Learning to read Australian before breakfast

20170417_072828While the language is the same (mostly), my dearly beloved (db) and I were in for a few little surprises when we arrived in beautiful Sydney, Australia after a long flight on our way to a long cruise. I’m not complaining—who can complain about a chance to travel so far and see such beautiful places? No, I’m merely noticing.

The first thing we discovered was the electric tea kettle in our room instead of a coffee maker. Several varieties of tea and an Arrowroot Biscuit (!) were provided along with a couple of packets of instant coffee. Instant coffee.

Yes, I can–and did–drink instant, but you see, db and I are accustomed to early morning coffee before we attempt communication. Certainly we would survive, but seriously, how do people function and remain married without real coffee? We’ll celebrate our 44th anniversary this year and I know part of our marital longevity is due in no small part to the consumption of a couple of cups of coffee before we speak each morning.

At least they’d have real coffee at breakfast. Right?

Of course, a few of the menu choices at the hotel’s breakfast buffet also reminded me I was no longer in the USA. There were packets of Vegemite and Nutella to spread on toast, broiled tomatoes, muesli, baked beans, and boiled eggs in the shell–served hot! Still, I found enough creamy scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, and raisin toast to fill my plate.

Now to find the coffee before I sat down to eat. I looked around but found no giant urn, no thermal carafes… Oh, wait, there’s a machine. I read my choices. Espresso or long black. What about regular coffee?

Espresso is a shot, right? Not enough. But would a long black overfill the cup I held in my hand? I weighed the risk of going another moment without the requisite amount of caffeine I needed for basic social in interaction. I pressed the button for a long black and hoped for the best. Blessed hot black liquid poured forth from machine.

When I tasted it, it was stronger than an Americano, but definitely “real.” Later, with the help of google, I learned that “long black” is a term used in Australia and New Zealand for a double shot of espresso poured over hot water.

With that long black coursing through my veins and my jet-lagged brain now firing on most of its cylinders, I could face the puzzling items that would appear on the lunchtime menu: rocket salad and cos lettuce with capsicum.20170417_072638

Book review: The lies that bind

51xLRaJHsxL._SY346_Ann Patchett is one of my favorites. Her ability to place a reader into a scene and inside the heads and hearts of her characters is masterful. She is funny, perceptive, and even-handed as she tells this family saga from deep inside.

The first words of Commonwealth plunge us into a christening party for little Franny Keating. Bert Cousins is an uninvited guest who arrives with a huge bottle of gin. Franny’s L.A. cop dad, Fix Keating, her pretty mother, Beverly, and Bert set the whole story in motion when after a few too many glasses of orange juice laced with that gin, Beverly kisses Bert. Or he kisses her. It hardly matters. Divorce and the inevitable blending of two families ensue. The six children spend summers together in Virginia with minimal supervision from Beverly and Bert.

“The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.”

Those summers of running amok lead to a tragedy that the children witness, and the details of which they keep secret. That secret both shatters and binds them. Everyone involved is affected by the event, not least of all Franny. At twenty-something, she’s a law school dropout and cocktail waitress with a degree in English. She meets and falls in love with—or perhaps in awe of—a famous novelist. Like Scheherazade, she entertains Leo Pozen with the story of those raucous long-ago summers, including the secret. He is inspired by her tale, and uses it as the basis for a new novel, which becomes a bestseller and years later, a movie.

Now in midlife, the children are rocked by the public disclosure, but are still bound by the love and responsibility they share toward each other and their now aging parents and step-parents.

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Author, Ann Patchett

“‘People are scared of the wrong things, Fix said, his eyes closed. ‘Cops are scared of the wrong things. We go around thinking that what’s going to get us is waiting on the other side of the door: it’s outside, it’s in the closet, but it isn’t like that… For the vast majority of the people on this planet, the thing that’s going to kill them is already on the inside.’”

I recommend Commonwealth and these two others by Patchett. Enjoy!

Book review: A matter of life and death

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If you learned your life was nearly over, how would you choose to live?

Dr. Paul Kalanithi, the author of When Breath Becomes Air, is thirty-six and about to finish a decade of training as a neurosurgeon, when he receives a devastating diagnosis. Stage IV lung cancer. This beautifully written book describes Paul’s journey from doctor to patient as he sees his future shrink.

Kalanithi’s oncologist advises to him to find his values, but he finds them shifting as his illness progresses. He repeatedly asks himself, “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” Should he go back to work? Should he and his wife have a child?  Should he write a book? He works through these choices in a compelling and very human way.

