Monthly Archives: January 2009

Literature: The Nation Guide

nation-guide-to-the-nationTitle: The Nation Guide to the Nation // Publisher: Vintage // Editor: Richard Lingeman // 2009 // 400 p.

A book with last week’s political turnover in mind: The Nation Guide to the Nation, edited and compiled by Richard Lingeman, other editors from The Nation, and readers of the United States’ most popular lefty magazine. If you’re a Democrat, this book will help you find friends in cool, funky, intellectual, activist, left-leaning places all over the counrty. If you’re a Republican, this book will help you identify places you might want to avoid for a while…or maybe eventually start exploring if you’re feeling compelled to align yourself with the party in power.

The Nation Guide is written for those of “left-liberal-radical persuasion,” as the book’s Introduction calls The Nation readers. It covers topics such as culture, media, advocacy, goods and services, and social networks. Interesting sidebars with relevant historical tidbits are sprinkled throughout, along with additional commentary by respected topical experts. Each section is further subdivided into categories, and then detailed listings follow, generally offering a description and contact information.

Released just in time for Obama’s inauguration, The Nation Guide to the Nation might be the best book to help the new president’s supporters find others united in celebration. Part catalog, part handbook, part almanac, The Nation Guide is the ultimate resource for liberals seeking community in something as small as a cup of fair-trade coffee or as large as a 30-acre radical homesteadclick here to continue reading my review of The Nation Guide to the Nation on the Contemporary Literature website…

Life: The Sista on Skis

shawna skiing VailNo insanely crazy adventures to report this week. I’ve basically been reading a lot and skiing so much that the dishes are piling up, and I’m grossed out by my apartment (clothes thrown on floor, bed unmade, etc). The snow hasn’t even been that great–nothing new now in five days–but I’ve had good friends to keep me company on the slopes. The Sister (pictured, at right) was a great weekend companion, and one of my coworkers convinced me to spend my first morning in the park. Riding skis in the terrain park was a first for me…all sorts of new ways to get smashed up, including jumps, boxes, and rails. It’s supposed to snow tonight, so I’ve got to get in some yoga and get a good night’s sleep. Just one more photo to share today…The Sister and I in Vail’s back bowls:

Shawna and Traci in Vail

Happy day!

Literature: Things I’ve Been Silent About

“…the past comes to us, not neatly but like a knife, always unexpected. And it comes in fragments.”
-Azar Nafisi, in Things I’ve Been Silent About

Things I've Been Silent AboutTitle: Things I’ve Been Silent About // Author: Azar Nafisi // Publisher: Random House // December 30, 2008 // 368 p.

What makes a book good? I don’t know if there can be a universal answer to such a question, but—in two words—I like a book to be transporting and mind-blowing. I like books to take me places I’ve never been (or take me somewhere I’ll never be able to go, such as inside the mind of a teenager like Holden Caulfield), and I usually like to learn something in the process. Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2003) was both of these things, and I eagerly anticipated reading her latest: Things I’ve Been Silent About. This book wasn’t quite as transporting or mind-blowing as her previous, but it still dislodged me from my comfort zone and made me think about politics, censorship, family relations…and ultimately the nature of love. The book centers on Nafisi’s family stories, but references to Persian literary classics are sprinkled throughout, much in the way that Western literary classics are in Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Leave a comment to let me know what you think about the book…or just let me know what you look for in a good book, in general!

Azar Nafisi’s Things I’ve Been Silent About takes off like a tumbleweed and then hits with the emotional impact of a boulder. It’s fragmented and flighty at first, but the book gains momentum as family stories morph into significant cultural ruminations. And – as one might expect from this author – a single, important idea is threaded throughout: Literature savesclick here to continue reading from my review of this book in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News…

Landscape: Catherland, Nebraska

“…more than anything else I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…”
–from Willa Cather’s My Antonia

nebraska skyA few weeks ago, I took a road trip to…drum roll, please…Nebraska. It was my birthday, and I wanted to do something wild and crazy, but instead I logged more than 1,000 miles driving across the prairie. I had plans to meet a friend in Kearney and go to a metal concert—all good—but I also jumped at the chance to check out Willa Cather’s stomping grounds in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Six of Cather’s novels are set in Red Cloud, which is the model for Black Hawk in My Antonia. The real Red Cloud has a population of 1,131 (2000 census), and I discovered that not much goes on in a town of this number.

