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March 22, 2015

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?


Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Nonfiction – Graphic Memoir
2014 Bloomsbury USA
Finished on February 27, 2015
Rating: 2/5 (OK)

 


Overview:

In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast's memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents.

When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the "crazy closet"--with predictable results--the tools that had served Roz well through her parents' seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed.

While the particulars are Chast-ian in their idiosyncrasies--an anxious father who had relied heavily on his wife for stability as he slipped into dementia and a former assistant principal mother whose overbearing personality had sidelined Roz for decades--the themes are universal: adult children accepting a parental role; aging and unstable parents leaving a family home for an institution; dealing with uncomfortable physical intimacies; managing logistics; and hiring strangers to provide the most personal care.

An amazing portrait of two lives at their end and an only child coping as best she can, Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant will show the full range of Roz Chast's talent as cartoonist and storyteller.

#1 New York Times Bestseller
2014 National Book Critics Circle Award Winner for Autobiography
2014 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction
2014 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction Winner
One of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2014


Having just read Being Mortal, Atul Gawande’s remarkable book on medicine and the end of life, I was sadly disappointed with Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? I’ve only read a couple of books in this format and it takes a little getting used to reading the text and looking at the cartoons. However, that wasn’t the cause of my displeasure. I understand that Chast was trying to be completely, perhaps brutally, honest about her experience with the care of her aging parents, but I felt she was a little too candid and somewhat hurtful in the way she expressed her annoyance and frustrations toward her mother and father. Not every negative thought needed to be shared to convey how difficult it was to take care of her parents as they grew more and more unable to do so themselves. I found myself cringing every so often, putting myself in Chast’s shoes, wondering how my mother would feel if I published a book about her final years. This tell-all felt somewhat disrespectful and in poor taste.

With that said, there was a series of drawings that made me laugh out loud. I used to have an oven mitt with holes and scorch marks, dating back to at least 1992. I have since thrown it away. I do, however, own a plastic pasta serving fork that has been missing a couple of tines for many, many years. But, hey! It still works! ;)




As you can see, my attempt to take a few shots of this graphic memoir failed miserably. You can see more and read a portion of the memoir here.

Click here to listen to an interview with the author on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Final Thoughts:

Judging from a wide variety of online reviews, I see that I’m in the minority with my less than stellar rating for this graphic memoir. It quickly became quite apparent that the author did not share a close relationship with her mother and I felt bad that Chast was compelled to express her unhappiness about that relationship in a public format. The details centered around the care of aging parents (the expense, the stress, the overwhelming sense of the unknown) were helpful, not to mention eye-opening. And yet, I believe Atul Gawande was able to achieve the same effect with much more empathy and tenderness, both toward his father and other seniors, than Chast did toward her own parents. If you plan to read both books, borrow Chast's from the library and read it first. Then buy two copies of Gawande’s: one for you and one for either your parents or your children.

March 15, 2015

Being Mortal



Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Nonfiction – Medicine
2014 Metropolitan Books
Finished on February 24, 2015
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)



Being Mortal is an AARP, Amazon, Apple iBooks, Astoria Bookshop, Book Riot, Business Standard, Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, The Economist, Financial Times, The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, Houston Chronicle, Huffington Post, LA Times, Maclean’s Magazine, Mother Jones, New Hampshire Public Radio, The New Statesman, The New York Times, NPR, NPR’s Science Friday, Oprah, Politics & Prose, Shelf Awareness, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Wired Magazine Bestseller. [It was also a Barnes & Noble Best Book of 2014.]

Publisher’s Blurb:

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

Through eye-opening research and gripping stories of his own patients and family, Gawande reveals the suffering this dynamic has produced. Nursing homes, devoted above all to safety, battle with residents over the food they are allowed to eat and the choices they are allowed to make. Doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients’ anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them. And families go along with all of it.

In his bestselling books, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Now he examines its ultimate limitations and failures – in his own practices as well as others’ – as life draws to a close. And he discovers how we can do better. He follows a hospice nurse on her rounds, a geriatrician in his clinic, and reformers turning nursing homes upside down. He finds people who show us how to have the hard conversations and how to ensure we never sacrifice what people really care about.
Riveting, honest, and humane, Being Mortal shows that the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life – all the way to the very end.

“You’re as young as you feel!”

Right??

Or, maybe it’s more like, “You’re not getting any younger!”

Whatever.

I’ve always felt much younger than the date on my driver’s license, but last week, while writing about a book in which a 53-year-old woman is referred to as middle-aged, I stopped dead in my tracks. Really? Middle-aged? But, 53 is middle-aged. So why is that so difficult for me to accept? Isn’t 50 the new 30? (Someone really should mention this to my back and knees.)

