DON’T TRUST ME

Do your friends trust your judgment in books?  I am often asked what I have enjoyed reading lately.  The problem is, I haven’t been enjoying many prize-winning books. I feel sad saying what no one wants to hear: “I’m reading **** but I don’t think it’s very good.”

A couple examples: Little Fires Everywhere shot to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list for Fiction and was named Amazon’s Best Novel of 2017.  The Sympathizer, which I am currently plodding through, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Surely it is sufficient to trust the judgement of the boards and readers who award these prizes.

When I attended the first meeting of a newly formed book group, I alienated the other four attendees by saying that Little Fires’ characters were stereotypes, there more to serve the plot than to be believable.  No one showed any trust in my judgement and eventually I decided it might be best to find a less-easily-offended group.  To my surprise, when later I looked up reviews for Little Fires,  I found that The Guardian’s review included:

“The plot hinges on a series of coincidences that
don’t stand up to scrutiny:they are too neat and too many…
it’s too clever, too complete, to be entirely plausible.” 

While the rest of the review was positive, at least part of my evaluation wasn’t off.

Of The Sympathizer, the Washington Post reviewer has virtually nothing negative to say about it. Though I avoid reading reviews prior to reading a book, maybe I should have with this one.   Because I feel guilty (a subject for a different blog) reading fiction during the day, I save it for bedtime, not the best hour to decipher sentences like this one:

“Killing the extras was either a reenactment of what
had happened to us natives or a dress rehearsal for
the next such episode, with the Movie the local
anesthetic applied to the American mind, preparing it
for any minor irritation before or after such a deed.”  

I can barely get through that sentence in the morning after two cups of coffee.

Maybe if I overcome the guilt problem, I will be able to recommend some novels in the future.  Up next:  My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley.  I trust I will enjoy it.

 

Photo courtesy of Kyle Glenn via Unsplash.com

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A SUMMER SUNDAY

Some days it just isn’t possible to concentrate long enough to write a 350-word blog.  Sunday was one of those days.  However, a lot of wonderful things have been happening on the South Coast of Massachusetts and beyond that caught my attention.

unsplashTHE WORLD CUP
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that my father’s family came from Croatia (yes, they were immigrants!).  Croatia’s performance in the 2018 World Cup has been thrilling for Mekjavichs on three continents, so it was sad today to see our team lose, even though they played well.  I am consoled by a reminder from my Croatian cousin Victor, who was born and raised in Argentina: “The really important thing is not winning.  Croatia is an example of work and sacrifice on and off the field of play.”

LIGHTING THE WAY: HISTORIC WOMEN OF THE SOUTH COAST
My friend Christina Bascom and several other women got together and developed Lighting the Way, an educational program that explores the historical impact of women from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds who shaped their South Coast communities, the nation and the world.  The launch of the Lighting the Way Walking Trail was on July 12 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and included a bus tour of the residences of those women as well as a Lighting the Way Trail Map, a Mobile App and the introduction of the program’s website. In 2019-2020 the program will provide participating local schools with new ways to engage students in a more inclusive (women’s roles!) telling of history.

BUZZARDS BAY MUSIC FESTIVAL
This past week brought the 22nd Annual Buzzards Bay MusicFest to our small town of Marion, Massachusetts.  A total of five concerts, free to the public, were held at Tabor Academy’s Fireman Performing Arts Center.  Concerts included classical pieces by a full orchestra, chamber music and an evening devoted to “The Great American Songbook” performed by a swing band.  Local families have the opportunity to host musicians in their homes, a system that makes for a community-wide experience for musicians and residents alike.

 

 

Photo credits, all via Unsplash:Soccer ball:  slava-keyzman; Lantern: conner-carruthers; Musicians:  kale-bloom

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TIME AND TELLING YOUR STORY

Our friends, Larry and Joy Thon

Larry and Joy having a good time.

July 7 was the anniversary of the unexpected death of a good friend.  Larry was killed in his bed by an enormous tree that fell on his cottage during a severe storm.  Some will say “it was his time.”  I’ve never much cared for that sentiment.  I bet if Larry had had anything to say about it, he would have wanted more time.  Time is a gift that is always with us and yet is one we seldom notice.

