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A Contemplative 4th

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About 20 years ago now, my Irish friend asked me a really interesting question – “what is America?”  What she meant, she explained, was that she was trying to get at some kind of unified-field-theory to sum up America’s identity.

This being a multi-verse of a nation – especially now – that was a impossible question to answer.  But it gave me a great idea for a July 4th observation – every year, I spend part of the day reading books about America’s history and culture and thinking about her question.  I tend towards collections of first-hand source documents, too – anthologies of letters, eye-witness accounts, speeches, and the like – so I always have time for at least something every year, whether it’s just a couple essays read on the subway on the way to a cookout or a couple hours’ worth of reading on a blanket in the park.  I’ve got a big enough library assembled for this, too, that it’s high time I share.

  • History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around The World Portray U.S. History.  This is one of my favorites – it’s an anthology of excerpts from high school history textbooks, but they’re all textbooks from other countries, discussing their perspective on interactions they had with the United States over the years. So you get the what the British textbooks say about the Revolutionary War, for instance, or what the Canadian textbooks say about the War of 1812, or French textbooks’ take on D-Day, etc. It’s a fascinating take on some familiar stories, and a reminder that we are one of many nations in the world.
  • History In The Making:  This is another book by one of the same editors as History Lessons above.  It’s also a collection of excerpts from textbooks; this time, though, the textbooks are all American.  With this book, the editors have selected a handful of incidents from America’s history, and studied how history textbooks from different time periods have reported on the same incident.  So you can watch how a small border skirmish between the United States and Mexico gets an exhaustive report in the years immediately following, to a couple paragraphs 50 years later, to a single sentence today.  You can also see how different eras emphasize different elements of each story.
  • Witness To America: This is one of three different collections of first-hand documents I have – anthologies of letters, court transcripts, interviews, and speeches, running the gamut of the momentous to the mundane.  You have everything from a transcript of Neil Armstrong’s comments during the first moon landing to a kid who rode for the Pony Express talking about what life in the saddle was like.
  • The Cartoon History of the United States: Okay, first let me say that Larry Gonick, the man behind this book, is a phenomenal writer.  This is just one of the many cartoon guides to things he’s published – there are also cartoon guides to Statistics, Ecology, Physics, and Sex in his quiver, as well as an even more ambitious Cartoon History Of The Universe, which is more accurately a 6-volume history of our own planet from the days of the Big Bang up to 2004.  I learned of Gonick through that last series, and was stunned how exhaustive the series is – he covers things that are rarely included in most Western-world published “World History” books, like the history of the Mali Empire to a discussion of the impact of the Black Plague on non-European countries.  His books are so well-researched they’re often assigned as supplementary reading in college classrooms.  This book only covers up through the late 80s and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but it still covers a lot of ground.
  • America Eats! On The Road With The WPA: The Venn diagram between “foodie” and “fascinated by the history of the Works Progress Administration” is probably very small; nevertheless this book fits that niche.  During the Great Depression, the New Deal had a program designed to give work to writers; one idea they had was to send writers out into their communities to report on the various food traditions where they lived, as well as any public food-related events – an account of a traditional New England clambake, an article about a Baptist church’s ladies’ auxiliary fundraising supper, a piece about hunting in the backwoods of Louisiana, things like that.  The intent was to publish one massive book about “American Food Traditions”, but the project was interrupted by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the manuscript was archived for 50 years.   This is one of a pair of books that was eventually assembled from the archive – author Pat Willard combines passages from the archive with her own writing, chronicling a handful of trips to revisit some of the bigger events from the archive to see how they’ve changed.
  • Travelers’ Tales – America:  Some of the best travel writing is in the Travelers’ Tales anthologies, a series I’ve been diving into for years. Technically this is a travel anthology, but the editors focus more on the writing than on the topics covered, so this isn’t yet another series of anecdotes about family vacations to national parks or the like; instead you have things like an account of life on Skid Row in Los Angeles, to a comedic take on a lackluster bus tour of Cincinnatti to an essay on camping in Yosemite.
  • The Journals of Lewis and Clark: Speaking of travelogues – do yourself a favor and read these. This is the firsthand account of the expedition where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored and mapped the Louisiana Purchase, an expedition that at the time was akin to the Apollo 11 mission.  So Lewis and Clark took copious notes about the things they saw and heard along the way, all of the people the expedition met, and countless little incidents and hiccups.  There’s a section chronicling a five-day stretch of bad luck that befell one of their boats that literally had me laughing out loud.

