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Mini Book Review: Charlotte’s Web, revisited

Charlotte's WebCharlotte’s Web by E.B. White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this aloud, as I did to the little one recently, truly makes you a appreciate White’s wonderful writing. Few stories of friendship are this simple and this powerful all at once, and only this one features one of the best closings ever written: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

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Goodness: To be or to do or to just call the whole thing off

Once, while sightseeing somewhere with my dad—D.C., maybe? The memory is not real clear—we saw a bunch of people huddled around a group of street performers. They were tumblers, and as they set up mats for the start of their show, one of them started talking up the crowd about who they were. At some point, he mentioned that they were “drug-free,” at which point dad turned to me and said that people always want credit for doing what they should be doing anyway. The kid’s implication, missed or ignored by dad, was that he and his cohorts were from a side of town, as it were, where it isn’t so easy to stay above the influence and where doing simply what you should is an accomplishment to be acknowledged. On that point, I understood where the kid was coming from, even if I agreed with dad that there are others out there who are too easily proud of themselves, too ready to declare themselves “good people” for behavior that most of the time is the least they or anyone else could manage.

What makes a good person anyway? Is it enough to BE good? Like the good kids who grow up in the ghetto but still find a way to escape the black hole of gangs and drug use that claims so many lives. Or like good Christians (or good people of other faiths), who abide by the word of God by not lying, not stealing, not coveting their neighbor’s wife and by turning the other cheek. Or you have to DO good? Like grow up to be a social worker or a cancer researcher or firefighter. How much good do you have to do to have done enough? And how much good do you have to do to get a pass if you decide to do something less than holy. Like a doctor who decides to commit adultery—a good person in the grander scheme of things, but a not so good one in her own personal universe.
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Raising a reader (but only if she wants to be)

I wish I could remember which was the very first book I read. There are four that remain vivid in my mind from my early childhood, but I can’t say with certainty that any of them were the first. I remember Goliath II, a picture book based on the 1960 Disney cartoon about a tiny mouse-sized elephant; a volume in an encyclopedia my parents used to have that included a bunch of illustrated fables; a collection of stories by Colombian writer Rafael Pombo; and a world atlas. All, I should note, were in Spanish. And all were read many, many, many times over by me or, in the case of Goliath II, by my mom, who would try to skip pages only to be called out by a daughter who had every word of the book memorized.

Reading is such an essential part of my life that one of the aspects of parenthood I was most excited about upon learning that I was going to be a parent was introducing books into my kid’s life. I thought long and hard about what should be the first and about how many of my own favorites I could squeeze in before she is old enough to dictate what should be on the reading list. I’ve wondered too how I would react if my daughter didn’t show as strong an interest in books as I did at a young age. Given that hubby and I are both book nerds this seems unlikely, but you never know. I’d like to think that we will be the kind of parents that give her space to foster her own interests, be they related to words, numbers, art, sports or something else I can’t even think of right now. But as she hasn’t learned the words, “Mother, can you please put down that Austen and start reciting multiplication tables,” let’s get back to the books.
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5 things in no particular order

1) Dreaming of a White Christmas

I grew up in a tropical climate, so the concept of a white Christmas was totally foreign to me until mom and I moved from Colombia to upstate New York. Snow was, indeed, a wondrous thing to a 9-year-old who had never seen it before. We also discovered, though, that however prettily it settles on the Christmas pines, snow can also be kind of a pain in the ass. For the latest proof see this week’s travel news out of the East Coast. Still, when you don’t have to fear its effects on your holiday itinerary, snow does add a certain charm to the season. Few things compare to burrowing yourself in a warm blanket, Christmas lights flickering, mug of hot chocolate in hand, as winter does its thing outside.

There was no such picture in our house this year. Denver weather, fickle mistress that she is, teased us with a cold spell early this month before temperatures settled into the 40s and 50s over Christmas, showing few signs of fluxuating too drastically before the calendar turns. Not that I’m complaining. I still get chills when I think about the winters hubby and I endured during our adventure in Chicago. There is cold, and then there is winter in the Midwest. Denver winters are much milder in comparison. That can be hard for some who don’t live here to believe since blizzards and bone-chilling temperatures have a reliable tendency to make an appearance when the Broncos are on Monday Night Football or the Rockies are playing October baseball and the rest of the country happens to be looking our way.

