Friday, February 27, 2009

"To Sparkle on the Surface . . ."

Henry David Thoreau is one of my heroes. He's a fantastic writer, able naturalist, and all-around resourceful guy. I've read and re-read Walden, Civil Disobedience, Self Reliance, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and the Maine Woods.

My thanks go to the fine individual has chosen to make Thoreau's journals into a blog. This daily window to the great man's thoughts across time and a nation never fail to give me pause for reflection.

Today, Thoreau's words herald spring and challenge us to be filled with joy and hope: "If rivers come out of their icy prison thus bright and immortal, shall not I too resume my spring life with joy and hope? Have I no hopes to sparkle on the surface of life’s current?"

Let's get back to sparkling, shall we?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Five Rainbows

This morning in Northern California, rain clouds are playing hide-and-seek with the sun. One moment, the light is glorious, the next skies are overcast are a bit menacing.

For two kids on their way to school, the shifting skies promised only one thing: rainbows. Indeed, we spotted not one or two but three rainbows in the five minute drive this morning.

Having had both hands on the wheel and being driven by the tyranny of the clock, I did not have the gear or time for photographs. I'll regret that, I know.

The kids personalities showed through loud and clear in the rainbow spotting. G, my Zen-ish second grader, took each sighting as a singular moment of delight. L, my left-brain Kindergartener, was keeping accounts. "I've seen FIVE rainbows since my birthday [on February 17th]. This is going to be a lucky year for me. FIVE rainbows."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

January Reading: IV

I discovered Amanda Hesser, now New York Times Food Magazine editor, via her book Cooking for Mr. Latte. The story of her courtship through food captivated me; the saga of being a young New Yorker took me me on a journey of reminiscence to my post-college years in the Big Apple. I really do miss New York.

As a Hesser fan, I couldn't wait to get my hands on her latest effort: Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table. As the title suggests, this is a collection of food-related essays by an impressive list of contemporary authors. Hesser has collected these essays over a period of years at the New York Times and given them homes in chapters titled "Illusions," "Discovery," "Struggles," "Loss," and "Coming Home."

Without question, Hesser has an all-start group of authors assembled here. My favorites, based on author and topic, included Chang-Rae Lee on the food his mother cooked, Heidi Julavitz on Japan, poet Billy Collins on fish, Kirin Desai on bringing Western food to an Indian family, and Pico Iyer on Japanese convenience stores.

The book is a straightforward read with its bite-sized essays but has a bit of a dark shadow hanging over it. Many of the essays have a persistent note of sadness or even gloom to them. Perhaps I should have anticipated this from the section titles.

Overall, editor Hesser didn't deliver the experience that I enjoyed with author Hesser and it made the collection less satisfying to me. That said, there is still good reading here. I will also be checking the Eat, Memory column in the New York Times to look for gems and see if the tone of the essays changes over time.

Monday, February 16, 2009

January Reading: III

The second photography book I tackled in January is Annie Griffiths Belt's A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel: My Journey in Photographs. Belt was one of the first women hired by National Geographic and, for me, her story had greater significance because of it.

She recounts her early days in photography, falling in love with light as a college student. She decides to photograph a tree bathed in morning light on a golf course. Veterans of the course whisper behind her prone form on the grass. When the sprinklers turn on and drench her, she realizes just what they were whispering about. Drenched but undaunted, she pushes forward with her photography.

Belt got her start at National Geographic when an editor called asking if she had photos of a Minnesota blizzard. She did and the rest seems to be history as she became a regular photographer for the legendary magazine. So much of "luck" is hard work; Belt was willing to venture into the cold, forbidding Minnesota weather to satisfy her own vision first and foremost.

Without question, Belt's photos are excellent. They range from natural landscapes to insider views of Ramadan celebrations, never before photographed. Belt's work is technically sound and photographs with a storyteller's instinct.

What made this book special to me is how Belt managed to be a great photographer and a great mom, hauling her family along on photo expeditions. She writes about needing to step away from her family for intensely full days of work. Still, traveling the world with her kids and husband brought them closer together and implanted the lifelong love of travel in her kids. On a personal level, I hope my husband and I can sow those same seeds of interest in experiencing the world in our kids.

Belt's book is a joy for the eye and for the heart. Her photos made a grey January much brighter for me and pushed me to think about how my own family could benefit from time together on the road.

Friday, February 13, 2009

January Reading: II

Amarcord: Marcella Remembers is the autobiography of Italian cooking diva Marcella Hazan. I'm a big fan of her cookbooks and it was fascinating to learn how the woman who studied to be a scientist ended up introducing America to the wonders of Italian food. Her memoir addresses the full chronology of her life: early childhood in Egypt, struggling through World War II and growing into adulthood in Cesenatico in Italy, falling in love and marrying Victor Hazan, and ping-ponging between America and Italy as her culinary life developed. Her descriptions of living in Venice are lovely.

Once Hazan begins to write about her success in teaching and writing, the reader definitely gets the sense that she is a tough woman. She admits to having the reputation of being difficult with her students. Hazan provides an unvarnished account of her conflicts and falling-out with her editor and spares no ones' feelings in the process.

Without question, Hazan has consistently displayed great creativity, resourcefulness and bravura, long accompanied and supported by Victor. However, in the final analysis, she just doesn't seem happy. That lack is not explicit in her writing but the final chapters of the book left me wishing she could find more joy in reflecting on a life well lived.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

January Reading: I

Tracking the books I read is, thus far, an enjoyable and not-too-onerous exercise. Looking back at January, the key themes for the month were clearly photography and food. To help me remember a year's worth of words, I'm going to post brief commentary on the books as regularly as possible. The right-hand column reflects a running list of what I've read.

I started the year reading Annie Liebovitz's At Work. Liebovitz's book essentially provides the words behind her photographs: how she developed the ideas for the photos and made the pictures, strung together like beads on the necklace of time. When I picked up the book, I expected to read more of her personal journey; what I found, but was not disappointed by, was a much stronger focus on the work. Her tone is fairly cool and dispassionate but provides great texture to her amazing photographs.

Liebovitz begins with the story of climbing Mount Fuji with her first camera, reaching the summit at dawn and realizing she only has a couple of shots left on her roll of film. Her planning gets better from there. Her experiences with the Rolling Stones, of Nixon leaving the White House, photographing Queeen Elizabeth, and making the last picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono together provide the jaw-dropping, star-power facets of the book. Equally interesting are the stories of her photographing her parents, Susan Sontag, her children and what those pictures mean to her. Liebovitz's book is a well-crafted view into how a photographer developed her vision and the passion that continues to motivate her.