2015 Reading Challenge: “A book that became a movie”—The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

One of my favorite college courses was a film class at Boston University all about the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen like noir — so much, in fact, that I felt the genre’s principles were beaten permanently into all our heads. However, to truly understand noir to the fullest, my professor said one must read Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon. So, that’s exactly what I did.

Thanks for the recommendation, Professor Monk. You did me right.

I really loved this book. From page one, I was hooked. My ex, who loves this genre, once described Falcon as the basis of all hard-boiled detective fiction, and I believe he’s right. The private investigator, the femme fatale, the double-crossers, the jargon — it’s all there.

The premise isn’t clear at first. All we know is that Sam Spade (a P.I. living in San Francisco who serves as our protagonist) and his partner Miles Archer have been asked to shadow a man, for a female client. It all spirals out from there, plot twists reminding the reader that nothing is sacred and that things are never as they seem.

Anyone interested in noir has to read this book, and I think anyone looking for a good mystery would enjoy it too.

Fulfilled “A book that became a movie” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklistm.falcon

217 pages
Alfred A. Knopf
Published: 1929

Up next? I’m still deciding… We shall see.

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2015 Reading Challenge: “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t”—A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Okay, I confess — I never read A Gate at the Stairs, which I was supposed to before arriving on campus at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York freshman year. It was required reading for all first-years, for the purpose of discussion during our freshman seminar courses. The author, Lorrie Moore, was from Glens Falls, New York, just a stone’s throw away.

My freshman seminar of choice, Virtual Republic, was fascinating and taught by one of the kindest professors I ever had, Ron Seyb (picture Stephen Colbert, but sweeter and nerdier, in the best way). Still, I was not inspired to read the book. I have a hunch that not many classmates in my seminar did either, nor most of the kids in the Class of 2015. I knew for sure neither of my roommates did.

It didn’t really matter then, though, because our syllabus was over-scheduled even without a discussion of Moore’s most recent novel. I’m pretty sure many of the other courses’ were as well (they had titles like Heretics & Visionaries, The Federal Reserve: More Money, More Problems, Care of the Heart, Human Dilemmas, What is Noir? and Can Literature Save the Environment? to name a few and to give you an idea of what being a Skidmore first-year is like).

I digress.

About the book: wow. I haven’t been struck so hard by a novel since I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. None of the punishments in this book seemed to fit the crimes. Is redemption disallowed? Is no one spared? I identified with the protagonist, Tassie, so strongly that I surprised myself — except in a very barebones way (Tassie and I both came of age and attended college in a post-9/11 America), we really have little in common.

This book is about growing up in that for the first time, and that I was familiar with. The narrator experiences so many firsts over the course of the story: she is forced to confront race, religion, self-identity, love, sex, terrorism, war, family issues and loss (and all in just 336 pages, the poor girl). She dates a man who is not who he seems. Her brother ships off to join the military after graduating from high school (Class of 2002). Tassie takes a job as a nanny for a family, and these people become the fabric of her life, until the fabric starts to fray and suddenly all that’s left is a pile of string. All the while, she’s still a college student, and has no choice but to soldier on.

It’s wonderful and heartbreaking all at once and I’m glad I delved back into it after letting it fall by the wayside in 2011. Thanks, Skidmore.

51tUOuEjULL
Fulfilled “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

336 pages
Vintage Contemporaries
Published: 2009

Up next? “A book you own but never read” — Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Reading Challenge: ‘A book with nonhuman characters’ — Watership Down by Richard Adams

It would be an understatement to say Watership Down took me way longer to finish than anticipated. If you couldn’t tell from my recent lack of blog posts, I had a hard time getting through this particular part of my reading challenge.

