Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

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A friend made his television debut last week on a comedy thing set to air sometime next month. We wild partied with tacos then mooncakes and snowcakes in Chinatown. The snow skin ones are made with rice flour and taste like mochi while mooncakes have a thin pastry crust. Both are filled with a rich, dense filling like lotus, red bean, green tea or pineapple. They’re made during the Mid-Autumn festival and bring good luck if you rub them all over yourself. I made that last part up but maybe it’s true. Go for it. I prefer to eat mine.

When a friend takes a big step towards a dream it’s only natural to trip him. And then reflect. What have I accomplished lately? My French fluency is down by 2%, accordingly to Duolingo, so there’s that. I tweaked my sugar scrub ratio to make it a little less sandpapery – I’m way too excited about something that took 30 seconds to do.

Also, I finished Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, all 20 pounds of it. It’s big. I deserve more cake.

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This was my second Robert Heinlein book, after Have Space Suit – Will Travel. So far I like his work despite its sexism. The characters and dialogue in this one are very dated and the constant banter between subservient females and arrogant men made it easy to put down. I kept picking it back up though. It’s like a thought experiment set in a future with self-driving flying cars and apartments with grass floors. Some of the visuals reminded me of The Jetsons and made me miss Saturday morning cartoons. Then things got sexy and I had to put away my pancakes.

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The story is about a human, Valentine Michael Smith, raised by Martians who arrives on Earth a grown man deeply confused by our alien ways. He brings with him Martian philosophies and attitudes as well as some special abilities. Michael’s existence is a nightmare for political and business powers intent on protecting their financial interests in Mars. That the Martian species already inhabits the planet doesn’t factor into their concerns.

Michael’s time on Earth begins with hospital confinement. There’s gravity and light to adjust to. Oh, and the first woman Michael meets is busty nurse Jill, who breaks him out. There’s much for Michael to “grok” as he attempts to comprehend our strange ways. The plot finds traction once Michael and Jill arrive at the elaborate home of Doctor Jubal Harshaw, a lawyer, doctor, bestselling author and intellectual powerhouse who surrounds himself with beautiful secretaries.

The three come together – Michael and his pure soul, Jill and her pure heart and Harshaw’s dynamic mind – and for a while external threats remain on the periphery. Jubal recognizes that Michael is highly civilized with potentially dangerous abilities while Michael discovers how much he enjoys smooching and other activities in this house full of women. Michael evolves, adapts and, after visiting a megachurch/casino, forms The Church of All Worlds otherwise known as Here Be Orgies. The religion is based on Michael’s Martian knowledge and follows the creed “Though art God”. Open sexuality is only one aspect but Heinlein doesn’t want you to miss it. Superior minds have no time for clothing. Rather than forbidding followers from coveting other’s wives, he teaches them to all love freely. There’s nothing lost in shedding jealousy and restrictive morality.

There’s a lot to appreciate, but the book is also maddening. I hated the melodramatic, cynical ending and wanted more prose. At times 90% of the page is dialogue and these were big pages crammed with tiny text. I was prepared for the controversial parts, but still WTFed one of Jill’s statements. At this point she’s Mike’s friend and sort of guide to human ways while working as a Vegas show girl when she says, “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s at least partly her fault.” I’d like to think Heinlein gave a female character this insane statement to elicit a strong contrarian response, to stir readers up emotionally and intellectually. But I doubt it. I think she’s meant to be an everyman character. Until this point, I found all the datedness charming. Back down the book went for a few weeks.

I can see why this flawed novel is considered a SF classic and I can see why some hate it. I needed a lot of breathing room with other books during the months I worked through this one. Overall, I liked it. It’s packed with ideas that aggressively challenge convention and do so in a thoughtful, sometimes persuasive and often provocative way. You don’t have to agree with all of the ideas. Heinlein’s not trying to convert you, though The Church of All Worlds is a real church now.

 

 

Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende

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Heather Lende’s Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs was my favorite read of the summer. It came highly recommended by my cousin who’s a minister near Fairbanks. I opened it while sitting on my fire escape on a 90 degree day overlooking plots of grass belonging to strangers we’ve lived near for years. Beyond the three families in my building, I can count the people I sort of know on one hand. We’re neighbors according to the post office, but I couldn’t pick them out in a lineup.

