Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What We Have by Amy Boesky

Happy holidays to everyone! I can't believe we're midway through December already. My reading has slowed to a crawl, mostly due to a book called The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. (Are the rumors about Stieg Larsson not actually writing this one true? I'd believe it.) But that's a story for another time.

I did want to take a second to blog about an excellent medical memoir called What We Have: A Family's Inspiring Story about Love, Loss, and Survival by Amy Boesky. Boesky, a literature professor at Boston College, tells the story of her family's battle with gene-linked ovarian and breast cancer. It sounds like a sad book, but it really isn't, mostly due to Boesky's self-deprecating narrative style. She's like a best friend, filling you in on her life, particularly the year 1993-1994 when amazing and significant events occurred. This reader admires her matter-of-fact analysis of her life as a single woman, her good-natured squabbles with her two sisters and mother. The year brings love, marriage, birth, and illness to everyone in her family. It's like life times ten for the Boesky clan. The author endures all, with humor tinged by anxiety (another battle). Time ticks along, and Boesky, retelling the story from a late 2000s vantage point, is able to nudge the reader to see what's important, to take note of what really matters: not illness or death, but the lessons learned from her mother and sisters in 1994. We all have years like these--mine, coincidentally, was 1994 also, the year my mother died. Our 1994s are to be endured and mined for nuggets when we feel strong again. It's good to remember that Boesky titled her book What We Have instead of what we haven't.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

Man oh man, I've been busy lately. Family, work, and all the usual adjustments to such have eaten up a good chunk of my reading time. Have no fear, though, I haven't abandoned my mission to document the best books I've ever read. Though my posts may be few and far between, I'm still here, weighing what belongs and what doesn't.

One book that definitely belongs on this list is Gail Caldwell's memoir of friendship, Let's Take the Long Way Home. Literary critic Caldwell was a great friend of Caroline Knapp, best known for her own memoir, Drinking: A Love Story. The two don't quite hit it off at first, but are later drawn together by a mutual love of dogs and literature. Knapp and Caldwell also share hard-won victories over alcoholism. Both unmarried, independent career women, these two authors become each other's family, as good friends so often do. The stories of them sculling and dog walking together show how the friendship grows into a deep, lasting bond. But Knapp, a lifelong smoker, falls terminally ill with lung cancer, and Caldwell must weather this storm both with her, and, later, without her.

At its heart, this memoir is a love story, because a rich friendship like this one could not be anything but love. Where family fails us, friendship sails in and saves. A good friend brings us food when we're sick, reassures us we're okay, lets us cry on her shoulder. The best female friend is an amalgam of the most desirable traits of mother and father, brother and sister, and, yes, husband. Gail Caldwell pays homage to the wholeness a good friend brings to life.

However, Let's Take the Long Way Home is just as much about grief as friendship. I've never read a more concise, whip-sharp discussion of the grieving process. Caldwell is a good writer, and she brings the full force of her narrative power to analyze the mystery and misery of losing a loved one. I prefer her vignettes to those in Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Awe permeates Caldwell's prose: praise for Knapp and the life she lived, stunned wonder at her quick death, and thanksgiving over and over again for what they had together. By the memoir's end, the reader gets the sense that Caldwell is moving closer to some sort of understanding of death, an inchoate one to be sure, but an understanding nevertheless.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

It's been a long time since I've felt this way about a book--over thirty years. Let me explain. As I child, I used to pull off a great disappearing act. I'd bury my nose in a book and cease to exist. I was elsewhere, skipping through gardens or prairies or castles. Nothing could find me, not my mother's voice, the phone call of a friend, nothing. I would eventually return home, dazed by the magic of Harriet the Spy or Strawberry Girl. I don't mourn much left behind in childhood, but I do miss what it feels like to visit those books for the first time.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton returned that feeling to me. My friend T.L. (like T.M., another reader extraordinaire) hand delivered the book, saying it reminded her of The Time Traveler's Wife. Morton's book is reminiscent of TTW in that it jumps here and there among time periods, points of view, and settings. It is a simpler book than Niffenegger's, however. The reader never gets confused because the fracturing of time and space is handled so deftly. We begin with the story of a little girl hiding on a berthed ship in 1913, minding the rules of the pretty lady who brought her there. Where did the lady go? Who is the child? Right from the start, these mysteries form the central cipher of the novel. Back and forth through decades, the story of Nell, a no-nonsense junk dealer in Australia, unfolds, along with that of her granddaughter Cassandra and a motley crew of others. When Nell dies, Cassandra begins to unravel the mystery of her past: a tiny white suitcase containing the yellowed pages of fairytales starts her off and eventually leads her to a hidden garden on an old estate in Cornwall. The reader learns why this garden, like Nell's birthright, has been obscured for decades.

