Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A New Vocabulary Word

I don’t think that I had even heard the word “neuroplasticity” six months ago and now it seems to be everywhere – and for good reason. Recent discoveries about our brain are numerous and exciting. Better than any introduction that I could give to this book is a podcast interview with the author Dr. John J. Ratey which you can access at Podcast 095. (Ignore the picture at the top of the website - this really is serious content.) Listen first…and then read. Oh, yes. The title of the book is Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

It turns out that there really may be a fountain of youth of sorts. It may not enable us to live forever but it may be a real life-extender. The name of this elixir: human growth hormone. But the surprise is that you don’t have to get a shot or take a pill. With certain types of exercise you can cause the pituitary gland in your brain to unleash HGH. Why do we want more HGH? Are burning belly fat and pumping up brain volume reasons enough?

There is so much of interest here. Chapters on learning, stress (good and bad), depression, women’s hormonal changes, aging – and they all seem to benefit from exercise. And as the author demonstrates repeatedly, it’s never too late to start. If you already have an exercise program, there is still something here for you, too. There seem to be some real benefits to "mixing it up" and not getting too comfortable in your routine. Jane Brody in her "Personal Health" column in yesterday's New York Times takes it one step further and discusses the benefits of exercise to those who already have ailments like arthritis, MS, Parkinson's or are in pain or have trouble breathing.

Dante already had it right in The Divine Comedy: "A great flame follows a little spark..." - in this case the spark is exercise and the flame is a life lived more fully. In addition to the book, Dr. Ratey has a terrific website.

Monday, April 28, 2008


When I think of one of the most powerful tools of the writer I think of imagery.  Those memories that are called up by vivid sensory descriptions are often the essence of poetry. I am currently reading a future book group selection: Out Stealing Horses by the Norwegian author Per Petterson, beautifully translated  by Anne Born.  It centers around the life of young boy a half a century ago who spends his summers with his father in a small cabin in the countryside by a river in the far eastern woods of Norway.  It is a quiet, compelling book that ensnares you in a family story that grows in complexity, seen through the boy's eyes and later from the grown man's point of view. He visits the memories of his youth, his struggling to understand, to deal with the mysteries of human feeling as he revisits his life later on in a solitary cabin. The sense of an earlier time and place is depicted by carefully detailed descriptions of  the woods, river, neighbors, logging and clearing, fishing and boating among the birch and spruce trees of the North country. The characters are complicated, often taciturn, internal people.

I find myself reading slowly, savoring the author's eloquent descriptions of place: "Between the spruce stumps the grass was growing lush and thick, and behind some bushes further on we saw the horses, only their rumps visible, tails swishing horse flies. We smelled the horses droppings and the wet boggy moss and the sweet, sharp, all-pervading odour of something greater than ourselves and beyond our comprehension: of the forest, which just went on  and on to the north and into Sweden and over the Finland and further on the whole way to Siberia..." His descriptions of sounds:  "The sun was high in the sky now, it was hot under the trees, it smelt hot, and from everywhere in the forest around us there were sounds: of beating wings, of branches bending and twigs breaking, and the scream of a hawk and a hare's last sigh, and the tiny muffled boom each time a bee hit a flower...I took deep breaths through my nose and thought that no matter how life should turn out and however far I travelled I would always remember this place as it was just now, and miss it." My favorite: "I waded a few paces into the stream and stood there listening for the sound of oars, but there was only the water sweeping round my legs, and I could see nothing either up river or down...It was a weird sensation to be standing in the night alone, almost the feeling of light or sound through my body; a soft moon or a peal of bells, with the water surging against my boots, and everything else was so big and so quiet around me, but I did not feel abandoned. I felt singled out. I was perfectly calm, I was the anchor of the world. It was the river that did that to me." The book provides numerous examples of quiet, solitary moments with nature that establish a strong sense of the place where the story unfolds.  Real pleasures await readers about to share this place.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

From the author of "Plainsong"

Kent Haruf wrote the novel "Where You Once Belonged" before he wrote the critically acclaimed, best seller, "Plainsong". I read "Where You Once Belonged" because I remembered how much I had enjoyed the writing and the story in "Plainsong". "Where You Once Belonged" is a story that takes place in the small Colorado town of Holt. The reliable narrator of this story is Pat Arbuckle, son of the owner and editor of the Holt Mercury. Pat tells the story of his childhood friend, the legendary bad boy and ex-football star, Jack Burdette. It is a story of a small town looking for a hero but this hero plays a dirty trick on the town. As the years pass the narrator and the anti-hero grow into men. Their lives and the lives of the people they love become entangled in sad and unavoidable consequences which lead to a stunning climax.

