Archive for the ‘books’ Category

have just finished reading half the sky by nicholas kristof and sheryl wudunn and i cannot cannot recommend it enough. i first heard about the book while reading this fantastic article in the ny times magazine last summer, and while the article definitely gets the point across successfully the book is still absolutely worth a read.


the book discusses sex slavery in southeast asia, rape and murder in the name of honor in africa, unimaginably high rates of maternal mortality all across the world, fistulas, female genital cutting, and the benefits of education and microloans; since studies have shown people respond with more compassion to stories of individuals than to mind-numbing statistics, each chapter is punctuated by photos and narratives of women’s lives. best of all, the authors don’t just present the sad state of affairs in the world today and then leave you to feel shitty all day — they repeatedly describe organizations and philanthropic efforts that WORK and also introduce opportunities for the reader to GET INVOLVED and SUPPORT SUCCESSFUL EFFORTS TO CHANGE THINGS. thank goodness, because it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed when faced with an overwhelmingly shitty situation.

( at one point while i was reading the book i was telling a friend about it when he scoffed a little and asked if endlessly talking about inequalities makes them worse rather than better — the whole ‘post-race’ argument that was continuously brought up during the 2008 election, that if we would just stop talking about black or white or male or female then slowly differences would fade from our collective consciousness. i think mostly he was trying to be a dick on purpose, but just in case, i definitely do not think that not talking about it is the solution. when women are honor-raped every day, when girls are systematically prevented from educating themselves, when female sex workers are kidnapped from their families and kept prisoner by beatings and drug dependencies, the absolute worst thing we could possibly do would be to not talk about it. i think a lot of us don’t quite know the extent of how difficult and dangerous it is to be a woman outside of america/europe/developed nations in general, and learning about the scary reality is the only way to motivate oneself to take action. )

while the authors respect legislators’ efforts to solve inequities through laws, policies, and UN bodies, they repeatedly point to overwhelming evidence that the far more effective route is one that emphasizes grassroots, localized organizations founded or run by local people who understand local culture and customs. microfinance, for one example, has been shown to be hugely successful, changing entire communities through $65 loans to individual women. so, here is a very short list of some websites and organizations mentioned in the book that are worth checking out and contributing to:





novo foundation

global fund for women

of course there are tons more avenues to examine if you, too, are impassioned and eager to help. very worth the research. now go buy the book, now.

[ stefanie ]

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on a recent train ride i read extremely loud and incredibly close by jonathan safran foer and white noise by don delillo.

i cracked open extremely loud and incredibly close around 10am and was finished around 5pm. the, loveliest book, ever. it’s narrated by a little boy whose dad died in 911, and it’s about a quest he goes on to find some shit out. i laughed, i cried, i felt like a huge weirdo for having such noisy reactions in the quiet car of the amtrak train. one of my favorite passages is from the very first page, here it is so you can read it:

what about little microphones? what if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? when you skateboard down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. one weird thing is, i wonder if everyone’s hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which i know about, but don’t really want to know about. that would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn’t have had time to match up their heartbeats yet. and at the finish line at the end of the new york city marathon it would sound like war.

another part i really really liked comes later, when oskar (the narrator) meets a sorta eccentric old man who lives in the apartment above him. the man has this fantastical card catalog with a card for every person he’s ever met or head of; each card has the person’s name and a one word description of who they are.

he slid out drawers from the cabinet and pulled cards from the drawers, one after another. “henry kissinger: war! ornette coleman: music! che guevara: war! jeff bezos: money! philip guston: art! mahatma gandhi: war!” “but he was a pacifist,” i said. “right! war! arthur ashe: tennis! tom cruise: money! elie wiesel: war! arnold shwarzenegger: war! martha stewart: money! rem koolhaas: architecture! ariel sharon: war! mick jagger: money! yasir arafat: war! susan sontag: though! wolfgang puck: money! pope john paul II: war!” i asked him if he had a card for stephen hawking. “of course!” he said, and slid out a drawer, and pulled out a card. “stephen hawking: astrophysics” “do you have a card for yourself?” he slid out a drawer. “a.r. black: war husband”

another thing i really liked is that whenever oskar is sad or upset he says he has heavy boots. sometimes he has very very heavy boots. you gotta read it.

