Books: 13 Badass Babes From Literature

normanrockwell-4When I decided to make a list of kick-ass female characters from literature, I wanted to use only characters from adult fiction. This proved to be more difficult than I thought. It’s fairly easy to find awesome female characters aimed at making young girls believe they can grow up to do or be anything. Katniss, Hermione, Violet Baudelaire – all of them are awesome and smart and feisty. But they are also all teenagers. Every list I found of “The Best Female Characters in Books” was full of YA or children’s characters. Aren’t there any cool female characters who are all grown up? Answering that question proved a little harder than I hoped. It made me angry that every literary female cited was under twenty.

Unfortunately the adult world of literature favors men. MEN have adventures. MEN fight dragons. MEN go to war. And MEN live full lives. Perhaps it’s because girls are encouraged to be active, seek adventure, and be daring. Women are encouraged to make babies and seek a husband. How dull. How sad. But I managed to put together a list of thirteen of the most badass ladies in literature despite the stereotypes. The only criteria: 1. It must be a book that I have read. Personally. 2. Must be a book aimed at adults.

  1. Jo March (Little Women) – Smart, impulsive, argumentative, tomboyish, and hot-tempered. Jo March loves life and wants to participate. Much like the author Louisa May Alcott, Jo was a rebel. She is forced to live a life that doesn’t suit her and soon yearns for more. She is a writer, and her main focus is writing. Not romantic love. Although she does have romance in her life, it isn’t what defines her. I love Jo. My good fellow. 
  2. Jane Eyre9780143106159She’s my favorite character of the Brontë universe. Throughout the novel Jane possesses a sense of self-worth and dignity.  She’s only a mouse, but underneath she is a tiger. Her integrity is tested over the course of the novel, and Jane must learn to balance the frequently conflicting aspects of herself. She’s self-reliant and never expects to be “rescued” from her circumstances. Jane Eyre has always been a hero of mine. A woman trying to find balance between her need for freedom and her yearning for love, and often voicing radical opinions on sex, gender, religion and social class. Bad. Ass.
  3. Elphaba Thropp (Wicked) – Even before this book became a hit musical with songs that annoy karaoke participants to this very day, I was singing its praises. Long before TV and movies got on board with the “new twist on classic tales” idea, Gregory Maguire had it nailed. He created a Wicked Witch of the West that was vulnerable, kind and funny. A true hero. She’s tough, smart, sassy and green. And like the song says, it’s not easy being green.
  4. Marian McAlpin (The Edible Woman) – Margaret Atwood tells the story of a young single woman who works for a market research company. Unable to foresee a fulfilling career, she begins to worry about her future and about what she might become. She soon realizes that her relationship with her boyfriend Peter is more serious than she would like. Yet when Peter proposes marriage, Marian accepts. A story I whole heartedly related to when I read it. Marian has an affair and develops one of the best eating disorders I’ve ever seen in print. A woman, like Emma Bovary in some ways, has to determine her own worth and her place in her own life.
  5. Miss Jane Marple – She’s not what you think of when you think of detective, but she’s one of the best. Long before Jessica Fletcher was out solving crimes, Miss Jane Marple was doing it better. A shrewd observer and a natural genius, Miss Marple proves herself a match for every murder she meets. Sure, I’m more of a Poirot fan, but even I have to give props to Agatha Christie’s tour de force, Miss Marple. A cheerful person who always expects the worst. How can you not love her?
  6. Scarlet O’Hara – A dark-haired, green-eyed, spoiled brat of a beauty takes center stage in this novel of the south. screen-shot-2013-06-29-at-4-32-01-pmShe’s not nice. And that is exactly what I like about her. Scarlet gets shit done. And if you are in her way, good luck to you. She proved to be strong, smart, and even a shrewd business woman who always gets what she wants. She embodies the old and new south, and struggles with those ideas internally. She adapts to what life throws at her and doesn’t just survive. She thrives.
  7. Mildred Pierce - At first glance, Mildred Pierce is a dumb woman who lets people manipulate her. But that’s not all Mildred Pierce is. The story takes place right after the depression in Southern California, and Mildred finds herself needing to work for the first time ever. Her spoiled daughter is embarrassed of her. Her best friend tells her to use her femininity to her advantage, use men for what she can get out of them. But Mildred instead chooses to start her own business, earn her own money and take control of her own life. Bad. Ass.
