29 January, 2010


Ghosts of my fingers linger on the faux glass a moment, then fade. I smile at the chill. The temperature outside is low, but not yet hat-worthy. Good thing; I don't care for hats. Besides, after the week I've had, the wind on my scalp will soothe my overheated gray matter.

I have had cellmates criticize my weather-assessment method. With the Weather Channel just a couple of button-presses away, they think a glance outside and a touch of the cell's tall Lexan window is insufficient. Given the circumstances, it's silly to want to know the current dew point and three-day forecast. Few here own a truly warm coat. There are those, few and far between, who have been locked up since the days when you could order parkas and windbreakers and such. Even so, everyone settles for dressing in a sorry approximation of adequacy for the weather. A tactile check presents me with my binary options: hat/no hat, coat/no coat. It's not quantum mechanics. There aren't even scarves or earmuffs available to complicate the equation.

The charcoal fleece jacket I slide over my shoulders is mainly a symbolic thing — a gesture offering the illusion of choice. At least I can say its pockets are useful. In one I stow my CD player, in the other a couple of discs. My plan for this morning's chilly recreation period involves laying claim to one of the concrete picnic tables at the south end of the yard and watching hawks reel on their thermals for a couple of hours. If the sky offers no hawks, I can always turn my idle observations to the hunched shoulders of shivering loners as they rush along the boulevard. Someone is always en route to somewhere warm, indoors. Comical. As a person who enjoys temperatures below 50°, I am in a minority here, where they revel in the sweltering miasma of summer. The usual frenetic crowds will be absent today, my solitude guaranteed.

There's a piercing beep. From outside the cell comes the indistinct voice on the speaker calling, "Rec!" Everything announced over the speakers here sounds like the trombone-speak of adults on the Peanuts cartoons. It always has. Not even years of daily practice have helped me, nor anyone else, discern what is being said. Intuition and guesswork (and a little luck) lead me and five die-hard handball players toward the door. By the look of things, everyone else is sleeping late.

On the yard, I cross the grass and find the spot I'd been hoping for. I take my seat backward, elbows on the tabletop behind me. It's the sleepers' loss; the morning is a crisp and beautiful one. And with my music to drown out the distant hollow popping of a handball, it feels like it's all mine.

01 January, 2010

The List: Reading Around the World in 2009

My taste in books this past year has been notably inclusive, geographically and culturally speaking. Afghani authors, in particular, are represented prominently, and this makes some sense, given the present reality that regrettably entwines their nation with the US. Political climate notwithstanding, however, there is a universality to human nature that draws me in and fascinates, which is magnified by the otherness of the settings in such books. To learn who we are, we must cast our sights upon others. In them we may see ourselves reflected.

A neighbor in an adjacent cell to mine asked, several months ago, why it was I read so many books about people from different cultures. It wasn't a critical question; he was legitimately curious. I had no ready answer for him except to say that people were sometimes a mystery to me and I endeavored to understand them. Upon reflection, though, I realized: the whole point of reading is to be lifted from our comfort zone and shown a place wholly different from what we know — all without leaving our comfy chair. To always read without this goal misses the point. I am not ashamed to confess the joy I get from escapist hours lost to flipping pages, mind you, but there is so much more to it than entertainment — that crass and artless saccharine for the brain. So much more.

Regular readers of this blog (especially those of you whose queries about this year's reading list started coming in three weeks ago) may note that I have once again failed to meet my annual fifty-title goal. In 2009, I read just forty-one books. Unlike last year, I won't explain it away with specifics. It should suffice to tell you I don't have enough hours in my days. If anyone's got some unused ones lying around, I'm taking up a collection.

* * * * *

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Adam Davies, Goodbye Lemon

Toby Young, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Lyle Estill, Small Is Beautiful: Life in a Local Economy

Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases

Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach

Michael John Carley, Asperger's from the Inside Out: A Supportive and Practical Guide for Anyone with Asperger's Syndrome

Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things

Jesse Ball, Samedi the Deafness

John Elder Robison, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Andrew Miller, Oxygen

Deborah Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution

Marilyn Yalom, The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

Barry Lopez, Resistance

Yasmina Khadra, The Attack

Banana Yoshimoto, Goodbye Tsugumi

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives

Chuck Klosterman, Downtown Owl

Charles Wright and David Lehman (editors), The Best American Poetry 2008

Will Self, The Butt

Nelson George and Daphne Carr (editors), Best Music Writing 2008

William Conescu, Being Written

Davy Rothbart (editor), Requiem for a Paper Bag

Trey Hamburger, Ghosts/Aliens

David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames

William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Dobby Gibson, Skirmish

Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, My Guantánamo Diary

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns

Berhard Schlink, The Reader

Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language

Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark

Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Oscar Wao

Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated

James Frey, A Million Little Pieces

Michael Chabon and Katrina Kenison (editors), The Best American Short Stories 2005