The book was actually quite a delightful read — it just wasn’t a page turner. It’s an adventure novel about a few members of a community who sense an inevitable upheaval, and to avoid it, go out on their own. There was action, but it wasn’t the kind that makes it hard to put the book down. I can see why this novel was a classic when it was first published in 1972. It was groundbreaking, and even today the idea of an action novel starring not just animals, but rabbits seems sort of strange (oh, yeah — the characters are bunnies. They also don’t speak English: they speak Lapine). Another obstacle of this novel is that a lot of the words need translation (there’s a glossary at the back for major terms, lest you forget the definition of a Lapine word from when you read its footnote). “Hrududu” is anything with a motor. “Elil” is any enemy of the rabbits, i.e. a stoat, fox or badger. “Frith” is the sun, and also the rabbits’ God. It seems confusing, but Adams does a good job smoothly injecting these words into the prose. The use of this made-up language isn’t overwhelming, but it’s present enough that it might deter some readers.

I really just loved the characters and their self-awareness. Perhaps because, as the author explains, rabbits rely so heavily on their natural instincts to survive, each character knows his or her strengths and weaknesses and adjusts accordingly to be an asset to the “warren” (their community). Hazel, the protagonist, is a natural-born leader. Fiver can sense danger before anyone else. Bigwig is the strongest and largest and is the best fighter. Blackberry is the cleverest (and so on and so forth). They work together to achieve their goals and combat enemies that threaten their progress. It’s a very through-provoking read, but it takes commitment.

I’d recommend this book to someone looking for a leisurely read or hoping to dive into a classic they may have overlooked. This was one of my dad’s favorites after he read it in the ’70s and while I enjoyed it a lot, I wouldn’t put it in my top ten.

watership downFulfilled “A book with nonhuman characters” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

474 pages
Scribner
Published: 2005

Up next? “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t” — A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Reading Challenge: ‘A memoir’ — The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

I opened this book with only the faintest idea of its contents. Joan Didion, an author whose work I greatly admire and enjoy, wrote The Year of Magical Thinking in 2004. She began shortly after her husband’s sudden death. This much I knew from the summary on the back and what I have heard from folks I know who have read it. I had no idea how Didion would approach this subject — as a journalist, digging into the facts of what killed a man? As a heartbroken widow in shock, trying to understand what had happened by writing words on a page? As a storyteller determined to weave the events together into something somehow palatable? Turns out, Didion did all three.

I enjoyed this memoir because the author perfectly balanced the scientific perspective of loss with its human aspect. She makes textbook language seem interesting, and she spills her heart without laying it on too thick — she’ll occasionally quote a poem or a book to illustrate how she feels, but manages to keep it simple. Didion also develops the key players’ personalities using anecdotes, illuminating stories and little details without exhausting description.

If you’re familiar with Didion’s work, you’ll know what I mean when I say she knows how to put you there. She is a journalist, and as such she knows how to paint a picture for the reader. It’s as if she’s letting you in on a secret with every sentence — one that you are dying to know. Even when she’s describing something as mundane as her driving route to the UCLA Medical Center, you’re hooked. You’re in the car with her as she weaves through Westwood.

Didion takes you with her on her healing journey in the wake of the death of her husband — her best friend, her confidante, her editor — and you feel like you’re healing along with her. It truly was a thoughtful and well-written take on loss and how hard it can be to try to move on. I’d highly recommend this book whether or not you know what it’s like to lose someone close to you.

TheYearOfMagicalThinking

Fulfilled “A memoir” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

227 pages
Knopf
Published: 2005

Up next? “A book with nonhuman characters” — Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Reading Challenge: ‘A funny book’ — Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe

For me, Back to Blood was a bit of a slow burn. It took up until about page 350 for me to feel genuinely hooked. While this is generally inexcusable for a novel – considering most aren’t even that long to begin with – Wolfe kept me interested with his usual wit and his strength of characterization. The protagonist, Nestor Camacho, is unique and endearing in a way that most protagonists aren’t. He’s simple and unsophisticated but he’s self-aware and sweet at the same time, which makes him pretty damn lovable despite some shortcomings. Plus, he’s at the epicenter of every story line (and there are many), which never hurts.

I also liked this book for its social commentary, a classic Wolfe theme. In Back to Blood, he takes on race relations in Miami, a Herculean task for even the most accomplished authors. He handles it well, I think, (even as an old white guy) by tackling it just like he would any other issue. Mostly, the characters – from all different walks of life – do the talking (whether in English, Creole, Spanish or French).

