Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Decade of Books: 10 Series, 40 Titles

Just as surely as the first week of January brings new diet books, the last week of December brings Top 10 or Top 100 lists. See, for example, Wine Spectator's "Top 100 Wines," or Michiko Kakutani's "Top 10 Books of 2009" in the New York Times, or--let's make this easy--Time magazine's "Top 10 Everything" list, which is almost a parody of the genre. These lists are way too late to inspire holiday shopping, so they must serve another function. Perhaps they are a quick way to come up with copy when magazine editors would rather be partying. Perhaps these editors know that, at the end of a year or a decade or, not so long ago, a millennium, a lot of us feel the need to examine, sort, take stock, evaluate.

Since 1997, when I made a long commute bearable by reading, I've been keeping a list of every book I read. Before then, when people asked me if I'd read any good books lately, I could assure them that I had--but I had no idea what they were. Now I can prime myself before attending social functions where that question might come up. I decided it would be fun to look at my lists for this decade and choose a favorite novel and nonfiction book for each year.

I quickly realized I could not limit myself to two excellent books a year, so I decided to allow two in each category. The criteria: I had to remember what they were about (not so easy: I was amazed at how many titles I did not remember at all). They had to be interesting--no moral uplift or literary elegance unless I truly liked the books. And they had to stand alone: I did not include books that are part of series. That seriously narrowed the field, because I cheerfully read almost everything some authors write. So before listing my highly idiosyncratic Top 40 of the last decade, I'll list the series authors that give a more accurate picture of my reading habits. This list is arranged alphabetically. I have no idea what my order of preference would be.


10 Series Authors I Can't Resist
  • BarbaraNeely. Blanche White, a cleaning lady from Roxbury, is a gutsy original. And yes, that's how the author writes her name. 
  • Connelly, Michael. Reporter Jack McEvoy, FBI agent Rachel Walling, and policeman Harry Bosch keep getting themselves almost killed.  
  • Frazer, Margaret. 15th-century nun Dame Frevisse fights original sin (my Books and Culture review is here).  
  • Grafton, Sue. California investigator Kinsey Milhone gets tough.  
  • James, P.D. Poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, with DI Kate Miskin, fights mayhem in Britain.  
  • King, Laurie R. In one series, policewoman Kate Martinelli keeps Northern California safe; in another, Mary Russell assists the aging Sherlock Holmes. King has also written several stand-alone books.  
  • Langton, Jane. Homer and Mary Kelly solve crimes in New England, Venice, or wherever they happen to be.  
  • McCall Smith, Alexander. Many series and several stand-alones: Begin with The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency and keep reading. This year's La's Orchestra Saves the World, a World War II story, is a switch. (My review is here.)  
  • Rowling, J.K. Seven Harry Potter books in print and on CD, six movies so far--and since I have to read/hear/see all of them multiple times, Ms. Rowling has kept me busy for an entire decade.  
  • Sansom, C.J. Hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake fights evil in Tudor England--which keeps him busy for four books covering only six years. Since plenty of evil remained after 1543, we can hope more books are coming.
And now, on to the year-by-year choices. I'm going to insert a break here so as not to make this page too long. Just click on the link below and you'll be taken to the Top 40.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge

A good friend gave me this book--a friend whose literary tastes always exceed my own, and so I feel I must read her selections when I am in a brave and intellectual mood. The front cover warned me that the book had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (see the list of titles since 1948 here) and hinted that Oprah liked it (indeed, it was one of her beach reads last year)--two warning bells for sure. The book is a collection of short stories, some of them previously published. And if reviewers agree on one word to describe Olive, it's "unlikeable" (if you doubt me, google Olive Kitteridge unlikeable and you can take your pick of them).

Oddly, I liked the book anyway, and I think you might too.

I didn't like Olive, at least not at first. Who could? She is a rude, sarcastic, abusive force of nature. She's also very funny.
Olive had refused to go to church the day before, and Henry, uncharacteristically, had spoken to her sharply. "Is it too much to ask," he had found himself saying, as he stood in the kitchen in his undershorts, ironing his trousers. "A man's wife accompanying him to church?" Going without her seemed a public exposure of familial failure.

"Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!" Olive had almost spit, her fury's door flung open. "You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking. Ironing. Laundry. Doing Christopher's homework with him! And you--" She had grabbed on to the back of a dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from its night's disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes. "You, Mr. Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a bunch of snot-wots!" Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair. "Well, I'm sick and tired of it," she'd said, calmly. "Sick to death."

Don't tell me, Female Readers Married to Holy Men, you've never had similar thoughts. Not that you'd have put them quite that way, of course. That's the beauty of Olive: she'll stride right out of your mucky old id and tell it like it is. Loudly. Which makes her off-putting, inadvertently hilarious, and rather touchingly sensitive, since nobody much likes her (imagine!).

Olive is complex, and one of the joys of reading this book is seeing her from all sides. A former math teacher, she has earned the respect, if not the love, of many of her acquaintances. In one story, "Incoming Tide," she gently and perceptively saves a former student from self-destruction.

Another of the book's delights is the cast of genuine characters in Olive's little town of Crosby, Maine--think Flannery O'Connor people in a cold climate. Many of the stories are about them, with Olive making only an incidental appearance.

Best of all, I think, is watching Olive grow older and wiser without ever losing her cynicism. Turns out she didn't dislike Henry nearly as much as you might think from the first chapter. Halfway through the book he has a stroke and has to go to the nursing home. Olive is devastated.
She didn't like to be alone. Even more, she didn't like being with people.

It made her skin crawl to sit in Daisy Foster's tiny dining room, sipping tea. "I went to that damn dopey grief group," she told Daisy. "And they said it was normal to feel angry. God, people are stupid. Why in hell should I feel angry? We all know this stuff is coming. Not many are lucky enough to just drop dead in their sleep."

"People react in their own way, I guess," Daisy said, in her nice voice. She didn't have anything except a nice voice, Olive thought, because that's what Daisy was--nice. To hell with all of it. She said the dog was waiting, and left her teacup still full.
Olive is not nice, not in her middle years, not when she is old. Nice is not Olive's style. But Olive becomes wise, at least in her own way.
What young people didn't know, she thought; ... oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again.... If her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.
Thanks, Olive. You're unforgettable. And I'm really glad you aren't my mother-in-law.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Alexander McCall Smith: La's Orchestra Saves the World


Alexander McCall Smith's third book in 2009 (after The Lost Art of Gratitude, the sixth Isabel Dalhousie book, and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, the tenth Mma Ramotswe book) is a bit of a departure from his usual approach. It takes place in England, with only one brief mention of Edinburgh and none at all of Botswana. It probably is not going to spawn a series: he pretty much covers the central character's whole life in this one volume. Most of the story takes place during World War II, and it's rather serious for McCall Smith. Lavender Stone--La for short--is betrayed, widowed, and sent to the country where she, a Cambridge scholar, tends chickens to help the war effort.