Because his specialty is the brain, where identity resides, Kalanithi had helped patients and their families with some of these difficult decisions. Sometimes, “…the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.”

“I had to help those families understand that the person they knew—the full, vital independent human—now lived only in the past and that I needed their input to understand what sort of future he or she would want: an easy death or to be strung between bags of fluids going in, others coming out, to persist despite begin unable to struggle.”

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Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Some of you may not be up to reading this book. Its emotional journey may parallel one in your own experience too closely. Nonetheless, I believe we need to have some of these difficult conversations with our loved ones before they become necessary. It’s not only about how we want to die—with compassion and without pain—but how we want to live—with purpose and joy. Those making decisions on our behalf need to know our wishes and we need to know theirs.  I recommend this book as a way to start the conversation.

 

Book review: Whom do you trust?

51fhux5OR3L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In Delia Ephron’s latest, Siracusa, two couples vacation together in Sicily where their marriages as well as their friendship unravel when flaws are exposed. The story is told in retrospect, with each of the characters giving their own questionable account of a tragic event that is only revealed to the reader at the end when secrets come to light with a bitter vengeance. A literary whodunit.

Ephron (yes, she’s Nora’s sister) lets each of the main characters have their say with distinct voices. While none of them is particularly likeable, they are intriguing.

Michael—an arrogant, womanizing writer of some notoriety, who is a “year behind on a book he isn’t writing.”

Lizzie—Michael’s wife, also a writer, trying to win him back, but doubting her self-worth.

Finn—Lizzie’s former lover, a free-spirited restaurateur who goes on late night rambles striking up conversations with everyone he meets.

Taylor—Finn’s chic, controlling wife, devoted to their beautiful ten-year-old and creepily quiet daughter, Snow who is also on this trip. Snow suffers from (or hides behind) a super shyness “syndrome,” which only her mother believes is real. Snow rarely speaks above a whisper so her mother speaks for her. See? Creepy.

Themes of marriage, friendship, motherhood, secrets, lies, and betrayal weave throughout in a compelling and sinister way.

A few quotes to illustrate Ephron’s wry and stinging observations:

“’Divine the insecurity and compliment it,’ I heard him say not long after he’d used the trick on me.”

“Betrayal of this magnitude is the exclusive province of married couples.”

“The only power worth having is secret power…like having an ace up your sleeve or a gun in your boot.”

Ouch! Recommend.

Some lighter reading, now and then…

My Best Friend's Girl by [Koomson, Dorothy]        Landline: A Novel by [Rowell, Rainbow]

 

Both these books feature young women, both focused on their successful careers, but with personal lives that are a bit of a mess. One is unmarried and the other married with two little girls. Both books demonstrate the power of even lighter fiction to show us what is true about love, sacrifice, friendship, trust, jealousy, and regret. You know, the big stuff.  And both allow characters to hear loved one’s voices from the past.

In My Best Friend’s Girl, BFFs Kamryn and Adele become understandably and bitterly estranged when Kamryn discovers that Adele’s daughter Tegan, was fathered by Kamryn’s fiancé. After years of silence between them, Adele dies but not before exacting a promise from Kamryn that she will care for and adopt now five-year-old Tegan. Kamryn’s life and priorities are turned upside down when motherhood is thrust upon her, a role she never aspired to. That role is made even more difficult by grief. Letters from Adele add a poignant touch to this angst-y but heartwarming story.

To her ex, Kamryn says:

“You’re the only person on earth I’d wanted to have a child with, and you did it with someone else. Someone I loved. That’s why I had to leave. I couldn’t stay when you’d made a baby, a new life, with someone else.”

And about Tegan:

“At least she knew she had me. I wasn’t her mum, but I was there.”

In Landline, the voice from the past arrives via an old yellow trimline phone found in the childhood bedroom of Georgie, a television comedy writer in Los Angeles and married mother of two. Because of a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to finally get the show she and her writing partner (and too-handsome best friend, Seth) have dreamed about since college, she stays behind when her husband Neal and girls go to Omaha for Christmas. Georgie’s mother believes that Neal has left Georgie, which begins a cycle of self-doubt. Had she been a neglectful wife and mother? Had Neal really left her? With her cellphone dead, she calls Neal on the landline and the Neal who picks up is the Neal she fell in love with fifteen years ago. Before marriage, before children. She’s careful not to break the spell throughout a week as she and Neal talk every night on that old yellow phone. This Neal still loves her.

“Georgie,” he said. “I love you. I love you more than I hate everything else. We’ll make our own enough–will you marry me?”

