Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Another Great Stunt Memoir -- And One I Forgot

I read "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University" by Kevin Roose in one day. I opened my Amazon box in the afternoon, read it while cooking dinner (sorry if it tasted weird, kids), read it while eating dinner (I'll hear about your day some other day, kids), and finished it up while brushing my teeth. I did take a break to put the kids to bed, or they would also have been up until 10:30 and that would not be good. Honestly, that's a little late for me now that I'm almost middle-aged. But it was worth it.
Kevin Roose was a student at Brown University when he decided to take a semester off and study a different culture. Instead of heading for Europe and studying abroad, he found a place much more foreign -- Liberty University, the conservative Baptist college founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell. After learning a few worship songs and watching Veggietales videos, and slapping a Jesus fish on the back of his car, Roose goes undercover as a transfer student at Liberty.
Roose finds his experience confusing and fascinating. The rules are strict, the tests are difficult, and some of the classes (like the one about Creation science) are just weird. The students are both very different from his classmates at Brown (lots of praying together) and very similar (lots of talking about girls).
If you are not an Evangelical Christian, this book give you a very interesting peek at that world. If you are an Evangelical Christian, I think you might still like this book. As a liberal Quaker, Roose is horrified by the casual homosexual slurs and the biblical literalism, but he also recognizes many positive aspects of the Liberty experience, and appreciates the friendships he develops there. There is a lot of humor in the book (for instance, his mission trip to Daytona Beach during spring break) but also a lot of respect. Roose successfully walks the fine line of finding the ridiculous aspects of his experience without mocking it. I liked this book a lot.

I was recently reminded of another fun stunt memoir that I forgot to blog about -- "Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany" by Bill Buford. Buford is an editor at the New Yorker who gets so into an article he is writing about Mario Batali that he quits his writing job and starts working in Mario's restaurant kitchen. This then leads him to other food-related adventures, and many funny, crazy learning experiences/nightmares. The book is full of crazy characters and it will either make you want to quit your job and be a chef or thank the lord that you are not sweating your life away in a restaurant kitchen. It's a very funny, interesting book.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

When Skateboards Will Be Free

I used to think my parents were weird and embarrassing, but they've got nothing on Said Sayrafiezadeh's parents.
In "When Skateboards Will Be Free", Said describes growing up as the child of ardent members of the Socialist Workers Party. What happens to a boy who spends his childhood sitting under tables stacked with "The Militant" while his mother tries to tell passers-by about the coming worker's revolution? Whose father moves back to Iran to run for president as the socialist candidate? Of course, Said grows up to work for Martha Stewart.
In between one extreme environment and the other is a very enjoyable, well-written story.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Know-It-All

I love "stunt" memoirs, books about a person trying something weird or crazy and then writing a book about how it went. Many readers love biographies which describe in detail the fascinating lives of great leaders or famous personalities. Unfortunately I usually give up at about page 150, before the person even starts doing great and worthy things. No matter how well written the biography, I just can't seem to stick with it.
However, if someone decides to go a year without shopping (Not Buying It, by Judith Levine) or cooks her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a tiny New York apartment kitchen (Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell) and then writes about it, I'm happy to read it. I don't know what I find so fascinating about these books, but I love them.
A.J. Jacobs has been kind enough to write two of these books for my reading pleasure. His first is the one that I read most recently, "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World", about Mr. Jacob's experiences reading the entire Encyclopædia Britannica. The book is written as a series of alphabetical entries in which he shares the weird and wonderful things he is learning, but also describes his family, his marriage, and his mostly unsuccessful attempts to impress his brilliant brother-in-law with his new-found knowledge. The book is very funny, very interesting, and a great read.
Mr. Jacobs went on to write another great stunt memoir, "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible". This book is even funnier, as might be expected. But while he plays the weirdness of many things in the bible for laughs, he is respectful towards the many religious people he meets during his quest. He also openly acknowledges how annnoying all of this is to his wife. I can only hope that he's made enough money off this book to make it up to her.
If I had to rank some of the stunt memoirs I have enjoyed, it would probably go like this:
1. The Year of Living Biblically
2. The Know-It-All
3. Not Buying It
4. Eat, Pray Love
5. Julie and Julia

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

I've been slowly reading the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" books by Alexander McCall Smith. I'm reading them slowly because I like them, and I find that if I read a series too quickly, I tend not to enjoy the later books as much. I think I've read five books in the series over the last couple of years, and there are a few more to go.

