How to Be Single

Sometimes you can skip the beach and still read beach books. This book was yet another guilty pleasure I read in a few hours this weekend; the thermometer in San Francisco crossing 80 degrees seemed to give me leeway to read mindless drivel. It caught my eye as I wandered the air conditioned bookstore, seeking something else to tackle with my library books all returned, the cover showing a woman zipping up her dress, a heartbreakingly perfect symbol of the Single Girl, who lives alone and has no one to help her with that final step in dressing, the zip-up. Or conversely, it could be the unzip, since all us Single Gals are apparently swinging and hopping from bed to bed.
The premise of the book is that Julie, a 38 year old publishing executive tired of her job and her loveless prospects in man-starved NYC, has a night out with the “girls” (all separate friends of hers gathered together to show Georgia, newly divorced, a good time) and an epiphany that she wants to travel around the world and understand how it is that women manage to be single in this world that hammers the idea of partnership so unrelentingly. Julie sells the idea to her publishing house, gets a small advance, and hops off to France to interview single ladies about their experience. Naturally, she falls in love with Thomas, a married man in an open marriage, who follows her to Italy, then meets up with her in Bali and China before his wife drags him back home.
The story also follows the “girls” who of course become fast friends with Julie out of town; Serena becomes a swami and shaves her head, finds love, is cheated on, goes back to cooking for the celebrity family and witnesses true love through that family. Alice, who quit her job to date full-time, settling on marriage with Jim but pulling out last minute after they decide to elope to Iceland where they would’ve been married in the dark. Georgia, the mother of two, newly divorced and feeling her way back into the dating scene, telling off guys at Whole Foods, setting up elaborate schemes to raise her value in Sam’s eyes (bouquets of flowers and well timed phone calls from her gay neighbors). And Ruby, the depressed-over-the-death-of-her-cat woman who in the end succumbs to anti-depressants after she learns that her mom’s been taking them.
Parts of the book are tolerable; toward the end I was simply skimming, the girls all end up in Iceland together and have a ritual where they destroy their bad memories and have a clean slate for the future. There seemed to be a lot of extra fluff in the writing; sections that I would have edited out due to their not contributing anything to moving the story along or providing any useful detail.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Oh my. This book has rocketed to the top of my favorites list. Barbery has blown me away with words that reach deeply into my heart, squeeze that organ tightly, wrap it with silk and throw it a delightful party.
The book is told from the perspective of two journal writers, one 54 year old concierge (Madame Renée Michel) and one incredibly intelligent 12 year old schoolgirl who lives in the building (Paloma Josse).

I have read so many books… And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading – and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.

On the nature of reading War and Peace in translation:

I would give anything to be able to read it in Russian. What I have always liked about this passage are the pauses, the balance between war and peace, the ebb and flow of his thoughts, like the tide on the shore carrying the riches of the ocean, in, and out. Was this merely a whim on the part of the translator, embroidering something that might have been very simple in the original – I have been much blamed, both for war, and for peace – thus consigning my maritime ruminations to the chapter of unfounded extravagance, or is this the very essence of a superb text which, even today, still moves me, however I resist, to tears of joy?

In defense of her rage at a misplaced comma in a note from one of the wealthy building tenants:

Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work. Language and usage evolve over time: elements change, are forgotten or reborn, and while there are instances where transgression can become the source of an even greater wealth, this does not alter the fact that to be entitled to the liberties of playfulness or enlightened misusage when using language, one must first and foremost have sworn one’s total allegiance. Society’s elect, those whom fate has spared from the servitude that is the lot of the poor, must, consequently, shoulder the double burden of worshiping and respecting the splendors of language. Finally, Sabine Pallieres’s misuse of punctuation constitutes an instance of blasphemy that is all the more insidious when one considers that there are marvelous poets born in stinking caravans or high-rise slums who do have for beauty the sacred respect that it is so rightfully owed.

After describing the beautiful scything scene in Anna Karenina:

Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will. This is eminently true of many happy moments in life. Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this – ridiculous journal of an aging concierge- if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know.