  8. Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights) – All that we know of Catherine is second-hand, filtered through diaries and memories. 2c0ad9efeee96800985915d822546939She is a literal ghost at the opening of the novel. She is a woman torn between two loves and two worlds – Edgar and Heathcliff. Her choice of husband is the turning point of the novel, and when the nastiness begins. She manages to become a “lady” – a snobby brat who gets her way – but underneath is still that strong, wild woman who wants love and freedom. She’s a ghost for the majority of the novel. That says something about the strength of her character.
  9. Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter) – A is for Adultery. The heroine of The Scarlet Letter is ostracised in 17th-century Boston for giving birth to a daughter out-of-wedlock. This story shines a bright light into the world of suffocating American puritanism that still exists today.  Hester endures shame and scorn for a situation she could hardly control, and a situation she was not alone in. It takes two to tango, ya know. Hester was forced to marry an old man and while waiting for him in to come to Massachusetts, she meets a charismatic minister and has an affair with him. I wonder who gets punished for that one? I’ll give you a hint, it ain’t the minister. Hester is an independent woman, and a free-thinker in a time when none of that was okay to do. If you were a woman.
  10. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) – A poor orphan of low birth, Becky Sharp is a born hustler and social climber who manages to raise herself to the upper limits of high society and wealth. Evil doer or misunderstood woman ahead of her time? 20111017071648-vanity_fair_coverThackeray never actually reveals whether she is guilty or innocent of the crimes that cause her reputation’s crash. Sure, she is constantly stealing from her creditors, allowing Rowden’s gambling to disrupt her friendships, and pulling con jobs, but somehow the narrator makes these sound comical rather than evil. I feel like Becky only committed crimes of circumstance or survival. Any woman in her place would do the same thing. Okay, she’s not the best mom in the world, but not every woman wants a child. And I don’t think Becky wanted to be a mother.
  11. Claire Fraser (Outlander series) – She’s a no-nonsense nurse and all around badass. Oh, and she also time travels. Cool, right? I read the Outlander series back in 1992, and I’ve been recommending them ever since. See, she’s married to a guy in the 20th century, but meets an even hotter guy when she is transported back to the 18th century. Claire has a quick tongue, a hot temper and she’s smart. Sure she gets into trouble, but watching her get out of trouble is half the fun. It was the first time I had read a book where a woman was having the adventure, time traveling, and making decisions that changed the course of the story. And history.
  12. Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) – Okay, she might be a sociopath, but given the circumstances of the novel, I feel alright with that. She’s a feisty, world-class computer hacker with a photographic memory, and she’s also the survivor of an abusive childhood. That’s why she’s anti-social. And why she has just a teeny, tiny violent streak. If you fuck with Lisbeth Salander, you better be a fast runner.
  13. Auntie Mame (Auntie Mame) – This is the story of a ten year-old boy who is sent to live with his zany aunt. And before I go any further, I want to state that I think the world needs more zany aunts. 1549471_10152037290632496_1516082930_nAuntie Mame is a worldly, hilarious, irrepressible, adoring, easily distracted, and all around awesome guardian of her little nephew Patrick. Mame’s life is filled with parties, travel, bathtub gin, caviar, Broadway stars and Indian mystics. The perfect environment for raising a well-rounded kid. No. Seriously. Mame believes in trying things, thumbing your nose at convention, taking roads less traveled because they’re bound to be more interesting, and being yourself no matter what the assholes of the world think of you. These are valuable lessons to learn at any age. My life motto is from this book: “Life is a banquet” she says, “and most poor suckers are starving to death.” (The picture here is my vey own first edition of “Around the World with Auntie Mame”)

Books: 2014 Reading Challenge (So Far)

Paterniti_TheTellingRoom-200x300I challenged myself to read 50 books last year and I came up short. Life and travel and television got in the way. But I don’t make excuses. I just set better goals. This year my challenge was to read twenty-five books and I’m already finished with nineteen of them. I think working in a bookstore helps.

So here are the nineteen books I’ve started and completed this year. In the order I read them. I gave each book a “star rating” and a brief review.

