club for fun (going to a black neighborhood at night at all might be pushing it), but they can stand around with each other and nod their heads and pretend to be badass for liking music with swears in this specially created little safe environment. Bleah.
Pretty much everyone there had a hand in the book or was friends with someone who did, giving other audience members the feeling of being an uninvited guest at a party. A bad party.

Wednesday night: The Talent Show presents Cranksgiving
Once again, I took the C train to Fort Greene then hiked down to the same general area of Park Slope (technically Gowanus due to being west of 4th Avenue). Once again, I walked into the bar area of a concert venue filled largely with nerdy white people. But this time, a Talking Heads cover played at a reasonable volume, the lighting was pleasant, the crowd convivial and excited, arriving in twos and threes. I was able to order a beer at the bar and read until the seats started to fill up and I felt like I should go take one; at the other end of the bar, another woman by herself paged through a magazine.
I had scored a ticket to this event because I am Facebook friends or whatever with This American Life. They posted a link like "This American Life contributers performing in Brooklyn. Tickets are 5 dollars, here's the link!" and I jumped on it. So though I'm sure the performers had many friends in the audience, it's safe to assume that a lot of us were just public radio fans. The theme of the evening was "complaints and rants" or some such and they let audience members get up on stage and do 30-second rants between acts. One guy totally stole the show. His rant went something like this:
"So I get an email from my dad the other day, saying my mom had been in a car accident. She hit a light pole, and the light pole fell on her car. The car was totaled. She broke her sternum and had to be rushed to the hospital."
At this point the crowd is silent, cursing the questionable choice to encourage audience participation.
"And the subject line of this email is 'Say goodbye to the Prius'." Happy Thanksgiving Mom and Dad!" *raises drink* *leaves stage*
Thanks for that, guy, whoever you are.
I had had a terrible day and could only think of rants that were not funny in the slightest. It was only when I sat down to write about Tuesday night that I realized I had plenty of material.
Other highlights: Jonathan Hodgman did a really funny bit where he mediated a dispute between a woman and her boyfriend who criticized her writing because parentheses should not be used in fiction. This was an audience with opinions about punctuation.
Also I saw Ira Glass! After taking a seat I went back to the bar to get a beer and he was just standing around talking to someone like a normal person. Later Jonathan Hodgman made a joke about him babysitting his kids and like gestured toward him in the audience so it was definitely him. OMG. That's the only New York celebrity sighting I really wanted. Of course, it was a TAL-approved event and therefore possibly not a true celebrity sighting, like when Elizabeth Wurtzel was next to me in a crowd at a panel discussion, when she had been part of a different panel discussion as part of the same event earlier that day. Seeing Ira Glass in the grocery store or like walking his dog, that would be amazing.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

There's a Road to Everywhere, Except Where You Came From

I must have been feeling a little self-indulgent tonight, because I visited what has to be one of the world's greatest bookstores and walked out with a memoir about moving from the Rust Belt to New York City. I'm maybe 65 pages in and already the author has twice referenced going to the store where I bought the book.

The store in question is St. Mark's Bookshop. I gather it is something of a famous landmark, but I had never heard of it or been to it before today. While my beloved Greenlight specializes in what I would call mainstream literary fiction, St. Mark's devotes a lot more shelf space to academic disciplines, art, architecture, and design. They also have a lot of cool magazines. Like Greenlight, it's a great place to walk in not looking for anything in particular and walk out with a book by an author you had never heard of. After my visit, I walked to Tompkins Square Park and called my uncle, who is a librarian and former bookseller. "There's an art criticism SECTION!" I said.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

It makes me happy that someone found this Web site by searching for "the book and the bowl." Michael Lewis is awesome.

more on freedom

If I had tried, I couldn't have picked a better novel that followed themes I described a couple of posts ago than The Namesake. It's about a family that leaves Calcutta for the United States, where their lives are both much easier and much harder than they would have been had they stayed. Unlike the characters in Freedom, Ashoke and Ashmina don't spend a lot of time under the delusion that they can escape the parts of the past they don't like. Ashoke wants to come to America to expand his horizons and build a better life, but he never pretends or tries very much to be different than he was brought up to be. They enter into an arranged marriage, seek Bengali friends, eat mainly Indian food, keep as many of their customs as they can.

