Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Summer Reading List

Okay, I lied.  Technically, this is not the list of books I intend to read that summer.  I dare not give you that list, because there are only two confirmed titles on it (Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon and Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin), because man would that be a boring post and look, I already managed to convey all necessary information.  Instead, I'm giving you my custom summer reading list for incoming college freshmen, as inspired by Cassandra's summer reading list outline over at Book Riot.  No, really, click the link; I don't think I explained that very well.  So I chose my favorite book for each category, and now I just have to wait for some poor soul I know to graduate high school, looking forward to an academic-free summer before entering the hallowed halls of some overpriced academic center that spends all of the aforementioned excessive tuition on football stadiums instead of proper heating*, so that I can dump ten books on him or her and demand book reports before Labor Day.

1) One of Shakespeare's plays: As You Like It: I wish I could tell you why this is my choice, but all I can remember, having read it nearly ten years ago, is that it's my favorite.  And that's that.  Also, this is where that "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players" line comes from.  So don't go trying to tell me it's from Hamlet.  Or was it Macbeth?  NEITHER.  Wow, this just made me realize how long it's been since I've read one of Shakespeare's plays (too long).

2) Biography of a historical figure: The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir: Okay, so technically, Cassandra said it should ideally be the biography of an American person, but I don't read that many biographies, okay?  I'll get on that.  In the mean time, I'll be that niche person in the common room rambling on about these old dead queens while everyone else is talking about Frederick Douglass.  That's what college freshmen do in their free time, right?

3) Book about a historical event: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh: Epic in scope, this is a fictional tale of the opium trade and its effects on the Indians who were forced to produce it, among many others related to this bit of history.  Not only is this a great book, but it's all about how much the West sucks and how long it has sucked for, which really should score any incoming college freshman points for self-loathing.  I will not, however, be making the sequel required reading.

4) Classic novel (pre-1910): Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: Does this really need an explanation?  Dark, romantic, disturbing, and oh yeah, you'll be mocked if you don't know what everyone's talking about in your lit class.  READ IT.

5) Modern classic (post-1910): Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: Challenging without being inaccessible, this will force those wee freshmen to use their noggins without pushing them over the edge.  A skillful execution of a strange and compelling story, this classic of Virginia Woolf should be read by all.

6) Dystopian novel: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: Not only is this a disturbing and compelling tale of what happens when a government has gone wrong, it eerily echoes what's going on in the United States today.  A great lesson in what not to do with that college education.

7) YA novel: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: This one was tough for me because I don't read much young adult fiction and I'm blown away by even less of it.  However, this book about a teen boy trying to figure out his present while avoiding his past meant a lot to me when I myself was a teen heading off to college, and I would gift it to any adolescent, regardless of their college plans.

8) Nonfiction re: science, medicine, or technology: Okay, I don't read much in any of these categories (read: anything).  I have been interested in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks though, so that one!  Sure.  I'm open to suggestions as I clearly need to round out this cobwebbed corner of my reading life.

9) Political: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan: So you might not think this is a political book but it totally is.  When you challenge the way people eat, it goes far beyond a mere question of meat, but of what their ethics are, their independence of thought and behavior, their ability to look beneath the surface (or just hide their heads in the sand).  I think that the way we eat, and the conditions to which we condemn our food, animal or vegetable, says a lot about who we are on a grander scale.  Plus, this is a nice soft book that challenges without attacking.  The tougher stuff comes sophomore year. :]

10) Graphic novel: Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse: This is a story in comics of a man accepting his homosexuality in an intensely racist community.  Okay, I'm not sure about this one because it's been a while, but I remember really loving it.  Plus, it's also got politics and history, so it's a triple whammy.


*No, I'm not bitter and resentful at all.  Why do you ask?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Meatless Monday: CSA, Vitamix, & Cupcakes!

Guys!  Gals!  This is Soy Chai Bookshelf's 200th post!  I'm not really sure what that means, but it feels like a milestone of sorts so yay!  It's kind of funny that it's about food stuffs when this is a book blog but there you have it.  It is Meatless Monday after all...


