Saturday, January 7, 2023

Postman ~ tears, troubles, and tribute


Yesterday a girlfriend and I shared stories about our treasured Hummel figurines. We each have one statuette, long-ago broken and sloppily glued, but valued for memories it evokes. Hummel’s name for my figurine is Postman. When we cleaned out my aunt’s condo after she died, I immediately claimed Postman to remember her by; Aunt Pat was a prolific letter and postcard writer. My sister said, “You know, most Hummels don’t sell for much.” But I didn’t care, because I didn’t plan to sell Postman. Every day of the eighteen years since Pat died, I have looked at Postman on my dresser and felt the bright warmth of someone who so often thought of me.


By all accounts, my years were blessed with much happiness. But I also had hurts. I was lonely. I struggled deciding how best to handle relational conflict and life transitions. I buried troubles, carried burdens. Like everyone, I experienced a little heaven, a little hell. But whatever my wows or worries, when I saw one of Aunt Pat’s missives in my mailbox, I felt loved. She was thinking of me! In the midst of her busy life, she sat down and jotted me a line.


Discussing my Hummel Postman with my friend yesterday transported me back to the weeks before Aunt Pat’s death. When a stroke hospitalized her, my uncle tearfully pleaded with me to come for support. I did. It was a heart-wrenching time. My brother-in-law, who was nearby for business, joined my uncle and me. My uncle and Pat had had theater tickets for one night that week. I wanted to stay back at the condo to e-mail my shocked family all the medical drama, as everybody was eager for updates. But my uncle and brother-in-law went to the play.


Surprisingly, they returned laughing hysterically. When they relayed the evening’s hilarity, tears of laughter streamed down our cheeks. First, while walking to their seats, my uncle face-planted in the aisle. Once seated, the woman next to him asked loudly if anyone had a pen she could use. So everyone in their row and the row behind tried to help by calling out, “Anyone have a pen?” When no one produced a pen, the woman said, “Oh well, I guess I’ll have to use my own.” So that was ridiculously silly. And then my uncle laughed, “And for those who didn’t see it the first time, I belly-flopped again!” Oh, how we needed that tension reliever. A few days later after leaving my aunt’s hospital room for what I suspected would be the last time, I collapsed in a puddle of grief, saved from crashing to the floor by my quick-thinking brother-in-law. The only sliver of light in our dark misery was that funny incident at the theater.


This morning, as I recalled my uncle’s timely tale of levity, I dissolved laughing at the memory of that much-needed respite. In a flash, however, I found myself sobbing at the sadness of all my losses of beloved people over the last twenty or so years. Sometimes, one’s grief is simply overwhelming.


What to do with my grief? My pep talk to myself is this: Feel it, work through it, of course. Lament. Realize that even though your Aunt Pat’s postage stamps no longer tell you you’re thought of, your heavenly Father does. Psalm 139 says How precious are your thoughts toward me. Furthermore, I’m the apple of His eye. (Psalm 17) He rejoices over me with singing. (Zephaniah 3) No stroke or postage stamp rate hike can take those from me. Choose joy. Let your Postman figurine prompt memories of love over your lifetime . Find the good, the laughable. Be kinder. Draw near to others.


And—in tribute to my Aunt Pat—Jot someone a line to let her know you’re thinking of her. As a bonus, enclose something humorous to bring laughter into whatever tension or sadness she feels or add to her joy.

So, “Anyone have a pen?”

No? “Well, I guess I’ll use my own.”

Monday, December 5, 2022

I'll Never Be French by Mark Greenside ~ my review

I'll Never Be French is so enjoyable, I have just read it twice in three months. I identify with so many of Mark Greenside's observations and anecdotes. I've also been perplexed in Paris' monstrous train station with no elevator. I have my own hilarious language bloopers from dozens of France's farmers markets. I've been the pathetic "project" French ladies took pity on. Being an American in France, I realized very quickly, I'll Never Be French. This memoir is laugh-out-loud funny. Greenside takes cross-cultural challenges in humble good humor and gives the reader entertaining French immersion stories.

In addition, Greenside makes insightful observations about cultural differences. These are sprinkled throughout the memoir but highlighted in his birthday party with both American and French guests. In all my visits to France, I've sensed this or that cultural norm, but Mark Greenside articulates these so well.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks ~ my review

Geraldine Brooks’ historical novel, People of the Book, reminds me of a double helix. One strand is the story of rare book expert, Hanna Heath, working on the famous Sarajevo Haggadah, and tending to family business that turns out to be life-changing for her. The other strand of the helix is the story of the origins and journey of the rare Haggadah. The links between the strands are what Hanna finds in the ancient pages—a white hair, a feather, blood, wine, saltwater, an insect’s wing. To identify these finds, she solicits help from scientific experts in those fields. Each expert identifies the country and time period and even altitude of the object, and then Brooks imagines a story of the Haggadah in the midst of people who might have lived then and there. Oddly, Hanna Heath never sees these stories. So the two strands of the helix never meet.


