Tag Archive: Cecilia


Apparently I read a lot of books about food. Seems to be a theme around here. Probably unsurprising with my recent celiac diagnosis, but my last two books that I need to catch up in terms of blogging focus on food.

The first is A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

This is the sort of book that ground-up armchair  historians love. In this book Standage surveys the histories of beer, wine, coffee spirits, tea and Coca-Cola in order to explain momentous moments in human history. Ever thought about how rum aided the colonization of the Americas? Or how tea helped to spur the Industrial Revolution? Or coffee, European cafe society? Well, it is all here in a wonderful little book. Standage is funny, informative, and does a wonderful job addressing major moments in history through the lens of what we drink. This is a great little book, an easy read (a great airplane read without you feeling like you are reading junk) and super fun.

The other book I read on food is far more serious– it is Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food

Some years ago I was on a teaching fellowship at a prestigious Midwestern college that was well-known for its sort of hippie/liberal character. That fall, Michael Pollan came to speak (he was greeted like a rock star by an auditorium of screaming college kids and local specialty farmers), and I was one of the lucky faculty that got to go to a dinner with him (I was too terrified to speak to him, and he spent the evening surrounded by luminaries far more important than I.) Anyway, I have read is other books and I will admit I am a fan. This book is small, but it packs a powerful punch.

A few days ago I was at the supermarket with my cart full of vegetables and meat, when an older gentleman in line behind me stepped up and said “You must actually cook!” Startled I looked down at my food and laughed and said “Why yes, don’t most people?” And with  a slight twinkle in his eye he gestured over to the people around us with their carts full of prepackaged foods and soda and said “they don’t really cook.”  And I looked back at him and together we chuckled. (he had a cart full of veggies and meats too.) But it was a prescient observation.

I don’t think I am superior to those who eat junk food and fast food– I don’t eat packaged food because I just plain can’t. Before my diagnosis, I ate plenty of junk, believe me– but now I can’t. I can’t eat processed food because gluten is in just about everything. Anyway, Pollan’s book focuses on how everyone should step away from the foods with the long labels full of stuff that you have no idea what it is– away from the “no-fat” labels– away from the stuff that screams “Its heart healthy!!” because it probably isn’t.

The book explains how the USDA came to endorse its current recommendations for eating, how food science has underminded food itself, how Americans being fat and unhealthy has a whole lot more to it than the number of calories and fats that we eat. It has to do with our culture– the way we see food (Supposed to be fast, cheap and filling)  and approach the culture of eating. The book is about how we should value our food more– and eat only real food.

This book (if you haven’t read it already) will radically change how you think of food. Not hard for me– I was already forced to radically change how I think about food, but if you haven’t read this book, please do. Its a game-changer.

That’s all for now. Will I make it to 52 books by the end of the year? I have eight more to go… Jeepers…

Ciao for now,

Bookish C


Oh Boy.

I have been reading but not blogging. Am seriously, majorly behind on the blogging and realized that as my one-year book experiment is coming to an end that I need to catch-up NOW.

So unlike many of my previous posts, this one is going to really just be some quick thoughts on all the books that I have read recently.

The first two are Young Adult books, the start of a series written by Michelle Cooper. The first book in the series is called A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile. The books create a sort of alternate history within history– they focus on the children of the royal family of Montmaray (fictional)– an island between England and France, in the run-up to WWII (non-fiction). In doing this, they place the children smack in the middle of real historical events.  Told by the younger sister Sophie, the books capture both the importance of the historical events unfolding around her and her siblings, as well as the fantasy world of the made-up Montmaray island. The books are romantic (in the true meaning of the word) gothic, clever, and at times very funny and outlandish. The FitzOsbornes are quite the family, complete with a mad uncle (the King) and illegitimate offspring (the best friend of the Crown Prince.) While the books are in some way, a fantasy, they are in other ways, highly relevant– they show how WWII was a watershed moment for many of the smaller European royal houses, which did not survive the war. Loved both these books, savored reading them, and recommend them highly, for both adults and teens.

Next– I read two memoirs by people who grew up in religious sects.

