The Path of Minor Planets

Once upon a time, I used to make note of the connections between books I was reading. With this book, several connections came roaring to the surface, even in the conversation I had with SuperChen as she recommended this book. I told her I was reading Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop, and we started talking about writers, which led to what she was currently reading, which was this book. We talk about Virginia Woolf, how I loved The Waves, and how she should give it a try. Fast forward a few days, and I’m reading The Path of Minor Planets, which not only references The Waves, but also does a similar following of characters through time.
Back to Andrew Sean Greer, whom I neatly dismissed after reading The Confessions of Max Tivoli. Our second meeting was much more pleasant. Solid writing stretched on an interesting story frame – he visits the same characters every 6 years at the perihelion or aphelion of a comet discovered by one of the characters (Professor Swift).
In 1965, the characters are gathered on a tiny island to watch the comet’s return. Denise has been bribed to get rid of her heartbreak over Carlos dumping her by traveling with the group. Eli and Kathy are along at the invitation of Professor Manday (later named as co-discoverer of the Swift comet), although Eli changed data to get a desired result instead of reporting the anomalies, the neat package earning him recognition from his professor and an invitation to join. Kathy, the newlywed bride to Eli, snapping photos of Lydia, Swift’s young daughter. A boy tumbles to his death off the tower while the party comet-watches and counts shooting stars.
Kathy only divorces Eli after he insists of admitting his affair with Denise. She ends up surrounded by books, happy alone but missing him:

“You were missing him?”
She was, but Kathy would never tell that to a soul. Longing was not a public act for her, and absence was simply that: an empty space, nothing to speak of. And, if she were to be honest, she was doing fine alone. Kathy was happy by herself. When she was a young woman, being alone had never been an option; but here, near the end of the century, it had been chosen for her and she discovered, like someone who has stepped into the wrong movie theater only to find herself transfixed, that she liked it. You did not really have to cook. You did not have to clean. You could read endlessly, stay up late reading and wake up Sunday morning with nothing ahead but a hundred cups of coffee and a million words in print. There was, of course, the debris of loneliness spread everywhere. But it was bearable. She did not long for a man in her life, after all; she only missed her husband. (p 253)

In 1971, they gather at Swift’s Sonoma farm to raise a glass to the comet at its furthest point from them, as it makes the turn and begins its six year journey back. Lydia is older, hiding in the barn and talking to Adam, Denise’s husband. Denise has baby Josh at her breast. Manday gets drunk and admits that Swift is cold, cruel, listing anything to do with people under the letter “P” in his notebook.
In 1977, they’re back on the island, Denise and Eli have begun collaborating on amateur discoveries, found a comet themselves. Adam is confined to his hut, sick. We later find out that this is when Adam finds out about Denise and Eli’s affair from Lydia, who dances off to sleep with Manday’s son, Ali.
In 1983, Swift is aging quickly, hanging out at the Exploratorium in San Francisco with his daughter Alice and her daughter. His diabetes is taking over his vision, crucial for a scientist. Manday has petitioned and won co-naming rights to their comet. Lydia gets locked out of her NYC apartment on a rainy day, ending up at her mom’s place where she finds her mom in disarray. We find out about Adam’s trickery– phoning up Eli with a lunch invitation to pretend distress over Denise having an affair with Carlos, the old ex-boyfriend, which freezes Eli into panic and causes Eli to break things off with Denise, playing perfectly into Adam’s hands.
In 1990, Denise has perished in a car crash in the Marin headlands. Josh is moving in with his lover, Henry. Swift’s ashes are transported to the island for dispersal by Lydia. Eli discovered that Carlos was a ruse, that he threw away his chance for love, but that Denise is dead.

