Book: Season of the Witch

My sweetie handed this to me and said, “Read this!” So I did. I’m compliant like that.

Actually, I couldn’t wait to read it. It’s a history of San Francisco from when it was sighing its last as a conservative Irish-Italian small city (1950s), all the way through the AIDS epidemic and the first anti-viral cocktails for HIV (late ’80s). Written by David Talbot, founder of Salon.com, it was fast-moving, relatively light reading, but endlessly fascinating.

I learned a ton from reading this, including why the big game of the 49ers vs. the Cowboys in 1982 was such a big deal, and why Bill Walsh was a miracle-worker (for the record, I know close to nothing about sports, and this book made football seem interesting). The tragedies of the Moscone/Milk shooting made me cry, as did the Jim Jones massacre. The freewheeling 60s and the “culture of free” was incredibly informative, as I walk down Haight Street these days and wonder what the big deal was (it was a Big Deal!). And it brought home the devastation of AIDS and the shocking and inhumane way the federal government refused to deal with it or even acknowledge it, while it obliterated a significant portion of the gay community.

Completely and utterly fascinating.

I had a few itty bitty bones to pick about the writing — sometimes it was a little too lighthearted, and sometimes summed up situations with pithy conclusions, which was a little irritating. But overall, considering the range of years and the incredible amount of change and landmark events that happened in the city during that time, it was fast, interesting reading and I really enjoyed it.

If you love San Francisco at all, this book will fascinate you. There is nothing boring about it, and it’s incredibly informative about some really important recent American history.

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Book: Made By Hand

made by hand

I got this last summer during one of my few lapses into book-buying… after going 2-3 years without any serious book-buying urges, I’ve started collecting again. Mostly used books, as I come across them (my kryponite — I am powerless in the face of cheap used books!), but I had a gift certificate to Powells.com and this one called to me. I thought it was going to be something other than it was. It was pretty good, but I had a few problems with it.

I don’t read BoingBoing.net, but this is written by Mark Frauenfelder, who is the founder of BoingBoing, and has a long history of being an editor of influential tech-y magazines such as Wired. He is currently editor at Make Magazine, which I do enjoy (although I don’t buy it). I was kind of surprised to learn that the editor of Make Magazine did not start out as a DIY-type. Instead, he started learning about it late in the game and has only started doing DIY projects since the mid-to-late-2000s. But before he started making his own kombucha and building chicken coops, he and his wife ditched their Los Angeles life and moved, with their small children, to the remote tropical island of Rarotonga in the South Pacific, to start life again free from the constraints and wired-ness of modern life. And there begins my problem with this book (and with many of these current memoir-esque books so popular right now).

He and his wife are both writers and editors and can do their jobs long-distance, which is great. So they can, theoretically, move anywhere they like. However, it just grates that they decided that moving to a tropical island was the best way to unplug. It’s called pulling a geographical. I get it — I do! I’d love to do that — in theory. But it just feels like more of the same: privileged white people who have too much money deciding that this fancy world they’ve helped create is just not for them anymore, so they decide to go native. And, of course, are defeated by the realities of “going native” — disease, hardship, and, ironically, the lack of technology. So they move back to the states after six months, to try and make the best of — sigh, the hardship of it — homesteading on their half-acre of land (plus a modern house) in Los Angeles. Gosh, do you think it’s possible to have a more meaningful life right where you are?

I’m giving this book a hard time, and I did enjoy most of it, although it rubbed me the wrong way in places. The author details his explorations in the world of DIY: beekeeping, chicken-husbandry, tutoring his own kid, making stuff from scratch, fermentation, etc. It’s all very trendy and nice and some of it was informative and inspiring. And, expensive. For every project, he heads right to Home Depot and buys all the stuff he needs. He buys kits. He buys books. He travels to visit experts. He does not NEED to DIY. He chooses to. He could Hire An Expert (HAP). But he wants to learn and have fun doing it himself — which is admirable. I guess what kind of got on my nerves was the fact that he does not balk at multiple trips to Home Depot or the cost of kits, etc. It’s fun for him — it’s not a necessity. He does do quite a bit of foraging and re-use — okay. I’ll give him that. It’s just… well, I think you know what I mean. Although I think it’s great, it’s a little annoying that he clearly has a choice (as opposed to most of the people he interviews — they make do, make it themselves, and salvage objects out of necessity — which I don’t know why this feels more authentic to me, but it does — and who cares about authenticity when it comes to DIY?  — but still my uncomfortableness remains).