As this helix spirals backward through the Haggadah’s history, the reader glimpses life in 1940 Sarajevo, 1894 Vienna, 1609 Venice, 1492 Tarragona, 1480 Seville. Each of these imagined stories involves persecution of Jews, thus endangering the existence of the precious Haggadah. These are tales of hatred, cowardice, and heroism.


This novel is challenging; you might want to have a dictionary and atlas handy. Or just remember, as I didn’t, that the Haggadah’s global journey is mapped out in the first pages. I liked People of the Book because it is interesting and brilliantly written. Besides that, I liked it for some miscellaneous reasons.


Okay, I’ll admit the nerdiest one first: Working in a history museum, I learned paper conservation techniques. Not in a million years did I ever anticipate reading a novel about paper conservation. A novel by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, no less!


Second, as a follower of the Hebrew Jesus Christ, I consider the Israelites my ancestors and current sharers of the Old Testament of the Bible. Hatred for Jews has been a real head-scratcher for me. Why? Why? Why? Each of Geraldine Brooks’ historical vignettes illuminates various historical, oh-so-human reasons for this hatred. Horrifying … sobering … educational.


Third, I love Brooks’ creative imaginings of scenarios, why this person would have been in possession of a valuable illuminated manuscript, the argument characters were having when a drop of wine splashed on the book, everyone’s secret sins and longings, daring escapes. In your genealogy research, isn’t it your ancestors’ stories you crave? Well, Brooks delivers.


Fourth, I find ancient illuminated manuscripts extremely beautiful, and I have a certain reverence for the fingers that inked them. Maybe another nerdy reason for me to like People of the Book, but really, how can a person not gasp in awe when viewing gold, crimson, and blue illustrations of gorgeous calligraphy text? All hand-done from personal convictions. Labors of love.


Interestingly, although the darker stories in this novel are briefly lit by love, the strongest love story of the novel is love for the book, the Haggadah.


Sunday, September 11, 2022

Ratatouille—Or brown isn't all bad


As autumn approaches, my farmers market picks reflect my hang-on-to-summer mood. I want peaches and blueberries as long as possible. I’m not ready for apples. When I can no longer get fresh local peaches, I will buy those farmers’ apples and be happily up to my elbows in homemade applesauce, cinnamon wafting through the kitchen. Just not yet.

Part of holding on to summer is a preference for milder temps, but also, I prefer summer’s greens, bright reds, peach blush, and blues to autumn’s oranges and browns. When I made my traditional ratatouille last weekend, I lined up the veggies on the counter just to enjoy their colors. Eggplant is purple! Even the garlic has purplish stripes. Green zucchini and parsley. Red tomatoes, and a red pepper I forgot to get in the picture. The first sauté looked so bright.


But when I added the eggplant, the whole dish took on a brown effect. Cooked eggplant is no longer a summer color; it is a grayish brown, like winter’s dirty slush. Ratatouille’s flavors simmered together taste amazing in any season, but I don’t enjoy looking at the cooked dish. In a couple hours prep time, it goes from looking like summer to looking like winter. (Seems like a good spot here for a joke about aging or an adage about life transitions or positive focus, but I’m too tired to think of one.)


As fall inevitably encroaches, I’ll have to keep reminding myself of all the things I love that are in fact brown—squirrels (majorly cute), Paddington Bear (endearing), turkey gravy (yum), oh, and applesauce after a major cinnamon dump.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Right Kind of Fool ~ my review

I lost count of the number of times I paused reading Sarah Loudin Thomas’ novel, The Right Kind of Fool, because it was just too scary. I thought, “If thirteen-year-old Honor is going to climb out the bedroom window and run off into the nighttime forest on Rich Mountain yet AGAIN, I am going to have to wait till daylight to pick up this story.” Then I’d put the book down until a time not so near my bedtime. Sometimes I was so afraid for Honor’s safety that I’d wait days, but then my curiosity and trust in the gentle voice of the author won out.