  1. Bag of Bones by Stephen King (736 pages) – **** I devoured this book. This is a ghost story and it’s scary. A writer must face his own demons, and maybe some actual demons in a small Maine town. Of course. Fans of King will enjoy this book, and non fans will see what all of the fuss is about.
  2. N-W by Zadie Smith (296 pages) – ***** SO GOOD! Zadie Smith writes about London in a way only a true Londoner could. She uses slang, style and prose to make this book come alive. It’s the story of four adult Londoners who tragically and comically adapt to life as grown-ups. Smith is a master of style, tone and prose. Lovely.
  3. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (576 pages) *** – I only gave this three stars because there are a few (very few) stories in here that didn’t make the grade. All in all though, this book was a lot of fun. Great retellings of classic fairy tales and written by some great writers like Michael Cunningham and Joyce Carol Oates.
  4. The Apothecary by Malie Meloy (384 pages) *** – This was a fun adventure for kids. It follows a young girl and her family as they flee from the Red Scare and Blacklisting that is going on in America. Full of history, magic potions and adventure, this book will make you smile. The first in a series aimed at intermediate readers.
  5. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (258 pages) – *** As a bookseller I felt I had to read this. It was a cute little book filled with inside jokes for avid readers. Nothing complex here in language, style or theme, but a good little book.
  6. Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto (240 pages) *** The story of a family living together in a small Bombay apartment. Mom is slipping deeper and deeper into maddness and dad (The Big Hoom) is just trying to keep going. A surprisingly funny book that was tender and heart felt at the same time.
  7. Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff (304 pages) ** – Eh. Another book for middle readers, but it was just alright. I would pick a dozen books over this one for kids, but at the same time the message was a good one: It’s okay to be different. But there are plenty of better books out there with the same message.
  8. Monday, Monday by Elizabeth Crook (352 pages) – * I was SO disappointed in this book. It tells the story of a group of people all brought together by the tragic shooting at U of T in the sixties. It was overwrought and completely predictable. If you want a family saga that spans decades, read Joyce Carol Oates instead. Skip this book.
  9. You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates (436 pages) – **** Oates is a master of epic family drama. This book tells the story of one family and their struggle to make it in America in the 50’s. It captures the decade perfectly. The story follows one family in up state NY and delves into each of their lives. Of course there are sexual taboos, violence and even boxing. What else would you expect from JCO?
  10. The Skin Collector by Jeffery Deaver (448 pages) – ** Bored. I’d never read Deaver before and I doubt I will again. It’s not that it wasn’t good, it was just basic. This book didn’t challenge my intellect and it was fairly predictable. There are better detective mysteries out there.
  11. Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins (384 pages) – ***** Yes. Just, yes.
  12. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (386 pages) – ***** I read this a few months before it’s US release and I predicted that people would be disappointed and a little pissed at this book. Why? Because Murakami has somewhat of a cult following and this book isn’t really what the fans are expecting. There is no other world. No cats. No deep wells. It is a minimalist book in style and content. Almost stark and cold. Now that being said, I loved it.
  13. Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (387 pages) – *** I’ve reviewed this a couple of times here on my blog, but here you go. This book was full of unlikable people doing very nasty things. Like in  The Dinner, Koch uses friendship as the foundation for the moral questions that arise. This book is fast paced, well written and pretty gross. I enjoyed it.
  14. The Quick by Lauren Owen (544 pages) **** – Gothic, dark, and paced like a gothic novel, The Quick is a slow study in horror. I enjoyed the different POV’s throughout, and I enjoyed the world that was created here. Fans of Penny Dreadful should check this out.
  15. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (352 pages) *** – Ugh. I guess I went though a phase of reading books about unlikable people. This was one of them. A dentist gets his entire life hacked. Someone creates a FB page for him, his business and uses it as a platform to make some pretty ugly remarks about Jewish people. He struggles with getting people to believe that it wasn’t him. But you almost don’t care. There are page long paragraphs about inane things – like a woman putting her hair in a pony tale. Seriously. It got to be a little much. The idea was good, but it was a struggle near the end.
  16. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta – **** I had to read this before the show started. (The show is incredible. If you are not watching it you are missing out) Perrotta is the master of writing suburbia (Election, Little Children) and he doesn’t disappoint here. What would you do if people suddenly disappeared? Perrotta looks at life after and it is often comical and uncomfortable. A great read.
  17. The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti (368 pages) ***** – Perhaps my favorite book of the year. It’s a delightful and funny read that will make you want to travel and eat cheese. A memoir of sorts, it tells the tale of one man (the writer) and his quest to discover the secrets of the world’s greatest piece of cheese. Just read it. You won’t be sorry.
  18. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (298 pages) – ***** I loved this book! It’s been a film favorite of mine for years, but I never got around to reading the book til now. I followed it up with the HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet and it was pretty much word for word. This is a feminist story about a strong woman who trusts the wrong people. Super fun and super fast read. AND, it takes place in Pasadena, where I grew up.
  19. Crooked River by Valerie Geary (320 pages) – **** This was a coming of age story wrapped up in a murder mystery. I read it pretty fast and enjoyed the characters. The book is told from the POV of two sisters. Their mother has just died and now they are living in a meadow with their bee keeping dad, Bear. It’s was exciting, fun and kind of a page turner. I figured out “who dun it” by page thirty, but it didn’t ruin the trip for me.