And yet the McCall Smith fan club, of which I am a devout member, will not be disappointed in La's Orchestra Saves the World. Once again the incredibly prolic author tells a short, uncomplicated, gentle story about a good woman who speaks in simple sentences and probably thinks too much. Get past the first chapter, which somewhat confusingly bookends the story: it doesn't make a lot of sense until you've read the rest of the tale, so read it quickly and then come back to it later. The real story starts in chapter 2, which begins: "La's childhood was spent in the shadow of Death."

As always, McCall Smith pokes fun at the foibles of his very human characters: a man-hating academic, a venial pig farmer, a philandering husband. But he does this in the nicest way, because for McCall Smith, an ethicist by training, the bottom line is always kindness, even and perhaps especially toward the undeserving. Why, for example, should La fix up a nice room for the injured Polish airman-turned-farmworker?
Surely she should feel indifferent towards him--there were so many displaced persons, people washed up by the war, people from somewhere else--and yet already she felt that looking after him was something that she had to do. But why? Because he was in need and he was about to cross her path. That, perhaps, was the basis of our responsibility to one another; the simple fact that we collided with one another.
Like other McCall Smith characters, La does not base her ethics on theology.
"We can't afford to be without God," Feliks continued.... If you take God out of it, then right and justice become small, human things. And weak things, too."

La thought about this. He was right, perhaps, even if she did not feel that she needed God in the same way Feliks seems to need him. She would do whatever she had to do--even if it was for the sake of simple decency. You did not wipe a child's tears because God told you to do so. You did it because the tears were there.
And as in other McCall Smith books, there are no heroes, no stars, no larger-than-life characters. If La's orchestra saves the world, the world is unaware of it. Near the end of the book, when La is in her 50s, she looks out her kitchen window at fields and clouds, and this is what she thinks:
For her, life seemed unchanged, barely touched by the movements and shifts of the times. Again I have missed it, she thought; heady things are happening, and I am not there; I am somewhere in the wings, watching what is happening on the stage, in a play in which I have no real part. That is what my life has been.... I have been a handmaiden; she relished the word--a handmaiden; one who waits and watches; assists, perhaps, but only in a small way....

So each of us, thought La, each one of us should do something to make life better for somebody, to change the course of events, even if only in the most local sense. Even a handmaiden can do something about that.
This is a small book, and it will not change the world. But it is perfect for a long winter's evening, and it will increase the sum of goodness in the world.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A seriously chocolate cake

Tired of sugar plums and gingerbread? Need to sink your teeth into some serious chocolate? Want a recipe that's faster than instant?

Several years ago my friend Ashleigh made a cake she called Texas Sheet Cake. It was lovely though a bit ladylike. I decided it would be even better if I at least doubled the amount of cocoa, using only Hershey's extra dark, and then added dark chocolate chips to the batter, then cut the rest of the recipe in half.

"Um, do you think that might be too much chocolate?" a friend politely asked. "You can't have too much chocolate," I answered. Feel free to add even more if you like. If simple hedonism doesn't induce you to make this cake, think of the antioxidants.

I need a name for this recipe. It might involve the words Dark Side. Suggestions are welcome.

Here's the recipe.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cheerful books for the bleak midwinter

Here are some book recommendations for you who are tired of thinking about Afghanistan or the health-care debate or the economy. Last September I went to the library in search of books that would make me laugh (I described my quest here) and ended up reading Jennifer Weiner. Now I'm looking for more cheerful books to brighten bleak midwinter days. These 2009 books may help. Please lengthen my list--it's a long time until spring!

Two sort-of religious memoirs

Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. What's a (middle-aged) girl to do when her husband leaves her for a guy named Bob and a car accident leaves her with multiple injuries? Go home to mother, of course. Even though mother is the ditzy matriarch of a prominent Mennonite family, and Janzen hasn't been part of that community for decades. Mennonite is one of the few Christian religions I've never practiced (though it looks attractive, especially when POTUS starts talking about just war theory), but I still found this memoir hilarious. Mother Janzen is a funnier-than-life character not to be missed.

Elna Baker's The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. Disclaimer: I haven't read this one yet. My daughter Heidi enjoyed it and said I should. When I was visiting her for Thanksgiving, I read part of the first chapter on her iPhone before giving up and going back to a book with actual pages. I really liked the beginning, though, and Amazon cross-references this book with Janzen's. And while both books--Mennonite and Mormon--are humorous and ironic, they are affectionate, not bitter. Bitter books stop being funny very quickly.

A precocious detective

Ya gotta love a 70-year-old first-time novelist whose debut mystery is translated into 19 languages. Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, number one in at least a three-part series, features an 11-year-old narrator and sleuth who has been called a cross between Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes. I noticed hints of Lemony Snicket in the author's style, though Bradley is less outrageous. Sweetness is so popular at the Wheaton Public Library that I had to wait in line for months--I think I started out as hold number 34. Mr Neff is now reading it and snickering. I believe our teen-aged granddaughters would also enjoy it.

Tragedy and slapstick

I also waited patiently in line for Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, having not the slightest inkling that partway through chapter 9 I would start laughing out loud. I'd recently read--well, listened to--Russo's Bridge of Sighs, and there was nothing funny about that book. And Publisher's Weekly's review of Cape Magic was not auspicious, unless you like books that are "dense" and "flashback-filled" with "navel-gazing interior monologues" about "a life coming apart at the seams" (kill me now!). Hey, it wasn't that bad--and once Harve propels himself, wheelchair and all, into the upper branches of a yew tree, it's positively hilarious. You'll have no idea how many things can go wrong with a wedding until you've read this book.

Alexander McCall Smith

Need I say more?

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Archbishop and the President have a problem

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

--William Butler Yeats, from "The Second Coming"

Two of the best people in public life today--in my humble opinion--are the President of the United States and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Both are intelligent, thoughtful, well-read men who care deeply about justice, not only for themselves and their immediate constituents, but for the whole world. Both are complex thinkers who understand that every issue has many aspects. Both practice empathy: they see value in their opponents as well as in their adherents, and they dream of finding common ground, reconciling adversaries, and creating peace on earth.

By no means do Barack Obama and Rowan Williams lack all conviction. But--dogged on all sides by passionately intense extremists--both men seem unable to say, loud and clear, "Here I stand." Obama, still hoping to come up with a viable health plan, dreams of bipartisanship; while Williams, navigating among bishops from Africa and North America, appeals to the via media.

The results?

In Congress, a formerly fairly good health bill has been rewritten to the point that it soon may do just what Republicans warned it would do, back when it didn't do it: that is, cost too much. So of course Republicans don't like it, even though they're the ones who are making the changes--but Democrats don't much like it either, since it may no longer do what needs doing.

In Lambeth, a decades-long series of non-decisions and non-comments regarding gay clergy has driven conservative Anglicans to Africa or Rome while leaving liberal Anglicans feeling betrayed, wondering why their former champion has not even spoken up about the proposed death penalty for gays in Uganda.

I really like President Obama and Archbishop Williams. I like them because they are thoughtful reconcilers, and I think both of them have really good ideas.
I would love to have a beer with either one, any time. The question is, can they do their jobs if they continue to be simultaneously irenic and visionary? Or does a public figure eventually need to draw a line in the sand, even though a lot of people will end up on the other side of the line?


