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The Immigrant Experience: Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Reading

It’s sort of an American tradition to treat immigrants to this country like dirt and try to get the most work out of them for the least money.  If your family was among the first waves of immigrants to the U.S.—the Germans or the Irish, for example—their experience as new arrivals was was a long time ago and perhaps forgotten. Yet, Benjamin Franklin opposed German immigration, stating that they would not assimilate into the culture.  There was an anti-Irish “Know Nothing” movement in the 1840s and ‘50s predicated on the idea that Irish Catholic immigrants were overwhelming the country. The largest mass-lynching ever in the U.S. took place in 1891, after several Italian immigrants were acquitted of a murder in New Orleans. The scorn has been renewed with each new wave of newcomers–Jews from eastern Europe; my relatives, those dirty Scandinavians; the list goes on.

Literature takes immigration from the realm of policy and the culture wars, the view of immigrants as “those other people,” and makes it real.  There’s no better way to get a glimpse immigrant life in America than by reading their stories. Their experiences kindle empathy, no matter what your political views.  To that end, fellow book-blogger Colleen at Books in the City has thrown down the gauntlet with a reading challenge: to read a specified number of books about the immigrant experience in 2011. Check out the reading list. I plan to read Major Pedigrew’s Last Stand (Helen Simonson), Zeitoun (Dave Eggers), The Brief  Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz) and 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (Jane Ziegelman).




Elizabeth Bennett or Lisbeth Salander? We may not agree, but reading unites us—no matter where we are.

“How was work today?” “Same old thing.”

“What did you do in school today?” “Nothing.”

These frustrating attempts at interaction take place between spouses and between children and their parents every day. It can be a struggle to engage, even if you have plenty of time over the dinner table. So, imagine what it’s like when
deployed soldiers and their families have just a short time to speak to each other.

Alison Baverstock, who is married to a British soldier stationed in Iraq, realized that her family was struggling to relate to one another during phone calls because of the difference in their daily experiences. She told the Guardian, “When your husband rings up from Afghanistan or Iraq, you have a very limited time to talk, but sometimes you just don’t know what to talk about. Your existence can seem quite humdrum in comparison to theirs – and you can’t ask them what they are doing [because military details are secret].”

She found an answer in books. “Being able to talk about a book we’re both reading is great because it gives us some common ground.” Consequently, this March she’s launching The Reading Force, a project designed to bridge the divide between military personnel serving overseas and their families at home by encouraging them all to read the same books. Reading Force will encourage groups of family and friends of soldiers to commit to reading the same book, and recording their thoughts about it – whether by letter, email or in a drawing – in a scrapbook. Those away on tour will also get involved, helping families feel connected and to bond again properly when the tour of duty is over.

Reading is at the core of another project that brings military family members closer, United Through Reading, which has been around since 1989. Through this program, soldiers bond with their families by reading books aloud, recording their reading on DVDs and sending the DVDs home.  So, it’s like a virtual bedtime story. The organization has similar programs for grandparents who live life far away from their grandchildren and for parents who are incarcerated or in treatment.

Reading the same books provides common ground and creates community through shared experiences and ideas. Colleges and universities see the value in this concept and often assign all of the incoming freshman the same book to read before they arrive on campus, thus putting everyone on “the same page,” at least a little. The “one book, one city” programs embraced in Seattle, Chicago and many other communities across the country have the same goal. Check out Chicago Library Foundation’s One Book, One Chicago reading list, even if you don’t live in Chicago.

No matter how noble the mission, not everyone sees the value in the idea of entire communities reading the same thing. Harold Bloom, the country’s most prominent literary critic told The New York Times in 2002, “It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once.’’

Moreover, choosing a book to read together can create as much dissention as harmony. Entire committees meet to choose the right book for the programs in Seattle and Chicago and a book club can end the evening with everyone in a huff after wrangling over the book choices.  I love discussing books with my family, but they’re all male, even the dog, and they each would rather have a root canal than discuss Jane Austen with me. We have found common ground in books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the rest of Larsson’s trilogy (over which you can start up a conversation with just about anyone in the world).

Okay, I can see why Larsson’s Lisbeth might be a more attractive character to guys than Austen’s Elizabeth. So, we compromise and end up with a mutual reading experience that brings us together for a while–far more satisfying than McNuggets.

