Archive for the 'Weekend Reading' Category

What happens when you stop refusing the truth.

Out shopping for birthday gifts for my niece last week, I picked up a copy of Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon. I finally started reading it two days ago, and I’m having trouble keeping myself from cancelling my 8-year-old’s birthday party tomorrow so I can hole up in my study to finish reading.

Right now, glancing at the front cover of the copy on my desk, I see the words haunting, searing, and brilliant  used to describe the book, and really — anything by Alice Sebold can be described as such. She’s got this utterly unique voice to her writing, a quiet voice that screams the truth at you on every page. Her other books, The Lovely Bones (a novel about the brutal rape and murder of a teenager and what happens to her family in the aftermath) and Lucky (a memoir of her own equally brutal rape and beating and its aftermath when she was 18 years old) are just as haunting, and just as honest. They are, for me as the mother of daughters, harder to read, but still worth it. Life isn’t always easy; neither should our reading material be.

In The Almost Moon, the subject changes to one that’s a bit easier for me (the relationship between a daughter and a mother who is mentally ill) but still resonates in a particular way. My own mother may not have been as crazy as the mother in this book, but it’s close enough. And in the end, it’s not having a crazy mother that’s the hardest thing to handle — it’s STILL LOVING that crazy mother no matter what she does that’s hard. Oh, how I understand that part. And oh, how I wish I didn’t. Here’s an excellent passage:

I walked to the center of my front lawn and lay down, spreadeagled. I looked up at the stars. How did I end up in a place where doing such a thing marked you for crazy, while my neighbors dressed concrete ducks in bonnets at Easter and in striped stocking caps at Christmas but were considered sane?

I let my shoes and purse fall from my hands. Only a few stars were out. The earth was cold beneath me. “There are children starving in China,” my mother had frequently said to me when I gorged on food.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not hungry,” I whispered now. I thought of her face when I had brought Jake from Wisconsin to meet them. He had been the first, and last, direct challenge to her power. She had welcomed him with a floor show so extreme that is was almost painful to watch. She forced herself to smile and bow and scrape as if he were the lord of the manor and she merely a lowly thing. Why hadn’t I seen the truth? She had a steely resolve that surpassed anything Jake and I might build. Our swizzle-stick empire was so fragile in the end. “The only thing you’ve ever loved is you mother!” he had yelled at me. I had refused this truth, brought my hands up as if to stop a blow. (pp. 88-89)

The novel is, essentially, a chronicle of the events of the day when she stops refusing this truth about herself. Or at least it is, so far. I’ve still got about one-third of it left to go. I could be completely wrong. But whatever it is, it’s still worth reading. Hell, I’d say it’s worth owning. And I say that about less and less books these days. And even if your mother’s not crazy, this book will still make sense. Because, crazy mother or not, haven’t we all had those moments of clarity — when whatever screwed-up thing about our lives we’ve been denying becomes suddenly undeniable? And aren’t those moments always filled with utter insanity?

That’s what Sebold captures for us and forces us to look at, and no matter how hard it is to face it, somehow she shows us that we can still land on our feet. That we’re brave enough. That we CAN do this. Pick up a copy of anything by Alice Sebold, and see if you agree.

Lisp? What lisp? I don’t hear any lisp.

Not too long ago, I posted a bit of a rant about my in-laws and how they have come to believe that my daughters have permanent lisps and how my homeschooling them will be detrimental because I am not addressing these lisps. And my dear blogging-buddy Katherine posted a recommendation to read Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. And because Katherine is so awesome and brilliant, I took her advice and picked up a copy of the book on one of my many escapes excursions to my local bookstore.

And I’m very glad that I own this book. Me Talk Pretty One Day is a series of hilarious essays on various topics, the first of which addresses his childhood lisp and how the school system handled it by marking him as a Special Needs Case and forcing him to spend time with the school’s speech therapist. Here’s an excellent passage:

My therapy sessions were scheduled for every Thursday at 2:30, and with the exception of my mother, I discussed them with no one. The word therapy suggested a profound failure on my part. Mental patients had therapy. Normal people did not. I didn’t see my sessions as the sort of thing that one would want to advertise, but as my teacher liked to say, “I guess it takes all kinds.” Whereas my goal was to keep it a secret, hers was to inform the entire class. If I got up from my seat at 2:25, she’d say, “Sit back down, David. You’ve still got five minutes before your speech therapy session.” If I remained seated until 2:27, she’d say, “David, don’t forget you have a speech therapy session at two-thirty.” On the days I was absent, I imagined she addressed the room, saying, “David’s not here today but if he were, he’d have a speech therapy session at two-thirty.” [page 8]

Funny, yes, but also an achingly accurate assessment of how children are commonly treated without respect in classroom situations. How quickly they are typed, classified, segregated, and humiliated by their teachers, and consequently by their peers.

