Non-Fiction


trinny and susannahBook 28: “Trinny and Susannah: What you wear can change your life” By Trinny Woodall and Susannah Cnstantine (2005) 264 pages; Started and finished on June 19.

More inspiring than the home organization book that I read last week, this one is also full of stuff that I already know. But its much more enjoyable to look at the good and bad pictures of Trinny and Susannah and be reminded that no matter how cute and fabulous you are, or how many flaws your body may have (plenty, if you are a normal person), or even if you have gained weight due to current or recent pregnancy, wearing clothes and accessories that suit you can make a huge difference. If you don’t already know this– ie, if you always think you look like crap– then you should get this book, or any of the others by these two Brits who started the “What not to Wear” franchise. They are very smart when it comes to this topic of looking good. And if you think looking good doesn’t matter–or that you can’t look as good as they do in the “after” pics– you are probably wrong. Yes, I got through this book in a day because its full of pictures (and large text) but it was way more satisfying and empowering than flipping a fashion magazine, and more fun, too.

beverly-hills-organizers-home-organizing-bible-linda-koopersmith-paperback-cover-artBook 27: “The Beverly Hills Organizer’s Home Organizing Bible” By Linda Koopersmith (2005) 168 pages; Started and finished on June 17.

OK, I know it has been ages since I have posted (other than this morning’s update) and it probably seems like I haven’t been reading anything at all. Well, the good news is that isn’t true– but the bad news is I probably will not even make it to 40 books, let alone 50. But I did make some headway this week….  Anyway, here is what’s been going on, reading wise: Way back in May after I finished “The Ladies’ Man”, I stated reading this great book called “Angels and Ages” by Adam Gopnik. I love reading Gopnik in the New Yorker, and I was excited to read this book because it is probably the most clever birthday gift I ever received– it’s about Charles Darwin and Abe Lincoln, it was released on the 200th anniversary of their (same) birthdays, and my friend David gave it to me on the 33rd anniversary of mine. But the problem is, it’s not a quick read. So I was making my way through it, and enjoying learning more about Lincoln and Darwin… and then I found myself with a few extra minutes at the library and the next thing I knew I had a stack of fiction (it is summer after all) and I started reading “Love in the Time of Cholera”, which I’ve been wanting to read forever. Thinking that would be a faster read than Gopnik, I vowed to come back to “Angels and Ages” later on, and started reading the Marquez book. Which I love. But I am still only about halfway through. (Mainly because I’ve just not had all that much time do devote to reading lately… and as I am pregnant, every time I read in bed I fall asleep within 3 minutes.)

Speaking of being pregnant: while still enjoying “Love…” I also have started nesting (prematurely, I think– this is a bug that didn’t bite  me  until well into my 7th month the first time around; now I’m barely at month 5 and lo and behold, all I want to do is organize my house….) so I borrowed this organizing book from my friend Tammy. When I was pregnant with Ben, I spent HOURS watching “Clean House”, but didn’t actually do that much cleaning of my own house. Now that I have to make room for a fourth person in a house that already seems too small, I think I had better start being creative. I hoped this book, by the former organizer/co-host of “Clean House”, would be a great start.

I loved watching Linda Koopsmith in action on the TV show– crazily wielding her labeling machine and making every closet and drawer look perfect and gorgeous– so I was expecting this book to make me want to get to work. But here’s the problem with the book (and the reason I was able to read it in one day flat… really, more like two hours) is that every chapter is exactly the same. She shows some nice pictures of a really good-looking, well organized closet/drawer/cabinet and then gives these instructions: Take everything out. throw out what you don’t need. put like with like. Use my favorite organizing tool. (Lazy susan/shelf divider/drawer divider/spice rack/etc etc). put everything back neatly. ugh. those are awful instructions! I already know I am supposed to do all of those things– the problem is I just never want to! Or, I already do do those things, and then in one week the drawer looks like crap again. So, not much help at all. Thanks a bunch, Linda. (And about that silly labeler– this is one case where I think Linda doesn’t go far enough: who needs a labeler when with your printer and some clear tape you can create gorgeous labels, any size and any font you want?)

