Author: Pat (Page 2 of 2)

Mary Miller presents The Last Days of California

Mary Miller’s debut novel spills over with good, solid writing. The Last Days of California is about a family road trip starting in Montgomery, Alabama, with its destination California, and possibly even beyond. The Christian rapture is what draws them to California, hoping to save some people along the way, though by page twoLast Days of California we suspect the father is not so holy in spite of his grand scheme. Jess, the 15-year-old narrator, says of her father, “He didn’t really want all 7 billion people on the planet to be saved. We wouldn’t be special then. We wouldn’t be the chosen ones.”

Early on, the reader suspects the family may be up to more than holy pursuits. Though the father is in the driver’s seat, there’s much more going on in the back seat between the two sisters, two years between them, armed with smart phones and convenience store candy. Their mother is the one who collects and receives the trash from all the wrappers and leftovers, staying at least minimally connected to her offspring and her husband, whose appeal seems to have deteriorated over many years of marriage. In the meantime, the two girls share lots of secrets, one being a probable pregnancy proven by several ominous pink strips.

Our narrator, consumed by teenage self-loathing, feelings of inadequacy, and the fact that her sister is beautiful and she is not, fantasizes about how to experience what she has only heard about from her wilder sister. The story moves through spare and perfectly pitched dialogue as the car moves through shoddy towns indecipherable from one another, each with the same big box stores — the equivalent of purgatory, American-style. Days Inns, Waffle Houses, and sundry convenience stores are the landscape that mark the journey. Jess reveals her adolescent longings, fears, hopes, dreams, and envies through a constant inner and outer dialogue that make this book so readable and hard to put down.

As the family continues the journey, they often stop to gorge or pick at meals only the most nutritionally challenged would order. French fries, sundaes, and diet cokes are a great part of the feast. The reader wonders how a man and woman who aren’t working can afford such expenses, especially when they stop at a casino. The questions mount as the journey progresses. Or does not paying the credit card bill make any difference to a family who will be whisked away as the rapture plucks the worthy from all the rest?

This is much more than a story about teenage angst. I see this short novel as a family love story, a sort of “Modern Family” of four. Though the cast is a scripture-deluded father, a rather worn out mother and two daughters who may have lost their tickets to Paradise, Jess will often hold her mother’s hand or ache with a daughter’s sad love for her father and remain forever loyal to her sister. Bravo to you, Mary Miller, our own homegrown Jacksonian.

Join us Thursday, January 30th as Mary Miller presents
The Last Days of California, signing at 5:00, reading at 5:30.

photo by Dolores Ulmer

Fat for Thought: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

salt sugar fatThe book Salt, Sugar, Fat was written by investigative reporter and Pulitzer prize winner, Michael Moss. The book is the result of Moss’ outrage and curiosity; why are Americans succumbing to diabetes (26 million Americans)? why are 1 in 5 children in the USA considered obese? why is the “health crisis” costing our country 300 billion dollars a year?

With his nose to the grindstone, his head buried beneath copious stacks of paper, and his ears buzzing from interviews with food industry higher-ups (to the likes of Coca-cola, Nabisco, Kraft, Kellogg, Nestle and more), Moss exposes the machinations of the industry that processes hard-to-resist foods and thus has bought bulging American bellies.

According to Moss, these companies use manipulative advertising as well as scientific research–hundreds of scientists are paid to study the mechanisms of digestion and food selection–in order to addict us to our food. He relates food addiction and people’s inability to stop eating to the powerlessness of drug addicts and alcoholics over drugs and alcohol.

blue bell no sugarEven after people fearing diseased bodies demanded healthier alternatives to many processed foods be made available, the food industry continued to produce harmful, processed. In fact, the industry began to manipulate foods by changing the ratios of fat, sugar, and salt. For instance, on the freezer-aisle of your local grocery store, you can happily pick what you think is a No Sugar ice cream and never realize that in the process of reaching the “bliss point”–the perfect balance of taste that makes us crave something–the fat and salt have been increased to make up the difference in the loss of sugar.

