Greetings from Chennai, formerly Madras, where today’s author was partly raised. My friend and I have been here for a few days and are heading out tomorrow. It’s safe to say that the highlight of my stop in Chennai happened last night. My friends and I had a chance to take a private South Indian cooking class in a lovely Brahmin woman’s home, so we got to learn a little more about Tamil culture on a personal level. It was amazing: great food, great spices, great coffee — OMG for real, the coffee — and great conversation! To be honest, it’s been one of the highlights of my entire stay in India! I didn’t want the night to end.
I came to know Padma Lakshmi the way a lot of people did. Lakshmi started her career as a model, has some acting and cookbook credits under her belt, and was once married to Salman Rushdie, but most people probably recognize her as the host of Top Chef on Bravo. Back then, I sometimes wondered about her connection to food, something that she admits to having second-guessed herself about as well. Any doubts about her “food cred” are put to rest in this memoir.
Lakshmi’s mother comes from a conservative Tamil culture, but after failed relationships, including the one with Padma’s father, she moved to New York to start over. Padma was left in India in the care of her grandparents, and once her mother had a stable income, Padma immigrated to the United States as well. She writes of all the new foods she was exposed to, including some interesting concoctions she and her mother came up with since they were Brahmin vegetarians in an area that was decidedly less vegetarian friendly back then.
Greetings from Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta! I’m actually not staying here long at all because my travel plans changed recently; I’m just here on a short layover, and I’ll probably be gone by the time you see this post. I read this book in advance of my trip, though. As you’ll see, this Saroo Brierley’s Calcutta story is so mind-boggling and extraordinary that it’s hard to believe it’s all real!
When he was five years old, Saroo Brierley snuck out with his brother to tag along while his brother cleaned the local rural train station. His brother told him to stay put and wait for him to return, and Saroo fell asleep on a bench. It was night when he awoke, and here was no sign of his brother. Scared and disoriented, Saroo got on a train and fell asleep. When he woke up again, he got off the train, and not recognizing anything, jumped on the next train thinking it would take him back home.
Instead, he arrived in Calcutta and became one of the thousands of children who live on the street. He cried for help, but he didn’t know his full name or the name of his village, so there was little anyone could do to help him. He was more fortunate than most to be taken into an orphanage, and even more fortunate still to be adopted by a loving Australian couple. Still, his past and the questions about what happened to his family haunted him, and with the advent of technology, he got the idea to scour Google Earth to look for landmarks he remembered to track down his village.
Greetings from Darjeeling, India! In a perfect world, there would be no clouds and I’d be able to see four peaks, including Mount Everest, from an observation point a couple of hours away. Unfortunately, I’m high up in the mountains during monsoon season and there are clouds everywhere — a few times a day, I’m even walking right through them. Oh, well…I still can’t complain! I get to drink locally grown Darjeeling tea whenever I want.
In spring of 1996, Jon Krakauer joined Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants, one of the commercial outfitters taking amateur climbers up to Mount Everest. Krakauer is a skilled climber who had always dreamed of climbing Everest, and he wanted to write a feature on commercial expeditions to Everest for Outside magazine. Such companies were still a relatively new and controversial concept at the time. But for those companies trying to entice new customers to pay upwards of $65,000 for the experience, getting featured in Outside was a publicity boon.
Rob Hall was a respected climber with an excellent track record of getting people up and down Everest safely; even other teams looked up to him. That year, after seeing the financial possibilities, many new commercial outfitters set up shop on Everest. Many of those groups tried to summit Everest on May 10, 1996 when the weather window looked best, and Hall’s team was no exception. After a brutal storm, the weather cleared and Hall’s team, Krakauer included, set out to summit Everest under ideal conditions. Many of them made it to the summit, Krakauer included, but a surprise storm rushed in when most of the oxygen-deprived climbers were making their way back down. Several people on the team, including Hall, perished. So did sherpas, guides, and climbers from other expeditions. It was the deadliest event on Everest to date.
Publisher/Year: Harper, 2015
What it is: Microbes make up 90% of our bodies and help keep us healthy. However, with the twentieth century diet, we’ve also seen a rise in twentieth century diseases. Collen, a biologist, conveys some of the latest research charting the roles microbes may play in common modern health issues.
Why I read it: I was interested in learning more about microbiomes.
What I thought: Collen does an excellent job of conveying a lot of information in an accessible and engaging way. The book is fascinating and kind of scary; the chapters that center around autism and childbirth are particularly alarming. That said, she also takes a common sense approach in the advice she gives should you decide to try to mend your own microbiome. And the coolest project I heard about? You can DNA sequence your poop to get a picture of what your gut bacteria looks like. Is it TMI to say I’m all about that idea?
Wit by Margaret Edson
Publisher/Year: Faber & Faber, 1999
What it is: A Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an esteemed poetry professor, Dr. Vivian Bearing, who is dying of ovarian cancer. Feared and revered by her students, she’s known for coldly holding everyone to the highest standards. She agrees to brutal experimental treatments to fight her Stage IV cancer, and as she becomes the subject at the teaching hospital, she’s left to reflect on her own past interactions with people.
Why I read it: I saw the HBO adaptation several years ago and have always wanted to read the original play.
What I thought: Even though I already knew what would happen, this was still an emotionally brutal book for me. I think it hit me even more since I was also listening to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air at the time; the two books have closely related subject matter. Vivian’s reflections and regrets in the way she related to people are poignant; there are parallels in the way she treated her students and the way her doctors are now treating her. As her end draws near, she has to confront many of her values and ideas about the purpose of her life. It’s devastating.
In her mid-thirties, Olivia Laing moved from England to New York City for a relationship, only for the romance to fizzle out shortly after her arrival. Heartbroken and alone in a city of millions of people, she sunk into the realm of intense loneliness that most people try desperately to avoid. Drawing from these experiences, Laing examines the concept of loneliness by focusing on the lives of several artists who themselves were shaped by experiences of profound loneliness and otherness. The end result is a fascinating hodgepodge of memoir, biology, art history, art theory, psychology, and the occasional foray into technology ethics.
There’s a difference between lonely and alone, and some of the artists frequently walked that line. Some were visibly different from their peers while others were painfully shy for a number of reasons. Some had experienced sexual violence and/or suffered from mental illness. Some, like Andy Warhol — née, Andrej Warhola — struggled with multiple insecurities. Born to Slovakian immigrants in 1928, Warhol stuttered, was anxious, and later suffered from skin problems. It is no wonder, then, that he took comfort in being behind a camera and in control of everything.