For their children, though, compromises are made, and in many ways as time progresses the family adopts a more "normal" suburban life. It's up to the children, then, to figure out how and whether to shake the past and become someone new.

For long stretches, the book oddly had almost no plot. Things just happened, one after the next, with no suspense and no twists. Toward the end though, it had me close to tears in a dentist's office waiting room.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Buy local, read local

I spent some of my 31st birthday cash on The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri lives around the corner from the bookstore where I purchased the book. Jennifer Egan lives in the neighborhood as well and her A Visit From The Goon Squad is high on my to-read list. And, I also finally bought Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtyngart. He doesn't live in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, but he used to.

Having a local bookstore in Fort Greene, a couple of miles from my apartment, has introduced me to several very very local authors I might never have learned about in my life before New York City. I'm not always good about taking advantage of the city's cultural opportunities -- I visit museums rarely, have never been to the theater -- but I do think that when it comes to reading at least, my horizons have been broadened.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

on freedom

The theme of Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom is that people are trapped by everything they need to do in order to have it. Trapped by an insistence on being self-sustaining and self contained. Trapped by never settling down. Trapped by having to stay far from their families. Trapped by independence. It reminds me of someone I used to be very close to -- there were so many things he could not do in order to remain "free." It's a type of freedom that means not only shaking off the past, but refusing to build a future. It requires you to say no to a lot of things.

Today I finished Eat the Document, a novel about a Weather Underground-style radical who went underground at the age of 22 and, who, now approaching 50, is living quietly in the suburbs with her teenage son. Her first years as a fugitive, moving every few months, working in restaurant kitchens, changing names and hair colors, are chronicled. She observes, "People with real freedom never do really 'free' things, like reinvent themselves, leave lives behind, change everything. Only trapped, desperate people did that."

Two apartments ago, I kept a postcard on my refrigerator. It pictured an endless traffic jam and the words, "Enjoy the freedom of a car." I have for years felt that way about driving -- it's a fake form of freedom sold to us so we'll consume more. You have to pay for the car, so you have less money to do whatever else you want. You constantly have to worry about where it's parked, whether you're getting a ticket, whether someone hit it, what that strange rattling noise is, etc etc. It's the ultimate possession that people become enslaved to -- except for a house I suppose. And here we were, acting like a car is freeing because you can go anywhere you want, whenever you want. But of course you can't go wherever you want. You have to work tomorrow. What will enable you to "just pick up and go" is time and money, and if you have those things, you don't need a car. You can get a cab to the airport.

There have been a couple of slaves to freedom in my life in recent years, and they really like to drive.

Does all of this mean Big Brother was right, and freedom really is slavery? I don't think so. It means that being an adult isn't about running away, and it certainly isn't about pretending that you could if you wanted to. You have to face who you are and where you came from. Start there.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

In Defense of Pessimism

I went to Greenlight, my beloved local Brooklyn bookstore, this evening to see David Rakoff read and answer questions. His new book, Half Empty, sounds like a more personal answer to Barbra Ehrenreich's Bright Sided, which I read recently and just loved. Ehrenreich writes about how stigmatizing pessimism can often mean stigmatizing foresight and rationality, and how the broad-reaching impact of that is bad for society. I have not yet read Half Empty (didn't even purchase it due to lack of funds, but I will, and I buy a lot of books from Greenlight I'll have you know) but it appears to tackle the same themes, but in essays that are more about the author's life and less about, say, the financial crisis.