It is a story that propels the reader to turn each page. Kent Haruf is an extraordinary story teller. He writes short, terse sentences------- “It was 1971. It was spring. Jack had been manager of the Co-Elevator for about six months.” But, each sentence and paragraph have a sense of urgency, warning the reader to beware, something is going to happen in this sleepy, small town and it is not going to be good.

This was Kent Haruf’s second novel. It won the Whiting Foundation Award and a citation from the Pen/Hemingway Foundation. His first novel was, "The Tie That Binds". Let’s hope Mr.Haruf will continue to write these beautifully crafted, engrossing stories.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A World of Difference

In November 2001 a young (age 31) Norwegian female journalist arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan. By February 2002 she had made the acquaintance of a prosperous bookseller Sultan Khan and persuaded him to allow her to come to live with his family: 3 generations, 2 wives, 13 people, 4 rooms. This book, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, is the author’s account of the three months that she spent in that household and in Kabul in that tumultuous time period.

Although she is fluent in five languages, Seierstad did not speak the particular dialect of the Khan household. Fortunately three of the family spoke English: Sultan, his 17-year-old son Mansur and his 19-year-old sister Leila. As you would expect then, most of the events in the book involve one of these three. The behavior of Sultan and Mansur is infuriating; and the situation of Leila heartbreaking.

The author successfully introduces much of recent Afghan history and culture – the same history and culture that Khaled Hosseini portrays in A Thousand Splendid Suns but this time it is in a non-fiction context. Having read the Hosseini book first, I found it helpful to review the history again. On the cultural side there are the stories of arranged marriages; preference for male children; the roles of women in girlhood, adulthood and old age; the burka; pilgrimage; local justice and tribal warfare. There are some lighter moments but not many. It makes sense that, when a woman is covered literally head to heel, shoes take on a special role and importance! One of the most dispiriting passages describes the restrictions that some of the women place on themselves. Even though education is made available to them after the defeat of the Taliban, many women are unable to accept and embrace their freedom.

One would like to think that in the six years since the period portrayed in the book things have improved. But I heard on the radio this morning that still today in Kabul the residents have electricity for only a few hours every other day. We are so used to rapid change in our world but we start from a much different place. One can only wonder how long it will take for true change to come to that part of the world.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Red-Tails in Love

In 1998, Marie Winn wrote a wonderful book. It tells a story unfolding over six years in New York's Central Park where she spent time with a faithful band of birdwatchers and nature lovers.  An amazing event occurred early in the book.  A Red-Tail Hawk, named "Pale Male" for his unusual light coloring, appeared, courted and won the heart of a female, named "First Love".  Amazingly these two attempted to build a nest and reproduce in the heart of New York City.  After an initial failure, in the second year they settled in on a posh building at 74th St. and 5th Avenue, building a nest on the 14th floor where some pidgeon- repelling spikes actually held the contents of the nest together. This was unprecedented and a hearty dedicated group of devoted birdwatchers grew, braved cold, sleet, pre-dawn hours to monitor the progress of these lovebirds.  We follow Pale Male's courtship and reproduction with several partners, sharing the loss of First Love and Chocolate, her successor, but also the successful birthing and fledging of two sets of chicks. We learn of Mary Tyler Moore's interest as a resident of the building and Woody Allen's apartment nearby, which becomes a favorite stopping place for the hawks. We become acquainted with a wonderful, somewhat eccentric, lovable group of people who champion their success when the nest is threatened by cleaning crews, pesticide poisoned rats, traffic accidents. We learn  of banding programs for injured birds, of laws protecting wildlife in the park, and of the winter and spring migrations of a remarkable range of birds in this crowded urban area. My husband had the book with him when we met the author under the nest on 5th Avenue in 2000. We stop by on our New York trips, to sit on the benches where people look through spotting scopes, binoculars and view film coverage as the birds reside elegantly, high above us. It's a pleasure to wander through the Rambles and other wilder areas of the park on a visit. The next time you're in New York, en route to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  you may want to stop by and salute Pale Male and his current partner, along with the hearty band of his supporters, known as the Regulars.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

An Irish Experience

"The Gathering", by Irish author Anne Enright, was our book group’s choice for March. Anne Enright was born in 1962 in Dublin, she now lives in County Wicklow with her husband and children. She studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia and has written one collection of stories, four novels and one work of non-fiction. Ms. Enright was a television producer and director in Dublin when she suffered a nervous breakdown. She left television and began writing full time in 1993.

