Life gets in the way sometimes. That’s all I have to say on the subject of my absence of the past, oh, several months or so. Not that anyone is counting.

The good news is I’m back. Seven months pregnant. Tired and decidedly plump. And what have I been reading, listening to, watching, thinking about while I’ve been gone?

Here are some things:

1. Podcasts. I’ve mentioned my love of podcasts before, but I can’t help but give a few of my favorites a plug. They are free, interesting, and they keep me from reading actual books on the bus (that’s not a good thing, but still true).

This American Life is a revelation. No hyperbolic words describing its greatness even begin to do it justice, and I know millions of people agree, since it’s one of the most popular podcasts going every week on iTunes. Stories range from current events (they put together a wonderfully informative hour on the financial crisis) to explorations of forgotten historical figures, to funny short stories and essays (David Sedaris and Mike Berbiglia are favorite contributors). Host Ira Glass is a brilliant interviewer–his conversations often appear at the very beginning of the show– and I don’t think I’ve ever turned off an episode until after the credits were read.

One of my other favorites is Radiolab, a show that tackles science from every conceivable angle except for the boring ones. It’s made me cry before. (And, yes,  it’s about science.) The Radiolab website contains an extensive archive of all the hour-long episodes as well as some shorter episodes produced specifically for the podcast world.

My final plug is for Planet Money, which is about economics. It’s not slanted to the left or right; it simply tries to explain economic subjects in a way that people like me can understand. A couple of recent shows interviewed people from the left and right extremes (a socialist and a libertarian) and allowed them to comment on the recent political rhetoric falsely claiming each side.

While I’m on the subject of podcasts, I should mention that all of the above shows can also be heard on your local public radio station.  And contrary to the belief of several leading, ahem, politicians, none of them have leftist agendas. Unless you believe information is leftist. And I realize that many people do.

2. Books. Full confession mode here: I’ve been such a slacker in this department. My only excuse is that I’m pregnant, working full time, and therefore go to bed at 9:00 or thereabouts every night. I used to use the time between life and sleep for reading. Now I climb into bed, cuddle up to my second partner in the bed, a giant maternity pillow shaped like an amoeba, and fall asleep before I have much time to think about it. I did read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (more on which later), but haven’t exactly made it through the sequel. And I listened to an audio version of Huckleberry Finn. Otherwise it’s been What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy, and various other books interesting only to pregnant women and mommies.

3. Television. I’m currently watching The Wire again on DVD. Most other things pale in comparison.

4. Movies. I thought The Social Network was the best movie of 2010. I haven’t seen The King’s Speech, and I suspect that it’s very good, but good in that predictably British, predictably man-overcomes-disability way that so many other very good movies have been. The Social Network, on the other hand, has a protagonist that’s sort of an ass hole, a dense script that doesn’t patronize its audience (thank you, Aaron Sorkin, for being so darn wordy) and an amazingly evocative soundtrack (thank you, Trent Reznor, for not being Hans Zimmer). Besides, without falling victim to the cliches that normally plague movies about technology, it manages to feel very current. We do live in dramatic times, after all.

The second leg of our Southern swing brought us to Memphis, Tennessee, and more specifically to Sun Studio, the place where Johnny Cash and Elvis got their start. In a previous visit, we hit up Graceland (highly recommended, by the way), so on this trip we decided to visit Sun. It’s a pretty tiny place, but don’t be fooled by its size. Momentous things have occurred there.

Sun Studio

Small, but mighty

I’ve included Sun Studios in this blog because I’m a fan of music and its power to change the world. Furthermore, I believe things spoken or sung carry a lot of power. No one captures this idea better than Johnny Cash. Who else can get away with the lyric, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”? What I love about Johnny is his ability to sing from so many perspectives. He becomes a different character for each song. And yet, there’s always the tiniest hint of himself left over.

When I think of early rock-and-roll, I have to admit I don’t really think of the lyrics too much. The beat was the thing. But the Sun Studio blog has a list of the top ten lyrics recorded at the studio by various artists, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Carl Perkins. Among my favorites:

“Some honey fell from a tree, they dressed it up and called it me.” –Carl Perkins

“It’s gonna be funkier than nine yards of chitlins with onions and sardines on the side!”–Rufus Thomas

“Big legged woman, keep your dresses down, you got something under there honey, that’ll make a bulldog hug a hound”–Jerry Lee Lewis

Brilliant.