and then there’s white noise, which i’ve been meaning to read for a billion years. am still in the process of reading it, but it’s really good, and a lot easier to get through and enjoy than, say, infinite jest and other well-known examples of post-modernist literature. while there are lots of books i read slowly and love anyway, usually the mark of a good book (for me, at least) is how quickly i finish it; that is, how loath i am to put it down. white noise is engaging enough to be a page turner, but still incorporates deeper meanings and scathing cultural commentaries like the best of ’em.

after a toxic chemical cloud descends over the narrator and his town, his family is forced to evacuate. while stopped at a gas station, he is briefly exposed, and a statistical computer program quickly assures him of his imminent death. this was a paragraph i liked reading:

i wanted them to pay attention to the toxic event. i wanted to be appreciated for my efforts in getting us to the parkway. i thought of telling them of the computer tally, the time-factored death i carried in my chromosomes and blood. self-pity oozed through my soul. i tried to relax and enjoy it.


let’s start a festo bookclub, like oprah’s but better.

[ stefanie ]

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(by paula scher at nytimes.com)

follow the link for a lovely essay on the evolution of narcissistic, aggressive, sexual masculinity in great male authors’ prose.

[ stefanie ]

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So this one time I moved to a city across the pond whose name stateside is more commonly associated with school lunches and motorized over-sized wieners.  There I made use of a camera obtained via an amazon.com fluke that turned $895 into $89.50 (friendly advice: should this happen to you, order immediately, select overnight shipping).  I “captured” the people and places that fluttered into and, subsequently, out of my life, in a somewhat artistic fashion.

exhibit a

exhibit b

exhibit c

Upon moving back, I visited the friendly people at a reputable photographic institution (with a silly website), slogged through 1,000 plus images to select the winners, and paid the big bucks to get them printed on some quality paper.  Voila! the primary ingredients for a wall art expressionistic explosion that now “adorns” my wall after a semi-manic night of nostalgia, scissors and scotch tape (and, actually, graph paper and matches).

But, to give myself some credit, I didn’t just decide to tape pictures on my wall and call it art.  There was inspiration: a poem! and this whole long post’s point is twofold: (1) to encourage you to make your own wall art so I’m not the only one, and– more importantly– (2) to get you to read this awesome poem that so moved me to creation and (2b) to alert you to the fab publication that brought it to my attention, which can also subsequently provide you with fodder/”inspiration” for your own DIY masterpiece collages.

Working backwards… allow me to introduce you to Lapham’s Quarterly!

nice to meet you, too!

It comes out (no surprises here) four times a year and each issue is carefully curated around a theme like Money, War, or Travel (my favorite). Fiction and nonfiction selections & illustrations are pulled from 1000 BC to the present.  Expect authors from Jack Kerouac to Socrates putting in their two cents on an experience, concept, or feeling related to the topic at hand.  The result is a history of meditations on a theme. FABULOUS for your inner philosophizer!  AND the sidebars are often cheeky, abbreviated histories, maps, travelogues… organized miscellanea at its best! You can access some of their back issues here, but it’s worth it to get a subscription or  back order a single issue whose theme intrigues you.  By the way, Lapham is the former editor of the other, more commercial manual of organized miscellanea, Harper’s.

So! There I was, re-reading the Travel issue, getting all inspired, when I came across this perfectly lovely poem that in a parallel universe I would have tattooed on me.  I’ve picked out my fave lines, but please read the entire poem here, courtesy of Lapham’s.  Enjoy! And go make some wall art!

