Saturday, October 19, 2013

THIS IS THE LAST POST ON THE NEFF REVIEW...

...but not the last post from me. I'll continue reviewing books on my other blog, Lively Dust, as well as for various other publications such as Christian Century and Books & Culture.

I've been blogging at Lively Dust since 2008 on a wide range of topics, including
  • food and wine
  • health and health care
  • public policy and social justice
  • the news of the day
  • books of all sorts
  • other reflections on being human
Lively Dust refers to the Hebrew creation story in Genesis 2, where humankind is created from the dust of the earth and God’s own breath. We humans are, and are meant to be, lively dust--equally, inseparably, and forever matter and spirit.

As material beings, we are born, grow up, find mates, build homes, have offspring, find and eat food, get sick, care for one another, and eventually die.

As spiritual beings, we ponder how to spend our lives, how the world is and how we wish it were, how people act and how they ought to act. We invent religions and politics and ethics. We imagine paintings and novels and music and recipes.

Lively Dust is positioned where humans live, at the crossroads of body and spirit.


I hope you'll join me at Lively Dust. If you like what you see there, you can sign up for emailed notifications whenever there's a new post.

Friday, July 26, 2013

ONE GOOD TURN by Kate Atkinson

Two years after the windfall in Case Histories that left Jackson Brodie a wealthy man, he's in Scotland with his girlfriend, who's involved with Edinburgh's Fringe Festival.

A shady character who calls himself Paul Bradley--sometimes--is there too, driving through a crowded street, when suddenly a scruffy actor steps out in front of his rented Peugeot. Bradley brakes and swerves, a blue Honda Civic bumps him from behind, the driver gets out and comes after him with a baseball bat, and a laptop computer sails out from the onlookers and clips the Honda driver on the shoulder.

The Honda driver disappears. Nobody can remember what he looked like. Only one person took note of his car's license number: Jackson Brodie.

Enough said. Detective stories are meant to be read, not summarized. Kate Atkinson's plots are intricate and full of surprises. Her characters are nearly believable and usually hilarious. I'm not sure whom I liked better, Gloria the moralist ("If it had been up to her she would have summarily executed a great many people by now--people who dropped litter in the street, for example, they would certainly think twice about the discarded sweet wrapper if it resulted in being strung up from the nearest lamppost") or Martin the feckless crime writer (his current novel "felt even more trite and formulaic ... than his previous books, something to be read and immediately forgotten in beds and hospitals, on trains, planes, beaches").

Not to mention Tatiana the dominatrix, Archie and Hamish the teenaged thieves, Louise the frazzled detective, Richard the insufferable guest, Graham the mob-connected builder...

If it weren't for the fact that Atkinson tells a great story and keeps the pace brisk, I'd probably classify One Good Turn with literary fiction, not only for her witty style but also for the way she deftly probes her characters' motivations. I just wish she were bothered by comma splices. After all, as she herself pointed out, "Gloria liked rules, rules were Good Things."

But that's a forgivable flaw, even for this former English teacher and editor. Atkinson ranks right up there with P.D. James and Donna Leon as an author I love to spend my evenings with. James, who has written 16 mysteries, will turn 93 next week. Leon, who has written 22 Commissario Brunetti mysteries, is almost 71. Atkinson, with only 4 Jackson Brodie mysteries so far (© 2004, 2006, 2008 2011), is a mere 62. Ms. Atkinson, it's time for another one!
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The publisher figured One Good Turn would be a good title for book clubs, so there are a couple of pages of rather tedious questions at the end. I agree that book clubs could enjoy this book, and I in no way blame Ms. Akinson for the questions.

Friday, July 12, 2013

CASE HISTORIES by Kate Atkinson

Having run out of mysteries by Donna Leon and Michael Connelly and C.J. Sansom and P.D. James and Peter Lovesey, I am deeply grateful to whichever of my bibliophilic friends recommended Case Histories (2004). As Stephen King gushes in his front-cover blurb, "Not just the best novel I read this year, but the best mystery of the decade."

From the start, the story sounded eerily familiar: a child gone missing over 30 years before; three feuding sisters; a weird cat lady next door. About halfway through the book, I finally Googled Jackson Brodie, the private eye who was working this case along with several others.