Last week I had the good fortune to see Hamilton in New York.  I prepared for the experience by listening to the music, reading the libretto and Lin Manuel Miranda’s comments on what inspired him, how long each passage took to write, and how it changed over time.  It took six years for him to write Hamilton but Miranda is a young guy and he had plenty of time.  Would Larry have had six more years?

The press of time and what remains after our time has come are recurring themes in Hamilton.  I hear the songs in my head all the time now:  “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”  “And when you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame?”

I remember my great aunts telling family stories at our annual camping trips when I was a kid. I sat with my mother and her cousins, listening to Aunt Isabelle and Aunt Frances tell stories about their brother—my grandfather–and bits and pieces of family trivia, all designed to make us laugh.

The hole in Larry’s house has been repaired; the hole in the hearts of his family and friends has not and never will be.  When they are together, as they are this weekend,  they are sad that he isn’t with them and also able to remember his assorted foibles and have a good laugh.  They are telling his story.

✹✹✹✹✹

 

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IS NO NEWS GOOD NEWS?

News overload

Photo by @rawpixel via Unsplash.com

I am a news junkie, married to a news junkie. Every morning each of us reads our favorite newspapers online, then we turn on television news for as long as we can stand it and later in the day repeat as needed—which is often.  In the past month we have been traveling and often out of the reach of the internet, television and sometimes cell phone service.  Though at times I felt as if I were going through withdrawal, for the most part I enjoyed detoxifying.

That leads to the question: which is better—keeping up with the news or avoiding it.  And the answer, as is true for most things, is that moderation is likely the best approach. As human beings, our survival depends on finding rewards and avoiding harm, according to Loretta Breuning, author of Habits of a Happy Brain.  Therefore, our brains are predisposed to detect threats and thus either avoid or be prepared to deal with potential harm.  Beyond that, there are individual differences:  some people can take in distressing news and maintain their equilibrium; others become upset to the point of illness.

Since returning from time away from the news, I have read and watched less of it.  I am still well informed but  feel better for making the change.  My passage from a lot to not-so-much news has been eased by the World Cup Soccer Games, which have been a wonderful diversion and explain, in part, why love of sports brings people together.  It was thrilling to see Croatia win today and to see the players hugging their Danish opponents afterwards.  And now:  Go Mexico!!!

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MAKING AMERICA AMERICA AGAIN

Mexican baby

Guanajato baby and mother

I have not posted this blog for the past two weeks, at first because I was on a photo trip to Mexico and then because I couldn’t bring myself to write about the vagaries of daily life while children are being wrenched away from their parents at the United States border.  It is impossible to imagine how people who have children of their own—that would be the president and presumably most of his defenders—can be so cruel and un-American. I remember well how, after I gave birth to my first child, I was shocked at how much I loved her.  I hadn’t known I was capable of loving someone that much. Now I imagine how those mothers and fathers must feel when they are told their children are being taken way “for baths” and they have not seen or heard from them since.  For many, I am afraid, they may never be reunited.  How can we do this to other human beings?  This is not making America great. This is making America vicious and shameful.

Funny Face in Guanajuato

Little boy making a funny face for the camera.

I am including three photos I have taken in the past two weeks.  Two are of children in Mexico—not vermin, not infesters but children of loving, hard-working parents much like most Americans.  The third photo I took from a BART commuter train.  If you look carefully, you can see an Asian woman, an African-American woman and several men, one of whom—Hispanic—is studying a book that prepares people for taking the Graduate Record Exam.  This mix is what I love about America, not the dehumanization we are seeing at the border.

Mix of races on BART.

BART train passengers–immigrants all.

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HOUSES AND OSPREYS

Ospreys

“Our” ospreys.

Returning to the Marion house is always a pleasure. I have loved this place for more than a decade, painting each room, moving furniture around, planting a garden, bringing to it bits and pieces of things that appeal to me. Walking in the door is like reuniting with an old friend:  when I’m not here, I think of it often and wonder how it’s doing; when I return it’s as if I’ve never been away.

