Sunday, March 27, 2011

A House and a Home

I read these two the wrong way.

Great House: A NovelNicole Krauss's Great House is a novel which deserves its acclaim. The interwoven plots on the surface center around the possessors of a fairly awesome-sounding desk. Deeper, they center around parent-child expectations and relations, while the consequences of oppression and racism orbit the main action. (Also, I now feel bad about the extremely overburdened but much loved roll top desk I received from my parents when they were downsizing their house. I really ought to do some serious sorting and culling.) Anyway, although I was too-often reminded of how much more I liked the puzzle box built by David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, I really just wanted to settle down with Great House and devour it whole. Instead I dipped into it and out again, sometimes wrangling a long session, more often just a few pages.

At Home: A Short History of Private LifeBill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life, on the other hand, is just the sort of cultural anthropology/historical trivia that's fun to pick up and peruse and come back to later, and instead I powered through the whole thing. It really did me a disservice as a reader, and I should have known better. In addition to bringing back memories of my Anthro 101 research paper about the use of space in the double rooms in my dorm (I concluded, with no bias at all, that my roomie and I were not destined for a lifetime of friendship), Bryson's latest is a charming and interesting treasure box in its own right. Especially when handled correctly, there are lots of "wow, I'd never have guessed that about 'sleep tight'!" and "Got it: India cotton = Indian-derived words for fabric and fashion" moments to tickle your mental funny bone.

So there you have it - two good reads, which can be made better or (if ye heed not my warning) worse by your approach to reading them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Things I Ate in 2 1/2 Days in New Orleans

Crickets, mealworms & waxworms in various forms at the Audubon Insectarium. The chocolate chirp cookies were my favorite, but the boys liked the mango mealworm salsa. Not the re-introduction to NOLA cuisine that we anticipated, but unique, to be sure.

Oyster po-boy and gumbo at Felix's. R & K had soft shell crab po-boys, and D went with jambalaya and a shrimp po-boy. Not one of us regretted our decisions. Plus we were super comfy and happy while we watched the lines hardly dwindle across the street at Acme. I've eaten at both establishments plenty of times and I'm just as happy either way.

Eggs, biscuit & grits at Clover Grill. Everyone else went for shakes and burgers, give or take the chili. They grill the burgers under an American-made hubcap to sear in the juices. (I presume that the foreign hubcaps aren't adequate for some reason.) I have to say, every person in that place was cheerful, including K, who is still talking about his chili burger a week later.

Mocha, veggie omelet, more grits (yum!), and beignets at Cafe Beignet - I know, I know, but we were going on a coach tour and didn't have time for both Cafe du Monde and lunch before it left, so this seemed reasonable. Sigh. But K (my foodie, clearly - D is annoyed every time I discuss various restaurants because I "sound too fake") is also still raving about the Bourbon Croissant he had there, so no worries.

A soda at Oak Alley Plantation, just to tide us over until....

The mother of all meals at Mother's. Wow. I had the Famous Ferdi Po-Boy and a dish of bread pudding. The ham was astounding! Did I say wow? Wow. D's po-boy was like mine but with cheese, making it the Ralph, and he chose pecan pie. R & K (the 11 year old with the bottomless pit stomach) had Seafood Platters. The sides were scrumptious, especially the cabbage. (R liked the greens better.) So full!

Finally, cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe Du Monde. And bliss. I told the boys beforehand the stories of the first time they'd each eaten there at age 1 (D quickly discovering that wet fingers are ideal powdered-sugar-transfer devices, K's big round eyes getting rounder than I'd ever seen them and not once setting his beignet down.) At 15 and 11, their reactions weren't all that different. See, guys? That's why we stand in line!

Our final meal (Smoothie King at the airport don't count) was at The Camellia Grill. Ruben, cheese fries, hot tea. More chili for K, more burger for D, and I don't remember what kind of sandwich R had, but we all remember the cheesecake he had for dessert.

So, basically - a lot of deicious food. My conservative estimate is about a million calories. But with a million joyous memories, too.