I had my first experience of extreme back pain a couple of years ago (who knew lifting one large duffel bag into the back of an SUV could cause such pain!) and now I need to be extra careful when lifting heavy boxes of books at work. Gone are the days of running 3-5 miles, thanks to over 30 years of pounding the pavement, so walking and biking have replaced that passion for a runner’s high. I now own a half dozen pairs of readers, as well as my first pair of bifocals (which I never got used to and have stashed in my purse for emergencies), and while I hate to admit it, I think my hearing is not what it used to be. If there’s too much background noise and I have my back to the room (washing dishes, for instance), I really can’t hear what my husband is saying if he’s in an adjacent room. And, those extra pounds that used to be so easy to drop with just a few simple modifications to my diet, combined with an increase in my exercise routine? Ha! I’m falling apart. Thankfully, more slowly than my husband, but then, he has a decade on me.

So what does all this whining have to do with Atul Gawande’s latest book? Well, it’s pretty obvious that one day we’re all going to die, but this book really got me thinking about how we are treating our elders and how I hope to enjoy my final years of life. Never too early to start worrying, right?

I started listening to Being Mortal on audio, but found my mind wandering, so I decided to switch over to the print edition. This turned out to be a good thing, since I wound up with over a dozen passages marked for future reference. This book is filled with many anecdotes and much information about aging, nursing homes, hospice, etc., and it’s one you’ll want to share with your spouse, hopefully inspiring some heartfelt discussions about planning for “the golden years.” It’s also a great book to share and discuss with your parents, although that might prove to be a bit more uncomfortable than with your spouse. We are a society that loathes to talk about grief, let alone dying. But if we don’t learn our loved-ones' wishes while they can still share them with us, we might not know what their desires are when it’s too late to discuss.

On scientific advances in medicine:

Modern scientific capability has profoundly altered the course of human life. People live longer and better than at any other time in history. But scientific advances have turned the processes of aging and dying into medical experiences, matters to be managed by health care professionals. And we in the medical world have proved alarmingly unprepared for it.

This reality has been largely hidden, as the final phases of life become less familiar to people. As recently as 1945, most deaths occurred in the home. By the 1980s, just 17 percent did. Those who somehow did die at home likely died too suddenly to make it to the hospital—say, from a massive heart attack, stroke, or violent injury—or were too isolated to get somewhere that could provide help. Across not just the United States but also the entire industrialized world, the experience of advanced aging and death has shifted to hospitals and nursing homes.

and

There’s no escaping the tragedy of life, which is that we are all aging from the day we are born. One may even come to understand and accept this fact. My dead and dying patients don’t haunt my dreams anymore. But that’s not the same as saying one knows how to cope with what cannot be mended. I am in a profession that has succeeded because of its ability to fix. If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do. But if it’s not? The fact that we have had no adequate answers to this question is troubling and has caused callousness, inhumanity, and extraordinary suffering.

This experiment of making mortality a medical experience is just decades old. It is young. And the evidence is it is failing.

On nursing homes:

It is a near-universal reality. Nursing home priorities are matters like avoiding bedsores and maintaining residents’ weight—important medical goals, to be sure, but they are means, not ends. The woman had left an airy apartment she furnished herself for a small beige hospital-like room with a stranger for a roommate. Her belongings were stripped down to what she could fit into the one cupboard and shelf they gave her. Basic matters, like when she went to bed, woke up, dressed, and ate, were subject to the rigid schedule of institutional life. She couldn’t have her own furniture or a cocktail before dinner, because it wasn’t safe.

There was so much more she felt she could do in her life. “I want to be helpful, play a role,” she said. She used to make her own jewelry, volunteer at the library. Now, her main activities were bingo, DVD movies, and other forms of passive group entertainment. The things she missed most, she told me, were her friendships, privacy, and a purpose to her days. Nursing homes have come a long way from the firetrap warehouses of neglect they used to be. But it seems we’ve succumbed to a belief that, once you lose your physical independence, a life of worth and freedom is simply not possible.

On simple pleasures:

As our time winds down, we all seek comfort in simple pleasures—companionship, everyday routines, the taste of good food, the warmth of sunlight on our faces. We become less interested in the rewards of achieving and accumulating, and more interested in the rewards of simply being. Yet while we may feel less ambitious, we also become concerned for our legacy. And we have a deep need to identify purposes outside ourselves that make living feel meaningful and worthwhile.

On the dying role:

Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the “dying role” and its importance to people as life approaches its end. People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, settle relationships, establish their legacies, make peace with God, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay. They want to end their stories on their own terms. This role is, observers argue, among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind. And if it is, the way we deny people this role, out of obtuseness and neglect, is cause for everlasting shame. Over and over, we in medicine inflict deep gouges at the end of people’s lives and then stand oblivious to the harm done.


As I finished the final chapter of Atul Gawande’s thought-provoking work, I felt a sense of deep sadness, perhaps because his father’s final days reminded me of the last days I spent with my stepfather, who died on December 15, 2013. Both men died of cancer, in their homes, surrounded by their families, under the care of hospice. It may sound strange to those who have never experienced the passing of a loved one in hospice, but as my stepdad took his final breath, with only candles burning to illuminate the bedroom, his wife and adult children holding his hands and gently touching his arms and back, I couldn’t help but think that it was one of the most beautiful and peaceful moments I’d ever experienced. Of course it was extremely sad, but I can’t think of a better place to say our goodbyes. Certainly not a noisy, sterile hospital room, that’s for certain.

