Friday, October 26, 2012

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

by Sinclair Lewis
1926 Pulitzer Prize
1 star - could not finish

Well, I suppose it was only a matter of time before my persistent trek through Pulitzer Prize novels landed in my lap a book that I could not bear to finish.

Finding a copy was not easy. Only one wee little Modern Library edition existed in our entire eastern Massachusetts library network. Situated on the shelves of the somewhat obscure Pine Manor College, I have come to believe it hadn't left the library in decades. The back insert still had the old fashioned due date insert with the last date being November 21, 1977. At first I was feeling quite smug "Hah! Poor dusty prize winning book." The feeling didn't last.

Arrowsmith is the story of Martin Arrowsmith. He's a young man living in the fictional Midwestern state of Winnemac in the early twentieth century. Martin decides to become a physician and the book deals with his struggles over private practice v. research and his frustrations over the lack of attention in the medical community and population to the threat of contagious disease.

I wasn't very happy after the first hundred pages or so, but I kept going. As that story unfolded, Martin became more involved in public health. OK. I settled in for an education in the state of public health during a time when most people had no notion of the role good hygiene and lifestyle plays in good health. 

The problem was the writing style. The players come and go and are universally painted in the broad strokes of cartoon characters. I could not get my head around any of them enough to care. 

Sinclair Lewis seems to have sussed out the literary trick of putting a teaser at the front of the story to draw in readers. The first scene is of Martin's great-grandmother driving her father's wagon (with father dying of unknown illness in the back and brothers and sisters crawling about) into the Midwestern prairie. Just a few short paragraphs and then she vanishes, never to be heard from again (at least in the 216 pages I dutifully read). What the heck was that all about?

Online discussions of the book proclaim that it remains quite a popular novel with young medical students who continue to struggle where best to apply their skills; research, private practice, specialization, etc. I admit that the information regarding public health appears well researched The author's acknowledgements are all towards one Dr. Paul H. de Kruif who apparently filled him in on bacteriology and took him on a medical world tour.

I would have been happy for a book with even less character development and more medical science or the other way around, but this one landed tragically somewhere in the middle. 

I confess that I will be relieved when my Pulitzer Prize list moves me far enough along in the twentieth century so that the topic of sex and reproduction is at least suggested. It's getting old to see couples who engage in just a brief kiss or embrace and suddenly a baby comes along. Not to mention the fact that in an era totally lacking in birth control, Martin and his wife somehow manage to get through years after her first unfortunate pregnancy without the Mrs. finding herself once again with child. 

I have to go and cleanse my reading pallet with a dog book.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Raw Food Detox Diet by Natalia Rose

The Raw Food Detox Diet
by Natalia Rose
4 stars plus one extra for entertainment

I've dabbled with this book (and others by Natalia Rose) for about three years.

Let me say right off that Natalia Rose is kind of a whack-a-do (albeit a wealthy one thanks to her clever marketing).

She's an extremist of high order when it comes to food and bodily functions. Much of her advice is not only peculiar, but even self contradictory (as in her rule about not eating fruit and vegetables together except, of course, for the recipes that contain both - huh). She is a devotee of colon cleansing as well as eating the majority of your food in the evening (not my thing since I almost never actually eat dinner and prefer to get my nourishment in decreasing doses throughout the day).

But the lure of a healthy diet full of raw, vegetarian food is strong for me. Despite the fact that I eat meat and dairy, it is not without remorse over the treatment of food animals and I try to limit my intake (I was a vegetarian for years, but after increasingly frequent dreams of eating chicken, I finally relented).

This is the least complex and time consuming of all her diet plans, but it is still a lot of work. The great thing about this book is that it provides a quiz to tell you what level you're at in regards to switching over to a raw diet. Then she outlines a seven day meal plan for you based on your level.

I confess that I have only ever managed three days in a row at any level before I am once again supplementing my meals with cooked foods and the always satisfying fat. But when I am eating her meal plans, I might yearn for more, but I am never hungry and I do feel better.

My approach is to look at what she outlines for the day, say "I am going to eat those foods today" and then consume them whenever I see fit (as opposed to eat fruit, but wait at least an hour before having a salad).

Those who know me know that I am not a fan of traditional salad. I scorn the salad bar with those skinny bitches picking out spinach leaves one at a time. Yuck. So much work. So much chewing and cutting.

So it was a happy discovery to find recipes for salads that are low on leafy stuff and yummy. Her salads usually call for chunky vegetables in bite sized pieces. Much better. I made the mistake of bypassing her homemade salad dressing recipes in the beginning. Bad decision. Her salad dressings are delish and more subtle and flavorful than anything I've had from the store.