O Captain! My Captain! Remembering Robin Williams

Like many people around the worldrobin-williams-by-Samerry[206123], I grew up watching Robin Williams. I watched him go from Mork on Happy Days to becoming an Oscar winner. He was one of the funniest men to ever live, and a great actor. He was quick, biting, clever and still had the ability to make us all feel. He was a human before he was a movie star. And it showed on screen. His movies taught me about life and love and joy and being able to laugh even when things are bad.

The only way I have of honouring his life is to talk about it here. I can honestly say that everything I need to know in life, I learned from one of the greatest. These are ten of my personal favorite Robin Williams films, what they meant to me, and what they taught me.

  1. Popeye (1980) – When I was just six years old, I managed to win tickets to the premeire of Popeye. No one in my family seemed quite as excited as me, but it was my fantastic coloring work that won those tickets. There was a red carpet and cameras and Robin Williams. It was something. The movie got panned, but I still remember that night and that movie. Even though you hate spinach, you gotta eat it. “I hates spinach!”
  2. The World According to Garp (1982) - The John Irving novel is one of my favorite books. I read the book before I saw the movie, so of course I hated the movie. And I hated it for a while. I re-watched the film some years later and I fell in love. Robin Williams played the role of Garp perfectly, quietly and gave life to him. The movie gave me hope as a fellow writer who has a crazy family of her own. “You know, everybody dies. My parents died. Your father died. Everybody dies. I’m going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure having a life.”
  3. Good Morning Vietnam (1987) - vietnamI pretty much had this movie memorised. It was the first of Robin Williams as Teacher roles, and I ate it up. I wanted to have a teacher like him! But of course, there aren’t a lot of teachers that can do really great John Wayne impressions. It was also one of the first times we see him as activist. Standing up for what’s right no matter what the consequence. The lesson: “Okay, if someone is not telling the truth, you say that they are full of… (Vietnamese Class: Shit!) If someone has made you angry or angrier, they have…(Vietnamese Class: Pissed me off!)
  4. Dead Poets Society (1989) - o-captainIn what way did this movie not change the way I look at life? I was fifteen years old when this came out and I wished, prayed and tried to figure out a way to go to boarding school. In the 50’s. I know, I know. Impossible. But even as a smart ass kid, I understood the message – Carpe diem, boys. Rip up the instructions, fuck the rules, and live life! Suck the marrow from the bone! And, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” I still believe that. And I’m standing on my desk for you.
  5. The Fisher King (1991) - TheFisherKingRobinWilliamsPTSonyPicturesStill one of his greatest films. And the life lesson here is pretty simple. “There’s three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer.”
  6. The Birdcage (1996) - For me this movie was the perfect storm of awesome. You get Robin Williams being hilarious yet holding back because you just have to hold back when you are next to Nathan Lane. And you also get Gene Hackman, who can do no wrong. Together they gave this movie just what it needed to work: heart. “Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle- aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.”
  7. Good Will Hunting (1997) - This movie is filled with so much greatness, and most of it is due to Robin Williams. When he says, “It’s not your fault”. You believe it. And you keep believing it. “So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. anigif_enhanced-buzz-13392-1384973721-10_previewBut you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart.”
  8. Death to Smoochy (2002) - I think this movie is fantastic and totally underrated. You can have your Jumanji and your Patch Adams. I’ll take a little movie that’s really about making kids happy. And you know what I learned? “Even when you’re squeaky clean, you can still fall in the mud.” Oh, and I also learned that every movie is better with an iceskating dance number at the end. I love you Rainbow Randall. 
  9. One Hour Photo (2002) - I loved creepy Robin Williams. I was happy that he (mostly) stopped doing half assed comedies and did more dark stuff. He was good at dark. His character in this film was sad and frightening. “Family photos depict smiling faces… births, weddings, holidays, children’s birthday parties. People take pictures of the happy moments in their lives. Someone looking through our photo album would conclude that we had led a joyous, leisurely existence free of tragedy. No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.”
  10. World’s Greatest Dad (2009) - I bet you haven’t seen this one. It was fantastic and completely overlooked. It was directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. It’s a little hard to look at now, seeing the way that Robin Williams took his own life. But I’ll never forget the scene at the end when he jumps in the pool. I hope he found the freedom he was looking for. This is how I’ll remember you. “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” *Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen this film, then don’t watch this clip. It’s awesome, but also a huge spoiler. You have been warned. * 