Already Overwhelmed by the Holidays? Bill Bryson Offers Some Perspective

For anyone who is already burdened by the holidays—the cooking, cleaning, entertaining, putting up with difficult houseguests—I’m offering a bit of perspective.  I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s latest book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and I must say we don’t have it that bad, no matter how laborious our holidays seem.

In most of his books, Bryson recounts in hilarious fashion his adventures as he treks around places such as Australia, England, Africa, and the Appalachian Trail. But, in At Home, Bryson takes a look around his own house, an old Church of England rectory in Norfolk, England. (Born and raised in Iowa, as we learned in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson has been living and working in England for years. He now speaks with a curious British/Des Moines-ish accent.) He takes us on a tour of the house, but it’s not really about the house.  He uses each room as a starting point to look at the development of building materials, inventions such as gas lighting and the telephone, why salt and pepper are always on the table, and countless other investigations.  I haven’t gotten to the “Bedroom” chapter yet, but I can just imagine.

Anyway, his stories of social customs got me thinking about how lucky we are during modern-day holidays compared to our forebears.  You think you have a lot of houseguests?  Be glad you’re not entertaining Queen Elizabeth I.  About 150 of her entourage accompanied her on her visits to noble households around England.  Says Bryson, “Hosts not only had the towering expenditure of feeding, housing, and entertaining an army of spoiled and privileged people but also could expect to experience quite a lot of pilfering and property damage. After the court of Charles II departed from Oxford in about 1660, one of those left behind remarked in an understandably appalled tone how the royal visitors had left “their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coal-houses, cellars.”

By the end of the Thanksgiving meal, do you feel like a cook and scullery maid rolled into one? In the “Scullery and Larder” chapter, Bryson offers a diary entry from a servant woman named Hannah Cullwick, who recounts her endless days of cooking, cleaning, dishwashing, scrubbing the street and sidewalk in front of the house on her knees, emptying the slops, and on and on.  Funny thing was, the man she called “master” was secretly her husband.

Wish your children or your guests had better manners? Keep in mind that “John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in American but not evidently the most cultivated, astounded his hosts at one dinner party by leaning over and wiping his hand on the dress of the lady sitting next to him.”

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re in good company. Try to find time to escape to Bill Bryson’s house for a little diversion.

Nora Ephron Contemplates Mind and Body

Nora Ephron—author, screenwriter, director, blogger, and seriously funny person—was in the spotlight at “Talking Volumes” in St. Paul Wednesday night, here to promote her new book, I Remember Nothing.  I took my eighty-year-old mother to the event knowing that she would enjoy hearing Ephron make fun of pretty serious subjects—aging and memory loss. Also, I figured that between my mother and I, we could later remember at least parts of what was said.

Actually, my memory of reading Ephron’s work goes back to the early 80’s when I read a collection of her writing in a book called Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women. In that book, she laments that she’s not exactly a full-figure gal in a hilarious piece called “A Few Words About Breasts:”

Ultimately, I resigned myself to a bad toss and began to wear padded bras.  I think about them now, think about all those years in high school I went around in them, my three padded bras, every single one of them with different-sized breasts.  Each time I changed bras I changed sizes: one week nice perky put not too obtrusive breasts, the next medium-sized slightly pointy ones, the next week knockers, true knockers; all the time, whatever size I was, carrying around this rubberized appendage on my chest that occasionally crashed into a wall and was poked inward and had to be poked outward—I think about all that and wonder how anyone kept a straight face through it. …

Over the years, while not writing and directing films such as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle and Julie and Julia, Ephron has moved progressively upward as she considered her life and her body..  A few years ago she lamented, I Feel Bad About My Neck. Now, in I Remember Nothing, she discusses not only what she can’t remember, but also the physical trials of aging such as that little bald spot forming on the back of her head that she calls an “Aruba” comparing it to that island, windswept and bare.

The New York Times called I Remember Nothing “fluffy and companionable, a nifty airport read.” I probably wouldn’t recommend it for a book club read, unless you pair it with some other book that revolves around similar topics.  A fluffy and companionable discussion of aging would provide a refreshing contrast to the youth and beauty obsessed main character Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example.

Ephron, now in her late sixties, looks so good in her skinny leather pants she would make a twenty-year-old jealous.  She’s happy when she can wear a turtleneck and has a great hair stylist to camouflage the Aruba. Yet, what’s most inspiring is her attitude about it all, so unlike Dorian Gray.  Her motto: Get Over It.