Obviously, title and plot-wise, Morton's book is an homage to Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Secret Garden, another favorite book (and movie). Also, the very best elements of fairy tale and girl-sleuth are mixed into the story as well, and this melange of secret places and princesses and clues is what returned me to tweenhood. Although no one called us tweens in the late 70s. We were just girls, and if we found a good book, you could just watch us disappear.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Land Remembered by Patrick Smith

I'm making progress through that luscious pile of books! Some are throwaways (meaning returns), some are Godiva for the mind (Cakewalk by Kate Moses), and some are pure vitamin-- books that give you something you didn't even know you needed. For me this week, that book was A Land Remembered by Patrick Smith. Published in 1984, this novel has quickly become a Florida classic, reprinted many times (by regional publisher Pineapple Press). I'll be honest, I never ever wanted to read this book, purposely staying away from it. It was on the shelf at my grandmother's house, on the shelf at my parents' house, even on my own shelf at one point. (I don't know how that happened.) Anyway, I had my reasons for shunning it. I've never been a fan of historical fiction, especially that of my home state. It seems like that bubblegum-flavored antibiotic medicine that we give children, sweet trickery to make them swallow down what's good for them. I don't know about you, but when I read, I don't necessarily want what's good for me. Yuck. But A Land Remembered was my friend's selection for a book club, so I held my nose and opened my mouth, er, eyes. And, glory be, it was delicious!

Now, I must tell you, my brother and I spent our childhoods looking at land. Most weekends, when we weren't visiting our grandmother in Okeechobee, we were on family trips to Live Oak, St. Augustine, Palatka, every small Florida town within a day's drive. My mother had a sort of land lust--she was determined to purchase an oak hammock or pine plot, anything that wasn't a sinkhole. Over the course of these many trips, I fell in a pond, got stuck by bayonet plants, sweated inordinate amounts of RC Cola, and generally was very miserable. I wanted to be at home, riding my bike or playing with Barbies. The only thing that made these pilgrimages at all palatable was taking a book along, which helped block out the reality quite well, except when I had to get out of the car and walk the property. We all had to accompany the realtor on this land survey. I begged to stay in the car, but no, mom was afraid someone would get me. So, instead, I trudged along behind them, dragging my feet, and a tick got me but good. It burrowed undiscovered into my head for a week, until, scratching along one day, I found it nestled there. But that's a story for another time. With these childhood memories long established, mellowing nicely, I had no desire to revisit the Florida landscape, unless it involved the beaches, palm trees, shells, and maybe a condo with a pool or two. And then I read Smith's book.

A Land Remembered tells the story of the MacIvey family, from their arrival in Florida during the Civil War to the late 1960s. (Smith ends it there, before the advent of Disney World and the accompanying Orlando boom, a good place to stop.) The family struggles in the Florida scrub to build a home, find food, simply to survive. What they eat is a revelation--poke salad, swamp cabbage (a.k.a. hearts of palm), coon, bread made from cattail-flour. I've read country hardship stories before--Tobacco Road, The Grapes of Wrath, the Little House books, but never have I been so enthralled. This book brought back to life some of my earliest Florida memories--I could picture and taste that food so well. Hearts of palm, with its crunchy asparagus tang, the bitter taste of turnip greens.

And reading the description of the land literally was like someone shaking me for my own good. I recognized the itch that scrub leaves on your legs when you pass through, the brown murk of the creeks hiding the pebbled alligators, the slick flatness of the grass a snake leaves behind. (Thank goodness, they always left! Snakebite is far worse than tickbite!) And the stories of the cattle...let me tell you, I once knew far more than I ever wanted to about cows. The MacIvey family makes their first fortune (after losing everything several times) by herding wild cattle to Punta Rassa every year. The family meets and befriends Indians, fights cattle rustlers, yields to mosquito swarms, and slowly grows rich off these cattle drives. Meanwhile, the state is changing. Henry Flagler takes his railway all the way to Key West, Palm Beach becomes the Southern Mecca, with Miami birthing its own breed of glamour just a few years behind. Florida evolves, and so do the MacIveys, and therein lies Smith's chief point: remember the land because it is almost gone.

