Monday, April 30, 2012

Cancer Awareness Memoirs

A more serious post today but one I felt compelled to put out there. Never know, there might be something in these books that someone going through a tough time really finds comfort in.

How do you slip back into the ordinary world? That was the problem confronting me after cancer, and the old saying, that you should treat each day as if it might be your last, was no help at all. The truth is, it's a nice sentiment, but in practice it doesn't work. If I lived only for the moment, I'd be a very amiable no-account with a perpetual three-day growth on my chin. Trust me, I tried it. People think of my comeback as a triumph, but in the beginning, it was a disaster. When you have lived for an entire year terrified of dying, you feel like you deserve to spend the rest of your days on a permanent vacation. You can't, of course; you have to return to your family, your peers, and your profession. But a part of me didn't want my old life back. 
*Lance Armstrong on surviving cancer 

I don't know that there are too many people left in the world who have not been affected by a cancer diagnosis in some way, either being the patient themselves or a family member / friend of the patient. Cancer has been pretty prevalent in my own life. My grandfather battled different cancers going in and out of remission for most of my life before finally succumbing in 2008. My mother and I have both had cancer "scares" with breast and cervical cancers (meaning it looked like something bad on an initial test but thankfully proved to be nothing dangerous on further tests). It's awful, frightening, infuriating... but between my own experiences and my past work around hospitals and hospice facilities, I am a firm believer in the power of faith, hope and determination. Does it guarantee a perfect outcome? No, not at all. Of course I know nothing is guaranteed. But I have seen plenty of instances where having such faith and determination do wonders to boost the odds of survival and winning back the quality of life one wants and deserves. These books showcase the power of not giving up ...


EVERY SECOND COUNTS & IT'S NOT ABOUT THE BIKE 
both by Olympic Medalist / Cyclist Lance Armstrong




Armstrong wrote It's Not About The Bike first, this being a memoir half about his cycling career, half about his cancer diagnosis and subsequent battle and how each affected every other aspect of his life, relationships, marriage, etc. As with most memoirs, Armstrong also divulges information about his life that isn't all that mainstream -- such as the fact that he's never met or even seen a picture of his biological father. His parents were together but split up soon after Lance's conception. Lance's mom ended up remarrying a man by the name of Terry Armstrong, giving Lance his famous last name but that relationship became strained during Lance's adulthood. It was my impression, while I read this, that this may have what led Lance to develop such a driving, independently minded personality. He doesn't expect help or handouts from anyone. While I certainly respect that, I have to say his tone came off a little "in your face". From page one, I was thinking "why is this guy sounding so defensive to his readers, most of whom he's never going to meet or have to answer to?" But don't let that sway you from hearing his story. He's got some good stuff here. Armstrong even admits in some sections that he may not be the most easy-going, approachable guy all the time. His celebrity persona (you know, the one in all those beer commercials and whatnot) seems pretty chill, and I'm sure he is when he gets to be around his family in his native Austin, Texas, but he's also incredibly serious and focused most of the time. So maybe he's not the biggest social butterfly out there but considering he's taken on and won the world's most difficult and grueling bicycle race in the world 7 FREAKIN' TIMES then yeah, one can understand his tunnel vision tendencies.

the yellow jersey, known as the maillot jaune, identifies the leader 
of the team,did you know the leader is determined after each 
day's race? So each race means the current leader has to prove
 himself with the best time all over again within their own team as
 well as compete against the other teams in the race!
I wonder if Queen's "Under Pressure" is on Lance's iPod :-P


I liked that Lance tried to incorporate humor into his book while talking about such heavy topics. Particularly with his cancer stories, while it may not have been funny at the time, it was a little funny to me how he describes going to a urologist after noticing one of his testicles was, as he described it, the size of an orange! The urologist's response after examining Lance? "This looks a little suspicious." I'm sorry but that's funny in its ridiculousness. I know had I been in a similar situation, my initial response in hearing a doctor say that would be "Really... that's your professional opinion. I drove all the way downtown to your office to hear that... ". And that stellar observation was the start of Lance's battle against testicular cancer. Wondering how he ended up having so many kids after coming out of that hell? He explains that too. I also appreciated how honest he was about everything. Right up front he tells the reader he's not sugar-coating anything and you can either read what he has to say or move on to another book. I didn't always like how he treated people trying to help him, especially the way he snapped at oncology nurses just trying to do their job, but I'm sure he's probably got moments he's not proud of... and  at times his arrogance annoyed me, he'd write about how much he'd learned about humility but then he would recall moments that displayed vain, disrespectful behavior. BUT... he did say he wanted to be honest with this book.

Why did I ride when I had cancer? Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it's absolutely cleansing. You can go out there with the weight of the world on your shoulders, and after a six-hour ride at a high pain threshold, you feel at peace. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain. At least for awhile you have a kind of hall pass, and don't have to brood on your problems; you can shut everything else out, because the effort and subsequent fatigue are absolute. There is an unthinking simplicity in something so hard, which is why there's probably some truth to the idea that all world-class athletes are running away from something. Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. "Pleasure?" I said. "I don't understand the question." I didn't do it for pleasure. I did it for pain.



Alec Baldwin's "God Complex" speech in 
the 1993 film MALICE. Lances writes that 
during his cancer treatments, he was often reminded
of this scene. 
Livestrong - Lance Armstrong's foundation to raise funds for cancer research



Lance is retired from cycling now but he says during his TDF days, 
he burned through an average of 10-12 liters of fluids and 
6000 calories EVERY day he was racing!



I think my favorite part of this book (and I'm probably a little biased here) were Lance's stories about training in Boone, North Carolina.. which is just minutes from the town where my husband grew up, Beech Mountain (in fact, Lance trained ON Beech Mtn and had his vitals checked and tests run at Appalachian State University in Boone). Long before his TDF days, Lance was competing in the Tour DuPont, a grueling uphill race held from 1991-1996, part of which ran through Boone and Beech Mtn. If you're ever in the area, take a look at the steepness of those hills. It's hard to really appreciate that kind of dedication to a sport til you see that environment up close. I remember once, during the first year my husband and I were dating, we decided to go take the dogs for a walk around the neighborhood on Beech Mtn -- and yes, there is a town built ON the mountain. That walk was the hardest dog walk of my life! And I was just walking! But if you're not acclimated to it, the elevation will sneak up and clothes-line you. 

