On Links.

I’ve just re-organized my column of links and wanted to take you on a quick tour of my most-visited food-, book- and travel-focused sites.

A note: Coincidentally, alphabetically, the one Armenian-ish blog I read follows the one Filipino-ish blog I read.  Fate?  Or my genetics translated into the Internet?

30 Bucks a Week
Two Brooklynites spend $15 each on their week’s worth of groceries.  Then they write about it.

101 Cookbooks
Heidi Swanson collects cookbooks and recipes.  She also takes great photographs.

Alinea at Home
Carol Blymire is cooking every recipe in the Alinea Cookbook.

Burnt Lumpia
Marvin cooks Filipino food.

Cave Cibum
Fellow Armenian Pam eats out and cooks a lot.

Chocolate + Zucchini
Parisian Clotilde Dusoulier writes in French and English about recipes, cookbooks, idioms and kitchen tools.

Cooked Books
Rebecca Federman has what just might be one of the coolest-sounding jobs ever: culinary librarian at the New York Public Library.

CoverSpy
What New Yorkers are really reading.

David Lebovitz
The observant and funny cookbook author writes about life in Paris and what he eats there.

Diner’s Journal
New York Times
‘s one-stop combination of its three dining blogs.

Formaggio Kitchen’s Cheese Blog
This is pretty self-explanatory.

Frommer’s
Arthur Frommer talks (writes?) travel.

Fucshia Dunlop
The memoirist/cookbook author’s blog.

Grub Street Boston
New York Magazine ‘s up-to-date info on the Boston dining scene.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
A great source for recipes + cooking techniques.

In the Kitchen + on the Road with Dorie
The often-adorable and always informative Dorie Greenspan splits her time between Paris and the East Coast. Oh, she also bakes. A lot.

In Transit
Another New York Times blog. This one’s about travel.

the kitchn
Apartment Therapy‘s site for people who love cooking and don’t mind making a mess whilst making dinner.

Lois Lowry
I want to be just like her when I grow up. In the meantime, I’ll just read her books and blog.

Lottie + Doof
A pretty food blog with a funny name.

Michael Ruhlman
The author of The Making of a Chef + Ratio cooks too.

The Millions
One of the best book-centric sites out there.

The New Vegetarian
Yotam Ottolenghi ‘s weekly column for the Guardian.

Nigel Slater
Recipes and writing from one of my favorite authors of food-related books.

One Minute Book Reviews
Also pretty self-explanatory.

Orangette
Molly Wizenberg lives and writes in Seattle.

Paper Cuts
The editors of The New York Times Book Review blog too.

The Prognosticators
My friends Beth + Bob moved to Prague; these are pictures of their travels.

Reading is My Superpower
Annie Frisbie reads faster than I do. She blogs more often too.

Scanwiches
Sandwiches might be my favorite.

Smitten Kitchen
Good things come from small kitchens.

On Ditching Books.

Over the course of several months this past year, Keith and I got rid of something like five hundred books.  We still have several hundred left but these, we have decided, are keepers.  It took days to determine which titles got to stay, warm and cozy on their shelves, and which would get packed up into extra-strong cardboard boxes and toted to a book donation spot, but I’m surprised to say that I haven’t longed for a single banished book.

2009 was also the year I rediscovered the library — and, even better, the network of libraries that I can request books from — thereby giving me a means to reacquaint myself with any book I sent out the door, as well as the opportunity to test-drive new writers without spending who-knows-how-many dollars on who-knows-how-many books.  Some authors’ works I’ll always buy and never be able to part with (like Ann Patchett, Lois Lowry and Steve Almond) but others’ I’m more than happy to visit at the bookstore.  I’m all for supporting artists — which good writers are, without a doubt — but Keith and I’ve also got an apartment-hold to support, and we come first.  Right now, anyway.  Ask me again after I trip over a bag of no-strings-attached money.

At any rate, turns out the Times has been pondering the same thing — regarding tossing books, that is.  They even used their clout to ask a few writers and Fred Bass, co-owner of the Strand Bookstore, to share their thoughts on the matter.  I found myself most agreeing with what David Matthews (no, not Dave Matthews) had to say — “If I’m being honest, some of it is on my shelf because I like the idea of it being on my shelf” — which is exactly why I got rid of all my Roland Barthes and, like Matthews, our copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.  And you know what?  I haven’t missed them for a second.  Neither have my bookcases, whose shelves are now sagging out of relief instead of with weight.

Maine Reading Round-Up.