The American South has inspired many great artists in every medium, and after my first trip there, which included visits to Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas, I finally understand why. First of all, it’s too hot to do anything else. Writing merely requires the ability to hold a pen or type on some keys, which is one thing you can do even when it’s sweltering outside. (And, I might add, it’s something you can do while clutching an ice-cold alcoholic beverage.)

More than that, though, the South is very evocative. The oppressive heat, the hanging vines, the paint peeling off of decrepit houses, the jazz soundtrack: they all combine to form a place that’s full of history and contradictions—a place that’s begging to have its stories told.

I read As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner, in college—the only Faulkner I’ve ever read. As it happens, I should have read more because Faulkner’s ghosts are everywhere in the South, and I felt a bit sad visiting so many landmarks devoted to him without fully appreciating his genius.

I visited Lafayette County, Mississippi, the inspiration for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, and the lovely little city of Oxford, Mississippi–home to Ole Miss–where I was able to see the house in which he resided for thirty years and wrote many of his novels. Here it is:

Rowan Oak, Oxford, MS

It’s called Rowan Oak, and it’s nestled right in the middle of an idyllic neighborhood just a few blocks from Oxford’s town square, which, if it hasn’t already been the setting for a movie, certainly should be. (It was the setting for the Bob Dylan song “Oxford Town,” about the race riots of 1962, but that might not be its proudest moment.)

Faulkner House Books

Good work, Faulkner.

In New Orleans, we saw another of Faulkner’s former residences, which has now been converted into a very quaint bookstore called, appropriately enough, Faulkner House Books. It’s located right behind St. Louis Cathedral, in a shady alley next to a gated garden. It’s a very cool spot, and it has the coolest address ever: 624 Pirate’s Alley.

There are, of course, lots of other writers with connections to this part of the world, including Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Robert Penn Warren, Anne Rice, and John Grisham. I don’t, however, have pictures of any of their houses.

I initially picked up this book because the graphic image on the cover was intriguing.

Cool, right?

I didn’t actually buy it, however, until a few years later, when Paste Magazine named it the best book of the decade. I hadn’t read a good novel in a while, and I remembered the distinctive cover, so I decided to purchase it.

Everything is Illuminated is not exactly a straightforward narrative. It begins with the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian man with a knack for producing colorful English, introducing the story of “the hero,” who happens to be named Jonathan Safran Foer. We learn from Alex that Jonathan is searching for clues to his past–a grandfather who escaped death at the hands of the nazis, a mysterious photograph, a village not found on any maps–and that Alex has been employed to help him. Also on the journey are Alex’s blind (but not really blind) grandfather and a “mentally deranged” dog called Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, who is in turn usually gassy or amorous.

What follows is a rotating narrative, told in part by Alex and in part by an unknown storyteller, who we presume is Jonathan, recounting the history of a Ukrainian village from its humble beginnings to the invasion of the nazis during World War II to present day. As the story unfolds, the reader discovers how, exactly, these characters all fit together. The mysteries are solved–sort of–and the curtain lifts to reveal a wonderful, terrible truth about families, history, and the meaning of time.

Foer has a gift with language. Despite its rather somber subject matter, the book manages to be quite funny. It’s grounded in an exaggerated reality. The only thing about the historical passages that seems inspired by truth are those set during World War II (and what a gut-wrenching truth it is). I confess I don’t know much about Jewish Shtetls in the eighteenth century, but this one is described in somewhat supernatural terms. It does make for an entertaining read.

Alex, who reminds me just a little bit of Borat, lacks a basic grasp of the English language, which makes for some delightfully colorful sentences. For example, this is how he introduces himself:

My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother….If you want to know why so many girls want to be with me, it is because I am a very premium person to be with.

This character’s chapters are the best thing about the book. He starts by defining himself as a modern-day Lothario. As he progresses through the story, though, he loses both the macho facade and, sadly, most of the idiomatic misfires that make his voice so endearing. But he also understands himself and his family better, and through this cathartic realization of his past, he can move on with his life. In contrast, we don’t ever learn much about what happens to Jonathan. (I guess he got his book published!)

My only complaint is that it occasionally veers into the too-clever-for-its-own-good category. I tend to prefer more straightforward writing. Sometimes writers fall into the trap of trying too hard to write something that sounds meaningful, without actually thinking about whether or not it means anything. Then again, maybe that’s just me.

I would still recommend this book, though. It’s funny, clever, and at times very moving. It’s nice to see a writer really play with the language and do something new with it.

Posted by: Sara Jean | July 17, 2010

Happy Anniversary!

One year ago today, I got married. In honor of that lovely day (which was as perfect and love-filled as a wedding should be), and in honor of my lovely husband, I’ve compiled some lovely words—some written, some sung, and some merely implied. Of course, no words can do my feelings on the matter justice, but in absence of anything else, I hope you enjoy.