"Viva Armstrong" and other motivation phrases were painted along the road heading up 
to the town of Beech Mountain ( Elevation 5506 ft - highest town in 
Eastern United States)

Years later, when Lance revisits Boone, he had actually been semi-retired when he, with some coercion from his coaches, decided it was time to get back in the game. He talks about how those first trial runs back on the road kicked his ass. Given some time, a little bit of training on Beech Mtn and another batch of tests and he ends up breaking the odometer on the test bike, he was moving so fast!

I passed the rest of the trip in a state of near-reverence for those beautiful, peaceful, soulful mountains. The rides were demanding and quiet and I rode with a pure love of the bike, until Boone began to feel like the Holy Land to me, a place I had come to on a pilgrimage. If I ever have any serious problems again, I know that I will go back to Boone and find an answer. I got my life back on those rides. 

He even named his dog Boone and his cat Chemo! 

I thought this was pretty cool! This path, on the TDF route, floods 2x a day
every day during high tide. Also each year, the Foulees de Gois, a foot race,
is held, a race which STARTS at high tide. The path leads to the island of 
Noirmoutier. 


And a bit of comic relief in the middle of a heavy topic.... Armstrong points out that one of the biggest dangers to cyclists are motorists. Wonder if he ever had an Eric Idle moment... 



In Every Second Counts, we learn more about Lance's personal life, the good and the bad. By the time of this book, he is nearly free and clear of any fear of cancer coming back, though he reveals that he had to have check ups twice a year every year for 5 years before the doctor officially deemed him "cancer free". The first book documented the birth of his first son, this book discusses the birth of his twin daughters.

This book was a much shorter read, but I didn't find it as interesting as It's Not About The Bike. The writing felt more self-indulgent to me. I get that it's a memoir and to a certain extent, you have to expect a little of that "you can't imagine what I went through tone" but I just don't want to be beaten over the head with it. Still, I did enjoy the stories about his Olympic days -- Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. In Barcelona, he said he was "a young, inexperienced hothead"; in Atlanta his lungs were riddled with cancerous tumors, but he hadn't been diagnosed yet. He said he "felt like I was dragging a manhole cover" trying to keep up with everyone; in Sydney he was hit with glitches and mishaps galore but still managed to take home Olympic bronze in cycling. 


2000 Olympics Bronze Medal



You should always honor your fiercest opponent: the better your opponent, the better you have to be. ~~ Lance Armstrong



Aside from the Olympics recollections, I also smiled at his impressions of NYC firefighters post 9/11. Being married to a firefighter myself, I was impressed that he got what these guys are really like. They're not the oiled up, bare chested, axe-wielding calendar guys they're made out to be -- least not while they're on duty... right hon? ;-D But after visiting 10 different firehouses in NYC, Armstrong notes:

Some people think heroism is a reflex, an anti-death knee jerk. Some people think heroism is a desire to matter, to be of use. Then there is the quieter heroism of "going to work every day and making a living for one's family," as New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani said of those people who died in those buildings. By the end of that trip, I decided it was some combination of the three. But whatever it was, these guys had it. 



 AMEN!!


Another really great memoir relating to cancer that I've read recently is Gilda Radner's book, It's Always Something. There's a good deal of humor in this book, as one might expect from an SNL legend, but there's also some pretty moving, bittersweet moments where she admits the toll her illness took on her marriage to Gene Wilder, friendships, family members, even on her work relationships. But I think the biggest thing I took away from reading this book is remembering the joy in small pleasures -- a happy look on the face of your dog, a trip to a favorite place, the days when the air is the perfect temperature and you couldn't feel more blessed. 


"Never let a gynecologist put anything up your nose." ~ quote from one of Gilda's nurses after a procedure mishap.

While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die -- whether it is our spirit, our creativity or our glorious uniqueness. 
~~ Gilda Radner 

Gary Allan - Life Ain't Always Beautiful
(But It's A Beautiful Ride)
one of my all time favorite songs
and a good reminder for me from 
time to time!


The Mr and I were just talking yesterday about how the song below helped us through some dark days (individually, before we got together)... sometimes it's good to just take a moment and "scream it out".... Reading It's Always Something, I got the impression Gilda wanted such moments from time to time during her treatments... 


 Sixx A.M. - Life Is Beautiful


I didn't know much about Radner before reading this book, outside of her SNL career, but found I something in common with her -- we both found our groove in high school performing in choir and drama and, here again, was another woman who also had fibrocystic breast disorder and ovarian cysts. She also mentioned having Epstein-Barr virus before developing ovarian cancer. Radner found support in The Wellness Community, where she met other cancer patients and their families, one patient being Tucker Smith, who played "Ice" in West Side Story. Radner admitted having a crush on him years ago, the film being one of her favorites. 

Tucker Smith as "Ice"
in West Side Story

Because my life was always stressful, a lot of people had told me that I should meditate. I thought meditation was some weird Indian yogi thing, and the only yogi I ever knew was somebody who could put a rope through his nose and make it come out his bum. I thought that was interesting but not something I wanted to do. I had heard about mantras and all that, but all I could think of was I would have to take my contacts lenses out to do that because I can't keep my eyes closed that long with them in; they start to hurt. It's hard enough to put them in in the morning without taking them out for forty-five minutes and then putting them back in. So, instead, I continued with my stressful life. ~~ Gilda Radner

Gilda's story of her battle with cancer is a powerful one, especially knowing how it turned out, but I really loved the love story of her and Gene Wilder. Her stories showed a side of him that rarely showed in films. It was cute to see how hard she had to work to convince him that marrying again was a good idea (he had divorce under his belt already and just seemed to want to date indefinitely); how she met him on her first movie role and couldn't concentrate on anything except "I wonder if he likes me?"; how she convinced him to let her co-star in Haunted Honeymoon -- written and directed by and starring Gene himself. I remember watching this film every summer -- you'd think it would be more of a Halloween film but nope, we did things a little backwards around our house back then lol. This is an adorable spoof movie btw.. worth checking out if you haven't seen it yet! Can you believe it only ran in theaters for 1 week??


