Friday, July 29, 2011

Are My Favorite Books Still My Favorites?

Yes and no. After re-reading my eight favorite books this month, I would delete one from the list and rearrange a couple of others. But for the most part, I seem to have a pretty good handle on my taste in books.

Here's the books I read, in the order I read them:

8. "The Prime Minister" by Anthony Trollope. As I wrote at the beginning of the month, Trollope is one of my very favorite authors, and I chose this as a representative sample. I dislike the secondary storyline in this book, just as I remembered I would. Overall, I like "Phineas Finn" better, but I hated the last few pages so much I couldn't bear to read the book again.

7. "Persuasion" by Jane Austen. I underestimated this book and would now place this one up a few notches, probably to number 5.

6. "Cass Timberlane" by Sinclair Lewis. I overestimated this book. I was on a Lewis kick maybe five or six years ago, and this was my favorite of the bunch. The book is all about marriages and how they're rarely as straightforward as they look from the outside. As a fairly new wife myself at the time, I found this fascinating. Now I wonder how it would compare to his classics like "Main Street," which I read so long ago I can barely remember the plot. Anyway, I would knock this one off the list, but I'm not sure what I would replace it with.

5. "Emma" by Jane Austen. I watched a movie adaptation of this book a week or two before my 16th birthday, and shortly afterward read the book. Thus began my infatuation with Jane Austen, and so "Emma" will always hold a special place in my heart. It's been a few years since I've read it, however, and I must admit that I found a secondary character or two more tiring than usual. "Emma" drops to number 6 on my list.

4. "Middlemarch" by George Eliot. As near as I can remember, I read this book my freshman or sophomore year in college, and I can specifically recall finishing the epic and thinking that it was one of my favorite books. Fast-forward 11 years and I couldn't name a single character in the book. The first 400 pages or so made me question what I saw in the book, but the last half made up for the tedious parts. What's more, I came away with a greater appreciation of Eliot's skills as a storyteller. This book remains on the list.

3. "Anne of the Island" by L.M. Montgomery. My parents got me "Anne of Green Gables" -- I think for Christmas -- when I was just old enough to think I was too old for such fare. Nevertheless, I fell in love with it and quickly devoured the seven sequels. The set makes up some of the few books I own. "Anne of the Island" is the third book in the series and my favorite. Sure, it doesn't have the depth of "Middlemarch," but rereading it I found more than a few similarities to "Pride and Prejudice." The book also renewed my interest in visiting Prince Edward Island. When you hear of me reading all eight of the Anne books in one month, you'll know a trip is near.

2. "Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami. If you were to play the old Sesame Street game "one of these things does not belong" with this list, this book would be the odd man out. I was introduced to Murakami by a coworker a few years back, and I'm still working my way through all of his books and short stories. "Norwegian Wood" is the best of the bunch. There are more than a few parts that would make me blush if I were forced to read them aloud to my mother, but it's the overall mood of the book and the feeling that it leaves me with when I turn the last page that makes this one of my favorites.

1. "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen. This seesawed with "Emma" as my favorite book shortly after I read it, but I think I can safely say that this has been my favorite book for about 13 years. I can flip to my favorite scenes and find my favorite lines in seconds, and I know the book so well that I feel like I'm almost floating over the text instead of reading it. The book -- no surprise -- was just as good as I remembered.

I've always loved to read, but I think I can truthfully say I've never looked forward to reading quite as much as I did this month. I could hardly wait to put down one terrific book to pick up the next. The exercise has convinced me to re-read more books -- especially the classics I read as a teen and now barely remember. Maybe I'll even find a replacement for the book I kicked off the list.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Al Safa: Good Food Across the Street

Our first meal as resident New Yorkers was at Mazza Plaza.

We had driven all day from Columbus and were about two hours behind schedule thanks to a traffic jam in Pennsylvania. The Saturn was loaded up with a few odds and ends we hadn't sent with the movers a few days before, along with our two full-grown cats. It was October but very hot -- we grabbed lunch at a rest stop but hurriedly ate it in the air-conditioned car; we just couldn't leave the cats in the heated vehicle while we lingered over a big meal.

