The Submission, by Amy Waldman

I’ve just finished reading The Submission, a novel by Amy Waldman. It was one of the most powerful books I’ve read lately.

It begins as a jury is picking the winner of an anonymous competition to design the memorial at Ground Zero in New York City. Primarily at the urging of one member—who had lost her husband in the September 11 attack—the jury settles on a garden design. However, when the name of architect who submitted the winning design is revealed, it turns out he’s Muslim. An American, yes, but also Muslim, and that revelation sends the jury—and the city and the nation—into a dizzying controversy that might have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.

Now, though, after the “mosque at Ground Zero” flap from 2010, it’s all too imaginable.  If you remember the sickening circus around that story, this book will be completely familiar to you. For a refresher, and if you have a strong stomach, check out this bit of bigoted garbage from two years ago.

(For my part—even though the proposed “mosque at Ground Zero” was neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero—I think that Ground Zero would be a great place for a mosque. Right next to a temple and a Christian church. And hey, throw in a library, a bar and a gym: something for just about everybody, and let’s get over these silly divisions. But maybe that’s just me.)

Really, folks. There are billions of Muslims in the world. And 99.999 percent of them—an understatement, no doubt—are not focused on jihad against America. It’s only the crazies who hijack planes and fly them into buildings. And they do it because they’re crazy, not because they’re Muslims.

Anyway, Waldman brilliantly captures what can happen when you mix anti-Muslim paranoia with sensationalist tabloid media. I highly recommend this book.

The Yellow Cap

Note: When written, this was one of a series of posts describing the pictures that appear in the blog header. However, I’ve since changed the design of the blog, and hence, the pictures are different. Nothin’ stoppin’ you from reading the posts, though; previous posts are here and here and here;.

Admit it. You really, really want to push that cap out of the way and run your fingers through that thick, luxurious hair that you just know is hiding underneath.

But, your fantasies aside, what I really want to talk about today is the cap itself. You probably can’t read it—white type on yellow fabric in a small picture may not be the ideal for legibility—but if you could, you’d see that it came from Cafe Pasqual’s, and, in smaller type, Santa Fe, N.M.

Pasqual’s is a restaurant like no other. It’s a tiny place, just a block or so from The Plaza in downtown Santa Fe. There are a few pictures here (the good interior shot was stolen from their Web site), but pictures, and even the menu, can only go so far to describing the place. I find it hard enough to describe Santa Fe, let alone Pasqual’s.

Maybe the easiest way to think of it is as a 21st century hippie hangout. It has that free-wheeling, easy going feel to it; a great place  to go and be organic for a while.

In the middle of the restaurant is a “community table,” where you can sit if you feel like taking a chance on a dining partner. There, you’ll be placed next to whoever else happens to be sitting at the table that day. An interesting idea, but we haven’t tried it yet.

The one drawback to Pasqual’s is that it’s a bit pricey. But the food is innovative and amazing. We’ve been there twice now, both times for breakfast. The first time, I ordered the Durango Omelet, and it ranks up there with the best breakfasts I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant. Ham, Jack cheese, scallions, guacamole and more under that delicious red sauce. Incredible.

The second time there I was feeling adventurous, so got the craziest thing I could find on the menu; the

Oh … hey, let’s maybe keep that cap on after all, OK?

Huevos Motuleños. It turned out to be a little too adventurous for me, with those peas and sauteed bananas … but still, it was interesting. And with the Mexican hot chocolate on the side, it was still a great meal. It’s hard not to enjoy a breakfast in that fun and festive restaurant.

It’s the kind of place that moves you to purchase a yellow cap on your way out the door. Which brings me back to the picture at the top. I had Jean snap it while we were at a rest stop on the High Road to Taos, just hours after that first meal at Pasqual’s. That setting, with the evergreen behind me and the hills in the distance; it’s just about my favorite picture of myself. Now, the High Road to Taos; that’s another story…

Reading List, May 2012: My Last—And Next—Five Books

Here we go with the latest “reading list” post, representing the last five books I’ve read. This one took a little longer than the last installment, only because I’ve been kinda busy with work, and I got bogged down a little in the science of No. 3. Still, five books in less than four months is a lot quicker than usual for me

1) Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott. Years ago, I read and enjoyed her Bird By Bird, a book about writing. This one, however, is more about religious faith and her journey to Christianity . I liked it, but found it a little too much; everything that happened, every minor coincidence, was, for Lamott, evidence of God’s plans for her. I think there are two types of people; those who see a beautiful sunrise and see evidence of the glory of God’s creation, and those who say, “Wow, what a beautiful sunrise.” She tends toward the former, I toward the latter. Still, it was an enjoyable read.

2) To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It’s embarrassing that I lived for more than 52 years in this country without reading this book. My kids have now all read it in high school. (I suppose it’s possible it was assigned at some point for me and I didn’t read it, but I don’t think so.) Anyway this is one to read in high school, and again in college … and maybe again every few years after that. I loved this book.

As an editor, I guess I’m sort of a picky reader; I sometimes get hung up on little language things that don’t bother other people at all. That said, I found this book just about perfect. I particularly liked the characterization; the kids were a lot smarter than average kids, of course, and yet there were still many things about the world that they didn’t understand, that were revealed to them over the course of the story, and it was all just right. Scout’s voice was pitch-perfect throughout.