The romance developing between them is such a sweet, funny story, which makes it brutally hard to read as she goes through the moments when she gets violently ill, then a little better, then ill again, all the while seeing the toll it takes on Gene. I was blown away how calm, patient, and loving he was with her even through her worst rages. His sense of humor gave her extra strength I'm sure. She tells the story of how he gave her a gift one year for her birthday with a tag attached that read:

This is not as loud as your mouth, but it's as delicate as your soul. Love, your husband. 


LOL sounds like something my husband would write in one of his jokey moods :-P The gift he gave her was a delicate looking necklace btw. 


Even though Radner's outcome is tragic, her insights on life, marriage, illness, etc throughout her treatment are beautifully honest and real. Definitely find yourself a copy, even if it's just a loaner from the library, and give this one a try :-)











Sunday, April 29, 2012

Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society


I've been a bit delayed in getting this post published, as I work through some family matters that require the majority of my attention. Also, I realize this book has been reviewed and hashed over on endless book blogs but it hasn't been on mine yet ;-) Enjoy!



The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, written by Mary Ann Schafer and her niece, Anne Barrows, may be dismissed by my male readers as average chick lit... but whoa nelly, you boys might find a nice read here yourself! This one is another quick read, probably just a day or two at most, but it's also one of those books that packs a helluva lotta story in such a short read.



authors of Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society


In the years immediately following the end of World War II, Juliet Ashton, an English writer / journalist living in the land of "bluestockings and shrews", is quite enjoying her life in bustling London, has a number of friends and a pompous American publisher boyfriend, Markham V. Reynolds (even his name makes the reader want to immediately throw suspicion his way). Juliet finds at least something mildly charming in Mark's pitifully unromantic attempts at wooing -- part of his problem being his "aren't you lucky to have me" put out there all the time -- but still has a voice in the back of her mind hinting that something is missing. Is Mark really the guy for her? Should she just delve in to that book she always wanted to write? Her days are filled with work and moments of reminiscing, recalling the golden days of pre-war England in her cute little flat she once had -- bombed during the war. 

The description of Markham, though I wasn't a fan of the character, was interesting to me in that it reminded me instantly of Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black:

Then Markham V. Reynolds stepped forward, and the bubble popped. He's dazzling. Honestly, Sophie, I've never seen anything like him. Not even the furnace-man can compare. Tan, with blazing blue eyes Ravishing leather shoes, elegant wool suit, blinding white handkerchief in breast pocket. Of course, being American, he's tall, and he has one of those alarming American smiles, all gleaming teeth and good humor, but he's not a genial American. He's quite impressive, and he's used to ordering about -- though he does it so easily, they don't notice. He's got that way of believing his opinion is the truth, but he's not disagreeable about it. He's too sure he's right to bother being disagreeable. ~~ Julie in letter to her friend Sophie

Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black  (1998)

She receives a letter out of the blue from Dawsey Adams, a sort of jack-of-all-trades  working as a pig farmer / dock worker among other titles, living on Guernsey, part of the Channel Islands just off the coast of England. He writes to tell her that he has a copy of a collection of works by writer Charles Lamb that had her address in it (this book has become his favorite). Dawsey, being so enthralled with the works of Lamb that he's read so far, writes to ask Juliet if she knows where he might be able to obtain more books by Lamb, since contact to the island is limited. Juliet answers his letter, he answers her response letter, and so on and so on til a beautiful friendship has developed through their sharing of events (mainland vs. island). Dawsey shares little anecdotes of all the people living in his community on Guernsey and before long, Juliet finds herself desperately wanting to meet them all. This leads to the idea of her traveling to the island to live there for a bit, gathering all the island stories together to be published. 


A handy guideline for readers: Google Earth map / interactive tutorial laying out all the places mentioned in this wee book: Guernsey Island book-related map


 The story starts in post - World War 2 era, but flashes back to war times, even prior to the war's outbreak as each character tells their own personal story of how the war affected them and their families. All the colorful characters living on Guernsey Island, offering up their stories, is a large part of what made this book so much fun to read. That and the palpable attraction and friendship building between Juliet and Dawsey even through letters! So what is the Literary & Potato Peel Society? It's basically a book club the residents of Guernsey Island put together as a cover to meet up past curfew hours, while not being punished for it by German soldiers. While the group starts as a cover, the members actually do become interested in the books they discuss. It's fun to see the bookworm tastes of each character develop. In fact, I desperately wanted to sit in on the meetings described! The story of the origins of the club was particularly fun for me when it's mentioned that one character blurts out a story to a German soldier about how the group was detained past curfew reading Elizabeth And Her German Garden, an antique book I have in my collection, actually one of the first I ever acquired! 



the book that started the Society...
This is the story of a late 18th century wife and mother who 
convinces her husband to let her leave her city life and set up 
house at their country home. She finds peace and sanity 
from life's stresses through the beauty in cultivating a lush 
garden. Very sweet, touching read. Also a pretty quick
 read. Free copy to download here

That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive -- all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment. ~~~ Juliet in one of her first letters to Dawsey



I don't want to be married just to be married. I can't think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can't talk to, or even worse, someone I can't be silent with.  ~~Juliet Ashton

I don't know about you but my lessons on the Channel Islands during World War 2 were minimal at best. I had never even heard of Guernsey Island before reading this book, but now I really feel for this island of proud people (in the best sense of the word), thinking of the terror and grief that must have been an everyday hell after the Germans decided to occupy the island during the war. Curfews were set, people were made to live on war rations and coupons and fear. One of the most heartbreaking parts of this story involves a woman who is forced into an internment camp after defending someone she saw being blatantly mistreated by the German soldiers. That's as far as I'll divulge, but I warn you, be ready to have your heart break with the cruelty / unfairness of  life.

So this one will hold a permanent place in my library :-D. The love story feels real, the stories of the POWs are heartbreaking, and the voice of Juliet in her letters is adorable and funny. Not to mention this book has a built in history lesson on a little known area of England (ie.. who knew Victor Hugo once breezed through the area??) A sample of Juliet's humor (in another letter to bf Sophie):

Now, about Markham V. Reynolds (Junior). Your questions regarding that gentleman are very delicate, very subtle, very much like being smacked in the head with a mallet. Am I in love with him? What kind of question is that? It's a tuba among the flutes, and I expect better of you. The first rule of snooping is to come at it sideways --- when you began writing me dizzy letters about Alexander, I didn't ask if you were in love with him, I asked what his favorite animal was. And your answer told me everything I needed to know about him -- how many men would admit that they loved ducks? (This brings up an important point: I don't know what Mark Twain's favorite animal is. I don't think it's a duck.)