Books That Talk to Each Other in My Head

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship EssexTonight I finished In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick's fairly captivating history of the tragedy of the whaleship Essex. I didn't know a thing about the Essex before reading it (the ship was attacked in the Pacific by a sperm whale in 1820, leaving 20 crew in three whaleboats to try to navigate a couple of a thousand miles to South America. Some of them made it.)

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)What I did know was Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, which I read for the first time last year (only because of the "I Will if You Will" book club at MonkeySee, which was a fun experience indeed.) Melville used the at-the-time-infamous events of the Essex as fodder for Ahab's venge-quest against the White Whale. So as I read In the Heart of the Sea, I kept burbling up with "oh, that's the back story on all the Nantucket Quakers!" and "so, the stuff with the races on board was even more divisive, then," and various other jump-backs to the Melville story. (Not to mention that Philbrick gives a far less cuckoo-pants version of whale anatomy and dismemberment than Melville did. But Melville clearly had more fun with it all.)

Master and Commander (Paperback)Meanwhile, when I read Moby-Dick, I constantly hearkened back to the Master and Commander series by Patrick O'Brian, which I read (or actually had read to me by audio-crush Simon Vance) between fall 2009 and spring 2010. So reading Melville I had a lot of O'Brian floating around in my head defining topgallant sails and watches and various other nautical rigmarole.

So by the time I picked up the Philbrick, I had Melville and O'Brian bouncing around in my brain, and really, they just wouldn't shut up with the chit-chat amongst themselves. Yarns about Galapagos turtles and fishy first mates and that time in Valparaiso went sailing round and round in my thoughts. Not to be outdone, Unbroken contributed plenty of compare-and-contrast stories about being adrift in the Pacific 125 years apart. And I loved it all. I love when books get together. Especially when they jump genres - when it seems like everything I pick up has to do with twins, or Paris, or whatnot, no matter how little else the books have in common. It's just a delight.

Coming up soon on my reading pile is Philbrick's book about Little Big Horn, which will play nicely, I'm sure, with Empire of the Summer Moon and The Worst Hard Time, which have already had a few play dates in my mind. (You wouldn't think those two would play nicely with anyone, but they're surprisingly congenial.) I'm very much looking forward to the ruckus.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Watch Wrist Itch

What time is it?

Did you look at the bottom right-hand of your monitor? Your cell phone read-out? The nearest appliance or television? Okay, fine, so did I.

I own watches. I own watches I admire. One of them doesn't even need a new battery. But round about fifteen years ago, when Baby David's cloth-diaper-clad bum* habitually nestled into the crook of my arm in the ideal way to unlatch the band of my wristwatch every single time, I stopped wearing watches.
         * Yeah, I'm one of those parents. Are you surprised?

Not coincidentally, this was also about the time I got my first cell phone. (Old timey fun fact: cell phones were rare in the mid-nineties! Robert had a beeper so I could page him when I went into labor! New Mom Melanie was delighted to be able to drive on the freeway, coo at Baby David, and make phone calls at the same time! Safe!) And really, as nice, as handy, as fashion-statementy as watches are (what kind of Swatch did you have?), they're just not all that useful anymore.

But this isn't really about watches. (Remember to Spring Forward for DST this weekend.) It's about the fact that every time I think of the time, my wrist itches. It's that one spot, right in the center on the back, right where the fulcrum for the hands would be, if I were wearing a watch.

It's not a painful itch. It goes away pretty quickly (if I'm not writing a blog entry about time. Scratch, scratch.) It rarely leads to me staring at my wrist in some sort of a "three hairs past a freckle" state of mild confusion. (The freckle is on my right wrist.) But dagnabit, I haven't worn a watch - or bracelet, or anything - on my left wrist in over fifteen years. Not more than very occasionally, anyway. So why does it still throw this stupid psychosomatic blip at me when I think about time?

I suspect I'm not the only one. I also suspect that Baby David and his generation won't encounter this. It's one of those not-that-lamentable quirks of things lost to the newer folks. Rotary phone skills. Appointment television programs. Mixed tapes actually recorded on cassette tapes. With my smart phone in hand, I can accomplish everything those outmoded tasks were designed for - and more - simultaneously and in a fraction of the time.

(Augh! Time! Now my wrist itches again.)

