This was one of several light palate cleansers that I ingested while dragging myself to the finish line with a couple of other (very good, but) very t...moreThis was one of several light palate cleansers that I ingested while dragging myself to the finish line with a couple of other (very good, but) very time consuming projects. I picked this up mostly just because I like Savage's column and I only recently found out that he's written a number of books. But, as I find out that more and more of my high school class (all 700 of them) are getting hitched (and getting divorced) in the old west and popping out oodles of babies, my own aversion to the holy state of matrimony is probably becoming a bit overstated. So I thought I take a gander at what the man who coined the terms 'pegging' and 'Santorum' had to say about things.
Dan Savage is, as one might assume, an interesting guy. Not just because he's inflammatory and brash and frank about sex (which is all great), but he also manages to duck stereotypes about just how 'alternative' one truly is/'has' to be if they are going to espouse such viewpoints. Yes, he's a gay man who believes that (under very specific circumstances) it's okay for couples to 'cheat' on each other. But he's also the primary breadwinner of his household, has a partner of 10 years who is a stay-at-home dad, and really, really does believe in the sanctity of marriage. It's telling that such circumstances might feel at first to be incongruous.
I'm about half way through Season to Taste and the book is about to be due at the library. Rather than finish it, I think I'm just going to give up on...moreI'm about half way through Season to Taste and the book is about to be due at the library. Rather than finish it, I think I'm just going to give up on this one. As someone who loves to cook but had a limited sense of smell, I thought I'd get a lot out of Birnbaum's memoir. She was an aspiring chef, but completely lost her sense of smell when she was hit by a car while jogging. Birnbaum does a great job of really zeroing in on the sense of loss and isolation that came to her after losing her smell, and by extension, almost all of her sense of taste. She is able to capture--quite poetically--the depth of emotions and memories that are contained in tastes and smells. She also expands her discussion to other things affected by a loss of smell--sexual attraction, for instance, which some scientists believe is linked to pheromones that humans can smell, subconsciously, in one another. (The existence of pheromones in humans is apparently a hot debate among scientists.)
But while I realize that this was terribly, life-alteringly traumatic for her, and happened when she was rather young, I couldn't shake my consistent irritation at her mountains of self-pity (and overly flowery writing) throughout the narrative. Especially after--against all odds--she begins to develop a sense of smell again. After discovering that her newish boyfriend has always worn cologne that she can't smell, Birnbaum begins to cry. "I don't really know him," she thinks (italics hers). She later laments: "I couldn't detect the intricacies of Syrian oregano or lemon thyme, the herbs that were once so relevant to my daily life." You can almost hear her whine.
Some of my reaction is obviously tempered by the fact that I probably have never smelled the intricacies of Syrian oregano and resent Birnbaum telling me that my life--and food, and cooking--is materially worse for it. There's a scene in which she can't tell whether or not she is smelling a skunk or a baked good, which I have to say, is not an uncommon sort of experience for me. (Except for me, it's usually a question of "food or garbage"--like is this a nice restaurant smell, or a bad trash smell?) However, it also comes down to the fact that Birnbaum obviously had started working on her book in the midst of her olfactory depression and has access to some amazing people throughout. She calls up Ben Cohen, from Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, who apparently also can't really smell (that's why there are so many textures in their ice cream). Robert Pinsky--the former poet laureate of the United States--reads her poetry over the phone and discusses how hard it is to describe a scent. She goes to a lecture about the sense of smell with Oliver Sacks (the neurologist and author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) and is really upset to discover that although he finds her situation "fascinating" Sacks can't explain and diagnose her condition. "I suddenly felt cold," Birnbaum writes. "His words were so casual. I didn't want fascinating. Doesn't he know?" Ugh.
And so, although I haven't gotten to the part where Birnbaum goes and studies with a perfumer in France or eats at Alinea and somehow overcomes--I'm giving up now.
Although it is more a personal memoir than a professionally-oriented one, Avi Steinberg's Running the Books was illuminating for me in its explanation...moreAlthough it is more a personal memoir than a professionally-oriented one, Avi Steinberg's Running the Books was illuminating for me in its explanation of the role and responsibilities of a prison librarian and of the space of the library itself in prison. (To be fair, Steinberg is very up front about the fact that he fell into his career as a prison librarian--"Accidental" is right there in the title and he explains in the first twenty pages or so that he didn't have a degree in library science.)
