Saturday, January 28, 2006

(More) Recent Reads
Some of these books I read back in November; I wish I'd reflected on them then.
My responses probably aren't as specific now as they may have been earlier.

Blessings, Anna Quindlen. This book wasn't particilarly complex in the sense that it had only a small cast of characters and a pretty singular story line; however, it was sweet, tense, heartwarming, and heartwrenching all at the same time. A 24-year-old with no family and a recent criminal record is hired as the caretaker at the Blessings Estate. He works for the aged widow who gives him a chance, although she's not necessarily a woman with an open mind or an easy manner. Ultimately, (early on) they're thrown together to secretly raise an orphaned baby left on the doorstep. This is the story of how they grapple with their own weaknesses, stories, prejudices, strengths, and abilities to give and receive love or trust. I read this story quickly and was moved by Quindlen's ability to tell the story without sentimentality and without sugarcoating the implications (and outcome) of a tricky situation.

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket. I read this in a couple of hours for my Mormon Book Club (again, I call it this since I'm the only participant not in a ward!). It's a kids' book (maybe age 8?); it's also been made into a movie (which I've seen) starring Jim Carey. Kids probably like that it's not sweet and sappy. In fact, the "author," Lemony Snicket, warns readers that bad things happen in this book and it's not for the faint of heart--orphaned kids, evil guardian, etc. (Doesn't every kid want to be warned they might not like something and then be tempted to test their ability to endure?) The story's interesting array of characters--kids with special abilities and skills, angular and bushy-browed greedy guardian, creepy acting troupe--and quick-paced plot make it appealing. The narrator's voice (Lemony Snicket) is also appealing. For instance, he often offers plainer definitions of unfamiliar words he's used that make it sound more like he's in cahoots with the young reader rather than condescending to them (a delightfully sneaky teaching method!).

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath. This book is powerful, particularly in two regards: 1) Plath described a young woman's descent into insanity with what seems like eerie precision. Knowing that this was published posthumously, and, knowing the details of Plath's suicide, this book is a sad step toward understanding the demons that haunted this writer (well, this human being, really); 2) Plath's writing itself, the story and descriptions of depression and confusion and listlessness and despondency was strong enough to evoke a sort of morbid cloud around me (a reader) in the minutes, hours, and days I lived between pages. (For the record, the film Lost in Translation's mood evoked a similar effect on me--one where I'm sad and grey and blue for the unfulfilled characters for hours after finishing it.)

Freakonomics, Stephen D. Levitt and Steven J. Dubner. My Aunt Laurie recommended this one; I just finished it last night. What an innovative, rigorous approach to grappling with interesting questions and conventional-wisdom-defying answers as attempted by an award-winning self-described "rogue economist." Levitt fearlessly takes into account biggies (like race, nature/nurture, politics, parenting) in unconventional but critical, analytical ways. My favorite chapters had to do with to what extent genetics and socioeconomic status seem to play into a child's intelligence and chance for success (rather than good parenting). I think the whole book, the whole approach, is fascinating and I highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to jiggle their thinking. Sample chapter titles: Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms? and How Is The Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, Maureen Corrigan. While similar to the focus of So Many Books, So Little Time, a book I mentioned in an earlier blog, Corrigan's portrayal of her life as an avid reader is a little less lippy, a little more academic. In fact, at times it's so academic I thought the title should've been more formal; this title doesn't really seem to get to the meat of her focus. Corrigan is a lit professor at Georgetown as well as NPR's Fresh Air book critic, and this memoir focuses on, specifically, how the feminist movement and the detective genre have shaped her reading experiences. She is quite the scholar, and when I finished the book, not only did I have a greater apprecation for the historical and cultural contexts of a number of classics I've read, but I had a brand new list of about 25 books I'd never considered before.