I actually have a new book to crack into this year; will not report on it just yet, I’d like to give it a thorough read first.


State Of The Kim: Of Resolutions And Rejuvenation

So I’ve recovered from the employment shock a bit, and I think I’m going to be okay.  I dove into job-hunt mode for a few days and have stashed a whole ton of irons into the fire, I have a bit of a game plan set into motion and I even have the promise of some temporary income streams coming in that will sustain me for at least the next two or three months.  In fact, the prospect of the next two or three weeks potentially being “downtime” actually sounds…attractive, instead of being a cause for blind panic.  I’m still going to be browsing job postings every day, but I’m also going to be going on long walks with my camera, checking out local museums with “free weekday” deals, and Marie Kondo-ing the hell out of a couple closets.

Best of all – since most of the challenges I set up for myself in the Year Of Challenges  don’t involve any cash outlay, I can stick with it. Maybe temporarily tweak a couple of them and make up for it later.

In fact, let’s check in on how I did in January.

  • Visit a New Neighborhood: ….Er, I haven’t just yet.  I may save the “January” plan for the first week of February to distract myself from the first couple days of “oh crap I don’t have a job to go to today”.
  • Eat lunch at a restaurant in my neighborhood:  I think I can be excused this. I may also have to put this on hold for a couple months, and double up when I’m in funds again. But there’s a fish sandwich place that opened up on my actual block last week that I have my eye on as the first visit.
  • Reading Challenge: now, this is interesting. I initially signed up and planned to do the Penguin Books UK Classic Reading Challenge, thinking that there was going to be a specified list of books they’d mapped out for the month.  But when two weeks elapsed and I never saw any notice about that, I finally just scoured my own bookshelves and gathered a little stack of Things I’m Meaning To Read and dove into that instead.  But then just when I was finishing the first book….I finally got an email from Penguin, with January’s title on their Classics challenge.  And….so I read both.  I think I may just keep going at that rate – one from my own stack, then one from Penguin.  This first month, the first book was Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis – an unusual construction, sort of like a cross between Memento and Benjamin Button, but with Nazis.  (I have made total hash of that description, but trust me, it’s applicable.)  Penguin suggested Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! which was…alright, but a little too hand-over-heart embrace-the-salt-of-the-earth for my taste.  But – that’s double the success rate on the reading challenge.  Go me!
  • Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday: Yep, did that. Didn’t avail myself of any of the special events they have each time, but I rarely do anyway; I tend to prefer to visit some of my own favorite corners. Although I was drawn to a couple quirky things on display; there’s a retrospective of the museum’s feminist art collection there, and one of the pieces was a series by the artist Wendy Red Star, who found a series of five photos taken of Crow tribe chiefs in the 19th Century at a time when they were visiting Washington DC to negotiate land rights. Wendy Red Star’s work is a series of extensive notations on each photo, describing some of the symbolic elements of each chief’s attire and giving details about their lives.
  • Chinese Cookbook: ….So, I’m cutting myself slack on this for this month. My grocery list for the next few weeks is going to have to be trimmed and simplified, so I don’t quite have the money to spend on some of the specialty ingredients I’d have to buy for this (a shame, as I had my eye on making wontons).  However, there are some recipes that can be made using regular supermarket fare, and I just need to find those and then re-launch.  However, I have another cooking challenge I’m going to add to make up for it:
  • NEW Soup Cookbook Challenge. I also have another overlooked cookbook, this one concerning simple seasonal soups; it’s written by an actual monk, sharing recipes from his own kitchen at his actual monastery, so there’s also an intrinsic frugality there.  I’ve used this one a little more – but there are still quite a few recipes I’ve never tried.   So I’m also going to dive into that one over the course of the coming year.  Brother Victoire-Antoine also helpfully organizes the book with a separate chapter for each month of the year, so I can keep track.  (Coming up in February: mostly bean and vegetable soups, mostly French.  I’m down.)
  • Five Photos every weekend: Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.  We’ve had a couple of BITTER cold weekends, but I’ve still stuck with at least picking up the camera and trying to find photo material indoors.  Also, I’m not so hung up on the “five photos” part as I am on the “every weekend” part; one weekend I only took three photos, but at least I took photos.  Last weekend I also signed up for a “photo walk” with a local photographer and birder; it was a friendly group of people who’d gone on walks with him before, and me, so the focus was mostly on people just diving in and taking pictures.  Exactly what I needed.  He led us on a ramble through some of the residential back corners of Coney Island, finishing with a stroll down the boardwalk back towards the subways. And I found a wealth of subjects…
  • Hike: According to my Fitbit the walk around Coney Island Creek counts as a hike, so there.
  • Craft Projects: I finished something!!! I have been working on a throw blanket for a couple years now; I’d had the yarn salvaged from a more complicated throw blanket kit I’d purchased some years ago, started, and decided I didn’t want to fiddle with it.  But that left me with a couple oddball balls of yarn that wouldn’t really work in other things; it’s a weird sort of fuzzy yarn, really lightweight and fuzzy, so not suitable for a garment. But the quantity was just enough for a simpler lap blanket, which is finally done and gracing the living room. img_5439