Oh right - a year or two ago, my husband had recommended a Masterpiece Mystery episode because it starred Jason Isaacs, known to Harry Potter fans as Lucius Malfoy. David thought I would want to see how he looked with dark brown hair. (Stunning!)

It was a good show, and I plan to watch more episodes now that I've read the book. I also plan to read the next three Jackson Brodie books, and no doubt some of Kate Atkinson's other novels as well. The woman can write!

Jackson is a typically depressed private detective -  divorced, bitterly at odds with his ex, absent-mindedly devoted to their eight-year-old daughter, trying (but not too hard) to give up smoking, taking on jobs that are "either irksome or dull" because he needs the money. Originally from the north of England, he now works in Cambridge, where for 12 years he was on the police force. He's attractive (and attracted) to women, but there's no love in his life.
He was currently seeing more of his dentist than he had of his wife in the last year of their marriage. His dentist was called Sharon and was what his father used to refer to as "stacked." She was thirty-six and drove a BMW Z3, which was a bit of a hairdresser's car in Jackson's opinion, but nonetheless he found her very attractive. Unfortunately, there was no possibility of having a relationship with someone who had to put on a mask, protective glasses, and gloves to touch you.

He wishes he could throw it all over and escape to France.

Jackson doesn't show up until page 45, however. Up to that point we learn about three case histories - the missing child (1970), a murdered 18-year-old girl (1994), a young mother who goes berserk and - does what? (1979) - with which he will eventually be involved. We suspect the stories are somehow intertwined.

When it comes to detective stories, I have a couple of pet peeves. One is overcomplexity: I like to be able to follow a story without taking extensive notes (I eventually quit reading Elizabeth George, who is a fine novelist, for just that reason). My other pet peeve is shifting viewpoints. Very few novelists are able to switch from the mind of God to that of the detective to that of the criminal without sounding like poorly edited amateurs.

Kate Atkinson managed a complex plot and over half a dozen viewpoints without ever causing my pet-peeve alarm to buzz.

Because so many viewpoints are represented, Case Histories is not a procedural, though a certain amount of detective work is involved. Neither is it a thriller, though it includes a few fights and one big explosion. It would be misleading to call it a psychological novel: though it's literary, it's by no means a navel-gazer. There are many puzzles in the multiple stories, but the emphasis isn't on whodunit. I guess I'd just call it a brilliant detective story and resist adding subclassifications.

Atkinson's characters, like most people we know, are simultaneously tragic and comic. I suspect that she, like Jackson, believes that her job is "to help people be good rather than punishing them for being bad."

And maybe that's why - apart from the author's obvious skills in plotting, characterization, and literary style - I really liked this book. Despite all the human frailty and downright evil portrayed in it, the underlying tone is optimistic. Sometimes it's even laugh-out-loud funny.
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Warning: There's enough sex in this book - most of it pretty amusing - that you might not want to read it aloud to intergenerational family groups.

Friday, June 14, 2013

COOKED by Michael Pollan


Eat food.
Not too much.
Mostly plants.

--Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food



In The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), science journalist Michael Pollan looked at how food is produced. In his next two books, In Defense of Food (2008)and Food Rules (2009), he told us what we should eat (see above). In his most recent book, Cooked (April 2013), he investigates the methods, biology, and philosophy of food preparation.

I loved Omnivore: it's one of those rare books that can get a person fascinated by a topic that previously held no interest whatsoever. The two Food books were thin but full of wise advice, such as Pollan's now-famous seven-word guide to good eating.

Cooked, at 480 pages, should have been thinner.

I enjoyed Pollan's introduction, which is essentially the speech I heard him give at a nearby college a couple of months ago. Cooking, he says, is what separates humans from all other species--or at least so wrote the Scottish biographer Boswell in the 18th century, the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin in the 19th, and the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss in the 20th. In fact, numerous writers suggest, cooking (rather than hunting and gathering) made civilization possible.

Unfortunately, Americans in the 21st century seem to be devolving: we now spend less time than people of any other nation preparing our meals, though we watch an incredible amount of cooking-related TV. "The premise of this book," Pollan writes, "is that cooking--defined broadly enough to take in the whole spectrum of techniques people have devised for transforming the raw stuff of nature into nutritious and appealing things for us to eat and drink--is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we human beings do."

