books


I’m blessed to have extremely literate, well-read friends who share their favorite books with me. This comes in handy, because I don’t have much time, but I LOVE TO READ.

I’d like to figure out which social networking site works best for books (shelfari? goodreads?) and post all the books I read there, but in the meantime here are three I highly recommend.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer – This was a good read, but I only recommend it if you have an interest in the art world. Because I am, and have attended art fairs, and mingled with art critics and artists, I was fascinated by the setting of the Venice Biennale – and the fact that the main character is an art writer. This guy is also on the manic, neurotic side, which I don’t mind, and other people might. As the title suggest, the first half of the book is set in Venice where Jeff is trying to make sense of his life while have a terrific time with a woman he meets (nice sex scenes!); the second half takes place in India, where, well, things make less sense.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers – is one that I’ll be recommending to people for a while. It reads like a novel, but is the true account of one man and his family’s experience of Hurricane Katrina. Zeitoun stays behind to take care of the house and his numerous business assets around the city, so you get to read about the surreal beauty of the city under water, while the water is still clear and fresh – before the rot and contamination set in. And then because Zeitoun is silently floating about in an aluminum canoe, he is able to hear the quiet calls of help of people stranded in their homes. The first woman he rescues is a 200-pound 80-year old woman floating near the ceiling in her dining room holding onto the top of her bookcase.
The real truth that is uncovered here, though, is not so much the devastating effects of the storm, but the United States government’s reaction to the crisis. That’s what’s truly horrifying.

And on the topic of uncovering, Annie Leonard’s book The Story of Stuff is the mama of all unreveals. She takes you through the history of your favorite t-shirt, from extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal – much the same way Michael Pollan traced the origins of four meals. This book is the culmination of ten years of research and presents information EVERYBODY NEEDS TO KNOW. Fortunately, it’s well-written and riveting read.
For instance, do you know that of everything that comes into your home – what percentage is still there after six months? ONLY 1% – everything else has been trashed or passed on, but mostly trashed.

Also, the average American creates 4.6 pounds of garbage A DAY. I thought, well, that seems like a lot compared to China, where the average Chinese produces only .7 pounds a day. It was mortifying and humbling to read on that AUSTRALIANS only produce 2.7 pounds a day, and CANADIANS only 1.79 a day!

Below you’ll find the 20-min youtube video of the same name that first put Annie Leonard on the map.

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My sister’s family has a wonderful maid/nanny who is very well paid in terms of her peers. She is sweet, friendly, intelligent, hard-working – and she knows how to stay out of your way, which is important, I came to realize when she spends the greater part of each day in the same apartment with you. I am not criticizing my sister for hiring help, in fact, I didn’t meet a single family in Bangkok who didn’t have at least one hired nanny or maid. Besides which, I appreciated p’Pa’s work every day that she was there, and especially on the days she was not. It was heavenly to have a squeaky clean bathroom and all my clothes laundered and ironed for me.

But consider the lay-out of Sue’s apartment: The front door accessed the main part of the house and in the main part of the house every room was outfitted with a air-conditioning unit.

The side door opened directly into the kitchen, the muddy room, the laundry room, the maid’s room and the maid’s toilet. There was a locking door between the kitchen and front door (which my sister’s family never locked). None of the maid’s quarters, not even the kitchen, was air-conditioned. There was no air conditioner back there at all – but it was still where all the ironing was done. (This is also why Sue and Joss rarely cook at home – when you reach a certain income level, Thai culture presumes a cook.) The back part of the apartment is where the maid is supposed to be. The front part is where the family is supposed to be.

Furthermore, the maid’s room, barely larger than Sue’s walk-in closet, did not have a regular door, but sliding GLASS doors. That’s the kind of status maids have in Thai culture – they get limited amenities and no privacy.

So, whenever I was sitting out in the air-conditioned living room reading Wolf Hall with my feet up – or knitting while watching the last few episodes of Lost, I felt slightly guilty whenever p’Pa passed by with her cleaning supplies. It was worse when we’d be eating a couple of kilos of peeled rambutan – that she’d peeled for us and served before slipping back to her area.

And worse, she was there 4 1/2 days a week to clean and watch Noi naa – but she herself had TWO CHILDREN. Two babies who until recently lived with their grandmother in a town north of Bangkok. I’m guessing that when her kids were younger, she saw her kids once a month – actually I’m hoping that’s the case, in reality it was probably far less. (Now, her kids are older, and the 12-year son lives in Bangkok with her and her husband and goes to school. The 8-year old daughter is still north with grandma.)