As a journalism major, I also loved the role that John Smith, a heroic “Americano” newspaper reporter, and the Miami Herald played in the story. It was fun to see how the notion of libel and the fear of the publisher getting sued played out in the plot (I won’t say more for fear of spoiling anything).

All in all, I’d recommend this read to anyone with both an interest in Miami and a lot of time on their hands. Some knowledge of journalism and contemporary art wouldn’t hurt either, as both are a common topic of conversation throughout the story. Pretty interesting stuff.

BackToBlood

Fulfilled “A funny book” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

704 pages
Little, Brown and Company
Published: 2012

Up next? “A memoir” — The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

My 2015-16 reading list

Hi everyone, welcome to my journey to complete the 2015 Reading Challenge.

This year, in an effort to read more now that I’m out of school, I’ve decided to make a reading list and stick to it. I realize I’ve entered the game a little late — blame it on senior year, graduation, travel and the beginning of my first job! — so I’m giving myself until Sept. 2016 to get this all done. There’s quite a haul here, including a few 500+ pagers, but I think I’m ready for it. I have loved to read since I was four years old and I’m excited to really dip into some great books this upcoming year.

Since it is quite a lot, and I know that sometimes life gets in the way, I’ve used a few books for two different categories (the ones marked with asterisks, i.e. Go Set a Watchman, Little Women and The Magician’s Nephew). I tried to avoid it when I could but nobody’s perfect right?

I’ve tried to get a mix of classics, culturally relevant books and titles I’ve been meaning to pick up but have never been able to find the time. I also picked books by professors at my alma mater, Boston University (Faith Ed and 13 Hours), and books my parents love (Stoner and Watership Down, to name a couple).

How do I pick an order? I leave it up to chance. I just assigned each book a number based on their order in the table below (Helter Skelter is 1, Wuthering Heights is 2, and so on). Then, I put the numbers into a random number generator and let that do the work.

Here’s to reading!

Side note: my friend Emilie and I are doing this together (some of our picks overlap but most are different), and we changed one or two categories (reading a book by an author with your same initials comes to mind; we couldn’t find any titles that worked for us).

Now reading:

  • A funny book — Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

Next up:

  • A memoir — The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

My list (subject to change, as always… But I hope it stays pretty much the same):

Category Margaret’s pick
A book with more than 500 pages Helter Skelter
A classic romance Wuthering Heights
A book that became a movie The Maltese Falcon
A book published this year Go Set a Watchman*
A book with a number in the title 13 Hours
A book written by someone under 30 The Bell Jar
A book with nonhuman characters Watership Down
A funny book Back to Blood
A book by a female author Little Women*
A mystery or thriller The Big Sleep
A book with a one-word title Stoner
A book of short stories Vampires in the Lemon Grove
A book set in a different country Into Thin Air
A nonfiction book Faith Ed
A popular author’s first book The Sun Also Rises
A book from a fav. author that you haven’t read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
A book a friend recommended The Glass Castle
A Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Executioner’s Song
A book based on a true story Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
A book at the bottom of your to-read list The Awakening
A book your mom loves A Prayer for Owen Meany
A book that scares you The Devil in the White City
A book more than 100 years old The Three Musketeers
A book based entirely on its cover Would You Please Be Quiet, Please
A book you were supposed to read but didn’t A Gate at the Stairs
A memoir The Year of Magical Thinking
A book you can finish in a day Dark Places
A book with antonyms in the title Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
A book set somewhere you want to visit Picnic in Provence
A book that came out the year you were born Trainspotting
A book with bad reviews Go Set a Watchman*
A trilogy The Knife of Never Letting Go
A book you’ve been meaning to re-read Black Mass
A book from your childhood The Magician’s Nephew*
A book with a love triangle Pride and Prejudice
A book set in the future Farenheit 451
A book set in high school Carrie
A book with a color in the title A Clockwork Orange
A book with magic The Magician’s Nephew*
A book your dad loves The Floating Opera
A book by an author you’ve never read before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
A book you own but never read Cat’s Cradle
A book that takes place in your hometown Little Women*
A book that was orig. in a different language The Unbearable Lightness of Being
A book set during Christmas A Christmas Carol
A book considered an American classic On the Road
A play 12 Angry Men
A banned book July’s People
A book based on or turned into a TV Show House of Cards
A book you started but never finished The Human Comedy

My top 10 favorite NYC spots: bars, restaurants and shopping, oh my!

