La Vita Bella

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2012 Reading Project, Books 7-23: A Year in (Visual) Recap

In 2012, I made a resolution on this blog to review every book I read over the course of the year. Like most Milligan resolutions, I defaulted on it about 1/3 of the way through. But, having still kept a detailed list on all the books I read in 2012, I decided to belatedly rescue the endeavor by posting a visual summary of my year in reading. Enjoy below!

(Note: I’m currently on book 12 in my 2013 reading adventure, so I may attempt to do some kind of quarterly posts with short descriptions/reviews this year - versus full-length individual posts - so I can continue the project in a way that a) fulfills my desire to share great literary finds I come across and b) accommodates my extreme laziness.)

Book #7 - “Lone Wolf” by Jodi Picoult

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Book #8 - “March” by Geraldine Brooks

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Book #9 - “Ask the Dust” by John Fante

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Book #10 - “Songs of Slaves in the Desert” by Alan Cheuse

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Book #11 - “The Wave” by Susan Casey

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Book #12 - “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” by Michael Sandel

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Book #13 - “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake” by Anna Quindlen

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Book #14 - “Phil Gordon’s Little Green Book” by Phil Gordon

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Book #15 - “The Green Shore” by Natalie Bakopoulos

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Book #16 - “The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova

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Book #17 - “In Pursuit of Giants” by Matt Rigney

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Book #18 - “The Devil’s Teeth” by Susan Casey

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Book #19 - “The Devil All the Time” by Donald Ray Pollock

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Book #20 - “The Collected Short Stories of Ray Bradbury” by Ray Bradbury

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Book #21 - “My Heart is an Idiot” by Davy Rothbart

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Book #22 - “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloane

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Book #23 - “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzman

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Traverse City: What the Truck?

OK, Traverse City, let’s have a heart-to-heart. For the past several weeks, I’ve been following a growing debate among various bodies of local leadership about what to do with food trucks in the community. This is not the first time this topic has made the rounds in TC. Several months ago, the City Commission made the decision - based partially on input from the DDA - to double the daily vending rates in peak season in the downtown district, from $50 to $100 a day. These fees were considerably more relaxed outside of downtown, but as anyone who has sold $3 tacos from a cart can tell you, that price hike essentially made it prohibitive for transient vendors to operate in the DDA district. Which, for all intents and purposes, was likely the goal.

Not everyone agreed that downtown should be the exclusive domain of brick-and-mortar businesses, however, and so critics of the fee structure have grown increasingly vocal in challenging the City and DDA to reconsider the policy over the last several months. That criticism gained traction, and now an ad hoc committee of the City Commission has taken up the issue, again turning to the DDA for input. On Friday morning (February 15), the DDA board will vote on whether or not to make a recommendation to the City Commission on transient and mobile food vendors, particularly as it relates to locations downtown where they might operate. From there, the City Commission will consider that and other aspects of the mobile vending policy, such as fee structures and the number of vendors allowed downtown.

I’ve been following this issue from both a concerned citizen and intrigued journalist perspective for some time now. Because of the journalism aspect, I have both a) undertaken considerable research on the topic, talking to many of the parties involved and reviewing case studies and national data on mobile vending trends, and b) have felt it necessary to keep my opinions mostly to myself, outside of the occasional 1 a.m. bar ramblings to a friend. However, as the debate heats up, and city governmental bodies begin making decisions that could have long-term repercussions for the community, I wanted to share some thoughts on some problematic issues I’ve observed during this process (which has been complicated, as happens with many policy processes in Traverse City, by a heady mix of protectionism and fear of the unknown).

A quick disclaimer before we begin: Common public perception has it that reporters must be unquestionably objective on every subject on which they report, a notion I personally find unrealistic, and to be honest, a bit absurd. Journalists aren’t robots; we have opinions on almost everything, just as everyone else does. The important caveat is that a journalist - at least a good one - will make sure their writing does not become a conduit for their own personal agenda. A good journalist will check, and then recheck, themselves throughout their writing process to ensure editorializing does not sneak into a non-editorial medium. My personal blog is a decidedly editorial medium. But when writing elsewhere, I subscribe to The Newsroom maxim: Do your damndest to represent everyone’s clearest, best arguments, and let the readers decide for themselves where they stand. When covering the food truck issue for local press, that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do - but here I hope I can be more candid.

The single greatest force of resistance to allowing food trucks and other transient vendors downtown seems to originate from brick-and-mortar businesses - or those defending brick-and-mortar businesses - who see mobile vending as a threat to the sustainability of those businesses, a source of “unfair competition.” The unfair aspect originates in the belief that brick-and-mortar businesses (let’s call them BAMs from here on out, for simplicity’s sake) have operational costs and regulations that mobile vendors do not. A BAM pays for property taxes and utilities, invests in their building, pays for year-round staff, and so forth. Costs and regulations incurred by mobile vendors themselves - the cost of the trucks or carts, the cost of storing the trucks or carts, installing commercial-grade mobile kitchens, paying for staff and inventory, paying for gas and electricity, meeting the same health code and insurance regulations BAMs must meet, etc - have been characterized as trivial compared to BAMs’ investments.