Meatless Monday is a movement to get Americans to eat less meat and more veggies through the simple expedient of not eating any animal products one day a week.  It's a great way to segue into vegetarianism or even veganism, or just make a small but real difference in your health and the environment.  To that end, on Meatless Mondays here at Soy Chai Bookshelf I will talk about anything related to food and vegetarianism, from cookbook reviews to to recipes I've created (don't hold your breath) to bragging about the delicious vegetarian feast I just whipped up to discussing in a (hopefully) not-too-judgemental way why vegetarianism is a great choice.  I would also love to host guest posters on the topic, so if you're interested in being featured, send me an e-mail at jlmarck at gmail dot com.

SO MUCH FOOD STUFFS GOING ON!  For me, that is.  It's all very exciting.

This year the hubby and I signed up for a CSA at a local organic farm.  For those not in the know, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  Basically, we bought a share in the farm and, in exchange, we get a weekly box of freshest produce, from around Memorial Day to rounds about Thanksgiving, which is about the same as the farmers' market season around here.  The weekly yield depends on how the farm does during that time, so there's not guarantee on how much will be in the box each week.  Just before the season started, there was a hail storm at one of their two farms, which destroyed tens of thousands of heads of lettuce but even still, the weekly portions have been more than generous (because of where we pick up, we had to get the family-sized package, which means a whole lotta salad.  It's been really great though - the produce is so fresh and lasts so much longer than the stuff you get in the store (All that produce that's grown across the world and has been genetically modified to last longer?  Just get it nearby, and you'll get the same result).  Plus it's organic, so sometimes it comes with friends, like the cocooned caterpillar I found on one of my lettuce leaves.  Sounds gross, but it was so cool!  Everything's super dirty though, but processing it isn't so bad since I really feel like it's mine, since I have a stake in it.  I took pictures of the first two weeks' yields - look at how green!

This influx in greens has also meant more green smoothies, which is a delicious and healthy way to get some more greens in your diet.  Only problem is, I just broke my blender (third one in two years), and using an immersion blender to make a smoothie is rather awful.  Soooooo.... I finally ordered a Vitamix!  Vitamix and Blendtec are pretty much the blenders to have - super powerful and long-lasting, apparently they can make nut butters in seconds, so just imagine what they could do to tough kale leaves!  I got a Vitamix because they have refurbished models available, which saves quite a bit of money (the Vitamix is not cheap) and still comes with a five-year warranty.  Veggies, rejoice!  If you're interested, I'll put my basic recipe for a green smoothie at the end of this post.

Finally, I got a new cookbook!  Om nom nom!  This was a total impulse buy, but I just couldn't resist.  Apparently Doron Petersan, who owns a vegan bakery in Washington D.C., has won Food Network's Cupcake Wars twice, with vegan cupcakes!  I'm telling you guys, vegan cupcakes are the way to go!  The book is really fun, with recipes for basics, recreations of classic Hostess treats, and even the recipes for her winning cupcakes!  There's also a bit of the science behind baking, which is given in a completely accessible manner.  I really appreciate Doron's philosophy about vegan baking and eggs - the object isn't to replace the egg but to determine what you want (e.g. a delicate crumb, airiness, flakiness) and figure out how to get there.  So when people ask, But what did you replace the egg with? you can confidently say, Nothing!  And stop asking that damned question!  So far, I've only made the chocolate cupcakes and vanilla frosting, but they were delicious!  Which bodes well for the rest of the book.  Happy baking!

My Green Smoothie Recipe
Don't be afraid to drink your greens!  I put enough fruit in here that you can't even taste the green stuff, though you still get all the benefits.  Oh, and on days when I drink green smoothies, I don't need my morning cup of tea.  Slurp on that!

