The Ones That Have Stayed With Me

Last week, a fun meme was rolling around on social media to list ten books that have stayed with you. Usually the book that is most “with me” is the one I’m reading right now, but the more I thought about it, the longer my list became. Isn’t that what a great book is supposed to do—stay with you? It was hard to narrow this down, but here is my abbreviated list, in no particular order.

 

 

to kill a mockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. For me, this is the definitive book on race relations in the South. I’ve been wanting to reread this one.

 

 

 

 

a walk in the woodsA Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. Julia Monroe Martin had this book on her list, and I couldn’t agree more. This was my first introduction to Bill Bryson’s writing, and now I’m a Bryson completist. I would read a phone book written by him. He taught me how to take a simple scene (let’s say, oh, walking in the woods) and expand it gently like a ball of dough until it becomes large enough for a pizza crust without tearing.

 

 

 

 

Brooklyn, by Colm ToibinBrooklyn, by Colm Toibin. I know what you’re thinking, but this didn’t make my list just because a good chunk of the story is set in my city. Toibin has a subtlety that so many writers lack and that so many editors try to discourage. Eilis Lacey is a character who sneaks up on you. I found myself not wanting to put this book down and thinking about Eilis even when I wasn’t reading. Then I found myself reading slowly because I didn’t want the story to end. Look for the movie coming out in 2015, screenplay by Nick Hornby.

 

 

 

accidental touristThe Amateur Marriage, or Breathing Lessons, or The Accidental Tourist, or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or nearly anything, by Anne Tyler. Talk about subtlety. In an Anne Tyler story, you’ll be hard pressed to describe the plot or the characters because they are so complex, so nuanced, it’s easier to just read the book than to explain it to someone. (Kind of like real life.) You’ll swear that you know people like Macon Leary and Michael and Pauline Anton and Maggie Moran. Because you probably do.

 

 

 

Suite FrancaiseSuite Francaise, by Irene Nemivrosky. This book taught me how to write with compassion and empathy. Nemivrosky died in a concentration camp during WWII. She was writing this as the events of the war unfolded and left the manuscript for her children to discover decades later. Sometimes it takes years to digest such tumultuous events, and it amazes me how she was able to write such evenhanded prose.

 

 

 

bird by birdBird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Thank you, Ms. Lamott, for letting us know that it’s okay to write shitty first drafts, and for reminding us to forge ahead bird by bird. Bonus: The Getaway Car, by Ann Patchett. And thank you, Ms. Patchett for this: “Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

 

 

 

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCannTransAtlantic, by Colum McCann.  This novel sweeps back and forth in time and points of view, but always with the theme of crossing the Atlantic between North America and Ireland. At first these seem like individual short stories, but Colum McCann weaves the stories together so expertly that coming upon the connection was a delightful a-ha moment.

 

 

 

 

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. I’m not a big fan of dystopian fiction. Sure the concept might be far-fetched, but it’s also juuussst realistic enough to keep me awake at night.The Age of Miracles poses a very simple question with very complex (and disastrous) answers: What would happen if the earth’s rotation slowed so much that each day became more than 60 hours long? Bonus: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Double bonus: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. *shudders*

 

 

 

waldenWalden, by Henry David Thoreau. If you’re a regular around these parts, this one comes as no surprise. “Part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for living simply.”

 

 

 

 

UnbrokenUnbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. If I wrote a novel with exactly the same plot, critics would call it unbelievable, but this is the true story of Louis Zamperini. A track-and-field Olympian enlists in the air force, gets shot down by Japanese planes over the Pacific Ocean, survives months at sea in shark-infested waters only to be rescued by a Japanese navy vessel, is put into a POW camp under atrocious conditions, and years later returns to forgive his captors. On a sad note: Louis Zamperini died this July at age 97.