This is one area where the debate for me sours. It reflects either an unwillingness to engage in equitable comparisons to operational costs versus profits across the spectrum (BAM may have x overhead a day, but also has x profit), or simply shows an unfamiliarity with costs and regulations outside one’s own business model. No one disputes mobile vending is a cheaper entrepreneurial start-up than a BAM, but then again, a mobile vendor doesn’t necessarily have the same potential profit yield of most BAMs. Selecting one model over the other is an entrepreneurial decision, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Most critics of mobile vending I’ve spoken with, however, have dismissed out-of-hand the costs and challenges associated with being a mobile vendor versus a BAM, and have focused instead on the perceived astronomical advantages mobile vendors have.

Which brings me to the next issue: Mobile vendors, in most regards, do not have astronomical advantages over BAMs. They have perhaps two distinct advantages I can see, inherent in their design: They are mobile, and they are less expensive to operate than a BAM. BAMs have their own unique advantages, of course. They have seating. They traditionally have higher profit margins (more expensive products + greater capacity to distribute those products). They are protected against the elements and weather that affect mobile vendors. They have an environment in which people can gather and linger, ordering additional products as they do so. They have bathrooms. They have ambiance. They are destinations.

Food trucks and mobile vendors, however, are designed for grab-and-go dining. They typically offer cheap or low-cost food. They are not a place you go to celebrate a birthday with 10 friends, or have an important business lunch. They don’t offer bathrooms, or environmental ambiance (though many look great!). They are limited in the products they can offer - typically, whatever can be produced in a mobile kitchen, and without a liquor license. They are, essentially, an entirely different creature than a BAM, serving an entirely different audience. Some days you feel like having a five-course journey through gastronomical heaven at Red Ginger. Other days you feel like grabbing a cheap fish taco and going back home to sleep off your hangover. Those needs represent two different consumers, with two different desires. Why can’t we have two different kinds of businesses servicing those demographics?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest source of BAM criticism has come from restaurants whose models are closer in nature to those of food trucks - those whose clients right now may not have many alternatives in that niche, and who suspect (likely correctly) that their days of competition-free business ownership will be threatened with the introduction of mobile vending. The most vocal critics at a recent DDA study session on food trucks were the owners of House of Doggs, J&S Hamburg and U&I Lounge. Now first off, it’s important I note that I love and eat at all of these places on a regular basis. I appreciate a 2am hot dog, affordable Greek gyro and delicious, cheap cheeseburger as much as the next person. But as a consumer, I find myself questioning my loyalty to a business when I hear that business’ owner essentially demand that other vendors - who wish to offer products in a similar price point or at a similar time of day (read: late night) - be banned from competing with them, simply because they’d rather customers be forced to give them their business. That kind of rationale gives me serious pause about patronizing those businesses going forward, food truck alternatives or not, because the modus operandi of a consumer in a capitalistic society is almost always choice. When a business starts limiting a customer’s options to protect its own financial interests, rather than choosing to elevate its game or collaborate with other vendors or convince the customer it deserves their support, the customer’s desire to be a loyal patron understandably wanes. Suddenly, coming to that restaurant anymore no longer feels like the customer’s decision. It feels like the restaurant’s.

I’m not unsympathetic to the stresses, physical and financial, of running a restaurant. I deeply and genuinely want to support these downtown companies, as I’ve done now for many years. But having supported these companies for many years, I know that my business - and that of other customers - will not immediately vaporize with the introduction of a handful of food trucks downtown. J&S Hamburg is not going out of business after 75 years because someone else decides to sell falafel wraps. If someone else decides to sell $5 burgers, and customers begin going there instead of J&S for quality or taste or convenience factors, I suspect J&S will quickly learn how to make a better $5 burger and compete. That’s the nature of entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is really at the heart of this discussion, in the end. I find it puzzling that businesses who often complain about government regulation or intervention are now asking that same government to step in and protect them from marketplace competition. This is the question I’ve struggled with most in reporting on this issue, one that I’ve asked of nearly every business owner I’ve spoken with: In a capitalistic, entrepreneurial society, what rational grounds can you point to for preventing someone else from entering your market and competing? City attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht has already cautioned the DDA and the City that the answer to that question is essentially “none” - removing or limiting food trucks “merely to prevent economic competition” with BAMs does not comply with legal precedent, she said, and could leave the city vulnerable to litigation.

