The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

Wow. Although I have only read three of Lionel Shriver’s books at this point, I am crushing on this woman hard. I rarely finish a book feeling as disturbed and I guess…satisfied…as I am right now. Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World first appeared on my radar in some book review that lumped it in with a bunch of other “9/11 themed” books in which normal events in characters’ lives are juxtaposed against one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century. (Between you, me and the lamp-post I find writers who use 9/11 to add some soul-crushery to an otherwise tepid book to be nothing short of lazy tossers with no respect for the rules.) Anyway, I avoided it at the time because I was sick of everyone cashing in. That turned out to be a fairly harmful choice as it kept me away from finding one of the authors I was destined to spend my life with.

The Post-Birthday World is the “Sliding Doors,” of fiction. One happily partnered woman in her 40s spends an evening with an attractive man who happens to be the exact opposite of the one she’s with. In one version she gives in to every impulse and jumps on him. In the other, she remains virtuous and returns to her life as she knows it. As we’ve all come to learn from Shriver, when it’s bad, it’s really bad. I’ve never found an author so capable of relaying utter devastation with a clinical yet completely emotional view. I found it difficult to read but impossible to put down. Cheating on the man you swore to be loyal to for someone more exciting is definitely a “bad’ thing to do, but in the course of deciding your own life, is it the “wrong” thing? Meanwhile, is staying with your solid but kind of boring mate out of emotion that’s 80% loyalty/ 20% love any better? In TBDW it’s actually up to you.

The crux of her story raises an issue that we all toy with: Was “that decision” the right one? Should I have married him? Should I have broken up with her? Should I have picked this job/quit that grad school/taken that class/attended that college/worn these pants today? The funny thing is, we never know. We never know which chain of events leads down the path of glory and which ones will take us to that dark scary place where the nicest bottle of wine tastes like ash and permission to drop $100 in a bookstore doesn’t even feel decadent. In TPBW, Shrive gives us both sides. Neither seem all that great to be true, and I honestly can’t tell which one is better or worse, but I definitely enjoyed seeing both ends.

For those of you unfamiliar with Shriver’s work, I wouldn’t start here. I would go with We Need To Talk About Kevin or Big Brother. If you haven’t already realized, she picks up uncomfortable topics and runs with them. She can be vulgar and vaguely racist. If I had to pick the author  she reminds me of most, I would go with Updike or Cheever (John not Susan.) I love this kind of literature, but if it’s not your bag, you will hate this book.

I’m not entirely sure what to do on this Sunday night. Once again I am in a disturbed place whose only entry point is great literature. Cooking dinner seems rather strange at this point, so I think I’ll do what I always do on Sunday nights…cuddle up with HG and watch something on HBO Go.

Sunday Blues – Infinite Jest Bookclub – Other Stories

As I sit here typing this, HG and I are battling quite the case of the Sunday Blues. You know the feeling. The weekend is over. Tomorrow morning we’ll peel ourselves out of our cozy bed, put on something collared and march out to battle the swamplike atmosphere that stalks us each day. (Although according to my Louisiana-born soulmate, this heat is rather mild. – Ha!) I swear I would be perfectly fine leaving the house if I didn’t think the migraine fairy would come and leave me a present every time step outside the door. Anyhoo.

The one thing I do look forward to tomorrow is starting a new book, a Monday morning tradition, and meeting up with several, rather literary coworkers, to have our weekly Infinite Jest Book Club meeting.

Yes, that’s right. After realizing I could never read IJ alone, I invited several coworkers to read it together and discuss each week. We finally hit the 200 page mark. I can’t tell if I’m enjoying it yet. It kind of feels like going to the gym ever Sunday when I hunker down and read our selection. There’s an entire blog devoted to this endeavor, located here. I will say that I have a feeling that we’re actually going to finish it which is kind of amazing.

ooh la la jamie cat callan

Tomorrow I will start Ooh La La! French Women’s Secrets To Feeling Beautiful Every Day by Jamie Cat Callan.  I don’t suspect that it’s a difficult read which is just what I need to ease into the week. After last week’s choices, The Bell Jar and Primary Colors, I’m in need of something a little bit lighter.