Movies: 10 Best Food Movies

big-nightI just saw John Favreau’s new film Chef. While it was fun and enjoyable to watch, it wasn’t anything special. Here is a film that had every opportunity to say something about food, food culture in America, “food bloggers” and other dilettantes in the industry. But instead of taking a stand they took us on a road trip… in a food truck. Eh. In the end it was just a pretty movie filled with missed opportunities. I was disappointed. Here are ten that hit the mark and made me hungry.

  1. Big Night (1996) – Stanley Tucci co-wrote, co-directed (with Campbell Scott!), and starred in this beautifully crafted, delectable little film about two restaurateurs who hope Louis Prima will save their family business. Aside from Stanley Tucci being an all around badass, this movie makes italian food look so good, so delicious, that’ll you leave wanting to eat like an Italian, drink like an Italian, and just BE Italian. My brother saw this back in 1996 and he’s been pretending to be Italian ever since. I’m so not kidding.
  2. Chocolat (2000) – armandes-party3Take the beautiful and talented Juliette Binoche, (as a single mother who moves to a tiny French village in the 1960s) add a pinch of Johnny Depp, (as a sexy riverboat-dwelling drifter) stir in a little Alfred Molina (as the towns moral compass), and of course a certain sweet, cacao-based quintessence that will open the closed hearts of the suffocating villagers. The cast is full of greats like Lena Olin, Carrie-Anne Moss, and the great Leslie Caron. Oh, and Dame Judi Dench as a grumpy grandmother who curses and tells gore filled stories to little kids. It’s a charming movie that will make you happy and hungry in equal measure.
  3. Ratatouille (2007) - imagesThis movie captures the Foodie attitude perfectly. An adorable rat (who loves to prepare and eat good food) enters the human world where good tasting food is only for those who can afford it. Yes, fine dining with a rat. I can’t think of a better way to give the finger to food snobs than this sweet little movie. Good food should be for everyone, not just industry professionals and foodies. Oh, and an evil food critic named Anton Ego, voiced by Peter O’Toole. Yes please!
  4. Like Water For Chocolate – (1992) 3112406_origSex and food. Love and Death. These are the things that make life worth living. And these are the things worth living for in this delightfully sensuous Mexican film based on the novel by Laura Esquivel.  (Directed by her husband Alfonso Arau.) This movie is an aphrodisiac. It’s hot and spicy, sweet and salty. It’s the perfect balance of food and story.
  5. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994) – Ang Lee draws from his own life as he tells the story of Chinese master Chef Mr. Chu, his three daughters and their Sunday night dinners. It’s a heart warming movie that looks at generational clashes and how families grow apart as they grow older. And the food? Wow. Just… wow.
  6. Julie & Julia (2009) – julie and julia2Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Stanley Tucci as Paul Child. Jane Lynch as Julia’s sister, Dorothy. Directed by the late, great Nora Ephron, this movie tells the story of a struggling writer who decides to cook the entire French Cooking cookbook that Julia Child wrote. The movie weaves in and out of present day NY and 1960’s France seamlessly. And Meryl Streep is a joy to watch. Even when she’s just chopping onions.
  7. Food, Inc. (2008) – This movie blew the lid off of corporate farming in America. It shows viewers the reality of processed foods and how those foods are made. Not only is it ruining life for animals, it is harming the humans who farm them. It is an eye-opening film that deserves to been seen by anyone who eats. Yes, that means you.
  8. Mid August Lunch (2008) – static.squarespaceThis movie is about a guy who doesn’t have to do much. He’s a slacker who loves food. His only real responsibility is taking care of his mother. When his friends ask him to look out for their mothers over a long weekend, we get treated to great laughs and fantastic looking food. Four italian mothers at one dinner table = greatness.
  9. Hot Coffee (2011) – In 1994 Stella Liebeck filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s after spilling a hot cup of coffee on her lap. She was an elderly woman when it happened, and the case quickly became a joke for every late-night talk show. But the facts surrounding the case are not as frivolous as they sound. In this movie you get to see the photographic evidence of the injuries she sustained. And it’s bad. If this was YOUR grandma, you’d be pissed. Director Susan Saladoff offers a glimpse at the PR machine a fast-food behemoth like McDonald’s has at its disposal to maintain a positive public image. (Amazon, does this sound familiar? Hmmm?)
  10. The Trip (2010) – The-Trip-007Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon star in the hilarious movie as fictionalised versions of themselves on a restaurant tour of northern England. As is the case in most road movies, the trip becomes an occasion for philosophizing, and talking about real life. It’s a journey inward and out as the friends banter and joust – improvising and entertaining each other. We are even treated to Coogan’s hilarious, spot on imitations of Michael Caine and Sean Connery. They also eat. They eat often and they eat well. They dine in restaurants with incredible views and service, and in places where the dishes are extravagantly conceptualized and prepared.

