Wrapped Up in Books.

I’m many things, but a New Years resolutionist I am most certainly not.  That said, I am trying to be a bit more positive-minded, as opposed to my regular the-glass-isn’t-just-half-empty-but-also-about-to-fall-off-the-table-and-smash-into-a-million-pieces-on-the-floor mentality.  So rather than lamenting how I spent barely any time last year on writing posts, I’m instead going to focus on the fact that I spent a good amount reading books. And since I know there’s no way I’d be able to write proper-length posts on all of them, but I’ll give some simple summaries of each, along with my opinions.  Since I started recording what I read last year in April, that’s where I’ll begin.  I’ll keep writing these bookish posts and finish with the last book I read this month.

April

  • Winston had just died, and all I wanted to do when I got back to Boston from New York was reread the beautifully-written novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, about the titular geisha’s life before, during and after World War II.  I found the following apropos passage on grief, which I then emailed to my mother: “Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
  • Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl has been renamed For You, Mom. Finally for paperback, which is not unusual but still something that surprises me.  Something else that surprises me is that I don’t remember much of this memoir.  This is incredibly odd for me, as I have a remarkable memory.  I’m sure the writing is fantastic, as Ms. Reichl’s always is.
  • I do remember The Report by Jessica Francis Kane quite clearly, as I am fascinated by World War II and found this debut novel about a tragedy in the Bethnal Green tube station/air raid shelter to be ridiculously and enviously well-written.
  • A Polish emigrant and a New York adolescent are the sad and cynical narrators of Nicole Krauss‘s The History of Love.  Strange as it is to say, I didn’t care either way about the plot, but since I loved Leo the Pole so much, I managed to overlook everything else.
  • I’ve been obsessed with Suzanne Collins‘s Hunger Games trilogy for a while, and reread The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay for the first time in April.  It held up.
  • While I did enjoy Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education — which was made into the multi-nominated film with a star-making performance by Carey Mulligan — I wonder if part of the reason why I flew through it was because it was so short or because I was on a plane en route to Asia and therefore trapped.  Regardless, Ms. Barber is a perfectly fine writer who recounts her life in the heyday of 1960s England in a refreshing, straightforward way.
  • Ugh, I did not like An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray, a hardback book club read that I lugged from Massachusetts to Manila, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and back again.  Protagonist Charles Hythloday plays at being a nobly-born country aristocrat outside Dublin; when he’s forced to eke out a living, it was no surprise to me that this insipid loon struggles to find a place for himself in troubled modern-day Ireland.  There’s another storyline involving explosives and actresses, but I can’t be bothered to go into it.
  • Another novel I brought along on my Asia trip was The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, which set me down a path of kidnapping, violence and crime — in my readings, that is.  Mr. Gautreaux’s book is the truly compelling story not just of abduction, but also of redemption and revenge.  Oh, and there are riverboats.
  • I finished reading Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America (by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews) in Siem Reap, and that night in my hotel room I used the dodgy Internet connection to Wikipedia Adam Walsh’s 1981 kidnapping.  From there I read about Ottis Toole, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and pretty much every other serial killer I could think of until I was too freaked out to open the door for room service.
Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle + Sebastian.

Five Things About Me: 51 52 53 54 55.

51. My conditioner-to-shampoo ratio is incredibly unbalanced.  I’d say it’s about four parts conditioner to each half part shampoo.  Let’s put it this way: I’m still on the same shampoo bottle that I brought to Europe in August, and on that trip I brought two bottles of conditioner.

52. I have all of my dogs’ names picked out for any foreseeable dog I might have.  The first three names are pretty much set in stone as my favorites, but the rest rotate based on my mood.

53. Jack McBrayer cracks me up.  He doesn’t even need to do anything to make he laugh.  His existing is enough.

54. Right now, I really want a nectarine.  If I could have any magic power, I would choose to be able to conjure my favorite foods at their seasonal peaks out of thin air.  No food miles, just shazam! and nectarine.

55. I read either Memoirs of a Geisha, The Secret History or Bel Canto at least once a year.  Last year I read Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto twice, and I haven’t read either Arthur Golden’s or Donna Tartt’s novels yet in 2009, so I better get to it.

Food Diary, Day One.

7.40 am: A really tart grapefruit and two Tylenols. I think my brain is trying to squeeze its way out of my skull, via my eye sockets.

10.10 am: Banana. On Fridays I try not to eat a lot in the morning because that is the day we have lunch delivered at work, and I am almost certain to overeat then.

10.40 – 11.51 am: Sumo skim latte with a shot of sugar-free vanilla from Zing! in Porter Square Books. I am very particular about my coffee, but not in the sense that one would imagine. I don’t know anything about Tanzanian Peaberry or Hawaiian Kona. I just like my coffee to be at a specific temperature — warm enough that I can still enjoy its heat, but not so hot that I burn my mouth. And never, ever cold.

