Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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Eating On The Wild Side: The Missing Link To Optimum Health

By Jo Robinson Little Brown & Company, The Hachette Group, New York 2013 Did you know that eating a humble can of tomato paste can help protect you from sunburn? This factoid I learned from this fascinating  book by health and food writer Jo Robinson Robinson quotes from a 2000 study by German researchers led by Wilhelm Stahl which found that tomato paste protects against UV rays because of its concentrated amounts of lycopene – an ingredient manufactured by tomatoes to protect themselves from the sun.  Of course, all tomatoes are good for you, but it seems that cooking tomatoes and eating canned tomatoes which have been heated in the process of canning makes the lycopene more “biovailable.” According to Robinson, carrots, as well as tomatoes, become more nutritious if sautéed or steamed (not boiled). Whole carrots, cooked before being cut up, retain their beta-carotene better, and make three times the amount of beta-carotene available to the diner than raw carrots. Corn and beets, too, are healthier if cooked. All this somewhat belies the title of this book. “Wild” implies untamed, unhybridized and certainly not GMO-modified plants for consumption. But Robinson, who has researched the wild origin of edible plants, points out that hunter-gatherers knew how to cook. Indeed, wild-lambs quarters,(Chenopodium album) a leafy weed that thrives world wide but grows particularly well in northern California, was steamed by Native Americans to cure stomach aches as well as added to soups, stew and eaten raw. And guess what? That quinoa you pay a premium for in the store is actually the gathered seeds of domesticated lambs quarters. “Know what you’re eating,” is the mantra of this book. Whether selecting plants for your garden, or shopping at the farmer’s market or the local supermarket, you will find this book useful. Armed with the knowledge from this engaging book, you’ll be able to select those fruits and vegetables which maintain the most nutrition, and then you’ll be able to prepare them in the healthiest way. Highly recommended. A book to buy, not to borrow.

Saving Gracie

By Jill Teitelman Freestyle Press, Boston 2012 When Ruth Kooperman tells her friend Grace that her boyfriend proposed in the hardware store, her friend has a question. “Which aisle were you in? Grace wants to know. “Plumbing or electrical?” So goes the wise-cracking in this novel that reads like a memoir. It’s a first novel but clearly not the first literary effort by Boston-based writer Jill Teitelman. If it weren’t so funny, it could be called “The Baby Boomers Lament” because the protagonist, Ruth, opens the novel with the memorable lines, “Why didn’t I ask where the Women’s Lib train was going before I jumped on?”  Approaching forty, Ruth has spent her adulthood thus far in gobbling up experiences – in travel, in jobs as interesting as they are short-term, and in boyfriends who share the same quality. She knows perfectly well that she’s short-changed her self-esteem by never letting go of the financial safety rope dangled before her by her parents, even as she cannot forgive her boorish father for his constant put-downs of her every move. No wonder she has never found the right man – each prospect her father meets gets the brush-off. Not only can her father not stand her friends, he belittles her for being so stupid as to select them – or whatever she is currently doing in life. But it seems that Ruth does have a talent for friendship with other women. In Rhonda, and later in Grace, Teitelman creates a portrait of besties through which Ruth can find her kindest self even as she envies her friends for their stability and contentment – states of being that she somehow seems to unable to achieve herself. She is nothing if not critical of herself as well as Jake, who becomes the father of the child she wants so desperately, and later of Marty, the man she marries at the age of fifty. Teitelman’s depiction of Ruth’s son, Joey, is also delightful. A terrific mother, she shows single motherhood in all its difficulties and joys. More self-aware than most women, possibly because she delayed motherhood so long, Ruth can sometimes irritate because she is discontented so much of the time. But then, her best friend gets sick, and Ruth discovers what grace truly means. Her friend’s ability to find joy in a simple life and to endure a terrible and unfair fate catapults Ruth into another plane of knowing. At times this book reads like a journal, and so it is not surprising to learn that Teitelman started it as a memoir, then turned it into fiction. Not your typical debut novel, I found it quite a page-turner.