What are you reading to gear up for the week?

The Reading Binge That Took Manhattan – And Other Stories

Greetings from the tail end of a reading drought turned binge. In the last few months various life events have conspired to prevent me from reading anything longer than a cocktail menu. It was the strangest thing. My whole life is based on several principles, the main one being that a book and a glass of seltzer, tea or wine will cure what ails you. Apparently, 2013 Jen’s brain has subtly shifted because I couldn’t focus on books to save my life. Forget about anything challenging, airport novels were beyond me. YA sci-fi was too much, and forget about the ultimate easy comfort reading – pithy memoirs. A Jen Lancaster book took me a week!!

Now this isn’t to say that I didn’t read at all. I recently re-subscribed to the New Yorker, and that was an incredibly good call. Even when I couldn’t buckle down and read a book…any book…I could read about them or take in a short story or two. I also found myself incapable of remembering anything I had read. I’d be in a middle of a book discussion at work, and I wasn’t able to even remember who had written the story that I was raving about. Yikes.

Anyhoo,  I recently had the opportunity to go on a trip and re-charge, and I did just that. Despite promises to my HG that I would take the iPad + one extra paperback and nothing more, I ended up traveling with the iPad and 7 extra books (and 4 magazines). Hahaha I guess he’s used to it by now. Frankly though, if our plane went down on Lost Island and all of our devices died, my library would be golden in this age of fancy e-readers.

To that end, these are the books I read on vacation and used to get my game face back:

Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn – Sorry to go all Mugatu on La Flynn, but I’m beginning to wonder if she can only write one freaking story. While I absolutely love the misanthropic menagerie she has created, and Gone Girl will always be a book I recommend to folks looking for a quick awesome read, it’s getting way too easy to figure out the ending. I loved Sharp Objects, but I’d pretty much figured out the whole story in the first 10 pages not because it wasn’t well written but because I know her, and I picked the character who seemed most like her type of murderer.

Light Years – James Salter – For some reason, books about failing marriages set in then 60s really float my boat. They’re basically longer episodes of Mad Men, and I can’t get enough. This was my first Salter, but I’m definitely going to read the rest of his books.

Drinking With Men – Rosie Schapp – I kind of expected to hate this one. There have been too many quickly published memoirs about “different,” women. I go into each one expecting to dislike it, but I read, and I find that, once again, I’m wrong. Rosie likes drinking in dive bars with men, and she tells a good story. (As usual, extra points for being primarily set in New York.)

After The Music Stopped – Alan Blinder – I can’t resist books written about the Great Recession. It’s basically the same story over and over again, but the fact that all of this happened still confounds me. So much went wrong. Banks made bad loans, and people made bad decisions. Blinder attacks the topic from a pure economic/regulatory point of view that’s written clearly enough for laymen like me. I wouldn’t be surprised if this made its way into high school classrooms someday.

Anna Dracula – Kim Newman imagines the future if Jonathan Harker & Co. failed and Dracula was able to take over Victorian England. This is fun book with a lot of cameos from gothic literature mainstays. Good times, easy on the brain, and the first book in a trilogy.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove – Karen Russell – It’s funny, I’ve never been a short story person, but now I find myself reading more and more of these books. Karen Russell is an exquisite writer. If you love magical realism as much as I do, you should go read all of her books….now.

Paris To The Past – Ina Caro – Caro’s book is an incredibly useful travel guide. She details the various day trips one can take, originating in Paris, utilizing public transportation. If you’re going to Paris, this is a 100% worth the read. However, her writing makes me want to flick the earlobes of the editor who sold this no doubt assuring publishers that she was the next M.F.K. Fisher. Caro is clearly an intelligent person with a love of history and research, but she loses something when she writes. Out of all of the books I brought, this was one that I wanted to read the most, and it was such a disappointment.

So those were my main vacation reads. While I didn’t love all of them, I will say that reading so much in such a short period of time definitely got me back on the ol’ reading horse.