By the time we unloaded the car and cats into our new, empty apartment and then found a parking spot, it was nearing midnight. We were tired, and now wasn't the time for exploring. The only spot that seemed to be open was across the street: Mazza Plaza. We downed our Middle Eastern food and watched the Cleveland Indians play a post-season game on a small TV propped on what I remember as some kind of large cabinet. The food served its purpose, but I was so worn out that I couldn't have told you whether or not it was good. All that mattered was that it was edible.

Then, a few years ago, Mazza Plaza was suddenly renovated and replaced withAl Safa. The restaurant got not only brighter, but also busier. The menu seemed similar. Paul had been there a handful of times when I was away for dinner or otherwise looking in another direction, but I had been in the building only once since our first night in New York. I couldn't remember if it was Mazza Plaza or Al Safa that second time. Obviously it was time to try it out again.

We went almost by accident. It was July 4th, and our first two choices were unexpectedly closed for the holiday. It was hot, and we didn't feel like walking. Al Safa take-out was a last resort. It was so good I feel a little guilty even writing that last sentence.

I'd been eager to try za'atar, an herb mixture served on a flat round piece of dough about the size of a personal pizza, folded over and eaten. (Other toppings were also available, and I'm anxious to try those, too.) Paul and I also split a small container of delicious hummus and a side of pita bread.

I'm lucky to have such a good, authentic, inexpensive restaurant just steps from our apartment, and anyone can tell that I don't take advantage of it nearly as much as I should. When I go out to eat, I want to go out, and that doesn't include restaurants I can practically see from the living room window. One of the reasons we love this neighborhood, however, is the number of restaurants and storefronts within walking distance. Now I just have to visit them more often.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Beating and Retreating from the NYC Heat

When the living room hit 93 degrees, it was time to turn on the air conditioner.

I had resisted all summer. I not only have a high tolerance for heat, but also get cold extremely easily. When others are comfortable, I'm wrapped up in a blanket. When others are sweating, I'm finally comfortable.

That's generally true, but not the past few days. Central Park hit triple digits, and Newark, New Jersey, even reached 108. The extreme humidity made it feel even hotter.

Our sole air conditioner is in our bedroom, so Paul and I have been camping out. On Friday night, we assembled turkey wraps with cold cuts and lugged our supper and laptop onto the bed and watched a few episodes of the first season of "Fringe" on DVD. Armed with books, newspapers and the laptop, I barely left the room for the next 20 hours.

On Saturday night we were invited to a backyard barbecue whose start time understandably got pushed further and further back as the forecast predicted higher and higher temperatures. By the time we arrived at 7 p.m., the sun had mostly set. Even when the sky was black, however, the heat and stagnant air made most people's drink of choice plain old water.

Sunday was cloudy and "only" in the high 80s in the mid-afternoon, a welcome reprieve. I even ventured into the living room for an hour or so earlier in the afternoon, but the indoor thermometer still read 90 degrees. I retreated into the bedroom.

This is only our fourth summer here, and each year there have been a few terribly hot, uncomfortable days (not so different from Ohio in that respect). Usually we've had a couple by now. The last few days, however, truly have produced record-breaking temperatures. But when it comes right down to it, does 95 really feel all that different from 105? Not when you're holed up in an air conditioned room.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Second Birthday on Broadway: Anything Goes

For my second birthday in a row, Paul presented me with tickets to the Broadway show I most wanted to see at that particular moment. It's a moving target, and Paul has evidently acquired the skill to keep up.

Last year we saw "South Pacific." This year: "Anything Goes."

I'd never seen the musical in any format ever before, but I became vaguely enamored of the Broadway revival when I heard that Sutton Foster was the star. She's been associated with happy memories in my mind since we saw her in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" during our honeymoon in 2003.

She won a Tony for "Millie," and she won one again just last month for her role as Reno Sweeney in "Anything Goes." That, two more Tony Awards (one for Revival of a Musical and another for choreography) and a toe-tapping performance during the Tony telecast replaced "How to Succeed in Business" at the top of my to-see list.