The first is by Mary-Ann Kirkby, entitled I am Hutterite

Mary-Ann grew up on a Hutterite colony on the prairies of Canada. Hutterites are often confused with groups like the Amish, and while they are an Anabaptist group (like the Amish) they are very different. Hutterites hold everything in common– they are a sort of Utopian Anabaptist group. And I mean everything– everyone works on the common farm, eats in the common kitchen, etc, etc. While they dress “plainly”- it is distinct from Amish and Mennonite styles, the style of worship is different and they use modern conveniences like farm equipment, trucks and electricity. Anyway, Mary-Ann’s book is a beautiful memoir– she goes into great depth to help you understand her family’s history as Hutterites, the Hutterite lifestyle, her Hutterite childhood, and how eventually struggles over power (and to some extent, family) forced her parents to leave the colony– never having lived on their own in the real-world (like never having owned anything of their own, not even knowing the specifics of what a bank account is, etc.) The book is beautifully written, beautifully realized, and insightful.

The other book is Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler- also a memoir of life in a distinct religious group.

On the whole, I like the book but perhaps its title should be “Leaving the Amish” because it really focuses on Wagler’s tortured young adult days and the multiple times he left and then ended up coming back to the Amish. Although Wagler’s character is well-realized, I feel like his family isn’t (unlike in Mary-Ann’s book, where you get a tremendous sense of family and community. In Wagler’s book, you don’t, which is strange given the sort of community he grew up in). I had no sense of his father other than he was a strict man who was trying to hold his family together, and no sense of his mother other than the fact that she was clearly a long-suffering woman. I wish he had spent more time delving into his parents’ characters– to make them more multidimensional. I will give the author credit for being brutally honest– even when it did not paint him or his choices in a very good light.

I have two more books to catch up on, but that will be another post….. see what happens when I get behind?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C




The Deadliest Hurricane

If I had managed to stomach all the math, I would have been a meteorologist. As it is I am an avid weather-watcher, I love watching meteorologists get all hyped up about weather systems, but there are some storms that as you watch them form and become more powerful that you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.  I remember watching the run-up to Hurricane Ike in Texas and  seeing people on the news saying “Oh it won’t be that bad. It’s not like it is as big as Katrina.” and then listening to the forecasters warn get out of the way!  And yes the hurricane wasn’t as bad as Katrina in terms of strength but it had a monster storm surge and swallowed up whole peninsulas on the Texas Gulf coast and washed away houses that people swore couldn’t be washed away… and took people with it, who were never found again.

Hurricane Ike turned out to be the third most costly hurricane in US history (after Katrina and Andrew) and it was “only” a Category two storm. What it showed was how much trust people put in modern technology, and how much denial that they piled on, thinking that sometime horrible couldn’t happen to them. Sad but true. And this is a story that is repeated over and over again– and is the focus of Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.

Larson’s book focuses on the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, which killed somewhere between 8,000-12,000 people, and on the local meteorologist Isaac Cline, who was responsible for warning the island’s residents, but who failed to see the signs that the hurricane was coming their way. This is also a story of America’s Gilded Age belief in Progress and Modernity, and that mankind was above nature, and could in some way control it. It also outlines the politics and ethnocentrism of the period, as the Cubans accurately predicted the hurricane and tried to warn the US, but the US (who viewed Cuba as lazy and their forecasting techniques as based on “superstition”) refused to head Cuba’s warning. The result was utter carnage.

Larson does a fantastic job painting a picture of the local politics of Galveston and meteorology at the time. He also does a wonderful job actually re-creating the events for the reader, in vivid detail. You get a sense of dread as the islanders continue on with daily life despite a monster storm surge and the angry Gulf that washed into their front yards preceding the hurricane. Galveston was, after all, a boomtown during this period, and its citizens were not going to let a little storm slow them down.

The events unfold almost in slow motion. Those who survive were in parts lucky, or among the few that had access to strong, sturdy masonry buildings several stories high and well away from the coast. And in 1900, once the telegraph lines went down, and the train tracks washed out, no one knew. For days no one knew what had happened to Galveston until people walked in and found a virtual hell on earth. So many dead that the authorities were forced to burn the bodies. So much destruction that they simply bulldozed whole acres of the city. The scenes that Larson describe are out of an apocalypse.

Except that these kinds of scenes have happened again,  and again, in modern periods. One memory from watching the hurricane coverage of Katrina that has stuck with me all these years was the interview of a woman who lived in an ocean-side condo in MS. When the surge came up and wiped out her well-built condo she was washed inland, along with her dog, a small black terrier. She was lucky, and managed to climb up into a tree and hung on for the rest of the night, one arm holding onto the tree and one arm holding onto her dog. As she talked to the reporter she seemed amazed that both she and her dog managed to survive a monster storm in a tree and all she had left were the clothes on her back, badly lacerated hands, and her dog.