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Holiday wish lists--an easy way to remember others

I have mixed feelings about wish lists. They rob Christmas of creativity, surprise, and personal contact, but they make shopping much, much easier. And it's nice to know that if I pay attention to the lists, gift recipients won't roll their eyes and return the gifts before the tree is by the curb. To cut down on my family's December stress, I make my own wish list each year, feeling vaguely guilty (do I need those pearl earrings?). "Get better gifts," orders Amazon's wishlistmeister. I don't like his tone.

This year, though, Amazon has vastly improved its wish list. Now I can ask for anything I want from any online supplier. It doesn't even have to be a merchant: it can be a food bank, a cultural or educational organization, a humane society, a church--any organization that has a web site and is willing to accept money. All I have to do is put an "Add to Wish List" button on my Favorites or Bookmarks toolbar. It's extremely easy to do: click here to get started.

And 2009 is a good year, I think, to bypass the pearl earrings and go straight for the better gifts: gifts that will help people whose income went down more than ours did, or who lost their jobs or their homes, or who have unmanageable medical expenses, or who aren't sure they'll be able to afford Christmas dinner. According to a November 27 AP story,
food banks across the country report about a 30 percent increase in demand on average, but some have seen as much as a 150 percent jump in demand from 2008 through the middle of this year.... The U.S. Department of Agriculture said earlier this month that 49 million people, or 14.6 percent of U.S. households, struggle to put food on the table, the most since the agency began tracking food security levels in 1995.
Contributions can't keep pace. David R. Francis writes in the November 30 Christian Science Monitor:
Donations to the nation’s largest nonprofits, including prominent universities, hospitals, and foundations, are expected to fall 9 percent this year, according to a survey by The Chronicle of Philanthropy last month. That’s the steepest drop the publication has reported in 17 years of surveying the 400 largest charities in the United States.
What to do?

1. Set up your Amazon wish list and add-to button.

2. Go to your favorite charity's web site. (If you don't have a favorite charity, or if you'd like to be sure that the charities you support are using your money wisely, go to Charity Navigator. There you can sort charities by name, location, purpose, budget, and rating. You can look at Top Ten lists and articles on how to give wisely; you can read users' comments on various charities; and you can learn how much each charity's CEO earns. You can even make a donation directly from the site.)

3. Navigate to the web page that describes the program you want to support, or that tells how to donate.

4. Click on your Add to Wish List button and follow instructions.

I've added a couple of charities to my wish list. One is the People's Resource Center in Wheaton, IL, a four-star charity according to Charity Navigator. I linked to their art studio program and added an explanatory note in case people reading my list thought I was asking for an art studio for Christmas. Here's more or less how this item in my list looks on Amazon:


Product Image
People's Resource | Arts Studioshop this store
peoplesrc.org $15.00


shop this store
This item was added with the Universal Wish List Button.
Scroll down: $15 provides an art class for a child. PRC does lots of other good things too, like feed and clothe people and teach them to read. They are always happy to get donations of any amount. And donations are tax deductible.
Quantity Desired: 10
Hey, the earrings are still on my wish list (I add them anew every year), along with the coffee grinder, the Harry Potter DVD, and the espresso cups. I'm not saying Christmas should be turned into a social-justice rally. I plan to add even more items to my list (rationale: a really long list allows friends and family to be creative, and even the recipient might be surprised at what she gets), and I'm already ordering wrappable gifts for the kids and grandkids.

I'm just saying that a little less for me and a little more for others, multiplied by however many people also put charities on their wish lists this year, could add up to a merrier Christmas for everyone.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Review: When Everything Changed

In the first year of Gail Collins's survey of "the amazing journey of American women from 1960 to the present," I turned 12. Not long after that, I told my father I was thinking of becoming a lawyer. "That's not a good job for a woman," he said.

Some 25 years later, when my daughter Molly was a teenager, she told my father she was thinking of going to law school. "Good idea," he said. "You would make a fine lawyer."

"Dad!" I howled, reminding him of what he had told me. He smiled benignly. "Times have changed," he said.

I didn't know how much until I read When Everything Changed. "In 1960 women accounted for ... 3 percent of lawyers," Collins writes. Sylvia Roberts, a law-school grad in the late 50s, could not find "any firms in New Orleans that would allow a woman to apply." She finally found a secretarial job with a small law firm. A few years earlier, Sandra Day O'Connor, though third in her class at Stanford University's law school, could find only one California law firm willing to hire her--as a legal secretary. By the time Molly was thinking of law school, however, Ms O'Connor was a Supreme Court justice.

I was eager to read When Everything Changed because I love Collins's witty op-ed pieces in the New York Times. This book, though, is straight journalism--well researched, well written, intended to inform rather than entertain. Collins, who turned 15 in 1960, became "the first woman ever appointed editor of the Times’s editorial page" in 2001, a job she held until 2007. When the book was published last month, Forbes interviewed Collins and introduced the book thus:
In the course of the five decades that Collins charts, Nora Ephron applies to a job at Newsweek, is told that "women don't become writers here" and becomes, well, Nora Ephron. A postwar survey that finds fewer than 10% of those interviewed believe an unmarried woman could be happy evolves into the era of Sex and the City, which sculpted single women into enviable icons. A 1961 medical school dean who says, "We do keep women out, when we can. We don't want them here" is relegated to history's trash heap: Female students now claim 50% of the spots in medical schools.

When Everything Changed also includes a long, informative chapter about African-American women in the civil rights movement, as well as fascinating information about women in politics, changes in abortion and divorce law, feminism and the backlash against it, the political careers of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, and the personal journeys of a variety of women from all ethnicities and social classes.

Having lived through those tumultuous 50 years, I was at least dimly aware of most of the people and events and circumstances Collins describes. At the same time, I was continually surprised to realize how much societal change I've experienced. Five decades of daily life look so different when the bits and pieces are gathered into one place and viewed as a whole. I would like my daughters to read this book and tell me how it strikes them, though I expect they will tell me they don't have time. Heidi is immersed in her career as an artist and college professor. Molly, who decided to get an MBA instead of a law degree, discovered that her husband could, more easily than she, find an adequately paid, family-friendly job. So she spends her days supervising their three kids, cooking, volunteering at church and school, handling family financial and travel arrangements ...

Hey, wait. That sounds a lot like what I did. Before everything changed. And yet there is a difference, and it's huge. American women may not have achieved equality yet, and a lot of changes remain to be made. But my daughters and granddaughters have choices that were not even considered 50 years ago, and we enjoy a lot more respect. If ever you doubt that, listen to the lyrics of popular songs from the 50s and 60s, or watch a few old movies. Or read When Everything Changed.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The mammogram panic: or, false positives are no picnic


Inhale through your nose (be sure your abdomen moves, not just your chest). Exhale through your mouth. Slowly, now ...

OK, let's talk about the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force's recommendation that women begin getting mammograms at age 50 instead of 40, and that we space them two years instead of one year apart.

