Ilivetolearn's Blog

January 31, 2012

your sons are WHERE?

Filed under: books/authors,on the road — ilivetolearn @ 10:25 pm

I think I’m the only person in the world whose computer dashboard gives me the time of day in Philadelphia, Ouagadougou, and Maputo. This is because in April Elliot left for his first State Department post, in Mozambique, and in June Evan left for his 27-month Peace Corps assignment, in Burkina Faso. “Oh,” a friend said, “they’re both in Africa. So they’re not far from each other.”   Well, I could have responded (except I had to go home and look up the distance), only 3,400 miles apart. So I have embarked on an informal reading program about what, in my non-PC way, I still think of as The Dark Continent. It’s mysterious to me, in any case, as I’ve only traveled in the uppermost reaches of it–I’ve been in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Considering that the continent of Africa can encompass the whole of the China, Europe, and the USA (including Alaska) with a few square miles to spare, I have only scratched the tiniest surface of it.

So among the 68 books I read in 2011, 5 were about Africa: 4 non-fiction, one fiction. Here’s the round-up.

First, perhaps my least favorite:

I was very excited when I learned of this title (Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World), as I had so enjoyed Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, which I read years ago. Alas, this one is not as erudite or well-written. So while I learned a lot about the author’s desultory travels in Ghana and (yes!) Burkina Faso, I did not get an all-encompassing social and chemical history, or a true feel for why a certain textile and its color is of such great importance. Plus, I had to wade through sentences like this one, searching for its meaning:

“Before us at the Ghana customs station was a long line of women in blue-black funeral cloth, Ghana’s very singular weekend ubiquity, that appeared like a refuge.” (p. 163)

Where was the editor??

For one of my book clubs, I read this:

It concerns a Nigerian girl who has been through the horrors of war and a British couple she has met. Everyone in the club (including me) liked it very much, but later as I looked back on it I began to feel that I had been manipulated into caring so much by the heavy-handed use of foreshadowing (much as I felt when I read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy).

The other book club I’m in considered, and then rejected (too long!) this one:

I listened to it on CD in the car and really got a lot out of it, though I think I will have to get the print version and spend more (undistracted) time with it to feel that I actually have learned the history so expertly presented. I really admire people who can make hundreds of years and thousands of facts fall into line and make sense.

And for a very different, very much more personal history:

I had read her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight, and preferred it to this one, though I found the two covered a lot of the same ground. This is supposed to be more about the author’s mother Nicola, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Kenya, but a lot of it is about the peripatetic life of Nicola and her husband as they try to continue the lives of Happy Valley-era Brits in sub-Saharan Africa during the years when one after the other of the countries they inhabit blows up. You end up thinking, “How could they have felt so entitled and self-justified??”

And last but very much not least (in fact, the biggest and the best):

This is an incredible compilation of ALL the history of Africa, way back to when it was Pangaea. The author does a masterful job of marshaling facts and making them readable. I have recommended this so many times we finally bought a few copies of it to lend people (we had tortured the library copy for months on end). The amount of paleontology, archeology, anthropology, political science, and every other social science you can think of in this volume is staggering. I am in awe.

And now, before we go off to Mozambique this summer, I have to expand the reading program into specifics about colonization such as King Leopold’s Ghost, which has been on my to-read list for ages. A cram course in modern African history coming up!

November 2, 2011

in order to make an omelet…

Filed under: books/authors,food/groceries — ilivetolearn @ 6:12 pm

I recently listened to Blood, Bones, & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (read expertly by the author), which has been described by none other than Anthony Bourdain as, “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.”

It is truly great. Absorbing, funny, heartbreaking, and full of good food. I loved her description of the absolutely obsessive way Jacques Pépin teaches culinary students how to make an omelet. Shortly after I had finished it, there was a New York Times article describing Pépin’s process, which Bill read and is using regularly. Here’s a link to the video:

Bill’s method involves less stirring with the fork and more violent shaking of the pan, including whacking it on the stovetop. A friend for whom he produced one of these masterpieces asked, “What the heck is he doing over there?” when she heard all the noise. So now in our household instead of the phrase “To make an omelet you’ve got to break some eggs,” we say, “To make an omelet you’ve got to break the stove.”

