31 August 2010

An incredibly thought-provoking book

Proportionately, I don't read a lot of nonfiction each year. Maybe one work of nonfiction for every 10-15 works of fiction.  But boy howdy, every now and again I really hit the jackpot with a book that entertains, educates, and enthalls, and most recently it was with Hal Herzog's forthcoming book from HarperCollins,  Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.

 Herzog uses this book to explore the ambiguous moral complexities (or would that be complex moral ambiguities?) of the relationships people have with animals.  What are we to make of the fact that in 1933, the Nazi party signed into legislation the world's most comprehensive animal protection laws?  Why do so many people denounce cockfighting but think nothing of popping back a few fast food chicken nuggets made from hens whose lives are undoubtedly worse than the gamecocks'?  How is US Congress able to not recognize certain breeds of mice and rats as animals in the Animal Welfare Act, enacted in 1966 and still in place today?  Herzog's book leaves more questions than answers in this book that is endlessly fascinating, describing in surprising detail the ambivalence and ambiguities and complications we feel towards the animals we love, hate, and eat.  

He devotes an entire chapter to the "comparative ethics of fighting chickens versus eating them."  Herzog argues that fighting cocks live the life of Riley compared to the  "Dante-esque living conditions" of the COBB 500, a chicken modified by Tyson Chicken for its disproportionate breast meat.  He certainly convinced this reader (with help from Michael Pollan and Eric Schloss) that there are real evils in the mass production (read: torture) of chickens for the fast food industry that far outstrip the evils of cockfighting, and not just because of the sheer numbers.  So when he turns the discussion to issues of class and race, it becomes even more thought-provoking: "Why then is it legal for us to kill nine billion broiler chickens every year, but cockfighting can get you hard time in the federal penitentiary?"  After all, "factory-farmed chickens are exempt from virtually all federal animal welfare statutes INCLUDING the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958" [emphasis mine]. Cockfighting in the US is mostly the domain of rural working class whites or urban working class people of color, so Herzog suggests that "society is much more likely to criminalize forms of animal abuse that involves minorities and the poor than animal cruelties that affect the wealthy." According to him, over 5,000 horses died at racetracks in the US in the years 2003-2008, and yet polls show that most Americans are not in favor of banning horse racing.  He concludes, rather succinctly, "like cockfighting, horse racing represents a confluence of gambling and suffering. But unlike cockfighting, thoroughbreds are the hobby of the rich."

There are dozens of other chapters, each of them fascinating and disturbing by turn, and I'd go so far as to recommend it to almost every category of mature reader I know.  As a bookseller, I'm not sure I can think of higher praise. 

Just read it.  Seriously.

20 August 2010

Four Kachinas B&B -- simply charming!

When I was in Santa Fe two weekends ago, my husband checked out of his dorm room at St. John's College to stay with me at a little b&B called The Four Kachinas. We ended up getting the last available room, and it was booked solid for *weeks* on either end of our stay, so it felt providential, as Anne Shirley might say.

The atmosphere is a serene one, with a courtyard fountain quietly bubbling away amidst gardens dappled with sunlight. Tables with chairs dotted around. We’re in the Kachina Room – high-ceilinged, queen-bedded, and bursting with Southwest charm. We have a door leading to a private patio for two on one side and a door leading to the garden courtyard on the other. There’s also a comfortable sofa, a flat screen tv(which we didn’t turn on once) and the quietest air conditioner I’ve ever heard. A ceiling fan and screened windows make the most of the high desert air to cool the room quite comfortably without the a/c, if one prefers. The bathroom is compact, with a bath-shower combo, thick, fluffy towels, and outfitted with Gilchrist & Soames toiletries.

Clockwise from top left: our private patio for two, a sleeper sofa in a decorate Kachina-
themed alcove, our very comfy queen bed, our bathroom where the kachina theme continues

The room is altogether charming and we felt damned lucky to get it—my weekend trip was booked completely last minute to join up with my husband who had already been out there for a week teaching a workshop at St. John’s College. The dorm room where the college put him up, while being perfectly adequate to his needs, was only furnished with a twin bed, so we had to scramble to find a room. I wanted a room where I could walk the downtown area while he was still teaching, but finding one with charm and local color that also didn’t break the bank was a challenge.

The breakfast spread is quite good. They offer one hot entrée each morning, and the first morning we were there it was a mushroom & cheese soufflé. They also offer a variety of breads, cereals, yogurt, and a remarkable fruit plate with ten different kinds of fresh fruit. Coffee, tea, and freshly squeezed orange juice rounded out the offerings. Because we had to leave before breakfast on our second morning to catch an early flight out of Albuquerque, Walt, the innkeeper, arranged to leave some yogurt and cereal for us in the communal refrigerator in the breakfast room.

