Month: April 2013

29 Apr 2013

spring things

1. April in Boston, man. It’s a dream. The sun shows up in the morning, birds chirping, etc. The sun is still up when I get out of work. Things are getting green again, flowers are everywhere. Lovely cool breezes and sunglasses.

On Friday, we ran the Southwest Corridor park and discovered there is a secret enclave between Mass Ave and Back Bay, a brick-paved throughway lined by flowering trees where rich people play tennis and walk their dogs. A secret city garden.

Yesterday, I wore a pair of shorts. And flip-flops.

Sure, I was a bit freezing when the sun went down, but oh, I can’t resist you, Boston in April.

2. April in other parts of New England – also excellent. Two of my favorite Boston friends invited us out to Newburyport for the day to attend the Newburyport Literary Festival. Junot Diaz being his genius self in the morning, some guy who lulled us to sleep in a darkened theater talking about the history of music and pianos, and Matthew Quick (Silver Linings Playbook) and Evan Roskos (Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets) riffing on mental illness and art in the afternoon. Good food, better company. When we got home, The Boy asked why we don’t hang out with these particular friends more often – “They are funny, we always have a good time, they make me feel good.” Agreed. That is my favorite part about living here – my universally talented, hilarious, and amazing friends that I am so lucky to have met.

3. Let’s talk about cleaning. Last week I had a lot of time on my hands, so I cleaned. I cleaned every day. I cleaned until my place was about 95% spotless. I’m still experimenting with time-monitoring apps, so I can actually tell you how much time maintaining a high-level clean cost me: 30 to 90 minutes. Every day.

And now that my routine is resuming, my house, of course, looks like a pile of garbage. Does it really take 30 to 90 minutes a day, EVERY DAY, to keep my home looking like civilized adults live in it? That is a daunting prospect. That’s a lot of manual labor (especially after a long work day), and would I choose cleaning over reading? Running? Writing? Going to bed early? Hanging out with those friends I keep going on about? Going outside and enjoying April in Boston? I don’t know, I don’t know. Perhaps I am doomed to live out the rest of my days in relative filth.

Or I need to find an apartment with a dishwasher.

4. Can we also talk about iced coffee? It’s my favorite thing, and it’s almost time to start cold-brewing again. I’ve been using Pioneer Woman’s method for a few years now, but holy crap that cheesecloth drives me nuts. Anyone sitting on an iced coffee secret? I suppose I could just buy a bigger iced coffee receptacle and cut the time spent wrestling with cloth to once a month?

5. I am still doing Required Reading, but that should be over by the end of the week. I’m looking forward to dipping into something new, something shiny. I want to read a beach book. I want to read the new Sarah Dessen. I want to read Animal Vegetable Miracle again. Maybe next weekend will include a book, a picnic blanket, and an iced coffee.

23 Apr 2013

things you do when you can’t do the things you do

It is hard to make any statements or judgements regarding the last seven days because, well, I am not sure that this seven days can be compared to anything else in the history of The Weeks of My Life. Or maybe the weeks of anyone’s lives, I don’t know. A holiday weekend followed shortly by a large-scale national tragedy, followed by unscheduled downtime in which I basically joined The Boy in his spring break, and a day-long, Stay-In-Your-Houses-This-Kid-Is-Armed stand-off. For good measure.

Oh, and this was also the week I didn’t read any books… or watch any TV or movies, listen to podcasts or audiobooks, or read anything substantial on the Internet beyond my emails.

Weirdest. Week. Ever.

I will confess that I did not achieve 100% abstinence. You try not watching the news or reading anything on Twitter the next time your city seems to be on the brink of descending into violent chaos. I also read about 50 pages of Janie Face to Face, which has been a trip because I was totally into Face on the Milk Carton…. when I was about TEN. And I just realized that I didn’t even read book #4.

Other than that, though, I did pretty good. And by did pretty good, I mean…

I ran a lot

The weather was gorgeous all week, and after five weeks of coercion, of “pretty please,” of running solo, The Boy is finally more into it than I am. Ran Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday again. Only one run under 2 miles. Completed Couch to 5k in just under 7 weeks. Said this phrase: “Hmm… we’ve already run 3 days out of the last 4… I know – let’s just do a nice short run into town and then buy a bottle of wine and take the bus home!”