The best response I’ve heard to that question when asking a BAM owner has essentially been that mobile vendors don’t have to play by the same rules, thereby they have an unfair business advantage over BAMs. But for the reasons outlined above, I simply can’t find enough reasonable evidence to substantiate that claim. What I have most commonly encountered instead are a chorus of hypothetical scenarios, representing the worst-case fears of BAMs and the consumers who support them. “Food trucks will only come in the summer and skim off all our best business, then skip town!” “There will be 10 hot dog stands lining Front Street!” “It will look like a cheap carnival downtown!” “There will be nowhere to park. Trucks will take all our spots!”

None of these scenarios, as best I can tell, are based in realistic market or operational conditions (as much as I would love to spend an entire afternoon taste-testing 10 different hot dog stands on Front Street, the market here would never support more than, say, one). Furthermore, all of these scenarios can be addressed through reasonable regulations and ordinances. In fact, some are addressed already in the recommendation before the DDA: Mobile vendors voluntarily banned themselves from Front Street between Boardman and Union (unquestionably prime vending real estate, and where many of downtown’s BAMs are located), and restricted themselves 20 feet from all intersections for safety and traffic reasons. The City Commission has the ability, if it so chooses, to allocate a certain number of permits for downtown, or for certain blocks or parks. Reasonable discussions can be had on all these fronts to ensure the aesthetics and traffic flow of downtown are preserved.

In terms of year-round operations - Simon Joseph, owner of TC food truck Roaming Harvest, is already running a permanent year-round business, operating in both blizzards and boiling sun in front of Right Brain Brewery and out on Eighth Street. Gary & Allison Jonas, who are opening a new bar in the former Jack’s Market building on Front Street this spring, are planning to open their parking lot to up to five food trucks at a time - all of which will be full-time, year-round vendors. I suspect many other mobile vendors who dream of being a part of the culinary landscape in this community and are willing to put their life savings on the line to do so also envision themselves becoming a permanent part of the local economy.

So, if we removed the “seasonal” aspect of mobile vendors, would BAMs still object to their presence? I suspect the answer is yes, because that argument can only fairly be seen as a deflection from the true heart of food truck resistance: Economic competition. Food trucks are being characterized in an exaggerated and unflattering light - I’ve heard people use the term “transients” in the same distasteful tone as “renters” was used a few years back when we were talking about ADUs and affordable housing - to alarm the consumer into opposing their presence. Accusations are being made that the trucks will look cheap (have you seen Roaming Harvest’s truck, or Porterhouse Production’s 1940’s food truck Curbie? They look, frankly, kick-ass), or that the food will be low-quality (again, see above examples - plus, in a town with this many choices, the market would quickly eliminate mediocre vendors). Even when faced with the prospect of a beautiful food truck owned by a local entrepreneur serving high-quality food on a year-round basis, critics retreat and resort to: “Well - we have enough restaurants already! We don’t need anymore. We’re not Austin or Portland - we’re Traverse City! Leave well enough alone.”

And part of that is true. We’re not Austin. We’re not Portland. We’re Traverse City. But we are Traverse City, now, existing in the year 2013. We are not the honeyed, sleepy-eyed resort town of some halcyon 1970s summer camp fantasy. This town has grown up. This town has gotten older, bigger, loftier and noisier with each passing year. This town has become known; it is no longer our private paradisaical secret. When Michael Moore is running your local movie theater and Mario Batali is name-dropping you in The New York Times and Good Morning America is calling your backyard the most beautiful place in the country, it’s time to give up the small-town ghost and embrace the progressive, visionary, dazzling potential your beloved city has to offer. And that potential must be, above all things, inclusive. It must be forward-thinking. It can’t just protect; it must also embrace.

I love the restaurants of downtown Traverse City. I love our BAMs. But just as I’ve supported them - will continue to support them - I look forward to supporting our food trucks as well. We may not be a bustling cosmopolitan city, but we are a city nonetheless, and a city that deserves a culture where entrepreneurs from all different business models and visions and walks of life are invited to participate - where consumers have choice, and businesses have healthy competition. It’s our next greatest chance at continuing the vibrancy and creative, thoughtful growth that has made - and continues to make - this community such a wonderful place for all of us to live.

Filed under food trucks traverse city michigan entrepreneur business downtown restaurant foodie

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2012 Reading Project, Book 6: “Open City” by Teju Cole

"To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone." -Teju Cole, "Open City" 

"Open City" is a novel without a plot. There’s no other way to say it - hardly anything of consequence happens in the story. Or, I should say, hardly any action of consequence happens in the story. A young Nigerian doctor roams the streets of New York, musing on the people, places and mundane rituals of daily life he encounters. He describes the strange and beautiful buildings he sees. He ponders the wandering impressions that drift through his mind when he runs a hand through the waters of the Hudson river. He details his memories of his African homeland, and the family he long ago left behind. The book moves at a slow, meandering pace, the same pace as the borough-exploring character. And it’s absolutely riveting. “Open City” is a poetic, spiritual and deftly intelligent read with sentences so perfectly crafted it’s almost impossible to believe the author is a debut novelist.