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Marie Antoinette

This historical glimpse under the powdered wigs of the court of Versailles gives a complete picture of Marie Antoinette, the Austrian princess betrothed to the future king of France at age 13. The setup was a political one, Antoinette’s mother (Empress Marie Theresa) wanting to install an Austrian presence in the French court. MA arrives at Versailles a young, frivolous girl, and leaves 20-odd years later a stronger, world-weary mother, witnessing the fall of the monarchy and concerned foremost for the safety of her family.
A few months back, a thought struck me that there’s no way MA could have said “Let them eat cake!” ~ it was too pert, one of those urban myths that stuck to her reputation. And in this book, Fraser points out that this canard had been attributed to the Spanish princess a century prior to MA’s arrival at Versailles, known in slightly different form, “If there was no bread, let the people eat the crust of the pâté.” The phrase was known to Rousseau in 1737 (MA was born in 1755). It was present in the memoirs of Comte de Provence, who remarked that “eating pâté en croûte always reminded him of the saying of his ancestor, Queen Marie Therese.” Fraser points out that it was counter to MA’s charity-obsessed personality to say such a crude and misguided thing.
The drama of the book centers around a few events:
* MA and Louis XVI’s inability to conceive a child (finally remedied with a sickly Dauphin who dies, a healthy Marie Theresa, and another boy who theoretically becomes king when his father is executed)
* MA’s affair with Swedish Count Fersen
* The Diamond Necklace scandal, where someone impersonated MA and people believed she spent millions on a diamond necklace at a time the French treasury was teetering on collapse thanks to spending on the American Revolution. This scandal was responsible for steeling MA’s nerves and thrusting her into a stronger role. It’s also why she was frequently painted without a necklace, to make a pointed reference to her innocence.
* The revolution, the forced march from Versailles to Paris, the initial escape (failed) to Varennes where the family was recognized and detained, the eventual banishment to the Temple, then the Tower.
It is a remarkable journey, from the glittering excess of the Versailles courts to the vermin-infested quarters the Queen is confined to in the Tower, awaiting her husband’s death and then her own. The journey is also that of the French people- as they adore their new Dauphine and then their feelings morph into hatred as sordid and untrue tales circulate about MA.

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Unlimited Do-overs

I consume a lot of information on a daily basis, and rarely does something speak to me as clearly as this section of a blog post on the benefits of frugal living and finding your true path. I find it refreshingly inspiring to read this, and wanted to bookmark it on my own blog for later perusal.

When we were radically simplifying our lives and finances, I don’t know how many mistakes and bad ideas we had. We tried being super frugal and using every tip in the Tightwad Gazette, only to be miserable because most of them didn’t work for us. We tried numerous jobs until we found jobs that allowed us work in a way that meshed with our values and goals. (I thought at one time that I wanted to be a super career girl. What a laugh that turned out to be. Suits, heels, office politics, and corporate culture made me ill. I’m a jeans and outdoors kind of girl who doesn’t believe in office politics. Needless to say, I didn’t fit and I had to try, try again until I found a job that allowed me to be who I am.) We experimented with everything from the food we ate to what we wore and where we lived. We tried so many different ideas and approaches, I think we even confused our families as to who we were and what we were trying to become.
It didn’t all come together for several years. Had we given up (and believe me, it was tempting) we’d still be living hectic, crazy lives working at jobs that left us empty with only reckless spending to make us feel better. Thank heavens we kept at it. Now we are both very happy in our work, we’ve found the perfect approach to frugality for us, and our lives are much simpler and happier. We work and spend in accordance with our values and goals and that has made all the difference.
The great thing about life is that we get almost unlimited do overs. The only time you can’t try something again is when you’re dead. As long as you’re alive, you can reinvent yourself and correct your past mistakes.