That’s pretty much the only essay related to American public education. The rest of them range from a seriously hysterical situation he finds himself in while using the bathroom at a friend’s house for a dinner party to the adventures of moving to France and learning the language, to his father’s very bizarre hoarding habits.

If you haven’t read this one yet, then by all means, run on out and find a copy soon. It’s a keeper.

Many thanks to Katherine for the recommendation.

America’s National Eating Disorder.

Right after I finished A Widow for One Year, I plunged right into another book that’s been on my MUST READ (AS SOON AS I’VE CAUGHT UP ON ABOUT 7 YEARS’ WORTH OF LOST SLEEP) LIST: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

And, like I’ve said before, if you haven’t read this one yet, please drop whatever you’re doing and IMMEDIATELY drive to your closest bookstore and get this book. And then read it. And then, make yourself something to eat, and read it again. This book is an essential one for your shelves. (And while you’re there, you might as well pick up his latest book, too: In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto. It’s next on my list.

I’ve been sitting here for a while trying to decide which passage to quote for you, but the problem is I keep wanting to just type out entire chapters (or the whole damn book, really). But what’s most striking for me right now is the way he so aptly describes “America’s National Eating Disorder”:

America has never had a stable national cuisine; each immigrant population has brought its own foodways to the American table, but none has ever been powerful enough to hold the national diet very steady. We seem bent on reinventing the American way of eating every generation…. That might explain why Americans have been such easy marks for food fads and diets of every description….

What is striking is just how little it takes to set off one of these applecart-toppling nutritional swings in America; a scientific study, a new government guideline, a lone crackpot with a medical degree can alter this nation’s diet overnight. (pp. 298-300)

And a few pages later:

The success of food marketers in exploiting shifting eating patterns and nutritional fashions has a steep cost. Getting us to change how we eat over and over again tends to undermine the various social structures that surround and steady our eating, institutions like the family dinner, for example…. In their relentless pursuit of new markets, food companies…have broken Mom’s hold over the American menu by marketing to every conceivable demographic–and especially to children. (pp. 301-302)

Isn’t this a little bit reminiscent of what the broken educational system is doing to our children’s minds? So, the schools will jack up the kids educationally and the Big Food Industry will screw up the kids physically. And whatever is left after that, the pharmaceutical industry will take care of. Basically, we’re screwed. Unless we do strange, radical things like homeschool, and bake our own bread, that is.

Back when I first considered homeschooling, I kept it a secret from RegularDad. For about 2 months, I wandered around the house dreaming about homeschooling, and researching it online (furtively shutting down my browser window whenever RegularDad got close enough to see the computer screen.) Because I was so afraid to tell him I wanted to homeschool. I was afraid he’d think I was crazy. (Well, crazier than I already am, I mean.)

After 2 months of this, I finally broke down and told him I wanted to homeschool. And he was all: HEY! WHAT A FANTASTIC IDEA!!!!!! And then he furnished me a schoolroom and gave me carte blanche for ordering curriculum, and I was all: Gee, I wonder what he’d say if next I told him I wanted to move to Alaska and start my very own penguin farm? (Well, no. I don’t want to do that. Not really. But I do think penguins are very cute.)

Anyway. After all that happened, we both ended up giving up the nicotine. And then we ended up moving across the country. And then we ended up sort of… gaining weight. Because moving is stressful, and Skittles taste really, really good.

But while I was busy eating all those Skittles, I was also doing a lot of reading about what’s happening to our food nationally. And how our bodies use food, and what kinds of food are actually good for you. And why. And I watched a documentary or two about how the Food Industry is sacrificing our health for the almighty dollar, the most memorable being, of course, Super Size Me. And in between reading and watching all those things, I was also teaching myself how to cook properly. And (oh so quietly) reading up on gardening. Organically. These are all things I was raised without. No one ever showed me how to deal with food. How to cook it. How to buy it. How to grow it. And why.

For the past year and a half, I have been very slowly, very quietly, changing our diet. We now eat mostly fruits and vegetables, nuts and cheese, and homemade breads. And the meats I buy are usually as organic as I can afford. I’m not really into vegetarianism, for many reasons: 1) I’ve got this medical condition called pernicious anemia. My doctors told me years ago to avoid vegetarianism. And booze. Ah well. The booze didn’t sit well with me anyway. Made me fall down a lot. Who needs it? And, 2) meat tastes really, really good. Almost as good as Skittles.