February 28, 2011

Life, ex-pat life, transplanted life, kitchen life

Filed under: books/authors,food/groceries,on the road — ilivetolearn @ 8:17 pm

Though my 2011 reading life began with the two depressing books about war, death, and man’s inhumanity to man (and I use the gender attribution purposely) that I described a month ago, it soon took an upbeat turn. Through with half-life or near-death books, I plunged into those written by people with a lust for life: Julia Child’s My Life in Paris (though I later found out to my horror that I was listening to an abridged version, and so joked that I learned how to cook Duck a l’Ora), and Keith Richards’ Life. Another title theme emerges, quite by accident:


The former, a semi-autobiographical novel by an award-winning Chinese author (his first set in the US) is a long, deliberately paced, exhaustively detailed story of an immigrant family pursuing the American dream. As I listened to CD after CD while driving, I went from thinking, “Do I really need to know this much about the Wus?” to wishing they lived next door and admiring the nuanced way Ha Jin portrayed them, never over-dramatizing. A visit to the Tenement Museum, which is all about earlier immigrant experiences on New York’s Lower East Side,  made me even more angry at the “close the border” idiots screaming about immigration reform. They need to read books like these and visit museums like these.

The latter title appealed to me because I live a homemade life. I’m the only mother of four I know who never once bought a jar of baby food–I just pureed this and that. Every once in a blue moon, a can of chicken stock, a container of bread crumbs, or a bottle of salad dressing sneaks into my larder, but 99% of all those things are homemade here. I make all the jam consumed in the household; I can tomatoes and sauce. I decided I was going over the deep end when I started making my own raisins.

Molly Wizenberg strikes me as a woman who would not bat an eye at kitchen-counter dried-fruit production. At first I was skimming along thinking “OK, another overgrown blog, no real depth here,” and then I hit the chapters about the death of her father. She manages to articulate all the emotionally laden aspects of food preparation and communal meals, and give yummy recipes to boot. (I shamelessly photocopied many of them.)

One of the more powerful parts of the tour we took at the Tenement Museum was an auditory one–a tape of the granddaughter of the Italian immigrants in whose kitchen we were standing, reminiscing about her childhood in that very place, accompanied by music they would listen to on the 1920’s radio in the corner. If only the curators could have piped in the smell of a pot of saucy meatballs bubbling on the stove and cigarettes smoldering in the ashtray…and if only all these books in which food figures prominently (Bangers and Mash for Keith Richards, anything in butter for Julia Child, the Chinese food the Wus learn to cook for their restaurant, and all the baked deliciousness described by Wizenburg) could have a scratch-and-sniff section along with photos or recipes…that would be a feast for all the senses!

January 31, 2011

love, war, and rock and roll

Filed under: books/authors — ilivetolearn @ 8:59 pm

Since the New Year, I’ve been reading (as usual) one book in print at home, and one on CD in the car. In an unfortunate concatenation of events, my home book was about war in Israel:

and my car book about the Civil War and its aftermath:

Each of these was depressing in a different way–the David Grossman book incredibly well written but almost unbearably tense and sad, especially for someone like me, with sons 22 and 25. The main character is on an odyssey of sorts with an old friend, trying to avoid being home so that the military notifiers can’t knock on her door to tell her her son has been killed. I found myself dreading reading it while simultaneously being drawn to the characters, wondering throughout whether the son lives or dies, and admiring the author’s gifts. When I finished and found out that he had had a son killed before the book was published I was even more impressed and saddened.

The Steven Wright book was not as great a literary accomplishment, but still a good read. My standard for post-Civil War narratives is Cold Mountain, and it didn’t quite live up to that; the characters are a motley collection of dogmatic, venal, arrogant, and downright cruel Southerners and a few none-too-savory Northerners for good measure, and the plot is a little too heavy on violent incidents (only a few actually part of the war) for me. But I greatly enjoyed the description of a westward ride on the Erie Canal, and I did admire some of the less purple prose.