These are wildly different living conditions from life in the small coastal town of Haines, Alaska. In a series of personal essays author Heather Lende shares what it was like to literally get run over by a truck and the physical and psychological healing that followed, as well as the pleasures of picking wild berries and making jam, and chewing on her mother’s final wish.

The best books never leave you empty handed, however random the intel. Apparently scientists believe that the Milky Way, my elusive Milky Way, has an odor and releases a chemical that gives raspberries their flavor. I never heard this until reading about it here. This book is a thinker. Time to think about life, death and the flavors in space.

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Heather Lende is a busy bee. She’s a columnist on family and small-town life, an obituary writer and a volunteer hospice worker. Many of these essays feel like expanded columns, which was fine by me as I’d never read her work before. The thoughtful tone and flow of her writing drew me in right away. Reading this feels like getting a whole day to catch up with an old friend who will tell you all about going bear hunting and accepting the animal heads her hubby hangs around the house, but first the accident.

On an April day she was riding her bike one minute and down on the ground getting run over by a truck the next. Lying there with a broken pelvis, she had the presence of mind to stay calm and instruct people on how to help. Breaking a pelvis can be fatal. Haines doesn’t have a hospital so she had to be airlifted to a trauma center in Seattle. The following April she loses her mother to Leukemia.

The stories range from the challenges of her long recovery and really forgiving the driver, to how a local Tlingit man carved a new totem pole and 140 people, including Lende, helped raise it. Many of the passages are wise and don’t shy away from her spiritual side. I admire how she writes about her religion in an expansive, touching way. Then turns around and details an angry outburst at a new neighbor’s vicious dog after he eats her favorite chicken. She takes you through the highs and lows because that’s life. Reading about someone else’s life with such specificity can soften how you see your own.

I’m not sure how or when it happened that I became steady enough to traverse steep ridges and skin just-killed animals. In some ways, it’s not much different from the courage it takes to change a stranger’s bedpan or help a dying person breathe. It can be done, it really can, by ordinary people. It takes courage is all.

I look at my own fire escape/balcony/backyard and pet some neighbor’s cat who sneaks down the steps and meows at our window every morning. I give him water and bring out my morning cup of yerba mate and together we watch the birds and squirrels as construction workers three buildings down begin another 8 hours of drilling. We do not acknowledge the man in the top floor across the way who is almost always in his birthday suit and never closes his curtains. I’m out of lemons and bananas but there are eight grocery stores and produce stands within half a mile. Woohoo.

My favorite parts were the small details of life in Haines. Alaska sounds like a dramatically meaningful place to live, but it’s not easy. There are few supermarkets and, since the packaged food travels more than 1000 miles, it’s all very expensive. There are no roads into town. The only way there is via a 4 hour ferry or a small plane. She mentions having three neighbors die in plane crashes. Newspapers are flown in from Juneau and Anchorage, often a few days after printing. Yet people there love it. One of her neighbors said she’d rather be in her own backyard than heaven. I’d rather be in her backyard, too.

Hiking Glen Onoko Falls in the Poconos

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I went into paranoia overdrive last week, researching a new-to-me campground in the Poconos. By the time we left, I fully expected to be greeted by a party of angry black bears dressed in Lyme infected ticks twirling rattlesnake lassos. I needed to switch gears.

We did a quick search for fun hikes in the area, ideally with scrambles. Glen Onoko Falls trail in Lehigh Gorge State Park sounded ideal. Bordering a series of waterfalls, the first half is uphill with plenty of scrambles and vistas up top. And it was only a few miles from our campground. And, provided we didn’t get lost, the loop back would take us past the grounds of the Wahnetah Hotel, which burned down in 1917.

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image via treasure.net

My sister has hiked all over the area and repeatedly warned us to be careful on this one. A number of people have fallen and died on this trail. Stay away from the edges, which can be more slippery than they look. Be mindful of where you step, particularly on the steep sections with small loose rocks. Wear hiking boots – you’ll need the traction, especially if it rained recently!

I’m not going to walk you through the trail as a number of hiking bloggers have already done that job well. Check out East Coast Hiker and Gone Hikin’ for detailed trail descriptions and pictures. We couldn’t find any trail maps so we printed the directions from both blogs, but didn’t end up needing them. Stick to the water on the way up and you’re on the scenic route. This was taken early on the trail.