For those interested, I close with an actual recipe for Potato Peel Pie. There isn't one given in the novel, but I was curious so I looked it up and found this (variation on Potato Peel Pie but I chose this one because it just sounded tastier than some of the other, more traditional recipes I found):

Potato Peel Pie ***courtesy of CookEatShare.com Potato Peel Pie***

2 cups raw, grated potato skins (I added some of the white part to keep the texture somewhat tender), use mashed potatoes for filling
1/3 cup grated onion
1 egg, beaten
3 Tbs flour
beetroot
sour cream (optional)
chives (optional)
butter (optional)
garlic (optional)


Directions
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a small pie plate. Mix grated potato peels with egg, onion and flour. Press the mixture into the pie plate and up the sides to form a crust. Bake crust for 20-25 minutes. While the crust is baking, cook potatoes, drain and mash. You can add your favorite mashed potato flavorings here i.e. garlic, onion, milk, butter, salt, etc. Fill crust with mashed potatoes and sprinkle with beetroot. Bake in oven at lower temperature of 375 for 10 minutes or until browned.



Let me know how it turns out!! :-D



Thursday, April 19, 2012

Southern Lit. Quick Read


All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts. 

~~ William Shakespeare's As You Like It


For those who like dark Southern lit. murder mystery type books, this one is a fun way to pass a lazy afternoon. The Drifter's Wheel is part of Philip DePoy's Fever Devlin series. The story takes place in Blue Mountain, Georgia where Dr. Fever Devlin is a college professor, scholar and expert in Southern Folklore. His expertise in this field leads him to become part of many crime scene investigations involving the local mountain folks. Quirky character detail I noticed -- Devlin is described as commonly wearing different clothing combinations involving the colors "rust" (I'm guessing a dark orange) and black. Never really explained why only these colors seem to come up so much, but interesting, I thought :-P





The plot, which covers Civil War era through modern times, can be confusing in parts. A mystery man busts into Devlin's home and tells him this wild story of how he is a Civil War soldier (and, in one of his stories, a relative of Stonewall Jackson) guilty of killing his brother (whose body is later found near the estate lands of one of Devlin's neighbors, thus bringing about the murder mystery part of the story). Devlin, called in to help with the murder investigation, comes to find out that the same mystery man visited Devlin's fiancee, Lucinda and Hovis Daniel, an eccentric old man considered crazy by most Blue Mountain locals. Tricky part of the story is the mystery man gives different versions of his story and different clues to his true identity (including identifying himself by different names) to all three people. That's where the story can get confusing, trying to keep track of all the different stories and identities for the same guy. It's also part of the fun though. 


Lucinda was the head nurse at the county hospital. If she had been born a hundred years earlier, she would have been the midwife of our town -- two hundred years earlier and she might have been its witch. Long out of high school and college, she somehow had managed to maintain not only a student's looks but also an enthusiasm for learning new things I found absolutely fascinating. Her desire to gather new ideas was the perfect compliment to my passion for discovering old ones. There seemed to be no end in the things we found in common, or the joy we found in sharing those things. 

I loved all the history incorporated into the story. I particularly love stories that teach me something new about a part of history I didn't know before. In this story, that was the case with Devlin's study of the Hutchinson Family Singers, a group of Civil War era singers whose songs focused on abolition of slavery, womens' rights, political activism and the like -- they were also the original war protesters, loooong before hippies thought to fight the Vietnam war with enthusiastic rounds of Kumbaya.  I don't remember reading about them before but apparently they were THE group to see back in the 1840s. Sample of one of their songs below:




 By the time Andrews got home, I'd spent a very frustrating five hours, on and off, going from one web site to another without finding anything of use. It had only exacerbated my primary objection to internet research : a million miles wide and half an inch deep. {Pretty much how my internet research typically goes!}


There's even a science lesson or two here:


Mushrooms illuminated by the chemical Luciferin
Not photoshopped! This actually happens naturally 
via same chemical reaction that lights up firefly butts! :-)


In the book, this process is explained with Fever 
coming across Foxfire plants:




It's usually called foxfire -- a bioluminescence created by a certain sort of fungus or lichen. You find it on decaying wood. I used to believe it was primarily a product of only one species of the genus Armillaria, but over the years I think I've found as many as forty individual species. It exists everywhere. Pliny and Aristotle mention it. Ben Franklin suggested that the military use it to light the inside of one of our first submarines. Believe it or not, it's a substance called luciferin -- same thing that lights up a firefly -- reacts with an enzyme, luciferase, and that causes the luciferin to oxidize and make light. 

So there ya go... any of you who ever wondered how fireflies work... :-) Might take some of the mystique away from the little guys but they're still fun to watch!


There's a humorous observation on human behavior after Fever explains luciferin to his best friend and fellow professor Winton Andrews during a midnight hike through the woods to search for something pertaining to the investigation. Fever mentions the need to be careful as to not alarm bears in the area and notices in Winton:

And there it was: the human aversion to anything unfamiliar. Andrews, like most people, would rather face a real bear than imaginary fire. He understood what a bear was; he had no idea what made the fungus glow -- even though I had offered a perfectly good scientific explanation. He'd seen bears a hundred times. He'd seen foxfire twice. And even though the bear was a certain danger and the luminescent fungus would never attack him, rake him with claws, or bite him with teeth, Andrews preferred the bear. 

DePoy also hits upon the beauty of history, through his elderly character, Hovis:

...the old days. That's what I know best. There's not a single today in life that can beat a really great yesterday. And do you know why? Because yesterday is polished by the rags of memory, and it shines brighter, glows warmer. Hell. A man my age, especially, is more like to recall a penny's worth of ten-years-ago than a dollar's worth of earlier-today. 

graphic courtesy of  The Graphics Fairy



:-) Just love that!



Thursday, April 12, 2012

Julie & Julia -- memoir by food writer Julie Powell

Hey Readers!

