Too Fat For Europe, Joe Leibovich

In honor of my mother’s birthday, I’m taking today to talk about one of our shared passions (beside books – books are definitely at the top of the list, and chocolate is a relatively close third), travel. I’ve loved and pursued the love of exploring the world for many years now, placing the ability to get up and go above many other material pleasures (most notably, owning a house, and for many years, a car). When I was in junior high and high school, my mother and I would go on a little trip together every year – something separate from the car trips we would take with my brother and dad once a summer – usually connected to an event she had to lead in another part of the country. This typically meant we would go a few days early and stay in a cheap motel or at the house of a friend who was out-of-town, do some exploring, and then I would fly home alone while she went to work.

When I was in high school, I opted to go on my first international trips with the Junior World Council and the Biology Club, a decision to this day that I’m grateful for. I had a glass jar each year that I filled with money from babysitting jobs or summer work that would then go toward plane tickets and expenses. This meant that by the time I graduated, I had been to Belize, Italy, and the UK, and I was thoroughly hooked. It also meant that I found the most valuable time in college was spent during my semester abroad, where I was able to use the Netherlands as a jumping off point to visit twelve other countries. While I’m sure I also learned something from the classes I was taking at the time, none of those lessons stand out as clearly as the ones I learned in places where I had little money, no access to a shower, and couldn’t understand a word around me.

During that semester, I was enrolled in a class on travel writing taught by a wonderful Dutch professor who understood that while we might want to learn from her, our attention spans were limited by the ever sneaking possibility of new places. She used this to motivate us to write deeply about the experiences we had over our three or four-day weekends, forcing us to carry our notebooks everywhere to try to capture more than a cursory perspective on where we had been. Mine had a permanent home in a backpack that otherwise carried only the most basic necessities – change of underwear and tee shirt, an extra sweater, a passport, my Discman with a few CDs, and any printed instructions we could glean from what was a very different internet than the one I use to travel now. To this day, I still have that notebook and cherish it, as corny as some of the reflections are. I was clearly in a much more, shall we say dramatic frame of mind that I am today, but it still informs my decisions when it comes to planning new trips.

Since those early days of exploring, I’ve read a lot of amazing travelogues and memoirs from people far smarter and more adventurous than I am, but it’s rare to find a book like this one, written by a friend of a friend in Memphis, from the perspective of a newbie international traveller. Leibovich is a comedian, an attorney, and, I dare say, a historian (he at least retains a lot more data than I do about the art and architecture he saw on his first trip abroad) who is completely open about his own blunders in the pursuit of an expanded horizon. He makes some mistakes that to me, at first, seemed impossible in this day and age, but upon further reflection were not obviously avoidable without experience (although I maintain that trying to see three countries in one week is a goal only of the truly insane or clinically optimistic). In later chapters, I envied his ability to easily connect with people he meets on his travels, as I’ve always struggled to feel comfortable with strangers in my own language, much less in another.

The best thing though, was getting to read about his experiences visiting places I already love (the British Museum, the Louvre, a little restaurant that makes unbelievable soufflés). I found myself daydreaming of my own adventures and remembering both the transcendent and the frustrating aspects of succumbing to the travel bug. My mother and I sadly don’t get to travel much together these days, but reading this reminded me of what a gift she gave me by instilling the value of what the wide world had to offer me when I was young and eager to accept it.

Half-Resurrection Blues, Daniel José Older

After my vacation at the beginning of February, I took a sharp left from reading fiction. I’m not sure why, but every novel I started ended up abandoned somewhere between one and five chapters in, even though they were all books I got specifically believing I would enjoy them. My brain just wouldn’t engage in any of the stories or characters, and I felt bored and restless as soon as I sat down. I’ve found this happens every now and again, and often the remedy is either time, or picking up an old favorite and giving in to the well-worn love of a previous happy world.

