Monday, August 30, 2010

Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell

In a perfect world Muslims would be allowed to build mosques anywhere they want, but wouldn't choose to pick a site that offended. In a perfect world teachers in our Indianapolis Public Schools would have the funds to purchase all the supplies they need, obviating the need to dumpster dive in the back lots of the school in the neighboring, wealthy, suburban school. And, in a perfect world love would trump all.

Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp both descended into alcoholism in their younger lives; but despite their troubled starts, each recovered and went onto have successful writing careers. Then, in that 40-plus stage of life, they each found the other and forged a friendship of the highest caliber.

"Let's Take the Long Way Home" is their love story. And no, it's not a romantic love story; this one is purely platonic. Gail Caldwell, a journalist, and Caroline Knapp, author of the memoir "Drinking: A Love Story," bond over many things, but what stands alone is their shared love for their pets, the two dogs Clementine and Lucy. LTTLWH includes many stories about the two women walking and training their two dogs together, and this helped to cement their friendship. In one horrific part Caldwell tells of an incident in which Clementine is mauled by two pit bulls, and her description of the scene and the small details of her reaction are so spot-on I had to pause the CD, as it brought back in vivid detail memories of the time my dog, Mischief, was attacked.

Caldwell cared for Caroline in her last days (she died of cancer) and memorializes their friendship in stunning prose, including many passages that are descriptive rather than driven by scene, which adds to the depth of the narrative. LTTLWH is a gorgeously written, hopeful story. If you have a beloved friend, or a beloved dog, you will find your heart touched.

No, it's not a perfect world, but by giving us this glimpse into her friendship and showing us the unwavering, pure love two people can have for each other, Gail Caldwell reminds us how to make our world just a little less imperfect.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon

While in my dentist's waiting room today I noticed a poster advertising a special on teeth bleaching, compete with a picture of a face sporting the now common ultra-white smile. Staring at the face it struck now just how incongruous and ironic these uberwhite teeth are: teeth are one marker of internal health; if our teeth look good we look healthy. Bleaching teeth artifically gives them that healthful look, while in fact, not only are the now-white teeth no healthier than before the process, but the process of bleaching may damage teeth (Mine now have ultra-sensitive spots; this, after a few sessions of bleach, with the exception of coloring my hair is my one nod to artifice).
Every now and then I request "Nourishing Traditions" from the library, just to remind myself of what to shoot for, culinarily speaking. In "Nourishing Traditions," Sally Fallon has created a gem of a cookbook. It's beautifully designed, and also includes information about nutrition based on the research of dentist Wes Price back in the 1930s. Dr. Price is famous for rooting out some of the last remaining "primitive societies," ones untouched by modern culture, that ate diets comprised entirely of local foods. They people in these cultures had wide jaws with uncrowded (think -- no braces!) teeth. There were several factors these societies' diets had in common, and these are not necessarily thought of as healthful by modern society. These societies ate a lot of protein, either in the form of meat or seafood; they didn't eschew animal fat; they used broths made of animal bones; they fermented their food and, of course, included lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, along with raw foods originating from both animals and vegetables.

These "primitive societies" were found to be virtually free of chronic disease. Humans who grew up "nourished" on modern day diets, on the other hand, had narrow jaws, tooth decay, infectious disease and degenerative illnesses.