But there is one shred of a silver lining. In the introduction– all of one page– I got some unbelievably useful advice. My problem is that when I do try to organize, I try to do it marathon-style– “I just need to spend this weekend organzing my whole house!” Well, of course I don’t even get through one room. Linda identifies this exact problem and says that a novice has to train for organizing like you are training for a marathon. OK, sounds silly, but she recommends– no, insists– that you can only take on a 15-minute project if you are just getting started. If you spend 15 minutes, twice a day, getting your stuff in order, not only will you not get burned out, but you will actually see results, and be so enamored of the fabulousness that soon you’ll be addicted. Then you can work up to 20, 30, even 60 minutes of organizing at a time. Linda brags that she can go for 17 hours straight, but that is one goal I have no interest in reaching.

Josh laughed when I told him that this was all I learned from the book– because he says he tells me the same thing every day. Actually, what he tells me is to pick up after myself, and spend 30 seconds throughout the day cleaning up the trails of stuff that I seem to leave everywhere. But actually, it’s not the same thing. “All day, every day” is too depressing and not something that I would find addictive. And putting away and cleaning would be easy– if everything had it’s place. Which it doesn’t until the house is organized! So, not only can I see the logic in this 15-minutes/twice a day plan but I have even started to make some progress. (Last night, for example, in one 15 minute spurt I worked on one shelf in the playroom; today in 10 minutes I re-arranged some stuff in the cereal cabinet, and even did some of the wonderful throwing away that is so desperately needed…) I know for people who are inherently good at this, this sounds either obvious or pathetic, but trust me– this is really good advice for me. OK, maybe the book was worth it after all. I’ll keep you posted.

OK, obviously I’m falling a bit behind here, and it’s appearing less and less like I will make it to 50 books before July 25. But I’m not giving up (entirely) yet! Especially because the small piece of good news is that I’m actually further behind in the posting than I am in the reading. But since the pressure of writing 3 long reviews is just going to drag this out further, I’m going to do a bit of consolidating here. Short commentary tied together with a nice theme…(if by “nice, I mean “guilty”). No, I did not set out to read three consecutive books about guilt/Jews, but once I finished them all– and had yet to post– the element tying it all together was glaringly obvious…

book-thief

Jews & Guilt.1 “The Book Thief” By Markus Zusak (2005) 550 pages, Started March 16, finished March 27.

My friend Ruth lent me this one at the very beginning of the book project, but I was slightly daunted by the length… 500+ pages did not seem doable in one week. But a couple of people assured me it was a quick read (one voracious reader friend said she read it in one day!) so I was optimistic that this wouldn’t slow me down too much. And it didn’t– once I got into it, this novel was very absorbing: A German girl, Liesl, moves in with a foster family in 1940s Munich. The family is not Jewish– although they are far more sympathetic to the plight of the Jews than some of their neighbors. A friend of the family comes to hide in their basement, Liesl steals a lot of books, and the whole thing is narrated by Death. Not happy material, but like many young-adult novels, I found this one to be both fascinating and gripping. The narration-by-Death device took a little while to get used to, but this was a very, very worthwhile read. This book provides some interesting answers to the question about what regular German citizens were doing and thinking during the war. Yes, something like 90% of them were members of the Nazi party, but how did they feel about that? (For at least some of them, the short answer was: guilty.)

Plot_against_usaJews & Guilt.2 “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth (2004) 391 pages, Started approx. April 1, finished April 25

I typically wouldn’t have jumped right from one WWII historical novel into another, but this one was for the Jewish Book Discussion series on Alternate Histories, and my goal was to read it by the group meeting on April 5 (alas, did not happen…) although by that point I was at least far enough along to join in the conversation. What if Charles Lindbergh ran against– and beat– FDR in 1940? Philip Roth tells this story from the perspective of 9 year old Philip Roth, and it is SCARY.  The first third or so of the book focuses on Roth’s family (complete with actual names of actual relatives) and their hometown of Newark NJ– and it is so evocative of real life that by the time things take a turn for the worse, I was already sucked in, completely convinced that this could all be true. It is precisely because this novel is so plausible (at least until the end, anyway) that it is completely terrifying. There’s also plenty of guilt here to go around, mainly having to do with the major sub-plot regarding the family and their neighbors. Despite this being a made-up story, there are many real-life elements worked into the plot (you probably already knew that Lindbergh was famous for being anti-semitic) so it’s also somewhat educational. When I finally finished it, I had a ton of questions and handily, the book has a long section at the back that answers a fair number of them. One last thought- I really did not like the ending. Unlike the rest of the book it felt contrived, and although I mostly liked the first three-quarters, I was also pretty glad to be done with it. There’s only so much energy I can devote to a horror-story version of 1940s America.

guilt

Jews & Guilt.3 “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” Edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson (2005) 304 pages, started mid-April, finished May 1.