 

 

 

What are some of your most memorable reads? What are you reading now? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With Mount Everest

I once interviewed a man who’d climbed Mount Everest. It was my first major interview at my first job out of college. The article was scheduled to appear in the lifestyle section of the city’s newspaper—a local-guy-does-good story.

image via Wikipedia

Mount Everest. image via Wikipedia

He was soft-spoken and congenial with a smattering of gray in his blond hair. He wore an argyle sweater vest. He held a 9-5 job to support his school-age kids. He was genuinely surprised that I was there to write a piece about him. He didn’t seem the kind of rugged thrill-seeker interested in risking his life. When we sat down on his porch, I got out my new reporter’s notebook and flipped open the cover to the first page. I had not written a single question or note in advance. The arrogance of that moment still astounds me.

I thought that by speaking off the cuff in a conversational tone, I would get more “authentic” answers. So instead of asking this modern-day Magellan thoughtful questions, I asked him how cold it was (-2° F) and if he got altitude sickness (yes). Even worse: this interview took place just after the 1996 Everest blizzard that killed fifteen climbers. Did he know any of these mountaineers? How did he feel about his accomplishment in light of this tragedy? I’ll never know. And even worse: at that time, only about 1,200 people in the world had reached the summit since Edmund Hillary was the first in 1953. I was sitting across from a man who had done something less than .0000002 percent of the population had done.

Steve Almond called this a “problem of entitlement” in a recent article in Poets & Writers magazine. “I mean by this that a significant number of the students I’ve encountered in creative writing programs display a curious arrogance toward published authors, as well as an inflated sense of their own talents and importance.” Did I feel entitled? Probably. It’s a tempting thought when you’re twenty-four and it seems you have the world on a string. I’d bet this applies to many recent graduates regardless of degree.

Entitlement isn’t all bad. Entitlement is what drives change. It is what makes the Rachel Carsons and Elizabeth Cady Stantons and Cesar Chavezes and Martin Luther Kings say, “Enough.” But taken too far, entitlement gets us into trouble. It fools us into believing that someone owes us something because we’re “special.”

life preserver

 

Almond believes there’s something else behind the entitlement. People who feel out of their element and overmatched assume a “posture of superiority.” In other words, it’s a defense mechanism. Hindsight being 20/20, I was a bundle of nerves hiding behind a press credential. If I botched the interview, I might never get another chance to write for this newspaper. Then everyone would know that I had no idea what I was doing. Going into the interview so unprepared was an act of self-sabotage.

 
AnvilEntitlement can be a life preserver or an anvil. Many of us have been left holding the anvil thanks to the Internet, which “has allowed us to trumpet our own opinions, to win attention by broadcasting our laziest and cruelest judgments, to grind axes in pubic. It has made us feel, in some perverse sense, that we are entitled to do so.” And the most insidious thing about the anvil kind of entitlement is that it erodes respect. Every time someone posts a snarky review about a writer being overrated or takes pot-shots at someone on Twitter or Facebook, respect and empathy go out the window.

Hiding behind entitlement is disrespectful to all involved. In the end, the gentle mountaineer patiently explained the ins and outs of climbing Mount Everest, answering questions I never thought to ask. Luckily, I recognized it for the life preserver it was.

 

Have you been on the receiving end of “anvil entitlement?” 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With Arnold Palmer

When I was twelve, the food court in the local shopping mall was a magical place. My friends and I would get dropped off by a well-meaning parent, who couldn’t wait to have a few minutes alone to shop in peace. Armed with our allowance, we scoped out the dozen or so fast food vendors clustered around an army of tables and chairs. We’d wander from stall to stall, weighing all the possibilities. Pizza? Lo mein? French fries? We had our pick. No compromise needed. It’s not that the food was particularly tasty, and it definitely wasn’t healthy, but we had choices. So many choices! To a twelve year old, making a decision without any parental input was exciting, even on something as small as which fried, greasy, gooey item to have for lunch.