"The Gathering" won this year’s Man Booker Prize. It is a family saga about memory: who did what to whom and who remembers the facts clearly and who doesn’t. Veronica Hegarty, one of twelve children raised in a small house in Dublin, is mourning the suicide of her favorite brother, Liam. The reader finds herself in Veronica’s consciousness filled with resentment and guilt. In her grief she turns on her husband, taking long drives in the middle of the night leaving behind her big house in the suburbs, her husband and children. Obsessively, Veronica begins to remember her childhood and what she believes happened in her grandmother Ada’s house when she and Liam were children staying there. The sexual abuse of Liam by Ada’s landlord and old friend, Mr. Nugent, plagues Veronica and leads her to believe that the abuse caused Liam to drink, self destruct and finally to drown himself in the sea.

Our book group saw the novel as one of complete ambiguity. We asked; Did Ada know about the abuse? Did she love or dislike Nugent? What about the abuse itself? Did it happen to Veronica as well? (probably not) Did Nugent abuse Ada’s son, Brendan? Is that why he was institutionalized? To Veronica, Nugent possessed a truly evil, twisted nature. And, Was Liam gay? What about those trips to the police station by Liam’s father? Were they an insinuation that Liam was arrested for some gay, illegal activity? It was all a mystery to Veronica and consequently to the reader. The sex abuse scene itself was written from the eyes of an innocent eight year old girl. Did it really happen? (probably)

We all agreed that Anne Enright writes wonderful, lyrical prose. There was not a lot of physical action in this novel, but there was internal action. All of the emotions, grief, anger, guilt, sadness, and frustration take place in Veronica’s consciousness. It has been called a dark, bleak novel but there are moments of levity and wit. One of our group members wanted to know if we liked the book. Some loved it and some were ambivalent. We all agreed that we liked the ending. One critic wrote: “It has one of the best last sentences of any novel I have ever read.” Veronica thinks, as she anticipates returning by airplane to Dublin and her family, “I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

Food for Thought

There's something seductive about being able to peek behind the curtain and see what's going on backstage. And when the backstage is the kitchen of a famous New York restaurant it's irresistible. That's the story that first made me love Bill Buford. In the New Yorker he wrote about his experience as a 'kitchen slave' in the kitchen of Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant. His humiliations are many – he arrives without his own knives; he is unable to chop his carrots in uniform size; he is loudly chastised by Mario himself when he throws away celery leaves (that's where the best flavor is). Buford describes all this with such humor and humility that I was immediately hooked. From then on I scanned the table of contents of each New Yorker looking for more. His story of lugging home a whole pig (not a piglet but a full grown beast) and butchering it in his small New York apartment was hilarious. When he is finally promoted to the pasta station he describes the intricacies of 'belly button' pasta, as well the incredibly high pressure life of a line cook in the soap opera world of a restaurant kitchen. I loved it. I was peeking into a behind-the-scenes world, but I didn't have to worry about being scalded, stabbed or yelled at.

These adventures and many more can now be found in Buford's book Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. In addition to his restaurant adventures, Buford writes about the back story of Batali's rise to super stardom, and, as the title suggests, his time spent in a tiny village in Tuscany working for a famous butcher. Buford's passion for food and cooking is what makes his writing so engaging. It will leave you satisfied but hungry for more.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Unintended Consequences

This is not a book to read while taking public transportation or in any other circumstance in which laughing out loud would be an embarrassment. A description of the book cannot begin to convey the enjoyment that lies in store. The book is small (literally, 5 x 7) and short (120 pages, practically double-spaced) – really two hours max if you are a slow reader as I am. But – to the point.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett tells the story of a fictionalized Queen of England who, in pursuit of her corgis, strays into a traveling bookmobile and the rest, as they say, is history. Or in this case, reading. Aided and abetted by a member of the kitchen staff, the Queen gives sway to a hitherto undeveloped passion for reading with unanticipated (her prime minister would say untoward) consequences. There are many literary references to authors and books (some familiar, others not) including a fictionalized meeting with Alice Munro; some insights into the life of a monarch; and some very profound observations about the delight, the purpose and value of reading. "Can there be a greater pleasure...than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two, but at least a dozen."