I broke my rule of finishing a book before starting another with this one– I needed a break from reading about World War II and my mom returned this to me at just the right moment– along with her recommendation: “You’re going to really like this”.  I’ve owned this book for a few years– a friend sent it to me when it came out, and unbeknownst to me until I started reading it, my husband actually knows the editor. (Yes, it is a small Jewish world indeed….) Not surprisingly, I loved this collection. Reading these essays was like having a series of wonderful conversations about family, dating, marriage, kids, work, etc. etc. with a bunch of really close girlfriends. (It actually made me miss a lot of my old (long-distance) friends, many of whom I don’t get to spend nearly enough time catching up with these days.) Some of the essays were heavy and intense, some were humorous, but I related in some ways to almost all of them. Especially the last one, by Susan Shapiro, whose essay on “Quitting Guilt”  felt it could have been a letter written directly to me. (Although I suspect I’m not the only person who feels that way when reading about learning to say No…)  I’ve read material by some of these women before (and the new-ish novel “Book of Dahlia, by one of the writers, Elisa Albert, is something I’ve been looking forward to reading for close to a year)  but now I have a whole new list of authors to look for.  It was fun to read this incredible group of Jewish Women writers all in one place and now, assisted by the detailed bio section at the end, I have some new additions to my list of what/who I want to be reading next.

last-jews “The Last Jews of Kerala” By Edna Fernandes (2008); 222 pages- Started March 1, finished March 14.

This was another one for our local Jewish Book Discussion Series, and it was just OK. The group met to discuss this one on March 8, before I was even halfway finished, and it took me a fair amount of energy to actually make myself complete this after hearing the discussion. The general concensus was: good topic, poorly written book. I can’t say I really disagree, although I did actually think it got better as it progressed. One very irritating thing about this book was the glaring lack of images: no maps, no gorgeous landscapes of India, no photos of the people described in the book. So it seems to have been published on a low budget, was poorly edited, and parts of it were boring and confusing. The book group concluded that this have been a few long articles instead of dragged out into a full length “history”.

But despite all that– I didn’t hate it. Some sections were better than others. Fernandes is OK at interviewing peeople and describing personal histories, it’s just that when she tries to tie together the big picture things start to fall apart. The story is sad, but also interesting: two separate communities of Jews in Kerala (a region in the southwest of India, that I would have been able to tell you more about if there had been a map in the book. ugh.) are both dying out. One is a group of native Indians (The “black” Jews) and the other is a community of Europeans ( the “white” Jews) who migrated to India hundreds of years ago. According to this account, the white Jews treat the black Jews pretty horribly, and Fernades’ theory is that if they had only been willing to intermarry, it would have saved both populations from their imminent extinction. My own opinion is that it only would have postoned the inevitable… there are less than a dozen white Jews left, and maybe 50 black Jews. Although if the white Jews hadn’t been so exclusionsary, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt. Curiously though, in the past generation these communities did start to intermarry (although not without a lot of horrendous behavior from their families) and it doesn’t seem to have helped much. On the bright side, though, many of the offspring of the Kerala Jews have migrated to Israel and are doing OK there– they are at least trying to keep their unique Jewish/Indian culture from dissapearing entirely.

3-yr-old-1976

three-year-old

“Your Three Year Old – Friend or Enemy” Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D and Frances L Ilg M.D. (1976); 151 pages- Started February 21, finished February 28.

One of my favorite child-rearing books is called “Blessing of the Skinned Knee” (which I have already read twice, so I am not going to review here– but it is terrific) and the author makes a few positive references to the  “Your __ Year Old” series.  Months ago I looked up the book on three-year-olds, and was told by the fine reviewers at Amazon that it was basically an overview of kids’ standard behavior, it is not a how-to book, and that oh, by the way, it was a bit dated.  Lately I have been thinking that it would be cool to know if all of the hilarious things that Ben does are typical for kids of his age group, and maybe get a bit of insight into what is going on in that head of his (a lot, I have learned.) And the title was just too funny, so I asked Josh to order one for me– as cheap as you can find it, I said. And lo and behold, a used copy arrived a few days later. I laughed when I saw the cover because it the kid in the picture has got to be OLDER THAN ME! Only just now, when looking to upload the image for your amusement, did I find out that there is actually a “new” edition from 1993. So when I say that yeah, this book is dated, I mean the one I read is really dated. (I know, I know–that’s what I get for having someone else doing my shopping…) But if you are interested in a series on child development, this one is fairly sensible. But I would definitely go for the editions printed more recently than 1976.

