A Catching Up Post, and The Oregon Trail

The first week of December was a really crappy week.  There’s no other way to put it.  My uncle, my mom’s brother, passed away unexpectedly.  And I was sick as a dog with stomach trouble.  I couldn’t be there for my mom physically when she needed to travel to Nashville to tend to my uncle.  The whole week sucked.  I loved my uncle, even though I hadn’t seen him in almost four years.  He was a kind person, funny, always sweet to me.  He was a passionate animal lover and rescued many cats and dogs over the years.  But he had a lot of problems in his life, even before I came along in the family.  I miss him, though, and despite my sadness will always have good memories of him.  Mom and I are working on finding ways to honor his memory and will have a service in January.

Needless to say my reading and blogging has been off pace to end the year.  But I’m getting back in the swing of things.  I finished a work of nonfiction last night  – The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck.  It’s an interesting mix of memoir, history, and travel writing.  Ricker Buck and his brother have a wagon custom made, acquire a team of mules from some Amish folk, attach a pup tent for gear, and make their way down the Oregon Trail.  I was kind of surprised at how much of the old trail is actually still there; just a few sections have been paved over by interstate and highways.  I was also surprised by the age of the brothers. I admit that when I put the book on hold at the library, I assumed that they would be young men.  Wrong!  They’re both over 60!  The work of the trail was very physical, so I can say that these men are in much better shape than I am!

IMG_2839I enjoyed the historical information and excerpts from pioneer journals and letters, but my favorite sections were the interactions the Bucks had with strangers along the way.  Turns out word spreads fast in the West, among ranchers, farmers, and small townspeople who take an interest in the Trail and keeping it alive.  People flocked to the wagon, the mules, as well as Rinker’s brother Nick’s Rack Russell terrier, Olive Oyl.  There were so many instances of goodwill  and generosity, people giving the brothers and their mules a place to rest, rides to town when mishaps occurred, and tips on the best ways to proceed down the trail.  It made me feel good about humanity to read about just how doggone nice people were to them.

It could use a bit of editing, and there’s a surprising amount of profanity included, which in and of itself doesn’t bother me.  I skimmed a few paragraphs here and there that went into too much detail about wagon and mule harness information.  Buck also has a lot of issues with the legacy of his father and their complicated relationship to work out; his father’s ghost sort of haunts the trail at times.  I admit that these sections didn’t hold my attention as strongly as the other parts.  But all in all, this was an interesting and entertaining work of nonfiction.  I certainly admire the courage and spirit that the brothers maintained throughout their adventure!

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My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

I was attracted to Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year because it is a book about books (my genre kryptonite!) and it is set in New York City (always a plus.) I knew it had gotten good reviews, and that it portrayed the publishing world in the late 1990s.  I obviously knew it involved J.D. Salinger in some way, but this wasn’t necessarily a draw for me, as I’ve only read one of his works.  What I didn’t know was that it would be so damn good.

The memoir details a year Rakoff spent working for The Agency (unnamed, but obviously venerable, as it represented writers like F.Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.)  While other literary agencies are well into the digital age, The Agency operates almost out of time: typewriters and dictaphones are used instead of computers, people smoke in the office.  A young woman, fresh out of a long-term relationship and grad school in England, Rakoff falls into the position of assistant to one of the senior agents, a woman with a reputation of being somewhat difficult.  Essentially a secretary, Rakoff is assigned the duty of responding to Mr. Salinger’s voluminous fan mail – with a formal response letter.  But as she reads the letters, from all ages, teenagers and World War II veterans alike, she takes the liberty of responding with more personal kindness or advice.  She’s also not supposed to have much contact with Salinger, but as her boss suffers a personal setback, she is forced to engage on a more meaningful level, forming a deeper understanding of the author and his work.

This book is only partly about Salinger and The Agency, though.  It’s also a coming-of-age story, about dingy, freezing apartments, awful, pretentious boyfriends, having no money for lunch, having to face paying back student loans, growing apart from former best friends.  Rakoff writes with such grace about ordinary moments, vividly capturing what it was like to be young and broke in the City.  Take this passage, where she rashly spends money she shouldn’t part with on a sandwich.

