Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

What would it be like to quit your job and spend a year studying wine?  No, I mean, really studying it – not just drinking it.  Learning how to appreciate the various aromas, textures, degrees of alcohol, tannins, and acidity and be able to blind taste them and name the grape, the label and the year it was made without peeking at the label!  What might it be like to hang with the sommeliers of New York’s finest restaurants to learn what is considered important in the service of these wines?  Or to research where all these crazy, lofty ways of describing wines came from.  Well, Bianca Bosker has done this and she’s been kind enough to share her journey with us in the pages of Cork Dork.

In her quest to become a sommelier, Bosker smells everything in her kitchen in her home and in her city.  She insinuates herself in the world of the sommelier by befriending a top somm who brings her to blind tastings and allows her to witness the training that each somm puts themself through.  Trailing other waiters, working in a wine cellar in a restaurant, getting to taste a vast quantity of fancy and less than fancy wines, Bosker widens her scope of experience very quickly.  She travels around the country and around the world in this quest, visiting restaurants, vineyards, and scientists who help her understand how she can best go about understanding and perfecting her art.

What makes a good wine good?  What makes a good sommelier good?  What makes a good wine description good?  These are questions she seeks to answer during the course of the book and she seeks out answers from many different sources.  Throughout the whole time, she is studying and practicing and honing her tasting and olfactory skills, trying to prep for the certification exam.  And while she learns, so do we, as she sketches out for us her findings.

I do have to confess, that I do think some of the descriptions are bullshit, as she even cops to; however, I do respect the devotion and the obsession that the sommelier does have to go through to become certified in this field.  And now I have a newfound appreciation of exactly what that entails!

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

funnyinfarsi

It is hard enough to be a seven year old girl, navigating family, friends, and school.  But in 1972, a little girl named Firoozeh had to navigate a move from Iran to a suburb of LA, where she did not know the language, was not familiar with the food, did not have the extended family around for support, and had to function as her mother’s interpreter as well as find her own way.  Fortunately for her, her intelligence, her family’s support (mostly!), and probably most importantly, her humor, enabled her to adapt and do so very successfully.  This book is essentially a collection of her memories of growing up in this colorful family challenged by the immigrant experience of balancing their own culture and tradition with integrating into the society into which they’ve landed.

First, I have to say that this was a good, light distraction from the other reading I’ve had to do these past 2 weeks!  If you’ve been like me, you’ve done more reading about viruses and epidemiology and how pandemics can be mitigated in the past 2 weeks than you’ve ever had in your life – even if you’re in Public Health.  So I am thankful that I’ve had something like this to alleviate the anxiety that all of that other reading has caused.  I implore you to use this time for more solitary reading — it will be therapeutic for you and it will socially distance you from others, helping to mitigate the spread of this awful coronavirus.

As a memoir, this book was amusing and entertaining to a point, but, I believe, a missed opportunity.  Dumas did enrich her stories with the rich flavors and aromas of Iranian cuisines, ceremonial customs, and, in particular, her father’s often comical and endearing personality quirks.  And we did get a sense of the warm acceptance into the community her family experienced in 1972, which contrasted drastically with the reception she received when they returned just after Iranian Revolution and the American hostage situation. But other vignettes, such as those about her father’s fascination with Denny’s Restaurant or her uncle’s dieting fads were much less engaging.  While an opening into her culture was an opportunity, peeking through a curtain into their family secrets felt almost voyeuristic.

This was less a memoir than a collection of short stories.  As such, it was entertaining enough, but did get a bit old after a bit.

Not a “Must Read” but good for a few chuckles.

 

 

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Outside and across from the Dutch House is where Danny and his sister, Maeve, sit together regularly to digest their past.  It is almost as if going back to the scene of their childhood trauma might relieve them of them of the anger they harbor, of the resentment they feel.  Toward the mother who fled from them, and toward the stepmother who never let them near.  But if anything, it probably does more to perpetuate the ire.  But maybe that is what they are holding onto.  Maybe that is what is holding them together.  Maybe that is all that is holding them together…

I really liked this book and am struggling to write about it.  I feel like I need a bookclub meeting or an English class discussion to fully digest the symbolism packed into the pages of this story.  I’m not sure I’m wise enough to recognize and/or articulate it all myself.

The Dutch House seems to represent something different to each of the characters.  We see how Danny, like his father, has a passion for buildings —  the bones, the design — and Danny, like his father loves the Dutch House, and all its architectural splendor.  And it is home, such as it was for him.  His mother, like his sister, Maeve, see it only for its ostentatious gaudiness.  They shun it and flee it.  And when Andrea, the stepmother, enters the scene, with her pure avarice, she sees it only for the status it will bring to her and her daughters.  But does it bring happiness to any of the characters?