I wonder if the real Queen of England finds this book so enjoyable. I guarantee that you as a lover of reading will.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor has been aptly described as a "Lutheran Woody Allen." Aspects of his wry, affectionately mocking humor and his ability to represent the good hearted midwestern people of my childhood makes me smile in recognition and memory.  It was unseemly to brag, important to do good works, unthinkable not to bring a tuna hotdish to the neighbors in a crisis. My father was a choir director for 26 years, so I share Keillor's love of harmonizing and singing with choruses and choirs.  He is a masterful storyteller, and I've seen him sit on a stage for almost 2 hours weaving his way through a tale without notes, then remarkably coming back to a cohesive conclusion.  A complex, odd, painfully shy man of few words in person, his literary gifts and public radio persona provide a sharp contrast. He has written at least 9 books, but I find that his narratives are a better listened to aloud than read in private. 

Keillor has kept the art of storytelling and the oral tradition alive, according to many.  There are now numerous storytelling festivals in the country, often a delight to attend. He makes you think of the importance of sharing family stories and "psychobiographies" of family members while you can.  But what I particularly admire is that Keillor has become a vocal champion of poetry. He writes and hosts the Writer's Almanac, a brief NPR spot in which he pays tribute to writers and poets on the birthdays, ending with wonderful poems each day.  He has introduced and selected poems for two books which I highly recommend, Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times.  The first book is dedicated "To all the English teachers, especially the great ones." It includes poems by categories such as "a day" or "music" or "lovers". 

Good Poems for Hard Times is a particular gem. It includes sonnets but also moving contemporary poems around weddings, war, disappointment, loss, family issues, etc.  Copyright laws do not allow permission to print them but Booklist says "Keillor's taste is excellent...He knows good poetry."  The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans says  "If I could choose only one book to give every inhabitant of post-Katrina New Orleans, it would be Garrison Keillor's remarkable and wide-ranging collection of Good Poems for Hard Times. What a lovely, consoling book, perfect reading for these days when everyone is struggling with something...the 185 poems in this  collection do help."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Voice from Vietnam

After reading Tim O’Brien’s “In The Lake Of The Woods” I wasn’t sure I wanted to read another book he had written. I found the ending of the book too disturbing and one I cannot forget. But my daughter told me, more than once, that “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien was her favorite novel. When I purchased the book, the salesclerk at the counter told me it was his favorite book. So I was very curious to see why these twentysomething readers loved this novel.

“The Things They Carried” is a collection of 22 related chapters/stories about a fictionalized Tim O’Brien’s tour of Vietnam. The chapters have reappearing characters who were all part of the unit that Tim O’Brien was assigned to in Vietnam in the late 1960’s, but the names and the exact events have been changed. These stories are Tim O’Brien’s meditations on the war and his memories of what happened there so long ago. The “things they carried” initially refers to the physical things the young soldiers carried; love letters, can openers, pocket knives, dog tags, gum, candy, C rations, water, a bible, photos, anything that meant something to them. But, after the tangible things they carried, Tim O’Brien begins to remember the intangible things his fellow soldiers carried; the fears, the desires, the memories, the dreams. The line between fact and fiction becomes blurred as Tim O’Brien relates the horror of this war in these stories written in an almost poetic prose. You feel like you are there in that god-forsaken country experiencing the living and the death of these soldiers. And although this book is essentially a work of fiction, Tim O’Brien has made it real. And, as hard as it is at times to read, it is a novel that will stay with you for a long time. It has been acclaimed as the most significant work of fiction to come out of the Vietnam War. I am happy that a generation of young men and women today have read and loved this book because it is a beautifully written and important novel about a war that is often forgotten.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Going Backwards