I walked directly and purposely to the elegant food shop on Forty-Ninth from which the agents obtained their lunches.  Around me, the Masters of the Universe ordered frisee salads, rubbing elbows with their female counterparts, thin tanned women with Cartier bangles dangling from their thin, tanned wrists.  The sandwiches sat like pastries on silver cake stands.  After much deliberation, I chose a slender flat of bread with some sort of pink cured meat.  At the register, I grabbed a chocolate cookie, ordered a coffee, and handed over a crisp twenty.  I was not, at that exact moment, overdrawn, but my heart still sped up as I placed my meager change in my wallet.  Sandwich in hand, I walked over to Fifth, sat down on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the tourists, and took a bite, a dense, salt, oily bite.  It was, there was no doubt, the most delicious sandwich I’d ever tasted.  I ate half, planning to save the remainder for the next day, then went ahead and devoured that too.

IMG_2634I loved this book.  I love the cover, with its vertical title on the spine (we learn in the memoir that Salinger apparently liked that style.)  I love that it’s a memoir that read likes a novel.  I love that it evokes nostalgia for the late 1990’s, before cell phones and tablets and social media took over our lives.  I love that it makes me want to read everything that J.D. Salinger has ever written, when before I was content with my one high school reading of Catcher in the Rye.  Most of all I loved Rakoff’s voice, so elegant yet so compelling, the wistful tone, the portrait of a young woman finding her voice and her strength.

Gulp by Mary Roach

Who ever knew that reading about your digestive tract could be so much fun?  I’d read Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers years ago, and remember enjoying her unique sense of humor.  She is very playful and really enjoys puns, which makes her nonfiction a pleasure to read.  Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is no different.  She delves into how intimately smell relates to taste, the weird history of “Fletcherizing” (extreme chewing,) and goes to a prison to interview people about smuggling contraband cell phones and tobacco in their rectums.  (I learned there’s a word for that: Hooping.  Who knew?)

IMG_2632Gulp is filled with many amusing asides and footnotes, including this gem in a chapter about whether or not someone could survive being swallowed by a whale, and what keeps the stomach from digesting itself while you’re alive.

While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale’s stomach would seem to present a new set of problems. *

*I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow, and any homophone of seaman.  And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.

What’s great about Roach’s approach to subjects that are uncomfortable or possibly disgusting, aside from her humor, is her palpable sense of appreciation for the human body and all its intricate, bizarre, beautiful systems and abilities.  Near the end of the book, reflecting on watching her own colonoscopy without sedation, she says,

Most of us pass our lives never once laying eyes on our organs, the most precious and amazing things we own.  Until something goes wrong, we barely give them a thought.  This seems strange to me.  How is it that we find Christina Aguilera more interesting than the inside of our own bodies?  It is, of course, possible that I seem strange.  You may be thinking, Wow, that Mary Roach has her head up her own ass.  To which I say: Only briefly, and with the utmost respect.

I freely admit that my sense of humor may be on the juvenile side, but I really enjoyed this book.  Her free-wheeling curiosity is a gift to all of us who might want to learn more about the world and ourselves, but also have a great time doing so.

Secrets From the Eating Lab by Traci Mann

Oh, how I love a good self-help book, especially if it deals with weight loss and/or body image.  Without going into detail let me just say this is an area of great interest to me.  Secrets from the Eating Lab is a book I’d recommend to just about anyone, even if you’re not overweight yourself.  It’s an informative, persuasive, fast read that will have you saying, “Never diet again!” and perhaps lacing up your walking shoes.IMG_2179