12.35 pm: Lunch is supposed to arrive at any minute and I am scared that I won’t be able to hold out.

1.02 – 1.50 pm: Nibbles of shahi paneer, chicken tikka masala, naan, vegetable pakora, aloo gobhi and basmati rice. We had lunch brought in from Desi Dhaba in Central Square, which was good, but I much prefer Tanjore or Tamarind Bay, both in Havard Square, depending on whether I’m in the mood for something more traditional or more eclectic.

2.24 pm: An extremely sweet D’Anjou pear whose juice threatened to trickle down my arm and into my sleeve, reminding me of that small scene in Memoirs of a Geisha:

…I stepped into the kitchen of the okiya and found one of the maids leaning over the sink, trying to cover up the ripe pear she held to her mouth, its juices running down onto her neck. She’d had such a craving for it, she’d said, and begged me not to tell Mother.

4.17 pm: One Dove dark chocolate square from the office candy tray. I am desperately in need of something sweet, and while I am staring at another D’Anjou, I don’t think fruit will quite cut it at the moment.

4.45 pm: The chocolate fails to do its job. Time for Pear, Take Two.

5.03 pm: Two Advils. Surely this is how Wyle E. Coyote feels after the Roadrunner is done with him.

6.48 pm: A honking piece of mozzarella cheese while I write out my grocery list. I am starving, and tired. Tonight I just want to cook some food and go to bed.

9.42 – 10.26 pm: Diet Coke and dinner of a quick stir-fry of brown rice, chicken, edamame and walnuts, the recipe of which I pinched from an old issue of Bon Appétit. I’ve included it here, below.

Brown Rice + Chicken Stir-Fry with Edamame + Walnuts
Makes six portions.

½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
4 tablespoons soy sauce, ideally low-sodium
2 boneless skinless chicken breast halves, sliced thinly crosswise
1 teaspoon honey
4 teaspoons sesame oil
4 teaspoons minced fresh ginger (I like a lot of ginger, so I might use even more than this.)
3 garlic cloves, minced (I like a lot of garlic, so I might use even more than this.)
1 ½ cups short-grain brown rice cooked, cooled
2 cups shelled cooked edamame beans
1 bunch chopped scallions (Keith likes scallions; Bon Appétit calls for 2/3 cup, chopped.)

  1. Stir walnuts in medium nonstick skillet over medium heat until lightly toasted, about three minutes. Drizzle two tablespoons soy sauce over walnuts; stir until soy sauce coats walnuts, about forty-five seconds. Let cool. (This step can be made up to three days ahead. Store at room temperature in airtight container.)
  2. Combine chicken, two tablespoons soy sauce and honey in medium bowl, and toss to coat. Let stand fifteen minutes.
  3. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over high heat. Add chicken and stir-fry for about two-three minutes. Add ginger and garlic and stir-fry for thirty seconds. Add cooked rice and edamame; reduce heat to medium and stir-fry until heated through, about five minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat; mix in walnuts and scallions, serve.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

This was yet another reread for me; over time you’ll see how frequently I tend to revisit the books I really love. I was inspired to give this another go because I had just watched the film for the first time last week, and wanted to research its level of accuracy as compared to the novel (rating: very accurate indeed!). Also, this past fall I read another novel by Ishiguro which I found to be so terribly disappointing; I wanted to restore my faith in him as a novelist. The Remains of the Day did just that, and thank god.

The writing is just as absorbing and engrossing as I remembered, and the book as a whole was infinitely sadder. This opinion may have something to do with the fact that I first read the novel on a sunny beach in Florida, which is very weird — The Remains of the Day is not a beachy sort of book at all. I think it’s easy to read, as all beach-type books should be, but its plot is not particularly fluffy or fun the way most beach books are. Then again, the idea of pigeonholing books into categories of where they should or should not be read seems entirely ridiculous. (Also ridiculous: the word pigeonhole.)

Something I truly enjoyed about this novel was the way Ishiguro plays around with the concept of narrator and of reliability, as well as the concept of perspective. Because Stevens is so wholly enmeshed in his role as a butler, he is in prime position to describe the minutiae of his profession. That said, Stevens is also completely incapable of seeing past that, though Ishiguro doesn’t prevent this from letting the reader catch glimpses of the circumstances taking place around his protagonist. I’ve always thought that this idea of an intradiegetic narrator is most deftly described by Arthur Golden’s Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha:

Autobiography, if there really is such a thing, is like asking a rabbit to tell us what he looks like hopping through the grasses of the field. How would he know? If we want to hear about the field, on the other hand, no one is in a better circumstance to tell us — so long as we keep in mind that we are missing all those things the rabbit was in no position to observe.

We can discern events and emotions, though we can’t bank on Stevens to be the one to inform us of them. That’s Ishiguro’s big gift here: acknowledging the intelligence of the reader. That, and the pure beauty of the writing.