Two curious things about this book– apparently 30 years ago the only part of child-rearing involving the father was… scolding their kids at the dinner table for having poor table manners. Really, that is one of the only times men are mentioned in this book at all. (Yes, the lack-of-dad thing is incredibly annoying, but I was able to get past it… I was also relieved that at least the authors did not endorse fathers acting like jerks.)

And then, after the chapters on typical three-year-old minds, abilities, and so on, came the best chapter of all– “Stories from Real Life”, where the authors give examples of some of the letters they’ve received from parents- um, I mean mothers.  The following letter was so incredible, I have to write out the entire thing for you. Worth the price of admission, I swear.

“Dear Doctors: I have a problem of fear in a usually fearless boy who is just three. When he was about a year old we gave him a clown that rolls bath and forth with a very realistic face and eyes that roll. At first he seemed a little afraid of it, but soon he seemed happy enough. In fact, for a time he liked it so much that he carried it around. A few evenings ago we saw a TV program about a circus. There was some violence in the picture. A knife thrower was trying to kill some other man, and although he wasn’t dressed as a clown, there were clowns in the play. I don’t know if that caused it, but the next evening our son said “That clown is going to hurt me.” His daddy told him no, that the clown was just like any other dolly. This morning the first thing he said was something about the clown. I thought about burning the clown before his eyes, but perhaps that would be too dramatic. We are going to leave soon for a vacation – would it be best to take the clown along or leave it at home?”

The authors’ response was basically what you’d think… 3-year-olds shouldn’t be watching violent TV, a scary eye-rolling clown is a dubious choice for a baby toy in the first place, don’t take the clown on the vacation, etc etc, and oh yes, by the way, are you INSANE? BURNING THE CLOWN IN FRONT OF YOUR KID WOULD INDEED BE TOO DRAMATIC!!

The moral of the story– never, ever, let your kids watch violent clown programs.
(And, if you meet some frazzled guy in his late thirties who is completely terrified of clowns, it is most likely the poor child of these crazy parents.)

mfk heartburn

“An Alphabet for Gourmets” MFK Fisher (1949); 172 pages.

Started December 24, finished January 4.

I’ve been a huge fan of food-writing for years. Restaurant reviews and food articles are usually the first thing I seek out in magazines, and Ruth Reichl’s memoirs of her various stages of self-discovery are among my all-time favorite books. I readily admit that I read cookbooks (the collection of which has far exceeded an appropriate shelf allotment) for fun– far more frequently than I actually use them for cooking. And I think I’ve read “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron a dozen times. (Since it may be unfair to count that as one of my 50 books, but still something I want to recommend to anyone and everyone, I’ll just quickly talk about it right here: It’s Ephron’s fictional account of her very non-fictional divorce from Carl Bernstein, complete with recipes by the food-writer protagonist. For a sad story, it’s an unbelievably funny– and even empowering– book. And despite it being originally published in 1983, it’s not too dated.  The movie with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep does not do the story justice- they play the characters as completely non-Jewish, which really irritated me; the film in general lacks the down-to-earth vibe and humor of the original. So skip the movie and get the book, it’s a classic is not to be missed.)

Anyway, one cannot read much food writing without finding lots of references to MFK Fisher. I can’t even tell you when or where I first heard of her, just that it seems like I’ve pretty much always understood that when it comes to classic food writers… She. Is. It. Years ago,  I bought two collections of her works, thinking that I’d get to them eventually. Well, guess what. Eventually = 10 years. The ones that I own are massive 700+ page tomes– not exactly candidates for a read in a week. And really, not exactly candidates for fun reading, ever. ( “The Journals of MFK Fisher” has joined me on vacations at least 6 times…. And still never read.) The sheer largeness of the book was just too overwhelming.