Also, I had difficulty with the lack of privacy issue. If you have a full-time maid, no matter how discreet you are or they are, THEY KNOW YOUR BUSINESS. Heck, they do your dirty laundry. Which is why my sister won’t even consider cloth menstrual pads – I mean, where would Sue even keep the dirty ones? There’s not many hiding spots in a house where the maid puts everything away for you. The maid knows exactly how much you drink, how late you sleep in, how you treat your husband, and how short your temper really can be.

No thank you.

With those thoughts on my mind, it’s no wonder that I completely lost myself in Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help. Granted, the Thai culture of servitude is different from the American history of slavery-cum-servants, but there are common threads when dealing with mistresses and servants.

Told from the perspective of three women in Jackson, Mississippi during Martin Luther King’s glory (jeee-sus, that means black people were routinely getting lynched in my lifetime… *shivers*), this story reads like a memoir, but has the tension of a mystery thriller. Because two of the women are black and hired servants, and the third woman is white and wealthy – you get a gripping flux between the perspectives of both sides.

Damn, it was so dangerous in those days. I mean, the kind of danger a slave risked by learning to read kind of danger (does everybody know that the traditional punishment for a slave caught reading was the loss of a finger – for the first offense?)

Above all, this book is about the power of WRITING and the value of struggling to think things through, despite the pain you risk.

Stockett says that there is one line in the book that she truly prizes:

“Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”

She wrote this book in memory of her family’s own domestic servant, Demetrie, who died when the author was sixteen years old.

It’s not the best book I’ve read in the last year – but aside from the occasional eyeball rolling, I did really enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love. I think I resisted reading it, despite all the hype (it seems to be a book club favorite – and people were always surprised I hadn’t read it), because of the word “pray” in the title. I sometimes get nervous that I’m unwittingly getting sucked into an evangelical tirade – a niggling worry that is not unwarranted here in superchurch land, where Rick Warren (of purpose-driven life fame) gives his Easter sermon in Angel Stadium.

Did you understand that correctly? The local popular pastor gives his Easter sermon in a baseball stadium that seats 45,000 people.

!!

Gilbert is an accomplished writer, so you’re on safe footing here. Her only foible (or feat) is her utter self-disclosure. She gives it all away. After a devastating divorce (having been through a miserable myself, her break-down was hard to read about), she takes off to travel the world, dividing a year neatly between three countries: Italy, India, and Indonesia and their three corresponding activities: eating, praying, and loving. You’ll hear every detail, so if working through a massive mid-life crisis, eating massive amounts of pasta, praying for massive amounts of hours in caves, and sex galore do not interest you – well, don’t read the book.

A definite chick lit book, I was vastly entertained by my brother’s notes throughout the book.

I first discovered his notes when somebody on paperbackswap.com requested the book from me. Yes, in my obstinacy, a copy of this book had even come into my very home, but I was refusing to read it – even flip through its pages – and I’d posted it on my paperback.com account. But when somebody requested the book, I took a minute to flip through and realized I was going to have to spend some time erasing my brother’s penciled notes…

My brother’s notes? Well, by the time I’d busted up laughing over a few of the scrawled notes (“reminds me of high school journal entries”; “doubt it, sheesh”; “sounds so AA!”; “Leave no wreckage”) I’d decided that I should read the book – if only to read it through my brother’s eyes. He had, after all, bothered to sketch pictures of drawings described, made a half dozen guesses at what the middle initial “M” stood for, and more. He spends some time too wondering if he should even be reading it…

So, I wrote the woman who had requested the book and told her it would be another week before I could mail the book. She was understanding.

But by the time I’d finished the book, I didn’t have the heart to erase anything. My mom would LOVE to read this book. My mother-in-law would probably love it too.

In the end, I ordered another copy of Eat, Pray, Love from another paperbackswap member and had it shipped to the woman who’d been waiting for my copy.

I’m keeping my copy.

Anybody not read it yet?

You can borrow my annotated copy!

The way my friend Sierra responded when I tried to show her this book mirrored my own reluctance to take on yet another fad – and then my quick acceptance and now championing of the book by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

It went something like this:

Sierra, you have to check out this book.

Aren’t you going to blog about it? I’ll try it after you blog about it.

You really get fresh baked bread every day for hardly any work…

Can you summarize?