What Alice Forgot

By Liane Moriarty Kindle Edition, Penguin Books (first published 2009) Have I said that I am a fan of Liane Moriarty? I repeat. I am a huge fan of the Australian writer Liane Moriarty. She’s a prolific author – has written at least six novels and each one seems to climb to the best seller lists as soon as it is released in the US. Liane writes about everyday ordinary people – all right, everyday, upper middle class people in the suburbs of Sydney. She writes about mothers of school age children, and most often her books have several interweaving plot lines. Her characters are quite often deluded about their own and others’ secret lives, are very relatable and often funny. What Alice Forgot is the premise as well as the title of this book. Alice hit her head in a gym accident and when she wakes up, thinks it is 1998 instead of 2008. Was the previous century any better than the present one? It was simpler, certainly, in Alice’s muddled mind, and perhaps in Moriarty’s. (The author is almost the same age as her character.) In 1998 Alice was happily in love with her husband Nick, and pregnant with her first child. In 2008, she is amazed to find that she has to live with three rambunctious children, who people say are her own. She and Nick are separated and going to divorce. She doesn’t want this divorce at all, she thinks, as her memory comes back in sparks, like faulty wiring. She appears to have changed in the intervening ten years, and not just because of motherhood. As Alice’s memory returns in fits and starts we understand the stresses in her life that led to the present day. There is a lifetime of sudden loss in these memories, but just as we begin to think that Alice might be a tad self-indulgent in her sorrows, (Her husband has to work so hard!, being thin is so important!)  we get into the parallel story of her sister, Elisabeth, who is undergoing fertility treatment, and has suffered miscarriage after miscarriage. Then there is Alice and Elisabeth’s ‘honorary grandmother” Frannie, who loves the girls as her own. Her loss is even greater than theirs. It all adds up to a sympathetic story, and this is what saves Moriarty’s characters. After all, a novel has to be about conflict and struggle. And on the surface, all Moriarty’s characters live in a world of privilege, Australian style – plenty of money, good public schools, sunny beaches accessible to everyone, welcoming coffee shops on every corner, and people living in a web of close family relationships. Still, she writes about serious subjects with humanity and humor and keeps the reader guessing about the ending till the end.

Cleopatra’s Molecules in About Place Journal

About Place Journal is a literary journal with a difference. Published by The Black Earth Institute, it is dedicated to “reforging the links between art and spirit, earth and society.”  Each twice-yearly issue is themed. My story, The Dog Catcher of Jabiru, appeared in the November 2015 issue. My essay, Cleopatra’s Molecules was published in the May 2015 issue. Since it came out last week, I have been amazed at the response. People have plugged it on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve been receiving emails asking for permission to send it on. Apparently the ideas I was working out as I wrote the piece have been helpful to people who have lost a loved one. I’m glad about that. If you’d like to read it, please go to http://aboutplacejournal.org. A Moment In Time We seem to be in a moment, people. That is, I think we may be in a time when people are really starting to think about our place in the universe in a different way. As Cleopatra’s Molecules lay on editor John Briggs’ desk awaiting publication in About Place Journal, I received my latest copy of Orion Magazine.  In the May/June 2015 issue is an interview by philosopher and environmentalist Kathleen Dean Moore with Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, who directs Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology.  It is entitled “A Roaring Force from One Unknowable Moment: The story of the universe has the power to change history.” Moore opens with this bold statement: “The World has arrived at a pivot point in history. You could drive a nail through this decade and the future of the planet would swing in balance.” She proposes three things to tip the scales and the third is to “change the story about who we are, we humans – not the lords of all creation, but lives woven into the complex interdependencies of a beautiful, unfolding planetary system.” Cosmic evolution – what a beautiful thought. To read the full article, click on https://orionmagazine.org/2015/05/a-roaring-force-from-one-unknowable-moment/ Do read Orion. Best of all, subscribe. www.orionmagazine.org.

Glitter and Glue

By Kelly Corrigan Ballantine, 2014 Mothers matter. They really do. I have to admit, the topic of this memoir – recollections of the author’s time as a nanny to a family in Australia some twenty or more years ago – did not inspire me to pick it up when it was released last year. But this is Kelly Corrigan. She can write. I realized this about two minutes into the book, which I picked up at an airport bookshop. It was of those decisions you make when you have about five minutes to catch the plane and your Kindle is not charged. I am glad I did not have more time that day, or I would never have read this brilliantly constructed, humorous, tear-inducing book.  Kelly Corrigan does not mock, however gently, the foreign culture in which she found herself, as so many “American Abroad” books do. Indeed, Corrigan describes the Sydney suburb in which she found herself as “basically indistinguishable from the one where I grew up.” Nor does she satirize a middle-class family who had to hire a nanny. Because that is not the point. This book is about motherhood. The Tanner children, seven-year-old Millie and five year-old Martin, are motherless because Ellen Tanner had recently died of cancer. Besides her widower, John, in the household also are Evan, Ellen’s twenty-one year old son from a former marriage, and Pop, Ellen’s father, who keeps to himself but does the family laundry. Kelly notes the common difficulties of step-family relationships within the family, as all is revealed gradually. But she never judges, and she weaves what she learns of the family’s profound grief and fragility after Ellen’s loss with a new appreciation of her own mother. Corrigan’s mother Mary is a sharp-tongued character, whose pithy remarks demonstrate her no-nonsense, do-the-right-thing values. Such a mother would naturally be in conflict with a strong-minded young woman like Kelly. Yet, as the book develops, and Kelly begins to understand the depth of the Tanner family’s loss and their courage in just putting each foot forward, one after the other, day after day, she starts to appreciate what her mother gave her. The last twenty five pages of the book reflect on this as Kelly Corrigan recalls her own bout with breast cancer when her children were small. As Kelly Corrigan notes, “Mothers are everywhere.” Except when they’re not. Mother’s Day is coming up. Cherish yours. She’s just irreplaceable.