1 cup orange juice, plus more as needed
1 large handful greens (e.g. kale, chard, beet greens)
3/4 frozen banana (peel and freeze banana in quarters)
1/4 cup or so other frozen fruit (e.g. mango, pineapple)

If you're making this in a regular blender, I suggest you blend  the juice and greens together first, to get them as smooth as possible, then add the frozen fruit.  As for the frozen fruit, I suggest you avoid berries, unless you want to drink brown sludge.  It'll taste good but it won't be as pretty.  Likewise, using beet greens or rainbow chard won't affect the taste, but it probably will make the drink less appetizing.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Reading Journal 6/24/12

I haven't posted in over a week, mostly because I haven't had much to say.  I haven't been sure whether I want to continue the assault on Mountains Beyond Mountains (I don't want to insult the person who gave it to me, but I'm also disgusted by it).  I've had zero desire to pick it up though, so instead I decided to take a stab at my crazy TBR pile shelf before I start a prerelease read along for Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue next month, which I'm super-excited about by the way.  I've only done a couple of read alongs, but it's so nice to have other people to discuss books with that I jump on the chance when I can.

In lieu of continuing Mountain Beyond Mountains, I started reading Possession by A.S. Byatt, which I got from Abebooks quite a while ago.  This has been a bit of a strange reading experience thus far.  When I first started, I was all must have complete silence to contemplate the difficult thing that is this and put a closed door between my husband and me to ensure peace.  And after a chapter, I was all, what do I care about Ash and a lady that he may or may not have written to and are these even real people?  Perhaps I will not continue.  And also, this is why I did not pursue a PhD in English, because man would this kind of work suck.  But I persevered, and nearly 200 pages in I've finally gotten accustomed to the writing style of the poetry and letters printed within the novel, and don't even mind them much anymore.  I've stopped falling asleep after reading two pages, too!  I'm even getting a little hooked on it.  Though I've yet to find any quotes worthy of me vandalizing my own book, which is a bit disappointing, as this seems like the kind of books where I'd be likely to do just that.  Preliminarily, I'd like to say that this is no light read and if you need action in a novel, this is probably not the book for you.

As for my last piece of bookish news, I'm going to a book club tomorrow!  With real people (that is to say that they will be present in the flesh, not the url).  We're discussing Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I've read a couple of times but probably still would have reread if I'd had more than a week's notice and had the book available to me upon learning about it.  So I'm going to rely on my memory and a bit of Wikipedia to get me through, so as not to make a complete fool of myself, and hope to have more time to prepare for our next meeting.

Oh, and I'm writing this to you from my fancy new Mac desktop, which is fancy and nice and demonstrates both why it is good and not so good to have a husband working at Apple, because we get nice things for less but also spend money on said nice things that we would not have spent otherwise, even if it is less.  It's so nice!  And kind of makes our desk look like a doll desk because the smallest screen available is still so big and nice!  Okay, I'm done now.

Oh, and I'm probably actually going to post a Meatless Monday post tomorrow because I've got all sorts of exciting foodie things going on (okay, not really, but it's exciting to me), so be sure to check back.  Happy Sunday!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

White People Save the World...Again

So while school's out forever summer, I'm doing this federally funded public healthy project, yada yada yada.  It mostly consists of me staring at my computer and trying to summon up the courage to beg strangers for donations for a health fair that I have six weeks to plan (anyone?  please?  it's for a good cause!).  Anywho, as part of this whole shebang, my cohort and I received some free stuff, mainly books.  Woot!  It's like this whole thing was planned with me in mind...

...except not.  I started reading one of them.  Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder is a love sonnet about Dr. Paul Farmer, "A man who would cure the world."  No, really.  It actually says that on the cover.  And the expectations instigated by that phrase have been overwhelmingly affirmed in the 141 pages I've read so far.  Get this - a white guy decides to go treat people with pigmented skin, whether they like it or not.  No, literally.  He sometimes chases them around until they let him give them medicine.  You can't make this stuff up.

Okay, in fairness it sounds like Farmer is actually pretty amazing.  He's done some pretty cool stuff and sounds like he's sacrificed a lot to do it (though you get the sense that the self-satisfaction he derives is far stronger than the pleasures of suburban life for him).  Of course, he does do that obnoxious white hero in a foreign land thing of marrying some lady and having babies with that lady and then proceeding to ignore said lady and said babies to do some other stuff.  And yes, that other stuff is very important, but really, choose.  I mean, said baby will probably have about 100 complexes about the fact that she thinks you're awesome but resents you for choosing those other people over her but then feels guilty about that fleeting thought because really they need you more than she does but dammit, she wants her Daddy.  That isn't really the point of this post.