Like I wrote on Monday, I got myself through almost eight books last week.  It was great — slinking around the boathouse, my quilt trailing behind me like a patchwork wedding dress, a book held directly in front of my face.  I purposely packed a mix of guilty pleasures and “literature,” though I’ll happily confess it was an uneven ratio.

The Time Traveler's WifeI started the week off with The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; the novel is the story of Henry, a librarian who has unwillingly and unpredictably traveled through time since he was a small boy, and his wife Clare, an artist who has known Henry since he materialized in front of her when she was six.  Interestingly, the Henry Clare first meets is in his forties; when the pair meet as adults living in Chicago, he has no idea who she is, though Clare has fourteen years of his friendship and love under her belt.  Niffenegger alternates between both characters’ points of view, helpfully listing the date in the present, Clare and Henry’s ages during that time, the date in the past that Henry travels to, and the couple’s respective ages then.  You see, Henry always finds himself back at the important moments in his life; almost all of those moments revolve around Clare.

It’s an enviably fascinating story that Niffenegger creates, but I kept on throwing the book down and complaining to Keith that the level of writing didn’t come close to matching the elegance of the concept.  Clare and Henry’s first-person narratives are so similar that I found it difficult to tell them apart, and the novel’s dialogue was frustratingly forced.  At one point, for example, characters actually lecture on The Music You Must Listen To In Order To Appreciate Punk, listing pivotal bands from the 1970s; it is incredibly preachy and awkward to read, and feels as though it is lifted directly off of the back of a compilation album.  Flaws notwithstanding, I kept turning pages, eager to learn what was going to happen next — something every writer I know dreams of  in their readers.  In that sense, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a complete success.

A month or so ago, I had read a short article in the New York Times about author Maeve Binchy‘s cottage on the Irish coast.  When I was in high school, I went through a Binchy phase, checking copies of her novels out of the library and devouring them.  It’s been years since then, and I hadn’t given Ms. Binchy a second thought until the Times piece, which reminded me of how much I used to enjoy reading about life in 1940s, 50s and 60s Britain.  So back to the library I went, picking up Silver Wedding, Echoes and Light A Penny Candle; I read them back-to-back.  Their plots are similar, but only in the sense that each focuses on Irish families.

In Silver Wedding, Binchy allocates a chapter per character; she uses this space to tell their sides of the story, which circles around a couple’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.  Regardless of whether the tale is told by their wayward daughter, the chic maid of honor, the priest who officiated the cermony or the couple themselves, Binchy gives her each of her characters a richly-colored history.

EchoesEchoes is set in the fictional seaside town of Castlebay, where Clare O’Brien  — yes, that’s two Clares in one week — struggles to make her family understand why she wants a better life than one resigned to running a shabby grocery store.  Her only way out is via studying and scholarships, so after years of hard work and the aid of her progressive schoolteacher, Clare escapes to university in Dublin.  There she reconnects with a childhood acquaintance, and soon falls in love.  Trouble is, he’s the son of the town doctor, and his snobbish mother has never liked Clare; she likes our heroine even less  once she gets pregnant.  This being both Ireland and the 1950s, Clare and the doctor’s son marry, which leads to even more troubles, the least of which is post-partum depression and infedility.

Unlike Silver Wedding and Echoes, I had read Light a Penny Candle years and years ago; still, I found myself surprised and engrossed in its pages.  It’s World War II; to avoid the trauma of bombings and shortages, Londoner Violet White sends her adolescent daughter to live in the Irish countryside with Maureen O’Connor, an old friend.  Soon Elizabeth White and Aisling O’Connor become the best of friends, and their lives forever bound to both London and the village of Kilgarret.  As they grow older, they together face the drama of boyfriends, sex, and family.

Now that I think about it, Binchy’s bibliography has got to be without a doubt my guiltiest of guilty pleasures, but let’s get one thing clear: her books are not even remotely trashy, no matter how scandalous I’ve made their plots sound.  They are written far too earnestly for that.

The Wednesday WarsI’ve got the weakest weak spot for adolescent fiction.  My love of Lois Lowry is well-documented, and I think I’ll be reading books geared towards young adults well into my sixties, especially if writers like Gary D. Schmidt keep on producing work like The Wednesday Wars.

