Thursday, February 28, 2008

Things I Want My Daughters to Know

I received Things I Want My Daughters to Know from LibraryThings's Early Reviewer program. This is the fourth novel I have read by Elizabeth Noble and I think it is one of her better works. This novel falls into the category of women's fiction and primarily explores the relationships between the characters in the book, their struggles and frustrations. Things are tied up quite neatly in the end, to give a happy but probably somewhat unrealistic ending. Such is the genre.

At the beginning of this book, matriarch Barbara dies, leaving behind four daughters, a husband, letters for each of her daughters and a journal. Barbara's girls are of varying ages, lending to the story the opportunity to explore different times of life, that of marriage, children, dating, and the teen years. Each girl struggles with the loss of her mother, and in turn feels guilt, anger, and acceptance. Barbara's husband Mark, father to one daughter and stepfather to the others, also struggles, yet serves as the moral checkpoint and support person for the women.

I think Noble's books are generally very 'readable'. There is some substance here, made clear by the premise, but also humor, romance, and relationship struggles. This sort of book serves its purpose - to entertain, and pleasantly pass the time. I always enjoy a book set in England so that was a positive for me. It is not serious or in-depth enough to necessarily comfort or help someone in a similar position, in my opinion.

I couldn't find a picture of the cover to post (though there is one in the Amazon link I've provided) , but I wanted to mention that the cover image looks less like chick-lit than Noble's previous books. I think that may help Noble solidify her audience and find her new fans as well.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Oh! Hello!

Well, I didn't mean to be gone for a week but there it is. My Dad came up from Florida for some business and stayed with us for a few days. It was a great visit and I didn't get much reading or computer time in.

I did watch a fantastic film last week, The Inheritance, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. I didn't read the book first, though I proably should have. The movie was wonderful, absorbing, touching and beautifully filmed. It certainly fed my recent interest in books set in India and I particularly enjoyed the scenes filmed there. I have found myself trying to understand the 'class' system in India. I suppose, in the way that I understand the one here in the US. I know what poverty here looks like, the various interpretations of 'the middle class' and of course the wealthy. I want to know what that looks like in India - what defines a middle class household - education? jobs? conncections? background? - and what is their place in society. Does that sound strange? I've just always had this desire to know how people live, how they really live. I suppose that is one reason I love books so much, because I can be transported.

After my last read, I thought I could use something more upbeat so I decided to reread The Bell Jar, the autobiographical novel by Sylvia Plath. I'm kidding. My bookclub will be discussing this on Thursday. The Bell Jar is such a moving and frightening portrayal of mental illness. At the beginning, it seems a typical young woman's coming-of-age story about Esther Greenwood. But it is soon apparent that everything is not as it should be. I think this book is important because the layreader - that is to say one who experiences everyday ups and downs really gets a picture of what real depression looks like. How debilitating it is, and how its sufferers are held in its grasp, seemingly helpless. As much of a stigma mental illness has now, it's hard to imagine what that would have been like in the 1950s. Certainly frightening, considering the drugs used, and electroconvulsive shock therapy. I couldn't help thinking of poor Rose Kennedy, given a lobotomy and sentenced to a life as an invalid. The life of a young woman, exhibiting unstable behavior who doesn't respond to some of these extreme therapies is horrifying. Fortunately for Plath, she survived this early bout with depression, but her recovery was not a permanent one as we know.


I'm feeling kind of lousy today, you know, when your child gets sick and you get it from them only it's 10 times worse? It's that sort of sympathy desired, just an explanation for my activities for the rest of the day. I'm going to try watching The Jane Austen Bookclub - have had it from Netflix for weeks now. I'd like to read today too, if my cloudy mind allows. I finished another book last night (review to come) and for the first time in a while am not in the middle of anything. I feel like returning to India so perhaps that will be.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is simply one of the best books I've ever read. It is that rare book that consumes me, is in my thoughts when I'm away from it, that pushes me to learn more about its subject matter, that quite simply moves me.

A Fine Balance begins when four people come together at a small apartment in a large city in India by the sea in 1975, a time of tremendous upheaval in India. We get to know each character at length, their family, their background, what motivates them and what ultimates brings them to this apartment. As these four people come to know one another and appreciate each other and ultimately love one another we witness their journey. It is a journey of misery and sadness, fear and destruction, but also of hope and humanity and the very basic will to survive. Make no mistake - this is not a happy book. After thinking about the characters all day at work, I settled down to read the last 50 pages and I found myself hesitating, because as much as I was wanted to know what became of them all, I was afraid of what horrors they might have yet to face. It seemed they had suffered enough. Yet through it all, these people retained their sense of humor, positive outlook, and their hearts full of kindness. And for those who have read this book, the last two pages did me in. How can I feel so much for these characters who aren't even real, yet are, because they are a representation of a reality that is so difficult to fathom.