******

******

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

–Walt Whitman

*****

The Master Speed

No speed of wind or water rushing by

But you have speed far greater. You can climb

Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,

And back through history up the stream of time.

And you were given this swiftness, not for haste

Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,

But in the rush of everything to waste,

That you may have the power of standing still–

Off any still or moving thing you say.

Two such as you with such a master speed

Cannot be parted nor be swept away

From one another once you are agreed

That life is only life forevermore

Together wing to wing and oar to oar.

–Robert Frost

*****

*****

Happy anniversary!

Posted by: Sara Jean | June 18, 2010

They Say It’s Your Birthday, Paul

In honor of the birthday of one Mr. Paul McCartney, formerly of Liverpool, England, and formerly of the best band the world’s ever seen, I present a very, very happy song, and dare you not to feel happy when you hear it. Enjoy!

Posted by: Sara Jean | June 6, 2010

Books for the Little Ones

I don’t yet have my own kids. However, I’ve worked in childcare for the past ten or so years. Translation: I’ve read a lot of books to children. I routinely read to fourteen toddlers who’ve just eaten chocolate pudding, so it goes with saying that I’ve formed some opinions about which books–and authors–are worthwhile.

One of my favorite authors is Leo Lionni. His most famous books are Inch by Inch, Swimmy, and A Color of His Own. I adore them all, but particularly this one:

Just look at it.

In Frederick, a little mouse community rallies together to survive a difficult year. As the seasons change, all the mice offer their own skills to help the colony, but they wonder what Frederick–who, to be perfectly honest, seems a little lazy–is doing to help. Finally, just as the bleak winter approaches and the mice must huddle together in the darkness to fend off the cold, Frederick uses his imagination to tell wonderful stories. The mice listen intently, carried away by the magical world Frederick creates with his words. They forget about the bleak winter, and soon realize that Frederick’s beautiful poetry is his gift to the community, perhaps the best gift of all.

Lionni’s watercolor illustrations are simple and striking, but the best thing about Frederick is that it celebrates art and poetry as a real contribution to the world. All the budding writers in your life will appreciate the message.

I also love the Max and Ruby books, by Rosemary Wells. There are many of them, but this one is particularly sweet:

Funny for the young and old.

Max and Ruby are brother and sister; Max is the younger of the two. Somehow, Wells captures the sibling dynamic perfectly, even between rabbits. Ruby is often exasperated with Max, but she looks after him, despite the fact that he often gets lost, and loses things, and generally causes trouble for them both. The illustrations are charming, and the words are genuinely funny, whether you’re reading them for the first or hundredth time.

Another favorite is Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch.

Girl power.

If you have a little girl, you should read this to her. It features a very feisty young lady, an antithesis to those other famous princesses you might see every now and then on the bookshelves, who kicks the butt of a dragon, and kicks her prince to the curb when he doesn’t show her the respect she deserves. It celebrates actions above appearances, and teaches young ladies they don’t have to look perfect to be princesses at heart.

Those are some of my favorites. Which children’s books do you love?

Posted by: Sara Jean | May 31, 2010

Bookstores: Places to Love

I remember when Barnes and Noble opened in Bellevue, Washington. I was a child of the ‘burbs, and all I knew of bookstores up to that point was the little chains in the malls that sold the latest mass market bestsellers and not a whole lot more. I loved books, so Barnes and Noble, with its monstrous size and couches everywhere and cafe inside where you could get a mocha to drink while you strolled around the aisles, seemed like heaven to me.

Fast forward about fifteen years. Barnes and Noble, and its large-chain ilk all across the nation, is the last resort bookseller to me now. I have a certain hierarchy when it comes to buying books, starting with local, independent bookstores (used if possible), then from the internet (because technically Amazon is local, right?), then, finally, if I really can’t wait for a delivery or if I happen to be walking around near one and fancy strikes, I will purchase something from a big chain.

This is all an introduction, of sorts, so I can talk about what I really want to talk about, which is my favorite bookstore in Seattle: Third Place Books.

Isn't it cool?

Somehow, it manages to get everything right. It combines the couch-lounging, coffee-drinking, wandering-the-roomy-aisles vibe of the big chain stores with the independent spirit of the smaller stores. You might find a really interesting, out-of-print used title hidden among the shiny new books on the shelf. You can even sell your books back, if, for instance, you’re dead broke and can’t wait for the latest Ian McEwan title to come out in paperback.