Clearly I have conflicting feelings about the whole modern DIY movement anyway. On the one hand — yay! I think it’s great that people are learning to do things themselves. I think it’s awesome that people are keeping bees and chickens, and that there is a market for items which are fixable — not just replaceable. On the other hand, the trendiness of it, the highly-paid white folks who can afford to make plenty of mistakes and (ironically) buy all the equipment they need — this grates.

Some of this comes from my own righteous sense of “I was here first” — I am not the most DIY person out there, but I do many things by myself from scratch and salvage without even thinking about it, because that is how I was raised. My dad is brilliant at fixing everything and I try to learn everything I can from him — wiring, gardening, fixing stuff of all kinds. My mom is very creative and taught me to cook, sew, preserve, fix household items and clothing, and taught me how to love thrifting. So it kind of comes naturally to me (and, I assume, lots of kids brought up in small towns with parents who didn’t have much money) — the privilege of being able to choose was not an option. So instead, I suppose, I have the privilege choosing of doing it myself — because I have the knowledge.

This is all kind of confusing.

I could also have been influenced by the most recent issue of Sunset magazine, which I found to be incredibly pretentious. Sunset has been shifting more and more away from DIY and How-To, to Lifestyle and Home Trends for the past 5-10 years, and the usefulness of the magazine has declined greatly. This month took the cake. There was a big 3-page article on a family (rich, of course, living in a big house in San Francisco) who decided to radically unplug. No modern conveniences for them! Oh, well, except for nice things like toilets and bathtubs and nice countertops. They do not own a coffeemaker — they have stovetop espresso maker instead! (what is the big difference? really.) No web, so they have to read — gasp! Paper newspapers and real books! No digital readouts on appliances! A manual orange juicer! they make bread — wait for it — by hand! From their own home-ground flour! In their bright naturally-lit large-windowed kitchen with modern appliances (as long as they don’t have those ugly LED lights!) and marble countertops. Sigh. You can read all about it here and here.

The next article was a first-person of going vegan for three days. CAN SHE DO IT!? Apparently not. She was foiled by cheese and wine. She made it two and a half days, but wouldn’t you know it? She felt so much healthier and lighter! So virtuous! And hungry! Did I mention hungry? Light-headed almost! People. Eating vegan is not that difficult. I’m not a vegan, but plenty of days I inadvertently eat vegan. It’s not that hard.

I’m not sure why the juxtaposition of these two articles grated so hard — something about the supposed austere superiority of the one (no gauche red LED lights! grind your own flour!) against the supposed difficulty of an “austere” diet like veganism… it’s a luxury to choose any of these things. Period.

I’m not articulating this well. But you can see that perhaps I was primed to be annoyed by the tossing around of dollars in the supposed DIY handbook.

Anyway, back to the book. After all my grumping, I agree with the author of Made By Hand — so much of the time, it’s way more fun, more engaging, more meaningful to make it or do it yourself. I don’t really want to keep bees, but I’m glad lots of other people do. I would love to have chickens, but I’ve decided that we have too many predators (there is a chapter about chicken-keeping in the book that helped cement this decision for me). But I do love making stuff — all kinds of stuff — on my own. I love building things from salvage. I like preserving stuff from the garden. I cook from scratch almost daily. It’s fun, it keeps my brain working, and I feel more attached to my things, to my home.

Was it a good book? It was okay. However, if you’re new to DIY, I suppose it would be inspiring. It was a fun, fast read, although I ended up with my (chicken?) feathers ruffled.

———————-

As a side note, I found a nice resource for some reading suggestion lists: UC Berkeley has some good suggestions on their Summer Reading Lists page. Next up for me is my book club book, The Elephant Keeper’s Children by Peter Hoeg, and then I think I have two or three others I should get out of the way, but then I’m sort of tempted by a big huge read like Shogun or maybe I should start Anna K. Hmm… so many choices. I am excited to start reading in earnest again.

Book: Battle Royale

Hmm.

