Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Book Group Report - 3

At tonight's meeting of the eclectic book group, we discussed Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin.  I was shocked to learn that I was in good company, in that of the 8 people who were there, 3 had still not read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland even after reading the fictional story behind the fictional story.  I got to feel a little smug that at least I had read Alice's Adventures, even if it was just a month ago!

We were most interested in the history behind the photo of Alice that I blogged about on August 30, and where it was found.  For instance, it seems that if the photo was found among Charles Dodgson's things, or worse yet, in the possession of some other shady man from the era, that maybe the photo could have been intended to be provocative.  However, if it was found among Alice's belongings, it is more likely to have been taken and preserved innocently.  Melanie Benjamin writes that she first saw the photo at an exhibit of Dodgson's photography at a museum, but that still doesn't shed light on where the photo spent the 100 years prior to the exhibition, as photos could have been gathered from many separate collectors.

The consensus on the book was that it was a great story, and it just made us wonder how much could be true.

Our next book is yet to be determined.  Books under consideration are Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.  by Sandra Gulland, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  My vote would be for Freedom since I have already read the other two, and am going to read Freedom sooner or later, whether the group picks it or not.

Friday, September 24, 2010

To Meat!

As you may recall, in July, I wrote about reading Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Eating Animals, and how I thought that book would change my eating habits.  I am pleased to report that I just got back from buying my first 1/4 cow.

After reading Eating Animals, I could not stop talking about it, and one person who I talked to was a friend who is a vegetarian.  It turns out that she is a vegetarian who grew up on a steer farm.  I told her that the next time her dad had a partial cow available, to let me know.  Well, I got the call, and got the beef!

In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer talks about the evils of factory farming and inhumane processing.  As such, I looked into both the farm, and the processor.  I was happy to be able to buy a cow from a friend, because I felt like I could trust that it was treated well.  In case you are in lower Michigan, and are in the market for a cow, I will tell you that I got mine from Langmesser Farms in St. Clair.  As far as I can find, they do not have a website.  The cow was processed by C. Roy Inc. in Yale, MI.  I have not tasted anything yet, but I like that C. Roy is a family operation, and they were very kind to a beginner buyer like me.

In researching buying a partial cow, I learned that in addition to those who care about animals or are trying to eat organic, there is another group that is into buying cows - penny pinchers!  Apparently buying the whole (or a partial) cow is much cheaper than buying individual packages, if you have the storage space in your freezer.  My order came out to cost about $3.90 per pound of edible beef, which I found to be very reasonable, considering that in addition to ground beef, I got many steaks of all types and roasts.  It may not be less than I used to pay per pound at Meijer when they had sales, but it is definitely less than even a sale at Whole Foods.  If you buy a cow, remember that there is hanging weight, and processed weight.  I knew in advance that my cost was going to be something like $2.29 per pound of hanging weight (this includes bones, etc), and the processing cost, so I knew in advance how much I would pay, but I didn't know exactly how many pounds I would be picking up.

In the July blog, I said that I was going to call to order my turkey right away.  In fact, I tried.  And the lady laughed at me.  Roperti's, where I will be buying my Thanksgiving turkey, does not take orders until October 1.  Yes, it's on my calendar!  I know that there is a video on Youtube of a man playing a fiddle to serenade turkeys who are penned up at Roperti's, but please don't let that deter you.  I can only guess that they are penned because of the deep snow.  Roperti's is right by my aunt's house, and I have driven by and seen the turkeys out walking freely for at least 20 years.

Also, in case you didn't notice, today is the one year anniversary of my first blog entry!  Now, I won't pretend and say that I've been writing this blog for a year (I have - except for November through June!), but I didn't want this day to go by without note!

Still reading:  The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.  It is reminding me of a section of Jonathan Safran Foer's earlier book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, so I will probably have the chance to write more about my favorite author, JSF, soon!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Electric Michelangelo

As I mentioned in the last post, The Electric Michelangelo  by Sarah Hall is a very well written book.  It starts off with the characters speaking in such a strong Northern British dialect that they are hard to understand.  Just when the reader begins to get the hang of the language, Cyril (Cy) Parks moves to America, where he becomes the Electric Michelangelo, tattooing customers at Coney Island, and his dialect begins to take on a more American tone.

Cy's mentor, Eliot Riley, tells him that a tattoo artist is really a midwife, helping people to become someone new.  Cy understands that, but he never quite realizes his own role as a care giver to anyone who needs it, regardless of their state in life.  While he looks for companionship in his life, Cy is constantly seeking a reincarnation of his mother.  What he fails to recognize in himself, is that he is his mother's legacy.  He carries all of the skills and gifts that he admires in her.  Cy and his mother also seem to share the ability of knowing when to walk away, even if they walk broken hearted.

I'm still not quite sure what I think of this book.  In the end, it doesn't seem that Cy got what he deserved.  I'm glad for him, though, that he didn't get what he wanted.  Many things that happen in this book are not fair, but when they happen, it seems that you should have seen them coming. 