Moo, Jane Smiley. I read this as the December selection for my Marin City Library Book Club. I'm a fan of A Thousand Acres (her novel about a modern farm family, which retells the story of Shakespeare's King Lear), and am impressed once again with Smiley's ability to skillfully write a long and detailed book. At times, it seemed there were too many characters, but she managed to tell a complex and (usually) interesting tell-tale story in Moo of academia set in the midwest. For the most part, her book was funny and poignant. Not, however, as funny and poignant as another clever book about academia, The Straight Man by Richard Russo (mentioned in an earlier blog), and not as well-titled either. (Moo? Whatever...)

Maybe the Moon
, Armistead Maupin. Maupin is a well-known SF writer. This is the compelling fictional story of actress Cadence Roth. Cadence is punchy, thoughtful, talented, lonely, loved-- and also a dwarf--and she is trying to maintain her dignity while attempting to ignite her acting career, which has had but one stellar (yet anonymous) role. Maybe the Moon is the penetrating story of a woman in a career and in a world that is unable to overlook her differentness.

Middlemarch, George Eliot. The 800 page gorilla. But I mean that in a good way. George Eliot is my new hero. I can't believe she wrote this over a hundred years ago, and I can't believe she did it without Microsoft Word. She deserves every ounce of respect she's got (which is immeasurable): Middlemarch is a brilliant, warm, reflective, funny, complicated exploration of English society--but, actually, most importantly, of human nature--with round characters and smart plot. This book was revolutionary in that it was the first British book to convey the thoughts and feelings of characters (and, yes, even women!) rather than simply conveying their actions, as British books, up until this point, did. (I understand the Russian writers were doing this already, but I have some reading in that area ahead of me to catch up on before I can confirm.) What a talented writer with real ideas. This was the January selection for my Marin City Library Book Club, and it inspired our most engaging discussion yet.

The Same River Twice, Chris Offutt. I read an essay by Offutt in The Eleventh Draft, a collection of essays about writing by graduates of the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop, that I loved so much I knew I had to read more of him. Offutt is a Kentucky native, who in this memoir, writes of his life as a sort of aimless vagabond while simultaneously writing of falling in love with his wife and the birth of their son. This is beautiful, meaningful, brilliant writing. I loved it.

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson. I'm running out of steam on this blog, so I'll be quick: This book is wonderful. I swiped it from Mick's dad (Mike) when I was in Tacoma in November, since it had been recommended to me by Mick's uncle, Mike's brother, Rod. (Follow that?) I DEVOURED this book. It made me want to make a long trek, made me want to write. Bryson is cheeky (sarcastic but not cynical), smart, and thoughtful in his rendering of his attempt(s) to walk the Appalacian Trail one summer, a trail that extends 2,100 miles from north Georgia to Maine.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


This is a late entry--from back in December when Kai and Dana visited. Here the kids play on the boardwalk after pizza and coffees at Cafe Trieste with Grandad Mike's cousin Kevin, his wife, Mary, and two of their kids: Ian (with fiance Jessica) and Kyle. Mary, Kevin and Kyle were all down from Olympia for the holidays; Mary's from San Jose. Ian and Jessica live in San Francisco; we're excited to attend their wedding in SF (the Presidio?) in September.

(Sorry, but we didn't we think to take pix of the adults! Have to start doing that...)

They gave us a call on their way south from Napa where they'd spent a couple days in wine country, so we hooked up here for some tasty fun after our morning at the Discovery Museum.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Article in the Oakland Tribune
Referring to gingerbread house activity
shown in bottom entry of December 30, below

A house is not a home, its delicious

BERKELEY -- Who knew heavy construction could be such a sweet, sweet profession?

It certainly was a tasty trade in the case of the house that Aubrey and Tibor and Caitlyn and Dane and a whole bunch of other little kids built Wednesday during the gingerbread-house-building party at Habitot Childrens Museum in Berkeley.

Sure, more construction supplies were consumed than installed. But thats what happens when the raw material is sugar, the joists are Twizzlers, the mortar is a super-sticky frosting and the spice- drop parapets are simply sumptuous.

Without hesitation, highly skilled 5-year-old Dane -- clearly a gingerbread journeyman from Hansel-and-Gretel Local Yum Yum Yum -- developed a consistent rhythm: Eat an M&M doorknob, stick one on. Eat a Gummi Bear gutter, stick one on.