In the end Mother Nature is greater than us. No amount of technology will ever made us safe from storms and other disasters. That is something that we need to understand and come to terms with, and Larson’s book a fabulous reminder as to why– a hundred years ago, Americans were brash enough to think they could understand and predict deadly storms. A hundred years later, we still think that, yet we continue to suffer. Will we ever learn?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Jane Austen Would Mind

I need to get better about blogging. In some ways the blogging has almost become an obligatory book report. I have been reading but not blogging about what I am reading because I have been busy reading.

Okay today’s post is about two books- both Jane Austen spinoffs.  My friend the Awesome S had warned me to stay away from the spinoffs, because most are badly written– with the exception of Pamela Aidan’s series of Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s point of view (which she says is the best of the bunch, and now having read a few other spin-offs, I concur), but I just couldn’t resist. So one weekend when I was trying to avoid grading papers I read two of the spin-offs and came away feeling, well, unsatisfied. S had warned me. I should have known better.

I started with Maria Hamilton’s Mr Darcy and the Secret of Becoming a Gentleman mainly because it was highly reviewed by other readers on Amazon. The book has an interesting set-up— what would happen if Darcy had pursued Elizabeth Bennet back to her home right after she initially refused him? What sort of chaos would erupt within the Bennett family, and what sort of misunderstandings would follow? At first I enjoyed the book- I felt like the author had captured the mood and spirit of Austen’s world and had managed to put an original spin on it– but then the last third of the book. Oh man. It devolved into a bad romance novel.  Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy would have never gotten it on before the wedding night, such actions were incredibly untrue to their characters (especially with Darcy’s sense of honor and Elizabeth’s own sense of propriety), all this does is turn an interesting book into a bad, really bad,  romance novel.  Plus the ending turns Elizabeth Bennett into a completely uninteresting character– something that I never thought possible. (And I have no problem with romance novels– the thing is there is such a thing as truth in advertising. I had hoped this would be true to the spirit of Austen’s original work. Compared to when one reads a romance novel, you expect for the hunky hero to save the damsel in distress and other high jinks to ensue.)

So the ending of the book ruined it to me. Instead of being a clever re-working of Austen’s comedy of manners it turns into a bad romance novel. Ick.

The second Austen spin-off that I read was Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice  by Jennifer Becton. So this one was quite a bit better. What Becton did was take a minor character (Charlotte Lucas) and built a story around her. In this telling Charlotte Collins has become a widow rather suddenly– the odious Mr Collins has died unexpectedly, and Charlotte is left a poor, young widow. To add to that, she becomes responsible for her younger sister Maria, who moves in with Charlotte in order to be properly chaperoned on the “catch a husband” circuit, as their parents are now too old. Well Maria and Charlotte enter into society and all sorts of misunderstandings and fun ensue. What I liked about this book is that it stayed close to the Austen style– in fact it pays homage to Sense and Sensibility as much as it does to Pride and Prejudice. And there are no bad romance-novel scenes. This is a short little book, easily read in a night and enjoyable.

So a mixed bag, but I do think that Jane Austen would mind that all the fan fiction turns her smoldering hero Mr. Darcy into some bodice-ripping Englishman. Because what I think is so wonderful about the Darcy character is that he is left so mysterious, and that the reader can assign to him the qualities that they want— and I think he is better left that way.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Football as a religion

When I first move to Texas I discovered that my apartment was only about half a mile from the local high school. I figured this out when one Friday night I was out walking my dog and noticed the bright stadium lights off in the distance, coupled by the sound of a marching band and the roar of the crowd.

In Texas there is little else as sacred as high school football, save religion itself.

Today’s book is Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger. The book (which both the movie and TV series are based off of, and oh, if you have never seen the TV series, get yourself a copy of the DVDs and go watch is now. One of the best depictions of working class America on TV ever.) The book, however, is non-fiction, and is based on a football team, the Permian Panthers, a team from Odessa, an oil town in the West Texas scrubland.

The book, (written in the late 1980s) is a classic of fine American sportswriting. For me, it stands right up there with Seabiscuit in taking a sport and using it as a prism to examine a place and moment in time in American history. Bissinger’s book is about the phenomena of high school football in a town that has few dreams left to hold on to, but it is also about much more. It is about race, class, economic and social status in America (and the issue of race is really ugly. While unsurprising is still jarring to read.) It is about dreams realized and broken. It is about young people who have to live up to impossible hopes that an entire town pins on them, and then how they get torn apart when those dreams are dashed.

