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April 13, 2015

The Bear



The Bear by Claire Cameron
Fiction
Hachette Audio
Read by Cassandra Morris
Finished on March 8, 2015
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)



Publisher’s Blurb:

This is the story of a small narrator with a very big heart.

While camping with her family on a remote island, five-year-old Anna wakes in the night to the sound of screaming. A wild black bear is attacking the family’s campsite—and pouncing on her parents as prey.

Anna’s wounded mother pleads for the children to get into the family’s canoe and paddle away. But once they escape, the sister and brother end up lost and alone in the woods, battling hunger, the elements, and a wilderness alive with danger. Their only hope resides in Anna’s heartbreaking love for her family, as she struggles to be brave when nothing in her world seems safe anymore.

Told in the innocent voice of a child, The Bear is a transporting tale—one of love, loss, and the raw instincts that enable us to survive.

The Bear is based on the author’s memories of, and research into, a true story. She added the kids. From the Author’s Note:
In October of 1991, Raymond Jakubauskas and Carola Frehe pitched their tent on Bates Island on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park, nearly three thousand square miles of wilderness situated two hundred miles northeast of Toronto. The couple had planned to camp for a three-day weekend. When they failed to return on Monday, friends contacted the police. The partially eaten remains of Jakubauskas and Frehe were found on Wednesday. A large male black bear was standing guard over the prey.
Not since Emma Donoghue’s Room (click on the link for my review) has a child’s voice been captured so beautifully. This is a heartbreaking story, but I was able to listen to the audio production since I knew the actual events did not include any children. The book opens with the attack, told from Anna’s point of view, and it is so incredibly suspenseful! I think I might have held my breath during the entire opening chapter. Cassandra Morris is an excellent reader and I quickly forgot that she was an adult reading a book and not a child recounting a real event. Anna’s innocent point-of-view, as well as that of her younger brother, is so convincing and consistent. From the Reading Group Guide:
The syntax of some of your sentences are so great. “I open my mouth and she turns the spoon and it goes plop and there is a bit of Tang but then it goes wiggle wiggle and oh yuck that’s weird and my tongue says no thanks and tssssuffff I spit.” Are sentences like these based on real five-year-olds’ dialogue?

Yes. My son was five when I started writing. We had many conversations, and I taped a few of his rants to get the rhythm. But it didn’t take all that much research. He was going through a very chatty stage, so I had his speech patterns pretty much seared into my brain. As I wrote, Anna separated from him and became her own character, but quite a few of the funnier lines are directly from his mouth.

Yes, there is humor in this book. I seriously doubt anyone could read such a tragic novel without a few chuckles added here and there.

I’ve written about camping (here and here) with my family, both as a child and as a parent, and my fear of bears is very strong. My husband and I are planning to buy a small trailer in a few years and we’ve been doing some research on bear prevention. After reading this book, I may opt for parking at Walmart! ;)

Do you know the difference between a grizzly bear and an American black bear? Take a look at this informative video about bear safety.





Final Thoughts:

While The Bear tugged heavily at my heartstrings, bringing tears to my eyes, it also made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. I loved listening to this audio (Cassandra Morris is superb!) and I’m fairly sure that I wouldn’t have appreciated the book half as much had I read the print version. Just hearing the youthful voice of Morris, with her interpretation of the intense emotion of both children, put me right along beside them in the canoe and woods. Highly recommend!

April 11, 2015

Pork Chops with Sage Butter - Weekend Cooking

Today is Julia Child's birthday!

Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it. ~ Julia Child

April 11, 1954: She eventually mastered the art of French cooking, but at 41, Julia Child was still figuring it all out. An attempt to make a beurre blanc for sea bass failed, much to her “quite hurt surprise.” (From Goodreads)






Well, one thing I've learned in the past 30+ years of cooking is that, like Julia Child, I'm still figuring it all out and that it takes a lot of practice. After trying America's Taste Kitchen recipe for Smothered Pork Chops with Onions and Bacon, I was on a mission to find the perfect recipe for pork chops. Each week, I try to have a wide variety of protein choices on our dinner menu. Chicken, shrimp, salmon, steak and ground beef always get top billing, but pork never seems to make the list unless I fix ribs. I think that's about to change. I came across a simple recipe for Your New Favorite Pork Chops in the March 2015 issue of Bon Appetit. It looked wonderful and I was pleased to see that it only requires seven ingredients. Perfect for a weeknight meal after a long day at work, followed by a pre-dinner walk or bike ride. 