Does your wrist itch, too?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How to break Mel, one book at a time

Glutton for punishment, that's me. I don't know how else to explain all the melancholy books I've been consuming lately, but oh, they've been worth it. My brain is constantly chewing the cud from one or another of the titles from this week, and as much as I like relaxing with a quick mystery or romance title, I do have to have some mental protein to balance out those chips-and-chocolate books.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionSo, foremost this week is Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, which, yes, broke me. I'm under the impression that everyone I know has read this in the few months since it was published, so maybe this is redundant, but I have to recommend it to anyone who hasn't picked it up. I'm not a war buff, I'm squeamish, I wasn't familiar with the Pacific Theatre of Operations, I don't gravitate towards non-fiction, but I couldn't stay away from this story of Olympian-turned-POW Louie Zamperini. (Side note - I did know a little about Zamperini from Neal Bascomb's The Perfect Mile, which chronicles the quest to break the 4-minute mile barrier. My family listened to it on a road trip a couple of years ago, and it was the kind of audiobook that left us sitting in parking lots refusing to go to the next hotel or attraction until we'd finished another chapter. I'm fixing to reread it.) Although the piling on of adversity left me stressed and anxious more often than not - I mean, come on, hadn't he overcome enough? - ultimately this was such an absorbing, informative, and thought-provoking account that I am thoroughly glad I read it.

P.S. - NPR Books had an online book club on Unbroken, which included a lot of great discussions, my favorite being this Facebook Q&A with Hillenbrand that you should check out once you've read the book.

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust BowlAnd speaking of adversity pile-ons, I finally got a chance to finish Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Times this week, which I'd begun listening to a few weeks ago but the CDs from my library were blank after the first few disks. Fortunately, my other library had it available on audio download after not too long a wait. (It was narrated by old audio-pal Patrick Lawlor, who's another narrator I recommend for his well-inflected, kind voice.) My grandmother grew up in Oklahoma in the 20s and 30s, and after Egan's account of life there, I've got quite the mental picture of a part of her life we didn't discuss much. (She was from Muskogee, so not as much the Dust Bowl stuff, but compared to the images of America in the 20s I got from Jillian Larkin's Vixen, for example, Oklahoma was a different era entirely.) Anyway, Egan's history of the Dust Bowl and the attendant issues was fairly fascinating, though often depressing. It left me with one question, which also cropped up for me during Hazel Rowley's Franklin and Eleanor: Was Herbert Hoover an asshole, ignorant, or just over matched? Thoughts? Book recommendations?

The Mistress of Nothing: A NovelFinally, a gorgeous little novel which sprung from Kate Pullinger's curiosity about the life of the maid to consumptive traveller Lucie Duff-Gordon. The result is The Mistress of Nothing. Sally's story of their emigration to Egypt and the life she made for herself in Luxor in the midst of unfamiliarity and unrest is delightful and, at times, devastating. Pullinger's command of place and tone is especially strong, and I'm making a note now to look for more by her when I'm next in her part of the world.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Vive le livre!

RevolutionRevolution by Jennifer Donnelly is gripping, and moving, and intense, all of which befits a YA novel about two troubled girls struggling with death and their changing worlds. The primary protagonist lives in 21st century Brooklyn, and her counterpoint lives in Paris during - the title may have given this away, so don't be too surprised - the French Revolution. I was totally caught up in their stories, and in getting to know them, their friends, and their worlds. All in all, so very well done.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A MemoirAlso engrossing, and also good at making me cry, though in a very different way, is An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken. This memoir about the stillbirth of McCracken's first child carries the overlay of sadness you'd expect, but without a hint of the mawkishness you'd fear. It's not a book I closed thinking "well, that's beautiful" - it's not healing - but it's strong and vivid and real.

The Year of the Hare: A NovelAnd just to be completely elsewhere, I also read The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna. What can I say? It's a Finnish fable-eque tale of a journalist who drops out of his life after stopping at the side of a road to care for a young hare which was hit by the car in which he was riding. It's quirky. It has charm. It did nothing that made me yearn for a simpler life working with my hands, in nature, far from the madding crowd. But good for those of you who do - just watch out for bears.