Pollan explores four of these techniques in the book's four sections, "Fire" (grilling: barbecue), "Water" (braising: stews), "Air" (baking: bread), and "Earth" (fermenting: sauerkraut, cheese, wine, beer). In each section he observes and often works alongside masters of the particular craft, not only describing each process but also telling how to reproduce the ancient methods today, how they work biologically, what they offer nutritionally, and how the results taste.

Part of the fun of a book by Pollan is the way he interacts with his topic. My favorite story in Cooked is about the night he and his son, Isaac, decided to "cook" a meal using only convenience foods bought at Safeway. It's not exactly a spoiler to let you know the outcome: more time, more expense, and less family time at table than when they cooked meals from scratch. And besides, after the first three bites everything tasted alike.

Still, 480 pages turned out to be more than I wanted to know. I found myself skimming though many descriptive pages that needed to stop circling and come in for a landing. Pollan could have condensed his material into one fantastic magazine article, or maybe even four of them. His book-length treatment, however, seemed excessive.

Besides, I wondered, why was the guy who told us to eat "mostly plants" devoting maybe three-quarters of his book to meat and dairy?

If you haven't yet read a book by Pollan, don't start here: you are more likely to be entranced by The Omnivore's Dilemma. If you already love Pollan's writing (or his frequent commentaries on TV), go ahead and read Cooking. Skim if you need to: just as you're thinking, he does go on, doesn't he, you'll hit a trenchant observation that keeps you reading. Like this, for example, on the role of alcohol in religion:
Alcohol has served religion as a proof of gods' existence, a means of access to sacred realms, and a mode of observance, whether solemn (as in the Eucharist) or ecstatic (as in the worship of Dionysus or, in Judaism, the celebration of Purim). The decidedly peculiar belief that, behind or above or within the physical world available to our senses, there exists a second world of spirits, surely must owe at least a partial debt to the experience of intoxication. Even today, when we raise and clink glasses in a toast, what are we really doing if not invoking a supernatural power? That's why a glass of water or milk just doesn't do the trick.

I'll drink to that.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

CATASTROPHIC CARE: HOW AMERICAN HEALTH CARE KILLED MY FATHER--AND HOW WE CAN FIX IT by David Goldhill

This week the company my husband works for unveiled the health-insurance plans available to us beginning July 1. If we chose the plan closest to our current plan, our premium would nearly double and our office visit co-pays would increase 25-50%.

I am so glad we are going on Medicare in August.

Medicare isn't perfect, by any means. It isn't even cheap. Just the insurance (Medicare medical, Medicare supplement, prescription) is going to cost us more than $500 a month, and that doesn't include the deductible or the prescription co-pays. And that's for this year. Who knows what it will cost 10 years from now?

I was so ready to read a book that would solve America's health-care crisis.

Besides, David Goldhill's title is irresistible: Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father - And How We Can Fix It.

First the bad news. Goldhill, who is president and CEO of the Game Show Network, got interested in health care when his physician father "died from a hospital-borne infection he acquired in the intensive care unit of a well-regarded New York hospital." In his early chapters, he piles up statistics about how truly dreadful our health-care system is. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you need to read his "eleven strange things we all believe about health care." (Goldhill is a Democrat who thinks Obamacare will not work.)

After the bad news, Goldhill gives all kinds of wonky explanations about why our approach to health care doesn't work. This section will probably appeal most to free-market-loving Republicans. Despite being a lefty who distrusts the market, I found it very helpful.

Finally what we're all waiting for: Goldhill's solution. My daughter Molly should have written this book: she recommended an almost identical solution to me a couple of months ago when we had a long discussion about health care. (Molly and I do not agree about a lot of political issues, but we have respectful and helpful discussions. We don't see the point in today's political polarization: differing opinions can increase clarity and come up with better solutions than either side could do on its own.)

In a nutshell: Insurance should be reserved for catastrophes - unforeseen big-ticket expenses like major surgery or cancer treatment. Anticipated health-care expenses should come from health-care savings accounts. And there needs to be some kind of safety net.