Since there is no real plot to speak of, I’ve decided to just include a selection of some of my favorite passages from the book. The author’s words will do his work more justice than anything I could write. If you appreciate finely honed reflections on life, mortality, religion, politics and the generally bewildering and beautiful experience of being alive, “Open City” is a book not to be missed.

The sight of large masses of people hurrying down into underground chambers was perpetually strange to me, and I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counterinstinctive death drive, into movable catacombs. Aboveground I was with thousands of others in their solitude, but in the subway, standing close to strangers, jostling them and being jostled by them for space and breathing room, all of us reenacting unacknowledged traumas, the solitude intensified. 

How easy it would be, I thought, to slip gently into the water here, and go down to the depths. I knelt, and trailed my hand in the Hudson. It was frigid. Here we all were, ignoring the water, paying as little attention as possible to the pair of black eternities between which our little light intervened. Our debt, though, to that light: what of it? We owe ourselves our lives. This, about which we physicians say so much to our patients, about which so little can reasonably be said, folds back and also asks us questions.

It suddenly occurred to me that, even if he had been alone, I wouldn’t have wanted to talk. He, too, was in the grip of rage and rhetoric. I saw that, attractive though his side of the political spectrum was. A cancerous violence had eaten into every political idea, had taken over the ideas themselves, and for so many, all that mattered was the willingness to do something. Action led to action, free of any moorings, and the way to be someone, the way to catch the attention of the young and recruit them to one’s cause, was to be enraged. It seemed as if the only way this lure of violence could be avoided was by having no causes, by being magnificently isolated from all loyalties. But was that not an ethical lapse graver than rage itself?

I became aware of just how fleeting the sense of happiness was, and how flimsy its basis: a warm restaurant after having come in from the rain, the smell of food and wine, interesting conversation, daylight falling weakly on the polished cherrywood of the tables. It took so little to move the mood from one level to another, as one might push pieces on a chessboard. Even to be aware of this, in the midst of a happy moment, was to push one of those pieces, and to become slightly less happy…How petty seemed to me the human condition, that we were subject to this constant struggle to modulate the internal environment, this endless being tossed about like a cloud. Predictably, the mind noted that judgment, too, and assigned it its place: a little sadness.

He had paused again, standing perfectly still and continuing to look outside. The birds were hardly visible now. Then, in a low voice, almost as if he were talking to himself or regarding his body from a posthumous point of view, he said, The reality, Julius, is that we are alone out here. Perhaps it’s what you professionals call suicide ideation, and I hope it doesn’t alarm you, but I often paint a detailed picture in my mind of what I would like the end of my life to look like. I think of saying goodbye to Clara and other people I love, then I picture an empty house, perhaps a large, rambling rural mansion somewhere near the marshes where I grew up; I imagine a bath upstairs, which I can fill with warm water; and I think of music playing all through this big house, “Crescent,” maybe, or “Ascension,” filling the spaces not taken up by my solitude, reaching me in the bath, so that when I slip across the one-way border, I do so to the accompaniment of modal harmonies heard from far away.

Filed under books reading reviews 2012 reading project Open City Teju Cole writing

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2012 Reading Project, Book #5: “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

This one is a bit of a cheat. I actually read and reviewed “The Hunger Games” last year - you can read the post here. But in anticipation of the movie coming out this month, I decided to give it a quick reread to refresh myself on the details - which took me all of, like, two hours. Sigh of relief: It was every bit as good as I remembered it.

Speaking of the movie - OH MY GOD, THE MOVIE! How excited are you, HG peeps? Jennifer Lawrence! Woody Harrelson! Elizabeth Banks! Miley Cyrus’ boyfriend! Lenny “The Smooth Rocker” Kravitz! Be still, my nerdy heart. If you haven’t seen the trailer - which would mean you’ve seen it 4,789 fewer times than I have - you can watch it here. Just be prepared to lose an afternoon hitting refresh ad nauseum, and staring dreamily out the window pondering all the creative ways you would assassinate people if you were forcibly dropped into some kind of future apocalyptic murder arena.

Filed under books reading writing reviews 2012 reading project The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins movies YA literature

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2012 Reading Project, Book #4: “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is on a lot of people’s radars these days, primarily because the film adaptation is out and earned a few Oscar nods during this recent past awards season. I read the book first, then saw the film, and as happens all too often with adaptations, loved the former significantly more than the latter. I’ll talk about both, but I have to note upfront that if you’ve only seen the movie, you need to do yourself a favor and go out and get this book immediately. The film simply doesn’t do it justice.

