Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

 There are not many women who have the joint title of novelist-neuroscientist.  I should add Harvard grad.  Lisa Genova is one. If her name is familiar to you, it may be because she is the author of the novel Still Alice which was made into a movie starring Julianne Moore who received the best actress Academy Award in 2015.   Still Alice is the fictional story of a Harvard professor who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s and was inspired by Genova’s grandmother’s affliction with the disease.

In Left Neglected, Genova once again puts her knowledge and training as a neuroscientist to use in a fictional tale of one woman’s brain injury, how she comes to grips with her limitations, and maps out a new life for herself that is perhaps better than the one she had prior.

Sarah Nickerson is a 37-year old career-driven supermom who works 80 hours a week in a high-powered job.  The demands and high pressures are what she loves.  She and her husband Bob, along with a nanny for the three children, live in an affluent suburb of Boston where their life is hectic but seemingly charmed. Sarah manages every minute of her life like an air traffic controller until her multi-tasking throws her life into a free fall.  While trying to make a phone call on a rainy morning commute, she looks away from the road one second too long. Like the sound of tires trying unsuccessfully to stop in time, her life, as she knows it also comes to a screeching halt.

A traumatic brain injury complete erases the left side of Sarah’s world.  If the author’s intent is to shed light, from inside the brain, on rarely looked at neurological conditions, she succeeds with Left Neglected.  The title refers to a little-known condition of left side neglect, also called hemispatial or unilateral neglect. It is the result of an injury to the right hemisphere of the brain and can occur after an aneurysm or traumatic brain injury.  It can be temporary or it may improve in increments through rehabilitation.  Now Sarah, the successful, competent high achiever, is entirely unable to perceive anything on the left, including her left arm, leg and facial features, to a point where she has to be reminded to look left, not a task easily achieved.

One review says the title is also a metaphor for all the things Sarah may have neglected --either inadvertently or deliberately—because of the intense and rapid pace of her overscheduled life.

So begins a new life for Sarah and those around her and as the reader we are taken on this painful road of recovery with her.   She cannot dress herself, walk without a cane, make sense of a newspaper article or trust herself to make a trip to the ladies’ room alone.  Her husband has to supervise her when she brushes her teeth as he does for their three children because her brain does not register the left side of her mouth.  However, Sarah has a stubborn reluctance to accept her limitations and she applies the same high-achieving resolve once given to her career to re-gaining her independence.  She prides herself on being competitive and vows to “recover faster than anyone would ever predict”.  She tries to ignore the voice in her head which asks, “What happens if I don’t get better?”

The surrounding cast, her husband Bob, her therapist, and her mother, who becomes her care-giver at home once she is out of re-hab, are supportive  and interesting characters. There is also a sub-plot of a reconciliation with her mother who has not been present in her life until now. She uses this time with Sarah to make up for the many times she was not present but should have been.  There is also a new awareness on Sarah’s part of her son’s attention deficit disorder which was diagnosed shortly after her accident.  She is now able to sympathize with him in a way she could not have before.

Although all of the above seems depressing and the very thought of such an injury is truly frightening and disturbing, Sarah’s journey and the realizations she makes about life by the end of the story are truly uplifting.  I won’t give any plot spoilers but I was inspired by the turn of events. 

If you like Ms. Genova’s writing, her other fictional titles also put her PhD  in neuroscience to good use.  Love Anthony is a story of autism, Inside the O’Briens is the story of a Boston cop who suffers from Huntington’s disease.  Her books have been described as heart-wrenching with large doses of hope.  It would seem that hope is often the best prescription a patient can have.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

100 Days Of Happiness by Fausto Brizzi

It’s December. The month of good cheer and joy.  So why would I choose to review a book that deals with terminal cancer and a diagnosis of 100 days to live for the main fictional character, Lucio Battistini?  Because although it is a sad subject, the book is by no means tragic. In fact, it is filled with hope, humor and a reminder that “to live life to the full” is to appreciate thoroughly what you already have.