I Instagrammed my cat a lot

What can I say? The weather’s warming up. I don’t want to say she’s cuter when it’s warm. It’s more like a different season of cute. Winter cute, snuggled up with blankets and cuddling on my chest, is ending; Summer cute, sprawling out of the floor and sleeping in spots of sun, is here.

I socialized

I know that I am a person who puts off making phone calls, doesn’t return Facebook messages, who begs off weeknight socializing nine times out of ten. This week, though, I answered my phone, I chatted with friends, I went out more than once, without thinking of a single excuse. Highly unusual. Maybe I am not as anti-social as I assumed, but really just someone adept at keeping herself busy, even when that busy-ness gets in the way of other things that are good to do (like interacting with other humans)

I did puzzles

I love puzzles. I pulled out a copy of Games Magazine and decided that in the absence of books and Internet surfing, my default “I don’t know what to do and I don’t really feel like being productive” activity would be puzzles. This was pleasantly nostalgic because I think I got my hands on my first Games Magazine in about third grade. Also, puzzles make your brain smarter. I’m not sure the same is true about Twitter.

And, I cleaned the CRAP out of my apartment.

Everything was put away, everything vacuumed, everything folded and everything scrubbed. I actively cleaned up after myself. I did the dishes every day. This was surprisingly time consuming, but that’s exactly why I was doing it.

And that’s the real take-away, I think. Usually, my days feel rigid. There are things that must be done at certain times – commuting, working, laundry, shopping, bed, etc. I can fill in the cracks with things of my choosing, but most of the time I am not really choosing them. Most of the time, I am just doing habitual things because they are habitual. Eliminating habitual things forced me to actually think about that extra time. To make conscious decisions. I didn’t feel like I was pouring sand into the cracks of an already full life. My free hours opened themselves up before me.

I could paint a picture. I could clean the kitchen. I could sit with The Boy at the kitchen table for thirty minutes after dinner, chatting. I could walk into town for some groceries, call my sister on the phone, or work on the family budget or send an overdue email. I couldn’t pick up a book or turn on the TV or do most things on the Internet, but the simple limitations opened up other options.

Not a lifestyle change, but definitely an exercise worth repeating a few times a year.

(Says the girl who broke her fast with three episodes of Switched at Birth…..)


22 Apr 2013

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban

I am concerned that I am becoming a reading cynic.

But not that concerned. I think if you like every book you read, then you are probably just really good at picking books to match your tastes. I think it’s okay to acknowledge that although I love books, and YA and children’s books especially, and although I will champion reading whatever you want, whyever you want, whenever you want, whoever you are… there are still books out there that just are not contributing to the field. And it’s okay to talk about why not.

I am off to a bad start, because I am not saying that The Tragedy Paper is one of those books at all! Oh, I start book reviews like this all the time. It’s misleading and awful. I apologize. Stay with me…

It took me three years of grad classes to feel confident enough in my tastes and perceptions to talk about why I didn’t like books, and more importantly, what part of the literature stemmed these negative feelings. It took me about two classes of grad school to see that some people seem to enjoy stampeding into a book with the force of all their pet peeves and then get a look of joyous self-satisfaction when they point out every last nitpicky detail that caused them to hate this book.

Those are the people I don’t want to be.

There is a difference between stating personal preference and forming a critical argument. It’s sometimes not easy to spot in a review, and definitely not easy to prevent when you are reading on your own and writing reviews and otherwise expressing your thoughts about a personal reading experience in a way that will be valuable to other readers.

So. The Tragedy Paper. This is a fairly traditional boarding school story. Think A Separate Peace as your classic touchstone, Looking for Alaska as your contemporary update, and then the rest of the boarding-school-lit field: I’ve read Marianna Baer’s Frost and Jenny Hubbard’s Paper Covers Rock in the past few years, but heck, you could think about Harry Potter, too. All of these books follow a rough pattern: student leaves home, enters a school with a distinct culture – academics, socializing, and other activities are built into the school experience and are often given the heavy weight of ritual or tradition – student is challenged to manage his or her own life without parental control, and then a tragedy occurs, putting it all to the test.