The point of this post is that these kinds of stories can be okay, if they're true (which I can't help but doubt in this case*) and done well (which this one is not).  Kidder, the narrator of this tale, clearly hero-worships Farmer and leaves it at that.  We hear all about Farmer's life - the white family he grew up with, a white patient he treated, the white girlfriend who wouldn't marry him (and found him to be the only person in all of Haiti that she could have fun with), the white people he went to school with, the white people that sponsored his work, the white teachers who let him get away with occasionally being late for labs because he was busy saving Haiti from tuberculosis (which is horrifyingly alive and well in the world).

There's one thing missing from this story.  One very important thing.  Have you spotted it?

Haitians.  Farmer has devoted his life to Haiti and its citizens, but Kidder mentions almost none of them, except as diagnoses and cultural oddities.  There's the patient with resistant TB, the person who thought one son's Voodoo killed another son, the patient who thanked Farmer with dirty milk, the patient who died because there was no blood bank in the hospital...  There are patients, but not people.  There are specimens, but not names or voices or faces.  They get medicine and tin roofs, but they don't get stories.  Haiti is merely the backdrop of Farmer's tale.

Don't get me wrong.  If this story is wholly true, I don't think that Haitians are a nonentity for Farmer at all.  I think that they are extremely important to him - Farmer's family, the people he seeks out for comfort even when he's not in Haiti.  But for Kidder, they are nothing, just a dark, faceless curtain before which Farmer's face glows with purity.  The point, to Kidder and to the book, is Farmer, not the people he serves and has built his life's work for.

The problem is, I don't think most people would notice this distinction.  Most people, I feel, would see the white man's glory, the problems the white man most solve, the problems (other) white men create.  In short, they will continue to see the white man's world, in which non-white people merely serve as tools to determine the white man's story, whether he is good or bad or some other thing.  In purportedly showing how one man bridges that gap, Kidder widens it even more.

Kidder has mentioned that Farmer marries a Haitian woman.  I can't help if she will get a part in this charade, or if she too will be relegated to the background, less important than the white woman who rejected Farmer.

Wow, it was good to get that off my chest.

*My doubtfulness about the veracity of this tale is due entirely to cynicism.  Too many of these stories turn out to be falsified, and one as fantastic as this seems too unlikely to be real.  I may be completely wrong about this, in which case I must say that I admire the work that Farmer has done and the sacrifices he has made.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Beloved ~ Toni Morrison

So, I read Beloved, Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, partially because I've meant to ever since reading The Bluest Eye and partially because of my recent discovery that in two years of blogging, I haven't read a single book written by a black person.  Oh, and I found a copy for practically nothing at the library book sale.

I'm not really sure what to say about it.  I read some reviews on Goodreads before starting (and man did people not agree) and they all managed to spoil everything that happens in the novel right up to the very end, so I'm going to try and avoid that for you.  It's hard, though, to figure out what I can say about it without spoiling.  It takes place shortly after the Civil War, though there are many flashbacks and "rememories" of times before the war.  The novel focuses on several characters who managed to escape slavery before the war, one of which was a mother of four when her old slave master tracked her down and tried to bring her back.  This triggered an event that seems to be the catalyst for the novel itself, involving a hard, controversial decision and years of regret and haunting.

And there's the sticking point.  There's haunting and a ghostly presence and I just don't know what to make of it all.  It's not exactly magical realism (at least I don't think so) because while some characters take it for granted, some question it, and haunting certainly doesn't seem to be the norm in this world that Morrison has created.  Plus, the catalyst for this presence is so horrific that you wouldn't need a ghost for it to haunt you forever.  So maybe that's it - maybe the ghost is an inner sense of guilt and horror made real?  If that's the point, though, it seems problematic, because the haunted don't seem personally persecuted by the memories themselves, or even the ghost, who they've learned to live with.