Anyway. The only reason I’m telling you all this is that now that I’ve read Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’m really ready to take the next step in this long slow process of changing the way we eat. I’m ready, in fact, to start gardening organically. And to send RegularDad out to buy me a big ‘ole freezer so I can drive to a place that sells meat from cows that aren’t fed food that is poisonous to them, and aren’t forced to live in an environment that does not allow them to be what they are: COWS. I don’t care about the extra expense. I’ve saved about three grand already just by not smoking. I can afford the good stuff.

I’m also really glad that we homeschool. Because my kids will grow up eating Real Food. And they’ll learn how to cook Real Food. And how to enjoy Real Food. And the chances of them developing eating disorders are significantly lesser than if they were to attend regular school.

So, I’ll be busy as ever around here, making plans for the yard. I’ve already been sort of planning this whole thing out anyway. I just didn’t want to tell anyone about it. Because people, this is So NOT What I Thought I’d Ever Be Doing With My Life.

I hardly recognize myself.

An unlovable character, sure, but he does occasionally spout a bit of wisdom.

I’m about halfway through John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. The reason, in fact, that I haven’t blogged in a few days is that I’m halfway through John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. And while I do apologize for my absence, I don’t apologize for being halfway through this book.

If ever I get enough time in my days to actually attempt novel writing, I would hope that I’ve read enough Irving for it to have rubbed off enough on me so that I might actually have even the tiniest smidgen of his talent.

What I’d like to share with you here is a little passage that comes early on in the book, that says a lot about both modern public education, and modern private education. In this scene, Eddie and his father have gotten lost on their way to the ferry, and they have finally pulled into a gas station to ask directions. Eddie is sixteen and a student at Exeter Academy. His father, Joe (Minty) O’Hare, is a teacher there and an alumnus as well.

They stopped at a gas station, where Joe O’Hare made his best attempt to engage in small talk with a member of the working class. “So, how’s this for a predicament?” the senior O’Hare said to the gas-station attendant, who appeared to Eddie to be a trifle retarded. “Here’s a couple of lost Exonians in search of the New London ferry to Orient Point.”

Eddie died a little every time he heard his father speak to strangers. (Who but an Exonian knew what an Exonian was?) As if stricken by a passing coma, the gas-station attendant stared at an oily stain on the pavement a little to the right of Minty’s right shoe. “You’re in Rhode Island” was all that the unfortunate man was able to say.

“Can you tell us the way to New London?” Eddie asked him.

When they were back on the road again, Minty regaled Eddie on the subject of the intrinsic sullenness that was so often the result of a subpar secondary-school eduction. “The dulling of the mind is a terrible thing, Edward,” his father instructed him. (pp. 38-39)

The dulling of the mind. What an incredibly apt description of what today’s public education does to our children’s brains. We call our children “bright”; then we send ’em off to school where all that brightness is rubbed off. Sometimes permanently.

Or we send ’em off to private schools where their minds aren’t dulled quite as much as in the public schools, but then the kids run the risk of sounding a bit too much like Minty. So, our choices seem to be: dull and sullen, or bright but arrogant. Where is the middle ground?

Oh, that’s right. In homeschooling.

Eat. Pray. Love. Read. Rinse. Repeat.

Every once in a while, I like to go down to my local Borders bookstore where I:

a) blow the college funds on trash fiction and vanilla lattes
b) take a little break from the kids and the house
c) regain my sanity
d) all of the above

hmmm…oh, yes…OPTION D….

Anyway, I’d been seeing this book, Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert displayed prominently on the nonfiction shelves for quite a long time, and I kept avoiding it. Why? Well, first of all, it’s nonfiction, and I have only a certain amount of time to read during the week, and I prefer to spend it on fiction or poetry. And second of all, it looked suspiciously like a self-help book, and I’ve grown a bit tired of all the self help literature out there. At some point, you have to stop READING about how to fix yourself, and just… FIX yourself already.

Anyway, so I avoided this book, until my mother-in-law (the one who wishes I was dead) recommended it to me.