I think that this book will be one that I think back on occasionally, and maybe begin to understand differently as time passes.

Next up:  The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reading in the Foreign Language of Sarah Hall

When I first started reading The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall, I was not sure that I liked it. The first night I read about 10 pages. The second night I read about 15. The third night, maybe 20, and so on, with the volume of pages increasing every night. The book bragged on its cover that it was "Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2004" but is that really so great? To brag that you almost won? I checked the Amazon reviews, and one reviewer said that Sarah Hall "can write, perhaps too well." I wondered what that meant - how could a writer write too well?

Now, somewhere around page 115, I think I get it. The characters in The Electric Michelangelo speak such a strange language, that it took me a while to learn it. The story is set in a town on the North West coast of England and begins in the time of World War I. I am not sure if Sarah Hall is such a brilliant researcher and author that she was able to discover and write in a manner of speaking that has long since been forgotten, or if she just started making up words that sounded like something an old British person might say. I really don't care either way, because I am falling for it. The first passage that lured me in was when the main character, Cy Parks, went to meet his future employer, and according to Hall, the door was opened by "a small, hatless, catgut looking man who said nothing . . ." What is that? How could one be "catgut looking"? I have no idea, but I have a vision of the man in my head, that I think is pretty accurate. Except that he is wearing a hat. In a later passage, a character describes an upcoming surgical operation by saying "They've got to cut the fly-walk off me lovvie; if it doesn't go, the whole loaf will go bad". I might be giving something important to the plot away by telling you that, but unless you speak Sarah Hall's language, you have no idea what is being removed, or even if it is being removed from a man or a woman.

When I read, I normally have a big fat dictionary close at hand, so that I can look up any words that I don't know. I don't mark the words that I look up, like the girl did in "Say Anything", because then I'll only be embarrassed that I'm looking up the same word again (and again and again). The words in this book that I don't know are also not known to Merriam Webster, which makes me feel better.

If the pattern continues of reading a few more pages every night, I'm sure to read 40 or more pages tonight, and I can't wait!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hmmm, That's Odd

The books that I post about on this blog may seem a little mismatched.  For the most part, I find the books that I read in three places:  1)  Books that my book group picks to read; 2) Books that I find and am attracted to at used book sales; and 3) Books that the New York Times reviews.  When I read about a book in the Times that I want to read, I put it on my Amazon wish list, and then, assuming no one buys it for me, I eventually get around to checking it out of the library.  That is what happened with Painting Below Zero by James Rosenquist.  I read this review in the Times, and decided that the book was one that I should read.

While the Times review made me want to read Painting Below Zero, I found the book hard to get into.  I generally give a book 100 pages before deciding that I won't read any more, but with this book, I gave up reading every word and started skimming around page 85.  In its defense, the Times review is accurate, and the book is well written.  However, I think that I was looking for more gossip and glamour than I found.  If you are a fan of James Rosenquist, you would probably really enjoy this book.  On the other hand, if you looked at the picture at the top of this post and thought "hmmm, that's odd", you might want to skip it.

Next up:  Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sarah's Key

When I first met my sister's (now ex) husband, we were talking about his childhood growing up in the Netherlands.  After an embarrassingly long amount of time, it occurred to me that his parents had lived just outside of Amsterdam at the time that Anne Frank was living there.  I said something to him about how crazy it was that his parents had lived there during the Holocaust.  He said that instead of "the Holocaust", they refer to it as "World War II".  At first, I was a little freaked out that my sister had married a Holocaust denier, but that was not the case.  As he kept talking, I learned that while the Holocaust itself did not directly affect his family, World War II did.  His mom stayed alive by eating tulip bulbs.  His dad was forced to work in Germany, and survived the bombing of Dresden.  Ever since that conversation, I have been drawn like a moth to flame to any book about the civilians of World War II. 

The first half of Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay had me entranced.  I had thought about the story of an old apartment in Paris, and was thrilled to find it.  This also fit right in as a book that I would love from World War II.  Amazon even recommended it to me.  But somewhere around page 150,  Sarah's Key went from being a book that I loved and planned to tell all of my friends to read, to a book that is good, and that I will keep, but that I will probably only recommend to certain friends who are also interested in books from that era, or who are interested in books set in Paris. 

From the beginning, Sarah's Key is the story of the lives of people who lived in a certain apartment in Paris, including the family that lived there prior to July of 1942, the family who moved in in July of 1942, and the family who planned to move in in 2002.  In July of 1942, an event took place, which the Parisian author seems to believe has been largely forgotten, even by the people who live in Paris.  I had never heard about it, but of course, our American education regarding World War II consists of Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, and Normandy.  This forgotten event was a rounding up of Jewish men, women and children by the French police.  Adults without children were generally sent directly  to Auschwitz.  The Nazis did not ask the French police to round up children, however the police did not know what to do if they were supposed to round up adults, and some of those adults happened to have children.  Thinking it would be best, they kept the kids with the adults.  At this point, the Nazis were trying to keep up the appearance that the Jewish adults were going to work camps and not to certain death.  They thought that sending children to work camps would raise questions, so they did not want children.  The French police found themselves in a bind, with hundreds of Jewish families, and no where to send them, so they put them all in a sports arena called the Velodrome d'Hiver.  There were no provisions for the families at the Velodrome, and the families suffered there without food, water, or bathroom facilities until the families were eventually sent to a camp in France, and from there to concentration camps.  This event is referred to as the Vel' d'Hiv', pronounced "the veldeef".