I'm not going to argue that the USPSTF is right or wrong about this. I'll probably keep on getting my annual mammogram, and the HHS secretary assures me that this should be no problem. But I do understand the Task Force's wish to cut back on unnecessary procedures. As satirical columnist Gail Collins wrote this morning, "Whatever happens, we do not want the government conducting any studies on whether current health practices actually do any good. Let this continue and soon you will not be able to get your hands on a good leech when you need one."

The USPSTF's recommendations are not exactly outlandish. Beginning mammography at age 50 and thereafter at two- (or even three-) year intervals is already the standard in the European Union and Japan. Breast cancer, however, is one of the few diseases with higher survival rates in the United States (especially for white women) than anywhere else. Is this due to early detection, better treatment, fewer smokers, or a different approach to statistics? People have theories, but no one knows for sure. So, until they figure this out, I imagine I'll opt for the annual mammogram.

Still, there are good reasons to be concerned about false positives. I've had two false positives, and here's what happened to me.

I had a worrisome mammogram on July 25, 1999. The doctor didn't like what he saw, so he sent me for a second mammogram on July 29. It did not make him any happier, so I went immediately for an ultrasound. On August 18--after nearly three weeks of what the USPSTF, with classic understatement, calls "anxiety"--I went to the hospital for one-day surgery.

First, however, I had yet another mammogram to mark the tiny mass through needle localization. While the breast is compressed, a needle bearing a small wire is inserted. This does not feel good. Also, it somehow affects the vagus nerve, and some women pass out while it is being done. I came very close to being one of them. Fortunately, the technicians started hollering and someone brought a bed to catch me. Eventually they found what they wanted, and I was taken to the operating room for a surgical biopsy. It left me very sore for several weeks and slightly disfigured forever. Nothing whatsoever was wrong with my breast.

Two years later I had another false positive. This time I went directly to an oncologist, whom I will bless forever. She did not ask for a second mammogram, and she did not do a needle biopsy. Instead, in her office, she did an ultrasound followed by a fine needle aspiration. Again, nothing was wrong.

A number of my friends have been sent for breast biopsies too. Most of them had stereotactic biopsies (if you're in a grisly mood, see Mayo Clinic's descriptions of different kinds of biopsies). None of them had anything wrong either. They had a lot of anxiety, discomfort, and expense, though.

I'm not saying mammograms should be done later, or less frequently. I don't know. I'm just saying that false positives are nothing to sneer at. If yearly mammograms really do provide better results, then false positives may be an unpleasant, expensive, but necessary side effect. If yearly mammograms make little or no difference, then we need to consider that false positives carry their own risks, not the least of which is infection.

I suppose I'm going to carry on with yearly mammograms. Maybe they contribute to the U.S.'s good survival statistics. Maybe I'm superstitious: if I skip a year, I will surely be punished. But if Blue Cross or Medicare someday decides not to fund annual mammograms, or if I move from Wheaton to Paris or Geneva, I won't panic. At least not as much as I did when I had the false positive mammogram results.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review: The Migraine Brain


If ever you find yourself thinking that spirit is stronger than flesh, or ought to be, try getting a migraine.

I'm lucky: I've been to the ER only three times with headaches. Once I forgot to open the window while stripping paint from a door. Once I was coming down with the flu. And once, earlier this year, I had a classic migraine. Tip: if you want to be ushered quickly to a private exam room, try sitting in the communal waiting room barfing into a bowl.

Some of my friends have that sort of migraine several times a month. Fortunately, after years of misery, they have found medications that help. To them--and to less seriously affected migraineurs like me (with frequent but comparatively mild migraines)--I recommend The Migraine Brain by Carolyn Bernstein, MD, and Elaine McArdle.

The authors give lots of good advice for diagnosing, preventing, treating, and living with migraines. A migraine is not a headache, they say, but "a neurological illness caused by an abnormality in your brain chemistry." Headache is one of its most frequent symptoms, but there are many other symptoms as well, and not just the familiar accompaniments such as nausea and flashing lights. Thanks to this book, Mr Neff now understands why I insist on putting a towel over our glow-in-the-dark alarm clock, why the smell of baking bread wakes me up at night, and why I can't wear turtlenecks or hairstyles with bangs. Hey, I have an abnormal brain! Who knew?

The solution? Alas, there isn't one: migraine is a chronic condition. But migraines can be aborted, reduced in number, and made less severe. The authors discuss drugs and doctors as well as complementary and alternative treatments (they like triptans, magnesium, and acupuncture but are nervous about some herbal supplements). Equally important, they suggest a lifestyle overhaul: a migraineur needs to eat right, sleep enough, take breaks, and have fun.

Or, if that's too tall an order, she can at least try drinking eight glasses of water a day while wearing a V-neck T-shirt and sitting in a darkened, odor-free room.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Vegetarians vs carnivores--a personal choice?


I’m a cradle vegetarian. Didn’t have even a bite of meat—red or white, fish or fowl—until I was maybe eleven years old, and then I lost my dietary virginity to a hot dog. Go ahead and snicker.

I’m not a vegetarian anymore. I had some chicken when I was fourteen right after I dissected a frog in biology lab; I almost threw up. Tried lamb chops a couple of years later: gross. By my mid thirties, I was able to enjoy the occasional beef or chicken in restaurants, and a decade later I discovered how to broil salmon at home. I’m sixty-one now, and I still can’t prepare a decent beef steak or roast. I’ve never roasted a whole chicken, and I don’t know how to bone a fish. Last Thanksgiving my turkey tasted fine, but our guests had to read instructions out of a cookbook while Mr Neff manfully carved it. He was pretty much raised vegetarian too.

So it’s no wonder that he sent me a link to James E. McWilliams’s article “Bellying Up to Environmentalism” in today’s Washington Post. McWilliams, author of Just Food:Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, argues that what we eat--whether we are vegetarians or meat eaters--is more than just a personal choice:
Here's why: The livestock industry as a result of its reliance on corn and soy-based feed accounts for over half the synthetic fertilizer used in the United States, contributing more than any other sector to marine dead zones. It consumes 70 percent of the water in the American West -- water so heavily subsidized that if irrigation supports were removed, ground beef would cost $35 a pound. Livestock accounts for at least 21 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions globally -- more than all forms of transportation combined. Domestic animals -- most of them healthy -- consume about 70 percent of all the antibiotics produced. Undigested antibiotics leach from manure into freshwater systems and impair the sex organs of fish.

It takes a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of conventional beef. If all the grain fed to animals went to people, you could feed China and India. That's just a start.

Most alternatively produced meat is little better, McWilliams says. (Did you know that grass-fed cows produce four times the methane of grain-fed cows? eeeeeeeeew.) The label may say "free range," but that doesn't mean the chickens have been frolicking in the grass. Well, maybe a few of them have been. A farmer who sells pork, chicken, and eggs at Wheaton's outdoor market displays a notebook full of pictures of his contented animals enjoying their short but happy lives. But his food is awfully expensive, and very few people have access to it.