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We started the trail in early morning shade, feeling a slight chill in short sleeved shirts. I’m so glad we didn’t lug along more clothes. The sun and rocky path quickly warmed us up. My boyfriend looked like he was glowing. I was a gross walking puddle slick with sun screen and bug spray, but loving the views and the peace that comes with not thinking of anything other than where to step next. Yes, I see how it can be dangerous, but this is a beautiful place. Because the trail isn’t very well marked at times, it’s like you’re inside a puzzle. Where it is well marked, you still have to be aware of where you’re gripping and stepping, keeping three points of contact where needed.

We didn’t take any pictures of the larger falls. It’s not a scenic hike unless the phone battery is dying. Here’s where we crossed over:

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We saw several small brownish frogs, a whole lot of spiders, butterflies and tiny fish. After a big waterfall under which a teenage boy was singing Don’t go chasing waterfalls and singing it quite well, the trail took us by some cairns tucked at various shelves under a shady rock ledge. Though cairns are supposed to be used to guide hikers from a distance where there are no trees or high rocks to mark the trail, these here are just for fun I guess.

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Just beyond the cairns, my boyfriend froze mid-step. His eyesight is better than mine, possibly because he wears glasses, so he took the lead in shady spots because we figured if there were any snakes, he was more likely to spot them and not panic/jump back/ possibly slip. When it comes to perceived danger, my response is to flee I can’t help it. My boyfriend freezes. We didn’t actually expect to encounter any snakes, but there it was. This one was smallish and quickly slithered off the path. It had a rattle at the end and looked like a baby Timber Rattlesnake.

Considering we’d just seen a rattlesnake, I now question the wisdom of what we did next, but it wound up being the best part of the hike. We took off our shoes and socks and joined a few other hikers beneath one of the falls that was more of a trickle. Standing under that cold water felt incredible, like how summer should feel every day.

Shortly after, we followed the orange markings down a rocky trail filled with birds. Near the end I remembered the Wahnetah Hotel and assumed we’d already missed what ruins there were to see. Then we looked back and saw dry-stacked stone walls, stone steps and what looked like part of the stone foundation or a small structure.

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Look down and there are traces of stones paths, giant exposed pipes. The closer to the end you get, the more tiers of partial stone walls you see and the easier it becomes to imagine how grand it must have been to arrive there.

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Glen Onoko Falls is a new favorite trail. My pictures don’t come close to doing it justice. It’s challenging, but very doable if you’re fit and wearing appropriate footwear. I wouldn’t recommend bringing kids and definitely don’t wear flip-flops or sandals. This trail looks like it connects to a number of others so poke around before you go to get the most from your visit. We wanted to save some energy for canoeing the river so we stuck to the loop and finished in about 1.5-2 hours. I wish we took more time going up, but hopefully we get back there this fall. Pennsylvania state parks are free and there’s a bathroom just off the parking lot closest to the trailhead.

Camping

The first night it rained as the weather predicted. Unlike the prediction, it didn’t pass. It stormed the entire night. Have I ever told you how much I love lightning? Our lakefront campsite seemed like a great idea until, as my nieces like to say, the cold air started giving the hot air high-fives. Big bolty high-fives. At least our tent kept us dry. My sisters and their families woke up in puddles. They wanted to leave but the sun dried everything quickly and who can leave a fresh pot of coffee percolated over a campfire? Also, I hid their car keys.

The second night was clear and cool. The sky bright with stars. Perfect for deep sleeping. On that lovely peaceful night, I had one of the longest most terrifying moments of my life. It was the middle of the night (of course) and I awoke to a loud forceful push against our tent. It had to be a black bear. What else? Wide awake and heart pounding, This is it. One of my greatest fears is happening. Then I realized we had nothing to defend ourselves with. Ever ready to flee in the face of danger, I unzipped the tent and hysterically fumbled around for my fire-poking stick. After stubbed toes and a scraped knee, my boyfriend’s words – That was me -finally sunk in. Turns out he was having a nightmare and punching the back wall of our tent in his sleep. Who does that? I was too relieved to do anything but grumble back into my sleeping bag. Much as I love camping, it does bring out my spazzy side.

Ready for Camping

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Upon returning from a camping trip, I ride the lalala peacefulness of spending a few days outdoors free of walls and electricity and glowing screens. All the work leading up to the trip, a distant blur not worthy of remembering. Then another trip comes around and as much as I know it’ll be good once we get there, every minute leading up to it, when we’re running around for tick/mosquito repellent and cooking and stuffing everything in the freezer so it keeps, it’s a lot of work.