To be honest, many people would not like this book. The dialogue sounds artificial at times, hokey even. The characters tend toward stereotypes, the escaped ex-slave Skillet, for instance. The females Emma and Glenda don't ring true at all--too good, too pure, martyrs of a sort. But, really, the MacIveys aren't the main characters--the land is. The beautiful state of Florida, the pure Florida of the mind, with its wide swaths of prairie and sinkhole bowls, the rivers, and everglades, and God bless it, even the scrub which scratches and cuts the legs of little girls.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Unread books

Hello to everyone in book world! I'm currently reading a selection from T.M. titled Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum. It's a memoir about Daum's house lust from childhood to middle age. So far, so good. I also have to read Patrick Smith's A Land Remembered for a book club. Smith's novel is a Florida classic (I hear, though I've never read it) about the state in its early natural glory. With the oil spill still spewing, who knows how this will change. I should read my son's summer reading books (one being Tangerine by Edward Bloor) so I can quiz him at the end of the summer (very surreptitiously, of course) to see if he really read it or just skimmed. Really, it's the old saw about the shoemaker's children--they have no shoes, and the librarian's son hates to read. Oh well. I won't give up on him. I've always felt that one of life's greatest joys is reading, and this child, springing from two families of avid readers, doesn't have a chance at being a-literate. Or at least I hope so.

Undone housework bothers me. Unwritten thank you notes, unpaid bills, unchecked email, you name it, all these things nibble on my psyche. Unread books? No way. A pile of unread books is pound cake and three days off plus a really killer manicure.

A stack of unread books is one of life's luxuries.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Time out--Let's talk book recs

I've been reading a variety of things lately: Just Let Me Lie Down by Kristin Van Ogtrop, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, a Skinny Girl book by Bethenny Frankel, etc., etc. You can see that I'm all over the place with choices. These tomes came to rest in my ample lap through different means--a friend, a memory, a quick browse. Which brings me to today's topic--book recommendations.

I love Elle magazine's book review section! Is it my imagination, or did Elle get a lot better in the last decade, or did I just get a lot worse? Oh well, this monthly piece, along with the same in Vanity Fair and dailies picked up along the way like The New York Times, give me great reading selections. Also, I enjoy the email newsletter "Good Reads." But the best recommendations come from friends. T.M. has provided me with, I would say, at least 50% of the titles listed in this blog. She is indispensable in her role as personal librarian. Thank you, T.M.!

That being said, if you, dear blogreader, could tell me your favorite titles, I would be most appreciative and post them. I'm curious if anyone has read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. I'll probably read this one anyway, but if anyone has a special shout-out for it, I would love to know. By the way, I love lemon cake and could really use some right about now. I'll have to settle for a granola bar.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin

It's summertime again, and the reading is easy. But easy doesn't have to mean bad. Let me recommend that grande dame of chick lit--Ms. Emily Giffin. (This fiction subtype isn't new anymore, and Ms. Giffin's been around long enough to earn that title.) Her books--Something Borrowed, Something Blue, Baby Proof, and Love the One You're With--are delightful, character-driven morality tales (think unplanned babies, coveting a best friend's boyfriend...). Giffin's latest book, Heart of the Matter, is a worthy addition to the quad. As in the others, here Giffin plainly relishes wrestling with life's thorny choices. Set in upscale Atlanta, the book describes the not so benign problems of Tess, wife of a pediatric plastic surgeon and mother of two small children. Her husband might be having an affair, or maybe he's just really, really busy. Surgeons work all the time, after all--she knows the life she signed on for. But still, he's rarely at home and when he is there, seems preoccupied with work. Tess worries she's lost her edge since she quit teaching to stay home with the children. Maybe she's become boring.