The “bliss point” is merely the highest delectibility of a food, the point at which we reach the highest pleasure. The term is one coined by the industry and is a very important point for sales. Taste buds are not isolated to the mouth; they go all the way down, through the esophagus and the stomach. That is a big audience for food to please, and by altering their products, the food industry seeks to sing to them all.

john harvey kelloggToward the beginning of the book, we meet a young medical student John Harvey Kellogg in the 1890’s who recognized the relationship between food and health. He founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium near Detroit to provide health-treatments for health-conscious people. The facility was comprised of a gymnasium, a solarium, an exotic enclosed garden where a staff of 1000 per 400 “guests” provided purging enemas, exercise regimens, soaks and strict diets. No sugar was allowed in the sanitarium. Meat and fat were practically non-existent. “He served wheat gluten mush, oatmeal crackers, graham rolls and a tea made from a South African grass.” He crowned whole grains as the ultimate healthy prince of all foods. His intentions were good.

kelloggs corn flakesHowever, a Kellogg brother joined the business and things began to change. This Kellogg, Will, was the money maker and he dreamed up some new grain foods that were enticing. One day while John Harvey was in Europe minding his business, Will bought some sugar and threw it in a corn flake the two had created. The sanitarium guests went wild, their bliss points excited, and thus began Kellogg’s Toasted Cornflakes. Moss goes on to describe how the food industry progressed through the next century.

Fast forward to the now generation. In the 21st century our country is getting fatter and suffering from diabetes, clogged arteries, fluid retention, and is just, plain nutritionally sick. Moss relates a story of concerned parents in Philadelphia teaming-up on a cold, blustery day to detain schoolchildren going to buy their breakfast in the convenience stores lining the path to school. Rather than boycotting or coercing the students, the parents sought to educate the kids: nothing in those stores will substitute a nutritious, balanced breakfast at home.

yogurt barSome of the kids were convinced not to go into the stores, but some went anyway. One of the men on the team saw his wife coming down the street with their two kids. She rushed into one of the stores in search of a healthy snack. They had been in such a rush to get to school on time, they had skipped their breakfast. She came out with fruit and yogurt breakfast bars, thinking they were a healthy alternative since the label claimed they were high in calcium. However, the so-called calcium enhanced bar “had more sugar, and less fiber, than an Oreo.”oreo

Moss is such a superb writer. Much like Curtis Wilkie’s The Fall of the House of Zeus, this expose reads like a fast paced thriller. The book is eye-opening; peppered (not salted) with stories that are as vivid as those a parent tells a child before lights-out at bedtime.

Moss concludes that we need to become more conscious of what we put in our mouths, outraged that our diets can be manipulated by industry, and educated to make better choices of the food we eat. Perhaps with a big enough percentage of concerned people who want to live healthy, long lives, our choices will begin to turn the industry around, i.e. better products as well as a profit.

In the meantime, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and stay away from the inner aisles of the grocery store.

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs

A short note to Lemuria customers and Lemuria wannabees:  The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs should be under the tree for every dog lover who thinks books and dogs are tops.  It’s fire engine red with a calligraphic style James Thurber dog on the cover with lots of vignettes about man’s (and woman’s) best friend in between.

Beloved writers, old canine cartoons from New Yorkers past, front covers going all the way back to 1925 when the New Yorker was first published.  Just plain fun and by far, the best New Yorker coffee table book up to this point.  This one is just about perfect.

P.S. . . . If anyone knows my husband (the Santa one), please let him know this is #1 on my wish list.  -Pat

The O’Briens by Peter Behrens

The setting first takes us to Pontiac County, Quebec, around 1900 where Irish famine farmers and French Canadians had settled along the St. Lawrence River and eventually moved into the hinterlands of Quebec, hoping to farm and cut more trees.

An old priest had been vanquished from New York to a remote Canadian parish after depleting the local Catholic coffers in magnanimous acts of generosity to those he loved.  Being a bon vivant of sorts, a connoisseur of things worldly and lover of lost souls,  the old priest develops a relationship with the O’Briens, a family of three boys, two girls and a strikingly beautiful but rough edged mother.  He will teach them the things he loves, teach them diligently as he had been taught himself and inspire in these children a love of geometry, manners, how to waltz.

The oldest son Joe particularly tugs at his heart, not in a sensual way but in a type of recognition of similar souls, lost in the cosmos and Quebec woods.  Joe will become the heart of this saga that spans the years 1900 to 1960 and take us across North America, especially the coast of California around Venice Beach and ultimately back to Montreal and the sailing coasts of Maine.