Bissinger lived in the town for a year, he went with the football team to every game, he had unprecedented access, and that is what helps the book ring so true. He is also a master of colorful, evocative writing that pulls you along, and he takes time to explain the history of West Texas, along with the different dynamics of the place. All of this allows you to feel as if you are there, experiencing the quest for the state championship with the Permian Panthers.

Its a real team, a real town, a real slice of America. And it’s about football,  but it is also about more than that. This is a fantastic, can’t-put-it-down read and a true American sports classic.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Well, what happened? And Foodie Goodness

I fell off the blogging wagon for almost two whole months. It happened rather inadvertently–one minute I was reading and blogging and the next minute I wasn’t. I was besieged by the start of a new semester, and a major academic deadline. So I felt, for a while like I was drowning. I read a bit, here and there, but I did not blog because it seemed like so much effort.

I even thought for a while, about giving up the blog and the challenge that I set for myself.  One of my enduring characteristics, however, is that I finish what I start. (That got me through the dark and lonely days of writing a dissertation, that stubborn, mule-like tendency to finish at all costs.) So I am back, I have a few posts to catch up on (like I said I have been reading and have a backlog of books), and I hope to keep going to meet my goal of 52 books this year (at least.)

So today’s book is Gluten Free Girl: How I Found the Food that Loves Me Back… and How you Can Too  by Shauna James Ahern.

Okay, a bit of back story. Last March/April, when I fell off the blogging wagon (the first time) it was because I had become seriously sick. I won’t go into the details, but I had a strange constellation of symptoms that puzzled my very good doctor, both neurological and gastrointestinal and I had all these weird vitamin deficiencies. Anyway, after enduring a battery of tests (which proved nothing), after being in pain for months and dealing with crippling fatigue, (not like when you are just tired, think so exhausted that the thought of moving off the couch for a glass of water is a problem) I sat with my doctor’s nurse practitioner, shuddering in pain and wailing that this was not “all in my head.” She replied to me, “you know, it might be a food allergy. Wheat and dairy are the biggest offenders, so try cutting them out first.” Well, I already don’t eat dairy, so I went home miserable and cut out wheat, specifically, gluten. In two weeks I felt better than I ever felt in almost a decade.

Long story short, I was diagnosed as a gluten-intolerant, probable celiac (I refused the colonoscopy, which is the gold standard test because my insurance would not cover it, and it seemed like a waste of money  that I don’t have to just confirm that I should not eat gluten. Screw it. I just wasn’t going to eat gluten anymore. My doctor agreed– she said I presented as “classic celiac” and that the diet had proved enough without anymore testing. The celiac blood panel came back inconclusive– be warned on that– the blood testing has a failure rate 1/3 of the time. Yup. So it can totally be wrong. Changing diet or the colonoscopy are the only ways you really know for sure.)

So I delved into a world of no more bread, pies, cookie, fast food, packaged foods, soy sauce, oh hell, wheat gluten is in everything. To most people, it seems incredibly restrictive. But for me the transition wasn’t hard, because I already ate mostly home-cooked meals made from fresh ingredients. But I had loved bread. Adored bread. I was known as an amazing baker of bread and sweets, and oh shit, no more bread for me.

I cried the day I gave my huge bags of bread flours to a neighbor. I sobbed when I hauled my bags of pasta and crackers (unopened) to a local food bank. I tried to be positive, but damn it seemed hard. I was now defined by what I could not eat. Nevermind that I was feeling so much better, had lost weight and had finally made peace with my angry, angry stomach. I was now different. That gluten-free person.

I first read Shauna’s writing in her blog, http://www.glutenfreegirl.com  Then I discovered that she had written a food memoir of sorts, and after scouring the local library for gluten-free cookbooks, and modifying my diet, and working on that for months, I finally picked it up.

I wish I had read it sooner.

There are many books on going gluten-free out there. Many are great, they detail how to change your diet, what you can and cannot eat, etc.  But almost all approach the gluten-free issue from the aspect of how going gluten-free is hard, and then they offer advice and tips.

Fine. It is hard. I won’t lie. But Shauna’s book was one of the few that I read that took having to go gluten-free and made it something that was freeing. It freed you to eat really good, homemade, artisanal food. It frees you from the American approach to  junky foods, fast foods, it frees you to experiment with food in new ways. That is not to say that she sugarcoats it and says that going gluten-free isn’t hard, and that the food that you will eat, while good, will not taste exactly like the food that you used to eat (it won’t)  but instead she is an incessant and friendly cheerleader. Use going gluten-free to try the new flours. To eat local, fresh food– to treat yourself well by cooking for yourself with care and respect. Use going gluten-free to not restrict you, but open your horizons.

