Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Books They Gave Me: True Stories of Life, Love, and Lit

By Jen Adams
 Free Press     2012
235 pages   Nonfiction
The Shortlist

Last month I had a significant birthday. Several people gave me books as presents. My long time friend gave me Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight for me to review. A book-selling sister-in-law gave me The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, and a soul friend gave me The Healing Power of the Sacred Woman by Christine Page for my spiritual journey. My sister gave me I'm Too Young to Be Seventy by Judith Viorst. These are people who know me well. 

The sweet little The Books They Gave Me is a compendium of very short essays gleaned from Jen Adams' blog of the same name. Each essay tells the story of a book--a gift book--given thoughtfully or carelessly. Given with great love or no love. Given to educate or given to heal. There are essays about every type of book imaginable, and not surprisingly, I had read many of them. Some of the essays are inspirational, and some are comforting. Many are about lost loves but there are also essays about love discovered because of the sharing of a book. 

As I read the blog entries, I thought about the books that I have given and the books that I have received. I remember giving The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe to my first real boyfriend. I remembered a book of meditations called Creative Brooding by Robert Raines that I gave to my husband Lee to share before we were married. Then I remembered a book that I was reading shortly after I married Thell. It was a series of essays about reading, and it was very funny. (Can't remember the name now.) Thell asked me why I was laughing, and I said, "Want to hear it?" That moment began one of our most treasured gifts to each other. We take turns reading aloud every day. It generally takes us a couple of months to get through a book, and we have read dozens of books--everything from novels to biographies to science. Right now we are reading The Infinite Resource by Ramez Naam, which is a book about innovation. We just finished Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker Palmer, which I will blog about tomorrow.

In Adam's little book, we see the power of the gift of a book. The Books They Gave Me would be a delightful gift book for a graduate or a bibliophile.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Stories in Uniform: A Look at the Heroics, Sacrifices, and Triumphs of Our Soldiers

by the Editors of the Readers Digest

Readers Digest     2013
224 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

Stories in Uniform, out in time for Memorial Day and Father's Day, will be a wonderful gift for a father or grandfather, or for a teenage boy who is a reluctant reader. The Readers Digest has culled stories and histories from the conflicts and wars the United States has engaged in since World War I. There is an excellent history of the D Day invasion in World War II. Then there are short essays about heroes, personal stories of bravery, and narrations of the kindnesses of soldiers in wartime. The most remarkable part of the book is that the stories are written by the luminaries of war reporting, such as Lowell Thomas and Carl T. Rowan. Each story is a gem from the pages of The Readers Digest..

I was born during World War II, and my father pictured was a Marine in the South Pacific. I didn't see him until I was two years old. I was about seven when the Korean War came, and I will never forget the discussions between my parents when my father was called to serve. There were now three children, and my father had been promoted to Lt. Colonel in the Marine Reserves. Ultimately, he resigned his commission and did not go to Korea. I was a young adult when every man I knew was faced with the decision of what to do during the Vietnam War. My future husband stayed in school and then became a teacher because they weren't calling up teachers. A cousin served. My brother had one of the last draft numbers to be called up. He chose to be a conscientious objector, and my father, who had been proud to serve his country, stood beside him as he plead his case before the draft board.

All this is history for my grandchildren. Ancient history. Yet, if we do not keep the histories of wars alive, we will be doomed to repeat them. Books like Stories in Uniform help keep the histories of our military conflicts alive for future generation.

Here is a good review that appeared in the Huntington WV newspaper:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Scribners   Reissue 2013
192 pages      Fiction
Audio read by Jake Gyllenhaal

The Great Gatsby again for the first time--this time as an audio book. It was a remarkable experience with a distance of about 50 years between first reading and second reading. A whole lifetime of experience.

I read somewhere that educators like to have students read The Great Gatsby in the 11th grade (which is probably when I read it the first time). I spent much of my listening to it this time trying to understand how young unformed minds would understand the book. Perhaps it is because Nick Carraway is such a good observer, or that Gatsby yearns so for Daisy that he bases his whole life on winning her back. Perhaps it is that students will recognize the stereotypes of Daisy and Jordan, and Tom. More likely it is the idea of the wild parties every weekend that appeals to students. 

