Ruminating on the “woulda/coulda/shoulda” life…

After an exciting spring and early summer, I seem to find myself out of sorts lately.  I’m not sure if it’s because of the crispness in the air and the falling leaves, the recent passing of my father-in-law, or the impending birthday of a child I’m lucky to see once a year (and am guaranteed not to see on their birthday).  Which seems kind of pathetic, because really, these are all relatively small issues in the grander scheme of war and illness and loss.  But there you have it.

Alternative view 1 of Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life

As tends to happen with me, my reading either reflects, or is informed by, where I’m at elsewhere in my life.  So my last books have had me thinking a lot about the life I might have led if I had made different decisions at key junctures, or if I had summoned just a bit more courage or self-confidence.  Missing Out:  In Praise of the Unlived Life, by Adam Phillips (Picador, 2013) promised to be, according to Amazon, “A TRANSFORMATIVE BOOK ABOUT THE LIVES WE WISH WE HAD AND WHAT THEY CAN TEACH US ABOUT WHO WE ARE”.  Hmmm.  I didn’t find it even remotely “transformative”  Heavy on Freudian psychology and its attendant jargon and preoccupations with the mother/child relationship, it tended toward being more pedantic than helpful.  As near as I could decipher, the key point seemed to be that by THINKING about other lives, we in fact derive more satisfaction than by actually living them.  Which does make sense.  I’ve long known, for example, that I get almost as much enjoyment from planning for and fantasizing about upcoming travels as I do from the actual experiences.  The chapter titles pretty much tell you what you need to know about what you’ll get from this book:  “On Frustration”; “On Not Getting It”; “On Getting Away With It”; “On Getting Out of It”; “On Satisfaction”.  None of which really clarified anything common sense and life experience hadn’t already taught me.

Another book I had been anticipating reading for several months (the amount of time I was on the wait list for it at the library) was The Road to Little Dribbling:  Adventures of an American in Britain, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2016).  I love to read any type of travel narrative, which then of course feeds into my constant “what would my life be like THERE…” daydreams.  And Bryson is one of my favorite authors of that genre.  He has a witty style that I always enjoy, and an honesty bordering on cynicism that perhaps reflects my own.  I did enjoy this book immensely, though at the end I found myself wondering if I come across as being as grouchy, even curmudgeonly, as Bryson.  As the author explores what he dubs “The Bryson Line” from Bognor Regis in southern England to Cape Wrath in northern Scotland, the reader experiences lovely coastal walks, quaint villages, fascinating museums, and mysterious standing stones.  But they are also subjected to random rants about everything from urban sprawl to incorrect grammar to litter to incompetent McDonald’s cashiers.  There seems to be an idiot lurking around every corner, just waiting to ruin Bryson’s day or send him into apoplectic diatribes.  Sometimes it is amusing, like when he quips “I like the Scots, especially the ones who don’t look at me like they might in a minute have to shove my head through a wall” (I have a Scottish ex-brother-in-law), or “Returning to my book, I learned that Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country.  It was a wonderful evening.”  But  sometimes they’re just mean, and I occasionally  found myself feeling sorry for someone who seems so very annoyed so very much of the time.

My sister lived in England and Scotland for several years, so I have been to some of the spots mentioned by Bryson.  I also know from her that there are plusses and minuses to living there.  A couple of weeks ago, I read a fascinating article online entitled “Psychology debunks the idea that we’d be happier if we lived somewhere else.”  It makes the valid point that sooner or later, the allure and newness wears off, and that what makes us truly happy is the “social capital” that we build in a place we have been for a while.  Last weekend, my husband and I decided to try to escape the seemingly endless Colorado crowds by driving to Fort Laramie National Historic Site, in Wyoming.  I had been there before, but never really noticed how beautiful the area is.  I also was struck by what we had come for:  the absence of people and crowds.  “Maybe we should move here”, I thought.  Then I went into the only grocery store nearby and was frustrated by the bad country music blaring overhead and by the absence of much choice in the picnicking department, and realized that maybe I wouldn’t be as happy there as I like to imagine.  They did just open a White Fence Farm takeout location right by my house, after all.

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At the intersection of parenting and presidential politics…

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors assigned an article from The Atlantic, with the recommendation that if we subscribed to only one magazine or journal, it be that one.  Twenty years later I have followed this advice faithfully, and have never been disappointed.  Atlantic articles and writers have shaped -and challenged- my views on a wide variety of issues.  So when I saw a book by a writer I have come to respect and admire, Ron Fournier, about his own parental journey (a topic I still struggle with), I decided to read it.  And was, again, not disappointed.