It’s hard to put into words just how much I loved this book. It may have actually cracked my top 5 novels of all time, a feat I thought was all but impossible at this point in my reading career. If you’ve seen the film (or its trailer), you know the story focuses on a precocious nine-year-old narrator named Oskar Schell, who lost his father in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. He finds a key hidden in a vase in his father’s closet, and convinced it’s a clue to understanding his father, goes on a city-wide search through the boroughs of New York looking for the lock that fits the key. Oskar is one of the more imaginative, complex, humorous narrators in recent fiction history; you suspect through his voice, though Foer never outright confirms it, that the boy may fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. He has his own charming made-up expressions, for instance - describing the feeling of being depressed as “wearing heavy boots,” or of having a great day as being “like a hundred bucks.” His outlook on life is unique among protagonists: a heady mixture of weary wisdom and beautiful guilelessness, all contained in the small body of a grieving child.

Creatively tackling a subject matter as painfully fresh in public memory as 9/11 is risky business. Foer, however, not only doesn’t blink at the challenge, he doubles down and boldly includes a brief but heartrending subplot about the Holocaust as well. The characters in this book all have secrets, some entire secret lives, and a storyline involving Oskar’s grandmother (who survived the bombing of Dresden as a girl) and a mysterious mute man she falls for is one of the more haunting romantic relationships I can recall. In this scene (written from the perspective of the mute man), she meets the man at a cafe and begins communicating with him through his notebook.

She flipped forward and pointed at, “Please marry me,” and this time put her finger on “Please,” as if to hold the page and end the conversation, or as if she were trying to push through the word and into what she really wanted to say. I thought about life, my life, the embarrassments, the little coincidences, the shadows of alarm clocks on bedside tables. I thought about my small victories and everything I’d seen destroyed, I’d swum through mink coats on my parents’ bed while they hosted downstairs, I’d lost the only person I could have spent my life with, I’d left behind a thousand tons of marble, I could have released sculptures, I could have released myself from the marble of myself. I’d experienced joy, but not nearly enough, could there be enough? The end of suffering does not justify the suffering, and so there is no end to suffering, what a mess I am, I thought, what a fool, how foolish and narrow, how worthless, how pinched and pathetic, how helpless. None of my pets know their own names, what kind of person am I? I lifted her finger like a record needle and flipped back, one page at a time:

Help.

There isn’t a character I didn’t love in the book, but the mute man - also called “the renter” - may have been my favorite. How he came to lose his speech, his relationship with Oskar’s grandmother and his tragic past are all exquisitely and compassionately rendered by Foer. The book is clever in the way it’s unafraid to use pages as though they were actual pages in the man’s notebook, taking up a whole page to have just a sentence or word on it, as someone who communicates through a notebook actually would. (The book also uses photographs, letters and images from other character’s perspectives to powerful - and in one instance, reversing the stills of a body jumping from a Twin Tower to make it seem as though the body is returning to the building - deeply emotional effect.) 

Everyone in the book is acquainted with suffering - some unbearably so. Foer doesn’t shy away from plumbing those depths, and there were times reading EL&IC - in bed at night, at a coffee shop - where I simply had to put the book down and have a good long cry, and give myself permission to take a break and return to it another day. But Foer is not a nihilist, and he doesn’t leave his characters without hope. Beauty and joy are as essential to the book as tragedy and grief; often, they are inseparably intertwined. Foer writes about that paradox poetically here, in a vignette from the perspective of Oskar’s grandmother:

When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder. Everything moved me. A dog following a stranger. That made me feel so much. A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did. Where the smoke from a chimney ended. How an overturned bottle rested at the edge of a table.

I spent my life learning to feel less.

Every day I felt less.

Is that growing old? Or is it something worse?

You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.

The film adaptation left out the entire subplot about Oskar’s grandmother’s background and her experiences in Dresden, as well as the mute man’s history, which to me were among the most potent scenes in the book. I’m not sure why the filmmakers neglected these subplots; most likely for budgetary reasons, or to keep the running time commercially viable. I’ve heard from many people who only saw the movie (and didn’t read the book) that they didn’t especially like it, and I can understand why. I was moved by the film, but that was primarily because my mind was filling in the blanks of the book’s backstory. It’s like enjoying a short snippet of music because you’ve heard the entire piece before; without that context, the snippet must stand alone, and unfortunately with the film, it doesn’t. There is a three-hour version of this movie that could exist somewhere, perhaps directed by Terrence Malick, that would be one of the most beautiful movies you’d ever see, and would actually deserve its Best Picture nomination. But in the case of the current film adaptation, the book is the far superior medium.

To prove the point, I’ll leave off with this dream-like scene from the book, written from Oskar’s grandmother’s perspective. She’s remembering the night before the bombing in Dresden - the night before, as a little girl, she lost everything and everyone she loved. Like Oskar, like all of Foer’s other characters, like the larger work itself, the scene is a bittersweet mixture of sorrow and hope - one that will leave you wearing heavy boots, and still, mysteriously, feeling like a hundred bucks.