The alliteratively-named Holling Hoodhood dreads Wednesday afternoons; it’s when the rest of his seventh-grade classmates get excused from school early to attend either CCD or Hebrew lessons.  The only lonely Presbyterian in his grade, Holling spends Wednesdays alone with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who he is convinced hates him.  Indeed, Mrs. Baker is an imposing enough figure, and after she tries fruitlessly to pawn Holling off to a colleague, she resigns to actually, well, teaching.  The path Holling and Mrs. Baker take together isn’t a conventional one — sure, it’s paved with Shakespeare, but it’s also bricked with rats, surfaced with the Yankees (Holling lives on Long Island), and cobblestoned with the Vietnam War (it is the 60s).

Schmidt is clever with his narrative, confidently writing Holling’s thoughts and observations in a way which is both poignant and funny.  And I mean funny — there were times where I sat alone outside on the swing overlooking the cove, laughing my head off, much to the gulls’ confusion.

When it comes to books, I don’t discriminate between genres; I’ll read pretty much anything.  It doesn’t even need to be particularly well-written, though clearly that is ideal.  Sometimes, a compelling story holds more weight than the writing…  not that I’m saying quality of writing isn’t important.  It’s just that there are times where a plot can be so gripping that graceful syntax is secondary.

The Name of the WindThis isn’t the case at all in Patrick Rothfuss‘s The Name of the Wind, which is book one of his Kingkiller Chronicle series.  The story — that of a legendary musician/magician living under an assumed identity, and the past that has caused him to go into hiding — defines the phrase “page-turner.”  At one point during the week, I stayed up until well past three in the morning as too many exciting things were happening in the book, all preventing me from putting it down.

Rothfuss structures the novel interestingly.  The protagonist, Kvothe, is making a living as the proprietor of a backwoods inn; a traveling scribe realizes who the innkeeper is and convinces Kvothe to tell his story.  Kvothe complies, and so the book’s chapters then swing in and out of the present and past.  Obviously, Rothfuss isn’t the first author to pivot a plot through time, but what he does so cleanly is steadily build tension in both Kvothe’s first-person retelling of his own history and the third-person narratives that anchor that which takes place in the present — which is why you too will have a hard time taking a break from it.  Honestly, I can’t heap enough praise on this book, despite its terrible cover art.  If I can’t convince you to give it a whirl, maybe Publishers Weekly will; it listed The Name of the Wind as one of the best books of 2007.

Unaccustomed EarthMy friend Ben turned me on to Jhumpa Lahiri, though it took me a not inconsiderable amount of time to finally read The Namesake.  I still, embarassingly, cannot say the same of Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning anthology of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (though I will say vehemently that I put in a request at my library ages ago).  I did, however, get my hands on Lahiri’s most recently published book, Unaccustomed Earth.

Like Interpreter of Maladies before it, Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of stories; there are eight of them here, the final three of which are intertwined.  Is that trio the most memorable of the bunch because of it, because of their connection?  My answer to that, even if Lahiri gives the reader more pages to better understand the cardinal characters, is not necessarily.  Equally noteworthy is the smitten grad student infatuated with his new housemate, the daughter trying to reconnect with her widowed father, and the young girl remembering her parents’ circle of friends.

What’s fascinating to me is that while Lahiri tackles similar topics in her works — assimilation, Westernization, the push/pull of tradition — she does so in such a way that instead of seeming redundant, she gives her themes even more depth by expounding upon them.  It is as if Lahiri is gently awakening the reader by tenderly opening the curtains of each window in a house, until the entire building is flooded with a brilliant light.

So there you have it, the seven books I completed while in Maine.  The eighth, which I started in the boathouse’s bed and finished on the bus in Cambridge, was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  It’s widely and rightly considered to be a modern classic, as Robinson’s deft prose tells the tale of the elderly Reverend John Ames as he painstakingly begins a journal of his life to pass down to his young son.  Robinson fully immerses the reader in Ames’s thoughts, slowing the pace to reflect that of an aging, rural preacher.  Gilead isn’t a fast read, but each page — each word — is worth your time.

A Weekend Writing Conference, or Ann Patchett is my Spirit Guide.

This past weekend in Boston was utterly gorgeous, and I spent about 94% of it indoors.  You know what, though — I loved every minute of it.  The sun is bad for you, after all, and writing is not.  So instead of lying in the park with my T-shirt rolled up, I was at Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace writing conference.

The Muse is two packed days of workshops, readings, signings and lectures.  The whole event is pretty rigorously paced, with three workshops or lectures each day.  As a participant, I could have also signed up for lunch with published authors, meetings with agents and query letter evaluations (last year I met with an editor to discuss my work) but this year I specifically chose lectures that addressed topics I needed to tackle with my own writing.