Love That Boy:  What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations (Crown Publishing Group, 2016) take its title from a visit Fournier and his family made to George W. Bush’s Oval Office on the author’s last day covering the White House for the Associated Press.  The story is charming (I’m abbreviating it here to get to the gist of the title):

“Where’s Barney?” my son shouted.

The five of us stood in front of Bush’s desk, which, like everything else about the Oval Office, had a history…”Where’s Barney?” Tyler shouted again, in a voice so inappropriately loud and demanding that I jumped slightly.

Bush smiled and nodded – first to an aide and then to the lawn.  “He’s coming.  He’s right there.  He likes to sit out there.”

Tyler launched into a one-sided conversation, firing off one choppy phrase after another with machine-gun delivery…I cringed.  Tyler was a loving, charming, and brilliant boy – he had a photographic memory – but he was somehow different.  His voice was jarringly deep and loud for a kid his age.  He fixated on topics, like presidential history and animals.  He was, in a word, quirky.  But the president was enchanted.  He laughed, listened, and asked Tyler several questions about dogs before gathering us together for photos…

A few minutes later we were walking out of the Oval Office when Bush grabbed me by the elbow.  “Love that boy,” he said, holding my eyes.  I thought I understood what he meant.

I didn’t.

It took me years to understand.

Now, I was never a Bush fan.  In particular, I thought the Iraq war was a mistake from the start, and events have, I believe, proven me correct.  But a high school friend I deeply respect and admire was one of his advisor’s, and this story shows a side of him that moves him up several notches in my estimation.  It also underscores a basic truth about parenting:  sometimes our children are not going to be who or what we expect, and how we handle that, how we love them in spite of that, makes all the difference.

The discerning reader will have guessed at what it took the Fourniers years to figure out:  Tyler has Asperger’s.  This diagnosis, and the attendant guilt it brings up in his father, serve as a catalyst for a series of road trips designed by the author’s wife to encourage the father and son to bond over a common interest:  presidents and their history.  Together they visit several Presidential Libraries and homes, as well as meeting with current and former Presidents.  Along the way, Fournier reflects on what he learns about his parental expectations, about Asperger’s, and about how to help his son grow into a happy, thriving young adult.

My daughter and I have had a lot of conversations lately about “parenting”.  She and her husband are considering this next step in their lives, and I suspect it terrifies her.  I do think that it is harder to be a parent than ever, not least because “parenting” via Pinterest/Facebook/Instagram/the Internet in general has made us think there is one correct way to do the job, and that if we screw up we’ll be single-handedly responsible for another person’s lifetime misery.  What I like so much about Fournier’s book is that he tackles these myths head-on.  He is very honest about his own failings, and about his false starts and mistakes with his son.  He also offers hope and encouragement.

I’ve been thinking about this book quite a bit lately within the context of the presidential election, obviously because it deals specifically with presidents past and present, but also because of what we learn about the presidents we meet as humans beings beyond their public persona.  It will come as no surprise to anybody who knows me that I consider Donald Trump to be not only an unacceptable presidential option, but an actual threat to the survival of our civilization.  And I wonder: how would he handle an autistic five-year old in the Oval Office?

My children are both grown and gone and (I hope) reasonably happy.  But I still ask myself what I could have done better, or differently.  My youngest keeps the family at a remove, and that is painful for me.  Fournier’s book helped me step back from my perennial self-doubt and see that I was doing -and continue to do- the best I could with the information I had.  He also helped me see that the gap between what we expect and what we get can not only be overcome, but celebrated.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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On travel and turmoil…

Well, it’s a good thing I don’t have to support myself with my writing.  Given that I haven’t found anything to say here for over two months, I’d sure be hungry right about now otherwise!

In my defense, June and July were tumultuous months for me.  The last three weeks of June were spent on a fabulous, perspective altering trip through the eastern Mediterranean with my dear friend, Deb.  A week after returning, and while still in the throes of severe jet lag, my father-in-law passed away.  While that wasn’t entirely unexpected, it was still emotionally draining for a wide variety of reasons.

So this post is going to be a bit different.  While I have – of course! – been reading, the books don’t necessarily lend themselves to stand alone reviews, so I’m trying a different approach.  What follows are “memorable moments” with corresponding photos (since a picture is worth a thousand words, right?)  One caveat:  pretty much every moment was memorable for a variety of reasons, so these are just the ones that tend to float into my mind most often, usually when I’m trying specifically to clear it, say during yoga.  And in fairness to myself, I did subtitle this blog “Reflections on books, travel, and whatever else occurs to me…”  Along the way, I’ll mention what I was reading.

Memorable travel moments

…Walking into the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for the first time, then gazing at the (mosaic) face of a long dead Byzantine empress.