Fallon's book is complete, with chapters on every category of food and drink, and has the great feature of including tips and bits of supporting research in the columns on the outside margin of many of the pages. There is no shortage of theories that purport to know what and how we should eat, but I think one can't go wrong by sticking to the basics: eating a wide variety of fresh, whole foods.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner and, as with all the Jewish holidays, there are certain foods that serve as symbols to ground us in the holiday's underlying meaning. Because Judaism has such a strong focus on the passing down of customs, there are myriad traditions to choose from. My son has already made the honey cake for the desert for this year's meal and, of course, there will be apples dipped in honey, both serving to forecast the sweetness of the upcoming year. The head of a fish symbolizes the new head of the year, although that is one traditional food that has never graced my holiday table; it seems a little hard-core. I always serve pomegranate, though, and it is said that there are as many purple-red, pulpy seeds underneath the leathery skin as there are mitzvot: 613. Every year my kids unsuccessfully try to debunk the theory by trying to count them; an obscenely, impossibly messy, impossibility. Pomegranates are an autumn fruit, but if Rosh Hashanah falls early enough, the fruit may not have hit the produce section yet. This sends all us Jewish mothers scrambling. There are frantic emails and calls, as we direct each other to the one grocery store that has the goods. It's as if we are a Jewish-mother team on the show "The Amazing Race," trying to get to Pomegranate-Land before sundown on Rosh Hashanah to win the grand prize.

As I make holiday dinners, as with any meal, it gives me a particular pleasure to think that the time, care, and energy (this concept is best conveyed by the Hebrew word kavanah, which translates into intent) I put into preparing the meal all are, in the grand, karmic scheme of life, metaphysically transferred to the food. So, when I read that Aimee Bender's protagonist, the young Rose Edelstein, can taste food and feel the emotions of the person who prepared it, I didn't assess this premise to be fantastical; the concept wasn't all that far outside of the Jewishy, New Agey spirituality that informs my belief system. It wasn't until much later in Bender's narrative, when the plot nose-dives into the surreal, that I realized that Bender's novel fits into the category of magical realism.

"The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" is a strange, yet wonderful story, one that showcases the interior realm of its characters, as we are privileged to glimpse this amidst a world with different rules from the one you and I inhabit. I can't say that I was riveted throughout the entire book, but in the end, it didn't matter; Bender's prose shimmers. The characters in TPSOLC, despite their supernatural powers, are drawn with texture and subtlety. Their actions belie their complex emotions as they do the work of life, and overcome personal challenges to reach out and build bridges with each other and the world.

Rosh Hashanah is very early this year and I know I will be scrambling to track down my treasured pomegranates. Like "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," inside their covers are hundreds and hundreds of jewels.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Matter of Taste: Road Dogs, by Elmore Leonard; Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart; and This Time Together, by Carol Burnett

Summer is almost over and in my fury to make it through the stack on my overflowing shelf of library books, I found three titles that, for various reasons, didn't hit the mark. It's purely a matter of taste. Here's my take. Maybe you'll feel differently.
On the drive home from my recent trip to St. Louis I was finally able to fill in one of the embarrassing gaps in my literary knowledge: I had never read or, in this case listened to, a single book by Elmore Leonard. Crime novels? They're not what I like to read. Still, Leonard is touted to be a master of the genre, and because I think I can always learn something by reading anything that's well written, I decided to give this one a try.
In "Road Dogs," Jack Foley, a cerebral bank robber, is released from jail and begins his new life as a free man by entangling himself in the dealings of with his friend, the Cuban gangster Cundo, and Cundo's psychic girlfriend, Dawn. Because I'm not a crime fiction fan, I can't wax poetic about the gritty plot details of murders and bank robberies. I read to learn about people's inner lives, of crimes of the heart. Although Leonard is a great storyteller and endows his characters with a complexity that lends them verisimilitude, the nature of the genre dictates that the story is saturated with testosterone. This might be one for my non reading husband.

One of my brother-in-law's favorite truisms is that if anyone tries to convince you of something, but has to tack on a modifierin order to make the statement accurate, then whatever they're trying to convince you of isn't all that great. My brother-in-law likes to site examples from when he had to relocate. Realtors and head-hunters attempted to "sell" their small towns by saying, it's a got a great (fill in the blank: symphony, library, park system, etc.), but then modify their proclamation by saying, "for a city this size." It's the telltale modifier "this size" that voids the proclamation. And so it goes with Gary Shteyngart's third novel, "Super Sad True Love Story." I wish I could simply say SSTLS is a great novel but, in order to be accurate, I have to say that SSTLS is a great novel, for a satirical story about modern consumer culture and globalization as seen through the eyes of Eastern European misfits. Here, as in his two previous novels, Shteyngart plays on his strength, his outsider-ness. He brings a clear focus to the crazy world we live in because he is the quintessential alien. I enjoyed "Absurdistan," Shteyngart's second novel, and SSTLS has the same over the top, sarcastic, dyspeptic tone. Still, there's only so much Eastern European-inflected, futuristic dystopia I can take before, well, I'm ready to move on.