Even though she is an academic and she shares lots of scientific research to bolster her ideas, Traci Mann writes with a light, familiar touch.  She makes it clear that she wants people to enjoy their lives, whether or not they are overweight or obese by our society’s standards.  It’s a refreshing tone, frankly.  In the chapter titled “Obesity is Not a Death Sentence” Mann looks at a compilation of numerous studies about whether or not obese people live shorter life spans than “normal weight” people (BMI 18.5-25.)  Turns out that the ratio of overweight people’s death rates to normal weight folks was 1, meaning the risk of death is the same for both groups.  Even people classified as Obese Class 1 (BMI 30-35) had a ratio of 1 with normal weight people.  It wasn’t until the Obese Class 2 (BMI 35-40) and higher did a biostatistician find a risk ratio higher than 1, and even then in only a third of the studies.   Mann goes on to write that there are many other factors involved in whether or not being overweight is bad for you, like your socioeconomic status (poor and undereducated people may not see the doctor until it’s too late or have access to fresh food) and your stress level (more stress = health problems.)  Where you carry your weight (abdominal area vs. hips and thighs) also correlates to specific health problems, even if you’re not obese.

Rather than obsess about the number on the scale, Mann wants the reader to take steps to eat better and get more exercise.  She provides “Smart Regulation Strategies” which are simple ways to improve your health.  One of my favorites was called “Be Alone With a Vegetable,” which means try to eat a veggie or salad before you eat anything else.   That way your only option is the healthy item, which will make you fuller and leaves less room in your belly for whatever else you might eat at that meal.  And you’re sure to get your veggies in that way.  She also advocates making things as easy as possible by washing and chopping your vegetables as soon as you bring them home.  How many times have vegetables died a slow death in your refrigerator crisper?  I know I’ve wasted money and good food far more than I’d like to admit, simply out of laziness and not remembering the asparagus or broccoli until it was too late.

Mann really wants us all to get more exercise, but not for weight loss.  The other benefits of exercise, both physical (lowering blood pressure, resting heart rates, need for medications)  and mental (helping mild to moderate depression and anxiety, etc.) are proven over and over.  She wants us to find the types of exercise that we enjoy, whether it’s a yoga class or running or hiking, which will make it easier to keep it up long term.  She makes a good case that doctors and the media should be touting the benefits of exercise to us all, removed from the prospect of weight loss.

I really enjoyed this book, both in message and delivery.  It was easy to read and I like her common-sense approach to a very touchy subject that many people struggle with.  In the end she quotes one of my heroes, writer Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery:  “Your body is not your masterpiece – your life is.”   I can totally get behind that idea.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

Parks and Recreation is one of my top ten favorite television shows of all time.  And Aziz Ansari’s character Tom Haverford is one of my favorite characterIMG_2043s from that show.  So naturally I was interested in his new book, Modern Romance.  It’s not a straight-up comedy memoir, in the style of Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please.  There is some real sociology here, as the book is coauthored by NYU Professor of Sociology Eric Klinenberg.  It’s an interesting look at today’s dating culture here in America as well as glimpses of cultural mores in Japan, Argentina, and France, with some signature Ansari-style humor.  I did laugh out loud in quite a few spots.  (I imagine the audio book, read by the author, would be killer.)

What I liked about it was the engaging style.  He throws a lot of facts at the reader, taken from various academic studies, focus groups around the world, and crowdsourcing on Reddit, but it’s very readable, with lots of graphs, charts and pictures (old video dating service ads, the ever-quotable Pitbull, hilarious commentary on stock images of couples.)  He starts out with a dating story from his own experience involving texting a woman he’d hit it off with, seeing her iPhone dots moving, as if she were composing a text, and then… nothing.  No response.  It was the spark that got him interested in investigating how modern technology is changing the way we interact, date, and get married today as opposed to earlier generations.

As I am not in the dating market, but happily married, I was perhaps not the intended reader of this book.  Thank goodness I got my dating in before the advent of the text!  But Modern Romance does offer some really good dating advice for those seeking their soul mates.  Ansari talks about how in his focus groups he met tons of women with these generic “Heyyy” or “Wsup?” texts from guys and how boring and lame those texts are to women. He describes what makes a good, interesting text that will likely end up with you going out with the woman you’re interested in.  There’s advice on what kinds of profile pictures gather the most hits on online dating sites.  There’s even some a discussion of the merits of passionate love vs. companionate love in long-term relationships.