So a white Christmas is not exactly rare here, but it’s also never a guarantee. That I’ve come to expect, even wish, for one every year is a product of the very cold places I’ve lived since moving to the United States, but also an inclination that runs contrary to the Christmases of my early childhood in Latin America. I guess at this point in my life, I’ve spent more Christmases in cold weather so warmth feels like a novelty. Of course, when the cold does come around and I’m wrapping myself in several fleece blankets trying to keep my feet from feeling like icicles, I remember that my mind may have come to terms with weather above the Tropic of Cancer but my body still lives at the Equator.
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One Day in one day (Almost)

One DayOne Day by David Nicholls
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lovely. Read in one long day of travel.

There are a number of books that I’ve read in a single sitting. Lots of Nancy Drew and Baby-Sitters’ Club in the days of yore and more recently, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Songbook by Nick Hornby and just a few days ago One Day by David Nicholls (although, technically, it took two days as I was 30 pages short at the end on the first). The latter two don’t have much in common–one is a memoirish collection of essays about music fandom and the other is a story about two people who weave in and out of each other’s lives over the course of twenty some years–but their authors are rather similar. Both are British men who write about men living and loving in contemporary London in sharp, thoughtful prose that would be dismissed as “chick-lit” if they were women. (The extent to which the term chick-lit and the dismissal of women as a second-tier or niche writers annoy me is a topic for another day.) Hornby, I’ve been a fan of for a long time. Nicholls is a recent and delightful discovery.

Nicholls wrote Starter for Ten, which was made into a cute little movie with Rebecca Hall and James McAvoy. One Day is a more recent work that I’ve heard praised several times (and is also getting Hollywood treatment). I read it on my way to my cousin’s wedding (three flights, including a redeye), and such a wonderfully thoughtful trip through the lives of two adults who met in college was a good companion on a trip to mark a family milestone. It had been almost eight years since I’d traveled to Colombia, and as with each visit, this one made me wish I could see my family more often. It was also a reminder of how you can continue to love people you don’t see every day–even if, in one decade, all you get is one day with them.

In Nicholls’ book, Dexter and Emma share one memorable day their last week at college, and Nicholls takes us through the next twenty years via glimpses of where their lives are on the anniversary of that encounter–not their first but the one that would mark the beginning of a relationship full of joy, heartbreak, missed chances and, though at times disfuctional, love. It’s an easy read, but not a simple one. Nicholls delves carefully into the motivations, fears and follies of being an adult and feeling less than what you’d hoped on the night you graduated and the world was supposed to be your oyster. To say too much about the friendship between Dexter and Emma might divulge too many details that are best left to be read and savored. But theirs is a love that makes you appreciate what it means to really be grown up and to have shared the ride with the people that knew you when you weren’t so much.

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Nick Hornby wrote for money

A guy I used to work with at a certain bankrupt institution that no longer employs either of us said once, over a casual conversation about books, that he didn’t get what all the fuss was about Michael Chabon. After a pause, my friend, himself a writer, said, with a bit of his usual curmudgeonly self-deprication, “Maybe I’m just jealous.” It’s an understandable sentiment. Chabon is an award-winning, best-selling writer who has also dabbled in the movie business, contributing to the screen story of Spider-Man 2.

I’m jealous.

How could anyone who ever sought to make a life from words not be.

Chabon’s, though, isn’t the career I would be most interested in mimicking. If I were to have more moxie (and motivation and start-up capital) than I currently posses and could reinvent myself from the part-time journalist, full-time cynic that I am into whatever I wanted, I would fashion myself after Nick Hornby. Like Mr. Chabon, Mr. Hornby is a successful writer whose novels have, on some occasions, been turned into decent movies. (I will take this moment to point out that Hornby’s book Fever Pitch, a hilarious and entertaining memoir about his life as a fan of the Arsenal football club in England, shares absolutely nothing with whatever it was Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore were doing on the field when the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series except for the two words in the title.)