I was excited to get my copy of "This Time Together" from the library. I still remember the Saturday nights of my childhood, wearing footie pajamas while sitting on the floor and looking up at the TV watching my favorite shows. The Carol Burnett Show was one of them. Burnett's humor was outrageous and slapstick, but somehow, amidst the hokey accents and goofy costumes she conveyed a sensitivity, a down-to-earth, I'm-one-of-you-ness. I wondered if Burnett's humor, like that of other comedians, was born of her inner struggles. I was curious. But TTT is more like a traditional autobiography than a memoir, and it was a disappointment. In TTT Burnett gives us a series of breezy vignettes about her path to stardom and the famous folk she befriended along the way. Her stories are entertaining, but Burnett only shared half-stories. Her tales were sanitized, and fairly one-dimensional, and in her language she often reached for the easy cliche. I'll have to read Burnett's memoir of 2003, entitled, "One More Time," which tells of her early struggles amidst alcoholic parents who left her in the care of her grandmother. "This Time Together" wasn't time well spent, but I'll always love Carol Burnett.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper

My Great-Aunt Lil always left a restaurant with her purse filled with sugar and Sweet N Low packets, as well as the occasional foiled-covered baked potato. I still remember the pearl of wisdom she dispensed to me -- with love and affection -- when I was 18. She called me Dolly, and advised me to put on my tightest sweater and go to the library to meet the boys; this, to combat freshman year loneliness.

If you love the eccentric, Yiddishy characters in your own family the way I love mine, you will fall in love with Jonathan Tropper's "This is Where I Leave You." Tropper's narrator is Judd Foxman, who tells his tale with deadpan humor. The story begins as the family gathers to sit shiva for Mort, the patriarch. Judd is one of 4 siblings, and each one arrives to the shiva with his or her own bulky set of family baggage. Despite the Foxman family's inability to communicate effectively on an emotional level, in true Jewish/Yiddish tradition, they spar, and toss barbs and bon mots back and forth like ping pong balls.

Tropper is a master craftsman: although the characters are drawn from bits and pieces of stereotypes, the cast of characters, and there are a lot of them, rings true. The story artfully weaves in and out of Judd's complicated relationships with his wife and each of his siblings, compelling me to read to the very end. The pacing of the story was impeccable. I never had a single one of the I'm-not-sure-I-care-enough-to-read-on moments that frequent my reading these days. It is amazing to me that Tropper can write novels from the male perspective and is able to credibly mine the emotional landscape of his male protagonists in a way that can't help but appeal to both men and women. I'm not positive, but I even think my reading averse husband might even enjoy TIWILY. It's definitely not chick-lit. Is it dude-lit?

I have had the opportunity this summer to reconnect with several parts of my extended family, and the family bonds we strengthened and forged have reinforced the importance family holds for me. Tropper's trope is just that: that those crazy, twisted, and sometimes tortured relationships we have with our family are precious. Aunt Lil passed on years ago, but I still remember her raspy voice as she called to me, and how she used to plant a big one on my cheek, leaving a smear of waxy lipstick. You may not have had an Aunt Lil in your family -- but with any luck you had someone close.

If you're looking for a fun, yet well written, end-of-summer read, I highly recommend "This is Where I Leave You." You might want to check it out from the library. Just remember to put on your tightest sweater before you go.