Literacy and Longing in L.A.

By Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack Bantam Dell, 2013 We know right off the bat that Dora, the protagonist in this charming novel, is going to have trouble when, in the Preface, we learn that when she was seven her inebriated mother drove the car, with her children in it, off a bridge. So we are not surprised to find her, in chapter 1, wallowing in despair after separating from her second husband.  Dora literally wallows- in a hot, deep bath, where she spends all weekend reading novels. Ah, I was hooked. A heroine who loves to read. Not only do literary quotes head each chapter, there are literary quotations throughout the book, which, in case we don’t recognize them, are acknowledged in footnotes. Footnotes! And at the back of the book there is a seven page bibliography. But Dora is no geeky bookworm. She’s witty, attractive, bored by the blind dates her friends set up, and falls in lust with a fellow booklover. He works at the local bookstore, but has aspirations to be a screenwriter. “It’s that L.A. hyphenate thing – no one is really what they’re doing. Everything is just temporary until their real career starts,” her sister remarks. But Dora is snowed by Fred’s erudition. “My god. Just kill me now,” she thinks when he quotes Dorothy Parker. Dora, however, has no career to speak of.  The story touches on issues of class, with extreme Hollywood wealth contrasting with the situation of ordinary Californians. Dora eventually emerges from her bubble (bath) to learn what is important in life. The love of literature is the unusual theme that underpins this fine novel. If the characters lived in New York this would not surprise but it was a delightful departure from the norm to read about book addicts in Tinseltown. This is the first book written by the duo of Mack and Kaufman, a film and television producer and former Los Angeles Times staff writer, respectively. (They’ve since written two other romantic comedies.) They have an intimate knowledge of the worlds they write about, and Literacy and Longing in L.A. moves along as if written by one voice. It is quite a remarkable feat.

The Good House

The Good House By Ann Leary St. Martin’s Press, 2012 The North Shore of Massachusetts is famous for its light, the low angle at which the sunset illuminates its farms and marshes as it slides towards the marshy inlets to disappear into the sea. The string of little towns, Newburyport, Rowley, Marblehead, Salem, Ipswich, Hamilton and Gloucester have attracted settlers since the time of the Puritans. The area is famous for its seventeenth century witch trials, its fishermen still haul in cod and lobsters, while its wealthier denizens ride to the hunt and play polo. About forty miles from Boston, the North Shore is still not easy to get to, and therefore, to live there is a conscious choice by those who can afford to choose, or it is somewhere you live because you were born there, your ancestors were born there and truly, there is no where else you would rather live. In the fictional town of Wendover, set in the North Shore, who better would know the town gossip and exemplify the symbiotic relationship between the townies and the newcomers than the town’s top real estate broker? Hildy Good, the narrator of Ann Leary’s The Good House, knows that the only way to make money in the town these days is through antiques and real estate. The creaky old houses are pulled apart by their wealthy new owners, and renovated to look old again, providing work for realtors and  antique dealers, plumbers, handymen and landscapers. Hildy Good parlays her descent from a famously hanged witch and her deep knowledge of the townspeople to advantage when she sells houses, and she straddles the world of her rich clients and the townies. Hildy is the hinge to the story of a relationship between someone whose ancestors have lived in the town for generations and a newcomer. But Hildy is a secret alcoholic. Actually, the secret is only to herself. It is obvious to all around her that she has a problem. When the book begins, she has recently come out of rehab, drinks soda water at parties and at night puts herself to sleep after several glasses of the wine she’s stashed in the trunk of her ex-husbands MG, which he abandoned in the garage.  This kind of wonderful detail permeates the writing of this terrific novel. Ann Leary’s gentle satire absolutely nails the socio-economics of the area, and her delightfully unreliable narrator pulls the story along.  The underlying theme of an addiction’s lure provides the emotional heart of this book. Highly recommended.