Your New Favorite Pork Chops
Bon Appetit
(photo from magazine)

Doesn't that look delicious? Let me tell you, this is a winner! It was so good, I made it a second time later that week. But be forewarned. It's all about getting the right cut of pork and watching your time. I can't state strongly enough the importance of a good meat thermometer and timer. You don't want to guess with this recipe!


Bon Appetit's Pork Chops with Sage Butter
(aka Your New Favorite Pork Chop)

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2  1 1/2"-thick bone-in pork rib chops (8-10 oz. each)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
8 sprigs sage (fresh)
2 garlic cloves, peeled, smashed
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Season pork chops all over (including the fat cap) with salt and pepper. Cook pork chops until bottom side is golden brown, about 1 minute. Turn and cook on other side about 1 minute before turning again. Repeat this process, turning about every minute, until chops are deep golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 135 degrees, 8-10 minutes (cooking time will depend on thickness of chops). Do Not Overcook!

Remove pan from heat and add sage, garlic, and butter, smashing garlic into butter. Tilt skillet and spoon foaming butter and drippings over pork chops, making sure to baste the fat cap as well as the rib. Transfer pork chops to a cutting board and let rest at least 5 minutes (pork will come to 145 degrees as it sits).

Cut away bone and slice pork about 1/4" thick. Serve with any juices from the cutting board spooned over top.

Bon Appetit's Note:

Though it may seem like a counter-intuitive practice, extra flipping is the secret to the golden-brown crust on these chops.

Why we flip the chops: Frequent flipping produces a deep-brown crust and an evenly cooked rosy interior—plus, the meat cooks in less time since both sides are in near-constant contact with the pan. For best results, try this technique with the thickest, fattiest chops you can find.

My Notes:

The first night I made these, I used a pork rib chop that was not bone-in. I couldn't find one with the bone in at my grocery store. Nonetheless, the meat was tender and delicious! I probably cooked it for 8 minutes. After letting it rest for 5 minutes, it was at the desired temp of 145.

The second night I tried this recipe, I used a bone-in loin chop (pictured above). I should have used the meat thermometer as I was cooking the chops, rather than when I thought they were finished because I cooked them a little bit too long. Very disappointing! With the exception of the meat next to the bone, these chops were dry and tough. However, the flavor was outstanding!

This recipe will become one of my go-to dinners, but only as long as I take the time to get the right cut of meat from the butcher counter. It simply must be a pork rib chop (with or without the bone).

I served the chops with Martha Stewart's Macaroni & Cheese and sautéed zucchini & onions.

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April 4, 2015

The Crossing Places


The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
Ruth Galloway Series #1
Mystery
2009 AudioGO Ltd.
Reader: Jane McDowell
Finished on March 5, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

 

 Publisher’s Blurb:

When a child’s bones are found on a desolate Norfolk beach, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson calls in forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway. Nelson thinks he has found the remains of Lucy Downey, a little girl who went missing ten years ago. Since her disappearance he has been receiving bizarre letters about her, letters with references to witchcraft, ritual and sacrifice.

The bones actually turn out to be two thousand years old but Ruth is soon drawn into the Lucy Downey case and into the mind of the letter writer, who seems to have both archaeological knowledge and eerie psychic powers. Then another child goes missing and the hunt is on to find her. As the letter writer moves closer and the windswept Norfolk landscape exerts its power, Ruth finds herself in completely new territory – and in serious danger.

My friend Kay (of Kay’s Reading Life) is a voracious reader of mysteries. She has recommended many, many titles on her blog and I find that I am constantly jotting down authors and lists of series to explore, thanks to her. Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler series is one of those recommendations which I have enjoyed immensely. I have also started the Deborah Crombie series (many of which Kay sent to me), but I need to get back to it, as it’s been a year or so since I last read one of the Gemma James books. The latest addition to my mystery reading is Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, which I began listening to late last month. The Crossing Places introduces us to Ruth Galloway and Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, as well as several supporting characters, many of whom I’ve since seen in the second book, The Janus Stone. In addition to a wonderful cast of characters, Griffiths’ mysteries have a great sense of place. I could practically smell the Saltmarsh.
They get out of the car and walk across the rain-sodden grass towards the marsh. The wind is whispering through the reeds, and here and there they see glimpses of still, sullen water reflecting the grey sky. At the edge of the marshland Ruth stops, looking for the first sunken post, the twisting shingle path that leads through the treacherous water and out to the mudflats. When she finds it, half-submerged by brackish water, she sets out without looking back.