Neither of those options were appealing to me though. My pig-headed nature wanted to force its way through this slump and into the wonderful arms of a new book. I wanted it so badly that I was willing to take a chance that I would cast aside Older’s new book, having forever tainted it with my bad mood. Make no mistake – it was a risk. I’ve loved his short stories, but that was not a guarantee that his warmth and wit would translate to a longer form. Part of me didn’t want to use him as a sacrificial lamb, but the other half – the dangerous, swashbuckling reader half – won out. Onto the pyre with you, Older, I thought, and let us see how you fare against this zombified brain!

As it turns out, his new series was a worthy opponent. It didn’t completely snap me out of my fiction funk, but the first installment was compelling enough to finish in about two and a half days. It certainly helped that I’ve already read and enjoyed stories about his protagonist in Salsa Nocturna Stories and had some idea about what I was getting into, but I also think Older has the sort of style that makes me want to pull up a chair and inhabit his version of Brooklyn.

For the record, while I’m certainly not anti-Brooklyn, I’m also not hip enough to have any desire to live there in its current incarnation. To be fair, I haven’t visited since I was a child, and in the eighties, it was a much grittier place, but that memory doesn’t put me off nearly as much as what I’ve heard it’s turned into – again, not because its evolution (an evolution much like those that take place in cities worldwide as financial waves ebb and flow) is so terrible, but because even from afar, it doesn’t appeal to me. New York has never been one of my heart’s homes. It’s too brash, too extroverted, too aware of its own importance for me to relax for even a moment when I visit. I constantly feel underdressed and ill at ease in my own body, even as I’m taking in all the wonderful things the city has to offer.

This is surely why it amazed me to find his version of the city so charming and accessible. Older is patiently aware not only of its current existence, but also of its history. He respects the many threads that come together to create such a place and then finds a way to blend Brooklyn’s diverse tapestry into the perfect setting for a ghost war. The city itself is one of his greatest characters and he consistently does right by it, ensuring people like me, with little or no investment in such a place, feel connected and part of the scene.

 

For more about Daniel José Older, head over here.

Bonus Tuesday Post!

For one week, and one week only, my seaside thriller Circ (collaboratively written with an amazing international crew of savages authors) is available for free on Kindle! Here! Or, if you happen to be in the UK, you can grab it here!

If you’ve only joined the J’adore community recently, you can read all about how this book came to be under the Ten to One tag. If you’re already in the know and haven’t had a chance to buy a copy, I hope you’ll take this opportunity to pop over and grab one (did I mention it was free?!).

Circ was an incredibly fun book to write, and I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned about sword swallowing, Romanian history, meat processing, modern art, and close quarters hand to hand combat in the process. Oh, and did I mention fire? I studied everything from how one can swallow it safely, to how long it takes to get untied from a chair in a room engulfed in flames, to what a death from arson can do to a community. Not many of my other projects have pushed me to research such diverse topics, but it was all for the best. I only hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed putting all the pieces together…

Razvan Popescu lives in a flat overlooking the seaside town of Skegness. He keeps himself to himself and few know the man at all. Even fewer know his past, which he has tried to leave behind in the Romanian woods.

But when a tattooed stranger is found murdered on the beach, it is clear that past has followed him to this tacky seaside town. As a battle erupts within the criminal fraternity, dark forces gather around the town and Popescu’s acquaintances find themselves dragged into a world of violence, fire and fairy tales.

One thing is certain: the circus has come to town.

My Bread, Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste

Before you judge me for talking about a cookbook this week, I should tell you that I once considered cookbooks to be below my notice too. I’m not much of a chef, although over the last few years, I have challenged myself to explore new recipes and perfect certain techniques (barbecuing vegetables, for example, or making dairy heavy meals lactose-intolerant friendly). I’ve learned to make my own granola, fish tacos, vegetarian chili – all recipes taught to me by dear friends that are in beloved rotation in our house now. Basically, I reached the point in my life where eating out every night had lost its appeal, and the idea of eating pasta, oatmeal or quesadillas in a steady stream for eternity was no longer tempting either (although I will say, I made a dessert quesadilla with peanut butter, slices of banana and a sprinkling of chocolate chips that I ate happily every night for two weeks, so it’s clearly not impossible for me to bow to routine).