“Somebody had given Georgie a magic phone, and all she’d wanted to do with it was stay up late talking to her old boyfriend.”

These two books appealed to me because I wanted to explore the concept of friendship in Women’s Fiction. How friends support each other and how far they’ll go to fulfill a promise or commitment is compelling, but so is the push and pull between those friendships and all our important relationships–marriage, parenthood, even work. The novel I’m working on focuses on some of those elements and I wanted to see how these authors handled them. I was not disappointed.

Love in the time of prejudice

lover1The Japanese Lover: A Novel

Fans of Isabel Allende will enjoy this sweeping story of forbidden love. Two women meet at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay area. Both are immigrants, but Alma was sent to the US during WWII by her Polish-Jewish parents to live with wealthy relatives. Irina is a young, frightened employee of Lark House from Moldova. Each has secrets that define them, their relationship to each other and to the rest of the large cast of characters here. Little by little, their secrets are revealed, making me turn pages long past my bedtime.
The overarching and lifelong secret love affair of Alma and the Japanese gardener, Ichimei, is set against the backdrop of nearly every twentieth century cultural and historic phenomena. The Holocaust. The internment of the Japanese-Americans in the US. Prejudice in all its forms. Aging and end-of-life issues. Love and sexuality. AIDS. All are explored with Allende’s trademark sensuous (often sensual) writing, not to mention her humanity and heart.

To give you a taste, here’s what Alma’s husband says about their unusual but tender marriage:

“There are always some necessary lies and omissions, just as there are truths it’s better to keep quiet about.”

Alma says this about her beloved Ichimei:

“Love and desire for him scorched her skin; she wanted to stretch her hands out across the table and touch him, draw closer, bury her nose in his neck and confirm it still smelled of earth and herbs…”

And here’s what Ichimei says about dying:

“If I were going to die in the next three days, what would I do during that time? Nothing! I would empty myself of everything but love.”

In the end, this is a sweet, sad, passionate love story–a romance–between two people who couldn’t be together in this world. It left me hoping that they would be able to find and love each other in the next.

 

 

Eleanor Roosevelt’s crowded marriage

loving eleanorFranklin, Eleanor, Sara, Lucy, Earl, Missy, Lorena, Daisy, and Joe. This was a very crowded and complicated marriage. FDR and ER were neither exclusive nor stingy with their affections. And then there was his mother, Sara. Franklin and Eleanor’s story and its accompanying scandals reminded me of another power couple that occupied the White House and our collective consciousness half a century later, Bill and Hillary.

Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert is a well-researched, but fictional memoir of Lorena Hickok, a noted journalist who became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Very close. Three thousand revealing and personal letters between the two, that had been archived it the FDR Library, were unsealed ten years after Hickok’s death in 1968. They have provided much source material for both biographers and this fictionalized narrative. They leave little doubt as to the nature of their relationship, at least for a time.

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Lorena Hickok, aka “Hick,” tells this story.

But let’s back up a bit. Before FDR was elected President, Eleanor feared disappearing into his shadow. Remember, this was a time when women in general and First Ladies in particular occupied strictly defined roles. It was during the first presidential campaign that Hickok penned a series of articles about “The Reluctant First Lady,” highlighting ER’s concerns, her interests, and the projects that she desperately wanted to continue. It was “Hick” who encouraged Eleanor to find ways to change the role of First Lady into one in which she could thrive and find fulfillment. ER began holding weekly press conferences with female journalists, writing the widely syndicated “My Day” newspaper column, and shedding light on a host of women’s issues.

While FDR had several well-documented affairs, he was somewhat vindictive when it came to Eleanor’s dalliances. Earl Miller, ER’s hunky body-guard was bought (and married) off. Hick was reassigned to a traveling job during the Depression that kept her out of Washington D.C. And Joe Lash, a younger political activist and journalist beau was sent to the Pacific during WWII. Albert calls this FDR’s “left hook.”

The Roosevelts are of course, larger than life and endlessly fascinating. I’ve read Lucy by Ellen Feldman, about Eleanor’s former secretary who had a decades-long affair with FDR and who was with him when he died at Warm Springs. And I’ve seen the amusing Bill Murray movie, “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which focused on FDR’s relationship with his distant cousin, Daisy. The Ken Burns PBS documentary about the Roosevelts added to my picture of this influential family. However, this book has piqued my curiosity and put more books onto my always growing to-read list, including historian Blanche Wiesen Cook’s authoritative three volumes about Eleanor and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the couple. Then there are ER’s own books.