Like Ehrenreich does/did (not sure of her current health status), Rakoff has cancer. He had it as a young adult and recovered, and the new tumor is a result of the old treatment. This did not come up tonight; I heard it on Fresh Air. I admire both of them so much for facing down sickness and mortality, and coming out of it with their worldview perhaps deepened, but essentially unchanged. Perhaps there are plenty of atheists in foxholes after all.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Liar's Poker

Michael Lewis moved several steps up my must-read list when both Ira Glass and Jonathan Franzen raved about his work in recent interviews. Since I was all psyched for the Wall Street sequel, and since I'm a huge fan of Bonfire of the Vanities, I picked up Liar's Poker. It's Lewis's first book, written in the late 80s after he worked at Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment bank.
Liar's Poker is an inside look at the beginnings of mortgage trading (which had a huge part in the most recent economic meltdown), the invention of hostile corporate takeovers and the run-up in the junk bond market. It's incredibly sharp, funny and insightful. I think what I'll remember most about it is the part where a bond salesman Lewis looks up to tells him to "consider the book and the bowl" when estimating the value and predicting the future of the bank's own stock.
To mark some corporate milestone or other, Salomon Brothers gave its employees a silver-plated bowl inscribed with the firm's name and a book about the company's history. "The bowl was good for putting Doritos in," Lewis writes before adding the book was good for nothing at all. I think the phrase "clumsy piece of fascist propaganda" was used.
The other bond salesman, by bringing up the book and the bowl, was saying that Salomon had strayed from its gutsy hard-charging roots, becoming stale and corporate. To its detriment of course. The old Salomon brothers would have just given employees the money it took to produce all the crappy corporate swag. Everyone would rather have the money.
The book was a fantastic parallel to the third season of The Wire, the HBO crime drama that's really about the disasters that are modern politics and government. In The Wire, a group of police officers is investigating a wealthy, powerful and violent drug gang. Over time, the gang loses its edge. Some of its best people end up dead or in jail. The two leaders disagree on whether to cooperate with other gangs and try to stem the violence, or whether to keep trying to be more brutal and fierce than anyone else. They turn on each other, and the gang falls apart.
At Salomon Brothers, the mortgage trading department had an identity all its own, loud, uncouth, overweight men with unpretentious educations in a white-shoe world. When a change in Federal Reserve policy leads to windfalls in mortgage trading and money starts rolling in, they remain loyal to the department rather than the firm at large. Meanwhile bonds, equities and all of the other departments build their own identities as well. The firm leadership becomes consumed in turf battles. And when junk bonds and hostile takeovers come along, they're too busy squabbling to cash in on the next Wall Street windfall. A lot of the top money-makers leave the firm, because there's more money to be made elsewhere. Millions of dollars are lost. Salomon Brothers are no longer, as they say, the masters of the universe.
In both cases, nimbler, hungrier, perhaps more ruthless capitalists surpass the slow, the stubborn, the resistant to change.

Possibly unrelated note: So far as I can tell, the membership of Goodreads is largely female. But when you click on the Liar's Poker page, the first I would say 10-15 members to review it are all men. And the first woman on the list read it because her fiance told her to so she could understand what he does. She just isn't interested in finance, unless it's about figuring out whether she can afford an expensive designer dress.

I wish I was kidding.

Ladies, high finance isn't about boring columns of numbers. It's about the way the world is run and who gets to be in charge. It doesn't matter if you understand how a mortgage security is created and sold. Hardly anyone does, not even, as we have learned, members of Congress. But it does matter who has all the money in this world (hint: not women) and why they have it. It matters a great deal.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

This movie had its points, but was ultimately formulaic and did not make a ton of sense. I loved all the sweeping skyline shots and real estate porn though.

There's a whole series of events in it in which someone's life falls apart, piece by piece, when the real estate bubble bursts in 2008. That happened to me. And yet, probably the most significant thing I took away from watching it was that the "and then it goes viral!" musical montage needs to be put to rest! I can already hear the teenagers of the future watching that going, "that's so two thousands."

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Perhaps Jonathan Franzen has heard the same thing that I have about The Corrections, the National Book Award-winning novel he published 9 years ago. As with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, another truly great modern novel, several people I've talked to said they "just couldn't get into it." In both cases, the first 100+ pages were admittedly a bit of a slog, one that was well worth it.

In contrast, the first 100 pages of Freedom are enthralling. I'm having a really hard time putting this book down to go to bed. So far it is completely living up to the hype.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I'm still reading The New Kings of Nonfiction, though I have just a story and a half to go. It turns out that it's largely a collection of serious and dense writing that is best digested piece by piece.