Usually the more I love a book, the more I hate the movie. However, HBO has made a TV series based on these books, and it's wonderful. I knew Jill Scott was a great singer, but I hadn't realized that she could also act. She seems perfectly cast as the lead character, Precious Ramotswe. When I first saw Anika Noni Rose onscreen, the actress who plays the detective agency's secretary, I thought it was terrible casting. The character, Grace Makutsi, is plain and awkward, while the actress is beautiful. I've always hated the idea that if a beautiful woman wears glasses, she looks plain. But Ms. Rose is so funny and plays her part so well, that within a few minutes I couldn't imagine her as anyone but Grace Makutsi. My mom compared her to Lucille Ball, and it's not a bad comparison.

The TV series is filmed on location in Botswana, and the setting adds a lot to the stories. You can see for yourself the beauty that Precious Ramotswe is always describing in the books. The series also does a good job with the tone of the stories, which varies from comical to serious to eerily supernatural. Precious Ramotswe's cases deal with everything from cheating husbands to insurance fraud to witch doctors, and she approaches them all with determination, compassion, and a thirst for justice.

I highly recommend both the books and the series. If you don't get HBO, I'm sure it will be released on DVD in a few months.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Should I Feel Old?

Having children makes you feel old. My children insist on calling my childhood years "the old days" even though I am quite sure that the old days were when MY parents were growing up. Which is weird, because I remember my parents saying the same thing about their parents.

However, lately I have been feeling very young, because people keep sending me emails that ask me if I am old. Since these emails refer to things like party lines, milk delivery, and green stamps, I must not be old. The strange thing is that these emails come from friends who are just a few years older than me, but the quizzes sound like they are intended for people who grew up in the 1940's and 1950's. My friends must be almost as confused as my children, who think that the natural follow-up to finding out that there were no cell phones when I was a child is the question, "Did you have electricity?" That's right kids, we didn't have cell phones because we couldn't charge them.

Here's some memories of my old-fashioned childhood in the 1970's:

The first car I remember is not a Studebaker, but our Ford Pinto. My brother used to scare me by telling me it would blow up if anybody hit us from behind. At the time, I thought he was making this up to tease me.

My kids would probably be confused by the cranks on the inside of the car doors. We turned these cranks to open and close the car windows. You had to walk right up to your car and put the key in the keyhole, then pull a handle, to open the doors. The only thing that beeped was the horn.

We had only one phone in our house, but not on a party line. And my dad put a long, curly cord on it so you could walk about 4 feet away from the wall while you were talking. That's what we considered a portable phone.

My mom didn't use an RC Cola bottle with holes in the lid to sprinkle water on her ironing. My mom didn't iron at all if she could help it. She bought my dad permanent press shirts that went in the dryer. All the rest of the laundry was hung on the clothes line to dry. This wasn't because we were "green", it was because with no air conditioning, our dryer would heat up half the house if you turned it on in the summer.

Birthday parties were pretty simple when I was a kid. You played "Red Light, Green Light" or "Red Rover" and you stood on a stepstool and tried to drop clothespins into a jar. Once, a new family moved to town, and the birthday girl's mom gave us goodie bags. I was confused, because I wasn't sure why I was getting a gift on someone else's birthday.

My kids are living in a world that is pretty different than the one I grew up in. On the other hand, some things haven't changed so much. My kids love to go to the movies, read stories, ride their bikes, and play on a playground. The best part of a birthday party is still the cake. My kids get bored on an airplane, but think sledding is thrilling.

It's fun to think about how my kids will describe their childhood to the next generation. "You won't believe this, but we couldn't upload information into our cyberbrains. We had to turn on the computer and actually read the screen to learn things! It took minutes!"