At the end of my dream, Eve put the apple back on the branch. The tree went back into the ground. It became a sapling, which became a seed.

God brought together the land and the water, the sky and the water, the water and the water, evening and morning, something and nothing.

He said, Let there be light.

And there was darkness.

Oskar.

The night before I lost everything was like any other night.

Anna and I kept each other awake very late. We laughed. Young sisters in a bed under the roof of their childhood home. Wind on the window.

How could anything less deserve to be destroyed?

I thought we would be awake all night. Awake for the rest of our lives.

The spaces between our words grew.

It became difficult to tell when were talking and when we were silent.

The hairs of our arms touched.

It was late, and we were tired.

We assumed there would be other nights.

Anna’s breathing started to slow, but I still wanted to talk.

She rolled onto her side.

I said, I want to tell you something.

She said, You can tell me tomorrow.

I had never told her how much I loved her.

She was my sister.

We slept in the same bed.

There was never a right time to say it.

It was always unnecessary.

The books in my father’s shed were sighing.

The sheets were rising and falling around me with Anna’s breathing.

I thought about waking her.

But it was unnecessary.

There would be other nights.

And how can you say I love you to someone you love?

I rolled onto my side and fell asleep next to her.

Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar.

It’s always necessary.

Filed under books reading writing reviews 2012 reading project Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Jonathan Safran Foer movies 9/11

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Stephen Colbert: “What are the things I can get from a local bookstore that I’m not getting from shopping online?”

Ann Patchett: “This is what I want from you. Your book comes out, I want you to come to Nashville. You can see your friends - Jack White, Al Gore. We’ll have a party for you. We’ll get the Goat Rodeo guys to play at the store as your warm-up. You’ll sign, you’ll have such a great time. Then the next week, you’ll take your Sharpie, you’ll go to the warehouse at Amazon, they’ll cut the boxes open for you, you can sign all day. You see which one you like better.” 

This is just one of the many reasons I’m proud to be part of the National Writers Series - putting on community author events, connecting writers with their readers, and supporting local independent bookstores. Cheers Ann!

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I’m not sticking with people who are homophobic, anti-woman, you know, moral values while you’re diddling your secretary while you’re giving a speech on moral values. Come on. Get off of it.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wy.), discussing Republicans in his party who prioritize issues like abortion and gay marriage. He also said of Rick Santorum this week"He is rigid and a homophobic. He said, ‘I want a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage,’ and they said, ‘Well, what about the people who are already married?’ And he said, ‘Well, they would be nullified.’ I mean what is, what’s human, what’s kind about that? We’re all human beings, we all know or love somebody who’s gay or lesbian so what the hell is that about? To me it’s startling and borders on disgust.”

Well said, sir.

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Interview with Vince Gilligan (Creator of “Breaking Bad”)

The National Writers Series kicked off its 2012 Winter/Spring season at the City Opera House on February 4 with “Breaking Bad” creator and “The X-Files” executive producer/writer Vince Gilligan. In addition to creating one of the most nuanced, exciting, well-written shows on television (if you’re not a “Breaking Bad” fan, do yourself a favor and don’t admit that to anyone), Vince is one of the genuinely nicest people I’ve ever met, which is something of a miracle for someone who’s worked so long in Hollywood.


Vince Gilligan & Doug Stanton at NWS.

Shortly before his NWS appearance, I interviewed Vince by phone for a short Q&A for Traverse Magazine/MyNorth.com. We discussed the inspiration behind “Breaking Bad,” the show’s upcoming fifth and final season, and the surprising personal connection he has to Northern Michigan. You can read the complete interview online here.

Filed under Breaking Bad National Writers Series Vince Gilligan X-Files freelance stories interviews television Traverse Magazine MyNorth.com

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2012 Reading Project, Book #3: “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

Publishers and book critics love to tell you that a certain book is the “next great American novel.” Or a “return to the glory day of the novel.” Or the “single-handed savior of the novel and all of publishing as we know it.” Usually this is in reference to whatever books Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides have most recently published, which typically average about 5,000 pages and can easily be used to bludgeon someone to death, if you’re in the market for that kind of thing. (Admittedly, they also make for pretty great reading.) Beginning with the Book Expo of America (BEA) last May, I started hearing murmurs that “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach was going to be one of these next epic masterpieces of the written word. The author was a debut novelist, which was surprising - usually the most lavish prophecies of greatness are reserved for writers with a classic or two already under their belts. Perhaps even more surprising, the plot of the book wasn’t about some grand historical event or doomed love affair or racial tension in the U.S. It was about…wait for it!…baseball.