…Bosphorus cruises by day and night.

…Walking into the challenging-to-find-and-seemingly-forgotten Church of St. Savior in Chora (now a museum) and gazing at too many breathtaking mosaics to even wrap my mind around.

Finally succumbing to the entreaties of a carpet salesman and participating in the tea drinking/wallet challenging ritual of viewing lovely Turkish carpets.

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…Observing the breaking of the Ramadan fasts, with the attendant festivities.  The Blue Mosque was spectacular at night with a projected light show and music, and there were fireworks all over Istanbul.

…Visiting the Basilica Cistern and gazing on the face of an upside-down Medusa.

The “Turkish bath” experience at the Hagia Sophia bathhouse.  When they had me on the big marble slab covered in bubbles, I truly felt like I was on a cloud!

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…Boarding my first ever cruise ship.

  …Reading during “sea days”, or just gazing at the passing coastline.

Waking up in Greece!  Exploring Mykonos and my first proper Greek ruins at Delos (“The Birthplace of Apollo”).

 

…Waking up to Valletta, Malta!  Exploring the island and marveling at pre-historic spiral carvings in the Archeological Museum.

…Waking up to Catania, Sicily, where the elephant statue in the main square really charmed me.  Deb and I had the Greco-Roman Amphitheatre there almost to ourselves, and spent hours exploring with just the occasional feral cat for company.

Pompeii.  Enough said.  And even though I don’t love tour groups, I was glad to be in one, because otherwise I suspect I would STILL be there exploring.

…A drive along the Amalfi Coast, where none of my pictures could capture the stunning colors or the smell of lemons.

Exploring Rome and actually knowing what I was looking at this time!

…Getting a text message from my daughter about the bombing at the Istanbul airport.  We were supposed to return to the US via Istanbul, but were instead able to negotiate with Air Canada to return directly via Rome.  As a result of that extra day, we visited Ostia Antica, which is sort of like Pompeii without the crowds.

  …Mosaics, mosaics, mosaics…  One day in Rome, Deb said “Do you think you’ll ever reach a point where you’ve seen enough mosaics?”  My answer:  NO!!

 …So many fabulous meals!!! So many food pictures (too many to post here…)!!!  I still wake up every morning wishing there were an expansive buffet (Istanbul) or fresh breads (Rome) for me to start my day with…

What I was reading:

La madre del cordero: Curiosidades y secretos de la simbología cristiana (Spanish Edition) Kindle Edition, by Juan Eslava Galán.  This very exhaustive study of Christian iconography was quite helpful in informing how I looked at all the art I encountered during my trip.  It also seemed to take forever to finish…

Memorable July moment:

…The funeral of my father-in-law, who served in the military during the Korean War.

What I was reading: 

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (Grove Press, 2015).  This lovely book explores the author’s attempts to work through her grief after the death of her father by training a goshawk.  The prose is exquisite, and the explanation of the intricacies of falconry makes for unusual and fascinating reading.

Hopefully some of the turmoil from this post’s title will soon calm down. Of course, there is an election looming that has me worried about the future of civilization…

 

 

 

 

Real travels reading…

One of the greatest joys of traveling for me is, ironically, that period before I leave, when the possibilities seem endless and I’m gathering as much information as I can.  Soon I’ll be embarking on my next big adventure, a trip to Istanbul (yes, I know there have been terrorist bombings there…), a cruise of the Eastern Mediterranean, and a few days after in Rome.  Naturally my reading has been focused on these locations.  I won’t review here the twelve or so travel guides I’ve consulted (I do love Rick Steves, though…), and instead will focus on the books that might appeal to any armchair traveler.

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For my birthday, my husband gave me Midnight at the Pera Palace:  The Birth of Modern Istanbul, by Georgetown University professor, Charles King (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014).  This is exceptionally well-written history, covering a vast range of topics from politics to art and music clearly and succinctly.  And since I know a fair bit about Istanbul when it was Constantinople, this volume filled in my knowledge gaps  about more recent (comparatively) developments nicely.  For example, while I had a vague idea of the importance of Ataturk,  King very clearly traces this charismatic leader’s rise to power and profound impact on the creation of modern Turkey.  Reading this book gave me a great deal of context for understanding news reports about the current tense situation in the city I’m on the verge of visiting.