It's difficult to come away from a book such as this, since right now nothing else can live up to its standards, or could be as satisfying. I certainly plan to read more by this author in the future. I had already been planning on reading this book, but I thank all who suggested it to me when I was looking for books about India. You game me that little extra push I needed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Cranford - The Book

I wanted to wait an appropriate amount of time to read Cranford after watching the recent BBC production, but to tell you the truth, I should have waited longer. I just cannot stop comparing the two, and when I try to think what to say in my review, I keep going back to how the program differred from the book.

Cranford is one of the books on my list for 2008. I've read Elizabeth Gaskell in the past, enjoyed her writing very much, and Cranford is no exception. Written and published in serial form between 1851 and 1853, Cranford is the tale of a small English town with an unusual predominance of women. Many of the chapters are self-contained stories, while other storylines take up several chapters. I found myself reading it a chapter at a time, and it occured to me that it was meant to be read in this way. The characters are lovely and charming, very much involved in their community and each other's lives. It's a fascinating portrait of life at this time, certainly it gives a real impression of everyday happenings.

Now that I've read the book and seen the program, I will say that I think the writers of the program did a really wonderful job adapting this. I know not everyone agrees with me. Of course, they used two of Gaskell's other works as well, and called the whole thing Cranford but I think it worked. The other novels by Gaskell provided the drama probably necessary in a television program. In many cases, stories that took up only one chapter in the novel were ongoing in the program and I think that provided some element of suspense.

The good news is that Masterpiece Theatre will be broadcasting Cranford in May, so everyone in the US will be able to see this fine program. I hope it is released on DVD because it's one I could watch over and over.

One more thing, I've been tagged by Melanie:

Here are the rules:
1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people & post a comment here once you
post it to your blog, so I can come see.

From Cranford:

"But what was our surprise- our dismay- when we learnt that Mr and Mrs Hoggins were returning on the following Tuesday. Mrs Hoggins! Had she absolutely dropped her title, and so, in a spirit of bravado, cut the aristocracy to become a Hoggins!"

I will not tag anyone specifically, but please play along if you wish.

I'll be working all weekend, and readying the house for guests, so please forigve me if I haven't visited in a while, I'm trying to catch up.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.

Thus begins Michael Pollan's latest book release In Defense of Food. Pollan's previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma was my favorite book of 2007 and this new book picks up where it left off. Where The Omnivore's Dilemma provides the reader with the backround information about our food supply, In Defense of Food is the answer to "What should I eat?"

Pollan discusses the problem of nutritionism at length. The definition?

Nutritionism is an ideology that assumes that it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine their value in the diet.

Basically, if you can put the food in a package and stick a label on it and tell me why I should eat it - based on current dietary recommendations - then it must be worth eating (I'm paraphrasing here).

"0 Trans Fats!"
"Made with whole grains"
"Fat Free"

The fact that manufacturers can put a label on Lucky Charms cereal that it can be part of a healthy diet because of its whole grains is bewildering. Consumers are so taken in by this. I used to be taken in by this push from food manufacturers to get me to buy products that fit the current trends of what healthy eating means. I'm so often surprised that generally intelligent people are taken in by these things. A friend of mine was really excited about buying low-carb orange juice during the low-carb craze. I told her "I'm guessing to make orange juice low-carb they just add more water to it. Why don't you just buy orange juice and dilute it with water and save your money?" She'd never thought of it like that.

A relative of ours asked what foods to have on hand for our baby/toddler. I requested full fat yogurt and unsweetened applesauce. What was purchased? Sugar-free applesauce - "see, it has no sugar" they said. "Well, yes, because it contains nutrasweet." The yogurt purchased was fat-free and sugar-free. I told them I could not feed these foods to my baby - they were just chemicals - why would I put chemicals into the body of a 25 pound person? They couldn't understand why I felt those were inappropriate foods to feed a child. Aren't they safe?

The same family has been using margarine for many years. The husband underwent a quadruple bypass and a year later had to be re-stented. His wife still bakes and cooks with margarine, only less, and now she uses salt-free. Pollan writes at length about trans-fats and margarine, stating that people are having heart attacks and dying as a partial result of the use of margarine. My relative? She just cannot bring herself to use butter after being bombarded with how bad it is for most of her life. And she grew up on a farm. This family is intelligent, they are educated, but they are taken in by what the food manufacturers tell them to eat.

Just yesterday I saw a news story on CNN asking: Could sugar substitutes be worse than sugar?

The Omnivore's Dilemma was a very personal book, about Pollan's journey of learning about our food supply. In Defense of Food is a more scientific book and is a nice companion. I don't know how much I learned from reading it, only because I've read a decent amount on the subject already, but it's the sort of book that I'd recommend to someone who is not ready to invest the time in The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's short and to the point. Pollan looks at how nutritionism came about and how it's affected our diet over the years. Despite all the research, Americans have become more and more unhealthy. People latch on to the latest diet, including those eaten by people around the world who are healthier -the French, Japanese, those in Mediterranean countries. Pollan states that the greater problem is our relationship with food and eating.