What Republicans will like: Consumers need to have control of their own health-care dollars. There's no reason to siphon off 20% or more to insurance companies. Besides, when we pay for things ourselves, we tend to be a lot more careful about what we buy. We comparison shop. We avoid unnecessary expenses. And to get our money, providers compete with one another to provide good care at low prices.

What Democrats will like: Everyone must have a health-care savings account - no exceptions. Most people will build up a good-sized balance when they are young. As they age, they will start to draw from it. People whose emergencies cost more than their savings can borrow to cover the additional expenses. At a predetermined level, they need borrow no more: the government will make up the difference. Nobody will be left without health care: the government will provide the safety net (though not by running the program).

What everyone except certain industries and lobbyists will like: Prices must be completely transparent and equal for everybody. The market isn't free if people don't have the information they need to make smart decisions.

What nobody will like: There will be limits. Just because something sounds good in the TV ads doesn't mean everyone should have access to it. Some treatments (especially those that have little proven worth in lengthening lives) will not be available. Some will be too expensive and most people will choose to forgo them. Some will be available, but only to people who have lots of money to spend.

My favorite health-care book is still T.R Reid's The Healing of America. (See my review on this blog or in Christian Century, if you subscribe.) The fact is that a lot of other developed nations have much better health-care programs than America's. They get better results. People live longer. And they do this for about half our cost. Before we do anything else about health care, we need to lay aside our prejudices and study what these other countries are doing.

But if Reid should be required reading for legislators, Goldhill should be too. As Goldhill points out, America's politicians are unlikely to accept a lot of features that make perfect sense in other countries. We need a program that fits with our own weird beliefs and behaviors--one that combines vigorous free-market competition with a safety net for everybody.

Someday we may actually come up with such a program. But probably not until we understand, as Goldhill says, that "at some point, we will have to decide whether our attachment to the idea of helping people is more important than actually helping them--a decision that will require a rethinking of our assumptions."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

MIDNIGHT AT MARBLE ARCH by Anne Perry

Some 20 years ago a friend lent me a stack of Anne Perry novels--all in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series, as I recall--which I eagerly devoured.

At the time I had no idea that Perry at age 15 conspired with a friend to murder the friend's mother, or that she at age 30 became a Mormon because of her commitment to morality. Until today I didn't know that since 1979 she has published more than 60 novels and novellas--almost two a year. No wonder, as her biographer points out, Perry's books deal with the themes of "miscarriages of justice, family secrets exposed, punishment, redemption and forgiveness."

Her newest book, Midnight at Marble Arch (number 28 in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series), is especially strong in the first two themes. The year is 1896. Thomas Pitt is now in charge of Special Branch, similar to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. No longer a policeman, he does not normally get involved in assault cases, even when he learns that a prominent businessman's wife has died after being brutally raped.

But when it appears that the 16-year-old daughter of the Portuguese ambassador has been raped by a sociopathic but exceedingly rich young man, Pitt decides to act. His reason may be to satisfy his wife's sense of justice, but his excuse is that Britain's international relations will be endangered if foreign diplomats fear to bring their families to London--and whoever the rapist is, he is likely to strike again.

Meanwhile, the widowed businessman has asked Pitt's former superior, Lord Victor Narraway, to help him find the man who raped his wife. Narraway eagerly takes the case, partly to make himself feel useful in retirement, and partly because he is very fond of Charlotte Pitt's formidable great-aunt-by-marriage, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould.

And then a couple more women are raped, and Pitt and Narraway find themselves working together once again.

Perry adeptly portrays late 19th-century society with its fancy dress, incessant parties, and suffocating superficiality. She chillingly shows how most Victorians regarded rape, how it ruined women, and why it was rarely prosecuted. Somehow, however, the four sleuths at the center of the story--Thomas and Charlotte, Narramore and Vespasia--have escaped the attitudes of most of their contemporaries, which somewhat strains the story's credibility. But as long as you can handle 21st-century consciences in a few 19th-century people, you will likely enjoy this addition to the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt collection.

In fact, I think Midnight at Marble Arch might make a good movie.