A best seller in the author’s native Italy, this is Fausto Brizzi’s first novel, deftly translated by Antony Shugar.  Brizzi, an Italian director, screen-writer and film producer,  structures the novel in a very readable format, counting down the days from 100, documenting Lucio’s three-month journey, or better called his “adventure”, to achieve his goals of enjoying the smallest pleasures in life, spending time with those he loves. His search for happiness lies not in unfulfilled dreams and ambitions but in appreciating the things in life that he has taken for granted.

 But he also sets himself the hardest task of all—to earn his wife’s forgiveness.

Told in first person, we meet Lucio, who at the opening of the book is sleeping on a camp bed in the back room of his father-in-law’s bakery. Why?  Because his wife, Paola, has thrown him out of their home when she discovers he has had an affair with one of his clients at the gym where he is a trainer.  In spite of this discretion, we find ourselves sympathizing with this flawed character because realizing the error of his ways, he is well aware that he has been “a complete moron” with this one aberration in what has otherwise been a happy marriage.  He spends the next 100 days seeking his wife’s forgiveness, trying to win her love back and to repair what he calls his “shipwreck” of their marriage.  Paola, not angry or bitter, remains distant and unforgiving, in spite of Lucio’s diagnosis. We find ourselves hoping she will relent and forgive Lucio.  The tension mounts as the day count goes down.

Lucio also makes every effort to maximize his time with others dearest to him-his two children, ages six and nine and his life-long friends Umberto and Corrado.  These colorful characters are developed with such affection, warmth and humor you find yourself smiling or laughing each time they enter a scene in Lucio’s heartfelt journey. There is also another constant companion he has come to accept who he has named my friend Fritz.  Yes, he has named his tumor after an Italian phrase to “describe hypothetical friends you don’t want to name outright”.

As one reviewer said, “There is so much to love about this novel.”  It is filled with vivid descriptions of Rome, references to great works of literature and poetry, and occasional facts about the many inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Some readers might find fault with the premise of the story saying it is not realistic--Lucio’s acceptance of his fate, refusing treatment and setting off on a grand adventure.. Others, myself included, are willing to suspend their disbelief for the sake of a heart-warming story.

This book has been compared to Beckman’s A Man Called Ove, the Swedish novel that swept across Europe last year. Ove finds solace and purpose in community spirit and neighborly good deeds after his dear wife’s death.  Both books offer us an alternative to the cynicism and violence our attention is so often drawn to in the world around us.    

As for me, a simple, feel-good narrative with plenty of gentle humor is exactly what December and a Christmas story should give us.  Oh, one note of caution. You might find yourself craving a delicious donut by the end of the book.  Read on and enjoy this delectable tale.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Roasted Salmon and Fennel with Pistachio Gremolata

2 medium fennel bulbs about 1 and 1/4 lb total. Cored and sliced into 1/2 inch thick wedges
1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and black papper
4 6-oz salmon fillets skinless
1/2 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley coarsely chopped
1/3 cup salted  and shelled pistachios coarsely chopped
1 TBS finely grated lemon zest
1 TBS finely chopped garlic
flaky sea salt.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees
Line a large rimmed sheet pan with foil or parchment. On the pan, toss the fennel and onion with the olive oil and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Spread the veggies evenly and roast until brown at edges and tender, about 20-25 minutes.

Push the veggies into a pile to make a bed for the salmon. Place the fillets on top of the veggies spaced evenly apart and season with salt and pepper. Roast until the salmon is cooked about 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile in a bowl combine the parsley, pistachios, lemon zest and garlic to make the gremolata.

Serve the salmon and veggies topped with gremolata and a sprinkling of sea salt.  Can put lemon wedges around platter for additional garnish.

This recipe is from Fine Cooking October/November issue 2015. My only suggestion is that next time I would use more fennel because it is so delicious, fragrant and mellow.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

800 Grapes by Laura Dave

“You don’t give up on a family. Not without trying to put it back together.”  This is what Georgia Ford’s brother says to her. “My brother who always said the wrong thing, said the most important thing of all.” This conversation comes late in the story after we have spent a week with the Ford family as seen through the eyes of Georgia in her first person account.

It’s not an ordinary week. It’s harvest week at her father’s vineyard in beautiful Sonoma in northern California. It’s also the week leading up to Georgia’s wedding to a successful British business man she met in Los Angeles where she practices law.