Pop Up Magazine

If the term “magazine” is a loosely-collected bunch of speakers and images and mp3s and movie clips, then sign me up for a subscription. Wednesday night, one night only, at the Brava Theater, myself and hundreds of other ticketed guests let the magazine unfold on stage in front of us. From Heelys demonstration to clips from Botany of Desire documentary (on tulips, ganja, potatoes and apples), an imagined rap battle between Doom and Lil Wayne to images taken from Louisiana prisons, this live action magazine had it all. This was the brainchild of Evan Ratliff, Doug McGray, Derek Fagerstrom, Lauren Smith, and Maili Holiman.
Highlights for me:
* termite article by Lisa Margonelli– the queen shoots out eggs at a clip of one every 3 seconds for fifteen years while her young lick her to keep her cool, walling her up in an antechamber and then licking her to death. Also, the mold of the mound somehow controls the bugs.
* Larry Sultan’s slideshow of a photo album he found in a flea market. The pictures were a bit odd, the subjects not looking dead on into the camera, and the progression of Christmas tree photos with the brothers and mother, then just the mother, then the photograph of the son placed among pictures of furniture, then the memorial for the son killed in WWII.
* Peggy Orenstein’s “Pink” article about the media pushing pink down girls’ throats until it’s the only color they clamor for.
* Andrew Lam’s piece on watching his unemployed Chinese neighbors chow down on good food.
* Todd Hido’s slideshow of photos taken a decade ago that showcase homes in foreclosure, empty rooms, clean carpet, light fixtures in place and everything just spic-n-span waiting for new owners to come in.
* Megan Prelinger interview about her library in downtown San Francisco of ~ “40,000 books, periodicals, printed ephemera and government documents”
* the final act– Devil’s Water, a memoir by Glynn Washington about having Michigan farmers come watch his family try to find water for their well.
* the woman who spoke about Fear – downhill skier who watched his friend crash/get medivac’d out/go into coma/ then goes on to nail his own run. She was a bit weird– we watched the footage of the crash and then she made a sarcastic remark about the twitching body on our screen which fell flat.

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

I’ve been away so long, and this was the appropriate vehicle to return in; Philip K. Dick brought me back to the land of fiction. Plucked from the Chinatown library on the chance recommendation that PKD would be good for what ails me, this is a posthumously published book (written in 1960, published 1986) that threw me a lifeline back into great literature.
Even in the first pages, it dawned on me: using 3rd person tense is a great idea because you play God and dip into each character’s worldview and psyche. Mostly I’ve been obsessed with 1st person voice, and will give this a go. Sounds so obvious, right?
The scene: Oakland, CA in 1959
Jim Fergesson is tagged as the “old man”, old Jim is headed for retirement and sells his auto-garage gleefully, frightened he’ll have a heart attack under one of the cars. Lydia, his Greek intellectual wife, always heading out to lectures and symposia. Al Miller, the used car salesman who rents his lot from Jim, and who always got help fixing up his cars, is taken aback by Jim’s impending sale. Chris Harman, owner of Teach Records, gets his Caddy fixed by Jim and tells him of an opportunity to invest in an auto-garage in the new Marin Gardens being built by the new highway in San Rafael. Mrs. Lane, the realtor Al goes to in hopes of finding a new lot to sell cars on, who rescues Al from the awkward Harman meting in the Oakland hills, who rolls by his car lot when he’s in the depths of despair and takes him home, embracing him.
The situation is different from each character’s perspective. Al doesn’t trust Harman’s Marin Gardens scheme, Harman hires Al as a way to get money from Jim, Harman’s scheme turns out to be legit, Lydia sics the law on Al for the $2k she gave him for his smashed-up Packard car.
Al is faced with conflicting options:

Should I call the district attorney and report Harman as a crook? Or should I try to blackmail him for trying to swindle the old man? Or should I show up at his house or his place of business and try to talk him into hiring me? Or should I just go home and go to bed with my wife and get up the next morning and go to work at Al’s Motor Sales?

Al’s wife, Julie, leaves him to continue his journey alone:

He felt the rift, the ghastly, purposeless rift. What did it matter now whether he went on or not? But he was going on; he was on his way alone to Salt Lake City and whatever came after that. Maybe this is better, he thought. For us to separate. At least they won’t get both of us. It was hopeless from the start to try to make her go along. He thought, You can’t force people to do anything. I can’t make Julie do what I want her to do, any more than Lydia Fergesson could force me to send flowers or go to the mortuary. Each of us has his own life to live out, for better or worse.