Little Beauties, by Kim Addonizio

When I saw that Kim Addonizio is coming to Indy as part of Butler's Authors' Series, I was anxious to check out her work. Addonizio has published poetry and short story collections, but, except on rare occasions, neither of these forms resonates with me, so I bypassed these and nabbed her novel.

In "Little Beauties," Diana McBride, a former child beauty contestant, and Jamie Ramirez, a recalcitrant, pregnant teenager cross paths and change each other's lives. When Jamie wanders into a baby supply store, she purchases a teddy bear. The baby store is Diana's newest place of employment, as each of her other jobs inevitably became sullied by imagined contaminants that sparked her OCD.

"Little Beauties" is a fun, fast-paced, yet thought-provoking story. Addonizio imbues her characters with texture; they do good things with misguided intentions, and bad things when trying to do right. They are, each in her own way, slightly unhinged, yet true to life. Her characters, their dialogue, and the snappy scenes all work together, and something about Addonizio's sensibility reminds me of Anne Lamott, especially her new novel, "Imperfect Birds." In fact, in checking out the inside back cover, I see both women hail from my old stomping grounds: San Francisco's Bay Area.

"Little Beauties" was a great read and I look forward to hearing Kim Addonizio speak this fall. Maybe I'll even crack open some of her poetry.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Denial, by Jessica Stern

Jessica Stern holds a doctorate in public policy from Harvard and lectures on terrorism. During the Clinton administration she was a member of the National Security Council. She worked behind the scenes when Daniel Pearl was kidnapped. Undoubtedly she comes across as competent and fearless, with nothing in her appearance or demeanor clueing anyone in to the fact that, as a teenager, she experienced a horrific and terror-filled event: she was raped at gunpoint.

And there's a back story to the rape: Shortly after Stern's mother died -- this happened when Stern was just a toddler -- her father remarried a much younger woman. Stern's new stepmother was immature and ill equipped to take on the role of mother. The marriage lasted a few years and then Stern's father divorced, and remarried again. The night of the rape, Stern and her sister were at the empty apartment of their first stepmother, while their father was out of the country with his new wife. He was told about the rape but didn't change his plans to return home early.

Stern begins her memoir by describing herself a few years back, as an accomplished adult who runs away from all things emotional. She sees a therapist, complaining that she wants to feel even less. She describes feeling a detachment, as if she was floating above her body. A hypersensitivity, even aversion, to fluorescent lights, loud noises and certain scents. An intolerance for specific, seemingly mundane, situations. Her relationship to fear as a tortured dance -- she is bizarrely fearless whenever there is a real reason to be afraid, yet experiences an undercurrent of panic in her everyday life.

Then, out of the blue, the police contact her about her rape case, now decades old, and she decides to investigate her rape herself. In "Denial," she details her investigation, describing what she learned about herself by learning about her attacker, now deceased, from his family and friends.

Stern then tells how she attempted to understand and come to terms with her father, his denial of what she went through, and the fraught relationship they have had. She asks him about his life in Europe during the Holocaust, and his descriptions of what he endured shined light on aspects of his personality and why he did things that were hurtful to her.

In her work with her therapist, Stern discovers she is suffering from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that, until then, she had associated only with war veterans and victims of the very terrorists she studied . Stern is now a staunch advocate of PTSD awareness. For her, she reports, there is no cure, but she continues to learn how to manage her symptoms.

Many of the unusual states-of-being that Stern describes are familiar to me. Like Stern, I have endured both sexual abuse, as well as the pain of struggling with the denial of family members who were unable to accept the truth. As a result, I've never been able to see the narrative of my life in one piece. Instead of one, unbroken story, my life has felt like a mishmash of events, all separate fragments, like memory snapshots that hide out just under my conscious thought. To be able to put a name to these experiences is a comfort.