Silently, they cross the marshes. As they get nearer the sea, the mist disperses and the sun starts to filter through the clouds. At the henge circle, the tide is out and the sand glitters in the early morning light.

I can also picture the view of the marshland from Ruth’s kitchen:
The kitchen barely has room for a fridge and a cooker but Ruth, despite the books, rarely cooks. Now she switches on the kettle and puts bread into the toaster, clicking on Radio 4 with a practiced hand. Then she collects her lecture notes and sits at the table by the front window. Her favourite place. Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, spotted with stunted gorse bushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams. Sometimes, at this time of year, you can see great flocks of wild geese wheeling across the sky, their feathers turning pink in the rays of the rising sun. But today, on this grey winter morning, there is not a living creature as far as the eye can see. Everything is pale and washed out, grey-green merging to grey-white as the marsh meets the sky. Far off is the sea, a line of darker grey, seagulls riding in on the waves. It is utterly desolate and Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.

Care to learn more about Ruth Galloway? (From the author’s website):
Ruth is Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. How she came to be interested in archaeology, much less forensic archaeology is a bit of a mystery. She was born and brought up in Eltham, South London, and the nearest she ever came to pre-history was listening to her father’s endless stories of his childhood in Margate.

Then, when Ruth was ten, her parents found God. They became Born Again (their capitals) and embarked on an enthusiastic career of Going to Church and Praying for People (especially for Ruth for whom God remained resolutely hidden).

Ruth took refuge in her books and, after excellent A Levels, went to University College London to study archaeology. She graduated with a first and went on to do an MA at UCL and a PhD at Southampton University. It was at Southampton that she first met Erik Anderssen, the charismatic Norwegian academic who became a great influence in her life. On Erik’s recommendation, Ruth got a job teaching at the new University of North Norfolk and was present at the scene of Erik’s greatest triumph – the discovery of a Bronze Age wooden henge on a Norfolk beach.


The Henge Dig, as it became known, changed Ruth’s life forever. Not only did she meet Peter, the man who was to be her partner for ten years, but she uncovered secrets which were eventually to lead to murder.

Ruth lives alone on an isolated stretch of coastland called the Saltmarsh. She has two cats.

Final Thoughts:

I was able to figure out who was responsible for the crimes fairly early, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this audio production. I enjoyed getting to know Ruth and Nelson, both of whom are very likeable characters, as well as learning a little bit about archaeology and Norfolk, England. I’ve now read the second book in the series and am anxious to continue with The House at Sea’s End (#3).

Note:

If you opt for the audiobook, be sure to take a glance at a copy of the print edition. The author has included a drawing of a map of the Saltmarsh and the surrounding area. I wish I had found it prior to listening to the book.

April 1, 2015

March Reading



I had an excellent month of reading, both with regard to quantity and quality. I read four books and listened to four others and each and every one was exceptionally good. I discovered a new mystery series, which I am eager to continue reading, and I also read my first 5 star book for the year. Can you guess which one it is? (No fair looking at Goodreads!) I'm terribly behind with my reviews, so bear with me. I'm going to try to get all of these posted before the end of the month. 

Have you read any of these gems? 