I read this because a few of my fellow book-clubbers were reading it (following reading The Hunger Games), and I was curious if it were somehow richer or more “authentic” (whatever that means) than The Hunger Games — operating, of course, under the impression that The Hunger Games must have been based in part on Battle Royale.

I’m not so sure about that, now that I’ve read it.

In some ways, the plot was much simpler than The Hunger Games: for unknown reasons, a fictional Japan-like Asian country (sometime in the near future) holds Programs. The point of the Program is for all the kids in a selected junior high school class (presumably most of whom have grown up together) are left on a deserted island and instructed to kill one another until there is one survivor. The rest of this fictional world is left unexplained, the reasons for this Program are only hinted at, and the personalities of the kids are not as deeply explored as in The Hunger Games (well, those of the main protagonists, that is).

It was certainly bloody and ruthless and bleak. In that sense, it was more “mature” than The Hunger Games. But I definitely enjoyed The Hunger Games more. Battle Royale was like watching a video game — how many more until they’re all dead? Will the various plots for escape happen? (no, of course not). In what manner will they die? The kids were supplied with various weapons of unequal worth. Some were given toy darts; others were given machine guns. The island was just an island. The element of fantasy was missing, and I guess that made The Hunger Games both more interesting and more palatable for me.

Battle Royale was good, but I lost track of many of the kids (they were not all that different from one another), and I didn’t find the plots for escape all that compelling. The ending was good, but I wasn’t really emotionally affected by it.

I know it’s a movie as well, and I bet the movie is violent and horrible and perhaps more compelling than the book. Is that awful of me? Oh well.

Book: Gone Girl

Another bad girl from Gillian Flynn. I swear, this woman is fast becoming one of my very favorite authors. I get so tired of sweet, good-at-heart heroines with no other strong woman characters to balance this out. I love, love, love her nasty, mean, evil women characters. Even her not-so-mean ones are pretty flawed. It’s so refreshing.

Along those lines, I have to say that for the first half of this book, I was worried. I mean, the husband was looking like a royal, class-A dick, but the wife… well, I mean, she wasn’t perfect, but…

Oh, but then. THEN! Then it happens. And then you KNOW. And then it’s FANTASTIC. I actually cheered out loud.

Such a great page-turner. You think you know, but then you don’t. And some of it is unbelievable, but it’s such a fun ride that you don’t care. At least, I didn’t care. It was fascinating and dark and twisted and perfect.

That said… I think this is my third favorite of her books. I loved her first two so much, and as much as it’s pleasurable to see someone get what’s coming to them (in many ways), I really loved her first two main characters. They were so flawed and brutal, yet almost sympathetic. They had earned their wounds, their darkness. They had stories. In this book, you aren’t quite sure why the characters are the way they are. Some of it is upbringing, circumstances… but is the rest… simply because one of them is a sociopath? This is not called out per se but I think there’s a pretty strong case for this.

It doesn’t matter — I give this a 4.5 stars. The other two were solid 5s, I think.

I was on a really long wait list at the library and it finally arrived, but was only a 7-day loan so I had to race through it. I still had it two days too long, but it was worth the .20 cents.

Book: Alone In The Kitchen With An Eggplant (and, thoughts about eating alone)

While I don’t like short stories (generally speaking, with a few notable exceptions), I do like essay collections. This was a good one — various authors, including Nora Ephron, writing about eating alone. Meals, cooking, eating — what do we cook and eat when we’re by ourselves?

Obviously too many to talk about here, but many of these were really enjoyable, especially the first one, from which the book takes its title. The author, living in a miniscule apartment in Greenwich Village, cooks wonderful meals for herself, often involving many iterations of eggplant, and entertains an ever-revolving cast of guests in her small, barely-a-room apartment. From there, we learn about legendary family recipes cooked for oneself, all-white meals consumed at home alone, cold beans eaten out of a can, elaborate restaurant meals eaten proud, or hidden behind a book.

I loved most of these — it was highly enjoyable.