Ratatouille Appetizer Pizza

With every win, there is a failure… Trail and error, I suppose. The same evening, I made the Baked Spinach Artichoke Dip (successfully, I might add), my second endeavor did not go quite as well. The Ratatouille Appetizer Pizza sounded and looked delicious. And I’m sure it would have been if I had read the recipe more carefully…

Ingredients

  • 1 small zucchini
  • 1 small yellow summer squash
  • 6 tablespoons purchased eggplant meze or eggplant caponata [I thought the recipe called for eggplant, which I’m not particularly fond of, so at the market I decided to skip this and use a little extra squash. Clearly I had a minor problem when I was actually trying to make the recipe 15 minutes before guests began arriving and I didn’t have any eggplant meze/caponata! I still don’t even know what it is, but anyway.]
  • 3 pita folds or breads (6 inches in diameter) [I used flat bread.]
  • 3 slices red onion, separated into rings
  • 2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 2  teaspoons chopped fresh oregano leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • Coarse ground pepper, if desired

Books and Libations

Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375ºF. Slice zucchini and yellow squash lengthwise into 4 strips and cut strips into 1/4-inch slices.
  2. Spread 2 tablespoons of the eggplant meze evenly over pita folds; place on cookie sheet. Top each with one-third of the zucchini, squash, onion, cheese and oregano. [Given my mistake of skipping the “eggplant” I didn’t have any of this, so I used a bit of olive oil and minced garlic as a spread instead.]
  3. Bake about 12 minutes or until heated through and cheese browns slightly. To serve, cut each pita fold into 6 wedges. Sprinkle with pepper.

My improvised version was acceptable, but I will have to attempt this one again once I figure out what eggplant meze is…

New York: The Fashion

One thing I missed from Edward Rutherford’s New York: The Novel is that he failed to mention one of NYC’s vital components: The Fashion. I love walking around the city and staring at people (not openly gawking, of course) but boy-oh-boy do people make some interesting choices. I don’t know if Sex and the City made most people more adventurous, but there are some interesting combinations out there. I tend a bit more on the conservative side but still thought these outfits would be fun.

New York: The Fashion

 

Baked Spinach Artichoke Dip

I was having friends over for game night and was inspired Jen as I recalled that she taken this to a Super Bowl party. I don’t know the recipe she used, but the beauty of the internet, I easily found one for Baked Spinach Artichoke Dip. The best part – it was super easy!

Books and LibationsIngredients

  • 1 -cup mayonnaise or salad dressing [I used a bit less to try to make it ‘healthier.’]
  • 1 -cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 -can artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
  • 1 -box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed to drain
  • ½- cup chopped red bell pepper
  • ¼- cup shredded Monterey Jack or mozzarella cheese

Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350ºF. Mix mayonnaise, Parmesan cheese, artichokes, spinach and bell pepper.
  2. Put mixture into casserole dish and top with Monterey Jack cheese.
  3. Cover and bake about 20 minutes or until cheese is melted. [I skimmed over the “cover” part – it turned out just fine!]
  4. Serve warm with baguette slices. The recipe suggests serving with toasted baguette slices or crackers, but we tried it with pita chips and it was delicious.

Book Review: New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherford

I relished Edward Rutherford’s New York: The Novel. Although I’m not a native New Yorker, I have grown to love this city. Couple with my natural interest in history, this was a perfect book for me. And the perfect book to read on my kindle… It’s a heavy one.

This historical fiction work begins with the original settlement of Europeans in Manhattan: The Dutch in New Amsterdam. The Van Dyck family eventually merges with the English Masters, as we follow their combined lineage to the present day. Not only is the story captivating, it was great to have a short recap of American History 101. It’s incredible to feel like you’re living historical moments instead of only reading the drier, I-have-to-reread-the-same-page-five-times-because-my-mind-wonders, factual account of events. How easily one can gloss over a few important details of our nation’s not always unified history. How for example, during the American Revolution, not all settlers were for Independence… Those pesky Loyalists. In Rutherford’s novel, you can see how families were divided on opposite sides of these lines.

I can’t imagine the lift encountBooks and Libationsered by Irish and German immigrants in the ghettos of downtown in the mid-1800s. How the world of these new immigrants, the O’Donnells and the Kellers, begin to cross paths with the well-established and wealthy Masters.  While on the other end of their social spectrum, the angst of these white immigrant “Northerners” felt during the Civil War as they feared they would be robbed of their livelihood by the cheap labor to be offered by newly freed slaves arriving in the urban centers of the Union.

