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Sicky McGee!

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Omigosh, you guys. I’m so sick.  It’s been a week of hacking cough, sleepless nights, cough drops, and now I have (literally and seriously) no voice left.  Like, I can’t even make a sound.  Only whispers.

Ugh.

BUT — on a bright note, I managed to get through a couple books while I’ve been down for the count. I’m not going to write lengthy things here, but thought I’d check in.

Melissa Gilbert’s memoir, “Prairie Tale,” about her life thanks to Little House on the Prairie, is a wonderful read – there’s celebrity gossip, candid confessions, and enough behind the Hollywood curtain secrets for four books. I devoured it.  Then I read just enough of Russel Brand’s “My Booky-Wook” to know I didn’t need to finish reading it.  I still don’t get his appeal.  Whatever. Then I read “Bread Givers” by Anzia Yezierska, which is a wonderful saga of an Orthodox rabbi and his daughters, all of whom get married off to men they don’t love in the name of tradition, and the youngest daughter who decides she’d rather try and make it on her own.  Superb book!

Excuse me, I’m going to go take some more medicine.

*Cough, cough*

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“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass

douglas(Hi! It’s been a while, I know. I’ve been around, enjoying the last days of summer. I’ve also been reading – but not books from my list. Recently, on a trip to my hometown, my Mom and I stopped in a used bookstore that we love – the only one in my hometown, mind you – and I got two amazing books, “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” and “Middlesex.” Both of these books are awesome and I devoured them. I also got Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” and didn’t like it – so I donated it. Just sharing, so you know what’s up.)

I’m pretty sure every high school student in America reads “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” so I’m not sure how I missed it, but better late than never, right? I picked up my Dover Thrift Edition a few years ago, and it’s been on my bookcase ever since. Admittedly, I picked it up the other night because it’s short – only about 70 pages – and I wanted to get back into the swing of things. To my surprise, it’s a completely engrossing read and I finished it in one sitting.

As the title explains pretty darn clearly, Mr. Douglass lays out the story of his life from being born a slave to becoming a free man and fighting against slavery.  He talks about the cruelty of his masters and the facts of being a slave – you will go hungry, you will get beaten, and you can be traded away for any and every reason, never to see your family again.  Mr. Douglass rose up, found a way to learn to read and write, and stood up to his master and gained his freedom. It’s brutal to read at times, but inspiring.

I’d recommend this interesting and fast read to everyone – especially young people. It’s an uncomplicated look at a darker time in American History, and one we should learn from even today.

“A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson

walkwoodsI’m going to keep this short and simply say that, as someone with serious wanderlust, I enjoyed reading this book tremendously.  Bryson is wonderfully candid about his adventures walking the lengthy and legendary Appalachian Trail, and the colorful characters and places he encounters along the way.  It’s a fast read, and even if it loses some steam in the last chunk – when Bryson goes off the trail and starts just doing day hikes – it’s a wonderful read and I’m going to be keeping it around for years to come.

It made me want to get some good shoes and go walking.

PS – There’s a wonderful National Geographic documentary about the Appalachian Trail that makes for excellent bonus material. 🙂

“I Was Told There’d Be Cake” by Sloane Crosley

cakeSloane Crosley’s “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” reminds me of a couple of my recent reads – Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” and Tina Fey’s “Bossypants.” Granted, Ms. Crosley is not a TV star/Comedy writer, but like Ms. Kaling and Ms. Fey she writes with vibrant and hilarious honesty about her life experiences, and holds nothing back.

From her parents extreme phobia of open flames to a gathering of friends where Crosley makes a disastrous chocolate tart and discovers that someone has done their business on her bathroom floor (not even joking!!) every word is pure, candid, gold.  Moving Day disasters, Volunteering efforts gone terribly wrong, and being a Jewish girl who attends a Christian summer camp are also special treats as they’re recalled in the voice of someone not afraid to show the less than perfect parts of herself.

Sloane Crosley rocks.

I laughed out loud.

Several times.

I’m going to pass this book on to a friend who I think could use a good laugh right about now.  Conveniently, I’ll be able to drop it off when I return the copy of Mindy Kaling’s book – which he loaned to me in the first place. 😉

“A Sense of Direction” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

directionIf you’ve ever felt like casting off your worldly responsibilities and going on a pilgrimage in these hectic and modern times, I’d suggest you grab yourself a copy of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ “A Sense of Direction” right now.  This marvelous memoir/travelogue puts you on the path of three of the world’s greatest pilgrimages, with a narrator whose voice is honest and candid and downright funny at times.

Lewis-Kraus was drifting.  He bounced from San Francisco to Berlin, dealing with family drama (namely, his gay rabbi father’s new lifestyle) and swept up with the excess and ego of his artsy hipster friends.