This book is not a cookbook (there are a few recipes)- it isn’t a “how to go gluten-free” book, and it isn’t a technical book.  Don’t read it thinking that it is. It also might be hard for people to read who have multiple food allergies (people who are gluten and casein free for example, or people with allergies to nuts, etc- Shauna has no restrictions beyond gluten.) Instead it is a food memoir, a reminder that having celiac is not the end of the world, that rather, it is the beginning– one can be healthy again and enjoy food. It is one woman’s journey, and man the way she write about food. It just makes you hungry reading it. Shauna loves food, and I love that about this book– because my mom, who is an excellent cook who always cooked locally and fresh (I escaped the packaged food hell that Shauna describes her childhood as because my mom loved cooking fresh home-cooked meals) talks about food in the exact same way. Food is something to be enjoyed, savored, and to love. Having a food allergy, intolerance or celiac disease should not stop you from loving food. This is what I took from this book.

And there is something to be said for eating locally. When I lived in rural Ohio for a year I discovered the wonders of buying from actual farmers. Every Saturday morning I would point my old sputtering Mazda towards the local farms and go from place to place, picking out the freshest produce (there is nothing like sweet corn coming off the field in the back of a tractor, lemme tell you.) There was a Mennonite gentleman that I would buy potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and peppers from. He would even give me watermelons that were too ripe and bruised to sell after I told him that my dog loved watermelon (this is true.) Every Saturday morning when I would come to pick up my produce, he would have a few watermelons “for the dog” he would say in his gruff way. I would inquire after his pigs and dairy cows. We talked about the weather (in all seriousness) and his grandchildren would tumble by in their bonnets and long skirts. There is something about knowing the people who actually grow your food.  He tipped me off to an Amish farm that sold “the best chicken you could ever imagine.” The next week, after butchering day, I head over for chicken. The flesh was pink, some still had feathers in it.  I took it home and roasted a simple Amish-raised chicken with Mennonite-raised leeks and onions. That night I sat, just savoring the taste of the chicken “This is what chicken is supposed to taste like?” It was a revelation. That night I sat with my windows open, enjoying the Ohio summer, the breeze off of lake Erie, and devouring the best chicken I had ever eaten (it was most definitely not factory farmed.)

In the last six months, since I got my diagnosis I had slogged along in my gluten-free diet. Food was not joyful, it was hard. Well, Shauna’s book has reminded me to go recapture those carefree Ohio summer days. Time to hit the Farmer’s markets again, time to try some grass-raised Texas beef cattle, fresh sausages, and produce. Time to be inspired again and not let my diagnosis cage me in. This book was much-needed inspiration. Thanks Shauna, and I couldn’t think of a better way to start my blogging up again.  I am going to be adventurous again with food. I’m not going to let celiac hem me in. And I will keep reading and blogging, my fellow readers.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C



Eyewitness to the Rise of Evil

It was 1933, and the head of the University of Chicago’s history department, William Dodd, was dispatched as the American Ambassador to Germany. He took his wife and grown children with him to a country that was witnessing the rise of Hitler. Nobody wanted to believe that things were as perilous as they seemed. Including Dodd. This is the premise of Erik Larson’s latest work of nonfiction In the Garden of Beasts, which details the life of one American family in Berlin, and the horror that they watched unfold.

Ambassador Dodd was not your typical American ambassador. A self-made man, an academic, and hailing from a modest background, he was unlike the wealthy men of privilege that usually filled out the diplomat corps. He took the job believing it would give him time away from the stresses of academia and allow him to finish his magnus opus on Southern history. He had no idea of what he stepped into. No one did. At the time the world was inclined to ignore the rumblings from German, the stories of the oppression of Jews and the nationalist fervor that was building up. Including Dodd and his family, even during the first year that they lived there.

Larson’s work focuses on Dodd and his adult daughter Martha– a free spirit, who was a bit of a bohemian who took a multitude of lovers while in Germany, including members of the Nazi party and Soviet agents. Let’s just say that Martha loved living on the edge, and living on the edge she did– initially, she refused to believe the reports of the horrors that were beginning to come to the surface in Germany, instead preferring to believe it to be a country that was trying to get back on its feet after a devastating war. Dodd was also inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, to the consternation of a select few diplomats that also served with him– he preferred to not worry about the “Jewish Problem,” believing that Hitler could not possibly last while in power.