New York continues to flourish, becoming a financial center and headquarters to the rising monopolies as the city enters the twentieth century.  With the growth of the industry, comes greater risk demonstrated by the market panic of the 1907 as historical figures such as J.P. Morgan make an appearance. With the continual change of the city, a new wave of immigrants follows. The Italians begin to arrive searching for a better life and money to send home; whole families living together in the same immigrant tenements as previous waves of generations, replacing the Irish and German communities that have moved on.

Rutherford quickly moves through the 1900s, touching on the construction of the Empire State building, “The Crash” of 1929, new projects like Rockefeller Center providing employment through the Great Depression. The novel offers brief mention of New York’s continued growth in the world art and culture in the latter have of the last century. Throughout all of these events, the Master family evolves and merges with a variety of cultures and backgrounds, representing the true melting pot of New York.

The events at the beginning of the twenty-first century will forever be ingrained in history. A yet this city continues to survive. Rutherford captures the sensation so well: you just want to be part of it.

Give me back my f*&%king Google Reader

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard the tragic news that Google is doing away with it’s ever-popular Google Reader Service. I found out earlier this week, and I’ve been drafting strongly worded letters in my head every since. Looking back, I suppose the writing was on the wall. Reader has been buggy for months. It hasn’t been syncing properly, and I noticed that the feeds weren’t marking posts as read, but I’m honestly shocked. Don’t enough people love/need Google reader to render losing it impossible?

For those of you who don’t read hundreds of blogs, Google Reader is a service that allows you to aggregate all of your blog RSS feeds into one central location. No one has time to visit hundreds of sites. with Google reader, all of the posts you haven’t read are saved, and you can visit and scroll through them at will. I’ve been relying on it for years, and I have no idea what I’m going to do.

I have to ask Google, why are you doing this? What led to this decision? You can read their announcement here, but there’s no real explanation. In a later post, they say “We launched Google Reader in 2005 in an effort to make it easy for people to discover and keep tabs on their favorite websites. While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined. So, on July 1, 2013, we will retire Google Reader. Users and developers interested in RSS alternatives can export their data, including their subscriptions, with Google Takeout over the course of the next four months.

That wha?? “usage has declined?” The f*ck?? What else are people using? I think it’s safe to say that THE INTERNET is still fairly popular. Are people going to every website they like MANUALLY? Or does Google know something we don’t? Are users picking their five favorites and relying on them to link to other websites? Are they forcing us to SEO our blogs better, so they’ll rank? Are they annoyed that outside sites are monetizing their feeds?

In the past couple of years, I had noticed certain sites either sponsoring their Feeds (Bookriot, for shame!) or at least truncating their posts in order to get more traffic to their websites. Basically, they made it impossible to read the full post through an RSS feed. As an online marketing manager, I understood the logic, but as a human being who wants people to read and engage with my copy, I was aghast. Why on Earth would you force people to visit your website, if they preferred to access your copy via RSS? Also, geniuses, what could be gained with that momentary uptick in traffic would most certainly be lost when people either forgot to visit your site altogether or just scanned your post intros looking for ones that interested them. I’ve unfollowed all feeds that do this because I get irritated. Could this phenomenon be responsible for the overall decline in usage?

As I pondered the consequences further in a red wine induced rage, I realized that the only other place we can currently be reminded of new posts from our favorite sites is through social media. Clearly, most of us obviously think Twitter/Facebook, but methinks this will be yet another forceful nudge towards Google+. Bloggers will be forced to share their content through the lackluster social network, and readers will have to follow to get new updates. Hey Google, guess what? No one needs another social network? Facebook/Twitter alone can be blamed for destroying more minds than tv or caffeine ever did. The world is already full of data obsessed drones (including yours truly), and you’re forcing us towards yet another network because you’re in some weird pissing match with Facebook? Get over it! Also G+ does nothing for me.  It’s the digital equivalent of eating oatmeal. Way to build the blandest social network ever, Googlers.

