temporarily on hiatus

My apologies: I should have put this post up a month ago. I’ve had to put the readers advisory blog on temporary hiatus, due to (drumrolls) editing work taking up not just the time I have online, but also the time and interest I might have to spend on reading anything review-worthy.

If time permits, and editing being the erratic employment it is, I expect that yes: I will pick this up again quite soon. But no promises. Sorry.

I’m open to suggestions as to what books I might post about here; I’ll see what I can do, but please keep in mind that my main criterion is “I have to be able to finish it, and I have to be able to say something at least moderately nice about the book.” No complete hatchet jobs. (Anyone who’s been assiduously following the blog since day one can stop laughing now. I did try to find something nice about all the books. Honest.)

Appetite For Life: The Biography of Julia Child by Noel Riley Fitch

Butter? Lard? Cream? Roast duck, with skin? Liver, kidneys, lobster? Check…hold on. Wait a minute…not exactly. While I doubt that many dieticians or cardiologists would suggest Mastering the Art of French Cooking to their patients, it’s hardly a morass of cholesterol and sodium, not least because the authors based the recipes on cooking from scratch. Not a box or mix in sight1. While not the only or the best French cookbook out there today, it’s still deservedly a landmark because it was the first (that I’m aware of) to spell out how to cook French food for an American audience, using ingredients likely to be found in the United States at the time it was published.

…and boy, did that take a lot of doing. But on to the subject of Fitch’s biography.

Julia Child didn’t start out intending to become a chef, much less be known as The Doyenne of French Cooking. She was a California Rich Girl, full of life to be sure but not connecting that to love of food when young. Well, not cooking haute cuisine for herself. Certainly nothing in her upbringing, education or early career would indicate that she’d become so strongly associated with French cooking in the United States. Born in California in 1912 to a wealthy old family, she went to Smith College and as a young woman, worked as an advertising copywriter in New York City. Too tall at 6’2″ to serve in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, she instead worked for the OSS, starting in Washington D.C. but later moving on to Ceylon and China. She met Paul Child, her future husband, in Ceylon; they married in 1946 and went to Paris in 1948. Between Paul and Paris, it is at this point that she realized just what really good food could be.

It’s at this point that the obvious biographical timeline for a landmark cookbook’s author begins: she attended Le Cordon Bleu, befriended a couple of other avid French cooks who were themselves working on a cookbook of same for Americans…and here I’ll stop with the mini-biography. This is when she began to step forward into the limelight to become the media star (insofar as chefs ever do become such) that most people remember; I’ll just add that the PBS series that aired in the late ’60s, The French Chef, is still worth watching, if you can get over the sound of her voice2.

While Fitch’s book isn’t the only biography of Child—Dearie came out last year—it strikes me as the more respectful and the better researched one. Not surprising, given that Child herself worked with Fitch to provide the papers and documentation so necessary to write an authoritative biography, and gave her the freedom to write an un-nitpicked one. What to read next? Well, other than the cookbooks themselves. If you found Fitch’s biography too worshipfully “at the feet of the master”, try Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. If you want to know what Child herself thought, try her autobiography My Life in France, but give Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously a miss: Child didn’t think too much of it, and certainly the style is much breathier, centered on Julie, the blogger-author herself rather than on Child’s cooking.

Oh, and if you’ve watched all her television shows, don’t miss the “Julia Grownup” skits on the first Electric Company show (not the one that’s currently airing on PBS) and, of course, Dan Ackroyd’s sendup for Saturday Night Live; apparently, Child herself thought that was hilarious.

1Well, hardly ever: the book does allow as how canned broth and the occasional can of peas can be terribly convenient in a pinch
2yes, it was a bit peculiar. I’ll confess that the first time I heard her speak, in one of her later shows, I was somewhat taken aback; as a comment on how she sounded, I completely missed the transition from her show to Sesame Street because darned if she didn’t sound exactly like some of the Muppets. With apologies. I like Jim Hensen’s work, and I hope she wouldn’t take that comparison amiss.

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

Quick: what did Lindbergh do? Fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris, yes.