McWilliams raises a troubling question:

If someone told you that a particular corporation was trashing the air, water and soil; causing more global warming than the transportation industry; consuming massive amounts of fossil fuel; unleashing the cruelest sort of suffering on innocent and sentient beings; failing to recycle its waste; and clogging our arteries in the process, how would you react? Would you say, "Hey, that's personal?"

Well, no. And I don't think America's consumption of vast quantities of corn syrup is personal either. Nor is our addiction to fast food. In my vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, all 308 million of us would have access to a steady supply of fresh, organically grown vegetables and fruits. We'd eat meat, but considerably less of it, and all of our meat would come from brilliantly run small farms like Polyface Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, described in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Polyface's meat animals do not damage the earth. Their website notes that "pastured livestock and poultry, moved frequently to new 'salad bars,' offer landscape healing and nutritional superiority." (The website does not discuss the methane problem.)

But in the meantime, and given what is generally available in the suburbs and cities where most of us live, how do we eat for our own health--and for the common good?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: The Matthew Shardlake Mysteries by CJ Sansom


2009 has been a good year for Tudor fiction. Hilary Mantel's hefty Wolf Hall, a portrayal of Henry VIII's strongman Thomas Cromwell, won the Man Booker prize for fiction. Best-selling novelist Philippa Gregory added a back story to her seven Tudor novels with The White Queen, about Henry VIII's maternal grandmother Elizabeth Woodville. And C.J. Sansom, whose first novel about the fictional hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake was blurbed by P.D. James, added a fourth book to the series, Revelation.

I am 40 pages into Wolf Hall, and I'm not sure if I will continue: it is a literary novel that is heavy on character and light on plot, and it is very long. I have read only one Philippa Gregory (The Queen's Fool), and I enjoyed it: as I recall, it was a page-turner of a romance in a well-researched historical setting. Sansom's books fall in the middle of the literary-to-popular continuum. They are mysteries, but (like most P.D. James books) they are also fully developed novels with well-developed characters, intricate plots, and serious concerns that go well beyond whodunit.

Sansom tells his stories in chronological order, so it's a good idea to begin with his first book, Dissolution (read my review here), whose events take place in 1537 when Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell are breaking up monasteries. The second book, Dark Fire (reviewed here), involves Thomas Cromwell's demise in 1540.

In book three, Sovereign, Shardlake accompanies Henry VIII's 1541 "progress" (massive displacement of the entire court designed to overawe the populace) to York. Major players include Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury; and Catherine Howard, Henry's foolish child bride. Book four, Revelation, finds Shardlake back in London in 1543, desperately trying to steer clear of political intrigues--but of course falling headlong into one involving Cranmer, Henry VIII's former brother-in-law Thomas Seymour, and Catherine Parr, whom Henry wishes to make his sixth wife.

I've been reading Sansom as distraction from twenty-first-century politics--I'm weary of furious accusations hurled back and forth between liberals and conservatives in politics and religion over topics ranging from abortion to Afghanistan--and I find Tudor England strangely comforting: clearly, we are not living in the worst of times. As Sansom describes it, some of the sixteenth-century problems sound familiar. Religious conservatives battle religious innovators. The rich take the property of the poor. The poor find themselves without health care. Rumor has it that weapons of mass destruction are being developed. Rulers bypass courts of law and illegally torture people without formal accusations or trials. The Book of Revelation becomes popular, and people expect the last days. Religious fanatics turn into killers.

Perhaps Sansom means for me to think, Whoa... look where we're going, look what could happen here. I'm afraid that my response is more shallow (I may be in denial). For example, as I read about what happened to prisoners in the Tower of London, I thought, Whew... I'm glad I live now and not in Tudor England. But Sansom is looking at how power operates, especially when there are no counter-powers restraining it, and what he sees is worth pondering.

Fortunately, Sansom also looks at goodness. As a skilled novelist, he gives us well-rounded central characters with flaws and virtues inextricably mixed. Still, Shardlake is reassuringly kind most of the time, and he unflaggingly pursues justice to the best of his ability. His physician friend, Guy Malton, is compassionate; Shardlake's young assistant Jack Barak is loyal and courageous. Even as you fear that one or another of the characters is about to make a huge mistake, you trust their intentions. They will not turn on you. Perhaps they will make their tumultuous world a better place.

The Shardlake mysteries are long, ranging from 400 to nearly 600 pages. Fortunately, they do not drag. Sansom follows the good novelist's dictum: Show, don't tell. He keeps his characters on stage--these books are all written in the first person--and moves the plot largely through fast-paced dialogue. It's nice for a reader to have some prior acquaintance with Tudor England, but extensive knowledge of the period isn't required. A quick romp through the PBS series "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" would suffice, or an even quicker viewing of "A Man for All Seasons" (a film you should review if you plan to read Mantel's Wolf Hall, since the book completely reverses the film's portrayal of Sir Thomas More and Cromwell).

And if you've heretofore paid no attention to the sixteenth century, let Sansom initiate you. He's only up to July 1543, but I'm guessing Matthew Shardlake will be back. Archbishop Cranmer will sorely need his services during the brief, chaotic reign of Edward VI (1547-53).

Monday, November 9, 2009

Pro-choice people: Get a grip


OK, pro-choice people, get a grip.

Yes, the House passed a health-care bill that clearly excludes abortion from public funding. Yes, a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “We think that providing health care is itself a pro-life thing, and we think that, by and large, providing better health coverage to women could reduce abortions. But we don’t make these decisions statistically, and to get to that good we cannot do something seriously evil.”

But really, why would Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, accuse the bishops of “interceding to put their own ideology in the national health care plan”? Isn’t that exactly what Planned Parenthood is trying to do? Isn’t that what everybody tries to do in a democratic republic?

The thing is, as most of us have noticed, America is seriously divided about abortion. The most recent statistics from Pew Research indicate that 46% of us are in favor of legal abortion in all or most cases, 44% are against. You’re more likely to get a hotly debated health bill through Congress if it doesn’t force people who are strongly opposed to something to pay for it. When the Democrats in Congress excluded abortion funding, most of them weren’t making an ideological statement. They were just trying to get the bill to pass.

This bill isn’t the end of civilization as pro-choice people know it. Roe v. Wade wasn’t attacked. If Congress eventually passes a health-reform bill that, like the House bill, excludes abortion payments, there’s no reason pro-choice people can’t fund abortion themselves. It actually wouldn’t cost them all that much.

Look at the statistics: there are approximately 1.21 million abortions a year in the United States at an average cost of less than $500 each. So let’s say that the total cost of providing abortions is $605 million a year.
Personally, I’m glad the House voted in favor of health care and against public funding of abortion—I’m one of those politically liberal, pro-life Catholics. But pro-choicers, if you really want to make abortion easily available and totally free, stop whining and just do it. Really, you won't miss the ten cents. And by going private, you can keep your ideology from sinking the entire national health-care plan.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Farewell to a merry old soul


Saturday afternoon "Mom" Wilma Elliott's 17 descendants, 10 of the in-laws, and several dozen friends gathered to say farewell. The 95-year-old matriarch of the Elliott clan (into which our daughter Molly married) once explained to me why she survived so long beyond her husband and my parents, who died 15 years ago. "I was the one who was smoked and pickled," she said. (She stopped smoking when she was 90, but she continued to enjoy her afternoon glass of bourbon.)