"Baseball?" I asked the publishing rep at the BEA, skeptically. Don’t get me wrong: I love the Tigers as much as the next crazed Michigander, but I don’t feel particularly inclined to read about ground balls for 500 pages.

"It’s about baseball, yes," the rep responded, then smiled and added: "But it’s not really about baseball.”

And there you have it: The next great American novel is by a first-time writer, about baseball. But not really.

As it turns out, the rep was right. On both fronts.

First off: “The Art of Fielding” is definitely about baseball. There are countless detailed descriptions of games, of positions, of training, of coaching. The protagonist is a gifted college short-stop poised on the edge of a lucrative career in the majors. Baseball is his entire life, which necessarily means the book is entirely about baseball. But it is also about: The dreamy world of intellectualism and academia. The complexity of loyalty and jealousy among teammates. The crippling fear of failure. Death. The inability to resist love, no matter how forbidden its form. Restlessness. The crippling fear of success. Friendship. Talent realized. Talent wasted. Addiction to routine. Desire for freedom. Hopelessness. Hopefulness.

"The Art of Fielding" is about all of these things, which is why it is about baseball, but not really. Even in the parts that are definitively about baseball, Harbach elucidates the mysterious, even mystical metaphors contained in the sport to comment on universal themes. Take, for instance, this passage, where protagonist Henry Skrimshander struggles to understand his obsession with baseball and why it’s become the single most important element in his life.

All he’d ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it like that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what Schwartzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better. You ran the stadium a little faster. You bench-pressed a little more. You hit the ball a little harder in the cage; you watched the tape with Schwartzy afterward and gained a little insight into your swing. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little. You ate the same food, woke up at the same time, wore the same clothes. Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts - whatever you didn’t need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever.

He knew it sounded crazy when you put it like that. To want to be perfect. To want everything to be perfect. But now it felt like that was all he’d ever craved since he’d been born. Maybe it wasn’t even baseball that he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen. Could have made that happen. It sounded crazy, sure. But what did it mean if your deepest hope, the premise on which you’d based your whole life, sounded crazy as soon as you put it in words? It meant you were crazy.

For those who’ve never competed in sports, or even understood the passion athletes and fans have for seemingly inconsequential games, Harbach succinctly summarizes the primal, even ancient allure underlying competitive pursuits:

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

You’ll notice from both of these passages that Harbach’s prose is simplistic, perhaps even plain. His language is not especially florid or poetic. However: The ideas he’s describing, the nuanced characters and their poignant, detailed lives, are unbearably so. If you’re not a baseball fan, you may not walk away from “The Art of Fielding” loving the game any more, but you will feel you understand it on some significant deeper level. And maybe understand something deeper about humanity as well. Because it’s not about baseball. Not really.

Filed under books reading writing Chad Harbach The Art of Fielding baseball 2012 Reading Project reviews

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2012 Reading Project, Book #2: “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns” by Mindy Kaling

Like everyone else in America, I first came to know Mindy Kaling from her role as Kelly Kapoor on “The Office.” It took me a decent amount of time before I realized she was also a writer on the show, and an indecent amount of time before I realized (thanks to my sister) that she also wrote a hilarious blog, called "Things I Bought That I Love." In my reasonable fantasy world - which is the more measured world below my ultimate fantasy world, which consists of being some kind of Important American Novelist - I’d be working on a television show, preferably a comedy, and joining the ranks of women like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler who continue to stun and amaze people with the incredible realization that females can actually - gasp! - be funny. I would count Mindy in that group of smarty-pants femme fatales, and since I have major girl crushes on women who succeed in traditionally male-dominated environments, I was already a little bit in love with her when I met her at the Book Expo of America in New York this summer and picked up an excerpt of her debut book “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns.”

My short encounter with Mindy sealed the deal on my girl crush. She graciously posed for a photo, which I normally don’t like to do with celebrities (how much of a loser do you feel like posing with someone you don’t even know who usually would clearly rather be elsewhere?), but made an exception for on account of said girl crush and also the fact I thought it would make my sister uber jealous - which it did. Anyway, even when one particularly creepy mouthbreather couldn’t get his camera phone to work and kept making Mindy take photo after photo with him, she was poised and cool and sweet to him, which made me extremely glad when I spoke to her next that I was able to nail this photo in one take:

BFFs. Whatevs.

The book excerpt was everything I’d come to expect and love from Mindy’s work: witty, fun and breezy, with the added bonus of being completely girl-next-door relatable. I had to wait several additional months for the full book to come out, and then had to wait even longer after that for my sister to finish reading it so I could borrow it, as I had used the last of my book budget for that month to buy it for her for Christmas. (This was my sort of apologetic compensation for making her jealous by meeting Mindy.) But it was worth the wait: The book, which is a collection of humorous essays on Mindy’s life and thoughts on various subjects (much like Tina Fey’s recent “Bossypants”), fully delivers on the promise the entertaining excerpt made.