My favorite section was the examination of dating and marriage in other countries, specifically the section on Japan.  Apparently there’s this phenomenon I’d not heard of called the “herbivore man.”  Young men in Japan, in large numbers, are not interested in dating and romance because they’re deathly afraid of rejection, among other reasons.  People are not marrying and/or reproducing enough to the extent that the government is even subsidizing establishments that host giant dating events called machikon, a roving party for singles in restaurants and bars in a certain area.  Compare this to focus groups on Buenos Ares, Argentina, where the women told Ansari that “being the object of unsolicited male attention was a daily occurence, and many men here were reluctant to take no for an answer.  “Guys here, they don’t care if you turn them down or deny them,” one woman told us. “They just keep talking to you.”

While not necessarily surprising, this was a fun, interesting, cute read.  If you’re a fan of Aziz Ansari, you’re in the dating market, or just interested in current trends, you should pick this one up.

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum wants to write about the things we don’t talk about as a society,

the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor – that we might not love our parents enough, that ‘life’s pleasures’ sometimes feel more like chores…”

and in her essay collection The Unspeakable: and Other Subjects of Discussion she mostly succeeds.  I was simultaneously entertained and irritated by her, which I take to mean that she’s reached her aim of being authentic about her feelings and experiences.  She writes about everything from her lack of desire for children to attending a party thrown by writer/producer Nora Ephron where she played charades with Steve Martin and Larry David.  IMG_1998

As with most collections of essays, some work better than others.  The two most affecting are “Matricide,” a searing examination of Daum’s relationship with her mother both in life and while she was dying,  and “Diary of a Coma,” in which Daum recounts a scary brush with death through a random and strange bacterial infection.  Wisely on her (or her editor’s) part, they bookend the collection.

I didn’t connect with the essay about Joni Mitchell, “The Joni Mitchell Problem,” mainly because I honestly haven’t listened to that much Mitchell myself.  I also skimmed “The Dog Exception,” because I have a hard time reading sad things about animals.  (I will say that Daum gets points from me for her deep love and appreciation for dogs.)  And as other reviewers (on Goodreads in particular) have mentioned, the essay “Honorary Dyke” is weird and problematic.

My personal favorite, though, was “On Not Being a Foodie.”  Like Daum, my husband is the cook in the family.  She describes not being able to read a recipe all the way through before getting started, which is a trademark of my cooking attempts.  She chooses pans not on suitability for the task but rather on her ability to hoist them from cabinets with her weak wrists.  I particularly love this quotation:

(Cooking) takes me chronic impatience, divides it by my inherent laziness, and multiplies it to the power of my deepest self-loathing.

It summarizes perfectly why I’m not a very good cook.  I, too, am impatient, lazy, and paralyzed by anxiety in the kitchen.  (Except when I bake.  For some reason I really enjoy baking.  Go figure.)  If I came into sudden wealth one of the first things I’d do would be to inquire about a healthy meal delivery service.

The point of this essay is not to dwell on her kitchen failures, however.  She uses it as a way to deconstruct the idea that we’re all supposed to be regularly doing things outside our comfort zones and that there’s something wrong with us if we aren’t.  This notion is prevalent in our YOLO, live-your-best-life society.   Daum contends that

…the key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of our comfort zone.  Stay in safe waters but plunge as deeply into them as possible.  If you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it.  If you can’t cook and refuse to learn, don’t beat yourself up about it.  Celebrate it.  Be the best noncook you can be.

What a freeing notion!  How much anxiety and second-guessing could we save ourselves if we decided to play to our strengths and stopped thinking we might be missing out by not learning to surf or knit or paint watercolors?  I’m all for trying new things, but I’d love to leave guilt and self-flagellation at the door.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection.  Meghan Daum is refreshingly candid and engaging, and occasionally just a bit annoying.  But she’s real.  She’s laying it all out there, and I can dig it.