At her memorial service we sang a few of Wilma's favorite hymns and listened to some readings from Scripture. Susan Elliott, our granddaughter and Wilma's great-granddaughter, played "Ashokan Farewell" on her violin. Then friends and family members stepped up to the mike and told stories. (Wilma's wedding-day message to her granddaughter-in-law: "The Elliott men are stubborn, but they can be finessed.") If the departed keep tabs on us or at least drop by now and then, I expect Wilma enjoyed the service as much as we did.

So I want to qualify my enthusiasm for a thought-provoking article that several of my Facebook friends have linked to: Thomas G. Long's New York Times op-ed piece, "Chronicle of a Death We Can't Accept." Long thinks that many of our contemporary memorial services miss the point: the body of the deceased should attend the funeral. He writes:
A corpse is a stark reminder that human beings are inescapably embodied creatures, and that a life is the sum of what has been performed and spoken by the body — a mixture of promises made and broken, deeds done and undone, joys evoked and pain inflicted. When we lift the heavy weight of the coffin and carry the dead over the tile floor of the crematory or across the muddy cemetery to the open grave, we bear public witness that this was a person with a whole and embodied life, one that, even in its ambiguity and brokenness, mattered and had substance. To carry the dead all the way to the place of farewell also acknowledges the reality that they are leaving us now, that they eventually will depart even from our frail communal memory as they travel on to whatever lies beyond.

I appreciate Long's insistence on embodiment. I like his emphasis on physical reality. I welcome his lack of sentimentality. His article was appropriate for All Hallows Eve and El Día de los Muertos, the days it was published online and in the print edition. There is a time for gathering around an open grave, for lowering the heavy casket (or small urn), and for scattering handfuls of dirt; and these rituals should not be skipped. Too often we Americans trade hard truths for reassuring illusions.

But today, All Souls Day, there are other truths to consider as well. There is also a time for "a soul cake: an apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry--any good thing to make us all merry" (not Sting's vapid new version, by the way: insist on Peter, Paul, and Mary's classic). Wilma's family said the hard good-byes in September, when she died. When we gathered on Saturday, it was to celebrate the love that is stronger than death."Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Psalm 30:5). For those who believe in the resurrection of the body, the joy--even more than the corpse--is a sign of physical reality.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The sequel: Evil insurance company repents

Never underestimate the power of a determined family, the press, the internet, and an outraged public. Guardian Life has changed its policy and apologized to the Pearl family. Ian Pearl will continue to receive the home care he needs. Read more about the repentant insurer at CNN or at the Washington Times, the newspaper that broke the story last week.

When I first commented on the Times story, I argued that the insurer was simply doing what for-profit insurers must do. I wrote, "What is evil is this: that we Americans allow our health-care system to be financed by industries that exist to make a profit. No other rich capitalist nation does this."

After hearing from Matthew Pearl, Ian's brother, I realized that Guardian Life had gone beyond the necessary evils of for-profit health care. I then wrote: "I now understand that the Guardian Life Insurance Company grossly misbehaved, even by the lax standards of the health insurance industry, and should not be excused for any reason."

However, Guardian Life's repentance does not get insurance companies off the hook, nor does it excuse the inherent evils in a health-care system based on profit. Insurers will continue to deny coverage where it is most needed. Most families will be unable to challenge insurers with the skill and tenacity of the Pearls. The cost of insurance will continue to rise, along with the number of uninsured...
  • unless Republicans stop whining and start crafting serious solutions.
  • unless Democrats stop bickering and start agreeing on a proposal with teeth.
  • unless everyone in Congress has the guts to forget about all those meals and junkets and campaign finance contributions lavished on them by the health-care industry, and votes for what is right and good and necessary.
You can contact your U.S. Representative here and your U.S. Senators here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

I was wrong. The insurance company was evil.

I was wrong. Last Wednesday I posted "An evil insurance company?" I argued that the villain in an obvious case of injustice--a denial of service to spinal muscular atrophy sufferer Ian Pearl--is not the insurance company, but the U.S. health-care system itself.

I still believe that the for-profit U.S. health-care system is a villain in Mr. Pearl's case (and in many other cases), because such injustices happen with regularity when health care is made a source of profit. However, I now understand that the Guardian Life Insurance Company grossly misbehaved, even by the lax standards of the health insurance industry, and should not be excused for any reason. The article I cited pointed out their misdeeds, and I should have paid more attention. The company's malfeasance became much clearer to me when Mr. Pearl's brother sent me this comment. It is attached to my original post, but I'm also including it here so that more people will see it.
Matthew Pearl said...

Ian is my brother. Thank you for including a link to the story. I'd like to explain, though, why the story is far more shocking than your post recognizes. This actually is unprecedented. Insurance companies are not allowed to identify an individual who is sick or disabled and drop him or her in order to increase their profit. That would be discrimination and illegal. So Guardian, instead, dropped the entire "plan design" for everyone who had it, doing an end-around the law. Not only that, our lawsuit uncovered documents--now public, now published in the article you link to--showing the executives planning a "hit list" of which individuals to target based on how much their health care costs. We're talking people with serious illnesses and diseases. They referred to my brother Ian and those like him as the "dogs" of the group they had to "get rid of" and "train wrecks." This was not the beginning. They had sent private investigators for years to try to find that my dad's business was not a real one, or some other basis of cancellation--which of course they didn't. They did this to the other "dogs," too: people who are paralyzed, have MS, cancer and other critical diseases. The truth? They thought Ian would die a long time ago. So did the doctors. So instead they pulled this. And in contrast to what you generously assume, they were still profiting in their small business division--big profits. At the time of this plan withdrawal, Guardian CEO Dennis J. Manning boasted that it had capital of $4.3 billion, net income of $437 million, and record shareholder dividends.

They're either an insurance company or they're not.

For those who want to help do something about this, please check the Facebook group I just started (click here).

Thank you again, LaVonne, for sharing the story.
You're welcome, Matthew. I have joined your Facebook group ("Help Ian Pearl show insurers he is not a dog") and encourage readers to join too. Guardian Life needs to be held accountable, and people thinking about health-care reform need to be aware of how low some companies will stoop.

Here's the big question: do all for-profit insurance companies behave as miserably as Guardian Life did?

In a just-posted article, "I am not a dog," Ian Pearls tells his story. He says:
I know firsthand that America's health care system has the capacity to provide incomparable, life-saving care. But I am living proof that insurance-company "death squads" meeting behind closed doors routinely make life-sustaining benefits vanish.

Several months ago former insurance executive Wendell Potter began speaking out about how one of America's largest insurance companies, Cigna, treats its clients. After interviewing Potter, Bill Moyers said:
Looking back over his long career, Potter sees an industry corrupted by Wall Street expectations and greed. According to Potter, insurers have every incentive to deny coverage — every dollar they don't pay out to a claim is a dollar they can add to their profits, and Wall Street investors demand they pay out less every year. Under these conditions, Potter says, "You don't think about individual people. You think about the numbers, and whether or not you're going to meet Wall Street's expectations."
Click here to read Moyers' article, see the interview, or link to Potter's congressional testimony.