The show met expectations (and probably exceeded Paul's, since it also starred Jessica Walter, aka Lucille from "Arrested Development). I was whistling the title song all the way home.

The theater itself was interesting in one respect. Our seats were in the mezzanine, but we didn't have to climb any staircase. Instead, ticket-holders with stage-level seats had to go down a level.

Last year I lamented that we hadn't been taking advantage of the terrific shows at our fingertips. I've gotten better, but only very slightly -- in the last 12 months, I also saw a play in the fall. Birthday resolution: stop being so complacent.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Shake Shack Birthday

When your birthday falls in the middle of the summer, there's really only one place to celebrate: outdoors.

That's why I chose to mark my 30th birthday Friday at one of New York's most beloved -- and informal -- outdoor food-and-drink spots: the Shake Shack at Madison Square Park.

Paul and a couple of friends got to the Shake Shack before I arrived at 6:30 p.m. with coworkers in tow, and they had already assembled a string of tables and marked our territory by tying red balloons onto the chairs. Other friends -- about 15 or 20 in all -- came and went over the next four hours.

The Shake Shack is known for three things: its milkshakes, its burgers and its long lines. I've experienced all three at one time or another, but none on Friday night. The "A" line for hot food was about an hour long when we arrived (and got even longer later in the night), and a few friends braved the crowd. I had just stuffed myself with birthday cake and cupcakes at work, so I was content with drinks from the much shorter "B" line. Not that I stood in line for the drinks anyway. A birthday girl always has friends to do that for her.

By 10:45 p.m. everyone had left and we had given three of the helium balloons to three young brothers who were probably more excited by the unexpected gift than by their burgers. The Shake Shack was to close in 15 minutes, so Paul and I hurried to get in line for a hot dog (for him), fried mushroom burger (for me) and cheese fries (to share). A lonely red balloon remained on a chair as we walked away to ring out my birthday.

Earlier in the night.

Friday, July 15, 2011

An Older & Wiser & 30-Year-Old Me

Me, six months old, with just as big a mouth

The best advice I got from my high school algebra teacher had nothing to do with math.

I can't remember Mr. Mack's exact words, but I remember the gist very well. Don't continue to yearn for the future, he said. It will come soon enough. Stay in the present.

He must have told our class that something like 15 years ago, and rarely a month goes by when I don't remind myself of the sentiment. Especially this month. Especially this day, my 30th birthday.

They were hard words to obey 15 years ago. I was one of the youngest in my class and couldn't wait to catch up with my very own driver's license and, later, a proper ID to show the bartender.

It's still hard to obey, when I have vacations, trips home, nights out with friends and backyard barbecues to look forward to. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that those are the types of things that get me through the rough patches, whether it's small irritations or bigger problems.

But as I've looked toward my 30th birthday, all I've wanted to do was stay in the present. I know you can't turn back the clock, and I wouldn't want to anyway. Nevertheless, this birthday is a milestone, and not one I particularly wanted to reach. Who does? I was lamenting the approach of this birthday even two years ago.

I certainly wouldn't say I'm depressed. I wouldn't even say I'm old -- the older I get, the further I push back my definition of old. "Old" doesn't come until you're at least 90, I say.

But there's no doubt I am getting older. With that, I hope I'm getting wiser, although I often have my doubts. But maybe that doubt is the first sign that I'm getting wiser after all. Fingers crossed.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Trying Halal Food for the First Time

Halal food carts are just as common as hot dog stands in New York City. In Bay Ridge, they're even more common. I know of at least two halal food carts within walking distance; I don't know of any street stands that sell hot dogs in the neighborhood.

I'd rarely heard the term halal before moving here, and I certainly didn't have a clear understanding about what it meant. Basically, halal food is food deemed permissible under Islamic law.

Paul loves it, especially the chicken on rice, doused with a white sauce (basically mayonnaise). In fact, I can be sure of an empty styrofoam container in the trash can the morning after a night out with the guys.