After all that killing and maiming and bereavement, I was “ready for a love story,” as one member of my book club said. We are reading this:

and it is indeed a love story: Julia loves her husband Paul, loves Paris (and then Marseilles, and then France in general), loves cooking, loves writing…loves life! What a woman. Instead of the cringe- and tear-inducing effects of the previous two titles, this one is literally making my mouth water as I read.

And for another break from human misery, the book club just finished this:

Actually, I think I was the only one who read the whole thing–my first outing on an e-reader (Phoebe’s new Nook). Much as I was annoyed by Keith’s sense of entitlement and “We can get away with anything” and heedless destruction of property, etc, the book was a wild ride through the 60’s and 70’s and I loved it. I even played some old Stones tunes while reading, and copied down the recipe for Bangers and Mash.

Now if only I can get the formula right–a book on CD that makes me cry in the car, and one on the page (or screen) that makes me laugh and/or salivate at home. Alternatively, a happy funny driving story, and a solemn thought-provoking pre-bedtime read. If I am taking in two escapist titles at the same time, I feel too dissolute.

December 30, 2010

the other half books

Filed under: books/authors,food/groceries — ilivetolearn @ 12:12 am

At long last, I’m getting around to the other half of the “half” books. Years ago, I read this:

I remember liking it and finding it meaningful at the time, but I’m way past the halfway point now and not yet ready to really grow up, as suggested (ungrammatically) in the subtitle. And I think there was plenty of meaning in the first half of my life, thank you.

Just finished this one:

Very good writing, about a pretty crazy family (the best kind, for memoirs) in which a set of three siblings systematically denies their Jewishness, each marrying into, and then converting to, Catholicism. I grew up knowing Jews who converted to Quakerism, or became Ethical Humanists–but Jew to Catholic seems a strange leap. The author did not know her father was born Jewish until she was in her twenties. She interjects a lot of history of anti-Semitism in the Ivy League, among other august institutions, and her biographical information about family members, even truly nasty ones, is always sympathetic and moving.

Last but not least, this caught my eye even with “half” only in the subtitle:

Since I am a half-shell lover married to an oyster farmer, this was right up my alley. It’s just enough history and biology about oysters, combined with the best kind of travel writing (food-based) and lots of humor. I was fascinated to learn about all the species of oysters cultivated in different types and temperatures of water, but even more taken with the culture about oysters–I especially liked the description of the annual Colchester (UK) Oyster Feast, full of pomp and circumstance but with fewer than half the participants actually eating oysters.

After finishing this, right around Thanksgiving, I was inspired to put on waders and slog around in the creek for an hour or two, picking up a few dozen oysters so I could test some of the recipes thoughtfully provided. Walsh even suggests appropriate drinks to accompany them. My kind of book!

November 30, 2010

the half books

Filed under: books/authors,gender — ilivetolearn @ 7:06 pm

A recent New York Times Book Review (or maybe an NPR story) got me interested in this book:

It’s a memoir by a novelist, who recounts how a car accident (he struck and killed a teenage girl on a bike; she was in a younger grade at his high school so he knew her only slightly) half his life ago has stayed with him and informed his emotional makeup in many ways. In the process of putting it on hold, I was beckoned in the virtual library catalogue by other titles that began with “Half-this” or “Half-that.” Including this one:

It came out in 2001 to generally good reviews. I am not tempted to read it–my one venture into the Naipaul oeuvre, a book of short stories, confirmed my suspicion that he travels to developing countries and writes about them in order to assert his superiority–but I found it interesting that publishers would use an identical title only nine years later.

Strauss’s Half a Life is moving and thought-provoking, but really only half a book (hence the half-cover?). Spare, cut-to-the-bone prose can be more eloquent than writing that hasn’t been so ruthlessly edited, but this blank-pages, one-paragraph-standing-alone volume just felt skimpy and stretched to me.

The online title list reminded me of this, recently read:

Jeanette Walls is a great memoirist (The Glass Castle is a gem of the genre) and this is the true story of her grandmother’s life, billed as a novel because Walls didn’t have enough actual documentation to publish it as non-fiction. Lily is a determined, hard-working woman overcoming poverty, bad education, disastrous marriage, wrathful acts of God (floods, tornadoes, droughts)–the type for whom the word indomitable was invented. It’s entertaining to read of her exploits, but also saddening, because readers of  The Glass Castle know the future: that Lily’s daughter (Walls’s mother) inherits the quirkiness bordering on insanity and misses out on the common sense and pluck. She’s the one for whom the word hapless was invented.