I found the personal side of the memoir--Steinberg's past in the Orthodox Jewish community of Boston, leaving that community, his relationships with several of the prisoners, and his startling encounters with many ex-inmates (and their families) outside of prison--interesting and often very moving as well, but since my e-rental period from the library has now expired and I don't have the book on hand, I'm going to stick to a few of the more specifically library-related bits that particularly stuck out to me:
*Although the prison library is an important place for prisoners to research legal precedent and build their defenses for retrial or early release, I was especially interested in Steinberg's description of the library as a place of relaxation, community building, and--in the form of the "kites," or handwritten notes that prisoners leave for one another tucked in books and shelves--communication. It reminded me a lot of the way that public libraries tend to be especially successful and useful to patrons now--more as community spaces than as the silent spaces for personal study that they were once.
*Steinberg describes the lengths that he and his fellow librarian went to in order to get materials for their library--not only through donations, but often by trolling yard sales and used bookstores and purchasing items with their own money. This (in conjunction with an NPR interview with the manager of the Maryland prison library system (here: http://www.npr.org/2011/05/29/1367655...) reinforced my resolve to get together a book batch of donations for incarcerated individuals (via Books Through Bars in New York: http://booksthroughbarsnyc.org/).
*The ever-shifting, incredibly nuanced dynamic between Steinberg and the inmates left me thinking a lot about the difficulty of balancing a sense of professional obligation to one's library "patrons" and abiding by protocols that are necessary for security and order in a prison. The passage where he explains the "orientation" session that he attended after a few months working in a library, where the prison employees are shown how everything from a pen to a hardback book to a roll of magazines taped together can become a lethal weapon was especially reflective of this. As Steinberg points out, the whole job of the library is to give inmates things--information, assistance, and yes, books and objects. If you can't engage in that simple transfer without some level of fear or apprehension, then it's very difficult to successfully engage with the people it's your job to help.
*Steinberg also has a great exchange with the other prison librarian about the differences between being a librarian and being an archivist. Since I knew within an hour of my one and only archival class that I was simply not meant to be an archivist at all, I enjoyed this quick aside a lot. I was able to find the passage on a blog, so I'm quoting it here, but apologies if it has any errors:
”I think you’re more an archivist than a librarian,” he said.
He told me that archivists and librarians were opposite personas. True librarians are unsentimental. They’re pragmatic, concerned with the newest, cleanest, most popular books. Archivists, on the other hand, are only peripherally interested in what other people like, and much prefer the rare to the useful.
”They like everything,” he said, “gum wrappers as much as books.” He said this with a hint of disdain.
”Librarians like throwing away garbage to make space, but archivists,” he said, “they’re too crazy to throw anything out.”
”You’re right,” I said. ”I’m more of an archivist.”
”And I’m more of a librarian,” he said.
”Can we still be friends?”
Steinberg worked in the prison library for (I think) about two years, and it's clear that during that time--even when under incredible amounts of stress--that he developed a sense of professional ethics and responsibility the dovetail quite closely with those that were instilled in me during library school. It's heartening, I think, that working in a library environment (any library environment) has the potential to bring out similar impulses--developing strong service protocols, finding ways of providing access to information, developing professional/educational programs--in both people who have professional training in librarianship, and people who don't. (less)
This book was a favorite of a great friend of mine (who gifted it to me in high school, incidentally) and I just now decided to dip back into it becau...moreThis book was a favorite of a great friend of mine (who gifted it to me in high school, incidentally) and I just now decided to dip back into it because I've been trying to do more narrative non-fiction reading and White's essay "Death of a Pig" was referenced by two different authors (Geraldine Brooks and Ian Reid) during a writing workshop I attended in the spring.
There are some lovely essays here—the paean to the pig, yes, but I was also in a bit of a country mode and really enjoyed "Coon Tree" (the bit where he realizes that his poetical description of how raccoons descend from trees is actually just how this one raccoon descends is great) and "The Eye of Edna." And, of course, I have a great soft spot for "Here is New York" with its nearly perfect first line, "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."
You do have to be in a mood for 'ol E.B., however, as he can be a great curmudgeon, grumbling about punctuation marks and those galdurn politicians and rambling on at length about his old wood fire stove and The Way Things Were. This isn't to say he's not a nice curmudgeon—he's a curmudgeon I would have gladly spent time with. But sometimes he takes on a sort of muttering, folksy provincialism that can be quite trying.
All the same, a wonderful—and instructive—collection when you're in the mood. (less)