Here are some things that I noticed this time around. I particularly liked Nick this time around. He is such an observer, but he is no pushover. He has a hugely skeptical nature, and seems not to be swayed by the money, the power, nor the panache of the people in his company. He says of himself, "Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known." And truly he is honest...particularly with himself. He is fascinated by the people around him, but he is so clear-eyed and wise.

I was also struck by the audacity of Gatsby's dreams. He seemed willing to do or be anything in order to find his goal--to make enough money in order to win back the love of Daisy. Nothing else seems to matter to  him. R. Clifton Spargo, writing in the Huffington Post, says:  "There may be something pathetic in Gatsby's class striving, but there's something innocent about it, too. He's a stranger in the world he inhabits, floating through his own parties without enjoying them, bestowing his largess on mostly uninvited guests who are really just users." When Nick calls to him, "They're a rotten crowd....You're worth the whole damn bunch put together," I was confused at first. Conventional wisdom would have him be a "rotten" person as well, because of the way he made his money. Now I realize that there is a purity in his motivation that supersedes all pretension. When Daisy says of him, "Oh, you want too much!" we can truly empathize with her despair. Such devotion is debilitating--to both him and her. 

The awesomely tragic nature of Gatsby's death came forcefully to me when Nick tries, unsuccessfully, to find someone--anyone--to come to his funeral. It was absolutely heartbreaking. In the book I just finished, Domestic Affairs, the governor running for President declines to attend the funeral of a friend and campaign assistant because he is "too busy." For Tom, Daisy, and Jordan to not attend Gatsby's funeral is just as disgusting. Nick says that they are "careless people," and with this reading, I truly understood what that meant. I also truly understood why Nick remains the only honest person he knows. Everyone else survives on their own delusions.

And so, I would recommend to all my readers that they either read or listen to The Great Gatsby before you watch the newest movie version. It is truly an overwhelming experience. My husband kept saying, "Listen to those words. I can't believe how well Fitzgerald writes."

Be sure, also to read Spargo's recommendation about people reading the book again in maturity. It truly is reading it again--for the first time.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Domestic Affairs

by Bridget Siegel
Weinstein Books  2012
312 pages     Fiction

Olivia and Jacob are good friends who work on political campaigns, moving up the ladder of campaigns from state races to national races. Jacob has begun working for Landon Taylor's Democratic presidential run. He suggests to Taylor that he might consider Olivia for the position of fundraiser. When Taylor hires Olivia to be his head fundraiser, she becomes the youngest head fundraiser in history. Olivia is smart and pretty, and quickly becomes dedicated to the values Taylor appears to stand for, but soon, she blindly becomes dedicated to the personal charms of the charismatic Taylor. 

Told through the alternating experiences of Jacob and Olivia, the story moves through the beginning days of the campaign until just before the Iowa caucuses when the scene begins to unravel. Olivia is swept along with both the campaign and her love for Taylor, who shows himself again and again to be a cad. In the end, when he attempts for the umpteenth time to win her favor, Olivia looks at him honestly "wondering for the first time if she ever really did love him, or if she had just loved what he represented, what he pretended to believe." Facing up to her own personal dishonesty, she follows Jacob who has already gotten out of the campaign.

The question of Domestic Affairs is "Which political campaign is this book about?" The book's author, Bridget Siegel, worked on several political campaigns, including the John Edwards campaign. We have to assume that much of her experience and the resulting novel came from the Edwards campaign. One reviewer said: "It would be a better book if the events weren’t so close to what happened in the Edwards’ campaign, which ruined numerous lives in the real world. In the fictional world offered by the author, everyone moves on and nobody is hurt." And indeed, in the novel, Olivia and Jacob move on to the next campaign after their complete disillusionment with Landon Taylor. Will the next candidate disillusion them again, or are they older, wiser, and more realistic?