So here’s the most important “Half” book I’ve read. It’s been out over a year and I’m embarrassed that I just got to it:

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (his wife) have condensed years of journalism and activism into an unbelievably inspiring set of stories about oppressed women all over the world. They are not afraid to sound the alarm about women being tortured, isolated, raped, sold into slavery, denied medical care, and in myriad other ways misused–and to assign blame where it is due, even where it is not PC to do so. Is it religious intolerance to consider the Muslim world misogynistic? I don’t think so. Is it cultural imperialism to consider genital cutting as barbaric as foot binding? I don’t think so. The women and girls profiled in the book who have lived through the most horrific experiences and gone on to reclaim their own lives and help others are TRULY indomitable.

There is no halfway in my reaction to Half the Sky. I just ordered multiple copies to give to members of my book clubs, family members, the ladies I went trekking with last year at this time, and anyone else I can think of. I’m also giving generously to organizations Kristof and WuDunn list in an appendix and on their website:

(There are more half books…but I’ve already spent half the day on this post.)


September 30, 2010

the summer (and fall) of the 1000 books

Filed under: books/authors — ilivetolearn @ 1:58 pm

And by this I don’t mean I read a thousand books. I mean suddenly I realized how many books I had read and liked that had titles beginning “A Thousand…” or “The Thousand…” or “1,000…”. First, after doing a Google search for peach pie recipes, I stumbled across this:

It’s really an overgrown blog, but it has some interesting history about cooking in the US from…well, 1,000 years ago to the present. I was especially edified by the author’s discussion of the Home Economics movement, which arose amid disguised anti-immigrant impulses and resulted in the blandification (OK, I know that’s not a word) of American cooking. Anything ethnic and spicy was “too stimulating” and not suitable for modern, “scientific” American kitchen practices and palates. The promised peach pie was a bit disappointing, though I realized after making it that I had switched the sugar and flour measurements. Maybe I’ll try it again next time peaches are in season.

Just by chance, I happened to have this title hanging around the house, so I read it:

It came out in 1999 to not very good reviews but has enjoyed a resurgence as book clubs pick it up. The premise is that in 1875 President Grant and Little Wolf, Cheyenne chief, agree to trade 1,000 white women for 1,000 horses. The government rounds up ladies from almshouses, prisons, asylums (like the main character, May Dodd) and sends them out to “tame the savages.” The historical detail and nonstop plotline kept me reading, but the heroine is too good to be true, and the breathless way two of the heroes fall in love with her made it verge a little too close to a romance novel  for my taste.

Next I took these two out of the library:

I am loving Mitchell’s novel, a story of Dutch businessmen trading with Japan at the very beginning of the 19th century in Nagasaki. Very compelling language and well-researched detail about the xenophobic Japanese, the imperialist Europeans, and the women who suffer at the hands of both. I’m listening to it in the car and the performances (alternating male and female voices) are definitely adding to my enjoyment. At the same time, I am struggling through the print version of A Thousand Sisters, which bears the disadvantage of being the last thing I pick up in the 20 minutes before I fall asleep. Lisa Shannon is a good-hearted woman who was moved by an Oprah segment on the war in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and especially on its devastating effects for women. She founded a nonprofit called Run for Congo Women, visited hundreds of women who have been sponsored by supporters in the US, and wrote about it. The degradation and tragedy she describes are heartrending and the difference she has made is inspiring, but I wish she were a better writer. Maybe there exists a sound recording of this book, read by a woman with some gravitas. That I could recommend. But on the page Shannon’s prose is too choppy and joky for its subject.