Red Cloud Nebraska

Red Cloud has a post office, a general store, a hardware store, a gas station, a steak house, a bowling alley, and—strangely—a Subway sandwich joint. As there are no hotels nearby, I consulted the Red Cloud website and decided to stay at a bed and breakfast called Cather’s Retreat, a Queen Anne Victorian style home that the Cather family once lived in.


Red Cloud was wickedly cold, and I woke up in the middle of the night to feel the house pulsing in the wind. Cather’s Retreat is the kind of place I’d like to go back to some winter when I have nothing else to do but curl up in bed with a good book and a pot of tea. I understood what Cather meant when she said in My Antonia: “Winter comes down savagely over a little town on the prairie. The wind that sweeps in from the open country strips away all the leafy screens that hide one yard from another in the summer, and the houses seen to draw closer together.”


A few more quotes and photos from the road: Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out.


As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

Quotes from Willa Cather’s My Antonia (1918), published by Houghton Mifflin.

Life: True Love

Snowy Van HelloThe winter in Colorado is no time for driving a 1970 Volkswagen van. Unfortunately. My van—The Old Lady—makes a good summer road trip, but the rust holes on her undersides don’t do so well with melting snow. I put down a bathmat on the driver’s side floor to keep water from coming in when it rains, but having iced-over feet in a vehicle without a heater is just plain unsafe, and no fun. The snow banks started accumulating around my apartment in early November, and I knew then that I’d have to find The Old Lady a winter home before neighbors started complaining about an abandoned vehicle. I started looking into storage units—or even an outdoor parking space—but this is the Vail Valley, and I soon realized that paying to park a vehicle around here is only for those who can afford second homes. I contemplated parking her in the Vail-Eagle airport’s 30-day free parking, but then there was a rash of thefts from parked vehicles, and I started second-guessing that option. Finally, a friend who lives in Leadville offered to let me park her for the winter on his property. So, there The Old Lady sits under a heap of snow in Leadville, Colorado: altitude 10,152 feet. I drove up the pass last week to make sure she still started. And while I shoveled mounds of snow off the tarp I’d tossed over her top, she purred in her lovely VW van way, reminding me of warmer days, of slow-going road trips, and adventures that have nothing to do with snow.

Literature: Hurry Down Sunshine

Hurry Down SunshineTitle: Hurry Down Sunshine // Author: Michael Greenberg // Publisher: Other Press // 2008 // 240 p.

I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar a few weeks ago, and maybe it got me thinking more about mental illness, and maybe that’s why I wanted to read Michael Greenberg’s Hurry Down Sunshine when I saw it on a book list in November. Plath’s book can be read as a thinly veiled fiction of her own experience, but Greenberg’s book–a memoir–is nonfiction through and through. Hurry Down Sunshine focuses on the summer during which Greenberg’s fifteen-year-old daughter had her first manic episode and was committed to a mental hospital. She was eventually diagnosed as “bipolar 1.” Greenberg’s account of his family’s dealings with mental illness is captivating, and even though the author seems to distance himself too far from the subject matter at times, the Hurry Down Sunshine is a book of great emotional force.

In the opening pages of his new memoir, Michael Greenberg says it’s “something of a sacrilege” to speak of mental illness as anything besides the “chemical brain disease that it on one level is.” Nonetheless, in Hurry Down Sunshine, Greenberg takes on the subject from a father’s perspective and tells the story of his fifteen-year-old daughter’s swift mental decline…to continue reading my review of this book on the Contemporary Literature website, click here.