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It’s one thing to read about historical developments through the study of a top American scholar, and quite another to experience life in a country through the eyes of its own writers.  I had read a memoir about Istanbul by Nobel Prize winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk (May 10 post), so for Mother’s Day my book-buying genius of a husband gave me one of Pamuk’s many novels, Snow (Random House, Inc., 2004).  While it would seem dated, I found the storyline to very closely parallel what I know about tensions in today’s Turkey.  Set in the Anatolian city of Kars, Snow tells how an exiled poet, Ka, returns to Turkey and travels to this remote city, ostensibly in order to interview the family and friends of religious girls who have committed suicide because of a ban on wearing headscarves in their school.  But his hidden agenda is to reconnect with a past love, Ipek, who has recently been divorced.  While there, a nationalist group stages a coup that propels Ka into a maze of politics and intrigue that he had not bargained for when he set out.   I found the narrative style to be both compelling and unusual, and finished feeling like I had a better understanding of the forces pulling at this country that, literally, straddles the divide between East and West, religious and secular, traditional and modern.  If you enjoy unusual writing set in unusual places, I would strongly suggest giving this author a try.

Finally, I headed to Rome, where one of my all-time favorite writers, Anthony Doerr (see my review of his fabulous novel, All the Light We Cannot See) lived for a year courtesy of the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  His narrative about that experience, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World (Scribner, 2007) captures the magic and mystery of this city, but also the challenges of attempting to write while simultaneously struggling through cultural differences and adjusting to life with twin baby boys.  I loved literally every page of this volume, and it left me eager to create my own memories in “The Eternal City”.  I have been there before, but that was thirty-five years ago, and I quite frankly had no true understanding of what I was looking at as a tired, on-the-verge-of-contracting-pneumonia, backpacking college student.  I have a much better idea now, and can’t wait for my travel adventures to begin!

When a book doesn’t entirely live up to my expectations of it…

It took me longer than usual to finish my last book, and that actually surprised me.  I chose The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George (Crown Publishing Group, 2016) because, well, what’s not intriguing about “Paris” and “Bookshop”?  But I was surprised to discover that I just never cared all that much about the plot or the characters, and as a result would put the book down for days at a time before becoming vaguely curious about what might happen next.

Which is the exact opposite of what reviews had led me to expect from this novel, an international bestseller originally written and published in German. Telling the story of Paris bookseller, Jean Perdu, a “literary apothecary” who runs his business from a barge and decides impulsively to head off across the rivers of France in search of a lost love, this book seems like it should have everything going for it.  “Enchanting”, “heartwarming”, and “wise” were all adjectives I came across in deciding to read it.  And sometimes, occasionally, it is indeed all those things.  Unfortunately, for this reader at least, it was also more often cloying, overwrought, and derivative.  Is it a Chocolat send-up, substituting books for sweets?  Is it a diary?  Is it a collection of postcards and letters?  Is it a quixotic quest?  (George does “prescribe” Don Quixote in her “Perdu’s Emergency Literary Pharmacy” appendix.)  Or, no, wait, is it a cookbook?  Why, it’s all those things!  The author throws seemingly every possible construct at the reader, and I found that her effort to pay homage to all the myriad ways in which good literature can “heal” our wounds ended up feeling artificial and contrived.  Even the protagonist’s name had me thinking “Really? Perdu…as in Lost?  That seems a bit melodramatic…”

I don’t, however, want to dismiss this book out of hand.  I have other friends who have loved it, and it isn’t the first volume that got rave reviews elsewhere, yet left me feeling flat.  (Most recently, The Goldfinch had me wondering what all the hype was about.  It seemed to me like it was in desperate need of a fierce editor.)  If you like France, barges, books, love triangles (did I mention there’s also a love triangle?), wine, good food, sudden love at first sight, unlikely coincidences, and sunsets where “Manon’s soul, Manon’s energy, Manon’s whole disembodied essence filled the land and the wind; yes, she was everywhere and in everything; she sparkled and manifested herself to him in every form she had taken on…” then you may very well enjoy this novel.  And that’s the great thing about literature:  we all have different experiences of it.  Please feel free to share your perspective!

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

On the importance of place…

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I just spent a fabulous long weekend in Santa Fe with my husband, oldest daughter, and son-in-law.  I had been there before, but we had always stayed in Taos, with side trips to the bigger city.  And while I’ve always enjoyed northern New Mexico, I couldn’t say that I felt any special “magic”.  But this time was different.  I found that I really loved being in the city of Santa Fe.  It has a relaxed charm, a distinctive architecture, and a juxtaposition of Native-American, Spanish, and Anglo influences that has created a unique culture in which I felt oddly at home, along with some ridiculously tasty food!