Final Thoughts:

If you only read one book in 2015, Being Mortal is my #1 recommendation for a nonfiction title. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Couples will find plenty of information to use in discussions about their futures as senior citizens, as will adult children with their aging parents. And, of course, members of book groups will have plenty to share about their individual hopes (and fears) to live out their final years not simply with good health and comfort, but also with pleasure and dignity.

Middle-aged? I guess it’s really just a state of mind. While I’m not quite ready to order off the senior menu at Las Margaritas, I do have lots to look forward to in the coming years.

Joie de vivre!

Atul Gawande is the author of The Checklist Manifesto, Better, and Complications. He is also a MacArthur Fellow, a general surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. He lives with his wife and three children in Newton, Massachusetts.

Go here to listen to Atul Gawande’s interview with Diane Rehm on NPR.

March 8, 2015

The Various Haunts of Men


The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
Mystery
A Simon Serrailler Crime Novel (#1)
2011 Blackstone Audio
Reader: Steven Pacey
Finished on February 22, 2015
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)



Publisher’s Blurb:

A woman vanishes in the fog on "the Hill," an area known locally for its tranquility and peace. The police are not alarmed; people usually disappear for their own reasons. But when a young girl, an old man and even a dog disappear no-one can deny that something untoward is happening in this quiet cathedral town. Young policewoman Freya Graffham is assigned to the case; she's new to the job, compassionate, inquisitive, dedicated and needs to know - perhaps too much. She and the enigmatic Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler have the task of unravelling the mystery behind this gruesome sequence of events. From the passages revealing the killer's mind to the final heart-stopping twist, The Various Haunts of Men is a masterly crime debut.

From Amazon:

When Susan Hill first introduced us to the city of Lafferton, to its meticulously crafted cast of characters, and to its chief police inspector Simon Serrailler, readers went wild. When it was released in hardcover, The Various Haunts of Men was named a BookSense Pick and was immediately on the must-read list of every mystery fan. Now out in paperback, Hill's intricate and pulse-pounding novel will reach an even wider audience. 

As the story begins, a lonely woman vanishes while out on her morning run. Then a 22-year-old girl never returns from a walk. An old man disappears too. When fresh-faced policewoman Freya Graffham is assigned to the case, she runs the risk of getting too invested--too involved--in the action. Alongside the enigmatic detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler, she must unravel the mystery before events turn too gruesome. 

Written with intelligence, compassion, and a knowing eye--in the tradition of the fabulous mysteries of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James--The Various Haunts of Men is an enthralling journey into the heart of a wonderfully developed town, and into the very mind of a killer.

This is a marvelous book! I accidentally read The Shadows in the Street, which is the fifth installment in the Simon Serrailler series, a couple of years ago and enjoyed it immensely. After reading Kay’s review for another book in the series, I remembered that I wanted to get back to this author’s books and decided to see if I could borrow The Various Haunts of Men from my library. I was able to get it on audio and it was top-notch listening experience. I got so caught up in the narration, I found myself holding my breath, anxious to hear what was about to happen next. One of the nice things about listening to an audio book is that I am never really sure where I am or how much further it is to the last chapter. I find that this intensifies the suspense more than when I’m reading a print edition of a mystery or thriller. On the negative side, I missed out on a two-page detailed map of Lafferton, which is presented at the beginning of the book and which I only happened to stumble upon while looking up a couple of passages to share.

I don’t remember too much about the mystery in the other book I read, but I do remember that I liked the characters, so it was nice to start at the beginning of the series and get some background history on the main cast. Hill’s characters are fleshed out and the dialogue rings true, although I had to laugh at one point when one of the characters was referred to as middle aged. She is 53. Seriously? I don’t think I’ve ever considered myself middle aged!

I love a good mystery and Hill kept me guessing up until the end of the book, but I also enjoyed the domestic details (reminiscent of Rosamunde Pilcher’s) of the narrative.

On simple comforts of home:

Simon went into the kitchen but Cat did not follow, not yet, she wanted to luxuriate in this room. It ran the length of the house and had long windows. From the kitchen there was a glimpse of the Hill. 

The white-painted wooden shutters were folded back. The polished old elm floorboards had two large good rugs. Light poured in, on to Simon’s pictures and his few carefully chosen pieces of furniture which mixed antiques and contemporary classics with confident success. Beyond this one huge room, he had a small bedroom and a bathroom tucked out of the way, and then the galley kitchen. Everything centred here, in this one calm room, where Cat came, she thought, for almost the same reasons she went to church—peace, quiet, beauty and spiritual and visual recharging of her batteries. Nothing about her brother’s flat bore any relation to her own hugger-mugger farmhouse, always noisy and untidy, spilling over with children, dogs, wellington boots, bridles and medical journals. She loved it, that was where her heart was, where she had deep roots. But a small, vital nugget of herself belonged here, in this sanctuary of light and tranquility. She thought it was probably what kept Simon sane and able to do his often stressful and distressing job as well as he did.