Now comes the entertainment portion of our program. That being that some of the concoctions are downright vile. I have tried almost every recipe in this book and some of them have been crossed out with big letters declaring them "NASTY." In fact I just tried a blend of coconut, dates, olive oil, lime juice, garlic, ginger and soy sauce which is billed as Thai Coconut Bliss. One sip and I was scrambling for a hunk of cheese to wash away that bit of bliss forever. In fact, pretty much anything that has coconut in it has turned out to be nasty (as have carrot juice based recipes).

Then of course there was the Power Soup. A blend of strawberries, beets, and juiced lettuce that I had the misfortune of showing off at work and then choked down with a smile on my face during snack time (note to self - a little beet goes a long way). But I have been pleasantly surprised by some things such as in the discovery that raw fennel is actually tasty when combined with the right companion root vegetables (meaning try stuff even if it looks scary at first).

The staple of the diet is something called Green Lemonade which is essentially kale juice. I can get that down (but not without grimacing) and I admit that my innards feel better for having consumed it, so I do "enjoy" that now and then.

If you decide to give it a try, I advise you to do it when you have a few days at home without a lot of appointments. As I said before, it is quite labor intensive until you get the hang of it. Also, don't buy more than one day's worth of food at a time if you can help it. That way, you can always bail or skip meals without the depressing sight of good intentions gone bad in the form of rotting vegetables (a sight  with which I am sadly all too familiar).

Most US grocery stores have everything you'll need (thank you land of plenty). If nothing else, this book will give you pause to reconsider your eating habits and (if you are like me) introduce you to some yummy ways to up your intake of fruits and vegetables. So it's all good, right?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin (book and movie)

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Starring Tilda Swinton
Directed by Lynne Ramsay

5 stars - highly recommend

This movie is getting five stars even though I'm not certain I will ever watch it again. That's how disturbing it was.

Let's cut to the chase. Just shy of his 16th birthday, Kevin Khatchadourian murders seven of his classmates, a cafeteria worker, and a teacher. Lest you think this is a slice and dice movie, it is told from the perspective of Kevin's mother, Eva, and all the violence is off screen.

In a way, I think the movie would have been less chilling if I had seen the his acts on screen as the imagination is so much more powerful at conjuring up just the images that leave us sleepless than any special effects and acting can ever be.

Tilda Swinton as Eva, Kevin's mother, is amazing. You can feel the tension and frustration oozing out of her as she watches her son grow into a monster. But a very clever monster. One who is not "lock him up" crazy and who can fool people into thinking that he's really OK. His mother is helpless to stop the unraveling of his life into sociopathic behaviors.

Ezra Miller, as Kevin, also does a great job. He is creepy, but not over the top.

The thing that really stuck with me is the borderline normalcy that allowed Kevin to carry out his increasingly malevolent deeds without every doing anything blatant that would draw attention to himself.

I wish I could have found something I would do differently under the circumstances. But I couldn't. And that, my friends, is what left me so disturbed. Because some horrors cannot be avoided.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

5 stars - highly recommend

After watching the movie, I went online to read some reviews and found a lot of people commenting that the book was just as good, if not better, and watching the movie in no way detracted from enjoyment (if that is the proper word) of the book.

They were right.

This is a densely packed 400 page novel. By densely packed I mean that the writing is so rich and compelling that every word of every sentence matters. The story unfolds as a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourain to her husband. In the letters, she relives the time leading up to Kevin's birth and the experience of raising him.

I found that the movie had been quite true to the book, but the book included more scenes and insights. Scenes and insights which only served to intensify my feelings of helplessness when I watched the movie. Because, again, I could find no flaw in the character of Kevin's mother.

Sure, she was a flawed human being. Aren't we all? But she did everything right and still her son was a sociopath.

Eva expresses herself with magnificent eloquence. I could feel her inner turmoil and frustration. I never lost faith in her. Even as she admitted to her character flaws, I clung to her humanity in the face of a life out of control.

Open the book at random, and you'll find the words of an exceptionally gifted author. Here's an example;

"I know you doubt me on this, but I did try very hard to form a passionate attachment to my son. But I had never experienced my feeling for you, for example, as an exercise that I was obliged to rehearse like scales on the piano. The harder I tried, the more aware I became that my very effort was an abomination. Surely all this tenderness that in the end I simply aped should have come knocking at the door uninvited. Hence it was not just Kevin who depressed me, or the fact that your own affections were increasingly diverted; I depressed me. I was guilty of emotional malfeasance."

As to the "why" of Kevin's central act, I will reveal nothing save that the discussion of same is handled very well and it leaves one feeling as if the bottom has dropped out of the room.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

So Big by Enda Ferber

So Big
by Edna Ferber
1925 Pulitzer Prize
5 stars - great book, will read again

I've read Enda Ferber's novel of Texas, Giant, many times, but for reasons unknown, it never occurred to me to try any of her other books. So when her name popped up as next in line on my list of Pulitzer novels, I was juiced (in a sedate, nerdy, library junky kind of way).