The Tragedy Paper fits neatly into this pattern. Enrolling at Irving School as a second-semester senior, Tim Macbeth flies across the country alone to begin school while his parents are out of the country. A snowstorm grounds him in a Chicago airport and he has a chance encounter with Vanessa, a pretty, popular senior who seems to like him despite the fact that Tim has albinism. When they both arrive at Irving, Tim must adapt to the academic and social culture, manage the health issues that surround his condition without adult oversight, and contend with Vanessa’s boyfriend who is sometimes suspicious and sometimes nice and sometimes just a cog in the bro-y old boy’s club kind of tradition that permeates Irving like any good patriarchal boarding school. (Sorry, blame Frankie)

A tragedy occurs. Of course. It’s called The Tragedy Paper. Laban does ramp up the tension as she moves closer toward the event, and despite the clear fact that something bad is going to happen, I was still completely in the dark of what it would be. From the eyes of Tim, boarding school is a good experience: the traditions give him a sense of belonging, Vanessa makes him feel attractive and confident, and he’s making friends. But Laban injects this sense of maliciousness just beneath the surface. Tim is an albino. An outsider. He is making a play for a popular girl. He will be punished for upsetting the social order. This growing terror feels a little reminiscent of The Chocolate War, and the ending was both shocking and satisfyingly complex.

But is The Tragedy Paper contributing to the field of contemporary YA lit? Is it a good example of a boarding school story? Does it do the genre right?

That I am not sure about, for a reason that is a mix of  my own personal preference, my experience reading contemporary YA realism, and what I think are legitimate literary concerns. I am not sure I can separate them, hence the diatribe above.

My major issue is that I think this book seemed too self-aware. That is best way I can put it, even though books are not conscious entities. What I mean by this is that reading The Tragedy Paper it seems that the author knows she is writing A Boarding School Story that will end in tragedy. It’s called The Tragedy Paper for goodness sake. Everything feels a little too neat. In every other chapter, we are reminded of the wonderful, local, organic food served in the cafeteria, in case we forgot that Irving is a Special Place where kids get to eat Special Food.

The book’s marketing doesn’t help the situation. Laban’s author bio gets a giant picture and a brief bio stating that she wrote her own Tragedy Paper in high school. I am assuming this is supposed to lend credibility and interest to the story – the author knows, so we can trust her depictions – but I interpret that move as a way to bolster the book’s faults. If the plot seems unbelievable at times, the narrators too precocious, the whole book too “self-aware” that’s because Laban knows better than we do and we should just roll with it. The author interview immediately following the book cemented my feelings – I don’t even remember the contents of said interview, but the fact that it is assumed that I give a rip about a debut author’s privileged high school years at a prestigious boarding school feels a little off. Like the story just can’t stand on its own.

And speaking of stories standing on their own, this brings me to my major concern with Laban’s craft: the entire story is written through the eyes of another character – Duncan – who is a senior the year after Tim has graduated. Duncan lives in Tim’s old room, and in the auspice of Irving tradition, Tim leaves Duncan a gift: a stack of CDs, an audio recording of Tim telling his story, his tragedy. It’s a framing device, but it’s a clunky one. Duncan has little personality, he doesn’t do much except race back to his dorm room to listen to more of Tim’s story and hook up with a nice girl named Daisy. This is not Duncan’s story – it’s Tim’s. Again, I feel like a strong story, a stronger writer, could let Tim’s story stand on it’s own.

There could be an argument that Laban expands the literary field by exploring the life experience of teens with albinism. I did find her treatment of Tim’s condition to be nuanced, interesting, and definitely not a story that I’ve heard before in fiction, much less boarding school YA lit. However, Tim’s condition seems to fit so nicely into the pattern of a boarding school story – and is so essential to the tragedy’s ending – that it seems an almost exploitative choice, a physical representation of Tim’s internal other-ness that makes me a little uncomfortable. There were some comments in the author’s interview that reinforced my feelings, which didn’t help.