So he and a friend decided to go on a pilgrimage – to the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  Then he decided to do one solo – the Buddhist temples of Shikoku, Japan.  And then, for his third and final act, he invited the family – to Ukraine and the tomb of a Hasadic legend.

This isn’t an old-fashioned story.  These guys update their Facebook statuses and write down everything that happens, as many of us would do in this digital day and age.

Along the way, Lewis-Kraus learns a hundred lessons, many of which are small.  Sometimes the company of an annoying stranger is better than walking hundreds of miles all alone, but sometimes being alone is wonderful.  Nobody’s perfect. Everyone has quirks.  Make sure you have great walking shoes if you’re going to cross hundreds of miles. He also learns lessons about changing your life, keeping secrets, and the importance of those you love.

“A Sense of Direction” is a wonderful book, and one that I encourage those with a case of wanderlust to get a hold of immediately.

“Bossypants” by Tina Fey

bossycoverCongratulations to me for becoming like the fourth to last person in the world to have read and enjoyed “Bossypants,” right?

This book is a joy.  From the clever “press” quotes on the book jacket, to every single word inside, Tina Fey’s unique and candid comedy voice narrates your way through her journey from normal and awkward theater girl with too many gay friends, to the media phenomenon and working mom she is today – without ever getting egotistical or sounding too proud of herself.  And, oh yeah, remaining incredibly funny and self-deprecating from cover to cover.

(Yes, she talks about Sarah Palin.  And Alec Baldwin and Amy Poehler, too!)

“Bossypants” is a breeze and a truly charming and funny read.  The closest thing I can compare it too is Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” though let’s face it, without Tina’s success the road would be a little harder for all the slightly younger female comedians/writers out there, including La Kaling.

Ms. Fey, in all her awesomeness, will reside on my bookcase for many years.  She’s a funny lady, and I enjoyed this book tremendously!

 

“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)” by Mindy Kaling

kalingbookIf some people are right, and the world does end tomorrow, I’m glad I stayed up until midnight last night finishing “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)” by the hilarious and irrepressible Mindy Kaling. If I hadn’t finished this book, I’d spend the rest of my afterlife feeling strangely incomplete.

Presently, I’m feeling a bit stale when it comes to reading, and haven’t been bowled over by a book in quite a while.  This candid, refreshing little memoir of the young writer/actress absolutely hit the spot.  It’s a delight.

Kaling came onto my radar a couple years back when the play she co-wrote, “Matt & Ben,” became available at Borders.  A hard-core theatre nerd at the time, I rushed to buy and read it, as it was all the buzz.  The play is brilliant, a send-up of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck hanging out and being schlubs with a dream of being screenwriters, when the script to “Good Will Hunting” falls from the sky into their laps.  Oh, and it’s a two-woman show.  It’s a remarkable little piece of theatrical absurdity, and if you ever get the chance to see/read it, do it. Since the success of “Matt & Ben,” she’s become a staff writer and actress on one of the best TV shows ever – The Office.

“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” allows Kaling to recall her life and the things that got her where she is today. From being a comedy-obsessed high school semi-loser, to a bigshot on her college campus, to a clueless and broke New Yorker with a dream and bizarre day jobs (including working for a psychic TV show and as a nanny to some NSYNC obsessed girls) her story isn’t that unlike any other tale of a young person with a creative dream — it’s just that she’s better at telling it.

I loved it.  I laughed out loud.

In the much lauded/hated HBO series, “Girls,” there’s a scene where Lena Dunham’s character says that she’s not “THE voice of HER generation,” but instead “A voice of A generation.” Kaling’s voice is a welcome addition to the young female writing world.  There’s no pretense of being hyper-cool or super-glamorous or of having it all together – which is a nice change.  Contrary to what the entertainment industry wants us to believe much of the time, women’s lives are not like “Sex and the City.”  Kaling gets that.

If the world does indeed end tonight, I’m glad it was Kaling’s new, honest, ironic, and absolutely delightful voice that was the last I read.

(I don’t really think the world is ending tomorrow, by the by.  Largely because it’s already tomorrow in Australia…and they seem to be doing okay.)

“Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal” by Conor Grennan

I’ve just come off a week of having family houseguests, and now we’re in full-on holiday mode, so I’m going to make this short and snappy.  I finished reading Conor Grennan’s memoir, “Little Princes,” and was profoundly touched.  A pretty classic story of a dude with no real life plan stumbling into a cause he’s passionate about and changing countless lives along the way, it’s an uplifting read that had me hooked from page one.