Books: Book Snobbery

MisterBooksellerBooksellers are asked “What do you read?” on a daily basis. I am always happy to answer the question even if some people are not happy with my answer. But, I’m not a book snob. Not really. My rule of thumb is, I’ll read anything as long as it’s well writtenNow that may seem “Duh”, but you’d be surprised what passes as good these days. I’ll read sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, bio, history… you name it. But don’t bore me, and don’t use simple langue and have zero style. We elevate our intellect when we challenge ourselves while reading. I strongly believe that.

I’ve been a bookseller on and off since my teen years and never before have I encountered such blatant Book Snobbery. Maybe it’s the rise of self promotion tools like Twitter and FB. Maybe it has something to do with needing to feel important. I don’t know. But I hear people call books they like (or love!) “My book”, as if they had something to do with writing it or they were the only person to have ever read it. Here, I’ll use it in a sentence. Have you noticed that my book sold out? Again!? The speaker didn’t actually write the book, and they get no commission if it sells, and yet they take responsibility for both. Gross.

It’s hard. A bookstore can be a place of subtle, unspoken competition, and inflated egos. And I’m over it. Who has read the most books? Who’s staff recommendations have sold the most? Who read the new hot title first? It’s all pretty juvenile and silly. Taking ownership of someone elses work is absurd. Feeling a sense of pride when a stranger chooses a book you like is pretty weird. Judging a book by its popularity with your peers is silly. And it is all a form of Book Snobbery. Our job isn’t to get as many people as possible to read our favorite book. Our job is to help the customer find something they might enjoy.

And it all comes down to this: People should read. Reading is good. Books are good.

syntax-booksellerOne of the reasons people turn to satan Amazon is because of book snobbery. Nobody wants to walk into a bookstore and see the bookseller roll their eyes at their choices. Projecting a type of ownership over certain types of books but not others is just another form of snobbery. And I get it. Bookstores are inherently snobby places. It’s the same kind of snobbery says that jazz and pino grigio and golf and “locally sourced” anything are for me, but not you. Absurd! There is snobbery of “Literature” over genre, of adult books over YA fiction, of “serious” over “funny”, of “real life” over dragons and unicorns and wizards, of Haruki Murakami over Stephen King. And it is lame. And silly. And pretty stupid. If books ever die, snobbery would be standing nearby with a smoking gun in its hand, and a smile on its face.

So, I have a message for all of you book snobs – stop it. You are defeating the purpose. We want people to read, not feel bad about reading. When someone wants the latest Oprah Book club book, I’m happy. At least they are reading! And who am I to judge anyway? She has recommended plenty of great books. Try having an open mind and watch your world expand. But, if that doesn’t happen – here is a list of things you can tell the next book snob you encounter – whether it’s in a bookstore or in your own home.