So what to eat? Pollan suggests eating foods your Great-Grandmother would recognize as food, that is to say - nothing processed. Don't eat foods that make health claims, no high fructose corn syrup, shop the outside of the grocery store, buy from local growers- you've heard this before, right? Pollan acknowledges that not everyone can afford to eat this way. He feels that if you can afford to, that you should try to do so, and by doing so you are casting a vote for eating - what else? -food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Thanks so very much to everyone for your kind and supportive words and positive thoughts. I cannot begin to express how much I appreciate it. Our hope now is that whoever these theives are have gotten what they wanted and are finished with us. Time will tell, but there are some online servies to help people protect themselves and we are taking advantage of that.

I've been reading Hope's Edge since early January. It's taken me much longer to read than books normally do, I suspect because it is so dense and there is so much information to take in. Hope's Edge was written by Frances Moore Lappe and her daughter Anna Lappe. Frances Moore Lappe is also the author of Diet for a Small Planet, a pro-vegetarian book written in the 70s.

In the past few years, I've felt as though I was educating myself about issues with our food supply. Michael Pollian's The Omnivore's Dilemma was my book-of-the-year for 2007. But reading Hope's Edge made me ashamed to realize that I hadn't really been thinking about the issue as globally as I should have. The issue in this book is hunger and what can be done about it. Lappe suggest five 'thought traps' that block us from solving this problem:

1. We need to produce more food - there is not enough.
2. Humans are selfish and competetive.
3. Leave it in the hands of experts.
4. We must dissect the problems and tackle them piece by piece.
5. The present system of global capitalism is the best we can do.

The Lappes set out to prove that things can be accomplished and they travel around the globe investigating people and organizations that are trying to make a real difference in people's lives. From Alice Waters' schoolyard garden in California to helping people homestead land in Brazil. To providing loans in Bangladesh to planting trees in Kenya. More countries, more ideas for solutions, finally ending in Madison, Wisconsin where the local, organic, sustainable movement is growing. Lappe admits that all of these solutions are not perfect. But these people and organizations are trying and that is what is important - versus not trying at all.

It's just maddening to read that we would have enough grain to feed the world if it weren't being fed to animals who shouldn't be eating it anyway. That grains grown around the world are exported to feed animals in developed countries while people go hungry. That the huge seed and pesticide companies like Monsanto go to places like small, remote, Indian villages and convince farmers to use their products for a nominal fee. Within a few years, the prices go up, the farmers cannot afford these products and their soil is destroyed by the pesticides so it's difficult and time-consuming to return to their previous 'organic' methods.

While I was reading this book an article appeared in my newspaper about Haitians eating cookies made of mud. People are so hungry and so poor they are eating dirt and feeding it to their children. It is so shameful that this occurs.

So what to do? I keep asking myself that. Obviously Lappe advocates a vegetarian diet. This book has a nice section full of recipes by well-known cookbook authors and chefs. I'll be honest - I don't really want to be a vegetarian - I want to eat meat sometimes and I can make good choices about where that comes from. My family does not want to be vegetarians either. We don't eat a lot of meat - generally only with dinner and not every day. I've been trying to challenge myself to consciously serve vegetarian meals more often - and not just pasta with sauce that shows up regularly anyway. Last week I prepared the mushroom stuffed portobellos with wild rice and cheese from Mollie Katzen's The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without. It was good - but it took a little convincing for my daughter. I think it was a little bit too brown for her. So I'm trying on that front and collecting recipes to try.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Bad news.

Thanks everyone for your comments on my last posts. I am not able to respond as I ususally do since we have had a breech of our personal credit and are dealing with the aftermath. My head is swimming. Back soon.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Suspend your disbelief?

Can you? I did, when I read Mary Modern, the first novel by Camille DeAngelis. This was an utterly absorbing book about Lucy Morrigan, a genetic researcher at a small college in Massachusetts. Lucy lives in a big sprawling house that has been in her family for four generations and not much has been removed in that time. Lucy finds herself unable to become pregnant and decides to clone her grandmother, Mary. Unfortunately, things don't go quite as planned, and instead of a baby, when Mary is 'finished' she is a 22 year old woman, wondering who are these people in her house and what have they done with her husband and her things. The story then becomes primarily Mary's as she comes to terms with her life and the world around her. Restaurants, clothing shops, transportation, the informality with which people treat one another - this is all new to her. Many things happen to Mary, but I think those things are best appreciated as a surprise - that is to say, no spoilers here.

I was reading along and thinking what a unique book this was, when I remembered Miss Ranskill. What a coincidence. Two women, in a place they thought they knew, where everything has changed and one does not understand the world as it is now. The method was different, but the story is in many ways similar.

Lucy is not a very likable character but Mary certainly is and I hoped she would find happiness in her new life. The novel is tinged with sadness in many ways, but I thought the story was well-executed and I really, really loved how the author tied up all the loose strings in the end.

(Please forgive me any goofy spellings....blogger will not run spell check....among other things...grr)