Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It's here! It's here!

After a four and a half year wait, I'm pleased to announce the arrival of.....


It's cold and rainy and I'm wearing a sweatshirt. In fact, based on the fact that the mountains next to my house are supposed to receive 10" of snow tonight, fall may have bypassed us entirely in favor of her colder sister. But I don't care, because the endless summer has finally come to an end.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Book #60: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Title: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa
Author: Nicholas Drayson

Mr. Malik is a semi-retired widower who likes two things-- the birds of Kenya, his homeland, and Rose Mbikwa, the woman who leads the weekly bird-walks he attends. He's mustered up the courage to ask Rose to a dance when Harry Khan, a playboy who Malik has known since their school days, returns to town, intent on wooing Rose, and asking her to the dance. The men, bolstered by their social club, agree to have a contest to decide who can ask Rose, whoever sees more birds in the span of a week wins the right.

I've never been to Africa. I know it's a big place, and Kenya isn't Somalia isn't Botswana. But somehow many of the books I've read about Africa, especially those not written by native Africans, seem to have a similar feel to them-- slightly quaint, slightly slow, slightly sweet, slightly violent, and almost shy about romance and relationships. If you like Alexander McCall Smith's The Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency series, you'll also like A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. They feel of the same vein, even if their settings are thousands of miles apart.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Book #59: Brooklyn

Title: Brooklyn
Author: Colm Toibin

Eilis Lacey lets things happen to her. Living with her mother and sister in Ireland in the early 1950s, she takes a job she knows she's going to hate because someone offers it to her. When a priest offers to sponsor her and find her a job in Brooklyn, she leaves her home and travels to America, where she lives where he tells her to live, takes the job he finds for her, and enrolls in the night-classes he thinks will be suitable. She goes to a dance because her landlady asked her to, and meets a boy who pursues her. She follows along, unsure of exactly how she feels. There's a great scene in the novel when she mentions to her boss that Tony, her boyfriend, is planning to take her on a trip to Coney Island. The boss starts acting-- brings in a whole bunch of swimsuits for Eilis to try on, getting her a razor so she won't have any unsightly hair on the beach, and encouraging her to lose weight. As the boss tugs and pulls each swimsuit and gives her frank assessment, Eilis seems almost detached from the experience-- she can't even decide which suit she likes best.

Then Eilis's sister Rose, the glue who holds the family together, dies suddenly, and Eilis finds herself on her way back to Ireland, where she continues (maddeningly) to let other people tell her what to do. Until she doesn't.

Eilis is a memorable, fully-formed, and altogether frustrating character. And the slow pace and not-too-exciting love story are worth taking in, just because the end is so good. We finally get to see Eilis grow and make a choice for herself. What will that choice be?

Book #58: Catching Fire

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins

Sometimes I look at American celebrities and wonder why the heck they're famous. Talented? No. Nice? No. Good looking? Not really. Think of shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians or any of The Real Housewives... and it's not too hard to realize that sometimes it's who people know or just dumb luck that they end up with their faces plastered on the cover of People.

In some ways, I felt the same thing about Katniss Everdeen in Catching Fire. In The Hunger Games, she exhibited great hunting skills, love and empathy, and even some quick thinking to keep her alive. A year later, Katniss and Peeta (her co-competitor from District 12) are reaping the rewards of their success, mugging for cameras, and trying to decide if they really love each other or if it's just a show to distract people from the uprisings that are taking place all over the country. When they head back to the arena for another go-round, Katniss seems to lose all of the smarts that kept her alive the first time. Is she able to stay alive when she's not playing smart, when she's missing even the most obvious clues and symbols? Well, if you haven't read the book yet, you'd probably hate me if I told you, wouldn't you?

Book #57: Crazy for the Storm

Title: Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival
Author: Norman Ollestad

In February 1979, a small plane crashed in the San Gabriel Mountains of California. The pilot and two passengers died. Several hours later, an eleven year-old boy walked into the village at the bottom of the slope, the lone survivor. How did he survive? Was it good luck? What kind of eleven-year-old can make it down the practically-vertical face of a snow-covered mountain by himself? Ollestad tells his story, both how he survived, and how his father (who died in the crash) prepared him, with a childhood of adrenaline-charged experiences, for the fight of his life.