On house calls and death:

She prayed that her phone would not ring. Spending some time now with a dying patient—doing something so ordinary as making tea in this kitchen, helping an ordinary couple through the most momentous and distressing parting of all—put the hassle and increasing administrative burden of general practice in its place. Medicine was changing, or being changed, by the grey men who managed but did not understand it. A lot of Cat and Chris Deerborn’s colleagues were becoming cynical, burned out and demoralized. It would be easy to give in, to process people through the surgery like cans on a conveyor belt and palm the out-of-hours stuff on to locums. That way you got a good night’s sleep—and precious little job satisfaction. Cat was having none of it. What she was doing now was not cost-effective and no one could put a price on it. Helping Harry Chater through his dying, and looking after his wife as well as she could, were the jobs that mattered and as important to her as to them.

Excellent British series! I can’t wait to return to the cathedral town of Lafferton to see what’s in store for DC Simon Serrailler. Next up The Pure in Heart. British actor Steven Pacey is a wonderful reader and it appears that he is the reader for all the audio books in this series. If I can’t download the remaining seven from my library, I may have to break down and join Audible.com.

Go here to read Kay’s excellent review of The Pure in Heart.

You can find my review of The Shadow in the Streets here.

March 5, 2015

Everything I Never Told You



Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Fiction
2014 Penguin Press
Finished on February 14, 2015
Rating: 3/5 (Good)




 Publisher’s Blurb:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . 

So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

{spoiler removed}… the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.

A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

I first heard about Everything I Never Told You early in the holiday season last year when it was named Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014. It was also named a best book of the year by NPR, Huffington Post, Shelf Awareness and many others. This debut novel quickly became a popular pick in our store, not to mention with a lot of my blogging friends, so I was intrigued. I had hoped to read it before Christmas, in order to recommend it to shoppers, but I didn’t get to it until after the holidays. That turned out not to be a problem since word of mouth recommendations made it easy to convince readers to get a copy, which was probably a good thing in this case, since I didn’t love it. I read the book over the course of a week and while I certainly don’t have any complaints about the author’s writing ability, I simply didn’t care for the story. It’s a terribly sad story, but not because of the loss of a child (which we all know is the worst loss anyone should ever have to endure), but because of the underlying dysfunction within the Lee family. Marilyn and James’ disappointments in their individual lives become their children’s burdens to bear. The entire novel is filled with such loneliness and misunderstandings, that had it not been such a compelling story, I probably wouldn’t have finished. The mystery of Lydia’s death played a huge role in sustaining my interest, as did all the glowing reviews I read prior to picking up the book.

Final Thoughts:

Ng’s debut novel is well-written and completely absorbing, and yet I found it too sad to enjoy. Loneliness permeates the entire Lee family; each member a loner or virtually invisible to those around them. These misunderstood people, who really just might have felt loved if only they could communicate and share their true feelings, were lost in their own sad worlds. Good, but not great.

March 1, 2015

Slow Dancing with a Stranger



Slow Dancing with a Stranger by Meryl Comer
Nonfiction – Memoir
2014 HarperOne
Finished on February 13, 2015
Rating: 3/5 (Good)




The man I live with is not the man I fell in love with and married.

He has slowly been robbed of something we all take for granted: the ability to navigate the mundane activities of living—bathing, shaving, dressing, feeding, and using the bathroom. His inner clock is confused and can’t be reset. His eyes are vacant and unaware—as if an internal window shade veils our access.

Before I grasped what was happening, I was hurt and annoyed by my husband’s behavior. Those feelings dissolved into unconditional empathy once I understood the cruelty of his diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He was fifty-eight.

Publisher’s Blurb:

From Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist and leading Alzheimer’s advocate Meryl Comer comes a profoundly intimate and unflinching account of her husband’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, one of today’s most pressing—and least-understood—health epidemics.

When Meryl Comer’s husband, Dr. Harvey Gralnick, chief of hematology and oncology at the National Institutes of Health, began forgetting routine things and demonstrating abrupt changes in behavior, doctors were confounded as to what was wrong. Diagnoses ranged from stress and depression to Lyme disease, from pernicious anemia to mad cow’s disease supposedly acquired from a trip to London. Finally, after years of inconclusive tests, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a seemingly impossible disease for a man in his prime.

Comer gave up her television career and for the next two decades cared for Harvey in their home, tending to his every need while watching him regress into an emotionally distant and sometimes violent stranger. “The man I live with is not the man I fell in love with and married,” she writes. “He has slowly been robbed of what we all take for granted—the ability to navigate the mundane activities of daily living: bathing, shaving, dressing, feeding, and using the bathroom. His inner clock is confused and can’t be reset. His eyes are vacant and unaware.”