I miss being a kid. My dad did all this work for us and he made it look like fun. Time to Tetris all the supplies in the truck and still have room for 6 people! Time to drive 3 hours without air conditioning because for some reason it was always busted. Then at the camp he cooked all the food while we canoed and jumped off bunny cliffs along the Delaware River. At night he’d wait for all of us to retire to our nice tents with zipper doors before backing into his long hippie mummy mini tent feet first and wiggling in until only his head stuck out. If he rolled over in his sleep the entire tent either went with him (if the ground was soft). His favorite saying – Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without – speaks to why he waited until the tent he had as a teen in the 60s dry rotted before splurging on a tent with a zipper that covered his whole body.

Camping leaves you with so many stories that, unlike all the work prior, stake a permanent spot in memory. So it’s okay that I burnt myself twice this morning trying to check on food in the oven while keeping the freezer from swinging open again. My apartment is smoky but the cornbread tastes perfect and will be even better warmed up on the fire with some honey.

One weird experience from our Acadia camping trip back in June is only slightly on my mind. On the last night, I was about to fall asleep when my boyfriend whispered that there was someone walking around our campsite. I opened my eyes and saw the silhouette of a person passing between our tent and the fire a few feet away. We saw nobody when we looked around with the flashlight and checked that the car was locked, which of course it was. A car alarm went off a few sites down about a minute later. My boyfriend then fell straight to sleep while I lay wide away magnifying the sound of every snapped twig. His super power is willing himself to sleep in seconds any time, any place.

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This time it won’t be just the two of us and we’ll have more to look out for than some weirdo trying to rob campers. There are rattlesnakes and a number of Lyme infected ticks in the area. Bart Yasso’s telling of how Lyme disease impacted his life as a runner in My Life On The Run is good motivation to stay vigilant and well sprayed down with oh-so-healthy chemicals to keep the ticks away.

Oh, and there are black bears, but that seems like a given in most parks. I’ve been working my way through Mark of the Grizzly, thanks to Angela over at Toasty Strings for the recommendation. Each chapter details a grizzly attack and it’s obviously terrifying, but also gripping and loaded with information I hope will never come in handy. I read recently that grizzlies are able differentiate colors. In a wide open tundra, bright tents might make them curious and more inclined to investigate than camouflaged ones. Wish I read this before getting a colorful tent, but we’re not exactly off to Antarctica. Yet.

There are some major differences between what to do when encountering a black bear versus a grizzly. Here in the Northeast, we only have black bears. And they rarely attack large groups of people, especially if you don’t leave food and trash out. Small kids are to be piled on adult shoulders to make them seem bigger. The most important thing is not to run because that can trigger a predatory response.

I’m trying to fill my head with the right answers because my nieces have so many questions about bears. These things are good for kids who live in bear country to know, but I can’t help wondering if they wouldn’t be so nervous had they not watched Backcountry with us a few weeks ago (not my decision). It’s loosely based on a fatal black bear attack that occurred in Ontario. The movie swaps which person was attacked and makes one of them look like a fool to blame when in real life they were both avid outdoors people who were unfortunately in the path of a predatory bear. It’s watchable, but not good and the changes they made don’t serve the story. But they did use a real bear and it’s gory. Imagine seeing this when you unzip your tent:

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Off to the wilderness we go. Despite all of the above, the woods are among the safest places a person can be. Lately, running in our neighborhood by myself feels far riskier than a few days sleeping beneath the stars. The prep and planning are finally done. Now I’m excited.

Be a rocket not a moth

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House sitting for my sister and I’m getting too much sun, but at least we’re staying cool and waking up early enough to squeeze in some shaded trail runs. Yesterday we saw the telltale depression of a bear bed and suddenly had the energy to pick up the pace. Early runs are thanks to the frogs. I have to scoop the daily dozen or so frogs from their morning dip before the pool filter turns on and leaves me with a pile of carcasses to deal with. She lives by a creek, but for some reason local frogs gather in a chlorinated pool. Beautiful swimmers and neat little hoppers, but they have no survival instinct.

My little niece does. The night before they bid us adieu, we were all in the living room watching Blood Sand when I spotted a moth on the lampshade. I hopped up to save the day, to which my sister says Just leave it.

But they’ll eat your clothes. I say this because they do. Moths ate giant holes in my favorite cat sweater when I was young. Black and white, it was the favorite of many awesome cat sweaters. I don’t want my nieces to know that kind of pain.