The memoir follows a fairly common format: one chapter describing his fight for survival on the mountain, followed by a chapter focusing on the backstory, repeated many times. While I sort of hate to say it, the survival chapters seemed kind of thin-- the was only on the mountain for a span of hours, so each of those chapters was relatively short-- a page or two, while the chapters about his childhood leading up to the accident were rich, and so extreme that they were almost unbelievable. Ollestad and his father were en route to a ski awards ceremony in Northern California at the time of the accident, and Ollestad would have been named the best (one of the best?) skiers in California. But it wasn't just skiing at which he excelled-- he was also a standout at surfing, skateboarding, football and hockey, primarily because his father allowed him no fear and pushed him to (and sometimes even beyond) the limits of what a little boy could handle. As a mother of a similarly-aged (although much less-awarded) boy, I can see that what Ollestad's father provided him with allowed him to escape with his life, but how much of the struggles he faced as a teenager after the accident came because he missed his father or resented his mother and how much were a result of missing his childhood?

Book #55: Abide with Me

Title: Abide with Me
Author: Elizabeth Strout

I loved Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, which I read earlier this year, and was eager to get my hands on Elizabeth Strout's other books. Abide with Me takes place in the same small town in Maine where Amy and Isabelle (another Strout novel) is set, and centers on Tyler Caskey, a young minister whose family has been upended by the death of his wife. His baby daughter now lives with his domineering mother, his other daughter is at home with him, but has problems he feels unequipped to handle. And to make matters worse, his church community, who welcomed him with open arms only six years ago, seems eager to find fault with him, even if it's just so they have something exciting to talk about.

There were a lot of things I really liked about Abide with Me. Strout's prose is beautiful, and I loved the way they tied the hymn of the same title through the book. Caskey is also a rich, complex character, and Strout does a great job of showing how grief can be complicated, especially when tragedy befalls someone who wasn't always all that easy to love. In other ways, the book felt like something I'd read before. It reminded me a lot, in fact, of Tova Mirvis's The Ladies Auxiliary, in which a religious community doesn't know what to do with an outsider with a small child whose spouse recently died. The judgmental chit-chat of the women of the congregation was something I could both identify with (she talks at one point about a rush of excitement one of the people felt when they gossiped in the name of "helping") and something that felt a bit reductive.

Book #56: A Homemade Life

Title: A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen Table
Author: Molly Wizenberg

Some books about food demand savoring, others leave a bad taste in your mouth. But I gobbled up Molly Wizenburg's A Homemade Life like it was a pan of seven-layer bars. I know that some say that writers who started as bloggers often don't make good writers, but I think Wizenburg's book is an exception. I also know that some authors (like Robert Wolke in his Einstein series) include recipes to go along with each chapter of related text. But the stories from Wizenburg's life were so interesting that it seemed like the stories were a natural fit. I often skim through the recipes in books like these, but I actually made Wizenburg's ratatouille the day after I finished the book (filled with ingredients from our CSA-- yum!). I will admit that the second half of the book was better than the first (also true with a pan of seven-layer bars consumed in a single day)-- once she fell in love it started to feel too gushy about her perfect husband and their perfect wedding, etc... Maybe if I'd paced myself a little better, I would have appreciated the second half more. That's how I usually feel about baked goods.

Book #54: The Saucier's Apprentice

Title: The Saucier's Apprentice: One Long Strange Trip Through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe
Author: Bob Spitz

I love to cook. I also have a family of picky young children, genetically influenced by their picky father. Day-to-day cooking is much more of a chore than an expression of creativity. But I still love to read books about food and cooking-- but not this one. To tell you the truth, Bob Spitz's memoir depressed me. He writes about having a midlife crisis-- finishing a big book, getting divorced, and losing his moorings. So instead of buying a sports car or hooking up with a floozy, he somehow scored an expenses-paid trip through the cooking schools of Europe, where he learned to make perfect omelets, pack in course after course of Neapolitan specialties, brown-nose chefs, and turn up his (now brown) nose at the rich American housewives who ended up being his classmates. According to Spitz's exacting standards (only made more exacting on the course of his journey), my attempts to feed my family would be deemed pathetic. Sometimes, however, food is just about family and sustenance. And that's enough.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Introducing: Living Room and Dining Room