Third Place has two locations: The original, in Lake Forest Park just north of Seattle, is huge. It has a food court. If you haven’t been there, and you’re wondering how a bookstore could possibly contain a food court, then you really must see for yourself.

The second location is smaller, but it has the advantage of being located in the Seattle neighborhood of which I was once a resident. It has a pub in the basement. That might even be cooler than a food court.

What I like is that it sells used books without having that used-bookstore, musty, cat hair smell. Don’t get me wrong, I like that smell sometimes. But sometimes I want to look at books without feeling like I have to wash my hands afterward. And sometimes I want a new book right now. In that case, I can get a new book and pay the full price knowing that I’ve still supported my local, independent bookstore.

Third Place Books has a blog, which already has me excited about a book coming out next month. Things like that make me happy.

Posted by: Sara Jean | May 26, 2010

Choosing Favorites

When I was about five or six years old, I remember asking my mom if she loved me or my brother more. She did the right thing and answered that she loved us equally, and it’s a good thing, too, because this could have been a very different sort of blog.

I always think of this when I have to fill out a form asking for my favorite book, movie, song, actor, or some other artistic category. I find these sorts of questions impossible to answer (and I’m talking to you, Facebook). Not since I was in junior high school was I able to absolutely define my favorite anything. My tastes change all the time.

Let’s take the year 1986. I was eight years old. My favorite movie? The Karate Kid..Part II. I was pretty convinced it represented the best that cinema had to offer. I mean, for one thing it had this guy:

Ralph Macchio

For another, it had this:

You add in a slightly awkward interracial love story, a lesson in multicultural awareness based on an archaic Japanese instrument, and a kick-ass karate tournament for a grand finale, and you can’t really blame me, can you?

My favorite book around that same time was most assuredly in the Baby-sitters Club series. I was clearly well on my way to becoming a literary snob.

And even looking back on later years, when I should have known better, I can’t really understand my taste. (I definitely went through a boyband phase well after it should have been considered normal.)

I guess my question is, will I look on my “favorites” of 2010 and think: What an idiot I was! I liked this guy?

George Clooney

It seems impossible, but then, I really loved that Peter Cetera song.

I have something shameful to admit: I’m a bad, bad reader these days. I partly blame my new iPod, and more specifically the tangled web of coolness and crap that is the world of podcasts. But mostly I blame school. I’m training to become an editor, and for the first time in nearly ten years I’ve had homework to do on a regular basis. Reading actual books–like something other than the Chicago Manual of Style–has become a rare treat for me lately.

It is with a slightly apologetic tone, then, that I offer you my first book review, which is of a book about, of all things, grammar. (I swear it’s interesting.)

More specifically, it’s about the art of diagramming sentences.

(source)

I learned to diagram sentences in the seventh grade. (Where are you now, Ms. Cooper?) I don’t know if it helped me understand grammar any better, but the memory of parsing sentences into their component parts made reading Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, by Kitty Burns Florey, a pleasure.

The book uses the art of sentence diagramming to examine the way our society has viewed the English language over the course of history. As the language has changed and evolved, Florey argues, we have devised more complex–and sometimes convoluted–ways to understand it. Sentence diagramming, in addition to being a means of torturing millions of schoolchildren in the first half of the twentieth century, is simply one way grammarians and linguists have tried to make sense out of a language that often doesn’t make sense.

The book starts with a stroll down memory lane for Florey, who learned to diagram sentences in Catholic school from the “Sister Bernadette” of the title. This section is really lovely, written in a humorous and playful tone that also manages to be quite informative. Florey is able to explain the logistics of sentence diagramming without putting her audience to sleep.

Sister Bernadette also delves into the history of the sentence diagram, which developed out of the Victorian urge to categorize everything, and–in my favorite section–diagrams some literary selections, such as sentences from Proust’s Time Recaptured and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (easier said than done, I might add). It ends with a discussion of the fate of sentence diagramming in our current education system. Teaching diagramming is hardly mandatory in public schools these days, but some lucky students are still learning how to do it. In short, it refuses to die.

My only criticism of the book is that it’s about diagramming sentences; therefore, if you’re not into language studies, and you’d rather not learn the individual parts of speech contained in Ernest Hemingway’s sentences, for instance, it might not be for you. If, however, you like to point out misplaced modifiers on restaurant menus to your friends for fun, you might enjoy it. The subject matter really shouldn’t scare you either way, because Florey is an excellent writer with a great sense of humor, and she makes even the history of sentence diagramming pretty interesting. (Besides, she’s a copyeditor, so she must be cool.)

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