The book is wonderfully written and moves along at a crisp pace– it weaves a web of  with intrigue surrounding the main characters. It builds and builds up to the “Night of the Long Knives” which is when Hitler launched a massive and terrifying attack against his enemies and took total power over Germany. From that moment on Dodd (and his daughter) began to speak out against Hitler and Germany, but no one would listen. No one wanted to hear them, even after they returned to the US four years later and Hitler’s aggression was apparent. The government instead followed a model of appeasement.

Larson is a fantastic writer– this is a historical book that is paced as a novel, and it is as tense and thrilling as any spy thriller–but it is for real. The book is really thought-provoking. Why did the government just look the other way? Why was the world not willing to confront the truth? How could we just let a madman run amok, and deny that he was violating human rights while the US’ s own ambassador was frantically cabling for the government to just listen to him? Of course,  these sorts of things continue to happen, governments continue to look the other way as madmen slaughter their own people–but this book gives yo a fantastic look into how an entire country (Germany) could willfully deceive itself, and the historical and social circumstances that surrounded Hitler that allowed him to rise to power.

This is a great book, one of the best nonfiction works I have read this year. Do yourself a favor, go read it and have your eyes opened, because we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C


19th century fortune hunting

One of my favorite books of all time is The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton. I am a big fan of Wharton, although I do tend to find her books depressing at times, and The Buccaneers is my favorite book, despite the fact that it is an unfinished work. (It was released after having being finished by another author who followed Wharton’s notes.) Anyway the story is a rich young American woman from new money who goes to England looking to marry “up” and ends up with a Duke. The marriage fails, there is scandal and she runs off with one of the landed gentry who lives near the Duke. Sounds juicy, right? Wharton’s book is a masterwork commentary of class, money, social status and gender, plus her main characters are deeply compelling.

So about a month ago I saw that a new book was coming out by Daisy Goodwin, titled The American Heiress, about a young, rich American in the 19th century who goes off to marry a Duke and ends up in a difficult marriage… sound familiar eh? So of course it is really hard not to compare Wharton to Goodwin (which is probably unfair to Goodwin),  but I was intrigued and read the book.

So Goodwin’s protagonist is the aptly named Cora Cash, a wealthy new money American who has one of the most fiercely social-climbing mothers (and mother-in-law, the hysterically noted “Double Duchess,” but that comes later) depicted in literature. As far as Mrs. Cash is concerned, Cora is just a vehicle for her own social advancement, and she whisks her away to England to go title-hunting. With Cora is her free black maid, Bertha, whose light skin almost (but not quite) allows her to pass. Bertha is devoted to her mistress, and as a ladies maid occupies a rather high tier in the pecking order of household servants. (For those who have not seen enough Upstairs Downstairs, a ladies maid is only under the head housekeeper and butler. Governesses and tutors don’t count as ‘real’ help, although they are, in a sense, but their education elevates them above the rank of servant.)

Core, who is despite her wealth is rather naive, has an accident while out hunting and is rescued by a handsome, brooding Duke.  He is mysterious throughout the book, both volatile and charming, and he makes an offer to Cora. Of course, being a Duchess is something she cannot refuse, so she accepts. And then the story really gets going. We follow Cora trying to make her way through the intricacies of British society, and trying to grapple with the consequences of her marriage.

So after reading this book I thought long and hard about it. The good parts include Goodwin’s language– she is a very fine descriptive writer (as she is also a poet this should not be surprising) and her turn a deft phrase is delightful. The character of Bertha is compelling, in fact, the exploration of race and class that surrounds this light-skinned ladies maid is intriguing and I wish Goodwin had done more with it. The Duke is a brooding character, in fact, maybe too much so– you never really understand why he married Cora (aside from needing her money) and I found him too much to be like a more classic romance novel character, without the fun and self-deprecation that romance novelists bring to the pages. Mr Darcy, he is not. Cora herself is also not terribly well developed as a character, about half-way through the book I wanted to reach into the pages and shake her for being a stupid girl, for caring too much about what people thought, and for her acceptance of this stifling society.

Goodwin’s emphasis on the vulgarity of wealth in the late 19th century is intriguing. In some sense, I felt like it was as much a commentary on the ultra-rich now as on the characters set in the past. Some of the things that they buy and do are insane. You often find yourself thinking “how could anyone have this much money?” Goodwin seems to be encouraging her readers to laugh at the empty, shallow lives of the superrich.