Now that it’s officially fall and with sweater weather upon us, I figured it was time to do a quick round-up of 10 of my favorite New York City spots from my crazy summer.

I worked at a bond rating agency this summer in Midtown East and lived in Murray Hill on Park Avenue between 36th and 37th. While I did spend a majority of my time in that part of the city, I also made sure I ventured far and wide — and by that I mean to the West side, to Brooklyn and to Queens – and picked up a lot of favorites all over the city.

In no particular order and with no disrespect to all the wonderful places I stumbled upon this summer that did not make the cut, here is my NYC Top 10:

1. Pommes Frites East Village, Manhattan

Fries, all day, every day, until the wee hours of the night. Upon arriving at Pommes Frites, you might ask yourself, “is this heaven?” Located in Manhattan’s East Village, one of my favorite neighborhoods, Pommes Frites was often a pit stop on our way home from the bars. Wrapped in a paper cone or tossed in a bag to go, this place is a little slice of Belgium with some serious New York flair. The wall boasts the dozens of differently flavored mayo sides you can pair with your fries (with truffle mayo, rosemary garlic mayo and basil pesto mayo being just some of the highlights). You can also get poutine if you’re feeling zany, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re planning on ever eating again (it is delicious but I was full for about three days). While Pommes Frites isn’t technically heaven, I recommend still making it a holy experience by grabbing your frites to go and eating them across the street on the steps of the neighborhood’s church.

2. Murray’s Cheese Bar West Village, Manhattan

A new complement to the tried-and-true Murray’s Cheese, this West Village eatery is simply beautiful. The counter is marble and the rest of the place has a light, airy feel to it despite its dim lighting. The chairs are fire-engine red, giving it a fashionable, playful look. The menu is amazing: the flights are enough to make any cheese fanatic weep with joy, and the wines are enough to sate any sommelier. I had the burrata one night and just about fainted: it was creamy and delicious and one of the best I’ve ever had. In addition to the gorgeous space and the fantastic menu, Murray’s Cheese Bar is fun without being cutesy and sophisticated without seeming pretentious. You could chat with the bartenders for hours and if that’s not your thing, why not pass the time with some tic-tac-toe on their marble playing board? This place is sure to live a long life as an NYC classic.

3. The Market NYC Greenwich Village, Manhattan

The Market, located downtown, is a dream-come-true for people with limited time and a limited budget. Whether you’re in the market (no pun intended) for a new dress for a party Friday night, some new necklaces, new apartment decorations or just in the mood to shop, this is the place for you. Budding designers and artists converge at The Market to put their goods on display on a rotating basis. Some stay for months and months but some just pass through for a quick stint, so be careful when hemming and hawing over something you really like. I got a one-of-a-kind dress at The Market that I’ve received more compliments on than anything else I’ve ever owned and I wear two pieces of jewelery I bought there every single day. The goods range from simple, printed cotton t-shirts to rings made from vintage typewriter keys (my personal favorite accessory ever). Artists charge reasonable prices and are helpful and friendly to customers. What more could you need?

4. 124 Old Rabbit Club Greenwich Village, Manhattan

As I am a huge sucker for a good gimmick, The Old Rabbit Club on MacDougal Street is one of my favorite bars in New York City. To give you a sense of how much I like the place, I went here on the stroke of midnight on my 21st birthday. Even when you factor in its funky decor, its out-of-this-world beer and wine list and its knowledgeable staff, this bar’s main draw is still its exclusivity — you wouldn’t even know it was there if you were just walking down the street. Located behind a plain black door marked simply with “124” across the very top, you have to know what you’re doing to get in. It’s amazing and I’d recommend it to any craft beer lover or anyone who, like me, loves the idea of a speakeasy.