Clearly the big health-care insurers don't want any meaningful reforms. Click here to read about how Edward Hanway, Cigna's CEO, is trying to "use his corporate connections to orchestrate the defeat of real health care reform."

It may indeed be that Cigna and Guardian Life and lot of other for-profit insurance companies are simply doing what business has to do in order to reward its executives and stockholders. I was wrong to say that such callous behavior is not evil, and I apologize. It is evil whenever an individual, or a company, or an entire health-care system puts profits above human beings. Come on, America. We can do better than this.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The public option


This week as Congress tries to cobble together a health-care plan out of the five in circulation, I'm thinking again about T.R. Reid's excellent book The Healing of America. In August I linked to some of Reid's articles here, and in September I previewed his book here. Today The Christian Century posted my actual review of the book here, and I hope you'll read the review and then go buy or borrow the book. It offers a wide range of possibilities that just might work in the United States--at least, they are working quite well elsewhere.

Meanwhile, this is the week to contact your member of Congress. After reading Reid, I think the best system for America would be to keep private insurers but require them to be not-for-profit. That's not going to happen, though, so I'm convinced that the second-best system would include a public option to ensure that everyone has basic health-care coverage at a reasonable cost.

If you too are in favor of a public option, click here and consider signing Howard Dean's petition, to be presented to Congress Monday, October 19. Congressional Republican leader John Boehner has said he doesn't know anyone outside Congress who is in favor of the public option. Let's introduce ourselves.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An evil insurance company?

A friend sent me a link to a Washington Times article, "Insurer ends health program rather than pay out big." The subject line of my friend's e-mail was "Evil insurance company." I disagree.

It's a sad story. Ian Pearl, 37-year-old brother of novelist Matthew Pearl, "has Type II spinal muscular atrophy - which often kills victims in infancy. He grew to adulthood only to suffer respiratory arrest at 19. He has required a tracheal tube ever since." His insurance company, Guardian Life, is "legally barred from discriminating against individuals who submit large claims. So "the New York-based insurer simply canceled lines of coverage altogether in entire states to avoid paying high-cost claims like Mr. Pearl's."

Mr. Pearl's care costs $1 million a year. Without it, he will probably die.

Why don't I think the insurance company is evil? Because a for-profit company has to watch its bottom line. It is responsible to its shareholders. It exists in order to make money. If it doesn't, it will fail; and if it fails, even more people will be uninsured.

What is evil is this: that we Americans allow our health-care system to be financed by industries that exist to make a profit. No other rich capitalist nation does this.

Many developed nations finance their health-care systems through private insurance companies. The difference is this: everywhere else, basic health insurance is required by law to be not-for-profit.

Our legislators are trying to reform health care without reforming the evil that is at the heart of our system. Until the profit motive is removed from basic health-care insurance, we will continue to read stories like Mr. Pearl's.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Adam Smith meets the rich young ruler

For more than sixty years American presidents have tried to reform our health-care system, to no avail. In the same time period, all other developed nations have set up systems that insure all their citizens, that spend less per capita than we do, and that have better outcomes in almost all categories. Why are American still lagging behind?

Ethicist Daniel Callahan diagnoses our problem in the most recent issue of Commonweal magazine and comes to this conclusion: we suffer from “the absence in this country of a solid common-good tradition.”

In his thoughtful article "America' Blind Spot: Health Care & the Common Good," Callahan points out that the absence of a common-good tradition is not ideologically based—it is felt at all points on the political spectrum. “In their opposition to liberal reform efforts,” Callahan writes, “conservatives invoke freedom, choice, and competition as their leading values. Liberals—and the Obama administration in particular—have no agreed-upon set of countervailing values.”

Instead of the common good, says Callahan, liberals have appealed to rights, obligations, and justice—fine concepts, but without much curb appeal. Conservatives invoke radical individualism, even though one of their heroes, Adam Smith,
believed that markets could not flourish without a strong underlying moral culture. Smith believed that such a culture is animated by empathy and fellow-feeling, by our ability to understand our common bond as human beings and to recognize the needs of others.

And all of us argue about the bottom line.

Sunday’s Gospel reading was about a man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor. “At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22).

I confess: I don’t want the poor to take any more of my possessions. I pay taxes. I give to charities. In the wake of the recession, our income has taken a serious hit, and a tax increase would hurt. I would much rather offer the poor someone else’s possessions. Why not help them, as many European countries do, by restricting doctors’ income and insurers’ profits?

Strangely, my cardiologist’s office doesn’t want to lose any of its possessions either. A recent mailing urges patients to oppose health-care reform and Medicare changes, warning that their lives may be endangered if cardiologists are prevented from making big bucks from overusing expensive diagnostic equipment (this is not, of course, how they phrase it).

Oddly enough, insurance companies would like to hang on to their possessions too (though almost everybody in America thinks that Aetna’s CEO probably doesn’t need every cent of the more than $24 million he made in 2008). No wonder they are doing their best to scare us into keeping the present system.

Without a shared belief in the common good, who among us will go first? Or will we do nothing, hang on to our possessions, and go away sad, leaving health care unreformed and the poor uncared for?

Here is how Callahan concludes his fine analysis:
Suffering, disease, and death are our common lot. They ought to be dealt with as our common problem. It is a shame that the kind of empathy and mutual support that Adam Smith understood to be a requirement of morality have not, in our culture, been extended to health care—extended to one another in the recognition that we all have bodies that go awry and fail. Instead we are offered a consumer model, a national Walmart of medical choice where we are all sharp-eyed purchasers getting the best possible deal for ourselves. A construal of the common good as the freedom of consumers to get what they want, indifferent to the fate of others, is a cheap substitute for the real thing.

Callahan expertly diagnoses our problem, but he does not offer a solution. National revival comes to mind, but America already has a much higher percentage of church-going Christians than the countries that take care of all their poor and suffering. Maybe we won’t really care about the common good until more of us Americans experience poverty and suffering first hand.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Review: Travel as a Political Act

Rick Steves was a teenager when he first traveled overseas. Visiting a park in Norway with his parents, he had an epiphany:
Right there, my 14-year-old egocentric worldview took a huge hit. I thought, "Wow, those parents love their kids as much as my parents love me. This planet is home to billions of equally lovable children of God." I've carried that understanding with me in my travels ever since.

Now famous for his travelogues on public television, his guided tours of Europe, and his guidebook collections including the constantly updated Europe Through the Back Door, Steves is somewhat less well known for his devout Lutheran faith and his devotion to liberalizing America's drug laws. All of these interests coalesce in his new book, Travel as a Political Act.

Steves's message is simple: Go to other countries. Listen to the people who live there. Learn other ways of seeing and doing that you might not have considered before. Some of these ways are better than the ones we're used to. Some could help us make our country a better place.
America is a great and innovative nation that the world understandably looks to for leadership [he writes]. But other nations have some pretty good ideas, too. By learning from our travels and bringing these ideas home, we can make our nation even stronger. As a nation of immigrants whose very origin is based on the power of diversity ("out of many, one"), this should come naturally to us ... and be celebrated.