Until today, I thought the best work in the book was Power Steer by Michael Pollan. I have never bothered to read Pollan's books -- I've read a few articles by him, heard him on Fresh Air and figured I had the gist of what he has to say. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Etc. In 1997, I stopped eating meat due largely to concerns about the factory farming industry so I thought he's preaching, I'm already converted. Power Steer, though, is such an incredibly well-written piece, full of short, clear sentences and well-composed thoughts. It is also much more practical than sentimental when it comes to the consequences of factory farming. Some industry practices have become more humane in the past 10 years, but the facts remain that corn is not good for cows and that corn-fed beef is not good for humans.

This evening I dug into a story called Tales of the Tyrant. It lays out what it's like to be Saddam Hussein, how he got this way, and how he came to rule Iraq. How and where the author got so much information about this I don't know; I worked in a newsroom during the run-up to the U.S. war there and I saw very little of it. The author allows one of his sources to expound on his theory of Hussein's power: that he exemplifies what he calls a tribal mentality, taken to its furthest extent. Paranoia and violence reign and those outside the favored circle are not to be trusted. Power, not money, is the ultimate goal.

It makes me think of the other reason I'm still reading this book a month later: in addition to moving late last month, I have been watching The Wire. It's just as good as everyone says it is. Actually it might be better. It tells a story of drug kingpins who take and keep power in the same way Hussein does: rule by fear, concentrate power within the family, serve the leader above all else. And the housing projects in West Baltimore are roughly as well served by this as Iraq was.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Plane reading

I love preparing for a trip I'm excited about -- packing snacks, digging out old maps and guides, incessantly emailing my friends about plans a week or more in advance. Though I love being somewhere else, I hate flying, so I like to save up my favorite podcasts, or maybe a book I'm really looking forward to reading. Something entertaining, not too heavy, but worth mulling over.

This past weekend I purchased The New Kings of Nonfiction, a collection edited by Ira Glass. I sneaked a peek at it today when I was stuck in a dentist's waiting room for half the morning and so far it has kept its promise to make me almost look forward to sitting around the Jet Blue terminal on Thursday.

Among many activities planned for my trip, I get to watch the second and third episodes of the new season of Mad Men. So much has been written about it that I'm not sure what I can add, even as I become one of the millions of Americans who have started over in New York City during the past two plus centuries, running away from a mess of a life to create something better. Every time I hear the swift *zing* of Don Draper's Zippo flipping open, I think of my grandfather lighting a Lucky Strike.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism

On one hand, I really should have read this when it came out. At the time, the dominant narrative was that liberals are out of touch with "ordinary Americans," the right wing is growing and represents the mainstream, the Democratic party is in crisis. What a difference a few years make -- now, due to the results of all of two national elections, we hear about how Republicans are becoming a permanent minority due to demographic changes and the liberal social views of young people.

The book itself is overly hyperbolic and annoyingly equivocating at the same time. Goldberg talks about how liberals are being disenfranchised, ruled by people from other states that we don't understand, with little control over our country's future. She also constantly writes things like "this is not to say that all Christians feel this way" when she never said that all Christians feel that way. She writes that liberals and secularists should not apologize for who we are, while at the same time apologizing constantly via taking back statements she never made.

Which is to say, the writing style of this book made me crazy. But her conclusion -- that secularists need a stronger grassroots network and should not buckle under claims that right-wing Christians are the "real" America -- is a reasonable one to be sure. Here in New York, a city of liberals, of immigrants, of open gays, unmarried and childless adults, artists, bohemians, radicals, lefty Jews, and every other group vilifed by people who would use the attack on this city as justification to oppress most of the people in it, we are just as "American" as everywhere else. It's our country too.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men II

In retrospect, David Foster Wallace's work is clearly that of someone with a significant mental illness.

I love this book at first. It was so gripping that I barely noticed someone's kid screaming in a Brooklyn cafe. As it went on, it got more disturbing. A story that I didn't entirely read reminded me too much of a teenage neighbor who committed suicide. And the overdue fees were racking up. But I read most of it, and the parts that I loved absorbed 100 percent of my attention.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

Ruth Reichl's memoirs make an excellent companion to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which I read about a year ago and don't appear to have written about.