Anything else? Had a baby who was kidnapped, pro-German/anti-Semitic political leanings, involved with aviation…yes, also all true….if you’re thinking of Charles Lindbergh.

That’s what he did. What did she do?

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the titular “Aviator’s Wife”, was herself an aviatrix and author, in addition to the roles more conventional for the time of wife and mother and staunch supporter of her husband’s career and viewpoints while he was alive. She wrote and edited a number of books, including her husband’s autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis, and her own, and Gift from the Sea, among others. The majority of her adult life, however, was spent as wife to (and in the shadow of) the renowned Charles Lindbergh; Anne not only remained behind with the children as they grew up, but publically supported her husband’s activities and political views1.

Charles and Anne both struggle with the publicity resulting from his trans-Atlantic flight; being in the public eye meant scrutiny of his opinions on proper breeding and isolationist stance during the lead-up and during World War Two. The 20-20 hindsight of intervening decades has largely discredited both, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that The Aviator’s Wife, being told from Anne’s perspective by a modern author, does suggest that Anne didn’t hold with her husband’s political beliefs but felt obligated, as a loyal wife, to support him in public.

As the children grow up, and Charles spends more and more time ‘traveling for work’, Anne herself struggles to reconcile her own desire for individuality with the societal expectation that she remain a helpmeet to her husband and mother to their children, even after the children have left home and the husband has proved himself not entirely the man she (and he) thought he was. In the end, neither attempt proves successful; though they remained married until Charles Lindbergh’s death in 1974, both Anne and Charles had affairs— she with the family doctor and he, perhaps not surprisingly, with a pair of Bavarian sisters and his East Prussian secretary, with whom he had a total of seven more children.

Overall, it’s well done.

Keep in mind, of course, that this is a novel, not a biography. As with Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Benjamin’s picked another ‘sidebar’ woman about whom to write a fictional biography. This is like her first two books in that Benjamin also sticks quite close to the truth, at least insofar as external events go, she extrapolates quite a bit in regards her subject’s inner thoughts, hopes, dreams and monologues.

I suspect that this one may be a bit more uncomfortable for readers than Benjamin’s first two books, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s life was, for the most part, within living memory. Modern readers with more than a smattering of political awareness may come away wondering how spineless someone would have to be to continue supporting another’s clearly anti-Semitic opinions, despite their good Jewish friends. Modern women may come away mumbling about how spineless a woman would have to be to sit back and let their husband do all that. I’d argue that it’s still an interesting read; she was who she was, and if Benjamin inspires some readers to delve deeper into the lives of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, so much the better. Certainly, Benjamin doesn’t claim that her novel is anything other than fiction, though based firmly in fact…and both Charles and Anne were prolific diarists and autobiographists, not to mention being fairly well documented elsewhere in contemporaneous news sources and political files.

Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t a uniformly grim novel enumerating the protagonists’ failings! Benjamin does include the joy both took in flying, and flying in the ’20s and ’30s was adventurous to say the least. Her descriptions of taking wing in those early planes, noisy and mechanically cantankerous, are worth reading if only to give an idea of what exactly it was Charles Lindbergh did dare to do with his beloved Spirit of Saint Louis, not to mention the delight Anne must have taken in her own flights. Benjamin also slips in a fair bit of sense of the times and also retrospective humor: as an example, the book and the relationship begin in the ’20s with a ballroom dance, and end, more or less, with the festivities attendant on the launch of Apollo XI, during which Anne dances the Monkey with Buzz Aldrin and convinces Spiro Agnew to try the Twist with her.

For those inspired to look farther for non-fiction autobiographies, try Susan Hertog’s Annie Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life, Benjamin ends her novel with Morrow Lindbergh, now in her seventies and a widow, taking a solo flight in her own airplane from the 1930s—a not too terribly subtle way of expressing the subject’s own personal trajectory into personal independence and freedom…but Morrow Lindbergh did live for another twenty-five years or thereabouts, not covered in the novel. (She died in 2001, on her daughter Reeve’s farm.)