August Break 6 – What I’m Reading

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Well, this isn’t quite “what I’m reading”.  Except on a grand scale.  What you see here is one-third of my total book collection.

Some of these are books I’ve already read; weird reference books that I picked up when I was doing some freelance research work for a couple small theater companies, some old childrens’ books I’d loved as a child and rediscovered as an adult, a set of the Sandman graphic novels a friend has been gradually giving me over the years, a set of graphic novels on history that an ex turned me on to, and most of my textbooks from a fantastic course in Irish literature I took in college.  But others I’ve not even cracked open – most of those things piled on the floor on the bottom left are things I’ve spotted on the streets here, huddled in a box someone’s left out on the curb marked “free books”.  I always stop when I see books left out on the curb, and I’ve found a few treasures that way.  Or I’ll get a book from family, or once in a while I’ll actually buy something (somewhere on the shelf is a copy of David Duchovny’s second novel, which I got because it dealt with the Boston Red Sox and sounded hysterically funny; also because it was by David Duchovny).

I was a rabid reader when I was a child; obsessive Sesame Street viewing taught me how to read at the age of two.  My parents still talk sometimes about how I read all my third birthday cards on my own, and my father will talk about taking me along shopping and noting the double-takes people would give when they saw tiny me wandering around behind him and reading the signs aloud (“men’s trousers, tw0-nine-nine-nine….mens’ shirts, special sale, two for one-two-nine-nine….”)  They were pretty pleased that I was such an avid reader, if a bit intimidated; I don’t really remember my parents reading to me, but only because I remember more reading to them.  Sometimes I would sit in when Mom read to my little brother, but for the most part I was a solo reader and I was happy with that.

And I am also grateful that my parents let me be that.  When I was a kid, I would often wander out into the living room and pull something random off of their bookshelves that looked interesting, and read that. And my parents had a book collection as eclectic as my own – my mother had a few old textbooks on graphic design herself from when she studied art, and my father favored a lot of pop-sci fare, like Chariots of the Gods.  For much of my childhood I was obsessed with  my parents’ collection of the Time-Life Nature Library, a pop-sci series on natural history published by LIfe magazine in the early 60s. I didn’t actually “read” all that much of it so much as I would look for the pictures liberally scattered throughout and read the captions (the texts were a bit dry), but I was obsessed with them.

The one and only time I remember either of my parents challenging me on anything I’d read, it was a copy of Watership Down my father saw me reading when I was ten.  “Are you really reading that?” he asked, dubiously, when he saw me carrying it back to my room.

“Yeah.” I frowned.  “What’s wrong?”

He took it from me – which he usually never did – and eyed the placement of the bookmark.  “When did you start reading this?”

“About…two days ago?”

“And you’ve already read all of this?”  he asked.  “You’re not skipping, are you?”

“No!” I barked.  I was relieved that he wasn’t going to take it away, but also insulted that he thought I’d been skipping.  How dare he!

“Hmm.”  He looked at me, then opened the book to a section a few pages back from where I’d stopped.  “Okay, so…if you really read it, tell me what happened when they got to the river and Fiver was too tired to swim.”

“Blackberry finds a piece of wood and they use it as a raft,” I instantly said.

“Hmm.” He eyed me, then turned to another page.  “Okay – what’s the real name of the rabbit they call ‘Bigwig’?”


Dad didn’t say anything that time.  He asked me one or two more questions, both of which I instantly answered, and he handed me back the book with a grudging apology. I finished the whole thing about four days later.

I kept on as a voracious reader after that, all through high school, and then college, and then into my 20s.  And then in my mid-30s…I started slowing down, largely because I was trying to juggle about three theater careers at the same time, one of which was the research gig. Any time I had to read had to be spent looking up esoteric data or reading unpublished scripts; I didn’t have the time or mental bandwidth to read for fun.  And the books built up, and are still building up.