But I recently had an epiphany: if a book is available individually, then it could still count as a read for one week– even if my personal copy happened to be bound in a collection together with four other works.  I decided to start with  “An Alphabet for Gourmets”.  While some of her writings are much more personal, this one is simply an alphabetized series cuisine-related ruminations, with one or two recipes thrown in after each entry. The big question– is MFK Fisher worth the hype? Well, sort of. Her prose is absolutely gorgeous. When she writes about her family, her opinions on people and their habits, she is still so spot-on– amazing considering that this was published 60 years ago. The writing is clear, incisive, and amusing, and she was obviously a woman ahead of her time. But about food. Jeez. First, she’s pretty snobby when it comes to this topic, although I’ll forgive that because after all, food was her profession and she’s allowed. (It’s far worse to be a snob without the goods to back it up.) But, much of the cuisine that she wrote about (in this group of essays, anyway) is stuff that was fancy in the first half of the 20th century– so to me it’s either unappealing or just confusing.  Fisher talked alot about what she called “honest bread” (which I am guessing is what we now think of as “artisanal bread”)  in comparison to “puffy white stuff”. Of course this made me wonder if bad white bread existed in the same form in 1930 as it does today. (Does anyone happen to know?)  Despite this book not exactly being a page-turner, it did make me want to keep reading MFK Fisher. She would frequently throw in a random line that made me want to learn much more about her personal life (“my true love and I were taking a walk and discussing a meal….” then she goes on to talk about the meal, not how she came to be with the true love! In another essay she mentions off-handedly that she had a few ex-husbands– to me reading about marital dischord is much more interesting than fish in aspic…)  It’s a good thing that the other Fisher book that I’ve got on my shelf should actually cover some of the more People-magazine aspects of her life… thats right, it’s still waiting for me: “From the Journals of MFK Fisher.”

(But that will have to come later. For now I am finally reading another book that’s been travelling with me for years– also a classic, but one that weighs a lot less– “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Stay tuned…)

assassinationvacation “Assassination Vacation” By Sarah Vowell (2005); 255 pages

Started reading around November 24, finished reading December 8.

So, I had never read Sarah Vowell before, but I’ve listened to essays on “This American Life” and heard her as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. If you know her voice, and her inflections, then you can’t help but imagine her doing out-loud readings from this book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but combined with the rest of her shtick, it starts to get old. It didn’t help that a third of the way into it, I read Virginia Heffernan’s review of Vowell’s new “The Wordy Shipmates” in the NYT Book Review. Heffernan was mostly annoyed by the book, and while I hate to let outside reviewers influence my opinions, I can sort of see what she means.

Vowell is really smart, really nerdy, and loves relaying historical anecdotes.  So this book is kind of a memoir of her own “assassination vacations” (visiting the hot spots associated with three presidential assassinations – those of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley). I know what you may be thinking- a book about assassinations sure sounds grim. Indeed, it does. It helps, kind of, that the most recent one she is describing happened 107 years ago. (But still, all the talk of these various villains plotting against the sitting president started to be pretty upsetting, for obvious reasons. I really hope that the Secret Service is more competent nowadays–pooh pooh pooh). But despite the topic, the book is upbeat, and Vowell is a good tour guide. I’d be really tired of her by the end of that vacation, though.

You should also know that for this week, I got a slow start. I wanted to read a book about Lincoln, so I started one called “Land of Lincoln” by Andrew Ferguson (also about historical tourism, but slighty more history-book-ish). I liked it, but was reading a grand total of three pages a night before falling alseep. Not going to be helpful towards the overall goal. I told Josh the book didn’t have enough zip, and he said if I wanted zip + Lincoln, Sarah Vowell was the way to go. And historian that he is, he was correct! So I liked reading all about Lincoln, and truth be told, anything I had ever learned about Garfield or McKinley in high school did not stick, so all that was fun too, despite the overall theme of the book. Vowell characterizes the presidents, their cohorts, and their assassins and fills us in on the news of the day, circa late 19th century. (Her descriptions of the assassins in particular can be very funny. In case you were wondering, but don’t get around to reading the book: John Wilkes Booth was a handsome, charming racist; Charles Guiteau was cheerful, although delusional and stalker-y; Leon Czolgosz was a complete sad sack, with a crush on anarchist Emma Goldman). She ties it all together nicely, and manages to work in some of the history of how the Republican Party started to evolve into what it is today. It’s not bad at all, and not as slow a read as my 2-week-reading time should lead you to believe… but I was ready to be done with it. Mostly because I had a couple of fun novels waiting for me (stay tuned for the next posts, and soon!!) than because of Sarah Vowell, but you get the idea. Good book, and a nice change of pace, but definitely not my favorite.

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