The first thing I did yesterday was check on the osprey nest outside our windows. The ospreys winter in the southern United States like most of the summer residents of Marion, and they return to the same nest every year, also like their human counterparts. The nest platform we built is only three years old and was unoccupied when I arrived, though there seemed to be more sticks and moss than last year.  I stood at the window for a while, wondering if the pair who had been here before had found better digs someplace else. And then they showed up.  They stood facing each other on the nest, swiveling their heads back and forth as if they were checking out the Woman at the Window (a book I am currently reading).  I swear they were discussing me.

This morning one of the pair has been building up the nest, bringing sticks, grass and  shiny things she fancied in trip after trip and then rearranging the chosen materials each time.  It’s a painstaking task to move furniture when your only tool is a beak. Meanwhile, the other bird is sitting atop a nearby post eating a large fish.  In the hour I have been spying on them, the pattern has been the same:  fix up the house, eat a snack.  Based on personal experience, I decided the nest decorator must be the female and the snacker the male. He likely also brought in the food. I know this is anthropomorphizing, but it was too easy to ignore.  Alas, I was wrong.  According to Cornell ornithologists, the male usually gathers the nesting materials and the female arranges them later.  Apologies to my spouse.

I hope the ospreys will come to love their house as I love mine.

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WHAT’S UP WITH OPEN FLOOR PLANS?

open floor plan

An Open Floor Plan, Italian style

If you are a faithful fan of HGTV you know all about home buyers’ favorite feature, the Open Floor Plan. Whether it’s Love It or List It, Fixer-Upper, or those adorable Property Brothers, home buyers and remodelers want a house with an Open Floor Plan.  I have always thought that made sense.  In houses where we lived that had living rooms, they were as unused as a Victorian parlor; everyone congregated in the kitchen, which was either adjacent to or at one end of the “Family Room.”  Our current house has most of its floor space taken up by a living room-kitchen-dining area, the “Great Room.”  My husband, the chef-in-residence, calls it “a kitchen with couches.”  We love it.

Enter those spoilsports at The Atlantic magazine.  A recent article by Ian Bogost caught my eye:  The Curse of an Open Floor Plan, subtitled “A flowing, connected interior…has become ubiquitous, and beloved.  But it promises a liberation from housework that remains a fantasy.”* Who ever promised a liberation from housework? Mr. Bogost’s piece is well-researched and thoughtful and it’s not possible to do his argument justice in 350-word blog. But I’ll just say this:  I like having a kitchen, dining room and area with comfy couches all in one space.  Sure, the kitchen can look messy during dinner because often there’s not time to clean it up before sitting down to eat.  But so what?  I would rather be in the same room with my family and guests than be stuck in the kitchen while everyone else is having a good time in the other room.  And unless we hire servants, there will always be work to do.

Whether out of necessity or preference, in most countries around the world I have visited, there is a one big room for cooking, eating and being together and, if the occupants are prosperous enough, smaller rooms for sleeping.  My Croatian grandparents immigrated to Santa Clara, California and bought a modest three-bedroom house in the middle of an apricot orchard.  They furnished it in a kind of stuffy, old-country style and then added a great big room off the back of the house that included a second complete kitchen area, a long dining room table, several couches and a television. That room, my grandparents, and all the aunts, uncles and cousins in it on Easter, is one of my most vivid childhood memories.  It was a Great Room.

 

Photo courtesy of ialicante-mediterranean via Unsplash

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FAMILIES

Family at Nat's wedding

And this is only part of our clan!

We are spending a few days in Puerto Vallarta with our large extended family, celebrating the marriage of our nephew, Andrew, to his wonderful partner, Rochelle. This got me thinking about some of the books I have enjoyed about families and  their joys, sorrows and craziness.

Courtesy of Goodreads:  here’s a start on reading about all sorts of families:

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
Roots:  The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley
Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
The Two-Family House by Linda Cohen Loigman

and don’t forget:  Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate by Alexis Rankin Popik

Happy Reading!