I actually have urged each of these books on various friends and family members, though I sound snarky and fault-finding here. But not one of them stands up to my previous “thousand” favorites:

So what’s next in the series? Maybe One Thousand Chestnut Trees: A Novel of Korea, by Mira Stout. I know the subject matter is up my alley (a woman with one Korean parent travels to Korea to “make sense of the random jigsaw pieces of her background”), but an Amazon review warns of its “imperfect grammar,” which could be a deal-breaker. I’m getting more and more incensed by typos and errors and inconsistencies that should have been fixed by good editing; the Hot Stove book was full of them (a particularly egregious flaw in a book in which every chapter ends with a recipe), and yet the author profusely thanked her copy editor in her afterword! A thousand nits to pick.

February 14, 2010

336.87 hours in the car

Filed under: books/authors,lyrics,on the road — ilivetolearn @ 12:43 am

Recently I was looking over the list of books I read in 2009 and was surprised to find that I had actually listened to almost as many as I consumed in what my fellow crossword-lovers call the “dead-tree version.” And given that I only do books-on-CD in the car, and only when I am driving alone or with 100% of my passengers asleep, I am clearly logging way too many hours behind the wheel.

Out of 54 books (and I am cheating and counting the three I didn’t actually finish because I hated them or lost interest) 24 1/2 were on CD. Here’s the half:  I started listening to Girls Like Us, by Sheila Weller–a triple biography of Carly Simon, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell–and I loved the content but had to switch to print because the reader was not to my liking. For one thing, every time she came to song lyrics, which as you can imagine were integral to the narrative, she read them. Tonelessly. I don’t blame her–I would have done the same. How to compete with those three singers? But it’s a pleasant surprise when a reader does sing, and I am in awe of the talent most of them display for dialogue, accents, timing, and sheer drama.

Here’s the current line-up–one finished, one in progress, and two waiting in the wings:

Yes, the number in the title is the actual elapsed time I “read” while driving last year. And 2010 is shaping up to set a new record for pages/miles/ear candy.

July 10, 2009

how to have a perfect day at the beach house

–wake up, drink coffee, read My Stroke of Insight, fascinating book by a neuroanatomist who had a stroke at age 37 and writes about her recovery and right brain/left brain stuff (thank you Lea Pearson for recommending it)

–work on Kalahari tote #3

–have Ella over for the morning; pick wildflowers and press them for future bookmark project, teach her new solitaire game
–play Set with Margo
IMG_1525 –do laundry, hang on line
–attempt to remember how to make sewing machine make letters in order to produce name tapes for girls’ camp clothes; finally succeed

–see 4″ baby bunny in bayberry patch out front
–drive girls to camp, stop on way home for first of raspberries and last of snow peas
–pick rosa rugosa flowers and mint leaves for essential oils; bake at very low temperature for 3 hours to infuse aroma into oil; make house smell wonderful
–bike to Art and Bette’s with Margo (who is on fitness kick), visit one hour, discuss Palin’s resignation, bike home
–cook artichokes for dinner
–make 7 jars raspberry jam
IMG_1528 –at sunset, go to dock; bail 6″ rainwater out of creek boat. Escape gnats by wandering to beach, find jingle shell the exact color of my toenail polish
–mix up token martini in olive green teapot used as Mattituck martini pitcher by Phoebe and Art in years past
–eat dinner with Margo

–watch Religulous, setting phone alarm for 9:43 so we can take a break to watch moon rise over Robins Island. One day past full, orange, partly obscured by thin clouds. Point out big and little dippers to Margo

–finish Religulous, attempt to finish an evil Sudoku, fall asleep

February 4, 2009

I’d rather be..

Filed under: books/authors,bumper stickers — ilivetolearn @ 6:53 pm

Ever since my first foray into bumper-sticker-printing—last October I stole a slogan from a classmate and ordered 75 of these—


I have paid much more attention to words on moving vehicles. My current favorite is: “I’d Rather be Reading Flannery O’Connor.” Apparently these have been around since 2002, sold by the gift shop at her former home ( for only $4.00, but I’m sure they’re much more prevalent in Georgia than here in the northeast.

My stickers were mostly handed out to family and friends and went to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina. Margo and I had a sighting on an unrelated car the other day and got very excited, but I couldn’t convince her to scribble and hold up an “I made your sticker” sign. The driver went on unenlightened and we went on unattributed.

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