So what’s the verdict? I would say a good read that satisfies the conditions of the boarding school story and presents some interesting characters and dilemmas, but lacking in significant literary merit, perhaps masked in hyped-up publicity. Or, it’s just a good book and I am a cynic who is overly sensitive to reading about delicious grass-fed burgers and plot-development based on people vomiting (I didn’t mention that because I just can’t, but it happens more than once). But it was definitely thought-provoking, both the actual content of the book and thinking about how it fits into the field afterwards to write this post. I’m interested to see what Laban will try next, either way.


19 Apr 2013

break the fast books

This is self-torture because I am still days away from the end of my reading deprivation, even then I have three review books on the docket. It will be awhile until I pick up any of these titles… but here are some choices for reading once all that dust settles.

The other day I was thinking about how hard it is for one person to adequately understand another person’s particular existence. This is the kind of exciting thing you think about when you aren’t reading books or watching TV and the enormity of the human experience on this planet is suddenly on your mind much more often. Also, the last book you read before the drought was Frankie Landau-Banks. Anywaaay, that’s what I was thinking about, and then I remembered oh, that’s exactly what Paper Towns is about! I think I’ve only read Paper Towns once, which is unusual for me and a John Green book, so I could go for a quick re-read.

Speaking of quick reads, I have had Beverley Brenna’s Wild Orchid checked out for months now. Wild Orchid is the first book in the series that includes the Printz-honor winning The White Bicycle, and I am one of those people who refuse to betray the sanctity of the series 9 times out of 10. I want to read book three, I must first read books one and two. That’s just the way it works.

Speaking of books I’ve had checked out for months, I am on my last renew with Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility. I could read this one real quick – I started it once and I liked what I read, so I think I could muscle through with the proper motivation!

And the final option… I could read a book about Rome because I checked out like 6 of them and haven’t read a single one yet. I am actually going to be in Rome in 3 months. I will also be married. Equally bizarre situations. I could read a marriage book, yes, but I’ve read books about marriage before. I have not read books about Rome. I could read Rome and a Villa by Eleanor Clark – it is a series of memoir-ish sketches about living in Rome while on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1945. Can you imagine being a woman in 1945 on a Guggenheim fellowship living abroad? I at least want to give this one a taste.

18 Apr 2013

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Have I ever told you about this book? One of my all-time favorite books? This book I once tried to read while driving 70 mph up US-127 North? No? Yes? Either way, consider this an ode to The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart.

Frankie is a sophomore at an academically elite boarding school. She is a normal girl – smart and ambitious compared to some of her schoolmates, but normal. Over the summer, puberty arrives and she becomes a fairly hot girl. When she returns to Alabaster, her new-found hotness lures in Matthew Livingston – senior BMOC (do people still use this acronym/phrase?) – who finds her sexy, adorable, and good company. Life would be good for Frankie, but when Matthew ditches her to partake in purposely vague activities with his group of guy friends – guy friends who she likes and who like her – she can’t help but feel jealous. And suspicious. And curious. One night she follows Matthew and finds out they are part of a longstanding, all-male society.

Frankie can’t figure out why her chromosomes prevent her from joining the group, but they won’t even talk about it, much less let her in. So why not just infiltrate their ranks from afar and trick the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds into perpetrating acts of art-protest-chaos across Alabaster’s conservative campus?

Why not, Frankie? Why not.

I suspect that a plot summary alone might be enough to convince you to read. This is an incredible concept for a work of contemporary young adult realism – (Traditional boarding school tale + urban exploration  + secret societies) to the power of (the patriarchy + social philosophy). Oh, and in case that’s not enough, there’s the Frankie and Matthew romance, which is actually an incredibly subtle love triangle. This is a tightly written, quick-paced romp of a story that somehow captures everything else I just mentioned. A work of literary genius, basically.

But that is not why I have an undying love for this book, why it’s one of my favorite books of all time, why I could read it over and over and over again without questioning my judgement for a moment.

I love this book because it’s a book about a teenage girl who cares about boys and clothes and friends, but she also does stuff.