In Slow Dancing with a Stranger, Comer brings readers face-to-face with Alzheimer’s, detailing the realities, its stressful emotional and financial hardships for families, as well as the limitations of doctors and assisted living and long term care facilities to manage difficult patient behaviors. With candor and grace, Comer chronicles her personal experiences—her mistakes, her heartbreaks, her minor victories—to paint an intimate and moving portrait of Alzheimer’s and, in the process, she reveals the truth about the disease and everyone it affects.

Six years ago I read Lisa Genova’s amazing debut novel, Still Alice. I couldn’t put the book down, reading it in less than two days, and I gave it a perfect 5/5 rating. Genova's story put a face on Alzheimer’s, reading more like a memoir than a novel. When I came across Meryl Comer’s memoir, Slow Dancing with a Stranger, I was immediately intrigued, eager to read another account of one couple’s experience with this awful disease. I was also curious to see how a real account compares to Genova’s work of fiction.

Slow Dancing with a Stranger is sad, sad, sad. Some reviews say that the book provides inspiration and hope, but I found it bleak and depressing. Told from Comer’s point of view (as opposed to that of the afflicted, as in Still Alice), we see what an exhausting and depressing role the caretaker is thrown into. I don’t remember a lot of violence on the part of Alice in Genova’s book, but Comer’s husband becomes very angry and, quite often, extremely violent. I can understand the incredible financial burden for the care of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, especially for two decades, but I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to take on the physical and emotional burden to care for that person in one’s own home with the assistance of just a couple of nurses and aides.

On the unfairness of the disease:
Neither a scientist nor a neurologist, I have spent close to two decades trying to decipher what’s going on in my husband’s head. How hard and unfair it is for such a smart man to lose pieces of his intellect and independence as the circuitry of his brain misfires and corrodes. No new short-term memories stick: his internal navigational compass has shut down. His disease is my crossword puzzle.
On the loss of friendships:
It was too disconcerting to walk through our door and see someone who was once just like them being destroyed in slow motion by an insidious disease for which there is no cure. I understand how they feel, even though I was left behind too and I’m not sick. How do I write about a twenty-year gaping hole in our lives—an intimate part of our history—when it’s still not over?
On the violence:
The nurses and I worked together, always aware that Harvey could strike out without any warning. I brought in an instructor for a session in self-defense and to demonstrate how to unlock Harvey’s vice-like grip. My personal survival regimen—a weekly weight-training session with a former pro athlete nicknamed Huggy, who pushed me to my physical max and pumped up my courage.
On the emptiness and loneliness:
Winter approached, and soon the holidays were upon us…. As his brain shut down, so did his vision. He lost much of his ability to speak. One of the only words he could still say was his name. Our twenty-third wedding anniversary and my birthday went by as forgotten, irrelevant dates.

There was a deep emptiness in my life; sometimes I felt as if I didn’t exist.

Final Thoughts:

Good, but not great. Like Genova’s novel Still Alice, Slow Dancing with a Stranger is a very readable (yet brutally honest) account of a couple dealing with a spouse’s decline from Alzheimer’s. However, I never felt an emotional pull while reading Comer’s memoir, in spite of all the passages I marked with Post-It notes. Perhaps that’s the difference, at least in this case, between fact and fiction. Both books are medically and practically informative (I really need to look into long-term health care insurance!), and yet Lisa’s book tugged at my heartstrings, while Comer’s held me at an arm’s length. If you haven’t read either of these two books, I strongly recommend Still Alice. And yes, the book is better than the movie, in spite of Julianne Moore’s amazing performance as Alice.

Click here to read my review (and lovely comment from the author) of Still Alice.

Click here to listen to Meryl Comer's interview with Diane Rehm on NPR.

February 28, 2015

February Reading



I read a little bit more this month than I did in January, but one book (Chast's) was a graphic memoir, and I was able to read it on my lunch breaks in just a couple of days. All three nonfiction titles focus on disease and dying; probably not the most uplifting type of books to read in such a sort span of time, but for comparison sake, it makes it easier to decide which I liked better and which I would recommend.

My favorite of the month? I'm going to pick two since they were both very good. The Various Haunts of Men is my fiction choice and Being Mortal is my pick for nonfiction. Reviews to follow, but you can click on the books in my sidebar to read more about them on B&N.

Slow Dancing with a Stranger by Meryl Comer

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast


Stats:

5 books
1 novel
1 mystery
3 nonfiction
2 memoirs
1 graphic book
4 new-to-me authors
4 print books
1 audio book
4 female authors
1 male author
5 borrowed
0 from my stacks

More 2015 Monthly Summaries:

January

February 24, 2015

The Girl on the Train



The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Fiction
2015 Riverhead Books
Finished on January 24, 2015
Rating: 4.5 (Terrific!)





The train crawls along; it judders past warehouses and water towers, bridges and sheds, past modest Victorian houses, their backs turned squarely to the track.

My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like a tracking shot in a film. I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective. Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.

Someone’s phone is ringing, an incongruously joyful and upbeat song. They’re slow to answer, it jingles on and on around me. I can feel my fellow commuters shift in their seats, rustle their newspapers, tap at their computers. The train lurches and sways around the bend, slowing as it approaches a red signal. I try not to look up, I try to read the free newspaper I was handed on my way into the station, but the words blur in front of my eyes, nothing holds my interest. In my head I can still see that little pile of clothing lying at the edge of the track, abandoned.