He's been urging me to try one of the neighborhood halal stands for months, and I finally gave in. He ordered the usual, and I opted for the falafel on rice. Each order was $5, and the portions are large.

Chicken on rice

Falafel on rice

It's common to see men scarf down the food on the side of the street, steps from the stall. We took it home. Paul quickly downed his - no surprise there. I wasn't as impressed. The falafel was good, and you can't mess up rice, but the overabundance of white sauce messed it up for me. I ate half, and Paul happily finished it up for lunch the next day.

I'm glad I tried halal food, and even more so because Paul will now stop bothering me about it. Whether you live in New York or are simply visiting, the halal stands offer a cheap and sturdy meal. Just not for me.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Visit to the High Line, Section 2

Section 2 of the High Line opened in June, and Paul and I wasted no time in getting a look.

The High Line -- a park constructed stories about the streets on old train tracks -- opened to much acclaim in 2009. (You can read about our initial visit to the High Line that summer.) Section 2 doubles the length of the park to about 20 blocks.

We visited on a warm Saturday evening , along with hundreds (if not thousands) of others. The crowds made the High Line not as pleasant as I'm sure it normally would be, but it was still as interesting.

The greenery isn't as prevalent as in, say, Central Park. However, the grasses and flowers are woven into interesting architectural details, like benches, frames and hideaways almost -- but not quite -- hidden from view. Here are some of the highlights:

A full curved bench

A reverse billboard that frames the street below

Taking a rest

New age bird feeders ...

... up close

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Decade of Paul ... and Sushi

I had my first date with Paul and my first taste of sushi 10 years ago today.

It's cliche to say that time flies, but it nevertheless does. A decade ago I had just started my summer job as a page at the Ohio Statehouse, and Paul was just ending his three-year tenure. We overlapped by just two or three weeks, but that was enough time for him to notice I was reading "Catch-22," his favorite book.

Our conversation about books turned into a conversation about his summer living in Ireland and backpacking through Europe. Next up: food. He couldn't believe I had never been to the Waffle House, and he said he was going to take me there. When he called later that night, however, he changed the location of our first date to Haiku, a really nice sushi place that we still enjoy, located in the Short North neighborhood of Columbus.

Two years and two months later, we celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary at Haiku as well.

Friday, July 1, 2011

My 8 Favorite Books: Happy Birthday to Me

Months -- years, I think -- before I turned 25, the Columbus Dispatch ran a list of the 25 books you should read before you turn 25.

I dutifully clipped the list and hung it on the refrigerator. I had already read about half of the books, and I finished the remainder weeks before I celebrated the appropriate birthday.

I love a reading challenge.

And so here we are five years later, in the month of my 30th birthday. I never came across nor looked for a list of 30 books to read before you turn 30, and so I'm doing something a little different:

I'm reading what I consider my eight favorite books to see if they're still my favorite. In all honesty, I'm finishing what I consider my eight favorite books this month -- I've already started no. 8

8. "The Prime Minister" by Anthony Trollope
7. "Persuasion" by Jane Austen
6. "Cass Timberlane" by Sinclair Lewis
5. "Emma" by Jane Austen
4. "Middlemarch" by George Eliot
3. "Anne of the Island" by L.M. Montgomery
2. "Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami
1. "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

I've had this project in mind all year, and I came up with the list a couple of months ago. It was more difficult than I expected. At least one -- "Middlemarch" -- I read about a decade ago. I barely remember the characters' names, let alone the plot. But I remember thinking then that it was one of my favorite books. Will it still hold up?

Two of the books on the list are part of a multi-book series. "Anne of the Island" has always been my favorite of the "Anne of Green Gables" series and was probably my favorite book before I was introduced to Jane Austen when I was 16. "The Prime Minister" was the most difficult choice on the list. When you consider entire bodies of work, Trollope is my second or third favorite author, and every book in the Palliser series is terrific. I chose this as a representative sample.

I've read eight books a month for years -- usually a combination of popular novels, classics and informative (and occasionally boring) non-fiction. I won't be bored this month. I consider that my birthday present to myself.


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