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Leigh Newman (186 posts)
My thoughts drifted back to that cookbook last week, when I saw NPR's piece on the history of community-based cookbooks. The writer, Jessica Stoller-Conrad, pointed to The Woman's Suffrage Cookbook and 1904 Bluegrass Cookbook from Kentucky. Like me, she recognized their outdated references belonged to a time when women didn't have a lot of personal or professional choices. But she also felt the books were social outlets that "were so much more than just a catalog of recipes—they were fundraisers, political pamphlets, and historical accounts of the communities they served."
They were memoirs too, I suddenly realized. Every gravy stain and little handwritten comment ("add extra salt!" or "need more clam juice") tells a story. My cookbook, however, is wonderfully blank. My mother did not cook. She was a social worker in the 1970s. She did not have the time, interest or energy. Her lack of comment was a comment: There's a big world beyond the kitchen, honey. The silence of stains on each page may just have resulted in my being a working mother too (though I do love cooking, especially when it's something like "Mooseburger Meatloaf.").
Now that we live in the age of round-the-clock blogging, any lack of commentary (of any kind) seems harder and harder to find. I see these kinds of tell-all-say-nothing moments occasionally when a friend restrains herself from making a political point over dinner or someone shows you a photo but fails to tell the story behind it. I wish there were more of them. These omissions aren't nothing. They're windows into our choices: to cook or not cook, to explain or not explain, to show and see if anybody is ready to understand instead of just lecture and opine.
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I'm all for cheap happiness. I'll take it in whatever form it comes: gummy hamburgers, drugstore vanilla candles, 50 cent handfuls of food for the geese at the local zoo. Free happiness however is even better and harder to find. Except when it comes to animal photographs. The world is awash in fuzzy-wuzzy, big-eyed, potbellied, snuggly-duggly snapshots of kittens and pigs these days and...I'm in favor of it. My favorite part about this whole fad is that, unlike in some many other cases, animal photographers don't have to be original. Nobody needs a a cutting-edge shot of a mommy dog and her puppies or an avant-garde depiction of a two dolphins kissing. Fireworks, boob jobs, a raw-meat dress adds nothing to baby monkey dreaming on a pillow. And yet...this does not mean that a total lack of originality can't result in surprise, as I found on this slideshow of The World's Happiest Animals on Inspire First. He looked so human to me, this mysterious yet content creature, who as I later found out had never worked in his life and spends 15 to 18 hours a day sleeping Because, after all, he's also one of The World's Wisest Animals too—a sloth.
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I'm a sucker for a niche obsession. Mine have included: dog hair brushes, chicken marinades, tasteful bean bags, not-too-thick but not-too-thin milkshakes, and French songs for small children. I plunge myself into these interests with great attention and vigor—only to collapse later, having acquired some understanding of the subject, but not enough to make a life work's out of it.
Which is why I found Evan Leeson's photographs so inspirational. There he was on photography blogger with 19 dazzling photos of......wet grass. An obscure love, sure, but who doesn't love wet grass? It's the sweet, quiet younger brother of the ever popular, relentlessly successful "freshly mowed." Further, Leeson didn't just take evocative pictures of it, ones that bring back those barefoot runs through the neighborhood, post-thunderstorm, he also managed to take the pictures so that one drop of water on a blade captures larger surrounding landscapes, including barns, flowers, and an entire law. In short, he shows us how the great big world might look like, from the grass's perspective. Now that's an understand that veers into empathy, folks—the first sign that a niche obsession has turned into a niche work of art.