5. Excellent Dumpling House Chinatown, Manhattan

My roommate Emilie is a self-proclaimed Asian food expert and this is her all-time favorite, located just off the Canal Street subway stop in New York City’s famous Chinatown. The dumplings, as the name suggests, are definitely the highlight. I’ve never had better dumplings in my life and don’t expect to — they come out piping hot and, when paired with EDH’s house sauce mixed and a touch of Sriracha, could probably solve all the world’s problems. Their entrees are delicious too and the service is quick (if not slightly down and dirty). Check out the Excellent Dumpling House to really get a feel for how New York City does Chinese food.

6. A Salt & Battery West Village, Manhattan

Suffering from severe London withdrawal after a semester abroad in Britain, I rooted around NYC to find the Big Apple’s best fish and chips. A Salt & Battery, tucked away on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village, did not disappoint. This bare-bones, no fuss eatery served up exactly what I was craving after a sad farewell to all of London’s pubs. The fish was expertly fried (they don’t serve cod, though, due to the owner’s concerns about overfishing) and came paired with delicious, authentic chips. I usually forwent the chips and just got fried haddock that I promptly slathered with malt vinegar and dipped in A Salt & Battery’s homemade tartar sauce. A Salt & Battery is also located next to a British market that was simply adorable and chock-full of English goodies.

7. La Palapa East Village, Manhattan

This place has the frozen margaritas in the city, hands down. In addition to these fantastic, frosty libations, La Palapa — located in the East Village — whips up amazing spicy steak enchiladas and some great queso dishes. I have spent many nights there with friends sitting outside or near their big, open front facade, which is perfect for warm summer nights when all you want is an icy cocktail. It’s an underrated, simple hidden gem in an area teeming with specialty restaurants and bars of all shapes and sizes. Oh, and did I mention the margaritas…?

8. McSorley’s Old Ale House East Village, Manhattan

Also located in the East Village, McSorley’s Old Ale House is a New York City staple. It’s the oldest bar in Manhattan — it opened its doors in 1854. While I am by no means original in my adoration of the place, I still unabashedly think it’s one of the best bars of all time. The floor is covered in sawdust and the walls are covered in old photographs and presidential memorabilia — what’s not to love? The bartenders, quick and efficient, serve only two things: the light and the dark versions of McSorley’s own beer. I’ve tried both and like the dark better (although they’re both very good). This joint isn’t for the faint of heart, though, so be warned — you’ll be pushed, shoved and drunkenly serenaded, but it’s all part of the charm (and when it’s four beers for $11, who really cares?).

9. BZ Grill Astoria, Queens

Hidden in plain sight in Astoria, Queens, this Greek restaurant reminds me of a lot of the restaurants I visited traveling around Greece this summer. The souvlaki was authentic and delicious and came in big portions. The staff was friendly and it was all very cheap. If BZ Grill wasn’t a trek (by New York standards, at least) from my apartment, I know we would have stopped by a lot more. Astoria is known as the Greek capital of America and it lives up to the stereotype in the best way. I’d heard BZ Grill was good, and it totally lived up to the hype. We sat down outside and took in the surrounding neighborhood as we chowed down on some chicken and some unbelievably good felafel.

10. Sheep Meadow, Central Park Upper West Side, Manhattan

No NYC Top 10 post would be complete without some mention of Central Park. I have spent many mornings laying in the shade in Sheep Meadow, relaxing or reading (or even napping) and thus simply had to include it here. It’s a 15-acre grassy meadow on the West side of the park that lays between 66th and 69th streets. It also boasts nice views of nearby skyscrapers and endless (and I mean ENDLESS) people-watching. Bored of your book? No problem. Look to your left and there’s a pack of elderly men practicing taekwon-do for you to watch. Nodding off during that novel? Easy fix. Listen to that up-and-coming artist strum away on his guitar under a nearby tree. The possibilities are infinite in Central Park and well, hey, isn’t that kind of what New York is all about?