While there, I found myself reflecting on the impact that “place” can have on a person’s development.  I had just finished reading two very different memoirs.  As seems to be the case with me, I didn’t start out to read similar genres, it just sort of happened.  A dear friend passed along a copy of Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Random House, 2006), knowing that he is one of my favorite authors and exclaiming over how much of our childhoods we would find reflected there.  Bryson (and my friend) are a bit older than I am, but I did indeed re-live much of my sixties experience in his recollections of growing up as part of the “Baby boomer”  generation in Des Moines, Iowa.  I developed a particular fondness for his mother, who like my own worked outside the home at a time when that was highly unusual.  This narrative could have come from my own life:

The only downside of my mother’s working was that it put a little pressure on her with regard to running the home and particularly with regard to dinner, which frankly was not her strong suit anyway…You soon learned to stand aside about ten to six every evening, for it was then that she would fly in the back door, throw something in the oven, and disappear into some other quarter of the house to embark on the thousand other household tasks that greeted her each evening.  In consequence she nearly always forgot about dinner until a point slightly beyond way too late.  As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear potatoes exploding in the oven.

We didn’t call it the kitchen in our house.  We called it the Burns Unit.

In our house, my dad referred to dinner as the “Burnt Offerings”.  🙂

Often when I travel, I am struck by how much of my small-city-in-Colorado-with-weekends-spent-camping-and-fishing upbringing clings to me, no matter how hard I try to shed it.  I can just never quite get that Parisian or Madrileña chic that I so admire in other women.  Bill Bryson now lives in England, but it’s clear from his writing that there is also much of his Des Moines childhood that still lingers in how he experiences the world.

The same is clear in the second memoir I read, even if the setting and life experiences could not be more different.  In preparation for my upcoming trip to Istanbul and the Eastern Mediterranean, I picked up Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s memoir, Istanbul (Random House, 2004).  If Bryson’s book exudes the optimism and enthusiasm of his 50’s and 60’s American upbringing, Pamuk’s is steeped in exactly the opposite:

The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been before in its two-thousand-year history.  For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy.  I’ve spent my life either battling with this melancholy or (like all Istanbullus) making it my own.

Pamuk certainly never had to endure burned dinners.  His wealthy family had maids and cooks whose job it was to ensure a comfort and standard of living Bryson and I could only faintly imagine.  Yet with that came other stressors, and his mother in particular was not happy about his choice to be first an artist, then a writer.  That he ended up winning a Nobel Prize for his beautiful, thoughtful, and evocative prose seems to me to be the ultimate vindication.

Denver.  Santa Fe. Des Moines.  Istanbul.  Places so very different, places that shaped very different people, and yet…a curiosity about the world and a desire to explore other lives and realities has made all of our experiences intersect – however briefly – through that most magical of acts, reading!

 

Contemplating the options, from “The High Mountains of Portugal” to “Tasting Rome”…

I’m hopeful that my seemingly interminable period of dormancy is coming to an end.  The days are getting longer and warmer, my ankle is starting to feel stronger, and I just know that any day now I’m going to kick this persistent cough!  It has also helped my mood immeasurably to have just confirmed my next adventure:  a cruise of the Eastern Mediterranean bookended with stays in Istanbul and Rome with my beloved travel buddy and longest BFF, Deb.

I’ve been reading throughout my inactivity, of course.  Some books have not really merited recommendation.  Las Puertas del Paraíso (The Doors of Paradise), by Nerea Riesco, was a good way for me to practice my Spanish skills, but that’s about it.  Set during Isabel and Fernando’s effort to conquer Granada, I found myself incessantly annoyed by the juxtaposition of rich and precise historic details with what felt to me like pure laziness:  mentions of tomatoes and potatoes, both “New World” foods quite popular in Spain now, but unknown there prior to 1492.

The High Mountains of Portugal: A Novel

Other books, however, were so exceptional that it has taken me weeks to wrap my mind around all the ideas and emotions they conjured.  The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel (Random House, 2016) was a Valentine’s Day gift from my husband, chosen because it has gotten excellent reviews from a variety of sources.  As usual for anything my husband gives me, it did not disappoint.  Martel is most famous for his previous bestseller, The Life of Pi (which I have never actually gotten around to reading.)  When I first finished The High Mountains of Portugal, right before Easter, it occurred to me that I could approach an analysis through Christian religious considerations. There is plenty there, from the subtle structure of three stories tied together by a village in Portugal to outright discussions of Christianity and its tenets to a central theme of grief and loss and redemption.  But I’m not a theologian, so I’ll leave my analysis to this:  great literature is whatever makes the reader think and ponder, and possibly leave with lessons for their own life.  In my case, the last story of the novel gave me a literary character that has stayed with me:  a chimpanzee named Odo who teaches the grieving Portuguese-Canadian politician who adopts him how to live in the “now”.  A  lifetime of striving and planning for a “future” has left me struggling a bit with that concept of being fully in the present, and in fact that may be the biggest challenge of retirement thus far. So the finely drawn Odo has lurked in my subconscious since finishing this beautiful novel, reminding me to worry less about the future and be mindful of my present.