Perry's plotting is full of surprises, and yet not too complex to follow easily. In a film, action and conversation would replace the book's incessant and sometimes tiresome inner questioning ("How many men feared for their sons?... What would Pitt do if Daniel ... should be wrongly accused of such a violent and repulsive crime?... How would Pitt know what Daniel thought of women who perhaps teased him, provoked him, with little or no idea of what tigers they were awakening?... How would he prevent Daniel from becoming a young man who treated women as something he had the right to use, to hurt, even to destroy? Where did such beliefs begin?... How would he ever make certain his son could lose an competition with the same grace as when he won?... Would it be Pitt's fault if Daniel grew up arrogant, brutal?"--and all of these questions come from just one page). With its faster pace and--minus the internal monologues--reduced opportunity for anachronism, the film might be even better than the book.

I haven't figured out who should play three of the four good guys, but Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, with her elegance, steel-trap mind, and late-life sexual allure, is Helen Mirren.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

THE MOONLIGHT SONATA AT THE MAYO CLINIC by Nora Gallagher

Ten years ago Nora Gallagher wrote Practicing Resurrection, a memoir involving her brother's death, her Episcopal parish's response to their recently uncloseted gay priest, and her own process of deciding whether or not to prepare for priesthood. Publishers Weekly's anonymous reviewer loved it: "With a poet's ear for language and a novelist's eye for essential detail," she wrote, "Gallagher offers a compelling story of her journey toward 'a wholeness bought at the cost of suffering.'"

OK, I confess: I wrote that review. And I also loved Gallagher's earlier memoir, Things Seen and Unseen (1998), about her brother's cancer and her own coming to faith, all taking place within the framework of the church calendar with its major feasts and fasts.

So I was twice happy to learn from Gallagher's website that "Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic is part three of a quartet on modern faith as it is lived out"--once because this new memoir is about her journey into what she calls the Land of the Sick, or Oz (a land I know better than I'd like to), and twice because if this is part of a quartet, there's yet another book coming.

Let me say right up front that you should read Gallagher's other two memoirs first. They reach out to a broader audience. They are more finely crafted. They will allow you to befriend Nora before going with her on this darker journey where both physical and spiritual health are challenged.

The story begins in November 2009 when the vision in Gallagher's right eye goes blurry. She hasn't been feeling well anyway--headaches, queasiness, fatigue--so she schedules an appointment with her doctor. He doesn't like what he sees, and for the next two years Gallagher goes from specialist to specialist trying to find out, and hopefully to fix, whatever is wrong.

There's an element of medical mystery about her story, and I'm not going to spoil it by telling you the eventual diagnosis. Suffice it to say that it will not raise your opinion of American medicine in general: "Doctors were often baffled; the system of specialists who did not follow up on patients made it worse." The Mayo Clinic comes up smelling like roses, however. (Personal note: My experience at Cleveland Clinic, where I had open-heart surgery in 2011, was similar to Gallagher's at Mayo. Both have stellar reputations for the quality of their health care, and both have found ways to keep costs below the national average.)

Gallagher is a spiritual writer, and a person facing a major health crisis tends to have major spiritual concerns. I'm not going to spoil the account of her spiritual journey by telling you how her illness affected her faith, either. I'll only say that she and I--two women of about the same age, both of us having spent years in the Episcopal Church, both of us living with scary health conditions--look for peace in somewhat different places.

You may not identify with this memoir if you are young, or if you have never faced a life-threatening illness, or if you are a conservative evangelical. You'll probably want to read it if you prefer questions to answers, if you've faced serious illness or are caring for people who do, or if you work in health care and wonder how it feels to be the one on the examining table.

I'll finish by quoting a few paragraphs, one of Gallagher's many asides, that I particularly enjoyed:

I once interviewed Jews who had recently emigrated from Russia in one of the openings in the Cold War in the 1980s. Many of them had survived the siege of Leningrad. They were living in a retirement home in Denver. One of them took me aside after I had been there for a few days and said, "Tell me, Nora. Is everyone in America always fine? I ask someone how they were doing and they reply, always, 'Fine.'"
     I explained to her that this was a commonplace; a custom, it meant nothing. Relief showed all over her face.
     "Ah," she said. "That's good. Because I am rarely fine." (Later, whenever they saw me, they would chorus: "How are you? We are fine!" and then laugh uproariously.)
     I missed them, I thought. These were people who understood not fine.