Even though I’ve been pushing myself to cook at least four or five nights a week for awhile now, I still find it difficult to utilize cookbooks, which is a shame because I have received a stunning collection over the years (Moosewood, Smitten Kitchen, Rose’s Cakes…). Perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up in a house where cooking was a favorite job. My mother did it because she loved us, not because she loved the activity itself, and I’m grateful to her for all those years of putting healthy meals on the table for us. Her mother had been even less interested in the kitchen than she was, and it’s my understanding that they mostly survived quite contentedly on soup and sandwiches, a fact that no doubt stunned my paternal grandmother, an Italian whiz in the kitchen.

My own Italian heritage did not come with a burning desire to prove myself over a hot stove, although I did inherit from my mother a love of all things sweet, and ever since I was small, I’ve happily baked cookies and cakes for neighbors and friends. These foods, while delicious and soul-filling, are not exactly a part of the food pyramid. On the other hand, my desert island food (that is, the one type of food I would be content to eat on a desert island should I be stranded there indefinitely) is bread, a staple that exists in some form in just about every culture. In the US, it’s also quite expensive, and often times filled with garbage ingredients to preserve flavor and freshness indefinitely. While I do occasionally buy a loaf, I’m rarely satisfied with it and have long dreamed of learning to make my own.

The problem is, bread is hard. Well, it’s not hard so much as it is time consuming. All that waiting and kneading and rising, and even when I followed every step, it never turned out quite right. My friends could bake beautiful braided challahs and hot crusty rolls, and my own contribution was dense and flavorless. After a while, I decided to start researching to figure out where I was going wrong, and I came across an article by Lahey, and I was immediately taken with him and his ideas about bread. About a year later, I asked for his book for Christmas, and my in-laws obliged. I dove straight in after the holidays. I worked my way though the basic bread recipe, and when it was a complete and utter failure, I was, well, devastated. His recipes are no fail! How could I fail a no fail recipe? It made no sense. I gave up, deciding I just wasn’t cut out to bake bread.

A few months ago, I pulled out the book again, and this time, I actually sat down and read it, cover to cover. I didn’t get out the flour or the yeast. I simply sat with the book and absorbed the tales he wove about salt and the singing of a perfect loaf. It was poetry. It made me salivate, and more importantly, it gave me the courage to try again. Again, and again. I made loaves that required my patience because I trusted in the story Lahey told about his beloved bread. I left dough alone when it needed space, and I was gentle when it needed care, and every time, I turned out a perfect golden loaf. It felt like a miracle, but really, it was nothing more than buying into what Lahey spun for me. I allowed myself to be swept up in his unconventional story, and it was every bit as wonderful as the bread itself.

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

This has been a big year for me exploring books that incorporate art. I’ve found so many that I loved, and this one, a gift from my sister-in-law at Christmas, has been on my “must read” list for a long time. I love Allie Brosh, I’ve followed her career for several years now, and I’m thrilled that her book was as delightful as I had imagined. Much like Fun House, Hyberbole and a Half is a drama dressed up in clown shoes and a squeaky nose. Although much of Brosh’s work makes me giggle uncontrollably, the real meat of it deals with her own struggles with depression and self-worth.

If my life were a movie, the turning point of my depression would have been inspirational and meaningful.  It would have involved wisdom-filled epiphanies about discovering my true self and I would conquer my demons and go on to live the rest of my life in happiness.

Instead, my turning point mostly hinged on the fact that I had rented some movies and then I didn’t return them for too long.

The late fees had reached the point where the injustice of paying any more than I already owed outweighed my apathy. I considered just keeping the movies and never going to the video store again, but then I remembered that I still wanted to re-watch Jumanji.