What Domestic Affairs successfully does is give a hard look at two aspects of politics that continue to baffle me: What motivates someone to choose politics as a life's work? and What is there in the personality of a candidate that makes him/her seek power? My husband's question would be: Does the personal life of a candidate matter if he/she can deliver the goods politically? I guess that we have seen this at work in the campaign of the formerly disgraced South Carolina governor, Mark Sanford. The electorate seems to think that he can deliver the goods despite his personal life. 

Most political novels are seen through the eyes of male protagonists. In Domestic Affairs, we see the campaign through the eyes of a woman. Siegel says that many of her experiences were used in the book, but her experiences were not unique. The events in the book were "a compilation of many campaign workers' struggles and surprises."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

How to Talk Minnesotan: Revised for the 21st Century

by Howard Mohr 

 Penguin               2013
288 pages            Humor

Well folks, I am not going to write a review of How to Talk Minnesotan at all, except to say that the revisions for the 21st century of this classic book will be out on May 28. Not much changes in Minnesota, so the revisions are minimal, except to changes in the prices on the advertisements and a few other additions.

The other day, I heard the checkout woman say, "You bet!" to me as I cashed out at the grocery. When I asked her if she had grown up in Minnesota, her response was "You bet!" I instantly felt comfortable.

I have to go to Minnesota every once in a while to get my fix. When my parents were alive, I was there every month or so. Oh, how I missed it when I wasn't going frequently. Last December, my siblings and I got together for my brother's birthday. Now if you really want to hear someone talk Minnesotan, just talk to my brother. He has it down pat!

Other than calling my brother and talking to him, you can hear classic Minnesota language on this video made by the author of How to Talk Minnesotan, Howard Mohr. You can find it here.

Or you can watch the classic movie Fargo where the accents are so thick you can cut them with a knife. My favorite scene in the movie is when two men are talking to each other with their parkas on. You can't see their faces; all you can see is the steam coming out of their mouths. Classic Minnesota! I saw Fargo for the first time at a theater in Kalamazoo. For much of it, I was the only person laughing.

Minnesotans, however, really know how to put their "You bet!" into action. Last week the House in Minnesota passed the marriage equality bill and the Senate is almost sure to pass it this week. The governor, Mark Dayton, has promised to sign it. My niece, Cory Dack, was there and has been at the forefront of the lobbying. Extremely proud of her.

But in keeping with the theme of the book, I have included two hotdish recipes. One is the classic Tuna Noodle Hotdish and the other is a family favorite, Wild Rice Hotdish. In my family, Wild Rice Hotdish was made for special occasions, like Thanksgiving and Christmas. This particular recipe calls for water chestnuts. If that is too exotic for you, you can leave them out. When I was last there, I brought home 12 pounds of wild rice. "Yah, You Bet. Not too bad!"

Tuna Noodle Hotdish
6 oz. egg noodles (wide or extra wide), cooked
1 small can of tuna, drained and flaked with a fork
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1/2 cup milk
1 cup frozen peas, cooked
1/2 cup (or more) grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup fresh bread crumbs cooked in 1 T. butter until slightly crisp
fresh grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2. In a large bowl, stir together first six ingredients until well combined.
3. Spread into a small greased casserole dish then sprinkle bread crumbs and parmesan cheese evenly over the top.
4. Bake uncovered in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes and serve warm.
yield: four servings

Traditional Wild Rice Hotdish
1 lb. wild rice, cooked
1 lb bacon, crumbled
3 celery ribs, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
6 diced fresh mushrooms
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
1/2 c. water chestnuts  
1 10 1/2 oz. can chicken broth.

1. Cook and crumble bacon, set aside.
2. Saute onion and celery and mushrooms in bacon fat until tender.
3. Mix all ingredients together, including water chestnuts.
4. Cover and bake at 350 for 1/2 hour until heated through.
5. Keep chicken broth on hand to moisten, in case of drying while baking.

For a book about my part of Minnesota, read The Long Shining Water by Danielle Sosi