I rarely go to the food court anymore—there is no shopping mall near me, and I generally try to stay away from fried food. But recently I put on my stretchy pants and ventured to a food court, Brooklyn style. It’s called Smorgasburg, Every Sunday in the summer and early fall, more than 100 food vendors set up stalls at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. (On Saturdays, they’re in Williamsburg, if you’re in that hood.)

I had that familiar rush of excitement when I saw all the options, but this wasn’t the food court of my youth. The New York Times called it “the Woodstock of eating” and Time Out New York said it’s “a glutton’s paradise.” Yes, please.

First, let’s cruise the options. Are you hungry for a certain cuisine?

 

Bolivian food?

Smorgasburg

 

Burmese noodles?

Smorgasburg

If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, there is also Malaysian street food, Mexican sandwiches, schnitzel, and Indian dosas. Oh, you’re looking for something refreshing? It is hot out here.

Smorgasburg

 

Blue Marble also has a shop in the Cobble Hill neighborhood. Started by socially- and environmentally-conscious friends Alexis Miesen and Jennie Dundas, Jennie and Alexis raised nearly $100,000 to help Rwandan women start their own ice cream shop in the city of Butare. Read more about their partnership. (A location in Haiti coming soon.)

 

Smorgasburg

A wave of nostalgia hit when I saw that Kelvin had a stall selling slushies, just like my old-time favorite Orange Julius. But Orange Julius never had Arnold Palmer. If you’re only familiar with Arnold Palmer, the golfer, Arnold Palmer, the flavor, is a tasty, but simple concoction of iced tea mixed with lemonade. Then, this fabulous barista (below) suggested that I drizzle in cherry syrup.

P.S. This slushie was so cold, I had brain freeze for ten minutes.

P.P.S. I was on a fantastic sugar rush.

Smorgasburg

Or maybe you want something off the beaten path. How about pickles? Or truffle-oil frites? Or Asia Dog (hot dogs with Asian spices)? Might I recommend these cornbread bites from Jack’s Chedbread, company motto: Cheesy and corny since 2012.

Smorgasburg

 

Okay, cheddar cornbread isn’t that unusual. How about the next food mash-up (a la the cronut) that will sweep the US? May I introduce the Bruffin.

Smorgasburg

 

I couldn’t leave you with only having a slushie. That’s amateur hour. As your faithful blogger on the street, I take my responsibility seriously. So, I went for this: an almond dulce de leche doughnut from Dough. It left me speechless. It looks like it would be heavy and overly sweet, but it was airy with lots of flakey goodness. I wish I had taken a picture of it cut in half to show you, but I was too busy inhaling it to take photos. Honestly I’d forgotten there was such a thing as photos.

Smorgasburg

 

 

In addition to all the delicious eats, Smorgasburg has something the old food court of my youth never had—a killer view:

Brooklyn Bridge Park

 

Brooklyn Bridge Park

 

 

Small announcement:

The Loft

This fall, I’m teaching a creative writing class through The Loft Literary Center. This class is one of my most popular. It’s called Back to Basics, and it begins September 22. Best of all, it’s online! You can sign on in your pajamas (Not that I’ve ever done that.)

Course description: If you have a great story idea but don’t know where to begin, Back to Basics will get you off on the right foot. This course will take you through each major element of creative writing to help you hone your skills in that area. Through structured writing exercises and analyzing master works, we’ll examine the key components of good creative writing. Whether you need some fixes for common plot problems or want to brush up on dialogue, these targeted classes will give you all the strategies you need to succeed at the craft of writing. This class is perfect for beginners who want to learn more about the mechanics of writing prose.

Registration is now open and if you sign up today, you’ll get an early bird discount.

 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With the Garden

He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing.  ~Cicero

I do not have a garden, yet I have watched more than my share of gardening television shows and had lengthy conversations with my neighbor, who is a landscape architect, about how much to water gerberas. I just finished a book written by the head gardener at Versailles who spent nearly 300 pages describing his love affair with the “world’s grandest garden.” As someone who has little knowledge about flora, I am continually fascinated that you can put a small seed in the dirt and within a few weeks gaze upon a purple blossom or pick a ripe tomato.

