Friday, August 31, 2012

LABOR DAY by Joyce Maynard

We've survived the Republican National Convention. Next week we will endure the Democratic National Convention. In between, we get Labor Day weekend--our last chance, according to our foremothers, to wear white linen and read lightweight novels.

I recommend Joyce Maynard's 2009 book, Labor Day, though no one in it wears linen of any color and its weight is more middle than light. The story is engrossing, the characters are fascinating, and it includes a fine recipe for pie crust.

Henry, the narrator, is 13 years old and about to start seventh grade. The book's first paragraph lets us know that his family situation is complicated:
It was just the two of us, my mother and me, after my father left. He said I should count the new baby he had with his new wife, Marjorie, as part of my family too, plus Richard, Marjorie's son, who was six months younger than me though he was good at all the sports I messed up in. But our family was my mother, Adele, and me, period. I would have counted the hamster, Joe, before including that baby, Chloe.
A  seemingly random encounter with a weirdly inappropriate stranger (he's dripping blood, for heaven's sake!) turns everyone's lives upside down--but it's not what you're thinking. In a series of mildly suspenseful chapters, we find out who the interloper is and what he wants. We also learn a lot more (maybe even more than we wanted to know) about Henry and his mother.

Labor Day would be a coming-of-age novel if it didn't end when Henry was still 13, with only a couple of closing chapters to bring us up to the present. It could be a middle reader if Maynard hadn't included quite so much sex (though perhaps that's no problem these days, alas). Its unobtrusive but elegant prose and gradually unfolding characterizations would make it a literary novel if Maynard hadn't told the story in a fairly straightforward fashion, with more action than interior monologue.

It could not, however, be chick lit.

The one thing that bothered me about Labor Day did not occur to me while I was reading it. Only afterward did I think, wait--were there any strong females in the book? Adele: eccentric beyond belief, and probably mentally ill. Marjorie: conventional, a bit narcissistic. Evelyn: overwhelmed. Mandy: manipulative, lying, and cruel. Eleanor: worse.

And then I wondered, why were the males so likable? One is weak, to be sure, but not evil. Another is practically divine. The stepbrother is a nice enough kid; and young Henry, though he makes a serious error in judgment, is a delightful (and amazingly articulate) little nerd.

The fact that I'm still thinking about Labor Day two days after finishing it is why I've found the category that best describes it. It's an excellent book-club book: a well-written, enjoyable, not-too-demanding page-turner that begs to be discussed with friends. I should have expected as much, since I learned about it at my public library. It's the contemporary book group's pick for September.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Saving Medicare the Republican way

It's a promise: "A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my mom’s generation, for my generation, and for my kids and yours." That's what Paul Ryan told the Republican National Convention last night in his acceptance speech.

How do the Republicans plan to do this? The Republican Platform spells it out: "The first step is to move [Medicare and Medicaid] away from their current unsustainable defined-benefit entitlement model to a fiscally sound defined-contribution model."

Right--that has worked so well for pension plans.

Once upon a time we were told that the 401(k) defined-contribution plans would let us retire rich. We could choose our own investments! No intermediaries would take hefty cuts! The miracle of compounding interest would do the rest!

But then interest rates tumbled, and financial institutions took hefty cuts anyway, and our houses lost a third of their value, and most of us forgot that we really needed to be socking away the maximum allowable percentage of our salaries if we planned to continue eating in retirement.

You might want to check out David Callahan's article, "A Perfect Failure: Why the 401(k) Has Been a Flop." Or you might just want to consider your own 401(k). Will you have saved a million dollars by the time you retire? That's how much you'll need if you want to draw out a modest $40,000 a year, and if you want your savings to last as long as you do.

Now ask yourself: do you really want an individualized, free-market Medicare along with your individualized, free-market 401(k)?

Soon-to-retire Boomers will remember a sentence reportedly uttered by an American officer in Vietnam: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." That's pretty much how Mr. Ryan plans to save Medicare.

I do hope Messrs Obama and Biden come up with a better idea.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Four countries that already meet the Republican Platform's health-care goals

Health care in the Netherlands, 17th century
(Jan Steen: "The Doctor's Visit)
Friday evening we were having supper with friends who make frequent trips to Israel. One of them commented that Israeli doctors don't have a lot of administrative expenses. To arrange for payment, to transfer records, or to prescribe or check medications, all they have to do is swipe a patient's health-care card. "We could learn a lot from them," she said.