Joe’s father, in reckless pursuit of adventure, had died in South Africa.  Joe, being the oldest, becomes the automatic head of the household, confident, strong and stocky until the mother remarries a ne’er do well whose only claim to fame is as an obsessive fiddler whose wretched behavior towards his step children will lead them to a necessary act of kidnapping where the kids do the napping and the adult is the one literally kicked out of town.
Joe has a gift for numbers, accounting, organization and his own true father’s sense of adventure.  All these talents will eventually earn him a fortune, the love of a strong willed woman and four children.  Their lives will span two world wars and touch on events all the way up to JFK’s presidency.
Those wars will take their toll on this family that revolved around the relationship of Joe and Iseult whom he meets in Venice Beach, California.  It’s a raw marriage, passionate yet cold, heartbreaking, replete with separation, boredom, coldness, longing, a center that might not hold.  A very curious marriage that finds us rooting for its demise and intermittently holding out for that something special, that momentous event that will draw them back together.  Joe will go to New York for drinking sprees; Iseult will fall under the spell of the California coast and the guru Krishnamurti himself.
It’s a beautiful story, a big sweep through history and the dynamics of a troubled family.  Yet, there is a strength and beauty in this imperfect relationship bolstered by the physical landscape at both ends of our country.  The land and the people dance together and they retreat like boxers in a ring, often coming out fighting, victors not always clear.
This is a very satisfying novel that totally engaged this reader just as did PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s Downton Abbey and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Like Downton Abbey, it’s the story of fortune and loss, love and war.  Like Freedom, it’s about a family rocked by the cultural and historical events around them but somehow forming a center sometimes slipping into the void and sometimes sliding into a place of quiet contentment.

Going Raw

Television can be scary. Every five minutes or so, the current episode is interrupted with an amazing drug ad touting the healing powers of that drug that will alleviate your high cholesterol, bad mood, low t, indigestion, gas, incontinence, impatience, shaky legs, spartan patches of hair, scratchy throat, red eyes, allergies and pain. Then comes the long list of possible side effects that mimic the very conditions listed above with the big one trailing at the end-a few cases of death have been reported. They keep that one for the end because it trumps all the others.

In spite of the fact that no one gets out of this life alive, there are lots of  “fruits”  to be had from living healthily while here on this earth, which brings us to that subject -fruits-and vegetables, those things our mothers hid in the middle of casseroles topped with gleaming with cheese back in the 50s and 60s and later.

So what’s it going to be? Drugs to alleviate problems often brought on by poor American eating habits or food that will rejuvenate and heal those parts of us because the body does just that when inundated with healthy nutrients.

Going Raw-Everything You Need to Start Your Own Raw Food Diet & Lifestyle Revolution at Home by Judita Wignall is a superb cookbook and how to book on getting to that lifestyle. Judita suggests aiming at a 50 percent raw food diet. She doesn’t advocate going “cold turkey” but adding and eliminating foods one by one and not giving up all that things that have satisfied that need for comfort food.

She does a fine job of telling us how to get on track by going raw which means uncooked, not messed with, except to clean the dirt and
preservatives off those fresh fruits and veggies. Or maybe chop it up with some other things for a very colorful and more balanced cornucopia of delectables. By the way, we’re not talking raw meat here.

It’s a well known fact that there are many big factories or “farms”that produce great quantities of beef and chicken using pens and crates that pack the animals so closely that some never even turn around in a whole lifetime. Some of these farms even remove chicken beak’s so that they will not peck each other to death through the stress of such close quarters. They suffer. If we are compassionate, we are undone by needless suffering. To eat meat, by the way, we must cook it and that which is overcooked can create carcinogens as well as cause a too acidic body. What we need are fruits, veggies, whole grains and unprocessed food.

Judita says we just need about four good tools. A great knife, a blender, a food processor and a dehydrator. Then we can concoct things like ruby red ginger and honey sun tea, the iron man/iron woman smoothie, garden of Eden pesto wrap. The book offers all kinds of tips for substitutions, i.e., different milks not produced by cows and yet still chock full of calcium and protein. And hemp is one of her favorite proteins. Highly recommended for those interested in learning to live a more healthy life.

The Magic of The Healing by Jonathan Odell

Consider the term magic.  More specifically, good magic when good trumps the bad, when someone with powers beyond our understanding does or says something that turns despair into hope and healing.  In The Healing, there is a lot of this kind of magic.  Three black women—Gran Gran, Polly Shine and Violet—possess this power but note that they are not possessed by it.  What makes the magic in this book magically real is applied wisdom and knowledge of herbs and human nature with large doses of heart and soul.  Of course, some of the magically real is timing—there is a right time to do, to know, to heal, and to be patient.