Publisher’s Blurb:

There she sits, the girl on the train. What she sees, gazing out the window, will change everything.

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She looks forward to it. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

Compulsively readable, The Girl on the Train is an emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller and an electrifying debut.


This chilling psychological tale has everything: Obsession, jealousy, scorned lovers and canned gin & tonics. Definitely not a good mix. With alternating points-of-view and multiple flashbacks, Paula Hawkins has herself a best-selling thriller that never loosens its grip. From cover to cover, this debut is one intense read!

As usual, I went into this book completely blind, which is exactly how everyone should approach The Girl on the Train. Spoiler-free. Remember when everyone was reading Gone Girl, but couldn’t talk about it? Or looking further back, there was all the hush-hush about The Sixth Sense and Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. Even the season finale to The Sopranos had everyone tightlipped. Well, I can’t talk about this book. The most I can do is give you the publisher’s blurb and a few quotes from those who have read and loved the book, just as I have. You’ll just have to read it for yourself. Then let’s talk!

What really makes The Girl on the Train such a gripping novel is Hawkins' remarkable understanding of the limits of human knowledge, and the degree to which memory and imagination can become confused. (NPR.org)
Psychologically astute debut . . . The surprise-packed narratives hurtle toward a stunning climax, horrifying as a train wreck and just as riveting. (Publishers Weekly, starred review)
Ok. I'll tell you a little more. 

I finished The Girl on the Train almost a month ago and I still think it’s outstanding read, one I know I’d like to eventually listen to on audio. It’s not great literature, but it’s without doubt a breathtaking thriller, which pulled me in from the opening lines and didn't let me go until I finished the very last paragraph. Yes, all of the characters are unlikeable and I especially had a tough time with Rachel's constant drinking problem, but Hawkins does such a great job making the reader care just enough to want to continue and find out how it all ends. I knocked it down from a perfect 5/5, as there weren’t any lyrical passages to mark and the ending felt a little anticlimactic, although I usually feel that way about most mysteries/thrillers. It's the getting there that's all the fun.

Final Thoughts:

If this is Hawkins’ debut thriller, I can’t imagine how amazing her second endeavor is going to be. Someone buy that woman a cabin on a lake and let her write another book! Until then, I’ll be first in line to see this on the big screen. Move over, Gone Girl! This one’s got you beat. I think Patricia Highsmith and Hitchcock would approve.

February 22, 2015

Slow Cooker Mexican Pork Carnitas


Carnitas, literally "little meats," is a dish of Mexican cuisine originating from the state of Michoacán. Carnitas are made by braising or simmering pork in oil or preferably lard until tender. The process takes three or four hours and the result is very tender and juicy meat, which is then typically served with chopped coriander leaves (cilantro) and diced onion, salsa, guacamole, tortillas, and refried beans (frijoles refritos). (Wikipedia)

My love for great Mexican food dates back to the late 1960s. As I've mentioned in previous posts, my grandparents had a beautiful beach house in Leucadia, California and every summer my family would make the long drive down I-5 from Central California to visit for several blissful weeks. Highlights of those memorable vacations are forever engrained in my mind. We enjoyed long days at the beach, playing in the chilly water, building sandcastles, and hunting for sand dollars. There were day trips to Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo, and Balboa Park, where I remember savoring a warm homemade corn tortilla from a historical exhibition at the Museum of Man.

The Beach House (on the right),
 which has been remodeled. 


We gazed out the large picture windows that spanned the full length of the house, watching for whales, and occasionally spotting a pod of dolphin riding the waves with the surfers. And of course, there were always the breathtaking sunsets. We dug for sand crabs to use as bait when we fished from the shore and jigged for bait when we went to the pier up in Oceanside. We sneaked jelly beans and gumdrops from my grandfather's candy jars and learned how to play Mah Jong with our North Carolina cousins. The one thing I don't remember is eating out anywhere other than Tony's Jacal in Solana Beach. I think it was at Tony's that I tasted my very first taco, enchilada and guacamole dip. I've been in love with Mexican food ever since.


Oh, my. This picture. So many, many memories of sitting in this back room... my grandmother's memorial lunch was held here. I ate here with my parents, my grandparents, my first husband... my baby girl.

Best rice, beans and enchilada sauce ever.

This past month, my daughter's Instagram feed (yes, you really should follow her!) has been full of tantalizing meals at Mexican restaurants in the Dallas area, making me drool with envy and hit the cookbooks in search of more recipes to add to my repertoire. I have an old recipe for carnitas, which requires simmering a pork roast on the stove top for several hours. In an effort to use my slow cooker as often as possible, I was excited to find this recipe in, yes, you guessed it, The Skinnytaste Cookbook. I made the carnitas a couple of weeks ago and dinner turned out great! Of course, a taco is merely a vehicle for the transfer of guacamole, but these tacos were seriously good. I used the leftover meat for quesadillas later in the week and they were just as amazing. 

