In Three Acts

Since I’ve been contributing to everyone else’s blogs lately, I thought you all deserved a little update, too.  Here it is, in three acts.  Happy birthday!

act i: what I’ve been reading

scene 1: Fifty Shades of Grey

This book really is as terrible as everyone says it is.  But I still loved reading it and would do it again; here’s why.  For the cynical take, you’ll have to check-in with twitter friends @knsstxs (“reading that book is my own red room of pain,”) and @theluckynun  (“I could write better one-handed reading with one hand tied behind my back & some gross dude spanking me.”)  I also enjoyed Chip’s ostentatiously lazy review.

scene 2: Love is a Mix Tape

Gawd, what a great piece of pop culture writing.  I heart Rob Sheffield, and this book made me cry like a baby, even though (or perhaps because) it was about Duran Duran and Missy Elliott.  I’m going to cheat by linking to my brand new review for Lawrence Public Library — this review isn’t officially published until tomorrow.  Doesn’t it feel exclusive?

scene 3: 2666

Roberto Bolaño is totally freaking me out, in that way that only the best writers know how.  I loved Savage Detectives, but 200 pages in and I’m already calling it: 2666 is Bolaño’s masterpiece.  I’m crawling along, reading just a few pages at a time, because it’s too much to take in.  This business with Amalfitano and the geometry textbook is KILLING me.

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Marie Antoinette: Royally Frocked

(This post originally appeared in the Lawrence Public Library Spotlight.)

From the masculine equestrian outfits that made her Louis XV’s favorite, to the regal counterrevolutionary gowns in green and violet that exposed her as an enemy of the state, Marie Antoinette’s fashion statements were always unfailingly both fabulous and controversial. In Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, Caroline Weber paints a comprehensive portrait of the fashion icon, from Dauphine until death. Weber is not only a brainy Barnard scholar, but also a fashion connoisseur herself, and her fastidiously researched political fashion memoir satisfied both my inner Vogue subscriber and my inner history nerd.

Anyone who’s watched Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette as many times as I have can easily rattle off the basics of her biography: born an Austrian, Marie Antoinette disavowed her native country in a political alliance with France to become its eventual Queen. A newcomer to the highly ritualized and chic court at Versailles, she navigated her tepid political reception as a suspect foreigner in the best way she knew how — in impeccable style. And although it all started out as fun and games, eventually it cost the Autrichienne her head on the guillotine.  From her powdered, sky-high hairdos to her divine selection of costly satin footwear, Marie Antoinette won over her adoring public at first, but quickly became a lightning rod for criticism of the French monarchy’s decadence during a national economic recession (… sound familiar?). Continue reading

Eating Animals, With a Side of Transliteracy

Eating AnimalsI know many of you have been gripping the edges of your seats in suspense, white-knuckled, wondering what has become of my quest to avoid meat!  Well, I’ve taken your suggestions and browsed lots of excellent vegetarian cookbooks:  World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman.  I’ve also gone against your explicit advice not to read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up Eating Animals.  I’d really enjoyed Everything is Illuminated after hearing Foer read from it at a tiny bookstore in St. Paul in 2003.  I associate his writing style with lush, almost giddy romanticism, and thought, “well, that plus vegetarianism, sounds warm and fuzzy.”  Readers: Eating Animals is not warm and fuzzy.

What it is is two things mostly: a philosophical exercise, and an exposé on factory farming.  I really loved it, and recommend it to anyone who’s morbidly curious about the gruesome underbelly of industrial-scale farming.  Foer really crystallized my desire to stop eating meat, and freaked me out about eggs and dairy while he was at it! But I’m not here to proselytize, so I just want to briefly critique two aspects of the book as a whole — one thing that I didn’t like very much, and another that I absolutely loved. Continue reading

Poetrying Your Way Through the Public Library

Many thanks to poet and birth doula V. Wetlaufer for penning this guest post on poetry & public libraries!  V. is a Lambda Literary Fellow, the author of two chapbooks — Scent of Shatter and Bad Wife Spankings — and her poetry has appeared in Drunken Boat, Word Riot and Bloom.  She also blogs regularly at The V-Spot.

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Poetry Shelf

I owe my start in poetry writing to my undergraduate college’s library. Crossett Library is small, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in the quality of their collection. I was in my regular library carrel, where I went to complete all my schoolwork senior year, writing a paper for a literature class, when I decided I needed a break. Off to the shelves I went to find a collection of poetry. I randomly selected a collection of Adrienne Rich’s poetry and opened the volume at random. So moved by her work was I that, having never written a poem before, I scribbled my very first poem inspired by a book plucked at random from the shelves.