While the plot was interesting and sucked me in, I found the ending really unsatisfactory. This is more of a glimpse into a particular world than a well-told narrative, because the ending does nothing for the book. (I don’t think all endings need to tie up all the loose ends, but I think there needs to be some satisfaction within them.)

Wharton’s Buccaneers it is not, but I have a sense that Goodwin was trying to do something different. But what, I am unsure. This book is a light, frothy read, and is sure to keep one busy while at the beach or traveling. Goodwin’s writing is beautiful, but I think she needs to work more on her characters, to make them more fully human.

One thing is for sure, I am glad that as a woman, that I was not born into this sort of society. Granted the world was not very nice to women in the 19th century in general (life as a farmer or rancher’s wife was terribly hard too–which likely would have been the lot of someone like me back then) but there is something especially vulgar about these rich daughters being married off strategically for their money and connections.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

A Great Patriot

John Adams was a great reader himself, no doubt he might have appreciated this blog project. So, in honor of our country’s independence, I picked up John Adams by David McCullough this weekend, and ploughed right through it… finally.

My mom had given me this book years ago, and I read about half of it, but never finished. Life got in the way. Well, that is no longer an excuse, so I started all over again and finished it in about five days, surprising myself, because it is an enormous book. Thick, dense, and chock full of information.

McCullough’s masterwork is a gem for history nerds like myself. It is a popular autobiography that is written much like an academic book, meaning that McCullough combines popular writing with serious history and created a masterwork. No wonder it won the Pulitzer.

The book covers the entire span of Adams’s life, from his early years as a humble lawyer, to his work on independence, to his time as a diplomat in Europe, his vice-presidency, the Presidency, and his old age. It is loaded with detail, most of it gleaned from Adams’s own papers and letters. Adams was a prolific letter-writer– and extraordinarily self-aware and self-critical, and because of that, we know what he thought about almost everything. (Note to important world figures: keep an interesting diary and leave someone else to write your biography.) The book is so huge that there isn’t much that I can cover here, but a few major themes.

The first is the myth of the founding. Lately, all kinds of misinformation has been spread on America’s independence– and much of this is for political ends, which, would have no doubt exasperated Adams (and his friend Jefferson.) The fact is, that as McCullough’s book shows, independence from Great Britain and the founding of a new country was messy, fraught with peril, and that we got through it at all was due to not only great leadership, but also a measure of luck.  The Founders were often making it up as they went along, they did not agree on many things (in fact they agreed on very little) and slavery was a massive problem already for the young country. It was not some mythical moment of a newly formed, shining America rising out of rebellion. More like it was a mess, but a mess that sorted itself out, slowly, sometimes painfully and at times awkwardly. This, I think, is important to remember.

Adams was a man, who was religious, but who also believed in reason. He felt that religion and intellectual curiosity went together– there was no reason for them not to. He also believed in serving his country– he always did what was asked of him, even when he was put in miserable diplomatic situations, even with so many disparaged him, even when it seemed that everyone was against him– he put his country (not politics) first. We could learn a bit from this mentality.

Politics was as ugly then as it is now. A sensationalistic press came after Adams when he was VP and later President. His own friends (Jefferson) turned on him in the name of politics. Political parties began to determine where people stood, and Adams did not like this one bit. The sections on his Vice-Presidency and Presidency are amazing for how utterly modern they feel. Some things never change– party politics remains brutal. Presidents continue to be viciously criticized for their ideas and policies. Some things have not changed one bit.

His marriage to Abigail was extraordinary for its times. In fact, with would be extraordinary now. It was a marriage of equals, and without her, it is doubtful he could have achieved what he did. She was an incredibly smart woman, a brave woman, and his best friend. This is so apparent from their letters– their friendship is what carried them through life through thick and thin forever, and they survived some exceedingly trying times.

Finally, Adams’s emphasis on friendship. Adams remained friends with those closest through him through thick and thin, even when his friends did horrible things to him. His relationship with Jefferson is the best example of that– as young diplomats they were incredibly close, only to have the friendship torn to shreds when Jefferson ran against Adams for President. Yet, later in life Adams forgave his friend and struck up a close, but steady correspondence with him, and they became friends once more as old men in the twilight of their lives. To me, this was the most striking part of the book. Adams clearly valued people, he valued his friends, and he maintained those relationships even when at times it was painful.

This is a wonderful book– there is so much more I could  say, but I would just go on and on forever. Read it. It is not necessarily easy to read, but it is well worth the effort. It is a rich exploration of a great patriot’s life.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

J read Born to Run earlier in the year when we started the blog project, and it has been one of the books on my list to read. Because J already summed up the book in his post, I am going to offer a more personal reflection it.