E. Lockhart has a way with this kind of character. I said it twice already – Frankie is normal – but in the world of teen girls in YA novels, she’s unique in that she’s not quite so interested whether she’s getting along with her mom/brother/boyfriend/crush/best friend. She does care about that stuff, but there are bigger questions going on in Frankie’s head. If she has a weird interaction with her sister on the phone, she doesn’t spend a chapter stewing over their relationship, she hangs up the phone and rolls her eyes and gets on with her life. When Matthew doesn’t let her touch his china Basset Hound and gets weird about it, she doesn’t start a fight or mope or have internal debates about their relationship: she makes an assessment and uses that information to better understand how power works in his secret society. Frankie is practical. She makes things happen. It’s a refreshing thing to read.

I love this book because Ms. Lockhart’s writing is a thing to behold.

I appreciate her skill more with every re-read. This most recent read, The Boy sat with me on the couch while I was reading. I asked him if he wanted me to read a little to him and he humored me. It was the scene with Porter and Frankie at the snack shack, where Frankie verbally abuses Porter because, well, he is her ex-boyfriend who cheated on her and deserves some retroactive verbal abuse. Anyway, the scene was 100% dialogue, and I was reading both parts aloud.

It started off awkward, but after a few paragraphs it was like, the words carried me into some kind of High School Theater Flashback – there were intonations and gestures and I think The Boy got a phone call in the middle of the scene so I stopped but then picked right back up once he hung up because the tension between Frankie and Porter was just in my apartment at that point. We had to finish it up.

That is some damn good dialogue. Just saying.

I love this book because the final scene between Matthew and Frankie? Kills me.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so stop reading now if you are super-concerned… but the place that Frankie and Matthew end up at the end of the story is just this raw, awful moment when you realize that the person who you thought knew you the best has no idea – no idea – what you are, who you are, how you are. And never has. You’ve been alone the whole time. God. It’s an intense scene and Lockhart nails it.

And most of all, I love this book because Frankie is an anti-heroine. A fifteen-year-old girl bad-ass anti-heroine.

I’ve been reading the first few chapters of John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, which is all about developing ideas into stories. The starting place is your protagonist. According to Truby, what makes a story a story is your heroine’s weakness. She needs to make certain changes in her life in order to overcome this weakness – changes that are internal are psychological needs, changes that have to do with how your heroine treats others are moral needs. All of this adds up to a problem that the heroine faces that drives the rest of the story. Once the heroine addresses her weakness through her psychological and moral needs, then she can solve the problem and the story’s end is satisfying.

I’ve tried to apply this model to Frankie and it just doesn’t fit. Frankie isn’t without faults – she’s pushy, she’s not always a good friend, she’s obsessive, she’s manipulative. Some of those could be psychological and moral needs… but the story doesn’t end with Frankie learning to treat others better. In fact, Lockhart does this genius thing where you are pretty sure that all of Frankie’s faults would be strengths if she was a boy, and that her problems aren’t really her problems, but side effects of the patriarchal power structures in the way men treat women, in her boarding school, and in the world.


Well, now you all think I’m crazy. But you know what? Everyone thought Frankie was crazy, too. Just read the book already, okay??

17 Apr 2013

first quarter results

I read 34 books between January 1st and March 31st. The first quarter of 2013 is over, and I’m pleased with my reading progress. If I keep this up for the rest of the year, I will be extra pleased. I feel like I’m reading a lot and liking a lot of what I read.

For fun, here is a list of my 2013 Q1 reading sorted by my Goodreads ranking. I reserve the right to change my mind about any ratings at any moment, since I sometimes hate a book one week and love it the next. Or give a book 5 stars in 2008 and then change it to 2 stars in 2013. Or give 4 stars in 2008 to a book that, in 2013, you realize you never actually finish reading *cough* Great Gatsby *cough*.

(Speaking of Gatsby, I am actually reading it, and actually enjoying it.)

(At least I was, until I stopped reading books for the week)

(What is wrong with me?)