Hey little dude, you just swallowed a Jelly Belly soffit!

I made them eat a healthy breakfast first, but Im not sure it helped, said Danes mom, Anjie Reynolds. The family had come all the way from Sausalito for the build. Gingerbread house kits were sold out of all the stores right now, so we heard about this and decided we had to come. Its better than trying to build a house at home.

Here, a whole community of boys and girls from all over the Bay Area helped out on one big edible edifice, the kid equivalent of an Amish barn-raising. The underlying structural integrity of the building was provided by the folks at Habitot, who had pre-fabbed the walls, gables and roof of the 2-foot cube of a gingerbread house, and set it up on a kid-sized foundation.


Then the exterior decorators arrived. The scene seemed something from The Wiggles, the Food Channel and HGTV. And as architecture goes, this was a little more Frank Lloyd Wrong than Wright. Maybe candy colonial. Or perhaps Spanish-modern confection. And the ornamentation, rather piecemeal. Plenty of form, but questionable function. No windows or doors per se. More of an abstract Jackson Pollack sort of thing. Almost a bejeweled, or be-candied look, if you will.

The completed house was donated to a worthy cause: My tummy. No, actually to a local family shelter.

Four-year-old Caitlyn of El Cerrito is an experienced gingerbread house builder. I did one before, she said. But that was with my cousin Eli, so that doesnt count.

c2005 ANG Newspapers. Cannot be used or repurposed without prior written permission.
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

Monday, January 02, 2006

A mini-van sits in water near a freeway entrance in Mill Valley, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 1, 2006. Northern California residents braced for a second storm to hit the region Sunday, a day after the first sent rivers rising into cities and mud sliding into homes and across highways. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)Northern California Rainy Mess
Photo of Mill Valley exit, just one exit north of our exit on 101. This is less than a mile from our apartment. It's also parallel to (and representative of the condition of) my favorite running trail.

Residents in other parts of Northern California certainly have more to write about, but I might as well jot down some info on our area. Donahue, the main street through Marin City (our less glamourous section of Sausalito) was completely flooded on Sunday, as were several 101 exits; also, the bay trail I run every week was covered several inches deep for at least a half mile.

It was amazing that Kai and Dana left town just before all this happened--they missed Saturday's heavy rains, and they made it through the Siskiyous just before the pass was closed with accidents and whiteouts. Yup, they made it safely home to the heaviest rains Astoria's seen in thirty years...

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Down From Astoria

Kai, Dana, Barritt, Indi, and Jude left rainy Astoria December 26th around 9pm, traveled south through the rainy night, and ended up in rainy Sausalito at 8am on the 27th. After we gave them a tour of our apartment (this lasted about three minutes since they pretty much looked at two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a common kitchen/living room/dining room), we exchanged little gifts and the cousins played indoors the rest of the day while the adults made lattes and sat around. Although it rained hard and the wind howled all night long, we woke up to a clear day on Wednesday--a perfect day to spend at the Bay Area Discovery Museum (BADM).

We took our time
getting started, and ended up at the BADM around 11. It was the busiest Mick and I had seen it (holiday crowd, of course), so we parked in a far-off muddy lot with a gorgeous view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Converting part of old Fort Baker into an expansive indoor/outdoor children's museum was a brilliant idea.

For the next three hours, the cousins painted, sculpted, dug for treasure, jumped on "lilly pads," dressed in career clothes, ate turkey sandwiches, and harassed seagulls.

(First six photos:)
*Kids and GG Bridge
*Barrit, Indi and Aubrey in career clothes at Berenstain Bears exhibit
*Dane building the "city" full of structures Grandad would be proud of (Barritt and Indi built these with him)
*Barritt and Indi paint and squeegee the artroom windows

*Rolling balls and stamping animal prints in the sand/wax

*Jude and blocks

*Kai pays tribute to Donnie Darko

*Running the pipes at Fort Baker

Will post more on the visit soon...
Thanks for the Hello Kitty makeup, Aunt Cindy