Like the book,  The Help by Kathryn Stockett, the protagonists are black women.  Like The Help, the victims are a whole community of black people at the mercy of money and the white folks that own it all.  And like The Help the black women are there to maintain the living quarters and raise the children.

 The profound social/political issues in the book that interest this reader are slavery, midwifery, and genetic engineering.  A black mother having just given birth must be back in the swampy, mosquito infested fields the very day after delivery.  Black women are at the lustful mercy of the all powerful master, lord of the plantation.  People can be bought and sold.  Newborns can be grabbed right out the hands of mothers and given to a childless white mother.
Midwifery has always existed and once was the time honored way of bringing children into this world.  Trust by the expectant mother and her whole clan of family, friends and neighbors in the black women midwives was at the heart of the mystery of childbirth.  Professional medicine seemed more like voodoo in those pre-Civil War days on the plantation.  What the medical doctors prescribed often led to addiction and failure to heal in the long run.  The Healing gives us a glimpse into the history of medicine from rural treatment by nonprofessionals to the strict licensing of medical doctors after extensive study at universities and the ultimate demise of the unlicensed midwife.  What those wise women did know was the good food is the best medicine.  Good magic, indeed.
The master of the plantation is quite an engineer, specifically a genetic engineer, trying to improve his working stock of slaves through selective breeding, isolation from outside influences and rumors.  An invisible acoustic wall keeps the rumors of the coming Freedom (always capitalized in the book) at bay.  What you don’t know can’t hurt you (or the master).   The master makes a tragic mistake, though, when he decides to bring some healing for his slaves ravaged by various plagues (black tongue, cholera) in the form of an old and wrinkly mostly black woman of unknown origin.  Polly Shine is her name.  What she brings will make all the difference in the world.  She will heal and she will teach and she will whisper in the ears of those she has healed.
As in many good books dealing with change and resistance to it and in the transformation inherent in change, The Healing follows a certain pattern of creation, fall, consequences, forgiveness, redemption (but not for all).  What makes this book one of my favorites is that a man wrote this book with such depth of understanding and power of storytelling that you would almost believe he was Gran Gran himself.  And to get right down to what makes it so readable is it is sheer entertainment, meaning this reader was completely immersed in the story, never wanted to put it down, and was always pulled through the story, as though, to use a phrase earlier in this blog, possessed by it.
Join us Wednesday at 5:00 for a signing with Jonathan Odell. A reading will follow at 5:30.

Why Meditate? Working with Thoughts and Emotions by Matthieu Ricard

Why indeed, meditate? Humankind has engaged in this activity for more than 2000 years of recorded time, possibly longer. Ancient practices that persist into our own time through many cultures and even religions do so because the benefits can be transformative, medicinal or just plain relaxing.

People like myself who have a monkey mind, a mind that flits from one thought to another as quickly as a firefly dims its light only to blink again can learn to focus and eliminate agitation, thus quieting the monkey mind who can find no place to rest.

Ricard says everyone of us has a mind and every one of us can work on it. We needn’t set up a cozy place with fluffy pillows, soft blankets and props. We can just sit comfortably, relaxing our shoulders while keeping our spine straight “like a pile of gold coins,” in lotus or half lotus position, hands resting palms up, chin tucked, tongue comfortable against the soft palate, eyes open or half closed and directed downward. And then stay there, just like that for up to 20 minutes focusing the mind on one’s breath or some insight.

Committing to such a practice on a daily basis, he says, not only benefits the person meditating but also the greater community of humankind. When we love ourselves and accept ourselves from a quieter gentler state of being, we are able to project that compassion and gentleness into the world at large. When we meditate we are not retreating to a remote place alone with our ego, we are expanding and shifting and opening to new possibilities, new ways of seeing ourselves and the world.

You will benefit from my clearer, more focused mind and we will engage in more compassionate, baggage free relationships by just dedicating a few moments a day to our well being. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Of course, Ricard has a lot more to say about how and why to meditate but he has vowed to keep it simple and has added a dvd at the end of the book to facilitate our practice.

He offers suggestions on meditative subjects like “the antidote of love and compassion” and then gives short pithy statements from well known meditators to inspire that particular subject like D. K. Rinpoche who says “instead of hating so called enemies, the real target of your hatred should be hatred itself.”

This book can be read in about an hour. The benefits of meditation can last a lifetime.

Why Meditate? Working with Thoughts and Emotions by Matthieu Ricard (Hay House Books, 2010)

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