The breakfast room doubles as a lounge or tea room for the remainder of the day, where the innkeepers provide complimentary coffee, tea, sodas, bottled water, and homemade cookies—perfect for that late afternoon pick-me-up after exploring all day. They also provide maps of the town and the region for guests to take with them, and they’ve collected menus from dozens of restaurants in town for guests to peruse in order to best choose their meals out. The communal refrigerator is also great for guests who have leftovers or who want to keep bottles of wine chilled to enjoy in their rooms later.

The Plaza was only a 10 minute leisurely stroll (shorter if one has a brisker pace or doesn’t stop to windowshop along the way), but the location was quiet enough not to be bothered by noise from traffic or tourists. In short, it was practically perfect in every way, and I look forward to my next trip to Santa Fe and the Four Kachinas.

Milagro 139 for dinner: we met some dear friends, the Detquists, for dinner on Friday night, and they made reservations for us at Milagro 139. We all enjoyed our meal in the pleasant, relaxed courtyard atmosphere. We had two rounds of Silverado margaritas, guacamole prepared at the table, two pear & spinach salads, one steak, one salmon, and two stuffed poblanos. We finished up with a trio of desserts: saffron flan, mango sorbet, and just to be as decadent as possible, a cheesecake chimichanga. Yes, I said deep-fried cheesecake. Considering that each round of drinks was $40, our bill wasn’t as outrageous as I was expecting—it came to about $230, plus tip. Everything was fresh and tasty, but above all it was the company that was so wonderful.

The Detquists, as we collectively call our friends, Karin Bergquist and Li'ford Detweiler from Over the Rhine, were at the same Image conference as my husband. They've been attending the Glen workshop together for nearly a decade now, and on the last night the duo performed songs from their new album. Showing a photo of them is as good as way to conclude this blogpost as any:

12 August 2010

36 hours, 2.5 books

One of the best things about traveling is the actual travel time. For me, time on an airplane = time spent reading = happy time. Last weekend I went to Santa Fe for an entirely too brief (one might say crazy-short) amount of time. Here's what I read and recommend:

THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR by Allegra Goodman. This novel is full of humanity at its best and worst impulses. Set mostly in the Silicon Valley and NYC during the rise of the “dot.com” business and IPOs, it features sisters Emily, a brilliant programmer, and Jess, a romantic philosophy student. Each sister tries to prove to the other that her way of life is superior, despite their parallel searches for life’s greater meaning, but when September 11, 2001, comes along, both sisters realize that what’s really important has been in front of their faces all along. Currently on the IndieBound bestseller list for hardcover fiction, published by Dial Press.  NB: My Random House sales rep gave me an ARC of this book to read.

ONE DAY by David Nicholls. I bought this book hoping to find a quick and absorbing read for a flight to Santa Fe, but I soon realized that in addition to being those things, it was also full of heart. Emma and Dexter meet on the day they graduate from university and this novel follows each one every year on that date for two decades. Their relationship goes through many phases—they are variously penpals, friends, allies, indifferent acquaintances, unrequited and requited lovers—and along with the glimpses into their lives we get parallel histories ranging from pop culture to politics. Simultaneously funny and heartbreakingly true, this book will appeal in particular to fans of Nick Hornby. Currently on the IndieBound bestseller list for paperback fiction, published by Vintage Books.

11 August 2010

My husband took a wrong turn at Albuquerque

Storm in the Sangre de Cristos mountains

Nothing wrong with channeling Bugs Bunny! So when I had the chance to join my husband in the southwest for a couple of days while he was teaching at a week-long workshop, I jumped at it. And quoted Bugs, who, after tunneling underground across the US, sticks his head above ground, looks around, discovers he's in the wrong spot, and exclaims,"I musta taken wrong turn at Albuquerque." Which he pronounces like "Albakoikee." You with me? No? Oh, well, never mind. When my husband was late to pick me up at the airport at ABQ, it was because, in fact, he had taken a wrong turn in Albuquerque.

It was my first time to visit New Mexico, and unless you count Sundance, UT (which I think is just full-on West and not Southwest), it was my first time in the American southwest. Santa Fe is as charming a small arts town as I've ever seen. I should know; I live next door to Northampton, MA, and those two towns vie for the #1 spot on the various best-of lists for small towns & the arts. My husband has been making the week-long pilgrimage in August each year for almost as long as I've known him in order to teach at the Image conference at St. John's College. He's made some life-long friendships there, and it's also a place that renews his spirit in a way that no organized religion could. He fondly (and perhaps a little self-consciously) refers to himself as a deeply religious agnostic reprobate. Race & religion are the two main defining factors in his life, and growing up in pre-civil rights era Tennessee, you can imagine it wasn't an easy juxtaposition.