Paloma writes about learning to build instead of destroy, from the game “go”:

But just by observing the adults around me I understood very early on that life goes by in no time at all, yet they’re always in such a hurry, so stressed out by deadlines, so eager for now that they needn’t think about tomorrow… But if you dread tomorrow, it’s because you don’t know how to build the present, and when you don’t know how to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and it’s a lost cause anyway because tomorrow always ends up becoming today, don’t you see?

Paloma recounts her elevator conversation with Kakuro, where they decide that the concierge is more than she appears:

She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid… Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.

She’ll Take It

Ridiculously awful book that features the ravings of a shoplifter/actress whose penchant for implausible actions is astounding. The book is so patently obvious, Melanie steals to relieve stress, is an aspiring actress with a gorgeous model roommate Kim, she gets a temp job at a law firm where she falls into a relationship with one of the partners who happens to get a gig talking about loss prevention on Court TV. Her former boyfriend, Ray, is a musician who ignores her, and his ex-girlfriend Trina has it out for Melanie (naturally, Melanie reports to Trina at the law firm, coincidence of all coincidence). There is nothing original in the plot, even the descriptions of her rush from taking things seems hackneyed. Similar to the other book I recently read with a shoplifting heroine, Melanie begins to make art with her stolen goods, incorporating pieces of the hot items into her artist’s clocks.
Rating: one big eyeroll

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The Instinct Diet

A very cheerful book by an honest to goodness nutritionist, Susan Roberts, who’s been doing research at Tufts for the past 20 years. Roberts gets into some basics of nutrition, with emphasis on fiber intake for weight loss (it makes you feel more full). She breaks down the five instincts, then gives you a 8-week meal plan which restricts your calories to ~1200/day. Naturally, anyone will lose weight on a low calorie diet. The whole genius of this book is the emphasis on reprogramming your brain to use the five food instincts to your advantage in weight loss. This diet will recalibrate your taste buds so that you crave healthy food in lieu of the junk that surrounds us.
Five instincts around food have been passed down through evolutionary survival:
* Hunger – we eat until we feel full. If we’re not full, we’re going to get hungry at some point.
* Availability – we eat because the food is in front of us, and when there’s more food in front of us, we eat more. Buffets can be killers, since you’re faced with a variety of foods in massive quantities.
* Calorie density – we prefer foods that have more calories per ounce, since that ensured our survival. Instead of weighing a cupcake versus a salad, change your caloric scale so you’re only looking at foods in the healthier range.
* Familiarity – we enjoy foods that we know, associating them with feeling safe, and our triggers cause us to eat them over and over.
* Variety – we’re attracted to a wide variety of food and when we have lots of choices we eat lots more (another reason the buffet is bad)
How to confront cravings:
* Tap your forehead. Yeah. According to Roberts, “One scientifically proven way to stop cravings is the ‘forehead tapping’ technique. Since our working memory is small, we can displace craving thoughts with other mental activities… Place the five fingers of one hand on your forehead, spaced apart. Tap each finger in turn at intervals of one second while watching each one carefully as it taps. Keep repeating until your thoughts go elsewhere and the craving disappears.”
* Tell yourself to wait, then distract yourself for 15-20 minutes.
* Take a walk
* Brush your teeth
* Keep your eyes and nose under control – avoid looking at and smelling tempting foods
* Relabel troublesome food as “garbage” in your mind.
Instinct Crib Sheet:
* Hunger – make sure every meal and snack satisfies you and has high fiber, high volume, high protein/low carb, mixed high & low GI carbs
* Availability – take control of your food environment, get rid of temptations, eat out sparingly, “spring clean” your mind and control what you see and smell to prevent temptation.
* Calorie density – sandwich high calorie foods in between portions of low calorie foods high in fiber and protein; make low calorie foods more appetizing.
* Familiarity- eat at regular times so your body knows when to expect food. Eat healthy foods when you’re hungry to reinforce their pleasure
* Variety – keep a low variety of unhealthy foods, keep a high variety of healthy ones