My knowledge of author Nick Hornby comes not from his novels but from the movie adaptations of them. My favorite is “High Fidelity”, but I also enjoyed “About a Boy” and both the English and American versions of “Fever Pitch”. So I decided it was time to try one of his novels – How To Be Good.. My first surprise came in Chapter 1 – the main character is a woman. In the films Hornby's heroes are witty and self-deprecating, and they are most definitely male. As played by John Cusack, Hugh Grant, Jimmy Fallon and Colin Firth (playing a Bridget Jones's Diary kind of guy, not the steamy Mr. Darcy), they are charming and funny, but they don't know much about women. So how would Hornby's voice sound in a woman? Well, Katie Carr is not exactly a girly girl. She's a hard working GP with two children and a curmudgeonly under-employed husband. She considers herself to be a good person, but in the opening sentence of the book she calls her husband on her cell phone from a car park and says she wants a divorce.. In the next scene she hops into bed with a man she knows only casually. Not your standard definition of “good”.

Kate's husband doesn't exactly fit the “good” definition either. He's a selfish, sarcastic grouch who writes a newspaper column called "The Angriest Man in Holloway”. But then, just when he's about to throw Kate out of the house (he finds out about the affair), he meets a guru/faith healer/whatever called GoodNews and experiences a transformation. How would you react if your spouse of 20+ years suddenly had a complete personality change? What if he transformed himself into a “good” person. And I mean REALLY good. As in, “Let's house a homeless teenager and ask our neighbors to do the same” good. That's the question Hornby asks, and Kate struggles mightily with issues it raises about her marriage, her love of her children, her own selfishness. Sounds like a serious book, and it is in some ways, but it is also very funny and thought provoking. Want to know more about Nick Hornby? Visit his website at

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"...with a little help from my friends"

Once a year the San Francisco chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO-SF) has an awards luncheon to honor two local women entrepreneurs. The keynote speakers at last year’s luncheon were two of the four co-authors of This is Not the Life I Ordered. This book will have special resonance with women in the San Francisco Bay Area but I think it will also speak to the hearts of women everywhere who have faced challenges either financial, marital and/or personal .

The two speakers were Jackie Speier and Jan Yanehiro. You may remember Jackie Speier as having been shot five times and left for dead on the tarmac in Guyana where she was investigating the People’s Temple. Do you remember that her husband died from an automobile accident when she was pregnant with their second child? Do you remember that five weeks later she had to sell her home because her husband had procrastinated too long in paying the premium on his life insurance policy? Each of the other three authors faced similar challenges…and today each is successful in her own way. How did they do it?

They will say that it was finding each other and forming their “kitchen table” group to meet monthly over the course of ten years, share their struggles and offer each other needed support. This book is the result of those conversations around the kitchen table. It includes some of the recommendations your may have heard before such as keeping a journal and practicing gratitude. There are exercises for the journal and questions for discussion around the table. There is a lot of inspiration, motivation and wisdom here. The book is filled with quotations from women well-known and not so well-known. For me, for whom the glass is almost always three-quarters empty, I found words by Pearl S. Buck especially pointed: “You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come into contact with a new idea.”

But I think the most important message if the book is: Don’t wait until you need the support of your kitchen roundtable to start one. If you don’t have a group of friends with whom you can share your struggles, start to build one. If you have such a group but maybe you don’t see each other that often, try to start getting together on a regular basis. If your life seems to be in good shape at the moment, look around and see if there is someone else in need of your support. We are all in this life together and this book can be a valuable companion!

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Pulitzer Prize Pleasure

Today was a huge  and joyous day in the life of my good friend and colleague, Ellen and her family.  Her two sons are accomplished journalists. Today her older son, Steve Fainaru, won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his work on Blackwater and other private security firms accused of abuses and excessive force in Iraq.   In addition to reconstructing the shooting of civilians by Blackwater guards, he has written about being embedded with the troops several times during his repeated  trips to Iraq between 2005-2008.  We held our breath each time he was in the dangerous territory, and exhaled upon his safe return, with close calls reported later or not at all. 

In a painful, emotionally contradictory moment, Steve received the call on Friday that he had won the Pulitzer, while attending the funeral of an American contractor he knew well who was kidnapped and killed shortly after Steve's departure from a trip to Iraq. Steve is passionate about the stories that need to be told about the war, the personal toll, personal loyalties, as well as disasters and the jarring cognitive dissonance experienced while in Iraq. 