I put on some clothes, put the movies in my backpack, and biked to the video store. It was the slowest, most resentful bike ride ever.

And when I arrived, I found out they didn’t even have Jumanji in.

Just as I was debating whether I should settle on a movie that wasn’t Jumanji or go home and stare in abject silence, I noticed a woman looking at me weirdly from a couple rows over.

She was probably looking at me that way because I looked really, really depressed and I was dressed like an Eskimo vagrant.

Normally, I would have felt an instant, crushing sense of self-consciousness, but instead, I felt nothing.

I’ve always wanted not to give a fuck. While crying helplessly into my pillow for no good reason, I would often fantasize that maybe someday I could be one of those stoic badasses whose emotions are mostly comprised of rock music and not being afraid of things. And finally – finally – after a lifetime of feelings and anxiety  and more feelings, I didn’t have any feelings left. I had spent my last feeling being disappointed that I couldn’t rent Jumanji

I felt invincible.

And thus began a tiny rebellion.

I swooped out of there like the Batman and biked home in a blaze of defiant glory.

And that’s how my depression got so horrible that it actually broke through to the other side and became a sort of fear-proof exoskeleton. (p 113)

So ends Part One of the two part story about her worst eighteen months of depression. In the second section, she talks about how the feeling of invincibility faded to become a combination of boredom and a sort of horror that she would never experience feelings again. She doesn’t spare any of the journey – the loving but useless help from friends, the struggle with suicidal thoughts, the slow road back from depression to a more balanced mental health – it’s all there. Furthermore, the end is not a rainbow of recovery so much as it is a ray of hope.

A huge part of what makes her story so authentic and appealing is that she’s not fixated on the neat conclusion, but on the space in between the starting line and the finish. Her approach is light but frank and could as easily be a jumping off point for discussing these issues in a classroom or at home as it is an enjoyable coffee table read.Humor has long been used as a technique to de-stigmatize certain behaviors society has deemed off-limits for discussion, and I, for one, am completely in support of this approach. Brosh’s sense of the absurd coupled with her piercing self-examination is unsettling, but also strangely inviting. She’s the guest you invite over who has no filter, the one who manages to be awkward and scrambling and lovable at the same time.

 

To see more of Allie Brosh’s brilliant work, head over here.

What is Death, Henry Scott Holland

What is Death

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
that we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference in your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without affect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolutely unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am waiting for you,
for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just around the corner.

All is well.

 

I’ve been thinking about this poem a lot the last couple of weeks. When I was at church the Sunday before Lent began, we were celebrating, as our congregation always does, with a wonderful brass band. It’s made up of some exceptionally talented members of our community, and when they play for us (typically on that Sunday and on Easter), it energizes everyone. For an hour, it felt like Mardi Gras had truly descended on us. The only downside to this particular service is that every year at its conclusion, we sing a hymn called “Glory Glory (Since I Laid My Burdens Down).” It’s one of my favorites, and it also happens to be a song that I asked to have included in my grandmother’s memorial service a few years ago.

My grandmother and I were very close. We spent a lot of time together, just the two of us, especially until I was about ten, and even after I moved three thousand miles away in my twenties, I tried to come back and visit her four or five times a year. As she got frailer in her nineties, I still enjoyed going out to sit by the river with her, or to get an ice cream because she managed to keep her good humor and sharp wits about her nearly to the end. I’m sure her body often hurt, that she was frustrated when she couldn’t speak as quickly as she wanted or dig into a ham sandwich on rye with the vigor she’d had even at eighty-five, but she never complained to me. She was practically blind by then (a particular sorrow for a woman who dearly loved to read), but she would sit and hold my hand, enjoying the sunshine and listening with eagle ears to the busy world around us.