Queens of Ancient Crete – And The Men Who Loved Them

Queens of Ancient Crete – And The Men Who Loved Them The Year God’s Daughter The Thinara King The Moon of Asterion By Rebecca Lochlann Erinyes Press, 2011 A rich blend of historical novel and fantasy, the first three books of  The Child of the Erinyes  series are set in Bronze Age Crete. The Year God’s Daughter, The Thinara King, and In the Moon of Asterion, trace the fortunes of Princess (later Queen) Aridela, her lover and consort, Chrysaleon, and his half-brother and rival in love, Menoetius. I was captivated from the start, ordering the next book as soon as I had finished the last. Rebecca Lochlann has created a world both recognizable and yet sinister, a world that spun its year around the annual ritual sacrifice of the king and his apparent cannibalization by the island’s women. The people believed that the annual sacrifice was necessary to fructify the crops. Horrible, yet Lochlann convinces us of the characters’ sincere belief in the necessity for this ritual, and in their faith in their gods and their afterlife. She’s spent many years researching this ancient world, then let her imagination fly with her strong female characters, Aridela, her tutor, Selene the Amazon, and Themiste, the priestess. Beautiful descriptive writing, fast-paced and convincing.

Hand of Fire: A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

Hand of Fire A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

By Judith Starkston Fireship Press, 2014 It’s hard enough to write about an historical figure. Hard because the experts will always be there to find an inaccuracy, tiny or large. How much harder it is, then, to write about a figure from a poem? A figure twice removed from reality. Judith Starkston has achieved this. In her excellent book, Hand of Fire, she brings to life Briseis, the healing priestess of the goddess Kamrusepa and noblewoman of the city of Lyrnessos, an ally of Troy. In Homer’s epic, the Iliad, Briseis was captured by Achilles during the Trojan War. Judith started her book with a question. If Briseis, an intelligent woman as her profession attests, was captured and enslaved by the Greeks, why would she develop such an attachment to her enemy, Achilles? After all, he had killed her father, her three brothers and her husband. Briseis apparently loved her captor. According to Homer the affection was mutual, or when Agamemnon demanded Briseis be given to him, Achilles defied his commander and refused to fight. The decision gave the edge to the Trojans and the Greeks begged Achilles to relent. Only when Patroclus took to the field in Achilles’ armor and was killed did Achilles return to battle, kill Hector, and desecrate the body. Later he is killed by an arrow to the heel. The novel skillfully weaves complicated emotions into a plot that is built on the edifice of the poem. What we know from the Iliad is that Achilles was a golden hero, beloved of his men. He loved Patroclus, his companion from boyhood. Briseis may have been as star-struck as others in the presence of Achille’s charisma. Judith Starkston knows that it would be too simple to say Achilles loved Briseis and that his jealousy when Agamemnon seized her was the linchpin that caused the crisis of the poem. She shows us that Achilles was caught in a larger psychological web. His mother Thetis, a water goddess, had tried to make him immortal but left a weakness. In the poem, Achilles is fated to die. Hand of Fire ends just before this inevitability. Caught up in a war made by men, Briseis will have to make a choice. A great read. Recommended.

What is Women’s Fiction?

Big Little Lies By Liane Moriarty G.P. Putnam’s Sons-Penguin Books USA, 2014

What is Women’s Fiction? It is not romance, though it usually has what the Romance Writers of America call “romantic elements.” Neither is it exactly “chick lit”. That genre was established well and truly with Helen Fielding’s character Bridget Jones and her diary. Awkward, warm, silly Bridget is so easily recognizable we all love her. Helen Fielding apparently based her book on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – and that, dear readers, is in my opinion, a classic work of Women’s Fiction. I’d say the major definition is that the characters in Women’s Fiction are usually a little older than in chick lit, maybe in their thirties or forties. Often they have children. Or they want children and that drives the plot. Unlike romance, or chick lit, Women’s Fiction often deals with larger issues than ending happily ever after with Mr. Right. Women’s Fiction is often indistinguishable from “upmarket commercial fiction” except that the viewpoint character is a woman. That is not to say that works of Women’s Fiction get the literary attention they deserve. Even if they are best-sellers. Take Liane Moriarty. This exceptionally talented novelist has written book after book that zooms to the best seller list. In her latest book, Big Little Lies, Ms. Moriarty takes on the subject of kindergarten. Bullying, by the children, and by the parents, is her theme, as the innocuous school, in its beautiful Sydney beachside setting, becomes a microcosm for all the nastiness that inhabits the world of adults. The author’s sense of humor is never too far beneath the surface and the book is laugh out loud funny at times. The heart of the story, however, is domestic violence. It is riveting and disturbing, the more so as it shows how difficult it is for the victim to leave. This is not chick lit by any means. So, what it comes down to is this. Women’s Fiction, in my view, simply shows a fictional world through the eyes of a woman or women. That’s why, in my next couple of posts, I’m going to review books of historical fiction with female protagonists. Watch this space.