So I jump up to catch and release the monster back to the wild. At this point my sister pauses the movie and points right at me. It was you, she says. You’re the reason they’re terrified of moths.

Guilty. I have warned my nieces about moths and maybe those warnings were slightly too graphic. Apparently whenever they spot a moth on the playground they run away screaming because moths will eat their clothes right off their bodies a la Pac-Man munching up those dots. The little one has her mama check her bedroom for moths before she’ll go to bed otherwise one could eat her pajamas while she sleeps.

Oops.

In my defense they have some wild imaginations. While kicking zombie butts playing Left 4 Dead, this 5 and 8-year-old both agreed making video games would be a cool job. Then the 5-year-old adds, But I also want to be a rocket and go to the moon. We told her that she should probably ride inside of a rocket rather than be one. She agreed then lowered her voice, shrugged her shoulders and said, Maybe someday I will go to the moon. When she does I hope they have moon chickens because this one is never crossing over to the vegan side.

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And as if rocket dreams and moth horrors weren’t amusing enough, the girls performed a little show before riding their car seats into the sunset. An endless rendition of Let It Go followed by an original song with a toy guitar. They made up lyrics on the spot, fast and rockin’. All but one flew right past me, but the one I caught is a keeper:

I don’t know whyyyyy

Grandpop says yes

And mama says noooooooooo

All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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Hey, don’t forget to look up this week. The Perseids meteor shower peaks Thursday and Friday, as many as 200 meteors an hour, according to NASA.

This summer I’ve been re-reading The Sandman comics. It’s impossible to go slow because the library only seems to have these massive annotated volumes with 15-25 issues each. While conducive to binge reading, these volumes weigh several pounds and are too large to fit in my bag. It makes for an interesting walk from the library on 90 degree days and a fun subway ride home during rush hour. The effort is worth it, but sinking into an epic of this scope has one big drawback.

Summer is traditionally a time for great books and, next to Sandman, no other reading is measuring up. I have a number of street finds lined up for my post – Sandman funk – The Passage and Outlander! – but what to do in the meantime? YA is often a sufficient source of entertainment. Admittedly, I judged Jennifer Niven’s All The Bright Places by it’s perky title and pretty cover. That was a mistake.

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This book is a downer. Downer books should have a special sticker so those of us not seeking melancholy will know to stay away. Call them Bummer Books! – the exclamation point being the jazz hands of punctuation. But seriously, there should be some indication that this could be a trigger book for readers struggling with depression and anxiety. This is not a story about healing.

On the surface, this is a typical YA romance with a depressingly predictable end. We have a boy and a girl who connect with one another because they are so very different from everyone else. Violet and Theodore Finch meet on the edge at the top of a bell tower at school. Violet is pretty and popular and nobody sees how hard she’s struggling since losing her sister in a car crash. Finch is up there because it’s one of those days.

Together they work on a project for Geography class, exploring their home state of Indiana. Together they wander to places they think are strange or pretty. Finch pours his attention into getting Violet out of the house and making her smile. He gets her to ride in a car again.

What a terrible feeling to love someone and not be able to help them.

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Between Violet’s overprotective parents and Finch’s manic highs and lows, it’s pretty clear where this is heading. Until it gets there, the love story has its moments but they’re very one note. My boyfriend uses the term masala to refer to movies with a little bit of everything. With love, hahas, tragedy, bullying, neglective parents, bi-polar, suicide, abuse this is a masala book. Something for everyone with plenty of despair to spare.

A number of YA suicide/self harm/depression books have come out in the past few years and some of them are probably good, but this one rubbed me the wrong way. You see suicide coming from early on and that paints it as inevitable as in Of course a bi-polar kid kills himself. That’s what they do. About 50 percent of people with bi-polar attempt suicide and 15 percent do kill themselves. It’s an important subject so it threw me when suddenly the story is about about Violet surviving Finch’s suicide. It’s okay for her to grieve her sister’s accident, but the perceived stigma of suicide confuses the mourning, keeps her from reaching out for support.

Stigma? Maybe this book would’ve made more sense had it been set in the 90s or earlier? I remember not being allowed to attend the funerals of a few relatives as a kid. When I asked what happened to these loved ones who seemed so young and wild the answer was always “heart attack”. Clean, no questions asked. My sisters and I were convinced we’d die of heart attacks before 30, too. I think the truth made relatives feel ashamed and that’s hard. As an adult, losing people to suicide is agonizing, but there’s no secrecy around it and suicide isn’t viewed as a reflection of the family or anything other than tragic. So Violet’s experience here came across as false or at least dated.