(Also, if you are wondering what bizarre activities remain if you cut out reading/TV/blogs/podcasts, you are about to find out…)


Two Stars

34 Pieces of You by Carmen Rodrigues

Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill


Three Stars

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The Impostor’s Daughter by Laurie Sandell

Dead Cat Bounce by Nic Bennett

The Dinner by Herman Koch

S. E. C. R. E T. by L. Marie Adeline

Monkey Mind by Daniel B. Smith

The Story of X by A. J. Molloy

Nantucket Blue by Leila Howland

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham


Four Stars

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz [review here]

The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman [review here]

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell [review here]

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

You’re Not Doing It Right by Michael Ian Black

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Marbles by Ellen Forney

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones [review here]

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith [review here]

Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Sat Sugar Fat by Michael Moss [review here]

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Always Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach

Ask the Passengers by A. S. King [review here]

After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Five Stars

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed [review here]

This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart






16 Apr 2013

reading deprivation

I am four weeks into Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program.

This feels like a confession, a dirty secret, something embarrassingly woo-woo and desperate. Something that normal people don’t do, normal people don’t need, and especially not a person like myself!

But four weeks ago I was just at a loss, so here I am, writing morning pages again, taking myself on Artist Dates, and repeating affirmations. Yes, affirmations.

It has been good, though. I am not a particularly spiritual-woo-woo-creative-muse-come-to-me kind of person, but I AM a person who likes a plan. A program. A syllabus. Doing my weekly reading, my daily writing, my creative exercises has been satisfying. I have gamely completed a number of silly exercises as Ms. Cameron has presented them to me.

Until last night, when I read my marching orders for the upcoming week and halfway through the chapter Ms. Cameron presented a thing called reading deprivation. Just don’t read. Anything. For a week.

The following negative emotions coursed through me: fear, panic, disgust, anxiety, horror, incredulity, disdain. Me, not read? Well, that’s just not an option. Reading is my self-assigned job, my livelihood, my world. And did you know, Ms. Cameron, that I am on a book review deadline right now? Simply impossible.

Of course, Ms. Cameron responded with this, the next line in the chapter:

At least one student always explains to me – pointedly, in no uncertain terms – that he or she is a very important and busy person with duties and obligations that include reading. […] When the rage has been vented, when all the assigned reading for college courses and jobs has been mentioned, I point out that […] in my experience I had many times wriggled out of reading for a week due to procrastination. […] I ask my class to turn their creativity into wriggling into not reading.


And although I am skeptical, anxious, cynical and horrified, I also believe fairly firmly that the things I try the hardest to avoid doing are exactly the things I should be doing. When I start to do mental back-flips to get out of a task, when I have 100 excuses at the ready, then I take that as a sign that I should just do that thing.


And it gets worse. Ms. Cameron equates television with reading, which is understandable and not too hard for me to handle – I could go a week without TV, easy. But that means no movies, either, which is something that The Boy and I enjoy every week or two, and he’s home for Spring Break. I may need to fend him off. Okay. I can do that too.

But what will I do instead of read or watch TV or watch a movie? I could just read more things on the Internet! But that seems the opposite of what I’m supposed to be doing. Or I could run more, or do more spring cleaning… while I listen to my audiobook? No, no books. While I listen to a podcast? That seems strangely similar to an audiobook. So, what exactly IS this? Reading deprivation, or media deprivation, or self-torture??

[Insert a thousand excuses here]

[Insert Jessica’s Better Self. Even if Her Better Self is a bit woo-woo sometimes]

So I’m doing it, with one small reservation: I need to write these damn reviews and I can’t take a week off. So, today is the first of seven days with

  • no books (except for the three specific titles I must read)
  • no television
  • no movies
  • no audiobooks
  • no podcasts
  • no blogs
  • no Twitter or Facebook
  • no mindless internet reading
  • no magazines
  • no news

I think it’s actually the last one that makes me feel better about this. Given the circumstances  of my poor city, I could do without news for a little while.

Since this is a blog that is mostly about books, it seems like I should say “sayonara!” for the week… but if I’m not reading, I will probably have time to write here MORE often. Funny how that works. I’m nervous about this, yes, but also kind of excited to see what I end up doing with my time. Finish learning how to knit? Fold origami? Do a thousand crossword puzzles? Have a clean kitchen every day for seven days? Get into unnecessary arguments with The Boy to kill time? Sleep more? Drink more? Plan the rest of my wedding in a seven day marathon? WHO KNOWS!? It’s a great mystery! I just hope that I won’t come back next week a changed woman, enthusiastic about her life without books, because then I might have a bigger identity problem to tend to…

15 Apr 2013

my place

I had a post I wanted to write today, but I obviously can’t write it now because it’s just not happening. I live in Boston. I run. I am a person who lives in Boston and runs.