Originally a sports journalist, like his younger brother Mark Fainaru-Wada ( Game of Shadows, about the BALCO scandal), he has written extensively about baseball. His book, The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream was published in 2001. Stories looking at the psychological make up of a campus shooter, and other character based articles followed. And then the war erupted. 

The Australian and American contractors  whose remains were recently found, feature significantly in his upcoming book, tentatively called Big Boy Rules: In the Company of America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq. You can access the Washington Post on-line, enter his name and register (free) in order to read the stories he has recently written. Although the war is a topic we Americans avoid, whether in movies or in the press, it is information that must be brought to our attention.  I'm grateful we have committed and talented reporters like Steve to shine a light on those dark places.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Amazing Strength of the Human Spirit

On December 8, 1995 Jean-Dominique Bauby the 43 year old editor-in-chief of the French version of “Elle” magazine suffered a cerebrovascular accident or massive stroke. Due to the modern advances of medicine, he survived in a state that is called “locked in syndrome”. He was paralyzed from head to toe with his mind intact. Jean-Dominique could blink his left eyelid and it was his only means of communication.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is the amazing memoir that Jean-Dominique Bauby “wrote” while he lay in Room 119 of the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer on the French Channel coast. He describes his state as that of being in a “diving bell”. A diving bell, also known as a wet bell, is a cable-suspended airtight chamber used by divers. As he wakes in the morning and stretches (moving only a fraction of an inch) he writes, “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly”.
What Mr. Bauby does in this “locked in syndrome” is compose his thoughts, his memories, and his fantasies into a story. His speech therapist, at the hospital, has enabled him to set up a code in which the alphabet is arranged in the order of a letter’s frequency of use. He relates that, “It is a simple enough system where a reader reads off the alphabet until, with a blink of my eye, I stop you at the letter to be noted……until you have a whole word.” But the system doesn’t work for all visitors because of “nervousness, impatience or obtuseness”. It did work for his publisher’s emissary who took dictation letter by letter until this beautiful book was completed. A book written in French and translated to English by Jeremy Leggatt. Each sentence is carefully constructed and edited by Jean-Dominique in his head. The result is, his poignant thoughts on his stroke, his career, his family and friends and his life as it was and as it is. It is sad, but not maudlin because he is very funny and often rightly indignant at the incompetence of the medical staff that cares for him day after day.

“The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” is an amazing tribute to man who was not willing to be left to die. His spirit, his strength, his intelligence and his courage come through on every page. He had an amazing life before his “accident” and he treasures the memories of that life and shares them in a beautiful memoir. Jean-Dominique died two days after the book was published. The book was made into a film that was nominated, in the United States, in 2007, for best foreign film.
I loved reading this book and I look forward to seeing how they made this moving, logistically complicated story into a movie.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Fresh Air

I admit it – I'm a “Fresh Air” junkie. It certainly helps that I have four chances to listen to the show every day (1:00 pm and 7:00 pm on KQED; 9:00 am and 6:00 pm on KALW). I can remember several miserable evening commutes from the East Bay where I happily listened to the same show twice. Over more than 25 years the show has had an incredible list of guests – writers, musicians, actors, politicians. But the secret to the show's success is its host – Terry Gross. She can't possibly have read every book, seen every movie, listened to every album when she interviews her guests. But it certainly sounds like she has. She is the rare interviewer who can ask insightful – even probing – questions, and then get out of the way and let her guest answer. So I was interested in reading her book All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists . In the first section of the book Gross talks about her interview philosophy and tells some great stories about interviews that took unexpected turns. She describes her now famous encounters with Bill O'Reilly and Gene Simmons. But did you know that Peter Boyle walked out in protest when she innocently asked him about his experience as a Christian Brother? The main portion of the book is Terry's selection of favorite interviews with artists, prefaced with brief comments. No doubt many of her guests were on press tours flogging their latest book, movie or album. But she always takes the interview in a different, more interesting direction. Sometimes the guests are annoyed or flustered by this, but more often they seem to enjoy answering questions they weren't expecting. But as much as I liked reading this book, I have to admit that I like listening to Fresh Air more. If you'd like to sample a few, visit Enjoy!