Unlike some celebrities’ self-deprecating style, which can feel faux humble or flatout insincere, Mindy comes across as genuinely and ruefully in acknowledgment of her (relatively minor) flaws, while still being confident and joyful about the gifts she’s been given and perks she enjoys with her career. I always appreciate a book title that makes you laugh in and of itself, which this one does, and you get a sense right away for Mindy’s personality with the list of “Alternate Titles for This Book” she provides at the outset, which includes “Harry Potter Secret Book #8,” “When Your Boyfriend Fits into Your Jeans and Other Atrocities,” “The Girl With No Tattoo” and “So You’ve Just Finished Chelsea Handler’s Book, Now What?” The titles of other essays throughout the book give you an idea of the humorous ground she covers: “I Am Not an Athlete,” “Someone Explain One-Night Stands to Me,” “Revenge Fantasies While Jogging,” “Strict Instructions for My Funeral.” 

One of my favorite essays was an unexpectedly poignant and heartfelt piece called “Married People Need to Step It Up.” One of the things I admire most about Mindy is that while she has some of the customary starlet trappings - the circle of celebrity pals, appearances at swank Hollywood events, expensive splurge purchases - she’s refreshing traditional, even old-fashioned, on the Big Life Issues like family and dating and friendship. She speaks often and fondly of her parents, confessing that she “loved” spending time with her family growing up, even at the age when it became unpopular to do so, and she eschews “hooking up” and one-night stands for getting to know someone or developing a friendship before dating. In “Married People Need to Step It Up,” she talks about the overwhelming divorce rate in Hollywood, and how much she longs to have a great marriage someday, like her parents have. Up until reading this essay, I’d always considered myself to be highly cynical about marriage, and doubtful of my prospects or willingness to ever enter into that kind of maligned institution, but she hit two points on the head that made me realize it’s not marriage I’m cynical of, but rather the kind of marriage most people I meet seem to have. Her first point is that she wants to be pals with the person she’s married with, with she expounds upon in this section:

My parents get along because they are pals. They’re not big on analyzing their relationship. What do I mean by pals? It mostly means they want to talk about the same stuff all the time. In my parents’ case, it’s essentially rose bushes, mulch, and placement of shrubs. They love gardening. They can talk about aphids the way I talk about New York Fashion Week. They can spend an entire day together talking nonstop about rhododendrons and “Men of a Certain Age,” watch Piers Morgan, and then share a vanilla milkshake and go to bed. They’re pals.

Not to belabor the Amy Poehler of it all, but I’ve always really admired her marriage to Will Arnett. I remember at the “Parks and Recreation” premiere four years ago, Amy was looking for her husband toward the end of the night. She stopped by me and a couple other “Office” writers who had scammed invites to the party.

Amy: Hey guys. Have you seen Arnett? I can’t find him.

We didn’t know where he was, and she shook her head good-naturedly, like, “That guy,” and went on looking for him. I had never heard a woman call her husband by his last name, like she was a player on the same sports team Will was on. You could tell from that small moment that Will and Amy are total pals.

*****************************************************

C’mon, married people. I don’t want to hear about the endless struggles to keep sex exciting, or the work it takes to plan a date night. I want to hear that you guys watch every episode of “The Bachelorette” together in secret shame, or that one got the other hooked on “Breaking Bad” and if either watches it without the other, they’re dead meat. I want to see you guys high-five each other like teammates on a recreational softball team you both do for fun. I want to hear about it because I know it’s possible, and because I want it for myself.

Reading that made me realize that if I were to ever get married, that’s exactly what I’d want: someone I could be pals with. Mindy’s second astute point was that married people always complain about how much “work” marriage is, which makes it sound pretty much like hell for us as-yet unmarried folks. But I had a friend recently who made the wise observation that there are different types of work in life: there’s the work you do when writing a poem or painting a canvas or composing a song, and there’s the work you do when your toilet’s plugged up or your garage needs to be cleaned out. That analogy makes perfect sense to me, and is one Mindy makes in her essay as well:

Maybe the point is that any marriage is work, but you may as well pick work that you like. Writing this book is work, but it’s fun work, and I picked it and I enjoy doing it with you, Reader. It’s my job, and it’s a job I like. Tim [ed note: a married friend of Mindy’s], on the other hand, had chosen a very tough and kind of bad-sounding job, like being the guy who scrapes barnacles off the pylons of an oil rig in the frigid Arctic Sea.

Reading can be work, too, which is one reason I always tend to research potential titles before I start reading them. In the case of Mindy’s book, I chose well: I picked work that was fun. I picked work that I liked. If you’re not normally a big reader, either because of the time commitment involved or the difficulty of the text or the effort needed to get through it, this book might be the right line of work for you.

Filed under books writing reading Mindy Kaling Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? 2012 Reading Project reviews