It made me reflect upon my own solitary eating habits, these past months of living alone. Since I pretty much had to start from scratch to re-discover what I liked to eat, it’s been a struggle at times. Some discoveries:

  • I can eat plate upon plate of tomato and cucumber salad, especially when they’re fresh from my own garden. With dressing, or without. With salt and pepper and vinegar and oil, or plain with lemon pepper.
  • Although convenient; I don’t like eating cereal for dinner. I always end up with a stomachache for some reason. The soymilk? I have no idea. Anyway; I’ve pretty much given up eating cereal (at all) for that reason. Oatmeal, however — totally fine, and a lovely meal anytime.
  • Toast is a perfectly acceptable dinner.
  • I vacillate between extremely simple meals (tomato-cucumber salad, sauteed vegetables and brown rice) and fairly elaborate casseroles and other one-dish meals. Sometimes I like to cook something a little more ‘special’ for myself. Not often, but sometimes it’s fun to find something interesting in a cookbook or blog and make it for myself. Last night it was homemade mac-and-cheese with assorted add-ins. Delicious. Also handy for lunches.
  • I don’t like frozen dinners or many pre-prepared foods. I’d rather have toast.
  • Or popcorn.
  • Cheese and crackers also totally acceptable.
  • I like a little dessert. Especially I like ice cream. I don’t particularly like having ice cream at other people’s homes, but it’s the perfect at-home, private dessert. You can have a lot or a little, you can do whatever you like to it, there’s lots of variety available, and it keeps in the freezer for a very long time (important because I don’t want it *all* the time…). When I was growing up, we almost always had ice cream in the house (usually homemade); for that reason it’s somewhat of a comfort food for me now.

Upon reflection, not too bad. Lots of veggies, not a lot of processed food, a little ice cream. There are worse diets.

I like to either eat at the table with a book, or on the couch with something on Netflix. I rarely watch regular TV. I do my dishes every night (well, almost). My fridge is usually bordering on bare, but I try to keep some kind of fresh vegetables, some cheese, and eggs at all times. Omelets are also pretty good one-person meals.

I like eating with people too — it’s way more fun to cook for someone else. However, it’s definitely been good to have this time to figure out what I like, all by myself.

Book: The Family Fang

This was July’s book club pick. Loved it!

I didn’t love it as much as I’ve loved other similar books (quirky, smart, odd and memorable, like The Time Traveller’s Wife or The Magician’s Assistant). But it was pretty great, both funny and sad, and very unusual and engaging.

The Fang family: Caleb, Camille, Annie and Buster (Child A and Child B) are performance artists. They specialize in creating chaos, and then documenting the fallout. They often use their children as prime players in this chaos, with predictable results (messed-up kids). As the kids get older, they flounder in the real world with varying degrees of success. Caleb and Camille also flounder after their children leave the nest.

After a series of (kind of hilarious) misfortunes send the kids back home, the family is reunited and attempt to figure out how to live together. Then something happens which cause the kids to question reality. What happened? The kids have to band together to find out. In the process, they discover family secrets and suspect the worst.

The end of the book was rather devastating, but it was the only way it could end.

I really enjoyed the book — I laughed out loud many times, and also cried. The characters were super quirky and totally sympathetic (save one). I had no idea what was going to happen and the climax of the book left me with my mouth hanging open.

Loved it. Read it!

Book: We Need to Talk About Kevin

(home recovering from a migraine — yikes. Can’t sleep so will try to put thoughts down about this book, but pardon if they are scattered…)

Well, if I’d been on the fence about whether or not to have a baby soon, this book would have decided it. Horrifying!

It was almost traumatic reading it. Did anyone else feel that way? About three chapters in, I kept thinking, “Um, I don’t know if I want to read this…” but I was addicted and couldn’t stop!

I fully empathized with Eva, even though I’ve never had children. It would be horrible to be expecting something as ostensibly wonderful as a baby, but to have your entire being *know* that it was not a good thing coming. And then to not connect with your child — very difficult. I wonder how many mothers of sociopaths can identify with this book? Did she research that? Or just created this demon child from her own imagination?

And THEN to have your kid be such a bad seed… miserable. I suppose there is this delicate ambiguity throughout the book — is he really that bad? Or was Eva seeing things through a post-partum lens that made her think the worst? I felt that it was pretty obvious that Kevin was a troubled kid – she didn’t go much into the why, although I suppose that’s the whole question of the book. I read one review that pointed out a major hole in the plot: why didn’t the parents get Kevin evaluated? Or at least Eva — why didn’t she get another opinion of him? I suppose if Kevin was as slick as he seemed in the book, he could lie to a psychologist without much trouble. But still.