Hornby’s novels are good, fun reads — whatever the male equivalent would be of “chick lit,” if we lived in a world where fiction about men and their relationships was also commonly pigeonholed into a quasi-dismissive marketing niche — but he’s at his best when he’s just writing about stuff he likes as in Songbook and Fever Pitch. He knows how lucky he is to get paid to ruminate about such things as his favorite music and the perils of loving a certain football [sic] team too much. You can feel it in his writing. Few other writers — be they novelists, critics, pop culture commentators or what have you — manage to convey how much fun they are having putting pen to paper about the very many times they’ve listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. Probably because nobody can claim to have listened to that song as often as Hornby (or bothered counting), but you get my meaning.

At the moment, among the three books on the Target magazine rack that passes for my nightstand, is Shakespeare Wrote for Money, which is a collection of columns he wrote for Believer magazine about whatever books he happened to be reading. They read like stream-of-consciousness conversations with your favorite book nerd about the joys of reading and the things the books make you think about. I don’t mean to suggest that Hornby just writes off the top of his head, willy nilly on any subject that comes to mind. He obviously understands the power of the written word. But he enjoys it too, and that’s the difference. Too many literary critics and people who write about words and reading and writing forget to merely enjoy what they do, as if writing all those book reports and analyses in college, pulling all those all-nighters doing research for term papers sapped all the fun out it. Hornby loves to read and he loves to write and he gets a chance to do both for money. I definitely want a piece of that action.

As I child, I was never much for dreaming about what I would be when I grew up. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe I buried my nose in books too long, too often, to pause and think about the future, which, I guess, is my answer. The dreaming only started as I got older and is going a bit haywire now as my career as an editor and journalist stands on the precipice of extinction. I’m looking for a job and dreaming about being like Nick Hornby. Could I ever just write about whatever I wanted to? Well, I have this blog, but I’m not exactly making anyone jealous. Yet.

Palin knows her turkey — as we all should

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s ticket may not have won the presidential election, but that doesn’t mean she intends to go quietly into that Alaskan goodnight. As a vice presidential nominee, she gained the stature to be one of her party’s standard bearers going forward, but to remain so, she’s going to have to stay in the public eye.

One way to do that, I suppose, is to pardon a turkey and then hold a news conference as the rest of the turkeys, the ones deemed less camera-ready, are being slaughtered behind her. This happened last week, and the footage became quite the hit on YouTube.com after it was shown on MSNBC’s countdown and a handful of other news programs. Certainly, the incongruity of pardoning a turkey and then breezily talking politics and smiling cheekily (the only way Sarah knows how) for the camera while the other birds get ready to become Thanksgiving dinner is amusing. If nothing else, it points to the silliness of the pardoning ritual — why bother saving the life of one turkey when at factory farms across the country the only humane action taken against animals brought up for slaughter in the poorest of conditions is death itself?

Many of the programs who showed the footage of Palin and the dying turkeys called it yet another “gaffe” from the good governor, warned viewers about the “graphic” nature of the video and just generally criticized her. For what, though, I’m not sure. I’ve written about Palin before and probably will again, but on this, if on few other issues, I’m on her side. What, exactly, is wrong with being aware of where your food comes from? Of not thinking it a big deal that turkeys are dying right behind you? Where do people think their meat comes from if not from once living animals?

I’m not a vegetarian. Humans are carnivores. It’s in our biology. There are nutrients we get from meat that we don’t get anywhere else naturally. Having said that, though, I do sympathize with those who chose to abstain from meat because of the way animals are treated in our food industry. Most live in factory farms, in cages barely bigger than they are, without ever seeing the light of day. Farms and ranches have a mythological place in our country’s heritage and rightfully so, but in today’s world many are run not by families but by corporations with little regard or respect for the land and the animals. The result may be inexpensive food, but we end up paying for it in other ways: poor health, to offer one example, from cows whose meat is high in fat because they’ve been overfed with grain and aren’t allowed to graze naturally.

A library full of books has been written about the sad state of our food industry and how far removed the average American is from the source of his or her sustenance. The best are probably The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, who outlined how the next president can revolutionize the food industry in our country (and clean up the environment in the process) in a recent New York Times piece.

So Sarah Palin may be a lot of things and may have committed her share of gaffes. Knowing where her food comes from isn’t one of them. Just a little something to chew on as you digest that Thanksgiving meal.

Historic Photos of Denver: A city in pictures

This has been a historic year for Denver. The city hosted the first political nominating convention to put an African-American man on the path to the White House. The end of that road is just a few days away, and all signs seems to point to that man’s victory. Whatever the outcome of the election, though, the event may come to mark in history books the end of an era in the city and the beginning of another.

