The Oxford Project

This book was amazing. Amazing. I picked it up after dinner on Monday night and I didn’t put it down until I was done.

Basically the Oxford Project is this: Photographer Peter Feldstein moves to the small town of Oxford, IA (he’s an art professor at the University of Iowa) and in 1984 decides to photograph all of the town’s 676 residents. After an exhibit in town, he puts the photographs away and doesn’t think about them for 20 years – at which point he decides to do it again.

The book contains portraits of 150 or so of those residents – along with biographical stories from interviews Stephen Bloom did with the residents. The photos are wonderful and really make you want to read about the people pictured and their lives.

Several things stuck out at me about the book:

Many things about people are immutable – often residents would stand the same way for their portraits 20 years apart without noticing it. So much of who we are as people is shaped by how others see us, but clearly at our core we are all our own person.

Family resemblance is interesting to consider. Both in terms of appearance and in terms of how we live our lives. I think we all think at least a little about the ways in which we are like our families (even if we don’t want to be) and also the ways in which we are profoundly different. When families work, they are a wonderful thing. So many of the people in this book spoke about the joy and strength they get from having so much of their family living nearby.

Bad things shape you. Especially the loss of a child. It was remarkable to me how many people spoke in their interviews about a child who had died – even if that death had occured a long time ago. Having a child die before you never becomes normal or unremarkable.

A small, close-knit community is wonderful. Unless you don’t feel a part of it – and then the closeness of that community makes it even harder to not belong.

This was another Early Reviewer book. I was so excited when I found out that I was getting it and it didn’t disappoint in the slightest.

The Oxford Project


As previously discussed, I love a good mystery. They are my escapist reading – and who can’t use more of that? Also, they are clearly the answer to my “I’m behind in my reading” woes. I can read a mystery in a day or two. More serious stuff, not so much.

Most recently, I read Death of a Gentle Lady by M.C. Beaton. This was the 24th (!) book in the Hamish Macbeth series, one of three series that I read by Beaton (one is written under another name). The MacBeth books are all set in the Scottish highlands and revolve around the village policeman (the aforementioned Hamish Macbeth). They are formulaic: an outsider – with some character flaw – moves to Lochdubh (the village) or it’s surrounding. They get themselves murdered. MacBeth solves the crime, much to the consternation of one of his higher ups who hates him and is always trying to close down his police station. In this case, formulaic is not a criticism. It’s a comfort. Sometimes it’s nice to read something that is familiar. And because the writing and characters are enjoyable, I never find the books boring. Just a pleasant way to spend an evening.

I also recently finished T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton, the 20th book in her alphabet series. I have been reading this series since I was in high school. Possibly even junior high, which is sort of amazing if you think about it. Even more amazing is the fact that I still like them. Sometimes series lose their steam, but the authors keep writing anyway. I feel that way about Patricia Cornwell’s books now – I loved the Kay Scarpetta mysteries to begin with, but now they are just BAD. So kudos to Grafton for still writing a well crafted, enjoyable series mystery so many years down the line. I’m happy to keep reading.

Now if a few more of my favorite authors could just add another mystery to their series this year, I’d achieve my 2008 goal of averaging a book a week in no time.


Two about Food

I’m back on a reading kick, which so far means reading my favorite types of books – mysteries and books about food. They are my total “comfort reading”. More on the mysteries later – now it’s time for food!

The first food book I read in the past week was No Reservations by Anthony Bourdain. I’ve been meaning to read some of his writing for a while, since folks seem to like it, so when I stopped by the library last week to pick up a book for the metro ride home, I thought I would pick up one of his. This was the only book by Bourdain on the shelf at the library, which is why I picked it. I didn’t take a good look at it before I left and I was surprised to find out that it was really more of a photo essay book, than a memoir or book of essays. It was fine, but didn’t give me much of a sense about Bourdain’s writing – although I really enjoy the essay about Beirut, where Bourdain found himself during Israel’s bombing back in 2006. It gave a real sense of what was lost in that bombing and made this event, which had been an abstract thing to me before, very personal.

Yesterday I finished Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China by Jen Lin-Liu, which combined three of my favorite book attributes: writing about food, writing about China, and memoirs. Lin-Liu is a Chinese-American journalist who moved to China in 2000 and eventually decides that she wants to learn how to cook. This book follows her through her course at a Chinese cooking school, studying for her chef exam, and then internships in Chinese restaurants, both small and grand. I found the book enjoyable and the descriptions of food interesting – some sounded delicious, some sounded like I would rather miss them (the restaurant that served the genitals of male animals, for example). I read about Lin-Liu and her book in the Food section of the Post a few weekends ago, and I’m glad I check it out. It made for an enjoyable weekend of reading.

Two about Food