At first, I was all suspicious. After all, she had just told me that she’d never used iceberg lettuce in her life and had no idea how to break it up and mix it in with the Romaine lettuce. Why would I listen to her literary recommendations? She can’t even rip open a head of lettuce. (Or perhaps the truth is, she can, but she wants me to think differently. She wants me to think she never fed her kids iceberg lettuce because iceberg lettuce is the BASTARD CHILD of all lettuces, and no self-respecting mother would ever put that in front of her children. Maybe she was just trying to unbalance me, make me feel like a bad mother.)

But then after the whole lettuce incident, she showed me this book and said: you can keep the book; it’s not something I need to keep on my shelves. And so I did, because 1) free books are just too good to pass up, and 2) she liked it, but not enough to keep, which meant that the book definitely had possibilities.

So, I took it home with me, and let me tell you: IT’S A KEEPER.

 This book chronicles a year in the life of Elizabeth Gilbert, award-winning writer, who has just come through a bitter divorce in which she lost everything. She takes a year off of life to travel to three countries, Italy, India, and Bali. In each of the three places, she learns everything she possibly can about three things: pleasure in Italy, prayer in India, and balance in Bali.

Gilbert has an excellent sense of humor, and truly takes you with her on each part of her journey. Here’s an excerpt from one little moment in Italy when she and a friend travel to Naples because another friend of hers there told her to go to a certain small pizzeria that makes, quite simply, the BEST PIZZA IN THE WORLD. 

Giovanni passed along the name of the place with such seriousness and intensity, I almost felt I was being inducted into a secret society. He pressed the address into the palm of my hand and said, in gravest confidence, “Please go to this pizzeria. Order the margherita pizza with double mozzarella. If you do not eat this pizza when you are in Naples, please lie to me later and tell me that you did.

So Sofie and I have come to Pizzeria da Michele, and these pies we have just ordered — one for each of us — are making us lose our minds. I love my pizza so much, in fact, that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me, in return. I am having a relationship with this pizza, almost an affair. Meanwhile, Sofie is practically in tears over hers, she’s having a metaphysical crisis about it, she’s begging me, “Why do they even bother trying to make pizza in Stockholm? Why do we even bother eating food at all in Stockholm?”

All’s I’m sayin’ is: that’s gotta be some damn good pizza. Kinda makes me want to go to Naples. Like, tomorrow, perhaps.

After four months of pure sinful EATING in Italy, Gilbert goes off to an ashram in India where she changes gears and gets down to the business of fully experiencing all that a life of prayer has to offer. It takes her some time to get used to it, to clear her mind, and this is why I love her. Her early experiences with meditation remind me of my own, here in my house with a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old, where every 5 minutes or so, someone is calling: MOM? Hey, Mom? Mom! Mom? There you are, Mom!

These aren’t the right years for me to attempt any sort of serious meditation, I guess.

After four months in India, Gilbert moves on to Bali where she spends the rest of the year keeping company with a wise old medicine man, a young woman who’s also a healer, and an intriguing older Brazilian man named Felipe. All of them teach her valuable lessons about family, love, and balance.

If you haven’t read this one yet, go out and get it. It’s worth every cent and every minute. And it definitely deserves a place on your shelves afterwards, no matter what my mother-in-law thinks. And about that iceberg lettuce, I asked RegularDad about it, and he assures me that all they ate when he was a kid was iceberg lettuce. Drizzled with bacon bits and some sort of dressing laced with high fructose corn syrup.

Guess she didn’t unbalance me after all.

More meme catch-up work.

I got tagged for another meme earlier this week from Audrey via the recently-upgraded (and what a tizzy it’s been!) Well Trained Mind message boards.

This one’s a book meme. Short and sweet. The rules are:

Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
Open the book to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next three sentences.
Tag five people and ask them to do the same (unless you’re Doc, and unless you don’t want to, that is.)

So, the book nearest to me at the moment just happens to be Foucalt’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. (Eco also wrote The Name of the Rose, a book which was later made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.)

From after the 5th sentence on page 123:

And the paper says they came to a great hall with a fine fireplace and a dry well in the center. They tied a stone to a rope, lowered it, and found that the well was eleven meters deep. They went back a week later with stronger ropes, and two companions lowered Ingolf into the well, where he discovered a big room with stone walls, ten meters square and five meters high.

A secret room at the bottom of a dry well that you can only get to from inside someone’s fireplace. Pretty cool. That’s what I’ll be reading this weekend.

I’d tell you how it all turns out, but then you might not read it for yourself.

Many thanks to Audrey for the tag. And I’m gonna tag Maria, Karisma, Wendy, Heather, and Kitten. And anyone else who’s up for it. Except for Doc, that is. She’s, like, really busy right now. 🙂


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