Saturday evening we were having supper with friends whose families live in Canada. One of them commented that Canada's health-care system gets a bad rap in the U.S., and that nearly all the complaints are nothing more than political propaganda. "Most Canadians are satisfied with their health care most of the time," he said. "The only complaint you hear is that sometimes the waits are too long."

I just read the Republican Platform section on health care (it starts here) in which they promise to repeal the loathly Affordable Care Act and replace it with something magnificent (as yet undefined). "Our goal," they say, "is to encourage the development of a healthcare system that provides higher quality care at a lower cost to all Americans while protecting the patient-physician relationship based on mutual trust, informed consent, and privileged patient confidentiality." Now there's a goal I can agree with 100%.

Interestingly, it well describes health care in Israel and Canada, which are single-payer, tax-financed systems--what Americans correctly call "socialized medicine." It also is a perfect description of health care in, for example, Germany and the Netherlands, which are multi-payer systems that combine some government funds with funding from competing private insurers--what many Americans also call "socialized medicine" because they don't know any better.

Let's look at how these countries measure up to the Republicans' wish list. (All information unless otherwise attributed is from the World Health Organization's data tables.)

Higher quality care. Mothers and infants in Canada, Germany, Israel, and the Netherlands are less likely than American mothers and infants to die in childbirth. People in those four countries live two or three years longer than people in the United States. Interestingly, this may not be due to better health habits: Only Canada has fewer smokers than the U.S.

In addition, Germans, Israelis, and the Dutch have many more doctors per 10,000 population than we do (Canadians have fewer, which may explain their long waits). All four of the other countries have a higher ratio of hospital beds than we do.

Lower cost. Somehow these four countries have figured out how to deliver good quality health care without paying astronomical costs--their total health-care costs per capita range from 24 to 58% of ours. Oddly, our government actually paid more per capita than the governments of Canada, Israel, and Germany; the Dutch government paid about the same as we did.

Subtract the government contribution from the total bill, and you get what you and I are paying out of pocket. Americans, of course, are paying vastly more than citizens of the other four countries: $3074 per capita in 2006, the last year for which WHO has comparative data. (Canadians paid $1158, Germans paid $860, the Dutch paid $687, and Israelis paid $562.)

All Americans. Canada, Germany, Israel, and the Netherlands, like all other developed nations with the exception of the United States, have universal health care. That means that every citizen is covered. In the United States, by contrast, "nearly half (44%) of U.S. adults—81 million people—were either underinsured or uninsured in 2010." So says the Commonwealth Fund, who note that among low-income families, that figure rises to 78%.

Protecting the patient-physician relationship based on mutual trust, informed consent, and privilege patient confidentiality. Yes, of course. That is also the goal of every other developed nation. Contrary to public misinformation, by the way, Europeans do get to choose their own doctors--and they have more to choose from than we do.

So, Republicans, we have a long way to go in order to achieve those excellent health-care goals. The Affordable Care Act moves us slightly--not nearly far enough--in the right direction. How are you planning to improve on it?

If you were smart, you'd study countries that already have higher quality care at a lower cost that covers all citizens. That happens to be true of every other developed nation, so it shouldn't be too hard to find resources. But what you'd learn is that their health-care efficiency comes from price controls, strict government regulation of private insurers, and an adequate tax base.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mme Neff's Salon

"La Lecture de Molière" by Jean-François de Troy 
In the early 1600s certain French people, disgusted with the crudeness of Henri IV's court, began meeting in private homes to discuss art and literature. They called their groups salons, after the room in which the larger gatherings took place, or ruelles, after the space between bed and wall in which the smaller ones met.

By the 1700s salons had expanded their areas of interest to politics, philosophy, and religion. In theory, at least, they were places where anything could be discussed as long as participants were polite, civil, and well behaved.

Most salons were hosted by women, who provided invitations, food and a place to meet. The guest list was subversive: it included women as well as men, bourgeois along with aristocrats. Prominent intellectuals and artists spoke freely of their vision for liberté, égalité, and fraternité--dangerous ideas in an age of absolute monarchy.

In the early 2000s certain American people, disgusted with the crudeness of the current and seemingly eternal political campaign, decided to drop out of the political process altogether. They are doing their best to ignore politically motivated ads, commercials, and phone calls. According to a recent USA Today poll, some 90 million of us will not vote in the November election.

I sympathize. The constant name-calling and mud-slinging, whether paid for by super-PACs or freely offered by friends, is depressing. Hesitant to say anything political on Facebook or here on my blogs, I've stopped saying much at all. Since I've used Facebook updates to promote my blogs, I feared my friends would weary of me if I posted such updates too frequently. Some of them no doubt roll their eyes if I post them at all.