There are only a few things I love as much as reading and running. One of them is digging in and decorating a new house. And lucky me, I just happen to have a new house. I'd planned on getting the family room finished off first, but I kept buying stuff for the living room and dining room, and except for some knicknacks, a rug for the entry, and one more picture (more on that later) I think we're getting close to feeling like the two front rooms are presentable. And it's a good thing, because we don't have any kind of shades for those rooms yet, so the whole world can see what's going on in there, if they're interested in looking.

A word about the house: it was originally built as a two-bedroom bungalow (about 1500 square feet, including the basement) in 1950. In 2008, the house was overhauled. The owner tore everything down to the brick wall out front and the foundation, added a second story and bumped out the back. It's now almost triple the original size, but I think it still looks like it fits in the neighborhood of modest bungalows and ranch houses. There are modern touches (as you'll see later in the kitchen), but the builder said he used the 1930s mock-Tudor houses in the Harvard/Yale neighborhood of Salt Lake as his inspiration. So I'm trying to mix in some modern, some 1950s, and some 30s. I'm not sure how well I'm succeeding.

I'll start with the inspiration for the room, a set of two paintings I commissioned my best friend and partner in crime Leslie (aka smartmama) to paint for me. I took the yellows and blues and browns and grays and used them throughout both the living and dining rooms. The unit underneath is two IKEA Expedit shelving units. Yeah, I know they make a long one with eight openings, but I wanted mine to be just slightly longer than that one so it was at least as wide as the paintings, so I bought two smaller ones. The vases are from the Modern Materials Design store's going out of business sale. In the dining room had great bones to begin with. I love the wainscoting and the paint and the chandelier, and we haven't really added much. I found the corner cabinets on craigslist, brought them home and roped my mom into helping me spray paint them gray on the inside and yellow on the outside (actually a complicated application of both yellow and orange). The chairs are Tolix from the Sundance Catalog outlet. The table is 1950s yellow and white formica with stainless steel legs (another craigslist find). If you ever visited my Texas house, you may remember the plates on the family room wall. I left them with the new owner, so I'm working on a new collection for above the wainscoting in the dining room. I'll show new pictures once I've finished that part of the project.

Here's the view from the family room. That's our front door. The panels on either side of the door are plain white canvases from Dick Blick covered with a fabric called "Vintage Bird Blue" that I bought at Warm Biscuit. As you can see, we still need a rug for the entry, any suggestions?

Circling around to the left is the "dumping spot" of the entryway. We've had the cabinet since our St. Louis days, but until last week it was a medium blue with flowers stenciled on the top and the front panels. Six cans of spray paint later, it was gray, with baby blue (I'm not too proud to admit they're baby blue) panels. I also spruced up the hardware. Then I painted squares that echo the squares on the aspen painting. The lamp is from IKEA (and doesn't work-- it needs a bulb), the mirror is from our last house and looks much better than the gold one I originally had in the spot.

A head-on view of the living room. When we were looking at the house, the room seemed such an odd shape, not really an entry, not really a living room, so envisioning it as a living room was a bit of a challenge, but I think the two spaces are fairly well delineated. Here's a lowdown of where stuff is from. The piano and the couch are both long-standing, obituary-worthy members of the Miner household. The couch, however, was red and green plaid until last week, when my slipcover arrived. I've been hating the couch for a while, and now I'm not quite as eager to dump it for the newer model. The best part is that I don't have to take it off to use the sofa bed. The end and coffee tables are apparently from a line that Eames designed for Lane back in the 1950s, and I got them from the KSL classifieds. Chairs are from IKEA, and I hope to replace them and move them to the back porch by next summer. Blue pillows are old Crate and Barrel. Yellow pillows are from the Modern Materials Design sale. Lamps are old IKEA. Lampshades are new IKEA. The rug is Pottery Barn's Maren, which I got cheap from eBay. I think Pottery Barn's marketing technique of using popular children's names probably boosts sales from parents whose children have those names. Or is it just a good looking rug?