Hope you all had a great Easter since we last talked - I loved mine! Turned out to be a sweet, soft, quiet kind of day that made me very aware and thankful of all my blessings. Love having those reminders from time to time, keeps me from turning bitter about the negative in the world!

So here's a quick read for you guys - a day or two at most, I'd say. And written in this century! Yeah ... told ya I switch it up here and there... my books are like my taste in music, a good story is a good story regardless of when it was written - same with my favorite songs. Admittedly, most of my favorite books were written in eras long before my own, but I'm neither so jaded nor so pretentious as to say nothing good has come out of recent literature :-D

So here we go...


This is a memoir of sorts written by blogger Julie Powell, who at the time of writing, was working as a secretary for a 9/11 government agency in New York City. She makes it clear in the book that she is limited about how much she can talk about her employer, as far as specifics, but that much she does divulge. She's not all that satisfied with her job (who hasn't been there!), lamenting her dissatisfaction to her husband. She goes on about the grief of turning 30 and wondering where her life's going, trying to figure out what her real goals in life are. His response is an idea to take her love of cooking and Julia Child and make a blog out of it. Julie then runs with the idea and decides to start a year-long project in which she cooks her way through all the recipes in Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, blogging about her results. The book turns out to be more about what Julie learns about herself in the process than the recipes themselves, which is often how I find my projects going - starting on a straight and clear path and getting tangled up in a labyrinth of ideas (and not minding the trip at all, usually).  



A few years ago, if you were reading or writing blogs, it was hard not to hear about this book. I had heard of it but wasn't sure I was all that interested in it. Beauty in culinary arts for me is cooking when it's close to its roots. I don't get giddy over fancy sauces {the one exception to this being my love of beautifully prepared and plated Eggs Benedict lol}, I don't need intricately prepared meats. I will try most anything once but having tried it I pretty much just check it off mentally and wrap it up with a "yeah, not bad" or a "okay, lesson learned - not for me!". I love simple pastas with bare-bones sauces, rustic bread and a good cheese, a plate of fruits and veggies fresh out of the garden, meats that are flavorful because they were seasoned nicely and then cooked slowly but simply, not because they're drowned in a mushroom sauce or something. I guess it's mainly a need for me to be able to really discern individual flavors within a dish. Many of the recipes in the book seem heavy and outdated to me -- and Powell admits as much herself. But she seems to get a kick out of the richness and extensive preparation of these dishes. Nothing wrong with that, just a matter of preference. 




Honestly I didn't give much thought to the book at all until I saw the movie. I'm curious though, Powell mentions at one point trying to coordinate meeting up with her family at a Stanley Tucci theater performance, is it just a coincidence that he portrayed Paul Child in the film or was he thought of for the role because of this book? Hmm. I thought Amy Adams was adorable as Julie Powell, and of course Meryl Streep as Julia Child was amazing. I love people and characters who admit and embrace flaws or weaknesses and just work them in as an essential part of their personalities. I don't always have the strength to do that myself but it's always admirable to see and aspire to. So I imagined that if the real Julie Powell was anywhere as entertaining as Adams' portrayal onscreen, then I was in for a great read. Well... hmm. Weird to say but I have to admit that Julie Powell in her own voice -- not as interesting. Still entertaining, but I give this one to Amy Adams. That'll probably irk hardcore Powell followers who read this but hey, I'm entitled to my opinion as much as the next person. 


The book is a fun read, there is a good deal of profanity, which even Powell admits to herself. I'll admit heavy profanity in books is distracting for me, but I didn't chuck the book in disgust or anything. I do think profanity serves a purpose in times when no other words will do, but for me over-cursing is as bad as over-seasoning. But Julie's observations on food and cooking, and her life in general, still made me want to hear her out. I related to her revealing that she suffers from Fibrocystic Breast Disorder (or Disease/"Changes"/Condition -- whichever term you want to go with) which I have myself. People who don't have this condition, even some in the medical community, love to say that there are no real symptoms and they love to gloss it over with the word "benign". The truth is many women, myself included, live with intense pain in the breast and chest area every day. It's hard to do at home exams because with this condition, everything feels lumpy. You're told that having the condition is not a guarantee that you'll get breast cancer, but you're haunted by the thought that something might be hiding in there that won't be caught in time. Each breast exam after diagnosis now has me holding my breath and saying a prayer that everything is still okay. Oh yeah, and part of the recommended treatment is cutting out or cutting back caffeine and rich foods to next to nothing :-S. It seems to be one of those things in the Merck Manual that little is known about, leaving many to wonder "is it a real issue?". Well, just like those who suffer from things like Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and get that question .. yes.. it really does exist and yes there really are physical symptoms. I know. I deal with them every day. That's my two bits on that. Off my soapbox. Back to the book.. 

 I love that she describes her cat as "rubenesque" and find it disturbing that she calls her blog readers "bleaders"... just the visceral visual...blek. It was funny to read of her love of Jason Bateman and I can understand her fascination with David Straitharn... there is something compelling about that guy when he's onscreen!



 ** Sidenote: Julia Child died shortly after Julie's blog initially started gaining fame, here is a statement made by Child's own editor, Judith Jones:

Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn't attractive, to me or Julia. She didn't want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt. She would never really describe the end results, how delicious it was, and what she learned.
Never really describe the end results? Tastes, and what she learned? I thought that's exactly what she was doing. She'd describe when it worked, when it obviously didn't, the rush of endorphins when something came out blissfully perfect in taste, and what she was learning about herself. I don't think Powell was setting out to learn how to be a gourmet chef, I think she just thought of an idea and wanted to see if she could pull it off. I'm not sure if this claim from the editor was based off of what Julia and her editor were hearing via word of mouth or if they themselves were actually following Julie's work. 