1In fairness, I’m not sure how much of that support came from Anne’s own belief in same or whether she felt, as many women her age did, that she had to become so completely part of her husband’s life.

The Terror by Dan Simmons

Arctic and Antarctic exploration isn’t exactly a walk in the park even today, with all our modern equipment, from motor oil designed to continue lubrication in below-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures to nutritionally complete, long-lasting foodstuffs. However, at least those modern explorers and scientists know that, should they be lost in the frozen wastelands of the Polar Regions, their remains will be located and returned to surviving (and mourning!) family members. This was not always so in the Golden Age of Exploration…and that’s at the heart of Dan Simmons’ The Terror.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin departed England in search of the Northwest Passage, a theory propounded by geographers and scientists of the day to the effect that there was a navigable passage up and over the top of what is now Canada1, and a geographic phenomenon most earnestly sought by the economic forces of the day for a variety of reasons2. No one from this expedition was ever seen again in their homeland. Their last confirmed position was near Beechy Island, though they almost certainly made it to King William’s (Is)Land.

In theory, Franklin and his backers did everything right. The commander of the expedition and the two men captaining the ships had considerable years of experience in polar exploration between them, not to mention maritime skills gained through a lifetime. The ships used, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had been taken down to the Antarctic by James Ross a few years previously, and had in the interim been reinforced with iron sheathing and cross-grained wood planking to resist crushing in the pack ice, outfitted with steam engines and rudders that could be retracted into iron-sheathed protective wells to avoid being themselves being crushed in the shifting ice. The expedition brought three years’ worth of canned, dried and salted provisions for what was intended to be no more than a two year long expedition, not to mention each ship had a library of over 1,000 volumes with which it was presumed the crew could amuse themselves during the inevitable periods of being trapped in the ice.

Only of course it didn’t work out, and we’ll never be quite sure why. There are a few plausible real-world issues that contributed to the loss of both ships and all the men. All the problems that plagued previous expeditions worried at the heels of this one: inadequately equipped for a hostile climate, inadequate clothing, inadequate nutrition, inadequate transport, and so on. In this particular expedition’s case, however, their food and water supplies were almost certainly (and quite literally) stacked against them; not only were the supplies of drinking water piped through lead conduits, the canned food had been prepared in haste by a supplier himself inadequately prepared to provide such a large order, and the modern guess is that as a result, the cans were not only poorly sealed (with lead welding, yet), they were also contaminated with silent botulism.

Dan Simmons has put forth a theory of his own: a supernatural creature, inexplicable and unstoppable, that is prowling around the ships in the dark. All the crews of the two ships know is that it is vengeful and is somehow related to the mutely tongueless Inuit woman they found on the ice, with a similarly voiceless older Inuit man. As that second winter, the first off King William Sound, progresses, the creature encroaches further, the ice presses closer and the darkness is increasingly oppressive….and I’ll stop there. Gotta leave some suspense for anyone who hasn’t read this book but intends to.

The short version of my take on the novel is that Simmons could have left out the supernatural/religious element entirely, and it wouldn’t have adversely or even appreciably affected the novel3. Aren’t prowling polar bears enough? I don’t mind supernatural elements inserted into what would be otherwise a prosaically mundane work, if it’s done well and is made a critical component of the new work; I loved Simmons’ Drood. Even the suggestion that some of the crew members might have joined up with the local Inuit is not entirely implausible. It wouldn’t take much of a leap for the cleverer and more open-minded crew members to realize “Hey, if we make nice with this group of people that is not only surviving but thriving where we are dying, maybe we too will survive?”

That said, I’d still heartily recommend the novel to anyone interested in reading a well-written description of what it might have been like on that doomed expedition. Just skip the bits about the phantom whatever-it-is. Having read non-fiction about the Arctic (and Antarctic) exploration over the years, not least Fergus Fleming’s Barrow’s Boys and Ninety Degrees North, Simmons did get the historical part right, so far as I can tell. Even today, we have no real idea what precisely happened to Franklin’s expedition, though I believe modern scientists have found some traces of the Erebus and the Terror, but now as then, the basic assumption is “missing, presumed dead”.