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Each week, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This Monday, we're busy poring over:
Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor
By Hali Felt
At age 28, geologist Marie Tharpe began work at Columbia University as an assistant (read: glorified secretary). By the end of her tenure there in 1982, she and her colleague Bruce Heezen had mapped the ocean floor using sonar readings and, in the process, identified "the world-girdling rift valley" that laid the foundation for proving the theory of plate tectonics. Part race-to-the-finish tale of 20th-century scientific discovery and part unconventional romance of Tharpe and Heezen, Soundings makes the overlooked story of a scientist and her work crackle with energy, as well as tackles some frustrating questions. Heezen was given credit for his discoveries, while Tharpe was often completely ignored due to her gender. The author, Hali Felt, seems to take some solace in believing that Tharpe found satisfaction in the work and may (heavy, heavy emphasis on that "may") not have needed the recognition of others. Regardless, it's a real tragedy that Tharpe died before reading this literary tribute. Felt is a playful, wildly thoughtful writer, who can extrapolate meanings about our view of the past from outdated scientific terms like "uniformitarianism" and "catastrophism," and she addresses "the ins and outs of alarm clocks, washrags and frying eggs; light tables, ink pens and smooth sheets of white paper; erasers, fathoms and final drafts; lunch and more work and breathing and cooking dinner and waiting until the last minute before darkness to turn on the electric lights" that illuminate the text with the kind of evocative details that make the story of a real life so real.
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Watch Oprah and Cheryl Strayed on "Super Soul Sunday"
What? You didn't know that today is National Cheesecake Day? In honor of this underrated, under-publicized holiday, we've come up with a few fresh way to celebrate:
Each week, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This Monday, we're gearing up for Oprah and Cheryl Strayed's discussion of Wild this weekend on "Super Soul Sunday" by checking out Strayed's newest book, just published on July 10:
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
By Cheryl Strayed
While writing her best-selling memoir—and the first Oprah's Book Club 2.0 selection—Wild, author Cheryl Strayed penned an advice column for the literary website The Rumpus. There, she worked anonymously, using the pen name Sugar, replying to letters from readers suffering everything from loveless marriages to abusive, drug-addicted brothers to disfiguring illnesses. The result: intimate, in-depth essays that not only took the letter writer's life into account but also Strayed's. Collected in a book, they make for riveting, emotionally charged reading (translation: be prepared to bawl) that leaves you significantly wiser for the experience. To a livid woman whose husband cheated on her with her employee, she says, "Acceptance asks only that you embrace what's true." To a woman who suffers a late miscarriage, she says, "Don't listen to those people who suggest you should be over your daughter's death by now. ... They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died." She then shares, "I know because I've lived on a few planets that aren't Planet Earth myself." Later, she reveals stories about her own struggles with sexual abuse, divorce and marital infidelity (all of which create a much larger backstory for a reading of Wild). One of the most moving anecdotes in the book is a letter that a 22-year-old reader asks Strayed to write to her younger self: "One hot afternoon during the era in which you've gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin, you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are, when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She'll offer you one of the balloons, but you won't take it because you believe you no longer have the right to such tiny beautiful things. You're wrong. You do." And like most of the pronouncements in this collection, the subject of those last few sentences can—and should—be changed to "we." As in, we all have the right to such tiny beautiful things—both the purple balloon and the compassionate book it inspired.
See Cheryl Strayed and Oprah this Sunday on "Super Soul Sunday"
Read the best quotes from Wild
Each week, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors of O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're in love with another wildly original memoir:
By Leanne Shapton
Growing up in Canada, Leanne Shapton was one of a handful of teenagers hand-picked to become world-class swimmers. She made 5 a.m. practices, traveled to distant meets and developed an obsession with time due to stop watches that gave her "the ability to make still lifes out of tenths of seconds." And then came the moment at age 14, when it occurs to her "gently, in a quiet flash: I'm not going to go to the Olympics. I will not be going. Not me." Rather that quit the team, she continues to train, and the thoughtful, exquisitely written book that results is ostensibly about her lifelong relationship to the sport, complete with photos of her various bathing suits and meditations on the difference between swimming (i.e., competitive swimming) and bathing (i.e., swimming for fun). The story underneath all this, however, concerns a troubling question: What do we do with ourselves when we're good (or even very good) at something we love, but not great? Shapton finds her way, meeting her husband and using her "feel" for water as a painter. She even includes some haunting, cobalt blue illustrations of pools she frequents as an adult, as well as a color guide to different swimming smells, such as "coach: fresh laundry, Windbreaker nylon, Mennen Speed Stick, Magic Marker, and bologna." These extra visual elements dazzle, but the specifics of this world and her insightful take on her own far-from-ordinary life are what makes any reader wonder if Shapton's gold medal might have already been won—in writing.