I do want to give props to Julie for making one of the best comments about doing call center work - I did this kind of work for years and texting / IMing my husband and friends was one of the few things that kept me sane during some of those calls. You know those people that you meet sometimes, who are so god awful rude to you that it makes you wonder to yourself what kind of hell their spouses must be in? Yeah, those are the kind of people that make "Customer Service Rep" such a soul-crushing position:

You cannot imagine how it eases the suffering of serving a mind-numbing public, when you can snidely judge said public via IM at the same time. 
 She also makes a good point about cooking, something that may have something to do with why I am so detail oriented and experimental when trying new dishes out on my more-than-happy-to-be-your-kitchen-guinea-pig husband:

There is something intensely erotic in making elaborate, nearly impossible food for someone you'd like to have sex with... Then later, regarding Martha Stewart: Unfortunately, Martha's recipes, though suitably complex, fall short if you're looking for aphrodisiac cooking, only because everything about a Martha Stewart recipe, from the font it's printed in to the call for sanding sugar with appended notes on where to find such a thing simply screams Martha. Wildcat though she may be in bed, for all I know, Martha just isn't someone you necessarily want in your head when you want to seduce someone.

I did like the homage Julie makes to her idol towards the end while visiting Julia's kitchen exhibit at the museum, very sweet and touching. I do wish that there had actually been more of Julia Child infused into the story than there actually was though.

From the reviews I've read elsewhere regarding this book, some really came down hard on Powell. She was called bratty, spoiled, caught up in the fame. And I could see that in this book. It was hard to hear her whine about not being able to find a certain food delicacy in some specialty market or having to kill multiple lobsters and all that when my husband and I struggle to keep basics in the cupboards. The fact that she could run off to Austin,TX to mom's house whenever she needed a break from NYC, when my last real vacation was more than 4 years ago... and she did seem kinda brutal to her husband sometimes (but then when she mentions her husband choosing to watch CNN over wanting nook nook time with her -- he's not blameless either) but I don't know.. it wasn't all that bad. I look at it as luck and blessings and being at the right place at the right time, all that stuff hits different people at different times. And I don't know the details. Maybe she glossed over some stuff. But that's her business. Many bloggers I've read were angered to find out that her second book discusses how the fame of this book did do some damage on her relationship with her husband and both ended up having affairs. I don't have any tolerance for screwing around in my own relationship but I can't speak for them. That's their business, their choices. Some of what I read in Julie and Julia regarding their relationship made me wonder if extramarital business would come into play later so I wasn't exactly shocked but I've also read that the two seemed to have worked out their troubles and are stronger now so kudos to them. 


If I was going to follow Julia down this rabbit hole, I was going to enjoy it, by God -- exhaustion, crustacean murder and all. Because not everybody gets a rabbit hole. I was one lucky bastard, when you came down to it.  ~~ Julie Powell


 episode from Julia Child's cooking show



Saturday, April 7, 2012

Maugham Round Up (Part 2 of 2)




OF HUMAN BONDAGE 



Arguably Maugham's most famous novel, but sadly, for me, one going on that list of "falls short of epic status" classics I've read over the years. It's not a huge list I've made but it will be kept company by my memories of reading Anna Karenina... yep, I admit, I was one girl who didn't swoon over the tragic love story but instead wanted to smack spoiled Anna and (in my best Cher voice) exclaim "Snap out of it!" Maugham's slight misogynistic bent continues in parts here, well maybe not quite misogyny since I don't know if I'd go so far as to say his male characters hate women, but they do tend to blame a good deal of their problems on the womenz.... to which I say to those male characters, "Way to step up and accept your part in your life!" Ugh. I do find it funny that Maugham wrote one male character labeling one of my favorite plays, Henrik Ibsen's The Doll House as "nonsense and filth" (the plot of this play is centered around a woman who at a dinner party one night just drops it on her husband in front of all their friends that she feels she's meant for more than housework and doting on her husband so she announces she's leaving him. The rest of the play is basically a study of a marriage, and her husband working through the shock of such a statement, trying to figure out where the hell these feelings came from... powerful stuff!) But yeah, funny that Maugham would use his characters to label such a plot about a woman yearning for independence as "filth and nonsense" ;-)

Philip Stanley, the central character in Of Human Bondage, is a bookish, socially awkward guy who, like many, struggles to find his place in the world. His struggles are exacerbated by the presence of his club foot. His club foot and limp from said deformed foot causes his relationships with people to suffer because so many are "put off" by what they find to be grotesque or weird (like he chose such a disability for himself!). Philip's uncle William, a vicar, and his wife Louisa (actually my favorite character in the story) encourage him to become a minister, figuring that within the church he will find a solid, respectable career that will not require too much physical exertion. The marriage of William and Louisa, as it was depicted, made me sad for Louisa at times, but other times it cracked me up:

It was a large black stove that stood in the hall and was only lighted if the weather was very bad and the Vicar had a cold. It was not lighted if Mrs. Carey had a cold. Coal was expensive.
I also found the vicar and his wife to be very similar to Mr. and Mrs. Collins from Pride and Prejudice:

It was extraordinary that after thirty years of marriage, his wife could not be ready in time on Sunday morning. At last she came, in black satin; the Vicar did not like colours in a clergy-man's wife at any time, but on Sundays he was determined that she should wear black; now and then, in conspiracy she would venture a white feather or a pink rose in her bonnet, but the Vicar insisted that it should disappear; he said he would not go to church with the scarlet woman; Mrs. Carey sighed as a woman but obeyed as a wife. 

 And this idea of the church life for Philip is seconded by the headmaster at Philip's school:

The headmaster hesitated a moment, and then, idly drawing lines with a pencil on the blotting paper in front of him, went on. "I'm afraid your choice of professions will be rather limited. You naturally couldn't go in for anything that required physical activity." Philip reddened to the roots of his hair, as he always did when any reference was made to his club-foot. Mr. Perkins looked at him gravely. "I wonder if you're not oversensitive about your misfortune. Has it ever struck you to thank God for it?" Philip looked up quickly. His lips tightened. He remembered how for months, trusting in what they told him, he had implored God to heal him as He had healed the Leper and made the Blind to see. "As long as you accept it rebelliously it can only cause you shame. But if you looked upon it as a cross that was given you to bear because your shoulders were strong enough to bear it, a sign of God's favour, then it would be a source of happiness to you instead of misery. 
"Portrait Of A Boy Reading" by Edmund C. Tarbell (1913)


My favorite quote in Of Human Bondage, mainly because it reminded me so much of my own childhood and also because Maugham so perfectly explains the development of a bookworm :-) :

He forgot the life about him. He had to be called two or three times before he would come to dinner. Insensibly, he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading; he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment...He did not read always with enjoyment but invariably with perseverance. He was eager for self-improvement. He felt himself very ignorant and very humbled.