I'm Not Enjoying This Book–How Many Pages to Read Before You Quit

I just ran across the answer to a question that people in my book club regularly ask, “I’m not enjoying this book.  How much should I read to give it a fair chance before I toss it aside and take up a book I really like?” So many books, so little time.

The answer is Book Lust Author Nancy Pearl‘s Rule of Fifty. She says: “People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books.  If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up.  If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.  Since that number gets smaller and smaller as we get older and older, our big reward is that when we turn 100, we can judge a book by its cover!”

Another suggestion:  start skimming.  At least you can participate in conversation about the book.  I just did that with Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.  It’s a vampire story, so you’d think it would hold one’s attention, but I it so convoluted, long, and full of explanatory letters, I became very impatient.

Or, take the book chunk at a time.  I just started thumbing through the gigantic Autobiography of Mark Twain which is less narrative and more bits, pieces and reflections.  It gives great insight into Twain’s character and I’m going to be quoting from it a lot.  I’m prone to stick with this volume because hefting it gives me enough exercise to forego the gym.  My aching biceps.


Election Antidote: Judd Apatow's "I Found This Funny"

I’m completely overdosed on polarized politics, political analysis and phone calls urging me to vote, which I was going to do even before they called. Listening to certain candidates, especially Minnesota’s own Michelle Bachman, I’ve found my blood pressure rising so much I have to avoid news altogether and seek humor.  Yes, escape through reading. To that end, I’m thinking a book called I Found This Funny, edited by Judd Apatow, looks like a great diversion.

As it turns out, Apatow, the favorite director/producer of most young men I know–including movies such as The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall–loves books. The compilation features a mix that he describes as “a hodgepodge perfect for toilet or airplane reading.” (So much better than watching CNN.) It includes pieces from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Conan O’Brien, Philip Roth, Adam Sandler, Jonathan Franzen, and Alice Munro, to name a few. Proceeds from the book will go to 826 National, a nonprofit tutoring, writing, and publishing organization with locations in eight cities across the country.

Apatow concedes that not all the pieces are funny, but he says he finds about everything funny. “Most of human experience is just so strange….” That reminds me of some of the candidates, but I’m not thinking about that anymore.

See his comments about the book in a video on the Amazon web site.

"Little Bee" and the National Reading Group Month Book List

October is National Reading Group Month, which in my opinion should really be a year-round celebration. The National Women’s Book Association sponsors events and activities during the month. Part of the mission for NRGM is to increase public awareness of the joy and value of shared reading. Each year they prepare a list of featured books that are excellent suggestions for book groups. See

One of my book clubs is currently reading a book from that list, “Little Bee,” by Chris Cleve. Thinking in terms of relationship between literature and travel, this book inspires the armchair variety of travel.   The story revolves around a British couple and a Nigerian girl and their brutal experience on a lonely beach in Nigeria.  Not to give too much away but the novel was published in Britain with the title “The Other Hand.” While I love adventure travel, some destinations are best visited through the pages of a book.

Book Festival Buzz

It’s hard to think about fall in the middle of July.  However, if you’re thinking of traveling to a book festival, now is the time to start planning.  Here’s a partial list of book fairs and festivals across the country that will whet your appetite, along with a bit of information from their Web sites.  Not all have their schedules completed.

Decatur Book Festival

September 3-5 2010, Decatur, Georgia

An annual, free book festival that takes place over Labor Day weekend in Decatur, Georgia at several venues located in and around the downtown Decatur Square. Conceived in 2005 and launched in 2006, the festival brings more than 300 authors to Decatur for the holiday weekend. The authors give readings, talks, and panel discussions. The event is free and open to the public. Will feature Jonathan Franzen, National Book Award-winning author of “The Corrections;” Diana Gabaldon, New York Times bestselling author of the Outlander series; and Joyce Maynard, author of “To Die For.”

Brooklyn  Book Festival

September 12, 2010

In celebration of the Festival’s fifth anniversary, the Brooklyn Book Festival “Bookends” Partnership—made up of cultural institutions and performance venues—will present literary-themed events throughout Brooklyn on Friday, September 10; Saturday, September 11; and the day of the Book Festival on Sunday the 12th. Notable authors scheduled to participate in the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival include Russell Banks, Michael Connelly, Paul Krugman, Joyce Carol Oates, Lauren Oliver, Esmeralda Santiago, Jon Scieszka, Rebecca Stead, Colson Whitehead and Jacqueline Woodson.

National Book Festival

Saturday, Sept. 25, Washington, D.C.