The book consists of eight essays drawing on his travels not only in Western Europe but also in the Balkans, Turkey, North Africa, Central America, and Iran (click here to watch his hour-long presentation on "the most fascinating and surprising land I've ever visited"). One thread unites the chapters: Steves's plea to us Americans to open our minds, ears, and hearts to people of other cultures and to learn to see things from their perspective. "Growing up in the U.S.," he writes, "I was told over and over how smart, generous, and free we were. Travel has taught me that the vast majority of humanity is raised with a different view of America."

I'm not a world traveler like Rick Steves but, beginning right after my sixteenth birthday, I've gone to school in France and worked in the U.K. and visited most of the Western European countries as well as Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Taiwan, and Thailand. I've never, ever been treated rudely because I'm an American, but I've been startled to catch glimpses of what some non-Americans think of the American way of life.

I've watched anti-American banners parading down the street at a Swiss May Day parade, seen British TV political adverts warning that the opposition party might instigate a health-care policy as dreadful as America's, listened to an entire sermon in an English country church lambasting American evangelical religion, and heard German conservative evangelical politicians express disbelief and fury at the actions of George W. Bush. To me, Rick Steves's observations about how people of other nations view us ring true.

Rather than dominating other nations, Steves believes, we should listen to them and learn from them. A self-avowed capitalist (he runs a business, after all), he nevertheless sees value in some of Europe's social programs and is horrified by what U.S. businesses have done to Central America. An unapologetic Christian, he is comfortable with secular Islamic--not Islamist--governments. Appalled by Iranian totalitarianism, he still finds common ground with people he meets and even explains why the omnipresent "Death to America" posters may not be quite as menacing as they seem. And he thinks Europe's ways of curbing drug use are much, much smarter than America's.

As the title indicates, Travel as a Political Act has a strong political slant, but it is also full of human interest stories and quirky factoids about other cultures (did you know that on October 24, less than three weeks from today, the average American will have worked as many hours as the average Western European works in an entire year?). Color photos on nearly every page add to the book's appeal. Steves hopes to appeal to people of all political persuasions, though I suspect he is preaching largely to the left-leaning, well-traveled choir.

One reviewer at amazon.com wrote Steves off as just another liberal from the Northwest who is clueless about how the rest of America thinks (she doesn't say if she has traveled outside the U.S.). It seems to me that Steves knows a lot about how Americans think--and he is terrified, because too many of our views are not based on reality or understanding. Only to the extent that we know how others think--those "billions of equally lovable children of God"--will we Americans be able to add to the world's peace, prosperity, and freedom.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review: Good in and out of bed


A few months ago when I reviewed Sarah Dunn's Secrets to Happiness, my daughter Heidi told me I'd also enjoy Jennifer Weiner's books. I usually take Heidi's advice on just about everything, but for some reason I didn't rush right out to get Weiner's first chick-lit best-seller, Good in Bed. Something about the title made me think maybe I'd need my mother's permission to read it.

(Before reading another word, note that the author's name is pronounced WYE-ner, rhymes with finer. Forget the wisecrack you were about to make.)

A couple of weeks ago, though, I went to the library in pursuit of comic novels to take along on a week's vacation. With no particular authors or titles in mind, I wandered through the new-book shelves and the paperback racks, and the more books I looked at, the worse I felt. Some of the books were similar to the New Yorker short story genre Weiner once described in an interview as "stories [that] seem to end with someone staring off at the white walls of a white room, and you think that something's happened but you're not quite sure what." Most had actual topics, but I didn't really want to delve into depression and dysfunction and people hurting people, at least not while relaxing in a cabin by the lake.

Suddenly Good in Bed sounded quite promising. Alas, it was already checked out, so I settled for its sequel, Certain Girls. I loved it.

The underlying conflict is between a 42-year-old mother, Cannie, and her 13-year-old daughter, Joy. Joy would like to be popular with the mean girls but does not want to alienate her nerdy friends. She wants a themed bat mitzvah party and a designer dress. Above all, she wants to distance herself from her mother, about whom she hates everything--especially after reading her mother's semi-autobiographical novel, including the X-rated parts.

Weiner dexterously alternates between Joy's viewpoint and Cannie's, seasoning the mother-daughter tension with great dollops of laugh-out-loud humor. For the first four-fifths of the book I'm thinking this is exactly the comic novel I've been looking for--and then something bad happens. Just like in life.

No spoilers in this review. I'll just say that Weiner can't help being funny and hopeful, and this book is not a downer. I liked it even better than the prequel, Good in Bed, which I read as as soon as it came back to the library.

Good in Bed
lays the foundation for everything that happens in Certain Girls, and sensible people will read it first. The story takes place some 14 years earlier, when Cannie is in her late twenties and heartbroken, having just broken up with a man who is obviously (to all her friends and family) not a good bet for a long-term relationship. With all the humor of the sequel plus an improbable but delightful fairy godmother (in the form of a young, hard-drinking, big-spending movie star), this book also takes a sudden turn toward tragedy right near the end. It has to, I think, or Cannie would get permanently stuck, psychologically speaking.

Why are Weiner's books--bestsellers all--so popular? Well, she's incredibly funny. She's also intelligent--graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, for example. She connects well with readers on a personal level (if you want to be a fan, check out her blog). She tells a good story; she can be tender but is never saccharine; and her characters--despite distress and disaster--muddle through, hopefully and hilariously.

Oh, and one other thing: Cannie is a woman of size. Size 16, to be precise, and 5'10" tall--kind of like Weiner herself. Cannie's weight is not the focus of the stories, but her concern about it, and the way it makes her feel, keeps cropping up. In the "conversation" at the back of Good In Bed Weiner says, "I'd never read a book that really expressed the reality of what it's like to live in a larger-than-average body.... I wanted to encompass the unhappiness of living in a plus-size body, but also show that it's not pure, unadulterated, 200-proof misery. I wanted to show the whole scope of things--professional success, rewarding friendships, a loving, if vexing, family, a weird little dog, great meals, great adventures, and love, and self-acceptance at the end."

You don't have to look just like Cannie to have an idea of how she feels. I'm not heavy, but I'm uncommonly tall and a bit ungainly (I love Julia Child), and I have seen my reflection in a restroom mirror as I washed my hands next to 5'4" sylphlike friends, feeling like a giraffe among the gazelles. What woman has not had a similar experience, whatever her age or height or weight or disability or hair shortcomings? And what is it with us and our bodies? Why is it so hard to accept variety in the way we're packaged?

"My ideal reader," Weiner says, "is any woman who's ever felt like she needed to get undressed in the dark, any woman who's ever felt miserable about the size of her hips or the shape of her face or the texture of her hair... which is to say, lamentably, every single woman in America, and probably beyond, judging from the reception Good in Bed has gotten abroad."

Cannie, at age 28 and also at age 42, is a big woman who is doing just fine.