Clockwise from top left: a great bookstore, the local theatre, the oldest continuously
operating church in the US, and a double self-portrait over lunch

Intense clouds behind the college, a cute pooch playing in
the "river" that runs through the downtown.

Apparently there's a pot of gold at St. John's College!

04 August 2010

Howard Norman, folks. He's amazing!

Howard Norman’s new novel, What is Left the Daughter, was actually the Odyssey Bookshop’s July selection for our signed first editions club. He was originally scheduled to come to our store for an event but he had to cancel due to a family emergency. So Joan Grenier (the co-owner) and I had made a little trek to Saratoga Springs, NY, to meet Norman and to get our books signed for the club. He was as sweet and unassuming as can be and we enjoyed our time with him very much. Here's hoping he'll be able to make an Odyssey appearance on the next go-round!

There are some authors out there who, when you hear they have a new book coming out, just make you sit up and take notice, and Howard Norman is one of them. This is the story of a man named Wyatt, whose tragedy-marked early life seems to start a trajectory of doomed events over which he has no control. In the opening sequence, we learn that his mother and father commit suicide on the same day, each jumping off a bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia, because they are both in love with the same neighbor woman. Wyatt is then taken in by his aunt and uncle, where he apprentices with his uncle to build world-class toboggans and not incidentally, falls in love with his adopted cousin, Tilda. Meanwhile tensions are building over World War II, and when Tilda falls in love with a German student at her university, it sets yet another tragedy in motion. This quiet novel is really about the provinciality of small towns, particularly economically depressed ones, and all of the attendant yearnings, prejudices, and dreams of escape associated therein. Norman’s deceptively simple prose is poignant and fitting, reminding us that life doesn’t usually come with Hollywood endings.

03 August 2010

An odd coincidence

Okay, so is it a coincidence? Or is it just an instance of cosmic harmony where two of my best loved books for the fall happen to mention the same obscure historical figure? Mary Toft was an English woman living in the early to mid 18th century who convinced leading medical authorities of the day that she had given birth to rabbits. Yes, live rabbits. Apparently she had them going for quite a while and eventually 'fessed up. What an embarrassment to the Royal docs, eh?
Bill Bryson makes reference to it in his wonderful book called At Home: A Short History of Private Life in a section on medical history, particularly the woefully inadequate medical care given to women up through the 20th century. Not only was it indelicate for a doctor (always male) to actually examine his female patients, his patients didn't even have the vocabulary to describe their ills when something went amiss "down there." It's a wonder that every woman didn't die in childbirth.

In Julia Stuart's charming new novel called The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, it's a minor character who stumbles across the interesting information about Mary Toft and then shares it with his friend Balthazar, a Beefeater living in the Tower of London, as a means of distracting his friend from mourning the death of his son.

I had read Bryson's book first and found the Mary Toft tidbit extraordinary, but that was nothing compared to how I felt when I ran across her name once more in Stuart's novel. Is there anybody out there who can calculate the chances of that happening? I dunno. But it seemed so rare that it deserved its own blogpost.

02 August 2010

My new favorite book for the fall

If I had only one word to describe this book, I’d be hard-pressed to choose between “delightful” and “charming.” It’s one of those rare gems that introduces you to indelibly quirky characters, showcases a meandering plot that is utterly rewarding, and provides just as many laugh-out-loud moments as poignant ones. Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater who lives in the Tower of London with his wife, Hebe, who escapes during the day to run an outrageous Lost and Found office for the London Underground. Because of Balthazar’s proprietary relationship with Mrs. Cook, the world’s oldest living tortoise, the Queen decides to transfer the royal bestiary from the London Zoo back to the Tower, where Queen Elizabeth I originally housed it. Along the way we encounter missing penguins, a purloined bearded pig, the troublesome ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh, and the Tower chaplain, who moonlights as both a rat exterminator and a bestselling writer of women’s erotica with a strong moralistic tone, under the pseudonym Vivienne Ventress. I can’t tell you the last time I read a book filled with such wonderment, and it really is a joy to read a book whose literary value isn’t compromised by its sparkle and charm. People who loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or Major Pettigrew's Last Stand will love this one, too, as will anybody who enjoys books that are pleasantly offbeat and filled with British humor. It was simply enchanting.