And that tiny bit of Boston you saw looping on your news stations all day? That the bit of Boston where I work, where I walk, where I take phone pictures while I’m waiting to cross the street. That is my place. I was there yesterday, on my day off. We tried to out-walk a slow-bus down Mass Ave and walked the neighborhood from end to end. We caught the magnolias blooming on Commonwealth.

I wasn’t there today. I won’t be there tomorrow. But I might be there on Wednesday.

I just don’t know what to do with all this. I don’t have anything inspiring or profound or touching or useful to share; I just couldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t say nothing. So sad. So, so sad.

11 Apr 2013

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

Michael Moss’s Sugar Fat Salt: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is an important book. A really important book. Keeping my ranting and ramblings down to a readable word count is going to be a Herculean task, so I will attempt to focus myself as such.

  • Part 1: The book as a book
  • Part 2: The information contained in said book
  • Part 3: Why I wish I had read this book when I was 9 years old, even though it is 500 pages long and not part of the Babysitters Club Series, which means I never would have read it

Part I: The Book as a Book

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a good food-based nonfiction book. Ever since I first encountered Mr. Michael Pollan’s work, my American-Diet-Food-Mind was blown open and I was ready for all sorts of other food-books. Sugar Salt Fat serves the same function as Pollan’s (and others’) work: to help you, the consumer and eater, see food beyond the scope of your own dinner plate, and therefore see how outside cultures, longstanding mythology, and corporate interests are shaping the way you eat.

With a title like Sugar Salt Fat, I expected an examination of how each of these three ingredients ravage your body and contribute to the obesity epidemic and basically are ruining America. Not the case. Moss’s work is all business – the business of making and marketing processed foods, that is – and this book explores on how sugar, salt and fat affect the bottom line of giant food manufacturers like General Mills, Kraft, Coke, and many others. It’s a corporate expose, not a nutrition manual.

Moss’s book is hefty, but the chapters are short, the prose readable, and the stories intriguing. Each chapter reads like an article – complete within itself – but the secrets of corporate food culture were so alluring that I couldn’t put it down.


Part II: The Information Contained in Said Book

Like I said, this is a really important book – another food manifesto for the 21st century that I hope many, many people read.

This is going to be poorly worded, but Moss’s thesis is this:

You, the consumer, the every day eater, have been convinced that processed food – anything in a crinkly plastic bag and a list of ingredients longer than 1 – is food. But it’s probably not. Once these companies tamper with these foods to A) make them last on the shelf without disgusting you B) make them completely irresistible to the American palate, these foods have so much sugar, fat, and salt, that your body doesn’t know what to do with them anymore. These added ingredients are making you sick.

The second half of the thesis:

These giant food corporations are in such heavy competition for the inherently limited amount of “shelf space” and “stomach share” available, they have zero qualms about adding more, more, and more of these ingredients in order to make their products more irresistible than the junk of their competitors.

So there’s a lie – that the processed food you eat every day is good for your body – and then corporate disregard for how their main business strategy contributes directly to obesity and illness.

Mind. Blown.

Don’t worry, there are plenty of little tidbits I’m not revealing here – the habits of food company CEOs, how Dr. Pepper became Dr. Pepper, why the fad school-lunch du jour of my elementary years – the Lunchable – was a significant “culinary” and marketing achievement for shoving processed foods down the throats of children…

I’m not bitter, I promise.

Part III: Why I Wish I’d Read This Book When I was 9-Years-Old

Oh wait, yes I am. I am bitter because I was a normal-sized little girl when I was a nine year old, a ten year old. I was taller than almost everyone in my class, though, so when we all had to stand on a scale in the nurse’s office in front of our classmates, I knew that I weighed more than almost everyone in my class. Certainly all the girls.

That wasn’t good knowledge to have as a little girl, but that’s not why I’m bitter. I’m bitter because around that same time, I remember a Saturday morning when I first felt shame about food. A box of Dunkin’ Donuts on the table, and I knew it was okay to eat 2 donuts. But the third donut, I probably shouldn’t have eaten. At the third donut I started making promises to myself, that I would never eat more than two again, that I shouldn’t have any snacks for the rest of the day, that I would maybe just stop eating donuts forever.