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I Was Told There’d Be Cake

Fantastically funny collection of short stories by a powerhouse writer who rocks the first line test. For example, “The second I was old enough to know what sex was, I knew I wanted to have a one-night stand.” This is the lead sentence of One-Night Bounce, a story midway through the collection. The story goes on to detail her perception of what a one-night stand was:

I figured a one-night stand happened when two people, one of whom was a woman, went to a man’s apartment for martinis and stood on the bed the entire time, trying not to spill them. Sometimes they bounced on the bed until they hit their heads on the ceiling, and that’s how the girl (a) passed out or (b) knew it was time to go home. This accounted for the sound of mattress springs creaking as well as any exhaustion the next morning. It was how hair became tousled. (p 99)

Crosley leads us on a journey down her rabbit hole, giving glimpses into the life of a Manhattanite who loses her wallet 6.7 times and receives it back intact every single time. She details the horrors of working as a publishing assistant to Ursula, the world’s most charming interviewer yet the world’s most horrific boss who flings pens/manuscripts/etc. at Crosley’s head whenever she does something wrong (the story ends with Crosley baking a misshapen cookie resembling Ursula, gets sick, writes her resignation on September 10, 2001, comes into work on 9/11 and gives her notice). We follow her into summer camp where she’s unwittingly exposed to Christian songs and myths, being brainwashed into Jesus-love unbeknownst to her Jewish parents. We watch her ill-fated move to a new apartment 5 blocks away with multiple calls to a locksmith. We cringe as a childhood friend she hasn’t spoken to in a decade calls her up to ask her to be a bridesmaid (another great first line: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who know where their high school yearbook is and those who do not.”)
More good stuff from the bridesmaid story:

I watched my cell phone seizure with the unregistered display of a 617 area code. Boston? I thought, Who the hell is calling me from Boston?
‘Hi Sloane! It’s Francine,’ she chirped.
I responded with the same degree of skepticism I use for people with clipboards who employ familiarity as a means to get me to sign petitions.
‘Sloane, it’s Francine.’
My mental Rolodex began to spin. Bingo. Francine Davis, Class of ’96, Latin Club President, Video Yearbook, pot yes, liquor no.

‘Hey there.’ I cleared my throat. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m engaged!’
Incidentally, this is an unacceptable answer to that question.

The bridal story was clearly my favorite (You on a Stick). The bride declares to the group that she is not taking the groom’s last name, and giving up her own last name so they both become Mr. & Mrs. Universe. Crosley begins to laugh uncontrollably, but then discovers a secret that can keep her sane throughout the rest of the experience– her “friend’s” initials are now F.U.
She ends the story collection strongly with this first section:

There are few diseases for which the cure is objectively as bad as the affliction. Cancer is one of them. Crack addiction is another. Lucky for me, I didn’t have either in the summer of 2005.

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Happyslapped by a jellyfish

About halfway through this, I started channeling Karl, thinking to meself, “Do we need it?” and “Hmm, I just want to chuck this, the way he’s knocking about, blathering on.” In seriousness, his written word doesn’t have the impact his spoken nonsense has that cracks me up on Ricky Gervais’ podcast.
These aren’t direct quotes, but as I remember them:
“I eat oranges in the bathtub so I can dunk my hands after eating”
“New York, the city so nice they named it twice? Nah, they couldn’t hear you the first time, it’s so loud.”
“We’re running out of words. Cow-fish? Has nothing to do with a cow.”