Just look at the recipe – it’s two pages! Amazing bread! You should see the picture at Jaimie’s blog! I thought it was a picture from the book, but it was HER bread – her first loaf!

OK, let me see that… (pause) … Can I borrow this for one night?

The next day Sierra showed up at the park with fresh-baked artisan bread. And that’s about how it goes.

The basic premise is to mix, not knead, enough dough for several (4-8) loaves of bread and store it in the refrigerator. The dough is very wet and loose, which allows the gluten to align itself properly without kneading with the passage of enough time. When you want a loaf, you cut off a bit, “cloak” it, let it rise and bake. It really only takes five minutes – and we’ve had fresh bread with dinner ever since I put my first batch of dough in the fridge.

Now I love kneading bread, but the bare truth is, that I haven’t done it in years. Although I love fresh-baked bread, the time factor leans heavily in favor of my bread machine. Also, I’ve never made bread that looked so heavenly like European artisanal bread before I tried the recipe in this book.

I am a convert and yes, I am going to share some of the zealous buzz with you – right now.

While I recommend buying and reading this book for more explicit directions, here are enough guidelines for somebody who has already read the book to recreate the bread magic.

1. In a large lidded bowl (I used the ceramic insert of my slow cooker), mix 3 cups warm water, 1 1/2 tablespoons of yeast, and 1 1/2 tablespoons coarse salt.

2. Mix in 6 1/2 cups flour, using a scoop-and-sweep method.

3. Allow to rise for at least 2 hours or until it begins to collapse.

4. Cover (not airtight) and store in fridge.

5. Before starting to make dinner, throw flour on top of the dough and cut off a grapefruit ball size lump of dough. Cloak it (with well-floured hands – stretch the surface of the dough and tuck underneath itself about 3 times) and put it on a well-floured pizza peel (I used a cutting board).

6. Let it rest for 40 minutes.

7. Begin preheating the oven with a pizza stone, cast iron pan, or cast iron lid already inside. It needs to preheat for at least 20 minutes. An oven thermometer is recommended.

8. Before putting in the bread, slide in a broiler pan with at least one cup of warm water in it into the same oven. That’s for steam.

9. Sprinkle more flour on top of the dough and slash the top a few times.

10. Slide the dough onto the pre-heated pizza stone and bake for 30 minutes.

You won’t believe your eyes.

And the rest of the book is filled with variations on this recipe – including cinnamon buns.

For 8 loaves, remember 6-3-3-13.

6 cups water, 3 T salt, 3T yeast, and 13 cups of flour.

Jaimie's first loaf - her pictures are much better than mine! Click on the pic if you'd like to visit her blog.

This post will be randomly interspersed of pictures of me, Christian, and Ellen looking at art in Culver City last week.

Have I not yet recommended you read Heaven on Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children by Sharifa Oppenheimer? It is a excellent parenting resource and I recommend it HIGHLY.

It is the book that we are reading book club-style in my Waldorf in the Woods playgroup (one chapter a week).

Not only do I think it’s done more to deepen the level of understanding of how we want to parent in our group than any other single event or action I’ve taken, but I actually think it is meaningfully changing all our lives.

Take, for instance, the chapter on rhythm, “The World of Rhythm.”

“Rhythm is the magic word for parents and educators of young children. Young children thrive on a simple, flexible rhythm that carries them through their day, through each week, and through the slowly unfolding years of their lives. Rhythm lays a strong foundation, not only in our children’s lives but also in our own. We humans have been shaped over the millennia by the rhythmic rotation of the earth, by the diurnal dance of day and night…

Our children, who live closer to basics than we do, are profoundly affected by the life rhythms we determine for them. Many problems we experience with our children can be addressed by setting a simple daily rhythm that allows their needs to be met in a timely way.” [italics mine]

I am convinced that the last sentence in that quote is absolutely correct.

Inspired by it, I decided to tighten up our bedtime routine. I mean, we all have some semblance of routine at night – but ours was loose, very loose. Meaning, sometimes, instead of turning off the light to nurse him down, I would keep the light on so I could read my book, while Christian nursed. It seemed to me that whether or not the light was on or off made little difference to Christian, who sometimes fell asleep nursing while I tap out one-handed email responses on my laptop. Sometimes we bathed early and sometimes late. I had half-heartedly started a candle lighting routine, but then stopped because I was waiting to learn that perfect candle-lighting song. Our bedtime routine never seemed to be a problem, because Christian didn’t seem to have THAT much difficulty going to sleep, especially if he’d had enough outdoors playtime that day.