In Outliers, Gladwell demonstrates how external factors work to make some smart, talented, hard-working people into billionaires and sports champions, while others lead unremarkable lives. Reichl, who grew up in the 50s and 60s in Greenwich Village, was sent to boarding school in Montreal on her mentally ill mother's whim, toured Italy with a favorite professor, then lived in a Berkley commune around the time Alice Waters was coming into prominence, is an excellent example. Her writing is wonderful, her life filled with unique opportunities (and some unique challenges as well). And she makes this point herself.

When Reichl, who went on to write for The New York Times, was first offered an opportunity review restaurants, she writes, "I wasn't sure I could do it, but I was willing to try. To my surprise, I had a lot of help. When I walked into La Colombe Bleu a waiter was standing at a table boning a fish, and without a moment's warning Marielle materialized at his side, casting a critical eye on his every move." She describes how other people who taught her how to cook, serve, eat and appreciate were all on her mind as she began to evaluate the restaurant. "With this chorus of voices the review practically wrote itself."

Her article was well received, she reports:
"You were born to do this," said the editor when I turned the piece in.
"No," I said softly. "but I was very well trained."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

I had always suspected men were like this. And now I know.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How to be alone in a crowd

One of the things I like about New York is that, for the most part, one can do things on one's own without feeling like a pariah. Along the same lines, it's socially acceptable to be neither outgoing nor hostile, merely low-key and self contained. But even in New York, I have gone into a bar at the end of a not-so-great day, ordered a whiskey and settled in to sit and stew only to have some patronizing old man be all, "What's the matter, honey? It can't be all bad!" No, it can't, but being condescended to makes it that much worse.

Today after work I spent way too much time getting to Brooklyn's central public library, where Jonathan Franzen and another New York author were giving a free reading and talk. I had no idea what the setup would be and whether I needed to get there super early to get in at all, and I arrived a good 50 minutes before the start time. Also scoping the scene were dudes with uncool backpacks and unkempt hair, making no effort to look detached. Ah, nerds. Hello fellow travelers. I got my ticket, ordered a quick dinner at the cafe in the library and sat down to eat alone, over a book -- amongst several other people who were doing the same thing. Bliss. When I went back downstairs many of the seats still available were between people who had also come alone, many of whom were either reading or writing as they waited for the program to begin. I sat between two of them. We did not talk.

The reading itself was also calming and wonderful. Franzen got a reputation for being an asshole a few years ago when he was the only author to turn down a chance to be part of Oprah's book club. When I raved about The Corrections, people (okay, an ex boyfriend and his bestie, but other people too) said 'but he's such a dick, blah blah' but I wasn't saying anything about whether he was or not. I had never met him. I had no opinion on his personality. I just liked the book. And I liked How To Be Alone, an essay collection that followed it and is more personal. On stage, Franzen was ... actually quite engaging, funny, charming even. He laughed at his own jokes a couple of times, like Ira Glass used to in the early years of This American Life. During the Q&A, either he or the other author made a point about how seriousness is often confused with snobbery. Myself and my unfashionable fellow travelers, we didn't cheer our agreement, just pondered and nodded, and smiled ever so slightly.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguis

I've been a vegetarian for almost 13 years, but I ate part of a chicken dumpling the other day.

It wasn't on purpose. All the others were vegetable, so I had no reason not to dunk the last one in ginger sauce and take a bite. The taste, texture and overall sensation appalled me so that I think I will stay a vegetarian for another 13 years, possibly for as long as I live. And for that reason, I will never be a serious restaurant critic.

Reading Ruth Reichl's account of her years as the New York Times restaurant critic didn't make me want to eat meat, but it made me wish that I wanted to. I want to introduce friends to the wonders of organ meat, savor well-prepared fois gras, take the 7 out to Flushing for the perfect red-cooked pork belly and crispy chicken, be all-knowing about the cemitas and pernil of Bushwick and the bracciole of Caroll Gardens.