Here’s what went down:

Saturday
Got to registration a little later than planned and therefore missed the free breakfast.  This didn’t bother me but I was sweating profusely from walking to the Park Plaza and desperately needed something to drink.  Bumped into Farrah from my writing group before heading to my first lecture, “Time Travel In Fiction: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  I chose it because I’m working on something with a lot of flashbacks, and besides, who doesn’t like a Joyce Carol Oates reference?  The class — which was both incredibly fascinating and terribly helpful — was led by Alix Ohlin, who was clever and a great speaker and very smart, and as I took notes I realized my pen’s ink matched my shoes exactly, teal.  My only other pen was, um, light teal.  Grabbed a coffee before “Traits, Quirks, and Habits: Crafting Characters from the Inside Out” with Lynne Griffin.  Took more notes with teal pen.  Caught up with my friend Terry over lunch; we took a great Grub class last summer with Kate Flora, and now Terry has a fantastic and funny idea for a book I can’t wait to read.  Poked at a dry piece of chicken and stole extra rolls while Alan Cheuse and Dinty W. Moore read excerpts from their work, and Mr. Moore described the conference as “the grubbiest” he has ever attended, which got lots of laughs.  Met up with Farrah again at Rakesh Satyal‘s “Culture Clubbing: How to Write About Ethnicity Without Beating Your Readers Over the Head.”  Farrah and I are both of Lebanese descent, and apparently equally interested in including this is our respective work.  Afterward went to an hour-long lecture on “The Art of Column Writing” with Suzette Martinez Standring.  Braced myself for the heat, began perspiring as soon as I left the hotel.

Sunday
Got to the hotel with enough time to grab a cup of coffee and a marble bagel, which I promptly wrapped in napkins and stuffed in my bag, before bumping into Steve Almond; tried to have a chat before getting separated in the elevator, but learned his four-month-old is named Judah Elijah, which I think is a nice name, particularly with the reverse alliteration.  Attempted to balance my notebook on my knees during Merrill Feitell “Mechanical Physics for Fiction Writers,” which was so straight-up good that I filled pages with notes when I wasn’t too busy laughing at her jokes and stuffed bunny prop.  Immediately afterward, ran downstairs to the Porter Square Books table to buy a copy of her anthology, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, along with The Missing Person by Alix Ohlin, The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry and Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston.  Ran back upstairs for Steve’s lecture on “How to Achieve Sudden Impact,” and am pleased to report his sense of humor in front of an audience is the same as his humor in front of one person.  Farrah and I ate lunch together (soggy chicken) and listened to Ann Patchett‘s keynote speech.  In the middle of it, I sent a text to Marcella and Keith: “Ann Patchett should be my spirit guide.”  She spoke for something like forty minutes without notes, and bluntly about writing.  This is the best job you’ll ever have, this is hard work, there’s not such thing as doctor’s block so why writer’s block?*  Clapped until my hands felt sore then made my way back upstairs for “Diving Into the Novel” with Vyvyane Loh, who was so full of information that I could practically see the story I am working on come together right in front of me.

* This, of course, is paraphrased.  Ann Patchett is much more clever than that.  And she spoke about much, much more with an almost intimidating amount of intelligence and a lot of humor.  Ann Patchett is funny!

Messenger by Lois Lowry.

At this point, I think it’s kind of silly to mention my fondness for Lois Lowry, but c’est la vie, no? In spite of that affection, I had never, for some odd reason, read Messenger, the third and final installment to the The Giver/Gathering Blue/Messenger trilogy. It’s going to be tricky, determining how to provide a synopsis for Messenger without giving away anything related to The Giver and Gathering Blue, but here we go…

While the books all take place in the same unspecific future, each of the three is set in a different village. With The Giver, Lowry introduces us to twelve-year-old Jonas and his perfect, Utopian society; Gathering Blue is centered on handicapped Kira, who is living the exact opposite conditions. Though both Jonas and Kira make appearances in Messenger, the story’s focus is young Matty, a brash boy eager to learn his place in the world. For the moment, his role is that of a message-bearer — hence the novel’s title — ferrying communiqués to nearby communities.

Lowry writes with typical economy of language, covering themes ranging from the desire of material possessions, xenophobia and selflessness. She also refuses to shy away from difficult topics such as pain and death, which is a huge reason why The Giver is on so many banned book lists. In Messenger, Lowry also does something incredibly rare in young adult fiction… and I’m sorry, but I simply can’t say what it is. You’ll just have to read the book, though I suggest starting with The Giver. Though slim, it and its companion novels are wonderful reads.