1In fairness, there is a sea route twiddling through the islands scattered north of continental Canada. In the main, however, it is not navigable by anything larger than an umiak for more than about thirty seconds during a heat wave in August.
2While there was a certain element of the “Because it’s there.” drive that motivated all those European expeditions up Everest, seeking a trade route more convenient that slogging all the way down around Tierra del Fuego served as a more pragmatic reason. Of course, the Panama and Suez canals have obviated much of that…
3It’s not Simmons’ fault that I can’t help wondering why the British Navy kept giving their ships names like Erebus, Hecla, Fury and Terror. You’re going to the polar regions for Pete’s sake. Wouldn’t names like Tranquility or Tahiti been more cheering?

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

The basic premise of this book is simple enough: a Hmong family brings their infant daughter, Lia, in to the emergency room of a hospital in Merced, California. She is having an epileptic seizure. The doctors do what they can to treat the child, then and in subsequent visits, but the parents do not follow through on the requested regimen. Lia’s condition continues to deteriorate; after several years of treatment, Lia arrives at the hospital in the throes of a particularly bad seizure, and despite medical efforts, she ends up brain-dead as the result of oxygen deprivation.

What lifts this above a mere “he said, she said” medical account is Fadiman’s delving both into the Hmong culture and her access to the Lee family’s home life. Her book thereby ends up being as much socio-cultural documentary as it does description of medical treatment; the parents allowed Fadiman considerable insight into their own background, and she did what appears to be a creditable amount of research into the Hmong culture as a whole. One thing to keep in mind, when reading this book now, is that not only was it written fifteen years ago but also the author is describing events that took place fifteen years before that. I don’t know how hospitals’ policies have changed in regards having translators available, at least for the major languages spoken in the specific community (and Hmong were a significant portion of Merced’s minority population even then. Think immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America.)

Like a few other reviewers on Goodreads, I am not convinced that the cultural gulf between the doctors and the parents was the only cause of Lia’s death. Contributing factor, to be sure. That lack of communication affected her health and well-being while she was alive, certainly. None of us will ever know, however, whether a child of acculturated American parents with a similar condition would have lived or died; epilepsy, like many conditions, comes in a range from mildly discommoding to untreatably entrenched. If the child’s epilepsy falls at the severe end, or the patient does not respond to treatment despite following it scrupulously…what do you think would happen?

I do, however, come away from this book with a sympathy for the parents. If the situation were reversed—I were in a town outside Luang Namtha and non-English-speaking doctors kept insisting on treating me with acupuncture but never explained WHY they chose this modality over that one—I’d respond much as the parents here did. Differences in treatment methods aside, how can you possibly give informed consent when you cannot comprehend the doctor’s explanation? In fairness to the parents, too, there are more than a few “non-compliant” patients who’re of the same culture as their physicians, and who speak the same language as the hospital staff; we ought not to lay the blame for the parents’ choice not to medicate their child purely on the doorstep of ‘cultural misunderstanding’. Drugs’ effects can sometimes seem worse than the condition they’re supposed to be alleviating.

Overall, I think it’s still worth reading, not least for the background into the Hmong culture. I’d hope, however, that if there was sufficient interest in the community, the library would respond by getting more recent books on the subject, whether medical or cultural.

Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks

People whom no one else can see, smells without source, sounds that aren’t otherwise audible? Miniature battles enacted on one’s bathrobe sleeve, an unwanted intruder in the kitchen doing dishes? Hallucinations, or reality? Well, there are two schools of thought on that, largely dependent on whether you’re the one having the visions or the outside observer.

Sacks’ latest books, Hallucinations, is, not surprisingly, about hallucinations, both his own and those of his patients. The sources or causes of the hallucinations he describes range from health issues which are primarily known for producing hallucinations, such as Charles Bonnet syndrome which appears largely in those who’ve lost their sight, to syndromes the primary symptoms of which are unrelated to hallucinations, such as Parkinson’s or epilepsy…and of course, a soupcon of externally created hallucinations, such as those ensuing from sensory deprivation or drug use.