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Getting a Grip

I was drawn to Monica Seles’ autobiography as a curiosity– what happened to that tennis legend who seemed to drop out of our sight completely? In 1993 she was stabbed in the back by a deranged fan of Steffi Graf’s, who ended up getting only probation and no jail time. She had luckily been bending over for a sip of water at the time, otherwise would have been completely paralyzed by the stabbing. Due to Germany’s lack of punishment for her attacker, she vowed never to set foot in the country again, and skipped the WTA tournament in Munich in 2001.
At the time of the stabbing, she’d been a professional for three years and racked up eight Grand Slam titles. The early chapters of her book deal with the initial spark of love for tennis, playing in a makeshift court in Yugoslavia since no one under age 12 was allowed on the courts, eventually moving to Florida and joining the elite tennis academy with Sampras, Agassi, and Michael Chang.
Seles traces her food obsession back to the tennis academy, where she discovered the joys of peanut butter, and began to use food to fill the hole inside her life being so far removed from her parents. The food obsession came back with a vengeance after the stabbing, and she would mope around the house watching daytime TV and eating peanut butter pretzels and ice cream.
After recovering from her injury, she found herself ballooning to 40 or 50 pounds above her normal weight, and unable to stop binging on late night fast food or attacking the hotel mini bar for their sweet and savory treats. Her team of coaches and nutritionists were unable to get her to stop the unhealthy behavior.
As the story unfolds, she begins to expand her life more and more outside the tennis world, with horseback riding, vacations, skydiving, shark-swimming. When she turns 30, she heads to Costa Rica and relaxes for the first time in her life, joining an impromptu yoga class on the morning of her birthday. That year, she begins walking walking walking and listening to her body tell her what it needed to eat, and dropped 30 pounds without dieting as a result.
Definitely a book that makes you pull for her, and written in her own style. It doesn’t smack of ghost-writing to my eyes, at least.

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Children of the Alley

I read most of this gorgeous book of Egyptian tales before falling asleep at the repetition and dull English translation. When I began to catalog this for the blog, I found the original translator’s plea for attention on Amazon:

As the translator of Children of Gebelaawi, I cannot decently comment on the quality of Theroux’ version. Some people may like his use of English, which does not appeal to me. I have found various gross errors of translation of the Arabic, but no doubt a careful study of my version would find similar mistakes; neither of us is a native Arabic speaker. However, it does worry me that in some places he has made a mistake that was in my 1981 edition and which I have since corrected; at least one of these is such an improbable ‘howler’ that I cannot believe he did not use my translation. Theroux’ version lacks an introduction, and I consider this a grave lacuna. The history of the book is deeply interesting in itself and needs to be told. The novel also needs some explaining: why did Mahfuz, the deep psychological observer, write a book so apparently lacking in subtlety; and what is the secret message of the book?

In short, read Children of Gebelaawi in lieu of this version and you may spare yourself some eye-ache.

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Crisis in Candyland

Possibly the worst book I’ve ever read cover to cover. Usually I drop these kinds of ridiculously awful books after a few pages, but I quickly skimmed this one as part of a research effort on Mars Inc.
Beyond basic editing flaws (a couple grammatical errors), the awfulness extends to the writing itself. Here’s a taste from the Preface:

As I began research on the Mars company and the Mars family, I knew my task of uncovering the story behind the country’s largest candy company would be challenging. Ambitious tasks don’t frighten me, however: I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University that was invaluable in teaching me social analysis and research methods. These skills helped me uncover the true story of the worlds most popular advice columnists for an earlier book. My unauthorized biography of Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, published in 1987, was Dear Ann, Dear Abby.

more barely readable words:

On September 24, 1883, Franklin C. Mars was born into a setting as linked to America’s traditional image of itself as any Frank Capra movie set: the small town of Newport near the Wisconsin border outside St. Paul, Minnesota.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. Forrest Mars Senior was the true entrepreneur, creating the pet food extension in Europe and coming back to the US to merge with his father’s Mars company when he was 60 years old. Forrest’s two sons were afraid to take risks, preferring not to incur debt and merely focus on line extensions instead of new products, and global expansion of current products. Throw in a couple of messy divorces, a phobia of publicity, and you’ve got the extent of Pottker’s story.
Bland, awful, un-documented with notes of any kind. Avoid at all costs.