There are moments of awkward writing in this book, such as with the rapid shifting of time, when Danny and Maeve are sitting in Maeve’s car, at the Dutch House, later in life, reminiscing about their earlier days.  We find them there at sudden moments in the middle of the story and have to time travel with the author back and forth.  Sometimes it keeps the plot moving, but sometimes it is confusing.  Aside from these moments, though, the writing is engaging and the characters are colorful, sometimes raw,  and authentic.

I highly recommend this book, The Dutch House.  It will hold your attention long after you’ve finished the physical pages.

At Risk by Alice Hoffman

at risk

Polly and Ivan are concerned about their daughter, Amanda.  She’s a gymnast and has an unusual diarrheal illness for the past couple of weeks.  Their pediatrician, who knows them well, can deduce that this is not a good sign and from her low white blood cell count he is extremely worried about the possibility of cancer.  But not in a million years is he expecting that she’d be positive for AIDS, having contracted it from a blood transfusion after a complicated surgery for appendicitis 5 years prior, before blood was screened for the virus.  The paranoia and alienation that the whole family experiences is unexpected and devastating, possibly even worse than the actual diagnosis.

This book, published in 1988, reminds us of the experience that so many went through when HIV first appeared in the 1980’s.  With ads on TV for HIV medications so commonplace and ordinary today, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, there was mass victimization of those who were infected with the virus.  Children infected via intrauterine transmission or from blood transfusions were sometimes not allowed in school because of fears of casual contact transmitting the virus to others, even when there was early evidence that this was not possible.  Millions of infected adults suffered not only from the disease but from the indignities of being ostracized from a society who rejected them because of their disease.  And we have still not cured it.  [The reason for this has probably more to do with financial incentive than the science – it is more beneficial for pharmaceutical companies to produce medications that sustain patients with the disease than to cure it.  Just as with cancer. But I digress…]

As for the book, I found the story compelling, but the writing a bit awkward.  It is told in the present tense, which I often dislike.  More importantly, though, the narration also shifts from one character to another almost as if they are passing a hot potato from one to another, to another.   This shift occurs so frequently and over so many characters that it dilutes and distracts from the actual plot and it is harder to become attached to the truly important players.   We just can’t feel that sorry for everyone.  So while the story is tragic, it does not cut quite as deeply as it might.

Nevertheless, At Risk is a timepiece and tells a part of the story of our bitter history of the HIV epidemic that is important to remember.  We think of HIV as a disease of adults only, but there were thousands of children affected by the disease as well.  And still are today.

The Horse Dancer by Jojo Moyes

All Sarah knows is her world of horses and riding and her grandfather’s driving perfectionistic training, and it is a world that protects her from the poverty that immediately surrounds her.

All Natasha knows is that she has to get through the divorce that she’s up against, and it is her constant, imperative work that shields her from having to think too much about what she’s about to lose.

And then suddenly, their two worlds follow a collision course that is as unlikely and unsuitable as it is inevitable. All that is familiar to each of them is turned upside down and neither knows how it will end.  And neither does the reader until that very last page!

This book took some getting into.  Because the two main characters are both obstinate and somewhat introverted, they are difficult to get to know (and to like) – at least from this reader’s perspective.  But much like many who are quieter and take getting to know, it was worth the wait.  As the story became more and more entangled, the characters became more and more endearing somehow – I guess because they showed more of who they were. We also learned more about more of the interesting peripheral characters, some of which were exquisitely colorful.  Cowboy John, for example,  while posing as a somewhat crass, wheeler-dealer type,  actually revealed a very soft heart and was extremely tender and generous when it came to both Sarah and her grandfather, Henri.

And the plot was surprisingly surprising!  There were many punches that came out of left field and that was quite fun.  There were sad moments, heartbreaking moments, and moments when you wanted to yell at a character to warn them about what they could not see.  But that is part of the fun too, no?

A solid read, just in time for summer!  Enjoy!

Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield AND Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole

These two complementary books are revolutionary in their importance.  Dieting and dieting culture has overtaken most developed countries and has become a billion dollar industry.  Most importantly, however, it has probably been what has contributed most to what is known today as the “obesity epidemic” among health care providers, and yet, what do most health care providers prescribe as an antidote?  More diets!

The newest and best science is pointing toward the fact that diets cause more harm than good, and just about every diet counts.  Whenever you tell someone not to eat something, what does that person then, instinctively crave?  Whatever it is you’ve forbidden them, of course!  And after restricting whatever it is you’re restricting – calories, carbs, fat – it doesn’t really matter – after losing weight, the body seeks to regain the weight, by doing whatever it takes.  So people tend to regain the weight, plus!  And yo-yoing is worse for you than just being a bit overweight, in terms of causing more inflammation and heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and the unwanted health consequences of the overweight in the first place.