Within the first few pages however, Georgia, makes a startling discovery that her fiancĂ©e is not the person she thought he was.  In a desperate panic she drives alone all night, 400 miles to her parents’ home and vineyard where the wedding is to be held.  But there she uncovers a few other disturbing events.  Instead of finding solace and understanding in the home she always loved, upon her arrival in the middle of the night, her world is turned upside down one more time.  And yet another time.  It appears that everyone in the family has been harboring their own secrets and it is in this unnerving climate that she must make life-changing decisions.

It’s difficult to discuss the events of the week without being plot spoilers so I will focus instead on some of the other interesting aspects of the story.

The word synchronization is a repeated refrain throughout the story and if you were giving a book report saying it was one of the themes of the book, you would probably get an A+.   Georgia’s father, a key figure in the story,  defines it as “the coordination of events to operate in unison.  A conductor managing to keep his orchestra in tune.  The impossible meeting  of light reflection and time exposure that leads to a perfect photograph. Not fate”, Georgia’s father would add. “Don’t confuse it with fate. Fate suggests no agency. Synchronization is all about agency. It involves all systems running in a state where different parts of the system are almost, if not precisely ready”.   When seen in a negative light, many people would call this the “perfect storm”.  And  a perfect storm is brewing during harvest week leading up the wedding date.

Synchonization is also what leads to a perfect bottle of wine.  Georgia’s father is a biodynamic winemaker. “My father believed the most important aspect of winemaking was the soil. That his wine got better year after year because the soil did. He would monitor his soil carefully….no chemical, nothing added from outside the farm. This created a lot of work but it also created a more stable ecosystem. That’s what he was most proud of, that he had made the land stronger.”

There are some flashbacks where we learn how her parents met, their beautiful love story and how they started their vineyard with a meager ten acres.  Her mother gave up a rising career as a concert cellist in New York and in turn, her father names his favorite varietal of wine, Concerto, as an ode to her mother’s musical roots.  The word concerto has its roots in two words, which mean to tie and join and also to compete and fight.  Much as the soloist and the orchestra both cooperate and compete in the creation of the musical flow—synchonization.  One doesn’t need to know much about vineyards, as I didn’t, to appreciate the father’s spiritual yet highly successful approach to winemaking. 

There are beautiful descriptions of the scenery of the countryside and also of what happens during a harvest week, including the traditional Harvest Party. The tension builds to a startling climax, reminiscent to me of Anne River Siddons’ books. Georgia’s voice also reminded me of the main character’s voice in Rules of Civility by Amor Towles for whatever reason, although the setting could not be more different.  New York City in 1930 vs. wine country California in present day. Throughout the story, we are as torn as Georgia is—will she go through with the wedding or not? It’s a fascinating story of family life and relationships as Georgia searches for answers and solutions, not just for herself, but for her family.   We meet many other colorful characters during this week, all set against this beautiful tapestry of wine country.

This book begs to be read with a glass of wine at your side. And according to this author, did you know it takes 800 grapes to make one bottle of fine wine?  Perhaps that will make you appreciate your next happy hour a little more.

Friday, August 28, 2015

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Author Judy Blume has become a household name for anyone growing up in the 70’s and 80’s either as a child, teen, or the parent of one. She dared to write fiction with controversial issues of the day which caused her works to become either beloved, banned or both.   She dared to write of taboo topics of the day such as racism in Iggie’s House, bullying in Blubber and sex in Forever. Perhaps her most noted for teen girls coming of age is Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.

Now at age 77, she has written her second adult novel, In The Unlikely Event, a fictional tale that takes place in the 50’s based on actual events that happened in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey.   Using her own young life as source material, she recalls three actual and horrific plane crashes at the Newark airport that took place over eight weeks.  In an interview she said, “…that story lived so deep inside me. I’m glad it’s out. I’m glad the book is finished.  I never told anybody this story. Not even my daughter, who became a commercial airline pilot. When she read an early draft of this book, she said “Mother how could you never have told me this story.’”