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The Freedom Manifesto

Hodgkinson makes it seem easy to simply quit your job, take up gardening and squat in an unused building foraging for free scraps thrown away by the mega-supermarkets. The less you want, the less money you need, the less of a need to work there is. He writes and produces The Idler magazine for kicks, and freelance writes magazine articles for actual cash.
This is an anarchist handbook, in the sense that getting rid of central government is good for us as it allows us to be more self-reliant. Who will do the shit work? We will do our own shit work, he proclaims, insisting that shoveling horse/chicken manure around your farm or garden is infinitely more pleasurable to shoveling shit for the man eight hours a day.
Real anarchists should avoid criminal acts at all cost since governments love crime, it gives them a reason to exist.
Hodgkinson rails against the same things over and over, the essays repeat some of the same ideas as you muddle through the middle and end. He hates Tesco, the large supermarket chain in the UK.
Further reading:
Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid
Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution
From the Intro:

How to be free? Well, like it or not, you are free. The real question is whether you choose to exercise that freedom: there is an essential nothingness at the heart of man. We have created our own universe. Life is absurd. God is love. We are free.

Reject Career and all its Empty Promises (p 46, 47 and 49):

To return self-sufficiency and creativity to our lives, we might operate some sort of business from home, a cottage industry, a creative production into which we can put as much or as little time and energy as we like, as much as suits us at a particular time in our lives. ‘Learn a craft’ is what I suggest to young writers who contact the Idler: carpentry or blacksmithing or gardening or upholstery; such pursuits sit alongside the life of the mind very well. It is wise to reject utterly as a piece of bourgeouis propaganda the oppressive aphorism ‘jack of all trades and master of none’. No: you can do lots of things.

How do you find your vocation, your gift? The answer is simply to do nothing for as long as you possibly can. In the same way that wise gardeners advise that the first step when taking over a new garden is to do nothing for a year, in order to see what grows there and only then to design your own unique, useful and beautiful garden, so I would advise taking a few months off, or even a year, if you can manage it. most of the time we are too busy to step back and find out what we would like to do. Create some time for yourself and things will gradually become clear. Above all, stop trying.

Get out of the City, p 54:

This is precisely my own hope for where I live: as the five houses in our hamlet gradually come up for sale, could I persuade friends to buy them and move down here? We could all have our own vegetable patches, some could have chickens, some pigs, some goats. you need friends and neighbors to do this sort of thing; to go it alone is too hard and too lonely. We could swap produce with each other and leave each other alone when we wanted to.

Cast off your watch, p 81:

Don’t demand too much of yourself. Do less. Add space. Cut down your scheduled visits and meetings to an absolute bare minimum to make way for the more enjoyable and life-affirming ‘things that just happen.’ When you let things happen to you, life starts happening too. So, allow giat gaps between appointments. Allow giant gaps in your life, because your life is in the gaps.

Death to shopping, or Fleeing the prison of Consumer Desire, p 123:

Watching telly can also make us feel useless: we watch the experts doing things instead of doing them ourselves. It is far better, said Bertrand Russell, to do something badly yourself than to watch someone else doing it well.

Disarm Pain, p 240:

In any case, the doctor’s art is the same as it always has been, which is to amuse the patient while the body heals itself.

Stop Worrying about your Pension and Get a Life, p 243:

Much better to ignore the empty promises of state and business and make your own provision or, better still, to create a life that you won’t want to retire from.