More than anything though, this book illustrates once again, that no one can really know what goes on in inside a marriage or the human heart. The power struggles and compromises that go on behind closed doors even–or especially–in the most public of couples, remain hidden from view. In addition, no matter how we may idolize and deify them, these icons are still quite human, with all the accompanying wants, needs, desires, and limitations. Knowing their struggles and private demons, especially when set against the times in which they lived, makes me appreciate them more and softens my heart. After all, who am I to judge?

Notes from the (temporarily) disabled list

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Still life with claw on moving day.

Way back last summer, in order to tempt fate and speed up the long-delayed sale of our home, I scheduled surgery on my left hand for the fall. An arthroplasty, for those who are interested. In my case, removal of an achy, arthritic thumb joint. Yuck. I would be on the disabled list for about six weeks, splinted or cast with pins sticking out for much of that time. I knew what was involved. Nine years ago I had the same procedure on my right hand. The good news is my strategy worked. The house sold, we found another, and set a moving date—precisely one week after my surgery. Yay?!

My war with drugs. (Warning: TMI)

For the first twenty-four hours, I was under the influence of lots of lovely numbing agents as well as the remnants of a general anesthetic. It was only after those wore off that I needed serious pain meds. I have an unhappy history with Percoset and rarely take opioids (narcotics.) I tend to break down in tears for no reason at all. My brain turns to mush. They also slow my—ahem—“digestion” down, basically grinding it to a halt.

I tried to get by without them as much as possible. Pain, however is taxing. It makes me tired and sad and cranky. So after trying to limit myself to just a few small doses, I realized I needed to take more. My third day consisted mostly of Percoset, nap, Percoset, nap, Percoset, nap…

That couldn’t continue. Besides, that “digestive” issue I mentioned was growing increasingly troublesome. I cut down the Percoset in half and added Aleve twice a day. Pain was now manageable, but my gut was still stalled–completely–in spite of all the water, fiber, Miralax, Colace, and Milk of Magnesia I had ingested. What finally worked? Stopping the darned Percoset. Or almost. I settled on one-half of one tablet at night to help me sleep. Aaahhh.

What (not) to wear.

Having gone through this before, I planned ahead. I knew that dressing myself would be a challenge. You know– zippers, hooks, buttons, shoelaces. With that in mind I stocked up on sports bras, yoga pants, and slip-on shoes.

Yes, I have a darling and helpful husband, but how many times a day (think trips to the bathroom) do I want to bother him for a zip-up? FYI, as sweet and supportive as my husband is, he is much more adept at undoing a bra than hooking it up. Perhaps it’s motivation?

As luck and El Nino would have it, wintry weather arrived the day of my surgery. I discovered that NONE of my long-sleeved shirts, jackets, or coats fit over the giant claw at the end of my left arm. No long-sleeved shirts and no coats meant I mostly stayed inside for a week. Or I wore numerous short-sleeved layers and tossed a not-very-warm and anything-but-chic poncho over everything. And I hoped I didn’t run into anyone I knew.

The second and third dressing changes resulted in a somewhat smaller claw, but I still can’t fit it into my big snow coat.

Keeping it clean.

The dressing can’t get wet so I secure a plastic trash bag over the thing with large rubber bands. All with one hand, mind you. Luckily I do have the use of four fingers, but without their buddy the opposable thumb, they aren’t much help. Squeezing shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel is accomplished by holding the bottle against my slippery chest and exerting pressure with my forearm, squeezing the goop into my right hand. And I’m using disposable facewash cloths to remove my make-up. Yes, I’m still wearing make-up most days. I wouldn’t want anyone to scare any small children or be mistaken for a corpse.

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Pumpkin pie making with my right..er, left-hand girl.

Feed me.

Sure, I can get food to my mouth, but have you ever noticed that containers of yogurt, cottage cheese, fruit, and soups all require two hands to open? Yes, my darling husband would help but he’d likely have to climb down from the ladder, or crawl out from under a sink to do so. Not fair. He shouldn’t have to do all the fix-it projects AND help me. Sad to say there have been a lot of take-out meals, just to make things easier. I can still make toast. I can still butter it and squeeze on the honey.

I apologize for whining, but at four weeks out from surgery, it still hurts at times and is testing the limits of my sunny disposition. I find it difficult to focus, let alone write. HOWEVER–I am grateful to be in my new home, married to that sweet guy, and half-way through my confinement. I’m especially grateful for the skillful surgeon who–in the end–will make my old hand feel like new again.

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Merry Christmas from me and my thumb!