After she was gone, I realized that many of my earliest memories were of her. She taught me to read and write in cursive long before those activities might have interested me in school. She had such beautiful handwriting, and she would write me little stories so I could practice deciphering the text and rewriting it myself. When we ate lunch together, she would pull out two pretty aluminum tv trays and set them up in front of the bay window in her apartment; I would spread out the special embroidered place mats and together we would make peanut butter sandwiches cut twice to form four triangles. As we ate, we would sit and watch the commuter trains go by and she would listen quietly while I talked (and talked and talked).

As the second child, I especially appreciated and craved the kind of dedicated love and respect she gave to me. She never expected anything of me other than to exhibit a joy for learning new things; she saw the world as an adventure waiting to unfold, and she wanted me to see and believe that too. In return, I never questioned the old-fashioned nature of our favorite past times – stringing wooden beads, or playing Authors, or learning to read aloud sentences from the worn books in her old wooden chest. She would crawl under tables with me to play pirates and into bushes that had holes just the right size for the two of us. My faith in her as a playmate and confidante was absolute.

I think of her often, but never more so than when I hear that particular song – a spiritual written about finding, finally, a release from trouble and pain. It’s a joyful song, especially when played with unbridled enthusiasm by a brass band and sung by 250 people, but it never fails to make me cry by the third verse (I feel better, so much better, since I laid my burdens down). I don’t like to cry in public, so I usually end up mouthing the lyrics through to the end while trying to pretend that everything is completely fine. It’s probably a futile exercise, but I persist because the wave of sadness it brings reminds me of Holland’s simple verses – that the pain of loss should not taint the joy of who a person was in life.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy, Alison Bechdel

I’ve gotten away with reading some lighthearted books this month, and honestly, when I picked up Fun Home (a Christmas gift from my husband), my brain only processed the comedy half of “tragicomedy.” I was having trouble sleeping, and this seemed like the perfect remedy. It’s a graphic novel (although the style is composed in such a way that even my brain can process it), it’s been on my reading list for a while, and I tend to think of Bechdel as a comedic online presence, although that’s not strictly an accurate description of her body of work.

Bechdel is a deeply intellectual woman who, for almost thirty years, has been writing about the frustrations, limitations, and ridiculous incongruities of womanhood and sexuality, and while she does approach these topics (and others, like her family, the focus of this memoir), with a healthy sense of humor, her observations are razor-sharp and often devastating. Her writing and illustrations don’t skirt the inconvenient or uncomfortable truths she has encountered. Instead, she leans into the moments of drama, drawn from her own life experience, without attempting to spare herself or save face.

Reading Fun Home, I often found myself trying to skim over the hardest sections on her behalf. I thought about what it must be like for her family to have their lives shared in such a raw way; while she is far from the first artist to mine her own history for this kind of material, as a reader, I struggle with the sacrifices that come with such a choice. I wanted to spare her the uncertainty, the missed opportunities for family acceptance, the terrible secrets that were kept from her until adulthood. As ridiculous as it is to crave such a thing – to believe that averting my eyes from her confessions would ease some of the pain she’s had to endure – her presence as a writer draws out the most empathetic parts of me. Her vulnerability is truly a remarkable strength.

Her openness too though is a source of power. Society leans toward secrecy, toward hiding the less desirable parts of ourselves, but there is an incredible freedom in accepting the flaws and challenges that come from being human. Shaming those parts, or even politely declining to acknowledge them, is a misplaced attempt at perfection and uniformity. It brings no joy to deny the unique journey every person is on; in fact, it eats at the heart of the kind of power that brings a book like this to life. Really, it destroys the power that brings any number of books to life.

As readers, we crave authenticity, whether it be in memoir or in fiction, in three lines of poetry or in a thousand page fantasy. The human experience as viewed through a million imperfect lens is what fills library shelves and brings us closer to each other while feeding our enthusiasm and understanding of the wider world. A book like Fun Home, which blends the visually light style of a graphic novel with the emotionally challenging landscape of Bechdel’s youth is just one more lens we can peer through, accepting, hopefully, both the hard truth and her compassion on the other side.

 

For more about Alison Bechdel, go here.