Which is not to say that I’m not deeply excited about my future travel plans!  Tasting Rome, by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill (Crown Publishing Group, 2016)  is an unusual book choice for me.  Primarily a cookbook, this volume is also a lovely introduction to authentic Roman cuisine and parts of the city most tourists don’t experience.  Even if you never prepare any of the recipes (highly likely in my case), the photographs alone make this volume a treasure.  I especially liked the sections about “Cucina Ebraica” (Jewish cooking) and “Quinto Quarto”, which feature recipes using animal parts that the average visitor to the average Italian restaurant in Denver would be very unlikely to encounter.  Since food is, for me, an integral part of the travel experience, I’m looking forward to expanding my culinary horizons a bit when I’m in Rome as a result of having read this book.  And in the meanwhile, maybe I’ll expand my “now” a bit with one of the more accessible recipes.  The “brutti ma buoni”(hazelnut meringues) sound tasty!

I received Tasting Rome from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

 

Back to Venice…at least in my reading…

I read about Venice a lot.  There’s something about all that water and all those boats and the absence of cars and the complex history and the crumbling, sinking buildings and the Byzantine influence and the mosaics that just keeps pulling me back.  One of these days, I’m going to find the financial wherewithal to follow through on a decades-old desire to spend a few weeks/months living there, but in the meanwhile, I read…

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Venice:  A New History, by Thomas F. Madden (Viking Penguin, 2012) is an excellent addition to the many narratives about this fascinating city.  Madden is a scholar, and he writes with the precision and attention to detail of one, but his narrative reads easier than many history volumes.  He makes a complex story accessible, and I found that it filled in many gaps in my understanding.  I even found myself briefly mentioned in its pages, although not in a particularly flattering way:

During the 1970s and 1980s the arrival of budget travelers (many clutching their copies of Let’s Go!) led to a steady increase in the numbers, but not a corresponding increase in revenue.  Before cheap international flights, it had been nearly impossible to get to Venice without money in one’s pocket.  By the 1970s that was no longer true.  Student travelers and others watching their wallets would frequently stay in a low-cost pensione in Padua or Mestre and simply take the train into Venice.  These day-trippers wanted to get into Venice, see the major sights, and get out before it was late or they had spent too much money…

Ummmm.  Yeah.  That was me in 1981.  Clutching my Let’s Go and with so little money in my pocket that I used my Eurorail pass as a cheap pensione, sleeping on the train from Vienna to Venice, then catching the next night’s train to Rome.  Yet even as a destitute student, there are some things money can’t buy, like the awe I felt when I stepped into the Basilica of San Marco, or rode a vaporetto down the Grand Canal at sunset. When I went back with my family in 2005 I had a bit more money in my pocket, even springing for a gondola ride…touristy, yes, but SO cool! Though we still slept outside of the city to save on costs, we did stay very late, long after the day-tripping tourists had left.  Many of my favorite memories are of the meals we ate in out-of-the-way restaurants where we were the only customers, of the way the water reflected the lights, and of the feeling as we explored back streets that we were walking with ghosts.  I’m grateful that both times I visited the city, I did so in the “off”  season, so have never contended with the tourist hordes that friends have said ruined their time there.

A Question of Belief (Guido Brunetti Series #19)               The Golden Egg

I am reminded of these fleeting memories every time I pick up a “Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery”  by Donna Leon.  I was enjoying the vicarious experience of a non-tourist Venice so much that I read two of these gentle mysteries in succession:  A Question of Belief (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010) and The Golden Egg (2013).  Though I’m not necessarily a great lover of the mystery genre, I like Commissario Brunetti a great deal.  He is a thoughtful, history-reading policeman who cynically knows how to navigate the corruption of Italian bureaucracy in pursuit of a greater good.  His ruminations on the vagaries of human nature make for intelligent reading, and as he works through his days he allows us the privilege of seeing a Venice far removed from that photographed by the day-tripping tourists.

I’ve been looking seriously at an Italian language school recommended by a dear friend.  If other possibilities for European travel (Istabul and Greece?  Granada and Sevilla?) don’t pan out, next fall may very well find me studying Italian in Venice and sleeping in the school’s student housing in the Paladian Cloister on the Guidecca.  And isn’t sleeping in a cloister a far cry from sleeping on a train?!