I'm grateful for "Denial," and am certain that Stern's courageous and honest story will help others, too.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

I asked my 12-year-old son this question: of everyone you know, who best embodies his or her name? His answer? Mischief, our dog. Touche'. Dog stories. How can anyone resist a story that features a dog -- a creature so guileless, one imbued with only the best of humanity's qualities -- a staunch loyalty, an unending affection, and the ability to derive immense joy from the simplest offerings? Still, at the same time, inevitably there is a cloying, formulaic quality to even the best of these dog stories. It is the nature of the beast, (pun intended), that while dogs' brains render them unquestioningly loyal, their inability to engage in more sophisticated thought processes also restricts any dog-centered story to a fable-like simplicity. Dog stories are all cut from the same cloth: Through a series of misadventures, conflicts and losses -- almost always including the death of a beloved family member -- the dog teaches its humans the valuable lessons of trust and unconditional love.

My own dog story wouldn't feature my infamous pooch, Mischief, although he's always good for a you'll-never-be-able-to-guess-what-he-ate-today story. My story started a couple of years ago, and featured strays, another heart-tugging icon of the stereotypical dog story. I began to find stray dogs everywhere. Or rather, stray dogs started to find me. Wherever I was, a stray dog inevitably appeared, as if out of the ether. Within the span of a year I must have corralled about two dozen of them, before eventually -- with a significant investment of time and effort -- returning each of them to their owners. During this rainstorm of stray dogs, which lasted about a year, I began to feel that God must have been trying to tell me something.
So, enough of your dog story, Susan, you say, what about "The Art of Racing in the Rain," did you like it or not? I'll say this: Stein constructed a nice dog story, and even threw in some creative twists. But just as a dog's love is unconditional -- either it's on or it's off -- Stein colored his novel's characters black and white and with not much gray. Enzo's owner, Denny, was the quintessential good guy, and then there were the bad guys. Also, there was the cliche of the lost family member, here played by Denny's wife, who died from cancer (I don't think I'm giving away anything earth-shattering here).
And the ending? So predictable, you could write it yourself. Still, if you're a dog story lover, the flat characters probably won't stand in the way of you loving this book. It's a bestseller, so obviously I'm the only pooch in the pack not wagging her tail.
Next, a book with a tad more gravitas: Denial, by Jessica Stern. Meanwhile, I just saw a loose dog dart down my street. Gotta run!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

1/2 books: Books I only got halfway through

It's the age old question: How far do you continue to read when a book has lost your interest? Some friends feel obligated to see the thing through, but not me. Life's too short and the list of books I want to read is too long! Here are two books that held such promise I stuck with them through the first halves, long after I first heard that familiar voice in my head whisper, "This is not working, move on!" In this case, two half-books do not equal one!
I loved Leah Stewart's "The Myth of You and Me," and so appreciated her sensibility, that I thought her newest offering would be a sure bet. I was hooked at the start -- Sarah and Nathan are getting ready to attend the wedding of two of their friends, when suddenly Nathan discloses that he has had an affair. Stewart's strength are her characters, so multi-layered and realistic, and usually this is all I need to be sucked in. Still, there just wasn't enough happening in "Husband and Wife" to hold me. Sarah's introspection held sway over the plot line and, well, I realized I just didn't care enough to read on and see if the two worked out their marriage.

Joshua Braff (Zach Braff's brother) penned this provocative sounding novel about the travails of a teenage boy enduring his parents divorce in the 70s. His father owns, and is trying to keep alive, one of Times Square's old-fashioned peep shows, while his mother becomes a baal t'shuva, returning to tradition and adopting the customs of the Hasidim. The only thing that stayed with me in this dark, depressing, and unbelievable novel was my embarrassment at the title. I started reading it on a plane, and realized I felt compelled to hide the cover, folding it under the book on the fold-out tray in front of me.
Next up: two books that couldn't be more different from each other. Denial, by Jessica Stern, is a memoir by an expert interrogator of terrorists, who reflects on the rape she experienced as a teenager and the PTSD it caused. "The Art of Racing in the Rain," by Garth Stein, is the story of the life of a man as told through the eyes of his dog. Stay tuned.