While in school, Philip manages to develop a good friendship with the most popular boy at his school for a time. Their friendship reminded me of that between the boys of A Separate Peace by John Knowles. The nerdy-guy-best-friends-with-sporty-guy theme was very similar. Though I wonder about Maugham's choice to name the sporty guy Rose. A guy would have to be very secure with himself not to get razzed for that name in school and become the most popular guy to boot! 

So the thing that stood out to me about Philip is how he's at his best when he has just one thing to focus all his attention on. He becomes obsessive easily. At first he's a decent student because, well, there's not a lot else going for him at that time. But then he meets sporty guy Rose and he starts having so much fun "hanging with the guys" that his grades start to slip. When the intensity of that new friendship starts to wane and Rose loses interest in Philip, Philip hits the books again. But down the road, he meets up with his waitress lady love and once again, nothing else matters. This, incidentally, is what kinda killed the story for me. I don't find  much to swoon over in regards to hard core clinger type relationships or people with rollercoaster emotions.  I guess because I've been in those types of relationships myself and I remember how truly EXHAUSTING it is! I liked bookish Philip, when he was strictly in his contemplative state. His relationship side was a little tiring for me.

When I read a book I seem to read with my eyes only, but now and then I come across a passage, perhaps only a phrase, which has a meaning to me, and it becomes part of me; I've got out of the book all that's any use to me, and I can't get anything more if I read it a dozen times. You see, it seems to me, one's like a closed bud, and most of what one reads and does has no effect at all; but there are certain things that have a peculiar significance for one, and they open a petal; and the petals open one by one, and at last the flower is there. 







MRS.CRADDOCK 



"You know," she answered at last, "happiness is never quite what one expects it to be. I hardly hoped for so much, but I didn't imagine it quite as it is."
~~ Bertha Ley Craddock,
 early in her marriage to Edward. 


Summary: "On her 21st birthday, when she comes into her deceased father's money, Bertha Ley announces, to the dismay of her former guardian, that she is going to marry 27 year-old Edward Craddock, her steward. Herself a member of the landed gentry, Bertha has been raised to cultivate an "immoderate desire for knowledge" and to understand, and enjoy, European culture of both past and present ages. In particular, during long stays on the Continent, she has learned to appreciate Italy's tremendous cultural heritage. A "virtuous" girl, her views on womanhood are thoroughly traditional. She has no doubts about her role in life, which will be to serve and obey her future husband. When Bertha encourages reluctant Edward Craddock, whom she has known since their childhood, to propose to her, she is certain that she will find absolute fulfillment and happiness in her marriage, even if it means abandoning city life and its pleasures for the Kentish coast "to live as her ancestors had lived, ploughing the land, sowing and reaping; but her children, the sons of the future, would belong to a new stock, stronger and fairer than the old. The Leys had gone down into the darkness of death, and her children would bear another name. She felt in herself suddenly the weariness of a family that had lived too long; she knew she was right to choose new blood to mix with the old blood of the Leys. It needed the freshness and youth, the massive strength of her husband, to bring life to the decayed race." --Wikipedia




Of all the Maugham books I've read to date, this has been my favorite, though it's not one of his most familiar works. The tone reminded me of that in his novel Theatre. Bertha Ley, who becomes Mrs. Craddock, is a young girl who gets SO caught up in the fantasy she creates in her mind of what marriage is like that she ends up sabotaging what she actually has with Mr. Craddock. Bertha, who comes from one of those English families with a great, respectable family name with no more money attached to it, finds she's surprisingly inherited a good deal of money from her father following his death. For reasons not explained all that well, other than Bertha being enamored with his looks, Bertha accepts a marriage proposal from local landowner / farmer Edward Craddock, much to the shock of her titled family. She goes into it with this idea that she'll be a cute little housewife making fruit pies and tending to cute, dimpled babies while her husband puts in a 9-5 (so she thinks) in the fields. She pictures greeting him with a glass of lemonade and a chaste kiss on the cheek at the end of each workday. So, days after the wedding:

"Have you really not thought of our honeymooon, foolish boy," asked Bertha.
"No!" {Edward}
"Well, I have. I've made up my mind and settled it all. We're going to Italy and I mean to show you Florence and Pisa and Sienna. It'll be simply heavenly. We won't go to Venice because it's too sentimental. Self-respecting people can't make love in gondolas at the end of the nineteenth century. Oh, I long to be with you in the South, beneath the blue sky and the countless stars at night."
"I've never been abroad before," he said without much enthusiasm. 
But her fire was quite enough for two. "I know, and I shall have the pleasure of unfolding it all to you. I shall enjoy it more than I ever have before; it'll all be so new to you. And we can stay six months if we like."
"Oh, I couldn't possibly," he cried. "Think of the farm."
"Oh bother the farm, it's our honeymoon, sposo mio."
"I don't think I could possibly stay away more than a fortnight."
"What nonsense! We can't go to Italy for a fortnight. The farm can get on without you."
"And in January and February too, when all the lambing is coming on." {Edward}
He did not want to distress Bertha, but really half his lambs would die if he were not there to superintend their entrance into the world.
"But you must go," said Bertha."I've set my heart upon it."
He looked down for awhile, looking rather unhappy. "Wouldn't a month do?" he asked,"I'll do anything you really want, Bertha." 
But his obvious dislike to the suggestion cut Bertha's heart. She was only inclined to be stubborn when she saw he might resist her, and his first word of surrender made her veer round penitently. 
"What a selfish beast I am!" she said. "I don't want to make you miserable, Eddie. I thought it would please you to go abroad and I'd planned it all so well. But we won't go; I hate Italy. Let's just go up to town for a fortnight like two country bumpkins."
"Oh, but you wouldn't like that." {Edward}
"Of course I shall. I like everything you like. D'you think I care where we go as long as I'm with you? You're not angry with me, darling, are you?" 
Mr. Craddock was good enough to intimate that he was not. 