Europe 2005 130                                           Europe 2005 150   Europe 2005 067

 

On catastrophes and end-of-life issues…

Recent events in seemingly every branch and generation of my family, as well as in the families of friends, have had me thinking a lot about medical care in the United States, and about end-of-life ethical issues.  And when I’m thinking about stuff, I tend to want to read about it.  Two excellent books wandered across my reading radar of late, and while they are a departure from what I usually review here they have both challenged my preconceptions and given me new perspectives.

I didn’t actually chose Sheri Fink’s book, Five Days at Memorial:  Life and Death in a Storm-ravaged Hospital (Crown Publishing Group, 2013), because I was looking to explore the above issues, though.  I chose it because I have a fascination with New Orleans coupled with a borderline voyeuristic interest in stories about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  The fact that this volume was a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, as a well as a New York Times Book Review Ten Best Books of 2013, made me feel nominally more comfortable with wanting to learn about how the disaster played out in one hospital.  What I got was a book I could scarcely put down, and one that challenged me to think differently about pretty much all of my previous assumptions.

As the floodwaters rose in New Orleans, the generators at Memorial Medical Center failed, plunging the hospital into darkness and threatening the survival of patients who depended on modern medical equipment.  As the exhausted and frightened staff worked to evacuate the building, they designated the sickest patients, and particularly those with Do Not Resuscitate orders, as the last to be rescued.  At some point, the decision was made to hasten the seemingly inevitable death of these patients by injecting them with morphine and other drugs.  Five Days at Memorial reflects six years of investigation by Fink, an MD herself, into the events leading up to that decision, as well as the legal ramifications in the days, months, and years after the disaster.

Like most Americans, I watched the heartbreak of Hurricane Katrina unfold on my television, unable to understand how the wealthiest country in the world could leave thousands of its citizens to drown or die from lack of food, water, and shelter.  Fink’s book paints a frightening picture of how ill-prepared we are across the country for large-scale disasters.  It also challenges the decisions made by some of the staff, and reveals deeper issues about end-of-life care.  I started it inclined to think that perhaps, if someone were going to die anyway, hastening that end so that they weren’t forced to die in a highway clover leaf or airport terminal was the more humane option.  I finished it wondering what, exactly, made the doctors and nurses involved feel they had the right to make that decision, without the input of families or even adequate knowledge of the patient’s medical history.

Five Days at Memorial is investigative writing at its finest.  Fink portrays all the people involved as real human beings, with real personalities and motivations.  She tries (without wholly succeeding) to conceal her own judgements.   And in the tradition of the very best writing, she leaves the reader pondering “what would I have done?”

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

After finishing Five Days at Memorial, I found myself really wondering about end-of-life issues, especially given events and developments in my own family.  I had been wanting for a while to read a book I had first heard about through an interview on The Daily Show, Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande (Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2014), and decided now was the time to seek it out.  This ended up being another one of the best books I have read in a very long time, so much so that I started and finished it in one day, unable to put it down!

Subtitled Medicine and What Matters in the End, Being Mortal explores exactly the issues and conundrums I have been struggling with.  Gawande writes with the authority of a professor at Harvard Medical School, but also with the gentleness of a doctor who genuinely wants to help people, and who thinks deeply and carefully about what that REALLY means.  He does not spare himself, freely admitting to his doubts and mistakes, which sets him somewhat apart from my personal experience with many doctors.  Exploring the classic American nursing home, the “Assisted Living” trend, and the hospice movement, at its core this is actually a book about the death of Dr. Gawande’s own father.  As such, it makes the topic both universal and particular.  It gave me a lot to consider, and is a book I think pretty much everyone should read, since sooner or later we are ALL going to face the issues of how our loved ones, and we ourselves, want to die.

Which is not a very pleasant way to end this post, I admit!  The real genius of Gawande’s book, though, is that despite its premise it is actually a very hopeful and life-affirming approach to a topic most people, Americans in particular, avoid.  It has changed the way I think about many issues, and isn’t that what the very best books accomplish?

I received the book Five Days at Memorial from Blogging for Books for this review.

More running away reading…

Here’s the problem with my “running away” fantasies:  what would I do with all my books?  I have A LOT of books.  In fact, I might (probably) qualify as a “book hoarder”.  But whenever I fantasize about my little apartment in Barcelona, or my house on a Canadian island, I can’t envision being able to enjoy a life without my book collection.  Or, for that matter, my dog.  Or my cats.  So, until I find the wherewithal to resolve those dilemmas, I stay here in Colorado, planning my next short-term adventure and…reading!