You're welcome!



Slow-Cooker Mexican Pork Carnitas

2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder roast, trimmed
6 garlic cloves, crushed with a garlic press
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 bay leaves
2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, minced (or more if you like it spicy)
1  1/4 tsp. ground cumin, divided
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 1/4 tsp. kosher salt, divided
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper

Season the pork all over with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Set in a large nonstick pan over medium-high heat, add the pork, and brown on all sides for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

For the dry adobo rub:

In a small bowl, combine 1 teaspoon of the cumin, the garlic powder, oregano, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and the black pepper.

Using a sharp knife, insert the knife into the pork about 1 inch deep and insert the crushed garlic, rubbing any excess over the pork. Rub the pork all over with the dry adobo rub.

Pour the chicken broth into the slow cooker and add the bay leaves, chipotle peppers, and the pork. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. After 8 hours, transfer the pork to a large dish. Discard the bay leaves. Shred the pork using two forks and return it to the slow cooker with the juices. Add the remaining 1/4 teaspoon cumin and the 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Serves 10

My Notes:

This recipe made enough for 6 tacos and 2 large quesadillas. If I'm going to make this for a group, I'll definitely want to use 4-5 pounds of pork. The roast I bought was 4 pounds, so I cut it in half and put it in the freezer for future use. I was worried that 2 pounds wasn't going to be enough for a couple of meals, but there was plenty. However, I think next time, I'll just double the recipe and freeze the cooked meat for tacos, quesadillas and burritos. 

I didn't use the garlic and the meat still tasted flavorful.

I've never cooked with chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, and I wasn't sure how spicy they would make the meat, so I decided to just use one pepper. I didn't dice it up, either; just set it in the broth and stirred it around. I'm not sure if I'd bother with it next time around. Maybe some cayenne added to the rub would be sufficient for a little kick.

After shredding the pork, I decided to throw it in a hot skillet to make the meat a bit more crispy. I didn't have to add any oil or fat since the pork is already a little fatty. 

Serve with warm tortillas, shredded jack & cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, chopped cilantro, guacamole and sour cream. Don't forget the Negra Modelo!

Mmmmmmm!


Please visit Beth Fish Reads for Weekend Cooking.
Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.

I'm also participating in Trish's Cook it Up! Cookbook Challenge. Click on over to see what she has going on!
Welcome to the Seventh Edition of Cook It Up! Feel free to join in the challenge at any time, any month. The idea is to pull those cookbooks off your shelves and use them. These can be cookbooks that you already own or cookbooks that you’d like to check out from the library (or borrow from a friend?). You can cook from one cookbook over the course of the month or pick and choose recipes from different cookbooks. And feel free to make a dozen recipes or just one. You make the rules!



February 20, 2015

The Silkworm


The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)
Cormoran Strike Series #2
Mystery
2014 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Reader: Robert Glenister
Finished on January 24, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Really liked it)



Publisher’s Blurb:

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine's disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poison-pen portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer—a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before.

A compulsively readable crime novel with twists at every turn, The Silkworm is the second in the highly acclaimed series featuring Cormoran Strike and his determined young assistant, Robin Ellacott.

This is a wonderful series, especially on audio. The pacing is taut, the plot full of twists & turns, and Robert Glenister proves, once again, to be an excellent reader. Unlike other male readers, I’m never annoyed with his female characterizations. As with The Cuckoo’s Calling (the first in this series), I was more interested in the character development and not quite as engrossed in the actual mystery. I’m eager to see what’s in store for Cormoran and Robin and hope I don’t have to wait too long!

Final Thoughts:

No sophomoric slump for Robert Galbraith! The Silkworm is another entertaining installment to the Cormoran Strike series. If you haven’t read either of these mysteries, you’re missing out.


February 17, 2015

The Long Winter


The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Fiction – Children’s
Original Copyright 1940
1971 Harper Trophy Book
Finished on January 14, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Really liked it)




Publisher’s Blurb:

On the empty winter prairie, gray clouds to the northwest meant only one thing: a blizzard was seconds away. The first blizzard came in October. It snowed almost without stopping until April. The temperature dropped to forty below. Snow reached to rooftops. An no trains could get through with food and coal. The townspeople began to starve. The Ingalls family barely lived through that winter. And Almanzo Wilder knew he would have to risk his life to save the town.

The “Little House” books tell the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life. She was born in 1867 in the little log cabin on the edge of the Big Woods of Wisconsin, and through the years she traveled with her family by covered wagon through Kansas, Minnesota, and finally the Dakota Territory, where she met and married Almanzo Wilder.

There was deprivation and hard work. Crops were ruined by storms and grasshopper plagues. But there were also the happy times of love and laughter; sleigh rides, holiday celebrations, and socials. These eight titles now in paperback bring the Ingalls family vividly alive and capture the best of the American pioneer spirit.