The story begins in 1987 when the main character, Miri Ammerman, returns to her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to attend a commemoration of the worst year of her life, when the three plane crashes occurred.  Then the reader is transported back to Mimi’s life in the 50’s, where fifteen-year old Mimi  lives with her 33-year-old single mother, Rusty. She knows nothing of her abandoned father.  Other colorful characters are grandmother Irene, who sells cosmetics and best friend Natalie, the affluent dentist’s daughter.   Miri is experiencing her first love with Mason, an orphan with secrets of his own and she lives in constant fear that Rusty will not approve of him because he is not Jewish. Another forbidden love is the dentist’s secretary who has fallen for a boy who is not Greek as she is and the family will never approve. There is also a beloved uncle to Mimi, Henry, a reporter who lives with them and is a positive influence in Mimi’s life.

Then as the planes descend upon this community, devastation occurs both physically and emotionally for the people who live there. In a panic state, the people try to find a reason for the disasters in such close proximity.  Could it mean something that all three crashes narrowly missed schools?  Was it the work of Communists? (this was the 50’s) or even aliens or sabotage.  The site of the third crash almost takes on a carnival air, with hawkers selling popcorn and families taking their children to see the devastation.  As awful as the crashes were, Blume focuses on the way people themselves crash and burn, or often fly higher than expected.

The novel is told in short chapter bursts in many voices.  The characters are introduced quickly and at times can be a little confusing, but eventually you realize that all these lives are threaded together.  The details of the 50’s will be recognizable to many of you—post-WWII suburbs, refinished basements with knotty pine walls, Bird’s Eye vegetables, Elizabeth Taylor haircuts and the Korean war references.

The end takes us back to the reunion of the 80’s to show how eventually the people who lived through this experience managed to make sense of what they saw.  One character sums it up, “Terrible things can happen in this life, but being in love changes everything.”  Blume says, in her unique writing perspective,” We are all passengers in this world, fastening our seatbelts, hoping we reach our desired destinations and bracing for what comes next.”

Thursday, July 30, 2015


I'll Always Be With You
Violetta Armour
iUniverse, 328 pages, (paperback) $19.95, 978-1-4917-6830-3 (Reviewed: July, 2015)

Violetta Armour has written a gem of a story that has heart, soul and empathetic insights and is potent in its small moments. The well-drawn characters are true-to-life in representing the pain and confusion felt when tragedy strikes. Historical details from warring Bulgaria that caused many to flee, as well as racial tensions during the late 1960s, are cleanly woven into the narrative, giving the story purposeful dimension. A final nice touch is the addition of old-country recipes from the author's own "Baba."
All in all, this beautifully crafted, touching book offers tender wisdom that will draw a wide audience and could be especially appealing to young adults grappling with insecurities and difficult times.

The untimely death of a father leads to major life changes and startling discoveries for the man's teenage son and his wife in this emotionally rich, introspective novel about grief and recovery set just before the turn of the 21st century.
The book opens with a bang, beginning with this startling statement: "I never meant to kill my dad." Building steadily from there, the story unfolds initially from the point of view of young, remorseful Teddy. He was eagerly learning to drive in Phoenix with his dad, Stan, when the car was broadsided by a drunk driver. Teddy's grieving mother, Mary, is also deeply impacted and decides the best thing for the family would be to move to Stan's small hometown of Middleburg, Indiana, and live with his Bulgarian mother.

Teddy struggles to fit in at school, but finds comfort from a book his great-grandfather brought to America from the old country. He also receives unexpected guidance from an impish and brainy girl; a severely burned teen with wise insights, and a perceptive graveyard caretaker. Meanwhile, Mary seeks support from Stan’s high school sweetheart, an understanding black woman named Rosetta, and is shocked to find Rosetta had much more than a casual relationship with Stan.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

This book is a sterling example of what is often described as narrative nonfiction – “joining good research with compelling, character-driven storytelling--reads like a novel”.  I might add that it reads not like any ordinary novel, but one filled with drama and suspense even though we know the outcome.