It’s an interesting introduction to the subject—Sacks is an engaging writer when it comes to explaining medicine to a lay audience. He covers a wide range of hallucinations, from the simple and easily resolved visual scotoma of migrane sufferers to the voices of schizophrenia to the multi-sensory full-stage visions of Charles Bonnet syndrome. (It’s almost a pity he didn’t extend the reach of this book a bit further to cover the invisible friends of childhood!) Something to note for those unfamiliar with medical terminology is that this book does not cover delusions—those being the (almost certainly) mistaken beliefs held by people with psychological issues such as schizophrenia and various psychoses…though for all the “normal” know, these could be prompted by hallucinations…

This didn’t strike me as being one of Sacks’ better books; whether that’s a criticism depends on how well you like his previous books. Certainly, authors have every right to change their writing style over the years, and indeed medicine itself has changed considerably over the course of Sacks’ time in practice, both in terms of diagnostic criteria and tests or treatments used in the course of working with patients. Hallucinations can have such a broad range of causes that Sacks seemed forced to skim over the range of causes and sub-sets, from dementias to strokes to drug use (legitimate or…er…self-prescribed) and on to dreams or hypnagogic states. Nevertheless, it’s a good place to start for readers with little to no background in medicine, whether from the professional or the personal standpoint. As always, he manages to include a great deal of medical information without overwhelming a lay reader.

I would suggest starting with Sacks’ earlier books, which are more like collections of articles rather than a single monolithic work, not least because it might give readers unfamiliar with neurology, psychology and Sacks’ writing style a basis on/with which to compare this book.

The Guardian
New York Times

Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus

Interesting! At least if you’re a fan of Madeleine L’Engle’s works.

I’m not going to go into a huge amount of detail about who L’Engle is; either you know who she is, or you’re probably not all that interested in children’s and teen/YA literature, but if you’re somewhere in the middle, start here.

This isn’t a straightforward biography, but rather a collection of interviews with people who knew L’Engle. The basic idea is: interview a range of people who knew Madeleine L’Engle–writers and editors, family members, fans and friends. The book’s broken down into several sections, approximately by the type of person being interviewed–friends, family members, people who knew her years ago and those who knew her more recently, professional acquaintances and those she mentored.

Marcus did do well to select a range of people to include in this book; however, his selection struck me as a bit heavy on the people who knew her professionally. This could be a plus or a minus, depending on what you want to know about the person being written about. I don’t know if this was Marcus’s choice or a necessity resulting from the fact that she’d died some years before this book’s publication and that at a fairly advanced age after a prolonged illness involving not only physical debility but mental entanglements–in short, many of her close friends of long duration may have preceded her, and the people who knew her in her later years might not be left with an idea of what Ms. L’Engle was like in her youth.

Ruefully, I’m left feeling a bit mixed about the book. Not all of the interview subjects are positive, though that’s not quite the disparaging remark it sounds; it would be all too easy to gush about someone with L’Engle’s stature, if you were the kind to be impressed with such a person. I’m glad in this regard that Marcus simply included the interviews themselves, with minimal editing for flow. The words here are the words of the people he spoke to, not his own interpretation. While I understand that she did use people and situations from her own life in the fiction she wrote, such as the adoption of Maria after the death of the child’s parents, I’m also bemused by how much of her own autobiography was…er…glossed over–was her father’s illness a result of lung damage from mustard gas or from alcoholism?

In one way, it’s a little disappointing to find out the reality of such an iconic writer (at least if you’re into fantasy and religion); why should she not be as perfect as her characters? In another…why should she BE as perfect as her characters? They were created fictions, she was real, both better and worse than I imagined her. Not that she was horrible, mind. She was human. Kind to her fans, struck dumb with the awe of reading the author of A Wrinkle in Time. Drawing the curtain of denial over her family members’ flaws. Loving her husband. Spending time with her writing when her kids wanted her as Mama. And so on. A real person. And in the end, I’m grateful to know this much more about her.