Here's probably the thing I'm proudest of in the whole room. When I saw Julie and Julia last month, I fell in love with the framed maps above Julie Powell's bed. So I came home and searched and searched for them. I found an interview with the set designer, who said that they were vintage handkerchiefs. An hour later, I'd ordered four of them, all from the states we've lived in since we were married. Since the window behind the couch is so large and off-center, I wanted to create something that would echo both the size and shape of the window, so I created the frame out of masonite and 1x4s (and, of course, more spray paint). Pretty cool, eh?

A couple of weeks ago, I was wracking my brain for something to go along the "big" wall in the living room. I remembered a painting that I'd always loved that Eddie's parents had in their basement. We asked if we could borrow it, and they generously agreed, while telling us the history of it (painted by a BYU art professor, Bruce Smith, who lived in the neighborhood and gave it to them in exchange for piano lessons). I still love it, and I'm happy it gets more face time than it did in the basement.

Last, but not least, another shot of the dining room, which doesn't do much except establish that there are, in fact, two yellow corner cabinets stuffed with tchotchkes in there.

I'll be sure to follow up with other rooms as they near a completed state. You will not see pictures of my family room on the blog until the pee-scented tan couches have been replaced by the Room and Board sectional (with the chaise, in olive) that I've been salivating over for way too long.

There is one small wall left. I'd love some kind of religious art, but not the family proclamation or a big honking picture of Jesus. Any suggestions? I've been looking at Cameron Moll's letterpress print of the Salt Lake Temple, and I really like it, but are all those letters cool or just kind of weird for someone who isn't a font junkie?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Book #53: The Middle Place

Title: The Middle Place
Author: Kelly Corrigan

Honestly, I still have a chapter or two left before I'm done with The Middle Place, but I'm writing the review based on the 200+ pages I have read. Kelly Corrigan writes the story of her struggle with breast cancer, which happens to coincide with her much-beloved father's diagnosis with kidney cancer. But it's also a story about couplehood and parenthood (Corrigan's girls are 3 and 1 when she's diagnosed). And yeah, she readily admits that she's the kind of person who loves the limelight, but she's so darn funny that you don't get annoyed by it (a trait she seems to have inherited from her father).

Case in point: I read this last night, and laughed so hard that Eddie came in from the other room to find out what was wrong. I tried to read it to him, but got all choked up and spat out the words in between guffaws, which didn't help the punch line much. She's writing about preparing for a trip with friends to Mexico to celebrate the end of her treatments and says, "Our travel bags get fatter and fatter-- filled with stuffed animals and books and rows of diapers, like all we're gonna do when we get there is lie in bed-- snuggling, reading, and peeing." I'm laughing right now as I type. And her description of male genitalia (p. 91) had me in stitches too. It's not the great American novel, or even the great American memoir, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a fun book, if a story about nearly dying can be called fun.

Book #53: Cutting for Stone

Title: Cutting for Stone
Author: Abraham Verghese

I know, I just said that if you read one book this year, it should be The Help, but if you read two books this year, the other one should be Cutting for Stone (thanks for the recommendation, Lucy!). On the back cover, Mark Salzman says: "Absolutely fantastic.... This book has everything: nuns, conjoined twins, civil war and medicine. If Vikram Seth and Oliver Sacks were to collaborate on a four-hour episode of Grey's Anatomy set in Africa, they could only hope to come up with something this moving and entertaining..."

Cutting for Stone is one of those books that you ignore laundry, ringing phones, and children to read. I hid away on the scratchy couch in the living, room, letting my kids watch a Pokemon marathon (Isaac got 40 hours of DVDs to help him through the recovery process). By the time I was done reading, I felt like I knew Marion Stone, knew Hema, his adoptive mother, celebrated their accomplishments and mourned their losses. It's a dramatic book with lots of action and betrayal and redemption (and great religious themes too), and it's also a simple story of family.