  1. Many of the world’s greatest writers wrote books for children. So stop making fun of it.  (Louisa May Alcott, Madeleine L’Engle, Maurice Sendak, C.S. Lewis, Judy Bloom)
  2. People shouldn’t feel bad about what they choose to read. When they feel bad about what they read, they’ll stop reading.
  3. Matt Haig said it best, “Snobbery leads to worse books. Pretentious writing and pretentious reading. Books as exclusive members clubs. Narrow genres. No inter-breeding. All that fascist nonsense that leads commercial writers to think it is okay to be lazy with words and for literary writers to think it is okay to be lazy with story.” Yep. What he said.
  4. Don’t discount a book simply because it is a best seller. Lot’s of popular stuff is actually good. (ABBA. Bacon. Internet cat videos. Cupcakes. Harry Potter. Game of Thrones. Stephen King.)
  5. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Or its shelf talker. Or who happened to recommend it. The only way to accurately judge a book is by reading the words inside.
  6. Have an open mind. Murakami said, if you only read what other people are reading, you’ll only think what other people are thinking.
  7. Proudly proclaiming that you only read literary fiction makes you sound ignorant. Well rounded people want to know about the world around them and the people who shaped it. Knowing your past is part of knowing you.
  8. Snobbery is prejudice wrapped up in a better sounding name.
  9. Genre shaming is lame. Get over it. There are some great books just waiting to be found in Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, and historical romance. I promise.
  10. You can have your opinions about books, but just remember having opinions isn’t the same as being right. 

Minimalist Living: How to Start Today

messIf you’ve ever thought about chucking it all in and selling most of what you own, then you might be ready for a Minimalist lifestyle. But it’s more than less is more, and decluttering. Living a minimalist life allows you simple freedoms that you can’t have when you are drowning in possessions.

When I left Europe two years ago I worried that I would have trouble maintaining the lifestyle I had become accustom to in Prague. In my seven years there I didn’t buy any furniture, television, phone, car or major appliance. I never wanted for anything. I had hand-me-down furniture, and it suited me just fine. Minimalism isn’t really about stark, empty rooms with hardly anything to sit on. It’s more about removing from your life anything that is unnecessary or distracting. Finding alternatives to spending. It is about getting rid of excess and living with only essentials. *Essentials will vary from person to person.

I find television excessive. And expensive. So I choose not to own one. And I would never, ever have more than one. I’ve been in homes (mostly stateside) where I have seen multiple televisions. One in the living-room. One in the bedroom. One in the kitchen? Aside from the abundance of televisions, I found a desktop computer with an oversized monitor which the kids seemed to use as yet another source of televised entertainment. While some of you may think I’m old-fashioned, let me explain a few things. When you don’t own a television (or a car or a house or…) you are not only saving money on the purchase price of the item, but also on its upkeep. I don’t pay cable bills. I don’t have a mortgage. I don’t pay for gas or car maintenance. Living a Minimalist lifestyle allows me to be mindful about what I own, what I buy, and how I spend my time and money. Basically it boils down to this – My life is about experiences, not possessions.

Minimalism hasn’t really caught on here in the US, and I’m not surprised. After 9/11 our (then) President (the glorious Mr. Bush) chose not to mobilize the country or summon his fellow citizens to economic sacrifice, but rather he told us to … go shopping. Spend money. That’ll help! And we (as a country) did. And we still are. Americans seem to think it is their solemn duty to spend money on shit they don’t really need. It’s difficult to live a minimalist lifestyle in a country that doesn’t support it. But it is possible. You’ll have more time, more money, and more joy. How is that a bad thing?

  • What you need to do: Mentally prepare. This is a commitment. It doesn’t do you any good to get rid of things and then replace them with new versions a few months down the road. The idea is to take stock of your life. Go room by room and make a decision for each thing you own. Not only will you realize exactly how much “stuff” you have, you’ll realize how much time, money and energy each item requires of you.

    It won’t happen over night. It will take time, and it should take time.You’ll want to say goodbye to those ugly plates Aunt Grandma left you, and the hand me down bed your Uncle built that’s so short your feet hang off. Getting rid of things that hold sentimental value is difficult until you realize you can remember people, places and the good times without the tangible evidence. It’s kind of hard to live in the present when you are surrounded of memories from the past.