I liked a lot of this book. It was unpleasant reading, most of it, but well-written and interesting. Pretty bleak, though. However, I liked Eva’s character, even though parts of her were unlikable. I enjoyed the contrast between her internationalism and her husband’s patriotism. As an exchange student, I often felt torn between the two — I loved traveling and I loved learning about new cultures and people, but I also love America and am proud to be American, even if there is a lot I find troubling. One thing about traveling is that you learn that just about every place has troubles, and that there’s no place like home. Which is, of course, why she stayed and never moved away permanently.

As for Kevin himself — enigma. Frightening. Brilliant. And in the end, almost sympathetic. Eva gets glimpses of what it must like to be Kevin, and those flashes of insight provide a human connection. Of course what he did was horrific, and of course he is untrustable — but the final scene between he and his mother was almost moving. Almost.

I did see the twist coming a long way off, but it was still well done.

Am I glad I read it? Yes. Was it pleasant? No. Was it good? Yes.

Book: Little Men

So the Kindle is really great for reading classics.

I haven’t read Little Men in years and years and year, probably since middle school. I remember being disappointed in it way back when, and I can see why. It’s nowhere near as good at Little Women, but I enjoyed it this time around. I re-read Little Women a couple of years ago and was astonished to see how much of my thinking, attitudes, and personal philosophy was influenced by that book. This was re-emphasized with Little Men. Sure, it’s a little preachy sometimes. It’s a little too quaint and precious. But there are some good moral reminders (yes, heavy-handed, but oh well) and the stories of the young rascals were amusing, comforting, and funny. It was perfect for my current state of trying-to-get-back-into-serious-reading.

The story picks up a few years after the end of Little Women. Our heroine, Jo, has started a school for boys at Plumfield (the house she inherited from her great-aunt). She has twelve little imps, and a couple of girls to try and civilize the house. The boys are a wide range of personalities, but of course they all have lessons to learn and scrapes to get into and Precious Moments to have. And of course we sort of fall in love with all of them. My favorite is wild Dan — a street urchin brought in by one of the boys, who remembered him from his own street days. Dan has a rough time of it but in the end, he responds to love and care and starts to grow into a respectable young man. Keeping his charming rough edges, of course.

(In Hunger Games terms — he’s a Gale.)

Does this translate for modern readers? If you are a hardcore fan of Little Women like I am, then yes. I mean, it’s still not as good as L.W. but it’s amusing, touching (I cried!) and sentimental. I read this on my Kindle but I love the original illustrations.

I liked it so much that I’m moving right on to Jo’s Boys, which I know is probably even less good, but I’ll still enjoy it. Then it’s off to see what else the free Kindle store has to offer, and maybe by then my request for We Need To Talk About Kevin will be fulfilled! I’m still on the wait list…

Book: The Dirt

Oh, trashy glam-rock tell-alls, I love you so much.

I could never have been a true 80s rock star. But oh, I loved watching them on MTV. And I still love looking at the hair, the makeup, the attitudes. 80s glam-rock was the best. No, no, I hear you arguing that New Wave was the best. Mmm, maybe. Close. But for sheer fun, you just cannot beat glam hair metal. It’s my favorite music to do art to, it’s my favorite music to drive to — it just makes me happy. It’s stupid and loud and brainless and you are supposed to just zone out and be happy when you listen to it.

So of COURSE when I saw The Dirt (Motley Crue’s autobiography) for sale at the library for $2, I had to get it. I’d already read Nikki Sixx’s Heroin Diaries, which I thought was pretty good (for a rock-star memoir). This book isn’t as good, but it’s still, well, addicting.

Is there an autobiography of an 80s rock band that DOESN’T have at least three chapters dealing with drug addiction? I kind of don’t think so.

The band members are all losers in the beginning. One might argue that they are still losers, but we won’t get into that here. They are all complete rock wanna-bes, with f-ed up families and almost no talent. However, they all have great hair and platform boots, so, you know. Finally they get together and boom — it’s magic. Nikki Sixx on bass, Mick Mars on guitar, Tommy Lee on drums and Vince Neil on vocals. The rest is trashy, horrifying, devastating, completely self-absorbed history.