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Naturally Thin

Still waiting on my review copy of this, ahem! But my love for Bethenny’s sharp wit drove me to obtain a copy on my own, which I enjoyed thoroughly. Her tongue-in-cheek, no-nonsense style shines through in this kick-yer-ass book. Although it was cowritten with Eve Adamson, Bethenny’s voice shouts and nags at you from the pages. Well done, ladies!
Ten rules to help unleash your skinny girl:
* Your diet is a bank account. You can be flexible, just know you have to balance that chocolate cake with a big old plate of veggies. Don’t eat too much of one thing, nor the same thing twice, balance starches with proteins, veggies/fruits with sweets, a splurge with a save. It’s approximate. Don’t obsess.
* You can have it all, just not all at once. We need to treat ourselves like children who require this type of rule. You are responsible for what goes down your gullet. Know what you really want, and just eat that. Don’t eat all things that are in front of you. Food voice vs. food noise– if something sounds good and you can’t stop thinking about it, try to distract yourself; change lanes. A lot of times the craving stops. If craving continues, you can decide to have a taste of it. You’re still in control. Always question if you really want it. Scenario: you’re at a party, there’s loads of food on tables. Take a lap, see what’s there and what you absolutely must have. Take a breather, talk to friends, then go back and get a few bites of something.
* Taste everything, eat nothing. Along the same lines, just sample a lot of things instead of eating the whole shebang. Eat little, but well. Switching lanes– when you feel like you’re going to keep eating something because it’s delicious, make yourself stop after a few tastes and switch to a different taste.
* Pay attention. No more mindless eating while multitasking. Step away from everything else and just focus on the taste of your food. Eat sitting down. Appreciate the cooking process, taste your food, chew your food slowly and well, notice when others aren’t paying attention to their eating, be a food snob, quit multitasking, think like an Italian, sit down, slow down, pause between bites, calm yourself with deep breaths before eating, make food special.
* Downsize now. Our portion sizes are out of control. Switch your plate sizes to salad-size or smaller. At a restaurant, have your server put half your entree in a doggie bag before it reaches the table.
* Cancel your membership to the Clean Plate Club. This one strikes me particularly hard, being the frugalista that I am. It pains me to throw away food. But combining this with downsizing, perhaps finishing smaller portions is ok. Share your food with friends, save it for later, or leave it. Don’t bring bad food along with you, walk away.
* Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Yes, that’s really what she named this rule, with no nod to Ice Cube. This rule is all about not binging.
* Know thyself. Know your weaknesses, likes/dislikes, your hunger, your triggers. Be prepared with snacks if you need them.
* Get real. Eat whole food that is not processed. Be picky about what you put in your mouth. Go organic/local/seasonal. Eat the rainbow – lots of colors.
* Good for you. Exercise, sleep, be social, treat yourself well.
Also helpful is the idea of diminishing returns– the point after which a food doesn’t taste quite as good. Stop eating it then!
Balancing: one or two carb based meals (whole grain preferred), one or two protein meals, 2 fruits, unlimited veggies, 2 fats, 2 sweets, 2 snacks, 2 beverages plus unlimited water, 2 exceptions.
Idiot-Proof Tofu Salad Sandwich
* 7 oz firm tofu, drained & mashed
* 1 tsp Dijon mustard
* 1 tsp mayo
* 3/4 tsp Spike seasoning (or salt & pepper)
Combine all ingredients and spread on toasted sprouted grain bread topped with soy cheese or veggie cheese.
Healthy Brown Rice Breakfast
* 1/2 cup cooked brown rice
* 1/4 cup soymilk (or rice or almond milk, or regular milk)
* 1 Tbsp raisins or dried cranberries
* 1 tsp sliced almonds
* 1 Tbsp maple syrup
* 1/2 tsp cinnamon
Combine all in saucepan & warm, about 5 minutes

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Maybe I’m the only reader in the world who’s lukewarm on Gladwell. His books seem like good magazine articles overblown into full length books, which waters down the content into a thin gruel. I didn’t find anything totally mindblowingly amazing in this work either… we set arbitrary dates and thus affect things (cutoff date for hockey team registration means people at the very beginning of the next period are older, and bigger and get more help), people who were born during a particular time (1830s) are able to take advantage of government deregulation and thus become some of the wealthiest people ever, people who practice things at least for 10,000 hours get to be really good at that task…

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