Also, Finch repeatedly says he doesn’t want to be labeled. He’s having a hard enough time at school as it is. I started rubbing my face with these. Where’s the friend who points out that maybe if he got some help he wouldn’t have such a difficult time because teachers would be able to work with him rather than write him off as lazy. Maybe if he got treatment he wouldn’t dip so low in the first place. These friends don’t always exist in real life, so they don’t always exist in fiction. But I kept thinking about teens dealing with similar issues, reading this and having their most dangerous assumptions -that seeking help is a bad thing- confirmed. Yes, Theodore Finch ends up dead along with all the cool things he might’ve done and relationships he might’ve had, but that’s not the point for some reason.

At best this is a story for people who have friends that are depressed. But not really. The suicide happens after Violet finally urges Finch to get help and then she spends the last bit feeling bad for trying to help him. Ugh. Generally, I like fiction that deals with darker subjects, which are not to be confused with Bummer Books! Here the author’s voice bugged me and I hate how the subjects of mental illness, suicide and judgement of those who do seek treatment and group support are handled.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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The Vegetarian, a novel by South Korean author Han Kang, is a dark story that begins with a change in diet. As you can guess perhaps by the title, a grown woman’s rejection of meat is our inciting event. Vegetarianism is normal and healthy for millions of people around the world, but this woman’s family doesn’t have a clue.

The jumping off point for this story is completely unique in the fiction I’ve read. It’s also easy to relate to. I became a vegetarian as a child and my family was not happy about it. They assumed it was a phase and when I didn’t change my mind it became a problem.

In this story, one woman’s vegetarianism is portrayed as a subversive push against oppression. The complexity is exciting, so I was a bit disappointed when this became a tale of mental illness.

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Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian is received as a threat by her family. We observe and try to process her transformation from the perspective of a cold, narrow minded crappy husband, a lusty brother-in-law and a loving sister. When she avoids sex because of how bad her husband smells to her, he naturally assumes she’s slipping into hysteria.

As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight … being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion.

Time passes between each section so we sort of whirl through the lows of this woman’s life. The novel is a concise example of melodrama done well. There are no highs or moments in the middle when you can think maybe things will be okay. The final part from her sister’s section is the slowest read, but most compelling.

She’d been unable to forgive her sister for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

I love a book that treats its readers like they’re smart. Visceral, bloody images of the lives Yeong-hye’s eaten and imagines are forever stuck in her body don’t try to spell out her reasons why. Why she became a vegetarian is asked repeatedly, but nobody really tries to understand. The family’s response, her father’s violence and husband’s lack leave you with as much to think about as Yeong-hye’s dreamlike end. This would make for an ugly movie, but the internal world is fascinating.

The Vegetarian is a slim, tense novel that manages to be both beautiful and super depressing. I’m glad I read it and really glad it was short.

On another note, there are some scary psychological risks to following a veg diet without taking the time to learn what the body needs. Vitamin deficiency, particularly with B12, which the body doesn’t produce and is only gotten from meat, can lead to paranoia, depression and brain fog so thick you can’t think straight. That’s not what happens to Yeong-hye – the liver can store B12 for years – see a nutritionist or do a lot of homework before experimenting with your diet.

 

 

 

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

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My horoscope says it’s time to buckle down. What a cruel thing to tell someone in summer. Maybe by buckle down it means add more chocolate chunks to the cowboy cookies and quit reading horoscopes. And probably finish more books – currently juggling 5 novels. Done done and done.

First let’s talk about a book.

Ann Patchett fell under my easy-to-resist category for years. I like to discover goodness on my own or at least pretend to. My embargo on her books ended with Bel Canto. On paper, a story about a hostage situation held no appeal, but the opera tie in was irresistible. Likewise, a story about a pharmacologist going to the Amazon to gather information on some secret mystery drug sounded boring. It’s not. State of Wonder doesn’t have the magic of Bel Canto, but it sustained my interest and I can see why others loved it.

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There’s a lot going on in this hefty story. Heavy on ideas/commentary on pharmaceutical field research and funding, fertility and coping with the past, we get substantial writing piled on a silly plot. The reader has to go along with the premise that a pharmaceutical company would pour huge sums of money into a research lab in the Amazon to develop a fertility drug (so far so good) without receiving a peep of update on the drug’s development for years (suuuuure).