Let’s see. At the highest point in the book (no pun intended), Vince Neil is addicted to women and alcohol, probably in that order. Mick Mars is just plain addicted to alcohol. Tommy Lee doesn’t seem to have as much of a problem as the others, but, yeah, he’s addicted to alcohol as well, and certainly enjoys all kinds of other drugs. Nikki Sixx, however, is a full-blown heroin addict, as well as an alcoholic. He can barely keep himself upright. It’s kind of incredible that they managed to play any shows at all during the height of their career. It’s amazing they managed to have a career at all — these guys were bent on complete self-destruction. Strippers and hookers, cocaine and heroin and crack and marijuana, as much booze as they could drink, and nobody to tell them no. In fact, their managers, drivers, and record labels kept them well-supplied with all of the above.

And the bad behavior… wow. Pretty much every horrible bad 80s rock-star stereotype you can imagine, they are the poster children for it.

Is it fun to read? Sure, until the shit starts to hit the fan. Isn’t that the way it is? And then, it was just depressing. Failed marriages, bad records, bad shows, bankruptcy, and an excruciatingly painful chapter or two on how Vince Neil’s four-year-old daughter died from cancer. The band breaks up, gets back together, breaks up again, and finally gets back together again. They can hardly stand each other, but, unlike Van Halen, they can’t seem to get it together with anyone in the band except the original four.

It was fun to read the chapters in their own words, however. Nikki Sixx is way more intelligent than you would imagine, and it makes me sad for him that he spent so much of his life so horribly addicted to substances and so catastrophically self-destructive. Tommy Lee is like a puppydog — all he wants is to be happy and loved. He practically bounces off the pages into your lap. Vince Neil isn’t quite as forthcoming; basically he just wants women, booze, and cars. And Mick Mars is just kind of crazy. Case in point? He starts off one chapter talking about how ebola killed the dinosaurs. … wha?

Anyway. This was a super duper ultra trashy read, an extreme case of a “can’t look away” train-wreck of a book. It wasn’t that great but the stories were incredible and great for a shocking vicarious thrill.

True confession: I just bought my ticket to see Motley Crue this summer. I’ve always wanted to see them and I hear that their current shows are pretty good — they are all sober (I think) and ready to rock. I put off going to see the Grateful Dead and then Jerry Garcia died… and even though these guys are sober, I can imagine that their bodies are pretty well-worn and, well, I’d better get on it if I want to be sure to see them all together. It will be my first glam-metal concert. Sadly, I doubt they will be wearing makeup and stilettos. But that’s probably for the best, as they are all at least 50 by now. Heh.

Book: Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters

Confession: I am in the middle of a really trashy book right now. Trashy trashy trashy. I got it for $2 at a library sale; does that make up for it? Review coming soon, and then it’s on to actual good books like We Need To Talk About Kevin and so on.

However, I was sitting at the library and this little book was right there on the table next to me. The title caught me and it looked like a fast read (it was: 45 minutes to be exact). So I zipped through it.

Creepy and weird and edgy and disturbing. Now THAT is how you do a short, dark YA novelette. I kind of loved it, even if I didn’t totally understand the ending.

Sunny’s sister Jazz just died in an apartment fire. Her mom is falling apart. Her dad is a falling-down-drunk alcoholic. Her teachers think she’s stupid. So you’d think life would kind of suck for Sunny. But… it doesn’t. Because she’s glad Jazz is gone. Because Jazz was a horrible sister and Sunny hated her.

So when Sunny gets a letter in the mail, written on cheerful yellow stationery, she gets a bad feeling in her stomach. A glance at the return address reveals the reason: it’s from Jazz. But how can that be? Jazz is dead!

And then Jazz comes home. And it’s all wrong. So very wrong. Sunny knows it, Jazz knows it, her father knows it, but her mom… well, her mom wants everything to be normal again. But it really, really isn’t.

This is a short, tense, dark, slightly scary book. I thought it was great, especially since I just happened upon it at the library. If you happen across it, and you have 45 minutes, give it a try. Let me know what you think.