"In the salon of Mme Geoffrin in 1755" by Lemonnier, c1814
And then I had an idea. I'd like to discuss politics--and philosophy, religion, art, literature, food, wine, travel, language, dogs, and many other topics--with people who also want to discuss these things, and who share the salons' ideals of politeness, civility, and good behavior. It's a bonus if these people disagree with me: then I might learn something. Alas, nowadays a physical salon isn't too practical. My rooms are not as large as Mme Geoffrin's.

So I set up a Facebook page, "Mme Neff's Salon," that is supposedly accessible whether or not you're on Facebook. If you are on Facebook, and if you LIKE the page, you will get updates in your news feed whenever I post to Lively Dust or The Neff Review. Then, if you wish, you can join a discussion, or initiate one.

Now I feel free to go back to writing. If you want to hear from me, please LIKE the page. If you change your mind, you can easily UNLIKE it later. But whatever else you do, even if you resort to earplugs and blinders to keep out the shouting and turmoil from now until November 6, please vote.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Money, sex, and reproduction in a chick lit fantasy world

I'm not going to tell you the title of the book I just read, or the author's name. If I did, I'd be guilty of spoilers for what I'm about to say. I'll just mention that the novel has four main characters, all female:
Ya conniving 40-something woman with a murky past and an invented present
Ya 24-year-old trust-fund baby who is alarmed that the world does not revolve around her
Ya 24-year-old Ivy League grad who desperately wants to rescue her substance-abusing father
Ya 24-year-old mother of two with an underemployed husband

And I'll divulge that, to create a baby, one woman provides the egg, one the womb, one the money, and one the guardianship;

that the women tell their stories in interlaced chapters, all in the first person, all with pretty much the same voice;

that lots of brand names get mentioned, often in tones of awe;

that there's a fair amount of soft-core sex: straight, lesbian, married, unmarried, abusive, coital, oral;

and that as improbable as it may seem, by the end of the book everyone is financially solvent, loved, happy, and friends with one another.

I was disappointed: I hadn't intended to read a fairy tale.

The author could have done better. Has done better. And maybe will do better in the future, if she starts looking closely at what happens in the real world to people who are obsessed with money.

Friday, August 10, 2012


I like good wine. I don’t like spending money. A Toast to Bargain Wines had me at the title.

George M. Taber likes good wine and knows quite a lot about it. The author of several books about wine including Judgment of Paris and To Cork or Not To Cork, he also knows how to write about wine in a companionable, informative way. His message: there’s a lot of good wine out there for less than $10 a bottle. His attitude (quoting Thomas George Shaw, who wrote in 1863): “In wine-tasting and wine-talk there is an enormous amount of humbug.”

An investigative journalist with a wry sense of humor, Taber debunks wine tastings, wine critics, wine fads, and wine medals (which are worth a lot to wine sellers, but not so much to consumers). Here’s one of my favorite stories. It's about Robin Goldstein, “a leading advocate of inexpensive wines” and founder of Fearless Critic Media:
In 2008, [Goldstein] paid a $250 fee to enter a fictitious Italian restaurant in the Wine Spectator’s Awards of Excellence program for eateries with outstanding wine lists…. He named his fictitious Milan restaurant Osteria l’Intrepido, which translates loosely as Fearless Restaurant. The wine list he submitted with his application included a reserve list consisting largely of wines the publication had previously panned, giving them scores as low as an insulting 58 points. Goldstein says that once the magazine collected his $250, he did not receive any communication from Wine Spectator, until someone from New York City called and left a message on an answering machine asking if he wanted to take out an advertisement in a forthcoming issue that would report on Osteria l’Intrepido’s winning an Award of Excellence.
But Bargain Wines goes way beyond debunking. In three fascinating chapters, Taber profiles the people behind California’s Two Buck Chuck, Australia’s [yellow tail] winery, and China’s first steps into the worldwide wine market. [Did you know that the family who brought us the wallaby label hails from Sicily?]

The first half of this book is the reason I checked it out of my public library: it’s a quick and pleasant read. The second half is the reason I then bought my own copy. Taber provides a 128-page guide to bargain wines that, I suspect, is going to come in very handy.

First he lists readily obtainable bargain wines by varietal, suggesting ten for $10 or less and two “splurge” wines for under $25. I immediately looked up one of my favorites, Sauvignon Blanc. Yes, Monkey Bay made the list, along with a number of others I haven’t tried yet.