Most of us know someone like Tess. Heck, many of us probably are Tess, and that's one reason why Giffin's books are so enjoyable. She gives us prose that goes down like good gossip but has the oatmeal stick of object lessons. Anyone in a marriage could imagine, nay feel on their feet, Tess' stylish but uncomfortable shoes. Giffin takes the reader through the ebb and flow of faith and forgiveness that is marriage. To live this book would be hell, but to read it is sheer heaven. Isn't that the mark of a good writer? I think so. Check out all five of Emily Giffin's books--treat yourself. It's summer!

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Well, I finally have a book to write about. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a detailed, empathic homage to one woman's life and legacy. Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells were excised without her consent during treatment for a deadly cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in 1951. Skloot conscientiously presents both sides of the argument regarding the ethics of retrieving this specimen, a common practice at that time. Dr. George Gey's lab at Hopkins, where Henrietta's cells ended up, had an important mission: to grow the first line of immortal cells, a colony that would reproduce infinitely, thumbing its nose at death. Up until that point, no cell sample retrieved anywhere in the world had survived; amazingly, Henrietta's cancer cells (soon dubbed HeLa) reproduced like rabbits and have never stopped. Author Skloot is not the first person to write about the HeLa line and the medical innovations it led to (the polio and HPV vaccines are two), nor is she the first to address the ethical issues of black patients vis a vis medicine. I would bet, though, she is the first person to mine the resonant theme of motherhood that saturates the story. Skloot became friends with Lacks' daughter, Deborah, during the ten year genesis of the book. Deborah's dialogue about her mother, who died when she was just a toddler, is the best part of the narrative. She has no memories of Henrietta and pines for her; the fact that her mother's cells are alive and thriving, simultaneously delights and horrifies her. Deborah relishes the scientific achievements her mother's genetic material has led to, but she shivers at the sensational news stories about Henrietta--her clones walking the streets of England, for instance. (Skloot has to set her straight about this tall tale.) In one chapter Deborah and her brother Zakariyya visit Johns Hopkins to see HeLa for the first time. It is 2001, and viewing that clump of cells, the physical essence of their mother, momentarily satisfies Deborah's hunger for her. A physical part of her mother lives on.

This chapter made me think about the physical memories children retain of their mothers. My mother died sixteen years ago, and I still miss her five foot three-inch roly-poly frame. Apparently, she was pretty when young, but I don't remember her that way. To me, she was soft and accessible, big-bosomed with nails bitten to the quick by a sharp mouth. You always heard from this mouth when you did wrong. As a child I used to smell her skin, usually while resting or crying in her arms. Her scent was delicately salty, like a kind of good cured meat. My own skin smells very much the same, I think. Maybe I miss her physical presence, her body and voice and scent, because she filled any room she entered with this energy. Those who knew her would agree--she was not a retiring sort like her daughter. Since she's been gone, our rooms just aren't as lively. How could they be? Don't get me wrong, she wasn't perfect--her opinions grew stronger as she grew older and grayer, and we did butt heads, more than a few times. And, eventually, her own heart and brain cells unexpectedly failed, and she died at the age of 62. Abruptly, that dynamo of candor and character was gone. I guess I'm lucky because in my mind she lives on robustly, never having wasted away to almost nothing as so many daughters have to witness. So when I think of the word "mother," I think of hugging her body--the unique body and mind of Mary Alberta. The Henrietta Lacks' family has an radiant multi-colored picture of their mother's cells, given to them by an atoning Hopkins researcher. I have my own memories of a pillowy middle and salty arms. That body was mine.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Not having read anything blog-worthy recently, I'm plucking one from memory, and after reading Still Alice by Lisa Genova, I was thanking God for still having a memory. Genova, a PhD Neuroscientist, wrote this first novel from the title character's perspective. Alice is an esteemed psychology professor in her early 50s who starts noticing memory deficits. The losses are insidious, small at first (she misplaces her Blackberry), then rapidly gather speed (she gets lost in her own neighborhood). Alice knows what's happening and gets herself to the doctor where she is quickly (unrealistically so) diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. The hook of this book is Genova's narration; the reader experiences the world daily from Alice's perspective. As she gets confused, so do we. A black rug on the floor is a scary hole we cannot cross. A kind stranger is our own daughter. You may ask, why would E.B. want to read something so depressing? For those of you who know me, the answer's obvious :). The truth is that this book will ease your mind about your own middle-age memory deficits. I recommend this book for anyone who is fearful of early-onset Alzheimer's. It will put your mind at ease (at least for the next decade or so!) We may lose our keys, and forget why we walked into a room, but we aren't getting lost in our own neighborhoods. Yet.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Old School by Tobias Wolff