With the fourth donut came the self loathing. It was an awful feeling, to keep eating after I’d decided with my little-girl brain that I’d already crossed the line. And although I am not pinning my personal issues those box of fateful donuts, it was, in part, an awful feeling because these donuts were so delicious that I couldn’t say no. I wasn’t strong enough to resist. Good girls had more willpower – I must not be good.

It pisses me off to know that some middle aged men are sitting in laboratories, chemically engineering donuts to hit that “bliss point,” the point where your tastebuds take over, where you can’t say no – designing foods so insidiously so little girls can have breakfast and when they are done hate themselves and their bodies for years and years and years. I can’t help but wonder what effect a childhood grown on whole, unprocessed foods might have on eating disorders, food issues, the general female-body condition.

So read this book and then go to the market, cook yourself some dinner, give your kid a carrot, or whatever else you can do to step outside of the Corporate Food Cycle. If you don’t have time to read this book, read this article – it hits a lot of the high points. Please and thanks.

09 Apr 2013

my many numbered days

It’s been a month since I started reading 168 Hours, and I wish I could have a nice review for you here. I can’t, because I told this guy I live with that he would like it and while I was busy working on my Dream List, he stole it from me. And took it to work with him every day to read on the train. And then it went overdue and days passed and eventually it turned up in some the car of a guy named Josh. Such is life.

Instead of reading 168 Hours, I downloaded a 168 Hours app and started conducting my own time survey, or whatever Vanderkam calls it, I can’t remember because I haven’t set eyes on the book for weeks. It’s not a good app – it’s clunky and easy to click on the wrong thing and I’m not sure what happens to your data once a week resets on Sundays – buuuuuut it’s fun. High strung Type-A fun, but judge lest ye judged.

Right now it’s 9:00 p.m. on a Tuesday. I can tell you with certainty that in the past 72 hours, I have designated my time as such:

  • 1 hour and 19 minutes cleaning my apartment. It was pretty filthy.
  • 40 minutes running errands not related to groceries.
  • 29 minutes buying groceries.
  • 29 minutes preparing dinner (thank you crock pot!!)
  • 1 hour and seven minutes eating dinner (we were watching the end of The Descendants on Sunday night, so I couldn’t eat very fast because I was crying. That isn’t even a joke)
  • 1 hour and 18 minutes  eating lunch
  • 1 hour and 43 minutes watching the season premiere of Mad Men
  • 38 minutes showering, recovering from shower, and blow drying hair
  • 25 minutes “puttering around the house”
  • 1 hour and 26 minutes “getting out the door”
  • 21 minutes waking up
  • 16 minutes  preparing for bed
  • 23 minutes running
  • 3 hours and 17 minutes commuting (most of which time was spent also reading)
  • 2 hours and 34 minutes just plain reading (most of time spend on The Tragedy Paper)
  • 2 hours and 50 minutes on creative writing pursuits
  • 3 hours and 34 minutes working on The Artist’s Way tasks
  • 13 hours and 10 minutes working
  • 1 hour and 48 minutes at the dentist
  • 2 hours and 20 minutes sitting on an “alumni panel” of a program that I am not an alumni of…
  • 24 hours and 35 minutes sleeping
  • And, 26 minutes blogging. Sorry guys.

It was probably not fun to read those numbers, but it is fun to know those numbers, to look at them, to cringe and feel proud as such. I think keeping a Time Diary is similar to keeping a Food Diary – the act of recording makes you more aware of how you spend your time, which makes you improve the way you spend your time. 25 minutes “puttering around”? That means that I actually could not think of a single category of thing that I wanted to do, that I should do. But how many more minutes would I have if I didn’t have my silly little app on the back of my mind, encouraging me to do something more… uh… categorizable? Thinking of how to categorize your time also a valuable task: like this librarian learned in cataloging class, how you sort data implies a value system. How you sort YOUR data implies YOUR value system.

The moral of this story is: who needs to read the book? Just download the app instead!

That was a joke. But seriously, where is that book???