Don't fall for it dude! It's a trap!! I guarantee you this moment will come up in a fight later! :-P



After a few months of mostly platonic, blissful interactions with the hubby, reality starts to put a chip in her polish. She starts to see that farming is not an easy 9-5. Her husband inherits part ownership of the land after marrying Bertha and works his tail off to build up what he finds was a pretty run down estate. He's up before dawn and home long after dark trying to turn their small financial assets into perpetual riches. Bertha wants to spend her days "hanging out" with him but Edward, being slightly older and perhaps more grounded in reality, tries to explain that while chillin' is all well and good, some work in life is required to make the downtime financially possible... particularly when Bertha enjoys pretty, luxe things around her! He tries to indulge her though -- he takes her to the theater, to museums, to parties he doesn't care about, he does his best to be obliging and keep a smile on her face. She doesn't get it though and begins to see her husband as oblivious, passionless, a poorly educated, socially awkward country goober. Finding herself falling into a serious depression over what seemed to me like a non-issue, she trys to self medicate by making multiple trips to sunny Italy and chic France, immersing herself in culture, shopping and recreation, bemoaning to others of her dull, neglectful, boarish husband. Even when Edward develops an interest in local politics and runs for an office to try to bring some change for the better to the community, she quietly tries to discourage him because she thinks he's too stupid to be successful in the office and he'll just end up being an embarrassment to her!



I couldn't help but think "poor Edward!". Mrs. Craddock is an example of the type of woman who ends up hating the very things about her husband that first made him appealing to her. Bertha loved that Edward was so outdoorsy and "of the earth" instead of being absorbed in mens' fashion or going on and on about politics. To me, aside from Edward being a little old school in his ideas about women (again, Maugham writes a male character that loves his women in the kitchen or being pretty but quiet), he seemed like a decent guy. He worked hard day and night to improve his wife's family's property, he wasn't an alcoholic, he didn't smack her around, didn't run around on her. Maybe he did get consumed with day to day responsibilities and neglect his husband time with Bertha at times, but who here is not guilty of being so distracted by daily duties that they sometimes forget the importance of time with their spouse / partner? I don't think running off the way Bertha did without really trying to explain herself was the answer. But (playing devil's advocate here) Edward's philosophy might not have helped the situation:
He was the best humored of men and Bertha's bad temper never disturbed his equilibrium. He knew that women felt irritable at times, but if a man gave 'em plenty of rope they'd calm down after a bit. "Women are like chickens," he'd told a friend, "Give 'em a good run, properly closed in with stout wire netting so they can't get into mischief, and when they cluck and cackle just sit tight and take no notice." There is nothing like knowledge of farming and an acquaintance with the habits of domestic animals to teach a man how to manage his wife.

Nope, that probably didn't help :-P

In some ways, Edward reminded me of my own husband, who told me early on, when we first started dating, "Look, guys can be dense sometimes, we don't do the whole "hints" thing that well. Just flat out say what you want and we can go from there." (this was just a general comment during a conversation - not him chewing me out about anything lol). That's what I was thinking of, reading about Bertha running off to different countries, hoping her husband would see how much he needed her around, but never explaining that she had actually left him. She would just say "oh, I'm not feeling well, I need to go to the sea" but in her mind would say "I'm not coming back". Edward would take his wife at his word, assuming she was in fact ill and figured she'd be back in a few weeks when she felt better, meanwhile he kept up the house and estate til she got back. After an unusually long separation, he would gently ask in letters to her if she was feeling improvements, he would say he missed her but it wouldn't be enough because he wasn't crying his eyes out and she would assume he didn't understand. All it would have taken to fix her problem is "Honey, I'd like to spend some time with you. We haven't spent much time together lately". Done. If he doesn't make the effort after that then yeah leave him if he doesn't care enough about you to make time for you but don't just start off assuming he knows exactly what the problem is without you saying anything! 



When all the shopping and parties in the world don't seem to satisfy her, Bertha eventually gives in to a brief affair with young, charismatic, barely legal Gerald Vaudrey... who just happens to be a cousin of hers... and not one of those super distantly related cousins either :-S.  For one that accused her husband of being under-educated, I question Bertha's math skills. After giving in to Gerald's flirtations, she's constantly exclaiming "I'm old enough to be your mother!" But she's not exactly in How Stella Got Her Groove Back territory here :

For a moment she was overjoyed, but quickly she remembered that she was married, that she was years older than he; to a boy of nineteen a woman of twenty-six must appear middle-aged. She seized a hand-mirror and looked at herself, she took it under the light so that the test might be more searching, and scrutinized her face for wrinkles and crow's-feet, the sign of departing youth. "It's absurd," she said,"I'm making an utter fool of myself."

Okay... so it's not the fact that she's married, not the fact that it's her cousin she's goofy over, no it's the fact that she's a whopping 7 years older. Ultimately this relationship (big shock here) runs it's course and Bertha seems to reevaluate her marriage. Is it possible that she might one day see that there is more than one way to express love? That true love, and ultimately marriage, isn't always a torrential flood of passion but sometimes just a quiet, peaceful brook of blissful appreciation for the one person you find that best understands you? Not every day is going to be Wuthering Heights epic, some days it's just about sitting on the porch, feeling the breeze and watching fireflies with your love and just appreciating all the good that's come into your life! :-)

{Love You Honey!}



"Woman Reading" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1877)



So readers, til next post, I leave you with this quote about Mrs. Craddock that blew me away in how it perfectly explained my love of old books!

Bertha found reality tolerable when it was merely a background, a foil to the fantastic happenings of old books; she looked at the green trees, and the song of birds mingled agreeably with her thoughts still occupied with the Dolores Knight of La Mancha, with Manon Lescaut, or the joyous band that wanders through the Decameron. With greater knowlege came greater curiosity, and she forsook the broad highroads of literature for the mountain pathways of some obscure poet, for the bridle track of the Spanish picaroon. She found unexpected satisfaction in the half-forgotten masterpieces of the past, in poets not quite divine whom fashion has left on one side, in the playwrights, novelists, and essayists whose remembrance lives only with the bookworm. It is a relief sometimes to look away from the bright sun of perfect achievement, and the writers who appealed to their age and not to posterity have by contrast a subtle charm. Undazzled by their splendor, one may discern more easily their individualities and the spirit of their time; they have pleasant qualities not always found among their betters, and there is even a certain pathos in their incomplete success.