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

The Bear by Claire Cameron

Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths

The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Live From Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Stats:

8 books 
3 novels
2 mystery
2 nonfiction
1 memoirs
1 childrens
5 new-to-me authors
4 print books
4 audio book
4 female authors
2 male author
6 borrowed
2 from my stacks

More 2015 Monthly Summaries:

January
February 

March 28, 2015

The Rosie Project



The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Fiction
2013 Simon & Schuster
Finished on March 1, 2015
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)






Publisher’s Blurb:

Professor of genetics Don Tillman’s life is turned upside down when he embarks upon the Wife Project in order to find a suitable mate despite his quirky habits and demanding personality. When a psychology PhD student named Rosie walks into his office, she’s all wrong—her hair is dyed, her clothes are sloppy, she smokes and she is habitually late. But then again, something is right about her… Don just can’t recognize it at first. As the Wife Project takes a back burner to Rosie’s project of identifying her biological father, Don finds himself breaking all kinds of rules and breaking out of his routines in ways that are both uncomfortable and exciting. When a research trip takes them from Australia to New York City, and Don’s career is threatened by his allegiance to Rosie, Don must face the toughest puzzle of all—himself. In the end, Don must confront his long-held notions of what it means to love and connect with people and what it truly means to open up and trust someone.

The Rosie Project is a highly entertaining novel that made me laugh out loud on several occasions. The appealing character of Don Tillman reminded me of Patricia Wood’s Perry, the eccentric main character in her equaling charming novel, Lottery. Neither character is stupid, but rather both demonstrate a naïve innocence about the ways of the world, combined with a complete lack of understanding of the nuances of social etiquette. Tillman also reminds me a bit of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, with his logical approach to even the most mundane chores. For instance, Don has implemented a “Standardized Meal System,” which allows him to prepare his weekly meals with as little fuss as possible. And the advantages of such a system?
1. No need to accumulate recipe books.
2. Standard shopping list – hence very efficient shopping.
3. Almost zero waste – nothing in the refrigerator or pantry unless required for one of the recipes.
4. Diet planned and nutritionally balanced in advance.
5. No time wasted wondering what to cook.
6. No mistakes, no unpleasant surprises.
7. Excellent food, superior to most restaurants at a much lower price (see point 3).
8. Minimal cognitive load required.

Sounds a bit dull, no? Well, one of Don’s weekly recipes includes a lobster, mango, and avocado salad with wasabi-coating flying fish rose and crispy seaweed and deep-fried leek garnish. Perhaps he’s on to something! While I love to peruse my favorite cookbooks and enjoy cooking for the most part, it would be nice to not have to think of what to fix for dinner, night after night, week after week.

On the discovery of a new found joy:
Hurtling back to town, in a red Porsche driven by a beautiful woman, with the song playing, I had the sense of standing on the brink of another world. I recognized the feeling, which, if anything, became stronger as the rain started falling and the convertible roof malfunctioned so we were unable to raise it. It was the same feeling that I had experienced looking over the city after the Balcony Meal, and again after Rosie had written down her phone number. Another world, another life, proximate but inaccessible.

The elusive… Sat-is-fac-tion.
Favorite Quotes:

Research consistently shows that the risks to health outweigh the benefits of drinking alcohol. My argument is that the benefits to my mental health justify the risks. ~ Don

I need not be visibly odd. I could engage in the protocols that others followed and move undetected among them. And how could I be sure that other people were not doing the same - playing the game to be accepted but suspecting all the time that they were different? ~ Don


Final Thoughts:

The ending of The Rosie Project was a bit rushed and unclear, so I decided to check Google to see if I understood the final outcome and, as it turns out, I wasn't the only one who was confused. Nonetheless, I highly recommend Simsion’s clever and witty debut novel! I was sorry to say goodbye to these delightful characters, but as luck would have it, there is already a sequel (The Rosie Effect), which I plan to read later this spring.

From NPR:
He's a socially inept scientist who's tone deaf to irony. She's an edgy young woman whose fallback mode is sarcasm. Put them together, and hilarity ensues in Australian IT consultant Graeme Simsion's first novel, The Rosie Project. It's an utterly winning screwball comedy about a brilliant, emotionally challenged geneticist who's determined to find a suitable wife with the help of a carefully designed questionnaire, and the patently unsuitable woman who keeps distracting him from his search. If you're looking for sparkling entertainment along the lines of Where'd You Go Bernadette and When Harry Met Sally, The Rosie Project is this season's fix. (Heller McAlpin, a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.)
About the Author:

Graeme Simsion is a former IT consultant and the author of two nonfiction books on database design who decided at the age of fifty to turn his hand to fiction. The Rosie Project is his first novel, and his screen adaption has been optioned by Sony Pictures. Graeme lives in Australia with his wife, Anne, and their two children.

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.