Sometimes Reichl writes about food as an end in itself, but more often it's an allusion to a memory or experience. And ultimately, the book is really about the experience of being a woman -- lots of women. Reichl learns early on that the Times critic is recognized in all of New York's fine-dining restaurants and so, with the help of an old friend of her mother's, she creates several elaborate disguises, each with a whole persona and even a back story to go with them. Chloe, with her champaigne-colored bob, red nails and little black dresses, speaks in a breathy voice and admires the wine knowledge of the men who vie for her attention. No cab ever passes her by. Brenda's bright, crumpled clothing, long messy red curls and warm disposition draw strangers to her, even in New York. Betty, with her grey hair, stoop and sensible handbag, is all but invisible everywhere she goes. Reichl never talks about feminism, never makes a point about how society has no use for unattractive women. As with all of the best show-me-don't-tell me writing, she doesn't have to.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

I had been coveting this book for at least a few months, but it was only when I rediscovered the joy of a library card that I got hold of it. In it, Barbara Ehrenreich, a woman I very much admire, takes on so many things I absolutely cannot stand: prosperity gospel, pink-ribbon breast cancer culture, The Secret, even Oprah herself here and there. The central thesis of this book, so far as I can summarize it, is that the positive thinking craze that is the common thread through these hated trends represents yet another way our society is moving away from reasoned empiricism to a more malleable way to look at "reality." And that that trend is not good for us long term, because it encourages us to downplay serious problems when we should be marshaling resources to fight them head on.

As one might imagine, this is a helpful lens through which to view the recent real estate downturn and financial crisis. Being a former real estate attorney (and current devoted Planet Money listener), I'm pretty familiar with the basics of how all that went down. But I was especially impressed by the way Ehrenreich drew a line from the evolution of CEOs from ruthless but efficient technocrats to visionary shamans who glorify gut instinct over ledgers and tough decisions, to the growing economic disparity between average workers and top earners, to the growth of motivational speeches and personal coaching, to the idea that we shouldn't be resentful of those earning 300x what we do because, hey, we could be that rich one day.

I also love her biting humor, particularly when she's describing her own breast cancer diagnosis. Her complaints about grown women being given teddy bears and boxes of crayons are funny to be sure, but she also shows how stressing the need to think positively in order to beat cancer can become a form of victim-blaming, not to mention demonstrating pre-Feminine Mystique ideas about how illness should be handled.

I could go on and on. I won't. This book is wonderful, and so needed.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

things I must do

My library books are due on Wednesday.

Before I return them, I want to write a post about Kingdom Coming, by Michelle Goldberg, and Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich. The theme will be: if you're going to say something, just come out and say it, and use facts to back up what you're saying. If you're going to equivocate and make every paragraph about "while I'm not saying it's like this ..." and then say it's like that, and then take it back again -- just don't bother. Make a claim you can stand by.''

It will also be about how my dream in life is to be more like Barbara Ehrenreich.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

time lapse

I stopped writing in this blog for several months.

Since then I have:
Turned 30
Become single again after 3+ years
Found a new full-time job and career path
Sold my car and most of my furniture
Moved to Brooklyn, where the slate is clean. Mostly.

I never stopped reading though. New Yorkers are great readers. You would wonder where they find the time but the answer is: on the subway. And sometimes on the bus.

As mentioned previously, I was thinking about picking up Dry, by Augusten Burroughs. This is by far and away his masterpiece. I enjoy all of Burroughs' work but it's mostly just funny stories, some with no real cohesion or conclusion. Dry holds a mood like the best works of art do, like the way the intensity of the opening credits in Do The Right Thing never lets up. It's gripping and relentless, yet still manages to be funny more than on occasion. You can finish it in a day, but yet it's not a trifle. Highly recommended.

I am even more in love with Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a story, like so many others, of newcomers dreaming grandiose dreams and living big, sweeping lives in the city that never sleeps. When I began it, I had not made up my mind to move. I finished it in my Brooklyn bedroom, spring rain rattling the windows. It's a modern myth, an ambitious epic that lives up to what it sets out to achieve. One of my all-time favorites, perhaps.