Given that I’m still somewhat mobility-impaired due to my fractured ankle and a cough I can’t shake, I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading.  Here’s where I’ve “been” lately:

Euphoria

…In New Guinea during the 1930’s with Euphoria, by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014).  Based loosely on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, this beautiful novel explores a love triangle between American protagonist Nell Stone, her abusive Australian husband, Fen, and lonely British anthropologist Andrew Bankson, all set against the background of the primitive tribes they are studying.  The writing is tight and luminous, the characters are expertly drawn, and I loved the narrative style, which made the novel feel like the reader is observing (and judging?) the protagonists in much the same way an anthropologist would.  The book was one of those I couldn’t put down, and I was glad my book group choose it, since it is probably not something I would have necessarily picked up on my own.  There is a reason it won a plethora of awards!  From New Guinea I next went…

 

On the Chocolate Trail:  A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013).  Written by Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz, this volume is part cookbook, part history, and part travel narrative.  Since I freely admit to being a chocolate addict, and one of my deepest joys when going to Europe is pausing at every pastry/chocolate shop to peruse and then sample the gorgeous displays it seems only the Europeans do so well, I absolutely loved this book!  It is Prinz’s belief that chocolate was introduced to Europe through the Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain the same year Columbus set out on his first voyage, and I found her evidence to be exhaustive and convincing.  Her analysis of Inquisition records was especially interesting, and I was surprised to learn through the course of the book just how indispensable chocolate became in daily and religious life not only to the native “New World” cultures that had always valued it, but also to the colonists of both North and South America as well as Europeans.  I have a particular fascination with holidays and the ways in which humans celebrate, so the considerations of how chocolate came to be linked with these was illuminating.  Just remembering the book has me craving some Spanish “churros y chocolate”, as well as remembering the beautiful chocolate concoctions I admired and salivated over during the Easter season in Iceland, Spain, and Italy…

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…Speaking of Italy…the next book on my “running away” pile was sent to me by a dear friend (and Madrid roommate).  Dances With Luigi:  A Grandson’s Search for His Italian Roots (St. Martin’s Press, 2000) was written by my friend’s friend, Paul Paolicelli, and narrates the story of how he decided to move to Italy for several years in order to search for his family’s history.  The book reads somewhat like a mystery, as Paolicelli navigates complex bureaucratic and social systems -while also trying to master the Italian language- in his effort to learn the real story about one grandfather’s involvement with Mussolini and the other’s origins in the south.  I enjoyed his unsparingly honest descriptions of Italian life immensely, so in the spirit of living abroad vicariously through my reading, I next “traveled” to…

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Paris, My Sweet:  A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate) (Sourcebooks, Inc., 2012).  In this combination travel guide and memoir, author Amy Thomas narrates how she accepted a job with a prestigious advertising firm in Paris.  She is also quite honest about the ups and downs of adjusting to another culture, though I have to say that I found her writing to be a bit annoying at times.  (Phrases like “laughed our heads off” and “giggled like schoolgirls” just strike me as trite and lazy…)  Thomas spends a good amount of time comparing and contrasting her life and dessert obsessions in New York and Paris.  She does best when she lets the croissants and cakes and truffles speak for themselves, and her depictions make me think she is certainly a fabulous advertising copywriter.  I do have to say, I loved her portrayals of Paris and its sweets very much!  It made me head over to the French bakery nearest my house, which doesn’t come even close to rivaling the beautiful European establishments Thomas recounts and I remember, but does sell a “Chocolate Ecstasy” pastry that lives up to its name!    Reinforced, I next headed in a completely different direction with…

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The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier (Penguin Group Inc., 2013).  This novel, written by the author of bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, follows Chevalier’s focus on a particular art or artist by narrating the story of Honor Bright, an accomplished quilter and Quaker who leaves England after being jilted by her fiancé and ends up quite alone in Ohio.  Set in the period leading up to the Civil War, Honor finds herself inadvertently drawn into helping with the Underground Railroad.  I have enjoyed all of Chevalier’s novels (including The Lady and the Unicorn, Falling Angels, and The Virgin Blue.)  She creates vivid and believable characters, and sets them in compelling times and places.  As a teenager, I fancied myself a quilter, so I especially enjoyed this lovely novel.  Her depictions of the realities of American “frontier” life are spot on, and her attention to the details of Quaker religious experience and quilting are admirable.  As “running away” reading, this took me into a past I don’t necessarily wish I could live, but that I certainly appreciate.

At my last book group meeting, we spent several minutes discussing where we would all move if Donald Trump were actually elected President.  While I think often that type of talk is hyperbolic, there are aspects to his campaign that do, in fact, worry me deeply.  So, who knows?  Maybe I’ll have the decision to cull my books and move abroad made for me!  I’m pretty sure both Spain and Canada would let me bring my dog and cats…