The illustrations by Garth Williams are the results of 10 years of research. Mr. Williams actually followed the path of the Ingalls family during the period 1870-1889. No wonder, then, that the pictures have a special quality for the children who have loved these stories through the years.

It is currently overcast and 11 degrees outside. While we have had some unseasonably warm days this winter, we have also had some extremely cold (subzero) temps, lasting for days on end. And we’ve had quite a bit of snow, but nothing like what the Northeast has experienced. As I sit in my cozy room, sipping my hot cup of tea, I hear the furnace kick on once again and I feel especially thankful that it is 2015 and not the late 1800s! As I read The Long Winter, I was constantly reminded of how lucky we are to have heat, hot water, a refrigerator full of food, and a car to take us to the store should we need anything else. I would not have been a very good pioneer!

I first read The Long Winter in 1972, after receiving it for my 11th birthday from my best friend. I’ve been meaning to go back and re-read this entire series, but decided to skip ahead to The Long Winter after reading Bellezza’s comments about this favorite book of hers. As far as I can remember, I’ve only read the book once, maybe two times, and I was so surprised that it has a more mature feel to it than most young reader books I’ve read as an adult. The dialogue and detailed narrative doesn’t sound light or childish, and I found myself commenting to my husband about the excellent writing on more than one occasion.

On the arrival of yet another blizzard:
The cold and the dark had come again. The nails in the roof were white with frost, the windowpanes were gray. Scraping a peephole only showed the blank, whirling whiteness against the other side of the glass. The stout house quivered and shook; the wind roared and howled. Ma kept the rag rugs tightly against the bottom of the doors, and the cold came crawling in.

It was hard to be cheerful. Morning and afternoon, holding the clothesline, Pa went to the stable to feed the horses, the cow, and the heifer. He had to be sparing of the hay. He came in so cold that he could hardly get warm. Sitting before the oven, he took Grace on his knee and hugged Carrie close to him, and he told them the stories of bears and panthers that he used to tell Mary and Laura. Then in the evening he took his fiddle and played the merry tunes.
and
It helped some. Laura hoped that she seemed cheerful enough to encourage the others. But all the time she knew that this storm had blocked the train again. She knew that almost all the coal was gone from the pile in the lean-to. There was no more coal in town. The kerosene was low in the lamp though Ma lighted it only while they ate supper. There would be no meat until the train came. There was no butter and only a little fat-meat dripping was left to spread on bread. There was still potatoes, but no more than flour enough for one more bread baking.

When Laura had thought of all this, she thought that surely a train must come before the last bread was gone. Then she began to think about the coal, the kerosene, the little bit of dripping left, and the flour in the bottom of the flour sack. But surely, surely, the train must come.

All day and all night, the house trembled, the winds roared and screamed, the snow scoured against the walls of over the roof where the frosty nails came through. In the other houses there were people, there must be lights, but they were too far away to seem real.
On pancakes and the generosity of neighbors:
Almanzo waved that away, “What’s a little wheat between neighbors? You’re welcome to it, Mr. Ingalls. Draw up a chair and sample these pancakes before they get cold.”

But Pa insisted on paying for the wheat. After some talk about it, Almanzo charged a quarter and Pa paid it. Then he did sit down, as they urged him, and lifting the blanket cake on the untouched pile, he slipped from under it a section of the stack of hot, syrupy pancakes. Royal forked a brown slice of ham from the frying pan onto Pa’s plate and Almanzo filled his coffee cup.

“You boys certainly live in the lap of luxury,” Pa remarked. The pancakes were no ordinary buckwheat pancakes. Almanzo followed his mother’s pancake rule and the cakes were light as foam, soaked through with melted brown sugar. The ham was sugar-cured and hickory-smoked, from the Wilder farm in Minnesota. “I don’t know when I’ve eaten a tastier meal,” said Pa.
Random thoughts:

Did Pa mention this meal to his family? If this book is part of Laura’s biography, he must have or how else would she have known? And how could he enjoy such delicious food while his wife and children were practically starving to death? Of course, he was doing most of the physical labor to take care of his family and livestock, but still!

On the howl of the wind:
The constant beating of the winds against the house, the roaring, shrieking, howling of the storm, made it hard even to think. It was possible only to wait for the storm to stop. All the time, while they ground wheat, twisted hay, kept the fire burning in the stove, and huddled over it to thaw their chapped, numb hands and their itching, burning, chilblained feet, and while they chewed and swallowed the coarse bread, they were all waiting until the storm stopped.
Final Thoughts:

Reading about blizzards as the wind howled outside our bedroom window in early January, with the temperature plummeting once again, made me so thankful I wasn’t a pioneer girl! I love my creature comforts and can’t imagine living in such harsh conditions during a long winter. Running out of coal, having to burn twisted hay, eating a single piece of brown bread with some tea for an evening meal once the food has run out, the isolation, the constant noise of the wind and the fear of dying are almost impossible to imagine. Now that I’ve read The Long Winter, I’m eager to re-read O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. Maybe next winter, though. Right now, I’m ready for something a little more uplifting.