Because let’s face it, if we’d just accept ourselves in the less-than-“Twiggy”-as-ideal-bodies, we’d not have to worry about the dieting.  Our priority should really be about health.  And if it’s really and truly about health, then we’d throw away the scales and talk about fruits and vegetables and whole foods and exercise and that would be that.  We’d not be supporting Weight Watchers, and NutriSystem, and Jenny Craig and all the others who are making millions and preying on those of us who have fallen for these very smart business models.

So what do these books say?  Basically, that we were born with the internal cues that tell us when we’re hungry and when we’re full and we have to try to reach back in to find those signals and respond again to them.  To do this, we must trust that our bodies are really good at this and it’s ok to respond to them, even if they sometimes tell us that it’s ok to have a slice of cake because it looks delicious and we love this kind of cake and even if they tell us not to finish everything on our plate because we’re actually full.  The books also encourage movement of any kind, not just punishing workouts at a gym and give guidance on how to avoid emotional eating which many find quite challenging.  And they also encourage one to dig deep and find a way to care for oneself – that is, to carve out time to really see to one’s own needs that are being superficially cared for by food but that if tended to more deeply, then food won’t need to serve as a pacifier.

I think that almost every woman I’ve met has dieted at some point in her life.  So many would find either of these interesting and helpful.

Let’s try to move our conversations away from how we look to what we can achieve!!

Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Lisa Damour, PhD

under pressure

Working exclusively with young women over the past 15 years, I have seen a frightening trend of increased anxiety among them.  There are many explanations of why this is so, but there are few answers as to how to help them cope.  In this concise, articulate, and surprisingly upbeat book, Lisa Damour guides primarily parents in how to gently and supportively help their daughters to confront the sources of their stress and anxiety and in doing so, to combat them.  As she points out, quite aptly, when one shies away from the cause of the anxiety, most often that anxiety only builds.  Significantly, too, Damour does not demonize stress and anxiety.  She points out that without stress, we might not push ourselves to do our best to achieve our goals; likewise, without the anxiety response, we might not be alert to dangerous situations.  Stress and anxiety are only bad when they reach such high levels as to interfere with our normal functioning – that is when we need intervention.

The writing is insightful, readable, and filled with vignettes that engage the reader.  Damour relates experiences with her clients as well as her own daughters, which make the issues she discusses come alive and tangible.  She divides the issues into those that relate to girls in the home, girls in relationships with other girls, girls in relationships with boys, girls at school and girls as they are portrayed in our culture – and each of the stressors that are inherent to each of these realms.  There are helpful tips along the way, lots of analogies, and very wise, concrete suggestions.

One takeaway I loved was her response when a young woman wasn’t sure how to respond to a conflict.  Our culture conditions women to be agreeable and girls are expected to be and generally are particularly sensitive to others’ feelings.  She summarized peoples’ responses to conflict as being either a bulldozer, a doormat, a doormat with spikes (passive aggressive responder), or (the desirable response) a pillar (stands up for herself without stepping on anyone else).  I thought this was a great way to think about how we respond to conflict and and how we can guide others to do so in a constructive way.

I don’t think all of the advice in this book is exclusive to only girls.  Some of it is generalizable to boys as well.   But there is certainly plenty of evidence that girls experience more stress and anxiety than boys and that it is taking its toll on this generation of girls.  Here are, finally, tools to utilize to help them resist this scourge and be resilient.

Educated by Tara Westover

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Deep in the hills of Idaho, among the potato farms and tiny villages, poverty reigns over large families like the Westovers, who cling to their Mormon faith for the little bit of truth that they can believe in.  Dad preaches to his children his beliefs that the government is part of a socialist plot to undermine the Lord’s will and public education is just a manifest of this.  So while the older children might have benefitted from having gone to school, the younger ones, Tara being the youngest of those, did not.  So the kitchen where Tara mixes herbs with her mother and the junkyard where Tara sorts metals with her father and brothers become Tara’s classrooms.   And the random, outdated history or mathematics textbooks that left around the house became her only source of book learning, such as it was. Sadly, her emotional learning was blunted by the abuse at the behest of her brother Shawn, and her ability to survive in her home was made possible only by quelling any feeling or reaction to what was going on around her. When she finally did allow herself to feel, she realized there was just too much rage at her whole family to do anything with it.  This was the face of mental illness and this was the face of her family.

This is the true account of the life of Tara Westover – and it’s truly a miracle that all of the children actually survived, especially Tara.  The severity of the neglect and abuse at the hand of her father (and her mother) is staggering.  It is really not entirely their fault, as they clearly are mentally ill – at least her father is severely so.  The most egregiously violent and abusive one, however, is her brother Shawn, who is viciously violent and his parents repeatedly turn a blind eye to his cruelty.