The inciting event is a sparse telegram sent by Dr. Swenson informing the company’s CEO of the death of pharmacologist Anders Eckman, who was sent to investigate the drug’s progress. Dr. Marina Singh, Eckman’s colleague and friend, is then sent to Brazil to complete Eckman’s task. At ease with open prairies, cool nights and anticipating spring’s first blossoms, it takes some convincing for this native Minnesotan to accept the assignment. A few nightmarish doses of Lariam later, she’s off to find Dr. Swenson, the scientist in charge who also happens to be her former formidable teacher.

By the way, the drug company pouring buckets of money into this drug has no clue where in the jungle the lab is located. I spent a lot of time waiting for the story to start. That’s never a good sign even when the writing is superb, which it is. Striking scenes along the way include an agonizingly hot trip to a muddy beach and a night at the opera in stupidly painful heels. It’s not what happens in these scenes, but the author’s ability to immerse you in a worldly atmosphere so removed from the familiar. This is why I’ll read every book she ever has and will write. Patchett leaves you with the impression of having been through something –  held hostage by terrorists? Check. Stuck deep in the jungle surrounded by poisonous spiders, bugs, anacondas and cannibalistic tribes. Yup.

Judging by the two Patchett books I’ve read, she puts intelligent characters in extreme situations. Getting to see how they manage is part of the appeal. Once Marina finally discovers the truth behind Dr. Swenson’s work, her secondary mission to bring her dead friend’s body back to his family or at least find out what happened to him becomes more of a vague notion. See, there’s this magical bark women of the Lakashi tribe, the people DR. Swenson lives among and studies, gnaw on. This bark apparently enables these women to continue making babies all their lives. Joy of joys, right? What 50, 60, 70 year old gal wouldn’t love to give birth and change diapers in the nursery home from hell? Never mind how the horrors of babies born to geriatrics in the U.S. would unfold. As a childless professional in her 40s, Marina’s mesmerized by the possibilities.

So the story requires suspension of belief. Every character beyond Marina reads like a flat paper doll and I cringed at how she portrayed the Lakashi and other people of the Amazon. I still appreciated the writing and ambition. It makes you think about what we can and cannot live with. I read in an interview that Patchettt spent some time in the Amazon while researching this book and that comes through. You can feel the jungle closing in on you – what it takes to not die there.

State of Wonder is not great considering what Patchett is capable of, but it’s good. Read it in winter though. Snuggling into a sweaty hammock on these 90+ degree days and reading about an endless trip to the relentlessly muggy jungle is not recommended. I deserve a frosty treat.

Back home

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It’s tough coming home to Brooklyn in the summer, especially when the bright turquoise water along the Jersey shore is crystal clear and here the Feels Like at 7 pm is 92 degrees. Bleh. The cool thing is we don’t have to make food because it’s too hot to eat and don’t have to clean because it’s too hot to make a mess. Basically I’m a lump of sticky flesh surviving on cold coffee and my newest vegan concoction – creamy chocolate pudding with frozen blueberries. It’s good. I licked the bowl so clean my boyfriend thought it was clean and put it back in the cabinet.

My sister’s pool is seeing a lot of me this summer and, as mentioned before, I’m a little envious of her nice new mountain home. So imagine my surprise when my niece called. She wants to leave her wonderful pool and come visit me here in the city in the middle of summer. It’s not going to happen for many reasons including my broken refrigerator. This girl loves the city and thinks my apartment with its light wells, roof views and fire escape kitty is so cool.

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Sometimes it is. Back in May, I began my next trip around the sun here. We used a Groupon for one of the sightseeing cruises, something I’ve never done before, and enjoyed Brooklyn and Manhattan as I like them best: from a distance. The tour guide on the boat talked more about the high rent than the city’s history or the structures we passed. He didn’t do the city justice, but the wind drowned him out anyway. It was a cool, windy day. Remember those? As you can see, hot coffee was the precious – they brewed us a fresh pot. Lady Liberty is photobombing this lovely picture of me and my sister/Mario-brother-in-a-froggie-suit lookalike. We forgive the trespass.

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Posing with magical coffee again. Here I have a side mustache, very trendy now, and my hot date looks like a Bollywood movie gangsta.