Then he lists bargain brands by country or region. OK, let’s check Washington/Oregon. Chateau Ste. Michelle! Columbia Crest! Pacific Rim! and seven others! Plenty of opportunity for further research there.

Finally, he gives us his ten favorite box wines. Yup, you read that right. In fact, he has a whole chapter on box wines (“Thinking Outside the Bottle”) that may revolutionize your dinner hour.

In case you're starting to feel overwhelmed by the dazzling variety of bargain wines (or if you're feeling slightly fearful that the taste mavens won't approve your choices), he even provides a handy quiz. Are you sweet, hypersensitive, sensitive, or tolerant? The answer, it turns out, is in your genes. And--good news!--there's a subsection of bargain wines to match your phenotype.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A GOOD MAN by Mark K. Shriver

In June my husband, who gets lots of review copies unbidden, asked me if I wanted to read Mark Shriver's memoir about his father, Sargent Shriver, who passed away in 2011 at age 95. "Since you're a fan of all things Kennedy," he said, "I thought you might want to see it." I didn't.

True, a high point in my adolescent life was standing in back of St. Matthew's Cathedral one December morning in 1963 waiting for mass to begin when suddenly a very tall, very disheveled, very pregnant Eunice Kennedy Shriver pushed past me, wearing smudged red lipstick and a full-length fur coat. But sons are not necessarily good biographers, and anyway, I had a stack of mysteries awaiting my attention.

But then in July a Facebook friend pointed me to Reeve Lindbergh's review of A Good Man in the Washington Post, suggesting that this was a book I might want to read. Lindbergh--herself the daughter of two famous parents, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh--called it "a moving and thoughtful book." Maybe I'll read this after all, I said to myself. And then a week or two later, my friend Estelle sent me a copy of the book as an early birthday present, telling me she thought I'd connect with it on many levels. I must be supposed to read this one, I thought.

Estelle was right. This is a delightful book for lovers of Camelot--those of us who lived through the suddenly shattered dream of the Kennedy administration. Mark Shriver never saw his uncle Jack--as it happens, Mark was the baby bump under Mrs. Shriver's fur coat at that mass nearly 50 years ago, exactly one month after President Kennedy's assassination--and he was only four when his uncle Bobby was shot. But he grew up with a father who founded the Peace Corps and ran for vice-president, a mother who founded the Special Olympics, four rambunctious siblings, and twenty-some cousins, most of whom were unusually energetic and competitive. Mark's childhood home often hosted the rich and the famous, and he recognizes the privilege of growing up well connected. At the same time, he is refreshingly candid about the self-doubts such an environment fostered.

The book, though, isn't about Mark. It's about Sarge, the good man of the title, the father he adored. And Mark's portrayal of Sarge's goodness is what I liked best about the book (and what Estelle knew I'd most appreciate). See, my father was a good man too. Shriver was an extroverted, energetic, Catholic politician while my dad was an introverted, often tired, Protestant professor; but at core the two men were surprisingly similar. Both were quietly but unalterably faithful Christians. Both adored their wives and children. Both, though they worked hard and accomplished much, put their families ahead of their jobs. Neither one tooted his own horn, and neither one was bothered when others moved past him into the limelight or up the career ladder. Both men were brilliant, and, sadly, both spent their final years moving into the oblivion of Alzheimer's Disease.

Mark tells a story about his father that made me gasp in recognition. The two men were in the car together. Sarge "was having one of those lucid moments that make you ... forget for a minute or two that this is all really happening." Mark seized the moment to ask his father a blunt question.
"Dad," I said, "you are losing your mind. You know that. How does that make you feel? How are you doing with that?"

"I'm doing the best I can with what God has given me," he said.
Sixteen years ago I wrote an article for U.S. Catholic magazine about my father's decline and death from Alzheimer's. Here are some lines from that article:
"Are you afraid of dying?" I asked my father several months before he died.

"Dying?" he said, considering. "No, not of dying. I live an abbreviated life."

I asked him what he meant. "A little taken away here. A little taken away there," he explained patiently, as if to a student needing help. "I do the best I can with what's left."
Sargent Shriver was born in 1915; my father, in 1910. Their age cohort is sometimes called the Greatest Generation. Both men were great. Both were exceptionally good. And I believe both had found the secret of happiness.
A Good Man is also available as a CD audiobook (unabridged) and as an download (abridged). To listen to a five-minute excerpt read by Mark Shriver, click here.