I found a copy of this book when we stayed in the Guest House of Davidson College (NC) over Thanksgiving break. "Required reading for 2009," a sticker on the cover proclaimed, and that was enough to convince me to grab the slim paperback and head back to the room. Also, it isn't a long book, and I was pretty sure I could finish it before our trek back south. The unnamed narrator attends a New England boarding school in the early 1960s; one of few Jewish boys amid a sea of WASPs, he works hard to disguise his background in order to fit in. Part of his assimilation plan is to win the school literary contest, judged each year by a famous author. According to the narrator, the winner of this contest attains ultimate Old Boy status; his own intelligence and valor would be unassailable should he succeed. Unfortunately, the boy fails at winning twice--Robert Frost chooses someone else's poem (deemed trite by the narrator), and his bout with flu precludes a writing submission when Ayn Rand is the judge. (He does meet Rand though, and his fever-laced description of her supercilious audience with the students is hilarious.) The third try at the contest is a hit, but only because the boy suffers a horrific case of writer's block and plagiarizes someone else's work. Submitting a short story from another school's literary magazine--a story about a Jewish teenage trying to fit into WASP society no less--the narrator suffers from little guilt because he feels he surely could have written this story. Indeed, as the weeks pass, he often thinks he is the real author--after all, the story sums up his deepest fears and dreams so well, the words are more his than the actual author's. A school master discover's the boy's deception, and what unfolds after that raises important questions about honesty and integrity, both literary and otherwise. This plot outline sounds deadly serious, but actually the tone and language of Old School is not heavy-handed at all. Indeed, Wolff manages to keep the reader chuckling about the foibles of youth and the often unworthy adoration we throw at icons. I loved this book--it reminds me of a droll Separate Peace or Catcher in the Rye.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

With razor sharp wit, Rhoda Janzen skewers her life and serves it up to the reader in the delightful little memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Janzen, a professor of poetry, is a master of language--with the poet's trusty economy she uses just the right word at the right time--even her expletives are judiciously (if frequently) applied. Raised in a close-knit Mennonite family, Janzen wanted nothing more as a child than to escape a rigid religious world. After a string of bad luck in middle age, Janzen returns to live with her parents to heal and reflect...and to write. She balances her perspective between guilelessness and knowledge so perfectly that her childhood frustrations blend seamlessly with those of adulthood. (Her school lunch of borscht mortally embarrasses her; her husband leaves her for someone he met on gay.com.) But the most intriguing theme of the book is Janzen's love/hate relationship with Christianity. She is quick to poke fun (and it is fun to read, believe me) at Jesus lovers, but she can't help but swoon when she hears the old hymns. Mostly, Janzen's fondness for the Mennonite community she once fled comes through loud and clear.

Interesting note: Since writing this book, Janzen has remarried and undergone treatment for breast cancer. Also, she earned one of her degrees, a Masters in Creative Writing, I think, from the University of Florida just down the road a piece.

Many thanks to T.M for passing on this book to me. She always gets me the good stuff.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Best Book of the Year--The Help

After a year's worth of reading, my vote for the best book of 2009 is Katherine Stockett's The Help (see August 19, 2009 ). I've continued to ponder the book's messages, most notably that you never can be certain what another person is thinking, even if she is from your very own neighborhood. Talking with other readers about The Help has kept the joy of reading this book alive and well. Some older women have said to me that the book doesn't accurately portray the help/hirer relationship from that era--that these bonds were much more trusting and reciprocal than portrayed in the novel. Others have echoed this sentiment by taking the opposite position: The Help does indeed authentically demonstrate the early 60's friendships between maid and Mrs. It shows the very best case scenarios to the very worst. No one yet has come forth to volunteer a worst case scenario from her own past. Maybe such a story would be TMI in this day and age, almost impossible to discuss in a setting of tact. And that's why we read books, actually, to view our own lives through their gentle refraction, to discuss plot and character, when deep down we're really talking about ourselves.