Grennan is the founder of Next Generation Nepal, which seeks to reunite children trafficked during the countries decade-long civil war with the families they left behind.  This isn’t a high-technology game like “CSI” or anything – it’s the kind of work that involves hiking into remote mountain villages and a full awareness that you might get shot along the way.  These children are found in illegal, overcrowded orphanages in Nepal and given a second chance via NGN’s commitment to their cause.  Grennan is almost always likable as he recounts the story that got him to where he is — whether he’s admitting his failings, or being totally honest as he remembers falling in love with his (now) wife via emails from Nepal to India.

I read it over Thanksgiving, surrounded by family, and it made me thankful.  So there.  You should read it.  It’s good stuff.

“The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs

Dear friends with any sort of interest in religion at all — This is the book for you.

Dear friends who aren’t into religion at all — This is probably the book for you, too.

A.J. Jacobs, a very funny writer who last brought us “The Know-it-All,” in which he chronicled his adventures reading the entire encyclopedia, has once again written a funny, intelligent, and engrossing memoir of a year spent doing something: In this case, it’s trying to live exactly by the Bible.  Which means he takes all the rules found within the Bible and tries to put them into his very modern life as a Dad and writer for Esquire magazine.

No, he doesn’t sacrifice his son.

But he does have a boatload of rules to follow.

He can’t cut his beard.  He also can’t touch his wife within a week of her menstrual cycle, and has to figure out whether it’s worth it to try and stone people.  (He gives pebbles a try.)

He visits a mega-church, has an Orthodox Jew go through his closet looking for clothes made from more than one fiber, and prays a few times a day. He stops working on the Sabbath, and discovers how hard it is, in our modern times, to stop thinking about work.

He tries to avoid lustful thoughts (not easy when you work for Esquire – Rosario Dawson makes an appearance) and blows a ram’s horn on the first day of each month, while at the same time being a dad to toddler Jasper, and a husband to Julie, who is trying to get pregnant via in vitro fertilization.  He cuts down on gossip and profanity, gets caught up in all sorts of food rules he has to obey, and starts dressing all in white.  In New York.

He explores the biblical passages behind hotly-debated issues like polygamy, homosexuality, and abortion. He travels to the Middle East, and has dinner with a distant relative who may or may not be a cult leader.  He meets gay evangelicals and the Red-Letter Christians, and has an eye-opening experience with a wacky neighbor that winds up providing the book’s emotional climax.

Is he converted to Christianity at the end of the year? No.  Yet, he entered this journey as an agnostic, and comes out at the other end of his year as slightly a kinder and nicer human being.

Whether you believe in religion or not, we could probably all use a reminder to “Love thy neighbor” and “Honor thy parents” from time to time.

Jacobs is funny and candid in this book.  It was a joy to read, I learned some stuff, and I look forward to his next adventure…. which apparently has something to do with attaining physical perfection? To be determined!

“Educating Esme” by Esme Raji Codell

The near-ridiculous conditions of the Chicago Public School system have been front and center these past few weeks as the teachers went on strike for a variety of reasons — Pay, sure, but also things like standardized testing, schools without air-conditioning (FYI Chicago’s prisons have A.C.) and schools without counselors, nurses, and librarians.

“Educating Esme” is a remarkable, candid, honest, and unflinching look at a young teacher’s first year in the classroom of a brand new CPS school.  Hired to help build the school, it’s soon apparent that she’s working for a buffoon of a principal who has hired mostly young attractive women to teach, and has seriously screwed up priorities.  Still, thanks to her quirky teaching techniques, her belief in her kids’ abilities, and her tough love, she gets through to her fifth grade students.  She builds them a “time machine” out of a refrigerator box and books.  She deals with a particularly punk-ass kid by making him teach for a whole day, while she acts like him.

Now, before you go thinking of this book as “Dangerous Minds” or that Hilary Swank/Inner-City Kids write poetry movie, I assure you that though there are some similar themes and moments, “Educating Esme” is the real deal – a raw and quirky journal of a teacher trying to do some good in a system where kids come to school from homeless shelters, parents beat their kids in front of the teachers, the students stab a substitute who insults them, and when Esme writes, “I hope he doesn’t shoot me” regarding a troubled kid, it’s only partly a joke.  In an epilogue, Esme (who has left the shady school for another, better, one) watches sixteen of her thirty-one then-fifth graders as they graduate 8th grade and wonders where the rest went.  It’s a sobering moment, but it’s the very thing that keeps this book from getting too “Hollywood.”

“Madame Esme,” as she prefers to be called, has gone on to become an advocate for literature-based instruction.  She’s written books about encouraging reading, as well as books for children.  Kudos to her for her time in the classroom, and for her efforts to help kids.

“Educating Esme” is a seriously great read.  I’m keeping this one on my bookshelf for years to come, I can tell.