It is the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and coxswain, made up of sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers who defeated elite and prestigious rivals such as Harvard and Princeton and sons of aristocrats from Cambridge and Oxford. It’s a story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times.  Much like Seabiscuit of the same Great Depression era, it gave the country an underdog to cheer for.  It reminded them what can be achieved when everyone quite literally pulls together. Author Brown, says, “For me, the story is very much a metaphor for what that whole generation managed to do.”

As author David Laskin (The Children’s Blizzard and The Long Way Home) praises it so aptly, “I read the last fifty pages with white knuckles and the last twenty-five with tears in my eyes. History, sports, human interest, weather, suspense, design, physics, oppression and inspiration—this book has it all.”

In fact, there is so much to discuss in this book, I have tried for a month to write this review but always fell short in describing its magnificence.  A big accolade, I know but so deserving.  Since my own words seemed inadequate, I decided the best approach was to share the author’s words in his prologue which captured my heart immediately. 

“This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to a modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying.  I knew only two things about Joe when his daughter Judy opened the door that day. I knew that in his mid-seventies he had single-handedly hauled a number of cedar logs down a mountain, then hand-split the rails and cut the posts and installed all 2,224 linear feet of the pasture fence I had just climbed over. And I knew he had been one of the nine young men from the state of Washington who shocked both the rowing world and Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympics…he talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars…about long cold hours  on the water under steel-gray skies…marching into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and his crewmates….it was when he tried to talk about the boat that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes…something mysterious and beyond definition…it was about a shared experience when nine good-hearted men gave everything they had for one another,  bound together forever by pride and respect and love.  I told Joe I’d like to write a book about his rowing days and he said he’d like that. But then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, ‘But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.’

The actual boat,  the old wooden The Husky Clipper, today rests on the top rack of the University of Washington boathouse.  It was built by George Popcock, internationally famous for designing and handcrafting the best and swiftest racing shells in the world of crew racing.  A native of England, he was recruited in 1912 to build shells for the University of Washington. The George Pocock Racing Shell Company in Seattle became the leading producer of quality racing shells in the country, making 80 percent of all those used by college crews in America. His boats were coveted by colleges and rowing clubs around the world. Among the innovations he developed were sliding seats, lightweight oars, special oarlocks, and a unique steering mechanism, replacing the tiller.

However, it was not only his craftsmanship in building that made Mr. Pocock unique, but the visionary philosophy he shared with the crew to strive constantly for the ideal and to respect the spiritual side of life. Each chapter begins with a photo and his quote, such as, “It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you’re near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”

Other characters on this elaborate world stage Brown reveals are the crew coaches of the day:  Tom Bolles, Al Ulbrickson and Ky Ebright—their coaching philosophies, their relationship to each other, their rivalries, losses and victories.  When Ulbrickson retired in 1959, he said one of the highlights of his career was the day he put Joe Rantz in his Olympic boat for the first time and watched the boat take off.  

We are also taken into Nazi Germany as they prepare for the Olympics.  We are given historical glimpses of key members of the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propoganda, run by Joseph Goebbels. We learn of the brilliant Leni Riefenstahl, the first German female to produce and star in her own films. She won the affection of the Fuhrer as she produced many successful propaganda films , one which documented the massive Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1934.   Her film of the 1936 Olympics was meant to record the splendors of the Reich, but nine boys from Washington denied her a proper ending.

In the author’s words, “It’s harder to imagine a starker representation of good and evil brought face-to-face than these nine American kids dressed in ragged old sweatshirts and mismatched shorts racing against regimented blonde oarsman in crisp white uniforms with swastikas on their chests.”

Back to Brown’s thoughts after his first meeting with Joe Rantz. “As more of his story unfolded I began to see the elements of a great tale there—intense competition amongst individuals, bitter rivalry between schools, a boy left alone in the world (Joe), a fiercely demanding coach, a wise mentor, a love interest, even an evil stepmother…and the climax of the story played out on an enormously dramatic stage—the 1936 Olympics, under the gaze of Hitler himself. What more could a story teller ask for?”

As a reader, I don’t think we could have asked for more.  And I, who knew zero about crewing, now have a tremendous respect for the sport. With Father’s Day approaching, this might be just the perfect gift for someone who loves a gripping tale.