Over the years, I’ve found a lot of great book sites, and I would love to say that I can name them all, but I just can’t. After reader, I’ll continue to visit the sites that I love, but every now and then I’ll have a week where I just don’t have the time to play around online. Instead of being able to log into a dashboard of all of the posts I’ve missed, I will most likely just miss them.

Some might say this is the moment where bloggers (book and others) will need to drop their hat in the ring and compete for their place in readers’ memories. Some might also infer that this is Google’s first step towards forcing users to identify quality content online by taking away the passive reading that Google Reader allows. Traffic has always been a handy sign of a website’s popularity i.e. a sign that it deserves to rank well in SERPS. By forcing people to actively visit sites instead of going through RSS, Google will continue to collect their precious data and identify better sites. Was that it Google? Were you losing information you thought you owned? Did you need ANOTHER factor in your algorithm?

Maybe I will happily visit the sites I remember, or maybe I’ll take this as a sign that I need to get out more. Either way, Google Reader is a beloved product, and I am mad as hell that it’s being taken away from me.

Don’t be evil Google. Give me back by f*&^king reader.

Book Review: The Group by Mary McCarthy

As much as I enjoy working (mostly), there are times when I think it would be kind of cool to go back to a time when women were expected to stay home and take care of the home while the men went out and faced the world to bring in a paycheck.

Note, I’m most likely an under-diagnosed agoraphobic, but that’s neither here nor there.

I know this is an incredibly simplistic view of the world. I take all of the opportunity I have as a woman for granted because, well honestly, I can. When I meet doctors, attorneys or bankers who are getting on in years, all I can think about is that they must have gone through so that I could be a professional without it being a big deal.

Mary McCarthy’s The Group addresses this issue head on. Seven girls graduate from Vassar in 1933 bound and determined to go out and face the world head on. Some get married, others find jobs and the third set sort of bumble around Manhattan trying to figure out which way to go. It was this third set that really affected me as I read. These women had this unquenchable anxiety about the direction of their lives. If they worked, would they die alone? If they were married, would they be satisfied? Is there anything wrong with bumbling around New York for a little while?

McCarthy wrote this book in the 50s, but the questions she addresses and the concerns most of us have about life are the same today. If anything, The Group will quell your anxiety, if you have it. (Forgive me for assuming.) If people have been worrying about the same things for hundreds of years, chances are these worries comprise the natural human condition as opposed to problems that need to be solved.

Also, this book goes with about a gallon of martinis. I don’t know what went on back then, but based on books written about the time period and frequent time travel, people really seemed to like hitting the hard stuff. Pickle your liver much?

It’s Friday! Treat Yourself to Some New Books

Hooray! It’s Friday, and you’ve made it to that two day respite between days when you have to get on the ole’ metro and wage war against the forces of darkness and/or   the people who outrank you online.

Gather hope all ye who make it here – to this sparkling island of joy that can be counted on to arrive once a week. Today, I say celebrate this blessed break time by taking advantage of the insane sale on the NYRB website. I’m a fan of many different publishing houses, but New York Review of Books consistently re-prints amazing reads that would go unnoticed, unremembered and, horrors, unread if not for their diligent cultivation of their own personal canon. As most of you might have guessed, my frugal ways have been preventing me from buying books in bulk  for years except for those nights after one too many when I’d find myself on the McNally Jackson website filling up a cart. (What is it about bourbon that makes me load up on children’s books?)

Anyhoo, New York Review of Books is having a big old winter sale. Load up on childrens’ books, fiction, non-fiction, biographies, the whole shebang. I guarantee you will find titles here that you’ve never read. If you’ve read all of them, please comment below because I’m in need of a book yoda and you could be it.

There’s another 11 days of sale-y goodness. I haven’t pulled the trigger yet, but I have my eye (just one – the other keeps a lookout for bears) on a few sweet babies including:

The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy (author of The Dud Avocado), Young Man With a Horn by Dorothy Baker and Mouchette by Fanny Howe. Yes, my current frazzled state keeps me from reading anything more time consuming than an essay or two, but a girl can dream.