The book starts out with alternating chapters, the first about a ten year old girl in 1942, and the next about and told by a forty-something woman named Julia in 2002. The Vel' d'Hiv' changes both of their lives.  The alternating story pattern continues for several chapters, but about half way through, the chapters about the girl end, and the story is told only by Julia.  We do still learn more about the girl, but we stop learning as much.  While this is obviously deliberate, and I think that I can guess at the reason that the author did this, (sorry - I don't want to give too much away here and I will tell you that it's not why you probably think- read the book - it is worth the read)  I wish that girl's story had continued, even if it was told through journal entries, notes on scrap paper, letters, or friends.  I also wish that I had read this book before I went to Paris so that I could have checked out some of the places that this book features.

Next up:  Painting Below Zero by James Rosenquist.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Book Group Report - 2

Earlier this week, the eclectic book group got together to see the movie, Eat, Pray, Love.  A couple of years back, we had read the book,  Eat, Pray Love  by Elizabeth Gilbert.  The group was pretty much split between lovers of the book, and haters of Elizabeth Gilbert.  It seemed that those who didn't like the book didn't like it because they didn't like the voice of the story teller, the author herself.  Among those who really hated the book were one or two people who listened to it in audio format, with Gilbert herself doing the reading.

Eat, Pray, Love  reminded me of a book that I had read a few years earlier called Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman.  That book was the story of Rita Golden Gelman's experiences in different societies very much unlike our own.  We decided to read Tales of a Female Nomad next.  The consensus was that Tales was somehow more genuine than EPL.  In EPL,  the author went to tourist destinations, and in large part, lived as a tourist.  In Tales, the author's goal was to understand the society, and when she chose, to become a part of it.   To me, Tales was also more financially truthful.  In EPL, Gilbert repeatedly mentioned giving all of her money to her ex-husband in the settlement, but never really addressed how she was paying for her trips.  My suspicion is that since she was already working as a travel writer, her trips were pretty much funded by her employer, or through an advance on the book that she planned to write about her experiences.  In Tales, Gelman is really honest about how she pays for her travel.  A portion of her funding is from royalties from a popular childrens' book that she wrote decades ago, called More Spaghetti, I Say.  After reading Tales, I went out and bought More Spaghetti for my daughter, and I think that I enjoyed it more than I otherwise would have, knowing what the author was now doing with the money this book generated.  I've thought several times that a combination of Tales of a Female Nomad and More Spaghetti, I Say would be a great gift for a new mother - one book for her, one book for baby - but I've never given that gift.

While we tend to be a pretty casual book group, when we discussed Tales, one of our members arranged for Rita Golden Gelman to have a conference call with us.  It was really amazing to have an author talk to our little group, and Gelman was very friendly and generous with her time.  She was familiar with EPL, and I got the impression that she was asked about the similarities between the books quite a bit.  It would be interesting to know if Gilbert had read Tales before starting on her journey.

I liked the movie, Eat, Pray, Love better than the book.  While there were some strange parts that I might have edited out (dream dancing with her ex-husband at the ashram for instance), it was all in all a positive and uplifting movie.  I was left with the feeling that I needed to go out and make some changes in my life, and really, why not?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Previous Owners

In June, my husband, Bob, and I visited friends who live just outside of Paris in Courbevoie, France.  Courbevoie is so close to Paris that Napoleon's funeral procession actually started there, and ended at the Hotel des Invalides, where his tomb remains.  Our friends had recently purchased a new apartment, and it was fantastic, with high ceilings, huge, screen less windows, fireplaces, and crown molding everywhere.  Bob caught his first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower from their sons' bedroom windows.  The apartment is in a very old building, with a tiny elevator and creaky hallway stairs with a worn runner down the center.  It felt like home instantly, and I wanted to move in.

I was talking with the wife of the couple, Sev, about the apartment and how cool it was that it was so old.  I wondered aloud about who had lived there before, and who lived there during the German occupation of Paris in World War II.  Being so elegant, and on the top floor of their building, it seemed likely to me that important people had lived there in the past.  I was secretly thinking that maybe this was where Irene Nemirovsky had lived while she was hoping to survive and writing Suite Francaise, but of course, I knew that was very unlikely.  Sev had no idea who had lived there before, but we talked about where her grandparents lived during the war and how they survived. 

Tatiana de Rosnay must have visited old apartments in Paris, and wondered the same things, because 110 pages in, Sarah's Key is the story of an apartment in Paris, and the people who lived there before the war began, during the war, and in modern times.  This story has captured me.  I have to force myself to put the book down so that the story will last longer.
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