Book #52: What Einstein Told His Cook 2: The Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science

Title: What Einstein Told His Cook 2: The Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science
Author: Robert L. Wolke

Wolke's humorous and slightly dorky approach to kitchen science really endeared me to him when I read What Einstein Told His Cook. While the science is just as interesting in the second volume, and I photocopied a few of the recipes for future baking experiments, I found myself groaning at Wolke's jokes this time around. I think he'd be a lot of fun to listen to in a one-hour lecture (he was a college chemistry professor before retiring to write full time), but reading corny joke after corny joke rubbed me the wrong way this time around. Still, if I need to know the best method for adding cream to coffee and keeping it piping hot (unlikely with my non-coffee-drinking status), he's the man I'd turn to to explain things intelligently and simply.

Book #51: The Help

The HelpTitle: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett

If you're only going to read one new book in 2009, it should be The Help (and I've read some pretty darn good books this year). Several readers recommended it in the Stieg Larsson book giveway comments, and I was surprised when my library copy arrived two days after I reserved it. This was the other book I read at the hospital with Isaac, and it definitely made up for the other one.

The Help is the story of three women living in Jackson, MS in the 1960s: Skeeter is home from college, trying to adjust to living in a place where there aren't jobs for college-educated women and her peers are all married and busy with babies; Aibileen and Minny are maids employed by Skeeter's friends. Skeeter decides to become a writer, and hatches a plan to write sort of an ethnography about the real-life experiences of domestic workers in Jackson. At great personal risk, Aibileen, Minny and a dozen of their friends agree to help. The characters in this book are great, and the little side stories are so rich, and it's such a wonderful, multi-layered book about bravery and doing the right thing. I predict it becomes the next big book club book, if it hasn't done so already.

Book #50: The Grift

Title: The Grift
Author: Debra Ginsberg

I'd love to read a little bit about how book covers are designed, because I picked up The Grift on the basis of its cover (I like the font and the dotted border and the way the "r" is dropped down from the rest of the word) and its location on one of the tables at the front of the library. When I got home, I saw that it had 4 1/2 stars on Amazon, so I packed it in the bag I brought to the hospital, and it kept me occupied while Isaac and I sat around at PCMC.

Occupied, but not exactly entertained. The book started out promisingly, the story of a fortune teller who leaves Florida for California to start a new life. She becomes entwined in the lives of a few stock-character clients along the way, which isn't great, but still fine. And then she meets a man, falls in love, and goes absolutely CRAZY. Up to that point in her life, she'd been a sham fortune teller, more of an amateur psychologist than anything else, but after a personal tragedy she finds herself with a real clairvoyant gift, and it changes her life. And the book gets very weird. And not very good.

Unless you're better than I am at suspending disbelief, don't judge this book by its cover or its Amazon reviews and stay away.

Book #49: Intern: A Doctor's Initiation

Title: Intern: A Doctor's Initiation
Author: Sandeep Jauhar

I'll admit that I'm curious about the lives of the doctors who care for me and my family. How many kids do they have? Where do they go on vacation? Are they happy? But if they're not happy, do I really want to know? In Intern, Sandeep Jauhar describes the crisis he went through during his intern year (the first year after medical school-- a hellish, hazing sort of year when doctors are on call every third or fourth night and work LONG hours the other days). It's an interesting, well-written book, filled with stories about what Jauhar learned from his patients (not all that unlike Atul Gawande's writing about his residency experience). The main difference is that Jauhar didn't really know what he wanted from his life, constantly saw the grass as greener on the other side of the fence, and always second-guessed his decision to go into medicine (he started medical school after finishing a PhD in physics). In other words, he was a big whiner.

I haven't been an intern myself, but I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what interns go through. And after reading about Jauhar's experience, I feel exceptionally lucky that I was married to an intern who loved what he was doing, who came home from 36-hour shifts to shovel our driveway, who listened with a sympathetic ear when I talked about staying up all night with a baby and a toddler. I look back on Eddie's intern year as the hardest of our lives as parents and one of his hardest as a physician, but I think that if Eddie wrote a book about the experience, it wouldn't have been as whiny or angsty.

Book #48: The Wish Maker

Title: The Wish Maker
Author: Ali Sethi

Do you ever read the reviews on the back of a book's cover and later wish you hadn't? One of the reviewers compared the book to The Kite Runner, which unfairly amped up my expectations, I guess.