Then we started having trouble putting Christian to bed. Sometimes it would take me several hours to get him asleep. SEVERAL HOURS. Not okay in my book, because not only didn’t I feel irritable in general and specifically towards Christian, but also, Christina seemed to want to be asleep – and he just couldn’t get there.

So, I drafted a very specific bedtime routine (in my head) and put it into effect ten days ago.

It was like magic. And the first night it wasn’t even a routine yet, so how could it be so wildly successful?!? But there you were – the first night, and every subsequent night, Christian has fallen asleep on schedule, in about a half hour of starting the bedtime routine. (Well, the last nights it has been a bit longer, but nothing like the nightmares we were dealing with the previous week.)

Living on a tight budget really ratchets up a particular quality of mine, one that has to do with being obsessed with optimization.

Example: I want to get rid of a bunch of books. Is it best to

a) drop them off at the Friends of the Library? (Internal gain only)

b) save them until my next swap party? (May help out friends)

c) post them at paperbackswap.com? (Get one credit for every book requested)

d) bring them into the local used book store, The Paperback Trading Post,  for store credit? (Store credit!)

The answer is e) all of the above.

This is how it played out.

A few months ago, I was pretty much through with paperback swap, simply because when I want to get rid of books, that means I don’t want them sitting around in my closet indefinitely until somebody requests it from me. Also, I get most of my books from the library – those I can’t get (especially the Steiner Press ones), I generally have to bit the bullet and buy, because they aren’t available through paperback swap either.

Now, I do buy paperback fiction for my sister, Sue, because apparently that’s one thing not cheap or easy to come by in Bangkok. After enjoying the (guilty) heck out of the Sookie Stackhouse series, I determined to get Sue a set. I looked all over for a cheap used copy, but ended up buying her a brand new copy of the first book in the series.

Then I discovered an extremely useful feature on paperback swap: the waiting list.

I popped the rest of the Southern Vampire series on my waiting list – and lo! Within a week, the second book was automatically requested (by me) and shipped. Several months later, I had ALL NINE BOOKS ready to ship to Sue for Christmas.

That is COOL.

So, paperback swap is back in my good books.

But still, I don’t want to have so many books sitting in my closet waiting.

In the end, I brought ALL my books to the swap party last month. Then at the end of the party, I TOOK all the books remaining, which, all combined, was several boxes more than I’d brought.

I took those boxes to the used book store and turned in as many as she would take for store credit ($36 worth – but her books are expensive and many are not for trade – so I’ll use that credit as a last resort).

Then I weeded through what was left, and any I thought were not good candidates for paperbackswap, I sent with Chad to donate to The Friends of the Library.

The last 20 books I’ve posted  on paperbackswap, and a week later, I’ve already sent five of them out. I will use those credits to get some more fiction to bring to my sister in Thailand in May.

On my list to read and possibly get for Sue:

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (reading now – won the Man Booker last year)

Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book (Highly recommended by two friends)

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (recommended)

If you have other suggestions, please share!

Click on the book to go directly to Michael Pollan's website.

Finally finished Michael Pollan’s The Defense of Food (and now well into The Age of Innocence, which I’m reading to keep my daughter company), and I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoyed The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It is a worthwhile read, but didn’t have the same kind of narrative pull for me.

I found myself impatiently reading the first 100 pages, wanting to skip ahead to the third section where Pollan explains, in detail, what he means by his eater’s manifesto: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Even that section wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped. You know, the whole preaching to the choir business. I already stick to the periphery of the grocery store when shopping, in fact, I avoid shopping at grocery store as much as possible – and try to work around our CSA basket and local Sunday farmer’s market. I did love that the premise of that whole third section was about trying to escape the Western diet. Growing up in an immigrant household, I have a leg up on that one, psychologically at least, because I’d have no problem switching to a full Korean diet anytime.

Good tips I did glean:

  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number (good one!) or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup (oh no! can I really pass on a free Coke from the costco food court?)
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. – This is a hard one for me, but is one that I will really work on in 2010.
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer. – More on CSA chicken and grass-fed beef in future posts.
  • Pay more, eat less. – LOVE THIS CONCEPT. Now I just need to sell it to my husband… Also love the stats: “In 1960 Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food and 5.2% of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9%, while spending on health care has climbed to 16% of national income.” Pollan’s point? You don’t get healthy by eating cheap food or WE PAY FOR CHEAP FOOD BY SACRIFICING OUR HEALTH.

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