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry.

A few weeks ago, while I waited on my coffee order at Porter Square Books, I did what I always do — wander around and pick up whatever seems interesting. In this instance, it was Lois Lowry‘s latest book, The Willoughbys. Even if I wasn’t such a Lowry fan, I know I would have been drawn to this cover; with its black-and-white swirls and flourishes and that single eye-catching red door, how could anyone resist? I really like this sort of aesthetic for books (it’s almost like a cheery Gorey, no?) and I love dust jackets with cut-outs, as the case is here. (The book itself is crimson. In the hardcover, anyway.)

As I was debating as to whether or not to buy the book right then (I didn’t; I bought it later.) I couldn’t help but overhear this conversation between two mothers:

Mom 1: Maybe I’ll get this for [insert child’s name here].
Mom 2: Oh, I love Lois Lowry. What’s this one about? [flips book over and reads excerpt from back cover] Oh, this is horrible!
Mom 1: What? What is it?
Mom 2: It’s a book about killing your parents!
Mom 1: What?! I don’t want [insert child’s name here] reading a book like that!

This went on for several more minutes.

The Willoughbys is indeed about children killing their parents (or children wishing they were orphans). To be fair, it’s also about parents killing their children (or parents wishing they were childless). However, it is, most importantly, a satire. Of course Lowry isn’t providing a manual on how to off parents, just like she isn’t condoning infanticide and euthanasia in The Giver. (Her Newbury Medal winning novel is ranked at number fourteen on the American Library Association‘s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000.)

More than anything, The Willoughbys is a kind of love letter to the children’s books of yore, albeit one that cheekily and simultaneously pokes fun at the genre. Lowry’s characters allude to “old-fashioned people” and frequently site classic children’s novels like James and the Giant Peach and Anne of Green Gables. There’s a great deal of humor thrown in as well, like a character’s version of German (“Mein meusli ist dischgusting. It makesch me vant to womit.”) and the Lemony-Snicket-y glossary at the back of the book.

I thought The Willoughbys was a whole lot of fun, as well as refreshing. I am someone deeply in awe of those who take risks, and this book is certainly a departure from the rest of Lowry’s bibliography. That, I suppose, is something else to be in awe of, as Lowry’s written over thirty books spanning multiple genres — a feat I could only dream of accomplishing myself.

My Reading List, and Some Reasons Why.

Here’s a photo of the books I’ve currently got waiting in the wings, in no particular order. They are all for pleasure, except for The Poet and the Murderer, which is for book club. That’s not say, of course, that the books my friends and I pick to read together aren’t pleasurable — the difference is that I chose the six others for myself, and for no reason other than just plain wanting to read them.

  1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  2. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
  3. Messenger by Lois Lowry
  4. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  5. Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh
  6. The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall
  7. Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal

Excluding The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, again, The Poet and the Murderer, I purchased these books this past weekend at the Muse and the Marketplace. I attended a lectures by both Jennifer Haigh and Lois Lowry (big surprise, that), chatted with Michael Lowenthal at lunch on Saturday and attended the keynote brunch the following day with Jonathan Franzen. There were several books to be purchased at conference, but I went with these not only because these were the writers who impressed me the most, but also because I had a very limited amount of room in my bag.

  • Do I really need to say anything more about my great affection for Lois Lowry?
  • Jonathan Franzen read excerpts from his most recent book, The Discomfort Zone, and answered many questions on what I can’t help but think of as The Oprah Incident. He also discussed the German language, his unsuccessful pursuit of girls and the contemporary North American writers whose work he enjoys reading. I should also mention that Mr. Franzen’s voice is absolutely lovely to listen to. Immediately afterwards, I went to a seminar with John Sedgwick, who wondered how a voice like that could be attained. Nicotine, he concluded.
  • Jennifer Haigh’s workshop on how to get a novel started was undoubtedly one of the most helpful, and not to mention exciting. In clear, concise words, Ms. Haigh spoke about some of her writing tricks; I know that I’m going to use them myself from here on in, with the hopes of being even a quarter as successful.
  • Michael Lowenthal was a funny and friendly lunch companion — though our eating together was pure happenstance. I nervously sat down at a table, and found myself with published, acclaimed writers and a charming, witty agent. I’ve never felt like such a fraud before in my life. Mr. Lowenthal was easy to talk to, and had so many fascinating things to say about his recent time at the Instituto Sacatar, an artists’ colony in Brazil.