I’m fortunate enough these days to live in a city with a fantastic public library, Salt Lake City, as well as a truly incredible university library I rely on for my PhD program. However, I am always saddened when I turn to a library to feed my poetry needs and the poetry collection is sadly lacking. I am especially sad when there is a dearth of contemporary poetry. I am a huge fan of poetry from Chaucer to Wordsworth, Whitman and Eliot and everyone in between, but I believe that the best way for the majority of people to encounter poetry for the first time is through contemporary work. Continue reading

Tolstoy’s Like a Bad Date Who Doesn’t Know When to Stop Talking About Himself

Bad Date

Almost exactly two years ago, I gave my mom and four siblings each a copy of War and Peace for Christmas. I’ve kind of been talking about it a lot lately.

The premise was to do a long-distance book group, at a nice and easy clip of 1200 pages in one year. That’s only 100 pages a month!  But I’ve since concluded that book group etiquette asks a commitment of at most 300 pages from each person at a time, preferably less. Although most of my family said they really wanted to read it, the execution itself was a little more… challenging. A year is a long time. 1200 pages is a lot of pages.

2009 came and went, but still I’d read only half. Then, in November of last year, with 800 pages under my belt, I decided enough was enough. And I finally finished, on Dec. 27, squeaking in just under the two-year mark.

And? It’s brilliant! Obsessed with the microcosm, Tolstoy deconstructs major historic events through the eyes of half a dozen characters whom we watch grow-up from childhood. He’s a starry-eyed romantic, yet he’s also one of the most weirdly hilarious guys I’ve ever read. Drunken frat boys wrestling bears, crabby old men with sneezing problems, Tsars throwing biscuits from balconies, anagrams of Satan’s name… When Tolstoy wants it to, the story really soars, and he’s the best drama queen that ever was a drama queen. Continue reading

Christmas With Bibliophiles

Hello again!  Aaron and I just returned from an energizing holiday weekend in Iowa.  I’d like to thank the Iowa winter for its complimentary drill in snow-storm driving — Kansas has been making me soft.

As we gradually get back into the swing of things, I just want to tell you all shortly & sweetly about our Christmas spent with bibliophiles.  Some families give each other clothing, electronics, toys, and gadgets, but in our family we see a ton of books come out from underneath the tree.  Here’s a quick recap of what we all gave & got:

Regretsy Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WTF 

I hadn’t heard of the Regretsy blog before, but they had me immediately at the Fish-in-a-Squirrel-Suit Taxidermy and the Phallic Chapstick Cozy.  The sublimely awful DIY projects chronicled here have all been actually listed — and yes, even bought — on Etsy, some for several hundred dollars.  It kind of defies explanation; you just have to see it for yourself.

The Veganomicon The Veganomicon 

My step-sister and I got to geek out about meatless eating over the holidays.  Although we never got around to making that tofurkey, we did commiserate about all the mashed potatoes we ended up eating for dinner.  She squealed when she opened up this book from her sister, and I’m dying to check out what’s in-between the covers!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 

I first heard about this fascinating book on an episode of one of my favorite public radio shows, RadioLab.  As the story of the woman who posthumously — and unknowingly — contributed cancerous cells for one of the very first stem cell experiments, I think it suits my physician-bibliophile brother very well.

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Cookbooks I Have Loved

Better Homes and Gardens New CookbookWhen I was a little girl, we cooked from two places: the Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook, and my mom’s recipe box.  With five little kids in the family, we weren’t the most sophisticated diners, although we did eat together at the dinner table every single night.  We’d help Mom peruse The Cookbook, begging her to try new recipes like One-Pot Spaghetti, Cheesy Potato Bread, and Cowboy Caviar.  But usually she’d cook something from her recipe box: German Meatballs, Creamy Broccoli Chicken, Homemade Macaroni and Cheese.  My Norwegian grandmother lived in our basement, and occasionally she would whip up an exotic feast to nourish the whole family: Lefse, Potato Balls, Flötegröt.  She died nearly 20 years ago, but I still cherish her handwritten recipe cards, tucked away in my own tiny collection of recipes.  And on Saturday mornings, it was my dad’s turn to cook.  He made truly bizarre Wholewheat Pineapple Pancakes, but I loved them, although my favorite Saturday morning breakfasts were (and still are) Popovers, and Poached Eggs.

As I’ve matured, so has my palate, and throughout this past decade I’ve accrued a small collection of cookbooks to buttress my tastes.  When my oldest brother Dan returned home for Thanksgiving after he’d grown up and moved away to Vermont, he brought home The Joy of Cooking and set out to brine a turkey.  I made a Cranberry Conserve: “This is a luxurious form of cranberry sauce, with uncommon beauty, texture, and flavor,” writes the authoress, Irma Rombauer.  It was a revelation.

Cooking adventures ensued!  I lived in Rome one Spring, and became obsessed with The Silver Spoon and Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.  That was the Spring I made hand-made ravioli with friends for the first time, and my roommate Alexis showed me how to sear and then slowcook a rump roast with nothing but salt & pepper, oil, and red wine. Continue reading