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I have been missing my mom lately.  I find myself wishing I could call her up to tell her something I know she would enjoy.  My sibs and I have been exchanging emails about what we remember:  her speaking voice, her laugh.  This is a remembrance I wrote four years ago.

Mom on L'Esperance

Mom on L’Esperance

Thanksgiving 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

Five years ago, a French friend explained to me what it meant to “make time for time.” It’s a lovely expression for an all-too-rare practice: making time to appreciate the time we have on this earth. The occasion was a visit to France with my mother.

When my mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness, my husband asked what she wanted to do with the time she had left. She chose a barge trip in France. (Who knew?) My husband, brother and I took her on the trip of a lifetime—six days on the small, luxurious private barge L’Esperance, meandering along a beautiful Southern France canal while we enjoyed being together.

This past week eleven members of my family were all together for Thanksgiving in Marion, Massachusetts, cooking, eating, drinking, and washing hundreds of dishes. Everyone pitched in so no one was over-burdened. By sharing tasks, we had time to do what we like best: taking walks in the frigid air, assembling a jigsaw puzzle, watching football, Louis C.K. and Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee, and talking, talking, talking. This sounds too good to be true, but it was really like this. The difference between this family gathering and most of the others was time.

Half of my heritage is Irish Catholic, so I am inclined to look at the world as if something terrible is going to happen any minute. If it isn’t a natural disaster such as an earthquake, it’s the loss of someone I dearly love. I can’t prevent natural disasters but as far as personal losses go, I feel strongly that I need more time—time to clear up misunderstandings, to make amends, time to make sure those I love know what they mean to me. This week I got some of that time.

Mom lived an unexpected three years after that trip to France, long enough to return to L’Esperance for one more barge trip. While we considered Mom’s unusually long survival a gift, her better gift to us was that we, as a family, learned the value of making time for time.

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LIVING YOUR BEST LIFE, PART II

Magnolias

Photo of Magnolias blooming in Hartford RIGHT NOW! courtesy of my friend Heidi, who knows how much I love those trees and Springtime in the Northeast.

This week, many readers wrote to me with their own versions of what is Living Your Best Life.  Here is a sampling.  It comes as no surprise that no one’s best life includes owning a private jet and I love it that two of these three mentioned hummingbirds:

From Marcia:
I love the feel of the early morning sun on my face while walking around our beautiful lakes and trails. The sound of children playing outside. The sound of rain on the roof and the clean smell of the first raindrops. Playing with grandchildren. Watching the hummingbirds fight for a place on the feeder, and the squirrel working to get at the nuts and seeds from a swinging feeder. Playing golf and pickleball with friends. Volunteering at my granddaughter’s school, and with Kiwanis serving our neighborhood kiddos. And yes, sitting quietly with a good book and a cat… or two.

Janet writes:
Living the good life for me comes in two ways. Sometimes it’s a big deal and sometimes it’s a sweet moment.

Our recent trip to New Zealand and Australia was a big deal. It included riding a camel to watch the sun come up at Ayers Rock, a picnic on the rainforest floor and a view from its canopy, snorkeling in The Great Barrier Reef,  a BBQ in the outback, and day with koala bears, kangaroos and crocodiles, big beautiful cities and charming small towns—all this given the fact that when I was I child I hoped that just once before I died, I would go in an airplane to Italy. Since then, many airplanes and many trips.   Big moments!

Yesterday I was in my backyard sitting in a comfy garden chair. There were humming birds, blue jays, doves, little red-breasted finches, one fluffy white dog, and one much-loved husband.  The roses were sporting those great big first blooms of spring and the recent rains have made everything lush and leafy. Small moment. Living the best life.

Joan adds:
You manage to hit virtually every topic I’m now dealing with…..wow! The living your best life concept….hmmm ….  Somehow my “best life” is just rolling out of bed, hitting the gym, reading the New York Times, watching my weight, a glass or 2of wine, and sitting on the couch for a Netflix video while [my boyfriend] rubs my back…. then there’s his kids and my kids….Anyway, it’s an interesting topic….makes me wonder what else I might (should) be doing…….which I’ll address someday soon….

Thanks to all…. And Have a Good Week!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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