I say, “you” because I can do no such thing. Gardening is a skill I wish I possessed. I admire people who can sustain small villages with the bounty from their backyards or who can turn trees into art. I want to be this person, the one with dirty knees who smells like the earth, closer to the cycle of nature. Unfortunately the last time I tried to grow anything, every leaf withered into brown crisps within minutes.

When I need a garden fix, I go to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardena beautiful respite in the middle of the city.  Here’s what was in bloom just last week. 

 

Water Lilies

Water Lilies Brooklyn Botanic Garden

 

 

 

Water Lilies Brooklyn Botanic Garden

 

Water Lilies Brooklyn Botanic Garden

 

 

Shakespeare Garden

Shakespeare Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Plants from the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground, long heath, brown furze, any thing.  ~The Tempest

Shakespeare Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Good monsieur, get you your weapons in your hand and kill me a red hipp’d bumble bee on the top of a thistle. ~A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

The Blooms

Sunflower Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Nothing says summer like sunflowers.

 

It looks like a baby eggplant, but apparently the taste is quite bitter.

It looks like a baby eggplant, but apparently the taste is quite bitter.

 

Anyone know the name of the pink round blooms in the top half of the frame?

Anyone know the name of the pink round blooms in the top half of the frame?

 

I love the showy blooms as much as the next person, but my favorites are these oaks. Majestic.

I love the showy blooms as much as the next person, but my favorites are these oaks. Majestic.

 

Do you have a green thumb? What’s your favorite plant or tree? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With the Dosas

It’s time for another installment of Tourist in My Town. Today I’m taking you to Washington Square Park, located in the heart of the NYU campus in Greenwich Village. Last week I went to the park for a very specific reason. But I’ll get to that in a moment. (Spoiler alert: it involved food.)

The centerpiece of the park is this arch. It was erected in 1889 to celebrate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as president. These days the arch is dwarfed by the buildings around it, but I imagine that it was quite imposing in its day.

If you peek through the arch you can see Fifth Avenue on the other side.  Can you believe that cars used to drive through the center?

 

Washington Square Park

Hey, no swimming allowed.

Washington Square Park

 

 

 

Washington Square Park

 

Washington Square Park

That’s the Empire State Building visible through the arch.

 

Washington Square Park isn’t your typical park in that there isn’t a huge expanse of green space or ball fields for recreational activities. So what do people do?

Play chess. They’re always ready for a game.

Washington Square Park

These guys would give Bobby Fischer a run for his money.

 

Take their dog to the dog run. While studying.

Washington Square Park

Rover, can you help me with this calculus homework? It’s a beast.

 

Listen to a jazz trio. These guys are students at NYU and perform in the park nearly every day. People applaud when they finish a set.

Washington Square Park

 

Stop and smell the flowers.

Washington Square Park

 

 

Skateboard.

Washington Square Park

It’s so much better if you do it right under the No Skateboarding sign.

 

Now, the real reason I went to Washington Square Park. This guy:

 

Washington Square Park

His name is Thiru Kumar and he operates the NY Dosa cart, a Washington Square Park institution.

Washington Square Park

There’s always a line. Always.

 

Mr. Kumar’s food has been reviewed in just about every local magazine, newspaper and website imaginable. Even Rachael Ray comes by. But the real proof is in the dosa as it were.

The grinning, thickly mustached Kumar works his small grill like a hyperactive DJ, pouring batter, spreading on curried potatoes, and sprinkling a crunchy dice of carrots and peppers (the Pondicherry masala dosa). When the batter is cooked through, Kumar folds it with an artist’s flair, effortlessly lifting the ethereally thin lentil-and-rice-flour wrapper from the grill, then chops it into sections and serves it with a gingery coconut chutney and a small tub of spicy lentil soup. ~New York Magazine

My mouth is watering just remembering how good it was.

My mouth is watering just remembering how good it was.

 

Have you been to your local park lately? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!