The Democratic National Convention of 2008 in many ways was the culmination of a decades-long period of urban renewal that revived the city’s Lower Downtown business district and its surrounding areas into a vibrant and modern complex capable of hosting a gathering of such import. The eyes of the nation and the world were on Denver, attention that marks a shift away from the South and the coasts and into the Mountain West as the new frontier of American politics. Derided by at least one New York gossip columnist as a “cow town,” Denver nevertheless shined in the spotlight, and to truly appreciate the significance of city’s arrival on the national stage, a look at the path that got it here, is in order.

The book Historic Photos of Denver ($39.95, Turner Publishing Co.) presents a visual history of the city dating back to the 1850s. Myron Vallier, a librarian in the Denver Public Library’s Western History and Genealogy Department, captioned the photos, which are separated into four eras: the area’s rise from its start as a mining camp, the birth of the city at the turn of the 20th century, the Depression and the post-World War II era. The pictures capture high and low points in the city’s history and how the identity of the city evolved as it grew. There are pictures of the city’s early newspaper reporters, of a mob hanging, the Chinese riot of 1880, of beer breweries and saloons, visits by presidents and other dignitaries, Mexican migrant workers and, of course, the occasional blizzard. There is also mention of the last political convention held in the city, when the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan to the presidency in 1908.

Though some of the pictures capture interesting and lively moments in the lives of Denver residents, the book is less about Denver’s people than it is about its architecture. Pictures of buildings and urban landscapes dominate the book, not particularly powerful or moving images at first glance. Still, what emerges is a showcase of the city’s architecture, how it has grown in scope and sophistication and, tragically, how few of the earliest gems still stand. Historic Denver Inc., the city’s non-profit advocate for architectural preservation, would do well to keep copies of this volume on hand for historical reference and inspiration.

The books ends in the 1970s with images of the activism that marked that era across the country. The final photo is of a Denver Broncos game in 1972, a bit jarring in the context of the three that precede it (Blank Panthers, Chicano activists and Native American law students), though, I suppose, somewhat appropriate. This is Bronco Nation, after all. Given how much has happened here in the last 30 years—and just the last few months—I didn’t want the book to stop where it did. I wanted to see more of Denver’s renewal at the turn of this century, the years that have left us on a precipice to a new era. I imagine that more such books will emerge in the years to come. This one, for locals proud of their cow town, is a solid start to the collection.

Reading about physics, flashing back to chemistry

Near the end of my freshman year in high school, when it was time to chose classes for the next year, my biology teacher took at look at my biology and math grades and asked if I wanted to take Advanced Placement chemistry. Always intimidated by the sciences, I said no.

Why he didn’t insist, I don’t know, but later, I came to wish he had. See, my non-A.P. chemistry teacher was awful. It wasn’t just that she was a bad teacher, which, in my opinion, she was. We also didn’t have a good relationship. She knew I didn’t like her, and I came to assume I would never learn anything in her class that I didn’t teach myself from the textbook. So even in the rare moments she might have had something meaningful to say, I was determined not to hear it. Sadly, that was essentially the end of me and the sciences. The next year I took computer science, which was technically a math course, and my senior year I sat through a physics class unmemorable but for the fact that it included a home-made boat race across the lake on my school’s campus at the end of the year. A 100 was added to your grade if your boat made it across. My team’s boat was made of two large blue canisters that smelled like Oreo filling.

In college, I took a science for non-majors class called “Wild Edible Plants” for my lab science requirement and subjected myself to two semesters of calculus to avoid anything else involving the study of the natural world. I loved being an English major and would choose the humanities again in a minute had I to do it over again. Still, I know I missed something. I’m reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time at the moment, and though he manages to bring the universe down to size, so to speak, there are sentences here and there that make my head hurt.

I suppose there is no way to make Newtonian physics and the general theory of relativity entirely simple. Maybe there is something in my brain that makes me predisposed to look at language and literature and dig deep for answers but only think “Pretty!” when I look up at the stars in the night sky. Maybe A.P. chemistry or a decent physics class would have helped. Or maybe “Mrs. B” was the universe’s way of making room for those really meant to be scientists. When Professor Hawking figures out a way to move faster than the speed of light and travel through time, I’ll go back and tell myself that.