I'm not sure why I feel like there has to be a "point," per se.  I mean, I don't usually think a story about people's lives needs to have a specific purpose other than that, but I feel like I must be missing something. Morrison must be saying something profound, must be doing something awe-inspiring, but I'm just not sure what it is.  Feel free to enlighten me, because I'm really just lost on this one.  I didn't dislike it, exactly, though I certainly had trouble motivating myself to read it.  I just didn't get it.  Something didn't click with me, and I'd love to better understand why this won a Pulitzer.

Oh, and this quote, from the very end (but it doesn't spoil anything):
"She is a friend of mine.  She gather me, man.  The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.  It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind." (272-273)
I love that quote, about how love makes you whole.  The once-slaves in the novel say some beautiful things, and I wish I had noted more.  So maybe the novel is about the endurance of love, at least in part?  Though its destructive qualities seem more strongly pronounced.  I don't know - it's beyond my grasp.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday Rewind

Hola, readers!  It's been a while since I've done a Top Ten Tuesday because I haven't been very compelled by the topics recently, but I couldn't resist this week's rewind edition.  I'm going to do a list of ten books that I can't believe I've never read, which was the 10th list that The Broke and the Bookish ever did and was originally aired here.  So here they are: ten books that I can't understand how I've gone 24+ years without reading (where have I been?!).


1) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: Guys, I was supposed to read this for summer reading before entering high school.  And I tried...once.  It put me to sleep and I decided that I was too cool for required reading and that was that.  I'd like to finally read it and I've toyed around with the idea of hosting some sort of read along in the hopes that support will get me through it, but I'm still not quite ready to commit.  That first page was just so very boring...

2) The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis: I've been meaning to read this for years and have on many occasions stopped to pick up a complete edition of the series in bookstores, but for some reason have never managed to make the leap.  I mean, what's stopping me - a series of seven novels about children in a magical world?  I've practically already read it!

3) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: I have no specific, personal reason to want to read this except that it's classic American literature and I feel like I need to have read it to be a legitimate American reader.  And yes, when I finally get around to it, I will be reading it with the original word choice as intended by Samuel Clemens.

4) The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer: Technically, I've read the first couple of chapters of this, but I never finished it and that is just silly.  It's like required reading for vegetarians everywhere (and probably should be for everybody else as well).  Also into this category I'm putting the rest of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Eating Animals, and a whole bunch of other animal rights/vegetarian/informed eating choices books that I've shamefully never read or completed.

5) Walden by Henry David Thoreau: I think that everybody has that one high school English teacher that they will never forget, who taught them things that went beyond their subject and impacted their life in some lasting way.  Mr. Patterson was mine and he loved to talk about Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Partially in response to his enthusiasm and partially due to my own interest in the subject matter, I always meant to read Walden, and it's sitting on my shelf waiting for me to this day.

6) Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe: I don't have any particular motivation to read this and, honestly, I doubt I ever will.  However, it was discussed so much in my primary and secondary education, that I don't really understand how I managed to graduate high school without it ever being assigned (though, as we've seen, that would have actually guaranteed me reading it!).

7) Animal Farm by George Orwell: I love Nineteen Eighty-Four and have read it multiple times.  I also own Animal Farm, yet somehow have never picked it up, despite having intended to for years.  How has this happened with so many books on my shelf?!

8) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: Everybody and her father (literally) has had only glowing reviews to give about this book, plus the author shares my first name, which is a huge selling point, yet somehow I've never been all that motivated by the plot summary.  I do have a copy though, which I got from my town's recent library book sale, so maybe one of these days I'll give it a shot (or maybe it'll just go on mouldering next to Walden and Animal Farm).

9) The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender: Even though it has the potential to be insanely cheesy, there's something about the idea of tasting somebody's emotions through her cooking that fascinates me.  Maybe it's because I myself cook and bake a lot, or just because of the picture of cake on the cover, but I have treasured a guilty desire to read this book for a while now, and I don't know how I have never succumbed.

10) Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson: So technically this has only been out for less than two months, so it's not that ridiculous that I haven't read it yet, but considering how freaking excited I was for it and the fact that I'm going to a reading with Jenny Lawson tomorrow night, you'd think I'd have read it by now.  Not so much, though I have started (just barely).