I used to be a runner– that is, in high school I was a cross-country runner and in track, a miler and two miler, but frankly I preferred cross-country. The mile always seemed too short, the two mile, boring (eight times around the track can get a bit mind-numbing.) Cross-country was the most fun, with the winding, hilly courses, and frankly the long road runs were my favorite– in the summer we would rise early and be running by five am, while the city was still sleepy, the Los Angeles air still cool, and when it was often my teammates and I loping along through the neighborhoods around the high school. Our coach would follow us in his old green car, affectionately nicknamed “the tank” for its square appearance and army green color, as we quietly moved through the streets.

There was a student at our rival high school who was one of the best runners in the state. He had been born in Kenya and was something of a local legend. B was a tall handsome kid with a wide smile and who was so fast, the rest of us could hardly believe it. His running partner  was a tall blond kid, white as could be, who was known as “B’s Ghost” or simply “the Ghost.” At league finals they would come in far before anyone else, bouncing along like two gazelles. B and the Ghost were a joy to watch, and I remember standing with a teammate watching them finish. B made it look so easy, without strain, like as if running three miles on a smoggy 100 degree day was the best thing in the world. My teammate whispered to me “You, know, they say he trains barefoot– it’s how he used to run in Kenya–isn’t that insane?”  Then, after B’s teammates had offered their congratulations, my teammate and I walked up and congratulated B on his race. He smiled and thanked us graciously, and I noticed he wasn’t out of breath- in fact he hardly seemed to have run at all.

After reading McDougall’s book, it all began to fall into place. Because B had run barefoot in Kenya, he was a fore-foot striker, not a heel striker (something I had noticed in watching him run) and because of that, his gait was more suited to keeping his body in good condition and injury free. And B, despite all the races he won, despite the fact that he was later recruited for a major Division I college track team, despite the competitiveness, he clearly loved  running. You could see it in his smile.

As much as I could enjoy running, it was often painful, and I stopped running because of a really painful knee injury. And that was the part about the book that I really identified with– McDougall’s search for the reason as to why so many runners end up injured– it all has to do with modern running shoes, which McDougall asserts are so cushioned, as to ruin your natural gait, and your body’s way of telling what is the right way to run. McDougall asserts that as a species that we evolved to run, to run long distances, and to do it well into our old age if properly conditioned.

This book was deeply personal for another reason– my father’s family is descended from the Tarahumara Indians, the great runners that McDougall profiles. In fact the reason why I ran in high school was because that is just what we did. My father, before me, was something of a cross-country star. He loved to run, could “run all day” in his youth. He gave it up once he had a family to support, but his endurance stood him well when he worked in construction as a young man so my mom could go to college. But the fact of it remained, is that in my family, we always ran. It’s just what we do. I was raised that one ran because it was fun, not necessarily because we were good at it. Interestingly, as a runner I was a rather mediocre cross-country runner. Always came in the top ten and placed well for team points, but never a star– but that on the long road runs that we would take as a team I invariably did better. The longer I ran, the better my endurance held out, and I now wonder if I would have been better suited to much longer races in my youth, like the ones that McDougall profiles in the book.

It is funny that how as I got older and went to college, I encountered the more western mentality that running was “work.” “No pain, no gain.” It was no longer fun, it was so that the women I went to school with could keep their svelte bodies. Again, McDougall points out that among the Tarahumara and African bushmen who still run incredible distances, that this is not the case. You run, because you were born to it. You run, because you are human.

There is so much I could say about this book, but I would end up going on forever. The book was deeply personal to me, as an ex-runner (the problem knee has kept me from running for years, and I now live in a part of the country where a barefoot run could mean cactus thorns in your feet and a nasty bite from a rattlesnake)  and because of my own heritage. The book is, as J describes, well-written, funny, and very well-paced. While I may never go on a long run again like I used to, it has motivated me to start trail walking again (something I did after I stopped running, but I stopped once I got into the grind of grad school and then a job) so that I can re-capture some of that clarity that one gets after humming along for 10 miles.

My favorite run ever in high school was our annual fun run at the beach. At the end of the summer we would pile into vans and drive down to the Orange Country beaches. There, we shed our shoes and ran for about three miles in the sand, barefoot, galloping through the waves, chasing each other, laughing, and joking. We were not timed or really even pushed in any way. Early in the morning it was just us and the surfers bobbing out on the waves, and there was a special magic to it all. It was incredibly fun and it was how running is supposed to be.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C