That’s part of why I finally stepped away from theater – I had no free time for my own self.  I couldn’t see any theater if I was always in rehearsals, and I couldn’t read anything for fun if I was always reading for work.  Worst of all, my own writing was running dry – I wasn’t reading anything myself to replenish the well.

It’s still been slow going getting back into a reading habit again. But I’m starting to wake back up – I discovered a book club that deals with the weird sci-fi niche I’m fond of, and I’m dipping back into the backlog again.  I found my own set of the Time Life Nature Library and that has pride of place in the house (I still only read the captions), and every so often, I will finish a book and bring it out and put it on the curb for someone else.

My hoarding is appeased by a sign I saw once in San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore – “Buying more books than one can reasonably read in a lifetime is the soul’s way of trying to reach infinity.”

Neighborhoods New York, Special Edition: Brooklyn Bookstore Crawl, April 30 2016

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Lately, I’ve been realizing I’m in a bit of a rut.  I slacked off with this blog some, I was spending too many nights zoning out in front of the television, and I wasn’t exploring the city.  So I needed to shake things up a little – cut the cable and stock up on books, get out and see more of the city, and have something to write about.

This weekend’s Brooklyn Bookstore Crawl let me do all three in one very big fell swoop.  In honor of Independent Bookstore Day, a lot of Brooklyn’s indie bookstores banded together to make a day out of it – with special sales, promotions, and funky events, meant to draw us all in and send us hopping from store to store.  And thus I spent the afternoon on a whirlwind tour – of five bookstores I actually know about already.  Oh well.


I’d actually just been at Freebird, my first stop, only two days before.  Freebird is a quirky used book store, which is only open on weekends – but it also operates as a collection site for a couple of book-donation charities, like Books Through Bars, which gives reading material to prisoners.  Peter, the owner, was especially pleased with a couple of the books I brought in to donate; somehow I acquired a couple of Spanish-language books, including a Spanish-language guide to Feng Shui, which he said would definitely end up with Books Through Bars.  As he sorted through my books, I made a beeline to see if a book I’d seen a couple nights prior was still there.

Freebird hosts the only book club I’ve ever stuck with for more than two meetings – a club devoted exclusively to post-apocalyptic fiction.  I can’t even begin to figure out what draws me to that niche – because hoo boy, is that a niche – but I thought I was the only one who was into it, until last February, when I discovered the club.  The group’s been meeting there for eight years, and the members – a faithful lot – are all a wildly interesting lot, including publishers, doctors, students, and bakers among them.

But while just before our last meeting, I saw Peter slipping a used copy of the WPA Guide to New York onto a sale shelf – and was instantly covetous.  And – it was still there.  I brought it to the counter just as Peter was finishing sorting my books; he tipped me off to another club he’s thinking of starting, devoted to New York-centric books.

A young couple was coming in as I was heading happily out – their eyes drawn to some of the shelves towards the front, where Peter displays books that have especially unfortunate author photos or books with really bad titles.

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Bookcourt is a little sleeker and spiffier compared to Freebird.  They also had a whole roster of events, all of which I managed to miss – I showed up about twenty minutes too late for a trivia contest, and an hour too early for an author lecture. But no matter. I tend to visit this place for some of the more mass-market things anyway – the rack of Dover Thrift Editions of the classics or their Moleskinne collection. In fact – usually I come to browse while sitting in an insanely comfortable couch they have towards the back.

Bookcourt was encouraging people to take selfies “with your favorite book”.  I wasn’t going to at first – something about a middle-aged woman taking a selfie seemed undignified, and there was no way in hell I was going to be able to pick one favorite book.  But then I spotted a nice big copy of Boccacio’s Decameronwhich is definitely one of my favorites.


Plus the copy was also big enough to hide behind.


I have absolutely no idea why I’d never realized that Powerhouse was also a publisher. Possibly because I’ve always only gone in when I was looking for something fairly small, to slip into a pocket on my way to Brooklyn Bridge Park.  Or I hover towards the front, where they also have a little collection of blank books, crafty things and candles. Once I even got a map pinpointing “Brooklyn’s Best diners”.  But sure enough, they have a sizeable collection of titles themselves – mostly photo and art books, with some…odd craft titles as well.IMG_1885IMG_1886


My ‘hood!  I’ve stopped in here plenty of times – so much so that I am in their rewards program, and it’s often one of my “I don’t know what to do with myself” options on a weekend.  Today, though, they’d really pulled out the stops for the Independent Bookstore Day activities – including a “photo booth” right by the door, where a bunch of local authors were taking turns letting patrons pose for pictures with them, complete with silly props.  I didn’t recognize the author holding court when I was there – Tanwi Nandini Islamwhose first book just came out. She saw me hovering curiously around the booth and asked if I wanted a picture.  “….I guess…” I said, putting my bag down.  I confessed that I thought that the whole idea of selfies was a little undignified.