Sail Away from Rudeness, p 260:

A new horror, worse perhaps than mobile phones on trains, is TVs on trains. Train journeys used to provide an oasis of calm, a time for reading and gazing out the window. Now, they are installing TV screens on every seat back, so you are bombarded with news and advertising during your journey. Surely that is rude? It is like having a salesman sitting down next to you and trying to sell you stuff for the entire trip. There is a feeling of being shouted at wherever you go.

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Sag Harbor

I have a special affection for Colson Whitehead, having followed his career from The Intuitionist (which still lingers in my mind whenever I see an Otis elevator), through the less enjoyable John Henry Days and The Colossus of New York, and on the upward swing of quality, Apex Hides the Hurt. Sag Harbor continues the upward trend, on par with the Intuitionist.
I was rightfully challenged to articulate exactly what it is about authors that I enjoy. For Whitehead, I enjoy his smart and witty use of juxtapositions, things like “I did stupid things very carefully” or jumping quickly to fight someone but taking the time to put the bike kickstand down, or being into Malcolm X as a hobby until business school rolls around.
The story of Sag Harbor is part coming-of-age, part black vs. white, part pop-culture catalog of the 1980s. Ben(ji) and his brother Reggie have been coming out to Sag Harbor all their summers, the black section of the Hamptons where professionals from the city escape each year to create a community and reforge bonds that disappear during the nine months of city time. Benji’s parents come out on weekends and leave the boys to their own devices, leaving them to frozen dinners and cans of soup. Finally Benji takes a job at the ice cream shop to earn food and entertainment money. Reggie similarly crews at Burger King.
Whitehead writes the family with a certain closeness yet distance; the sister Elena who is spotted in a parking lot, not telling the family she’s back in town for the weekend. Reggie and Benji used to be “twins” since being together so much, but this summer they’ve gone their separate ways. The father always teetering on the brink of anger, one flipped paper plate crammed too high with BBQ ready to send him off into orbit; Benji tiptoes around him all summer.

It was the heyday of dag. Dag was bitter acknowledgment of the brutish machinery of the world. It was a glimpse into the cruel void, as evidenced by the fact that it was often followed by “That was cold.” In the heyday of dag, we accepted our duty to call attention to such moments, taking turns at this minor masochism. It passed the time.

Dag is then sprinkled through the rest of the book, as punctuation to events. “Everybody murmured dag, in their disparate dag registers.”
Highly recommended…

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Q: The Autobiograpy of Quincy Jones

It is exhausting to read these bios of self made men who approach life like the Tasmanian Devil, whirling away and wringing every last drop from it. Quincy pulled himself up and out of the house he shared with his father, and seven siblings, sharing a cot in a closet with brothers Lloyd and Waymond. He relaxed for the first time in front of a piano in the rec center the kids broke into to scavenge food from and was immediately hooked.
His dad took Q & Lloyd from Chicago to Seattle, moved them into a temporary house for the black Naval workers, left them with 50 cents then strode off to work. Q took to music like a duck to water, trying out all the instruments, meeting Ray Charles when Ray was 16 and Q was 14, lifelong friends looking out for each other. Q would tenaciously ask questions and ask for trumpet lessons from traveling musicians (the only scheduling slot available would be before school and after the musician’s nightly gig, so trumpet lessons at 6AM). Q got swept into the bebop world of the 1940s and soaked up lessons at the feet of the masters like Count Basie, Dizzie, Miles.
Throughout the book, Q’s thoughts are interspersed with interviews with his friends and family to have the mirror reflect a different angle on Q. His life intersected with nearly every important figure of the 20th century, including Sinatra, Tupac (his daughter’s boyfriend), Babs Streisand, Michael Jackson, Nelson Mandela, the Clintons, Malcolm X, Dean Ornish, etc. etc. etc. And Q calls them all best friends, a man with the most open and warm heart according to all accounts.
He took music seriously, calling his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris the foundation of his vast composition success.
He had seven kids from five wives; in the book he connects the dots of his instability in relationships with his relationship with his mother Sarah, a schizophrenic who haunted Q & Lloyd’s lives.

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