I enjoy books that exam ordinary lives (well, interspersed with exciting books where things happen on every page). So Big is about the life of Selina Peake DeJong, daughter of a professional gambler. After her father's death, Selina leaves Chicago at the age of nineteen to begin a new adventure in life. She is armed with the optimism of youth that life is a grand enterprise and that all sorts of wonderful things will happen (some good, some bad, but every one noteworthy). 

Before long she is married to an Illinois vegetable farmer and her life is an endless cycle of running a farm and household near the turn of the century. The idea of being totally consumed by the day to day is timeless. While I don't have to drive goods to market, wash clothes by hand, or spend hours toiling in the field, I still feel that the ordeal of "just keeping up" is overwhelming most of the time (will generations to come read about the early 21st century and tsk tsk over how much time was spent in tasks that are no longer a bother, one wonders).

But Selina faces the reality of her life with calm resolve and gets genuine pleasure from it. Let's face it, most of us will toil away in obscurity and, in the absence of a biographer, fade into oblivion, remembered by a scant few, after our passing. If we are lucky, our lives will be, to us, fascinating, interesting, sometimes dull, but always worth having. Ms. Ferber is a master at capturing the import of the ordinary.

An amazing gift of Ms. Ferber is that she can skip over years, sometimes decades of time so smoothly in her novels. She sets up a rhythm of life in a deceptively casual manner so that when the next chapter turns out to be ten or twenty years hence, the reader doesn't feel a jolt as if they have missed anything. 

One could say that nothing really happens in this novel. Perhaps. But nothing happens in a way that is a delight to read.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Fistful of Collars by Spencer Quinn

A Fistful of Collars
by Spencer Quinn

5 stars - great book, will read it again

The Chet and Bernie mysteries have zoomed to the top of my list as my all time favorite dog mystery series. 

The books are written in the voice of Chet, the dog. Bernie is Chet's owner and partner in crime. Chet and Bernie are private detectives operating under the name of "Little Detective Agency." Chet flunked out of detective dog school. Bernie is a former police officer. Perfect partners in crime.

I've read other books that attempt to write in, let's call it, first dog singular. Doesn't work well most of the time, but Mr. Quinn has got it down. Chet isn't exceptionally smart, heck, he's a dog. He misses a lot of things, gets distracted by scents and sights, and is driven by blind loyalty towards those he loves.

Since I'm not always the swiftest to catch clues or figure out the endings to books, having things unfold at a dog's pace is just the ticket.

Here's a sample of his words:

"Nixon Panero came over for breakfast. Had that ever happened before? Not that I could think of, but I sure hoped he'd do it again. For one thing, he brought the food: coffee and egg sandwiches for him and Bernie, a nice fat sausage for me. Did we mind that his fingers were grease-stained? Not us. Some days you just hit the ground running: I knew this was going to be one of them."

The stories themselves are interesting and kept me guessing right up until the end. Lots of dangerous situations for both Chet and Bernie, sometimes a bit scary, but overall fun. Bernie is a likable chap. He's divorced with a young son and fumbles his way around trying to put together new relationships. 

If you haven't read any of the Chet and Bernie mysteries, you are in for a treat as there are five of them (and more on the way). 

Chet and Bernie Bibliography:
1. Dog On It (2009)
2. Thereby Hangs a Tail (2010)
3. To Fetch a Thief (2010)
4, The Dog Who Knew Too Much (2011)
5. A Fistful of Collars (2012)

Final note.
Chet is never described in too much detail. Thank you, Mr. Quinn. Even though he is technically smaller than Chet, I always picture the dog belonging to one of my friends as the star of the books.

Here's my Chet (a.k.a. Norwood).

Thursday, October 4, 2012


starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

4 stars - recommend

Goodness, Sherlock Holmes is everywhere recently. I did enjoy both of the movies starring Robert Downey Jr. (such a delightful actor). I hear there is a show called Elementary on CBS as well. I'm not going to subject myself to that particular series. Come on, Lucy Liu as Dr. "Joan" Watson? That's an abomination! Knowing how American television can spoil any premise, I am sure that by season 3, Holmes will have jumped Watson's bones. Ish!

But oh the BBC series! Pure joy!

I heard about this series on the radio and did pause. Phhht! How can you bring Sherlock Holmes into the 21st century? But they did! And they did it with style.

The updated stories hold true to the original themes and characters and modern technology is unobtrusive.

At first, Benedict Cumberbatch took some getting used to, but by the end of the first season... oh yummy.

His Homes is curiously androgynous, totally self absorbed, unknowingly funny, and, of course, devastatingly brilliant! 

The second season ends with The Reichenbach Fall. Holmes's evil nemesis, Moriarty, is just so bad, so nasty and he is out to get Sherlock once and for all. Of course there MUST be a season three, right? But how? I went online to find discussion forums that offered several explanations of how Sherlock survived and, yes, thank goodness, some of them were quite plausible. Oh, I can hardly wait.