Sign up for Oprah's Book Club 2.0
Ask Oprah a question about her first pick, Wild
Each week, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're in love with the novel:
By Alix Ohlin
Can any of us really save another person? Or is each of us solely responsible for his or her own life? That's the question lurking behind Alix Ohlin's astute novel, which follows three separate characters: Grace, a therapist who's consulting with a disturbed teenage girl; Mitch, also a therapist, who moves all the way to the Arctic trying to rescue a young Inuit who's lost his whole family; and Anne, a struggling actress, who lets a pregnant runaway move into her apartment—and take over. Ohlin is a master short-story writer (see Signs and Wonders), and the early chapters of the book may feel like discrete tales. Very soon, though, you'll see how they're all intertwined, not just in terms of the characters' shared pasts in Montreal but also in the struggle with self-isolation. "There is a difference between the facts of the person and the truth of him," Grace says, trying to connect with her lover, a depressed aid worker who's just attempted suicide. Like Mitch and Anne, she can't quite reveal herself to others, presenting one version of herself at home and another during counseling sessions. At times, she even declares, "People do whatever they want, no matter what we say." A surprise car accident, however, forces her to do what she most fears—let someone else save her.
Join Oprah's Book Club 2.0
Ask Oprah or Cheryl Strayed a question about Wild
Each week, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. This week, we're in love with the haunting new novel:
By Richard Ford
Parents are never the people we think they are, but in Richard Ford's awe-inspiring new novel, 15-year-old Dell Parsons and his twin sister, Berner, discover that their mother and father are bank robbers—and not particularly formidable ones either. Dad is a fast-talking Southern dreamer; Mom is a Jewish intellectual who married the flyboy who happened to get her pregnant. The two have clumsily executed their crime in an effort to save themselves from another botched scheme (involving stolen beef), and when they're taken in by the Montana police, Dell and Berner are left on their own to survive. Berner runs away to California in search of adventure, but Dell travels with a friend of his mother's to Canada, where he's given refuge by an eccentric inn owner. Here, the real danger begins, but knowing what happens in this book—or not—makes little difference in the reading of it. The laconic, grief-stricken voice of Dell, looking back on his past, trying to make some kind sense of what happened when his family imploded, keeps you turning pages, as do the quiet, thought-provoking revelations that Ford drops in throughout. "Loneliness..." he writes "is like being in a long line, waiting to reach the front where it's promised something good will happen. Only the line never moves..." There's no tidy conclusion to Dell's story, save that he manages to make a life for himself—and therein lies the question of this complex, masterful novel: Why do some of us drown under the weight of our past, while others of us recover? When he moves north to his new home in Saskatchewan, Dell says it was like "becoming someone else—but someone who was not stalling but moving, which was the nature of things in the world. I could like it or hate it, but the world would change around me no matter how I felt."
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Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain
By Lucia Perillo
"Don't tell me about bad boys," writes Lucia Perillo. "I've seen my black clouds come and go." What she's also seen are some pretty dark-minded women—from a solitary mother addicted to cough syrup to a mistreated housewife who dreams of armed robbery. In the hands of a less-talented writer, these characters would turn out hard-boiled and, worse, hard to love. Instead, Perillo infuses each one with joy and humor, celebrating the best intentions behind the worst choices. The stunner of the collection is "Big-Dot Day," in which a mother and her young son, Arnie, set off from Las Vegas to the Washington coast, following yet another "new guy," who has plans to work a salmon boat. Left alone in the motel room, Arnie hatches a plan to go fishing—and what he catches (hint: it's not a fish) turns out to be both amazing and hilarious yet so quietly indicative of this boy's loneliness that you have to sit for a while, contemplating how it is that we all survive growing up. Relentlessly compassionate, this is a collection for the mistake makers and trying-as-hard-as-we-canners of the world—which probably means all of us.
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