But really, it just wasn't that great a book. Sethi tells the story of Zaki Shirazi and his cousin Samar, growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s, against the backdrop of Muslim feminism and the rise and fall of Benazir Bhutto. But there's no magic in the story, and it dragged on and on. I kept reading just because I was waiting for something great to happen, but it never did. Sethi wrote the book as a 23-year-old Harvard grad, and my guess is that it draws heavily from his own experience, but it's really hard to say. But I will say this, The Kite Runner it's not.

Book #47: When the Emperor Was Divine

Title: When the Emperor Was Divine
Author: Julie Otsuka

I remember reading Farewell to Manzanar in middle school and being horrified that the US government imprisoned Japanese American during WWII. Then I read Snow Falling on Cedars as a young adult, and felt dismayed Guterson's picture of reassimilation after people returned to their h omes. In When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka shows, with painfully beautiful, spare writing, one family's experience with their father's arrest, being forced from their home in Berkeley, living in the Utah desert for several years, and finally returning to their home and trying to put their lives together. On the one hand, Otsuka goes into great personalized detail, describing things like the cold plums in the icebox that the mother in the family eats in an opening chapter or the suits that the father wears. On the other hand, she doesn't ever name any of the characters-- they're simply "the girl," "the boy," etc... making them, in a sense, both individualized characters and representative of all people who suffered in the internment camps. It's a short, easy book, and a solid, powerful story worth reading.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Hello autumn, my old friend...

...You've come to visit me again.

Looking outside you may think it's wishful thinking. I'm aware that it's supposed to be 90 this afternoon. But this morning I looked at the 10-day forecast, and there's not a 90 in sight after today. You know what that means? My first fall in four years is right around the corner!

Honestly, it was a great summer. Other than one day when I decided to run seven miles at three in the afternoon, running never felt oppressive. The kids played outside more in the last two months than they did in the four years we were in Texas. Isaac and Annie both learned to ride bikes and Bryce perfected many a trick on his scooter. We've been opening our windows in the morning and the evenings (no screens yet, so we've endured some flies, but it's been worth it).

And if the weather forecast is right, it's September and fall is on its way, just like it should be. I can't wait for changing leaves (we have a big maple in our front yard), and cool nights around the fireplace in our backyard, and pumpkins that don't rot before Halloween, and sweaters! I only have one or two sweaters. Mostly I'm excited NOT to wear shorts on Thanksgiving.

I've missed you fall.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

I'm going back to bed

Crappy moment #1: I love running outside in the morning, and especially love meeting my new running friends to put in 6 or 7 miles a few days a week. One of those days is Thursday. Last night Eddie told me he had a 7am meeting at work, so I got up this morning and endured the boredom of the treadmill for 6 miles instead. I came back upstairs at 7, and he was still in bed. Anyone who doesn't understand why I was mad hasn't spent enough time on a treadmill.

Crappy moment #2: The wheel falls off my jogging stroller as we enter Bryce's new school. The same school where Maren cried for at least 20 minutes yesterday afternoon because I had Isaac in our single stroller instead of her. I'm sure I'm making a great impression.

Crappy moment #3: Wheel back on the stroller, I can't find a way out of the school that doesn't involve a set of stairs. So I tackle them. Maren falls down an entire flight and face plants on the parking lot. She now has two scraped hands and a scraped chin.

Crappy moment #4: We get home, with plans to head to Ogden to buy a steal of a chair and some tables I found on KSL. I'd made arrangements with the lady on the phone yesterday and told her I would buy both. So I tell the kids that we're going to Krispy Kreme in Layton, grab drinks and diapers and all of the assorted paraphernalia we need, and call her for directions. She says someone offered her more than the asking price for the chair and her husband was selling it to the other lady. I would have paid the same price and bought the tables, and still felt like I was getting a steal. And besides, they were PERFECT for my living room. I even bought stuff at the Habitat going out of business sale yesterday in anticipation of buying the chair and the tables. So the kids still want Krispy Kreme, and I'm a mean mom for not driving them up to Layton just for the heck of it.