“Aw, why be dignified?” Tanwi said. “In fact, I think that undignified is more interesting.”  She grinned and thrust a hat at me, and put one on herself, and then turned me to the camera and put on a mock-serious face.

Sometimes you just have to go with the moment.


The crowds around the table where her book was were too thick, so I resolved to pick it up later in thanks. But I did find something tucked on a back shelf – a graphic novel retelling of some of the racier stories from the Bible.  The clerk chatted with me about the book as he rang me up.  “Have you ever heard this guy speak?”

“No, can’t say I have.”

“I did, for his last book,” he said, scanning my book.  “He’s pretty…interesting.”

I wasn’t sure why he hesitated until later, when I read through the book and saw that the author was also making an impassioned argument that there is a good deal of Biblical support for prostitution.  His scholarship is credible, but…he has a bit of a zealot’s fervor.  Still, it was an eye-catching enough title that Tanwi saw me with it as I made my way out, and gave me a wink and called, “That doesn’t look dignified! Good for you!”


Maybe it’s because of the prices, or maybe it’s because of the curation – but I love used bookstores.  The people running them always have a discriminating eye, and eclectic taste.  Peter at Freebird is one example (come on, an emphasis on New York and post-apocalyptic fiction?), and here at Unnameable, there’s a good collection of religion, poetry, and small presses, a whole shelf of mass-market sci-fi paperbacks, and two shelves of books on sex.  Although that section is way up at the top of its bookshelf, so you have to ask for the ladder to get at it; I suspect a lot of people are too shy to ask.

Today, though, was the first time I learned that the staff has a collection of “Weird Things We Found In Books” posted on one of the walls.  I made my choice here early, but then spent a good five minutes browsing the wall before even making it to the cash register.

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If I’m giving books away to a used bookstore, I check them pretty carefully.  This has all only strengthened my resolve to check them even more carefully, or possibly never get rid of any book again just in case.

Expanding The Crowdsourcing

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So. I’m still trying to compile a reading list.

Including the suggestions from the last post, here’s what I’ve got –

  • Triton by Sam Delaney
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Four Voyages by Christopher Columbus
  • Upside Down by Eduardo Galeano
  • Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
  • Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • Moonlight on Linoleum by Terry Hewig
  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
  • The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  • A Lady’s Life In The Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird

So yeah.  It’s a weird mix.  But that’s good – some of these, like Sag Harbor and Quiet American, are books I’ve had and wanted to read for a while and just needed a kick in the pants to do it.  And a couple – The Book Thief and Moonlight on Linoleum – are gifts from friends or family that I’ve been a bit guilty about not having gotten to yet.

But that’s still only eleven books; not the twenty I’d been shooting for.  So I had another idea – we’re living in the age of Twitter, when you can send messages to pretty much anyone in the world.  Including People Of Note.

So I’m about to go on Twitter and hit up a whole bunch of notable people – singers, actors, politicians, what have you – and ask them.  Partly to expand my search pool – but also partly because I am dying of curiosity to see what will happen.

Stay tuned.


Two recommendations already:

  • Caught by Lisa Moore
  • Sweetland by Michael Crummey

Tell ya who they’re from later.

Assign My Reading Homework

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I was never one of those kids that you had to assign a reading list to over the summer.  I knew how to read when I was three, and literally was always reading for the next 40 years – books, magazines, newspapers, signs, other people’s books….I would even read the back of shampoo bottles under bathroom sink when I was a kid and I’d forgotten to take a magazine in the loo with me.

And that’s….started to wane.  I don’t know whether it’s because of a lack of downtime, or an Internet habit, but I am not reading as many full-on books any more.  So I’m turning librarian on myself and making a list of 20 books to read; fiction, non-fiction, you name it.

But that’s where I’m asking you to come in.  If I pick all the books, I won’t go much outside my comfort zone; so I’ll pick ten books, and you pick the other ten.  Go.