In the summer of 1934, a man is murdered on the mountain, and Honor finds the body. His father and the sheriff investigate. Honor’s father and mother are still at odds after many years of living apart, he on the mountain and she in the small town of Beverly, West Virginia. Honor, who is deaf, is smart, sensitive, and observant enough to have significant clues to the murder, if he can successfully communicate them. During the murder investigation, suspects deny, confess, and dodge, resulting in many plot twists—many involving the dense forest on Rich Mountain.


I love how Sarah Loudin Thomas tenderly unfolds layers of Loyal’s and his father’s and mother’s emotional vulnerability. Regarding relational roles, it is a testimony to author Thomas’ storytelling skill how each character brings his own motives into the light, ponders them, figures out the right thing to do, and chooses to change and grow. The Right Kind of Fool is truly a redemptive story. In fact, if I had not trusted the author based on her gentle voice in another novel, I probably would have abandoned this novel after the second or third scary part. Thomas has crafted an intriguing, positive, character-driven mystery here.


Sunday, August 28, 2022

Sickening, by Dr. Abramson ~ my review

 Remember how we all got whiplash these past two years when Covid maskers said, “Trust the science,” and then the anti-maskers said they were trusting the science? Not knowing which science to trust, we often found ourselves operating in the dark. Well, Dr. Abramson’s exposé of Big Pharma’s inner workings might pull back the medical fog-factor curtain a bit. Although the medicines whose research and marketing he details do not include Covid-related drugs, he does show how “science” often works and why often we can’t point to a definitive answer.


Through four case studies in his book, Sickening: How Big Pharma Broke American Health Care and How We Can Repair It, John Abramson, MD, MSc, shows how Big Pharma controls the medical research agenda. Often their goal is not optimizing health; it is maximizing profits. Profits even come before patient safety. In some cases, no one is asking the right questions—questions that would lead to improved health for the appropriate group of patients.


Furthermore, Dr. Abramson points out that at least for his four chosen examples, Vioxx, Neurontin, statins, and insulin, people tasked with educating physicians and prestigious medical journals are not given access to the real data from research trials. Unknowingly then, physicians relying on clueless peer reviewers prescribe medications based on incomplete and/or misleading information.


The decades-old adage, “Follow the money,” applies here. When scientists who stand to gain financially pay for, interpret, and market “the science,” they can be tempted to manipulate the science. To counter Big Pharma’s undue influence on American medical care, Dr. Abramson encourages grassroots activism. He calls for health-care reform with multiple goals.

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Patron Saint of Second Chances ~ my review


Christine Simon’s novel, The Patron Saint of Second Chances, is pure delight to read. It’s beautifully written, touching all the senses and brilliantly painting all the quirky characters. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and warmhearted. The story also has intergenerational drama, humor, and heart.


Here is the main silliness: Modern-day Italian villagers in all earnestness make a movie, improvising (ex., the star’s cameo appearance is to be a cardboard cutout sailing by on a Roomba), flying by the seat of their pants creatively and technologically, and seeing no illogic in the movie’s being both a James Bond-like thriller and a musical comedy. Simon writes so many sight gags with perfect comedic timing.


Main character, middle-aged Signor Speranza’s stomach twists in knots when the junior plumbing inspector, “this giant toddler with his clip-on tie,” informs him that if his tiny Italian village of Prometto could not pay 70,000 euros to repair the pipes, water to the village would be cut off. All 212 residents would lose their homes and have to move. Self-appointed mayor Signor Speranza, desperate to avoid this fate for his venerable village, and also desperate to avoid having to tell his neighbors this bad news, prays to Saint Vincent, patron saint of plumbing.


Saint Vincent is the first of many saints Signor Speranza, a faith-filled man, calls upon. When in need of additional saints for specific pickles he gets in, he consults his Compendium of Catholic Saints. When he cannot find a saint for deliverance from an angry butcher, he prays to Our Lady, Comfort of the Afflicted. When his book shows St. Barbara as patron saint of death by cannonball, he figures she might not be too busy these days, so he can ask her for favor in other messes.


And messes he makes! He tells his neighbors one little white lie, which spirals out of control. In rapid succession, Plan A morphs into Plan B, which becomes Plan C, and so forth. The aforementioned homemade movie is the main ruse Speranza cooks up to raise the needed 70,000 euros to save Prometto. Nothing goes as planned.


The Patron Saint of Second Chances is a fast-paced story, superbly ridiculous and charming. It is no accident that Signor Speranza’s name means hope. I wonder what patron saint we can pray to for my hope that someone makes this book into a real movie.


The Patron Saint of Second Chances by Christine Simon is, IMHO, funnier than Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, which ranks pretty high on my list of humorous stories.