  • First step: Put a box in every room. When you come across something you haven’t used in the last six months (seasonal clothing not included) or ever, toss it in the box. Think with your brain, not with your heart. I always ask myself three questions: Do I need this? Is it usable, in good shape? When is the last time I used this? If my answers to these questions come up wanting, I toss it. No matter what it is.

    toomuchstuffIt can be overwhelming at first since, let’s face it, we like our “stuff”. But when you begin to look at your stuff not as stock-plied treasure, but in terms of time, energy and money, it becomes much easier to let go. That big house you have full of things takes time, money and energy to keep clean and maintained. Why not make it easier for yourself? Look at an item and think about how many hours you had to work, or will have to work, to pay for it. Every piece you own is a chance to regain time and/or money if you sell it or give it away. Once you’re ready to start purging, you’ll feel truly liberated.

  • Dig in: Now that you’ve thrown a few things in the box its time to step it up. Is there a closet you are afraid to open because the contents might fall out and suffocate you? How about that junk drawer that lives up to its name? Pinpoint these areas and deal with them first. No use putting it off. The time is now. Once these dragons have been slain, you’ll feel momentum to move forward. Nice clothes, household items are great choices for eBay… I hear. I don’t have the time or patience for that so I just give my things away. Yard sales are another great idea. It’s absolutely incredible the things folks will buy at a yard sale. Half a tube of toothpaste for .50? You got it!

    If this seems too scary, then start small. Keep those boxes for six months and then give them away. Another trick is to set a timer for fifteen minutes, and de-clutter until it goes off. Get rid of the easy things first, like your notebooks from Chem class… in high School. Ugly gifts you’ve received and kept “to be nice”. List those TV’s on Craigslist and sell that juicer you bought but never used. Having intent isn’t the same as doing.

  • Save for later: Once you’ve started to de-clutter, you’ll get to start on the fun part: Thinking about what to do with all of that free space, time, and money. I read of one couple that was able to pay off their home in less than seven years, and quit their days jobs in order to pursue writing full-time – all thanks to a Minimalist lifestyle. My fella and I have been able to travel across America thanks to a Minimalist lifestyle. When you don’t fritter money away on junk, you have more to put toward the essentials — and experiences.

    canuimaginedouglasfriedmanYou’ll also want to be smart about your future purchases. Let impulse buys be a thing of the past. You are better than that. Stop shopping at huge warehouse stores. Nobody needs that much of anything all at once. Shopping shouldn’t be something you do for fun or entertainment. It isn’t something “to do” like go to the movies. It is something you do when you actually need something.  Shop for multi-purpose, utility items. If you need to, inventory your home before you go to a store. Knowing that you have six black shirts at home will hopefully stop you from buying a seventh.

  • Remember it is an ongoing process: It’s not a one time purge. This is a commitment. The awesome rewards of this lifestyle only come to fruition if you stick with it. That means de-cluttering is an ongoing process. I have a one in, one out rule. For each new thing I bring in, one old thing has to go. That way I keep my personal mass of stuff to a minimum. I take books to a little sharing library. I give clothes to Goodwill.

    I’ve been doing this for two years in America and I’m super comfortable with it. Looking around my flat you’ll see dozens of books in stacks on the floor. And that’s about it. Everything else is either to sleep on, wear, or cook with. No excess. And it feels great. We live in a smaller flat than ever before and we are pretty happy. Downsizing isn’t easy, but having less space to put things definitely keeps you from buying things. And the things we do have actually matter. Each and every thing.

  • You are not your neighbor. Everyone knows that playing “Keeping Up With the Joneses” is a losing battle. But that never stopped anyone from comparing themselves to their cool friend or neighbor. Try to avoid doing this. It doesn’t help, and chances are the person you are comparing yourself with has different goals and values than you do. Make yourself happy and you win. If your friend just brought home a new flat screen TV, a new pair of shoes, and a patio set – don’t feel jealous or lacking. That’s a lot of cash to drop on non-necessery items. Use that money for a trip, or move someplace new. Or save it. Purchase art supplies or interesting ingredients to cook with. Try to infuse your daily life with your passions and hobbies and spend your money there.

    If your passion or hobby is shopping, then you’ve got bigger problems than clutter.