“Not Too Late to Seek a Newer World”

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d

Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone…

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met…

…Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

-Alfred Lord Tennyson, from “Ulysses”


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howard zinn died last month, and so i decided to finally finish a people’s history of the united states. a very good decision, one that i highly recommend.

zinn was a history professor, scholar, writer, and playwright. he writes history from the point of view of the oppressed (poor people, black people, women, american indians, people from vietnam and the phillippines, american communists, etc etc) rather than the oppressors, who unfortunately tend to be the ones writing the history books and historical documents in the first place (the founding fathers, the american government, etc etc). a lot of the reviewers on amazon criticize zinn for being a socialist or a socialist sympathizer–but who really cares either way? the point he tries to make is that there are countless narratives to tell the story of past events, but all too often these bajillion pluralistic points of view are boiled down into a singular historical narrative that only takes the hegemonic opinion into account. zinn isn’t “socialist” or “communist” or anything like that. on the contrary, he writes books that attempt to un-politicize history.


no matter what your personal politics are, it’s still totally worth it to learn the story of a traditionally belittled people from them, rather than the people who did the belittling.



[ stefanie ]

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I’m not quite sure how I managed to endure my entire childhood without knowing of Ferdinand’s existence.  Now that I know the glory of The Story of Ferdinand, imagined by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, I understand it’s importance.  Due to the sheer gravity of this children’s story, I have taken steps to ensure that my own will not have to “Al Pesso” this memory experience into their reality. 

Originally written in 1936, and adapted into a Disney animated film in 1938, this story tells the tale of a bull unlike the others.  Interested only in the beauty of his surroundings, he prefers to pass his days sitting under his favorite cork tree, inhaling the flowers’ intoxicating scents of freshness, vitality, and love.  His mother is very understanding, even though she is a cow, and lets him be who he is.  And, one day, due to a simple coincidence, he is chosen to participate in a bullfight, believed to be the toughest, roughest bull in the land.  A mistake indeed, as Ferdinand knows that violence and intimidation are interests not worth the time of pursuit.  An honorable story of morale, Ferdinand sets an example for us all to not only be confident in who we are, but also to realize that simple pleasures derived from an appreciation of the beauty in life are the only pursuits truly worth our time.

Yes, that’s all fine and good.  But best of all are the illustrations.

I implore you to go to your local bookstore, get a copy, and find a beautiful tree under which to sit and enjoy this iconic beacon of children’s literature.  And, please, forget not to make this book a standard one in your child’s library, once he/she/they exist.  And I mean a real copy.  Not any of this Kindle shiz.  Long Live Print!!


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i continue to make my way through the aforementioned a supposedly fun thing i’ll never do again by david foster wallace, deterred only momentarily by a four-day backpacking trip where daylight was spent hiking up mountains not reading books. now i am back in civilization, and back to ravenously eating up every word davey f walls puts down.

in his essay “e unibus pluram: television and u.s. fiction” he quotes a dude named lewis hyde (oh man, how i love the footnotes) as saying “irony has only emergency use. carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” adbusters, eat your heart out.

he also shares a passage by novelist don delillo, whom i am now inspired to read as soon as i finish this book and then infinite jest because really how can i consider myself an obsessed fan of dfw without reading his biggest book i mean really i should be ashamed of myself.

this is from delillo’s 1985 white noise:

several days later murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in america. we drove twenty-two miles into the country around farmington. there were meadows and apple orchards. white fences trailed through the rolling fields. soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. we counted five signs before we reached the site . . . we walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. all the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. a man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. we stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“no one sees the barn,” he said finally.

a long silence followed.

“once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

he fell silent once more. people with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by some others.

“we’re not here to capture an image. we’re here to maintain one. can you feel it, jack? an accumulation of nameless energies.”

there was an extended silence. the man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“being here is kind of a spiritual surrender. we see only what the others see. the thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. we’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. this literally colors our vision. a religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

another silence ensued.

“they are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

. . . “what was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “what did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? we can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. we can’t get outside the aura. we’re part of the aura. we’re here, we’re now.”

he seemed immensely pleased by this.

david foster wallace has much to say about delillo. lots of intruguing insightful ideas. i will not tell you what they are. i am such a literary tease, eh? you should really, really really read this book.

[ stefanie ]

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