I find that the one I am most angry with by the end of the book, interestingly, is Tara’s mother.  She has so many opportunities to come through for Tara.  There are moments when it appears she just might finally side with Tara.  That she might stand up against Tara’s father, or against Shawn, and say that Tara may be right in accusing Shawn of acting violently toward Tara, or of Dad having mistreated Tara when she was younger, not having given her opportunities or believed her when she was telling the truth (that she was NOT a whore, as she was so often accused of being).   Even later, when her mother had more financial success and independence and might have had a chance to break free and it might have appeared she’d stand up for herself.  But no, she did not.  Such. a disappointment for Tara.  No wonder there was such heartbreak and fury.

The fact that Tara has achieved the success that she has is miraculous and I applaud her intellect and courage.  I only pray for her that she is able to find the support that will allow her to find kindness toward herself that will allow her to heal from all the hurt.

I thank her for sharing her story with all of us.  It has been so powerful.  Mental illness rears its ugly head in so many ways.  Sadly, the worst is toward children.

 

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

we were the lucky ones

Addy Kurc tried desperately to make it home from France to his small Polish town of Radom for Passover, but in March of 1939, as Hitler and his German army was blocking travel through Europe, this was not to be.  The Kurc family tried to feign normalcy, going through the familiar seder rituals, but each of the members of this tight-knit family sensed that there was something about to change in their world.  Never, could they have imagined the horrors they would be facing, however, as Poland would be complicit in the anihiliation of millions of Jewish people along with Germany.  And never would they believe how far they’d travel and how many years it would be until they would be celebrating Passover together again as a Kurc family.

I wasn’t looking for a Holocaust novel, and when I realized that that is what this was, I almost put it aside.  But the writing was so compelling I couldn’t.  There was something about this story, about these characters, that I had to continue with it.  I had to know if Addy was reunited with his family.  I had to know if each of his siblings (and there were 5 altogether) survived the war, and if his baby niece actually made it through as well.  And how, if it were at all possible, would his parents survive the war, as they were elderly although not frail when the war broke out.  The characters were very compelling and each went through such harrowing experiences.

And that was even before I knew that the story was true!  Addy was the grandfather of the author!

I know that especially in this very difficult time, when we hear about hate in the news almost every day, with racial tensions, police brutality, shootings, and hate and bias incidents, it is hard to read about the Holocaust.  On the other hand, I feel it is crucial in this time not to forget what it can grow to be.  We cannot  get complacent and think the it can’t get there again.

That’s what they believed in Radom in 1939.

 

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

rising out of hatred

Derek Black has been nurtured from the time he was born until the time he went off to college to be the great white hope for the future of the white nationalist movement.  His father, Don, established Stormfront.com, the earliest and largest promoter of racist propaganda on the internet, and David Duke, his godfather, is the well-known KKK/Nazi politician.  Everyone in this underworld knows Derek and believes he will take over for Don and Duke, as Derek has already begun to co-host their radio show, assist with the website, and even help organize their annual conference.  But as Derek enters college, he decides to keep this part of his identity secret, interacting with the diverse students in his classes and activities, even while he maintains his connection with his radio show daily.  However, what happens very gradually, when Derek is later exposed, ostracized and then quietly invited to the regular Shabbat dinner of an Orthodox Jewish friend of his, begins the process of challenging his deepest convictions — and is absolutely stunning.

This true story has been featured on various podcasts (The Daily is one) and has been written about in various newspapers, so you may know the basic story.  Derek himself has written opinion pieces for the New York Times.  But in this moment of unleashing of hatred and bigotry, this story is a crucial one – and the details matter.  It is crucial because it shows how hatred has been simmering underground for so long among those who are living their very insular lives, among those who think only like they do.  And it is crucial because it demonstrates, most importantly, that if we look at those who think differently from ourselves as human beings, only then can we start to have a civil and respectful enough discourse to come together on ideas.

I am in awe of the courage of the students who showed friendship to Derek even after he was “outed” as the co-host of the morning show on Stormfront.  They stuck by him, braving the derision of most of their peers, showing steadfast friendship to the the hero of the dark side, even as he degraded their racial groups on his radio show, even as they questioned their own wisdom in doing so.

And I am in awe of Derek himself, who has truly shown courage in the thought and heart that he has put into his own journey.  It is so much easier to go along with what your family and community preaches and to stick to your original beliefs.  It is so much harder to go against your family wishes, to turn around what you’ve been taught is right, to go against your indoctrination and open up your heart to other ideas.

But I am also not sorry he has accepted his responsibility to go public with his journey, because he has to share with others that those narrow-minded, absurd ideas about white supremacy are just wrong – and that the harm they do to others can not, under any circumstances, be justified.

In this moment, this book is absolutely a MUST-READ!