The 10th annual National Book Festival, organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress, will be held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., between 3rd and 7th streets from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Wisconsin Book

September 29-Oct 3 Madison, Wisconsin

This unique event inspires book lovers from across the region to spend a weekend in downtown Madison and transforms State Street into a vast, public literary salon.  This year’s festival will explore the theme of BELIEFS

Southern Festival of Books

October 8-10 in Nashville, Tennessee

The Festival annually welcomes more than 200 authors from throughout the nation and in every genre for readings, panel discussions and book signings. Book lovers have the opportunity to hear from and meet some of America’s foremost writers in fiction, history, mystery, food, biography, travel, poetry and children’s literature among others.

Twin Cities Book Festival

Saturday, October 16,  Minneapolis, Minnesota

This day-long autumn gala gathers the Twin Cities book community to celebrate and promote our region’s literary culture. It creates a unique opportunity for the great variety of area publishers, editors, book artists, writers, scholars, and critics to present their work and words.

Texas Book

October 16-17, 2010  Austin, Texas

The Texas Book Festival celebrates authors and their contributions to the culture of literacy, ideas and imagination. It was established in 1995 by First Lady Laura Bush, a former librarian and an ardent advocate of literacy. Approximately 40,000 visitors participate annually in a weekend of author readings and presentations, panel discussions, book signings, and musical entertainment at the State Capitol in Austin.

Miami Book Festival

November 19-21, Miami, Florida

An eight-day “literary party” featuring six nights of readings and discussions with noted authors from the United States and around the world. During Street Fair (Nov 19-21), more than 250 publishers and booksellers exhibit and sell books, with special features like the antiquarians, who showcase of signed first editions, original manuscripts and other collectibles.

Have you been to any of these?  Any other book festivals coming up you want to share?

Losing and Finding Ourselves

The great travel writer Pico Iyer wrote an essay for many years ago that is one of the best discussions about why we travel that I’ve seen.

He says,  “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.  We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our   newspapers will accommodate.  We travel to bring what little we can, in our             ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently    dispersed.  And, we travel, in essence to become young fools again—to slow time   down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”

It strikes me that you could substitute the word “read” for travel in that paragraph and the meaning would be the same.  When we “escape with a good book,” we read to lose ourselves and sometimes find ourselves along the way just like someone who is wandering the streets and alleyways of a foreign country. Most of us can’t live the life of a travel writer, a vagabond, or an independently wealthy aristocrat on the grand tour of Europe ala the characters that populate the works of Edith Wharton or Henry James.  But we can go there in a book.

However, the best of all worlds is to combine the two.  Ever since I was in grade school, I loved to read about the places we were going on family vacations.  Reading Esther Forbes’s “Johnny Tremain” before a trip to Boston made the visit come alive for me.  Ditto for Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings,” which I read with my children before a trip to Boston where we waddled across the street to the Public Garden following the path of Mack, Jack, Kack, Quack and the other ducklings.

That might be the best part—becoming young fools again.

The Next Chapter: Travel

I’m a member of two book clubs.  Both groups have been together for years.  We’ve bonded with Jane Austen, argued about Anna Karenina and struggled down The Road with Cormac McCarthy.  We’ve praised and panned books, hosted their authors at our meetings and attended readings in bookstores. We’ve analyzed authors’ possibly dysfunctional origins (seriously, how can you look at the world that way?), literary styles, symbolism and deep meaning of the books we’ve read.  Okay, not all the time.

I admit that our meetings have not always been devoted to highbrow literary discussion. We’ve eaten acres of dessert and consumed vineyards of wine. Our children, who were upstairs trying to sleep during these meetings, will attest to the noise level. In addition to our love of literature and reading, we’ve shared our lives—children, marriages and relationships, aging parents.  And now we’re adding another chapter—travel.

One group in particular has talked for years about how much fun it would be to actually see a place that we’ve read about.  “We should all go there…for our 30th birthdays, for our 40th birthdays…. This year we finally did it. We hopped on a plane from Minneapolis to Chicago, the scene of several of the books we’ve read, in particular Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.  More about that wonderful trip later.

The more I tell people about our trip, the more I hear about how their book clubs, too, have started to travel together—both close-to-home “field trips” and longer, more exotic excursions.  There seems to be a trend here.  So, this blog will explore the places where literature and travel intersect, how to escape with a good book and understand the places we travel, with or without a book group, through the eyes of authors who have gone there before us.

Let’s get out of the living room and hit the road.