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It’s nice to be back in my own space. I can think straight and the water is drinkable right from the tap, which seems to be a depressingly rare treat in this region. My family and friends in NJ, NY and PA don’t seem to notice the smell and sour taste to their water. They take offense when I bring bottled, but it’s that or dehydration.

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The city seems aware of its summer flaws. It knows how bad it smells, how how the crime rate spikes and how hard it is to see only concrete and buildings when so much of the country is in full bloom. In exchange it offers a library that rarely lets me down, except in the horror department, and all sorts of free outdoor cultural greatness. Before leaving, we were lucky enough to be in Brooklyn Heights and hear about the opera recital on the waterfront just a few hours before it began. It was part of Met Opera’s free Summer Recital Series, which is over now, but you can catch the free HD series in Lincoln Center come August.

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Three singers performed a dozen or so arias and duets from Madame Butterfly, La Boheme and other famous operas. Much as I love going to The Met and seeing a full performance with the orchestra and elaborate costumes and sets, opera flexes its muscles outdoors, pared down to its purest.

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As the sun finally dipped behind the skyline, the city fell in sync with the music so well it felt like a set. The performers waved to tourists on large sightseeing boats drifting by, seagulls glided over the river, children ran around. Rather than a curtain closing, the show ended with nightlights flicking on and those the opera left enchanted, wandering piers in search of cappuccino and pie.

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Jaws on the beach 100 years after the real attacks

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My tiny niece swiped my sister’s phone and actually called me on her own to talk milkshakes. Her speech therapist gave her some tough homework this summer in preparation for kindergarten. Some of the muscles in her cheeks aren’t tight enough so pronouncing certain sounds is difficult. Therefore this poor child must drink extra thick milkshakes through a straw. So she calls to report that WaWa’s extra thick shakes are “divine”, and now I also know that someone’s been reading Fancy Nancy.

Anyway, extenuating circumstances forced me to extend my stay here at the Jersey shore. See, July 6th marked the 100th anniversary of a fatal shark attack, the second in a string of attacks that supposedly inspired Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws and spawned our fear of sharks. On July 6, 1916 in Spring Lake near the smancy Essex and Sussex hotel, a bellboy there names Charles Bruder became the shark’s second victim. You can read more about the real story, which would’ve made an even better movie, on Weird NJ.

They showed Jaws on the Spring Lake beach on the 6th and we had to go. We brought WaWa coffee and dinner (pork roll egg and cheese sandwiches for my friends), slouchy chairs and Baja hoodies we’ve had forever. Before the movie, they played Springsteen and the little kids bopping next to us knew every lyric. It was a very Jersey night. The most fun.

More people die every year at the beach from sand collapses than shark attacks, yet it’s sharks many people understandably fear. I guess a movie about repeated sand tunnels caving in wouldn’t inspire too many sleepless nights. Challenge, Mr. Speilberg.

After sundown, the announcer spoke of the victims and took a moment of silence for the real people who lost their lives. I’ve seen Jaws on the beach every summer for the past few years. Usually we arrive late and have a really terrible view or a light from the boardwalk blurs half the screen. Not this time. This was the very first summer blockbuster. Watching it on a breezy clear night with waves crashing behind us and the Essex Sussex condominiums almost within sight, I couldn’t take my eyes away. It’s actually a gripping movie if you have a good view of the screen and let it grip you.

The only moment that stole my attention happened during that first scene, Chrissie’s last swim. She tears off her clothes and dashes into the water at night. From deep below we see her legs swimming on the surface. Cue the attack music and a toddler watching with her mom beside us starts flipping out and screams “Ooh, no! Ooh, no! Ooh, no!” Her mom said it was her first horror movie. Not a bad introduction. She wasn’t the only screamer in the crowd either.

One article I read said some researchers think there’s sort of a Great White nursery off the coast of New Jersey and that’s why so many stop by in the summer. I also read there hasn’t been another fatal attack here since the 1916 “Matawan Man-Eater”, but can’t find that article so maybe I made that up.

Yesterday we spent the day swimming in Island Beach State Park until a storm forced us to leave. The water there is cool and crystal clear. The white sand and dunes are perfection. We arrived when the park opened at 8 am and watched dolphins swimming north. After spending a few days in Cape Cod last month, New Jersey’s undeveloped beaches still reign as the most beautiful to me. Yes there are sharks in the water but I don’t fear them as I used to. Perhaps if someone makes a bear equivalent to Jaws, let’s title it Claws, my fear of bears will fade away, too. Challenge #2, Mr. Speilberg.