3) Merchants Of Doubt: How A Handful Of Scientists Obscured The Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke To Global Warming, by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes. The title here pretty much gives away the plot, but it’s definitely worth reading. It begins with the “tobacco doctors” who, at the bidding of the big tobacco companies, testified before Congress to raise doubts about whether cigarette smoking is really all that harmful. The hazards were well-known in the medical and scientific community, and were pretty much “settled science,” although, as the authors of this book point out, science is never really “settled”; the nature of the discipline is to be always asking questions, always exploring. The Tobacco Doctors exploited this by putting out very narrow studies that seemed to call the previous body of work into question; for example, other factors that could be the cause of the increased cancer rates among smokers. These studies didn’t go through the same kind of rigorous peer review that previous studies had, and therefore wouldn’t be considered “scientific,” but that didn’t stop the tobacco doctors from finding friendly media—think The Wall Street Journal—to push their propaganda. American journalism and, really, society as a whole, is always looking for “the other side of the story,” to present a “balanced” view of an issue, so the Tobacco Doctors were able to push the idea that there’s “controversy” about it. And controversy can lead to doubt, which can give industry-friendly politicians cover to avoid acting on a critical issue.

It was smoking then; later it was nuclear winter, then secondhand smoke, then the ozone hole, and now, of course, climate change. There’s no “debate” about climate change among scientists now, but a few corporate-backed faux researchers—actually some of them the same people who worked for the tobacco companies—have been able to keep alive the perception of controversy by using the same methods.

A few generations from now, after the ice caps have melted and we’ve spent trillions of dollars trying to keep the rising oceans at bay, our grandchildren will wonder why we were so gullible.

4) The Art Of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. This novel popped up on all of the “Best of the Year” lists for last year. Having read it, I can see why. It’s the story of a gifted young shortstop who plays for a small Midwestern college (cool!), and seems destined to be one of the best defensive shortstops ever. But then one day one of his throws to first base inexplicably goes awry and severely injures one of his teammates. The aftermath of that play makes up the bulk of the book, and it’s an exquisitely plotted and beautifully written story. Easy to read, too; I managed to finish this book in less than the two-week checkout from the library, a real rarity for me.

If you have read it and you have an e-reader, you can get Vanity Fair’s How A Book Is Born: The Making of The Art Of Fielding. It’s a $1.99 Kindle Single about the behind-the-scenes machinations that it takes to get a book published. It was OK, but I think it promises more than it delivers.

5) Troubled Waters: 30 Years In The Barge Business, by Jack Lambert. All right, this was as much for work as for play, as it’s all about the industry I cover in my day job, and my own magazine is getting ready to do its own memoir, celebrating 125 years in business. This little (106 pages, including almost 30 pages of photographs) book covers what are perhaps the most interesting three decades of the barge industry, including the growth in the 1960s, the booming ’70s, and the bust in the ’80s. The author ran one of the barge lines that fell victim to the bust, and spares no opinions about what went wrong. It’s an interesting little read. You won’t find this little book on Amazon, but it’s published by a small publisher called Riverwise in Winona, Minn.

Crystal Ball Time

OK, that’s the last five. Here, I traditionally offer a prospective outline of the  next five books I’ll read, but it’s all a little more up in the air this time. But, based on what’s stacked on the table next to my bed, on my iPad and on my library request list, here’s a wild guess:

•   The Submission, by Amy Waldman

•   Stan Musual: An American Life, by George Vescey.

•   Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

•   The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve it, by Neal Bascomb

•   Light In August, by William Faulkner

See you at the library!

Out Of The Trees

Your city may have an ocean. It may have mountains. It may have an NBA franchise, or even a Major League Soccer team. It may have real subways. It may have a happily integrated population and a vibrant downtown nightlife. But unless your city is my city, it doesn’t have an Arch. Or at least not one as grand as the Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the St. Louis riverfront.

At 630 feet tall, the Gateway Arch is supposedly the tallest man-made monument in America, and the tallest stainless-steel monument in the world (these facts according to Wikipedia, which has more than you’ll ever want to know about the history of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial). True, it is tall—the tallest structure in Missouri, in fact—but more importantly, it’s beautiful. It’s basically a long, triangular tube of stainless steel, shaped into a graceful centenary curve.

You can ride to the top and get a great view of the city and the Mississippi River, but, for me, the Arch is best appreciated from the ground. It rises out of a hill that itself rises from the river, and stands benevolently watching over the city. Its surface is stainless steel, shiny enough to reflect the light, but also rough enough to scatter the light and make the sunrise and sunset particularly spectacular.

The photograph above is one of my favorites, because it makes it appear that the Arch has sprouted out of the forest, with nothing else man-made visible. The picture was taken from Eads Bridge, not far from Memorial Drive, while the bridge is still over land. That vantage point also works vertically, as you’ll see below.

Anyway, the Arch is one of my favorite photographic subjects. Below are a few more shots I’ve taken over the years. (You know the drill: click on the thumbnails for a better view.) Hope you like ’em.