Monday, May 3, 2021
Sunday, April 4, 2021
Monday, March 15, 2021
A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Prouix by Elaine Showalter
Sunday, March 7, 2021
In 1993 bestselling author and adventure writer Jon Krakauer wrote an article for Outside magazine about a young hiker who in April 1992 walked into the wilds of Alaska. He carried with him a hunting rifle, a ten pound bag of rice, a few books and very little else. His name was Christopher McCandless and his plan was to live in isolation, hunting his own food and communing with nature. Four months later McCandless' body was found by a group of hunters who had stumbled upon the abandoned bus he had been living in.
Chris McCandless had starved to death. The Alaskan river he had crossed to make his way into the wilderness was passable in April when he arrived but when the summer came and the ice melted, the river swelled making it impossible for Chris to cross back into civilization, effectively trapping him where he was. He was only 24.
Jon Krakauer wrote the article for Outside Magazine but couldn't let go of the story. He decided his article needed to be a book. The result is Into the Wild (published 1997) an engrossing and thought provoking read.
Who was Christopher McCandless and why two decades on are many still fascinated by his story? Most of us do what is expected in life and when we are young and finished with school the next step is the job market. Sure we would like to live a carefree existence but there are consequences to that kind of life and so we conform. Chris McCandless was different. After graduating with honors from Emory University he decided he would not do what was expected. He took the $24,000 his parents had given him for Law School and donated it to charity. He then set out on a two-year penniless hitchhiking journey throughout the American West which would eventually lead him to Alaska.
Jon Krakauer went back and interviewed the people Chris met during his two-year odyssey and they are interesting. Many parts of the American West are filled with people who have fallen off the grid, hippies, seekers, drifters, eccentrics. But even though many of the people Chris met were living on the margins, they were worried when Chris shared his Alaska plans. Some tried to talk him out of it. Others tried to get him to let his parents know where he was since he had not written or called them in two years. But Chris would not listen. There had been a falling out between Chris and his parents over a secret his father had been keeping. Chris in addition to being very bright could be very judgemental.
I heartily recommend Into the Wild. Jon Krakauer is a fine writer and he not only writes about Chris McCandless' life but he tells us about other explorers and adventurers from the 19th and 20th century. Young men who also set out on journeys they did not adequately prepare for. Jon Krakauer quotes from Chris' journals and letters which gives you an indication of why he chose to live the way he did. Krakauer doesn't shy away from how badly Chris hurt his parents. The people Chris met on the road were also shaken by his death. It's probably a major reason people don't skip town, change their names and set out on risky adventures, our obligations to others.
Sunday, February 28, 2021
"When I was controlled by food my soul shrank and my fear grew. When I was abstinent, my soul grew and my body shrank. When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, not only was I obsessed with food but my mind never stopped. The chatter, the talk, the back and forth, the internal argument was never-ending. The peace of mind, quiet and serenity that I prayed for from the depths of my illness came with surrender. It is something for which I am eternally grateful". - Judy Collins
I have never been a smoker or had a problem with alcohol or drugs but I understand people who do because my addiction since I was a teenager has been food. My weight is not good. It's not healthy and over the years I have tried reading diet books and overeating memoirs but when it comes to sticking to a diet I have nothing but false starts.
And so a few weeks ago I was watching an interview on PBS with the legendary folk-singer Judy Collins. She was very insightful in talking about her life and the current times we are living through. After the interview I went to Amazon to see if Judy had written any books and it turns out she has written several. One of her books, Cravings: How I Conquered Food published 2016, stood out in particular and so I decided to give it a read.
It's a marvelous memoir about Judy Collins' life long struggle with food and bulimia and it's not every memoir that can boast a favorable review from the historian Ron Chernow and a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. What makes Cravings so good is first Judy's writing. She is not afraid to dig deep regarding her eating disorder and the answers she ultimately found with the 12 step program.
Cravings is structured in an interesting way. Chapters that deal with Judy Collins' life alternate with chapters devoted to the history of dieting. I didn't know for example that Lord Byron devised his own diet plan which consisted of tea, slices of toast, vegetables and chain smoking or that William the Conqueror fashioned his version of the liquid diet which involved drinking ale, beer, wine and nothing else.
Fortunately as the centuries rolled on more medically sound nutritionists arrived and Judy tells their stories. Gaylord Hauser, for example, known in the 1940's as the Nutritionist to the Stars, Dr. Alfred Pennington who in 1953 published A New Concept in the Treatment of Obesity in the journal of the American Medical Association, Jean Nidetch the founder of Weight Watchers, Dr. Robert Atkins, Dr. Andrew Weil's Spontaneous Healing. These diet plans began to show a pattern, eliminating starch, white bread, pasta, potatoes and drinking plenty of water. Exercise and vitamins began to be added as well.
But Cravings is primarily a memoir of Judy Collins' personal struggles with food and also about her life. She had a remarkable father, Charles Thomas Collins, blind since he was four but graduated with honors from the University of Idaho. He was a fun loving man who inspired Judy to follow her dreams. But he was addicted to alcohol and was never able to stop. Judy writes about her mother, her siblings, the romances in her life, her friends and her music teacher, Dr. Antonia Brico, a famous musician in her own right, who was heartbroken when Judy as a teenager abandoned the piano to take up folk music and the guitar. They would reconnect years later when Judy made a film about Dr. Brico, honoring her career.
In Cravings Judy Collins is very generous to all the people she has known. If she is hard on anyone it's herself. Her life has been one of triumph and tragedy but today she is at peace, happily married for twenty-five years, a grandmother and she still tours, although at 82 not as often. And because Judy wrote Cravings to help others she also includes the diet she has been following for many years. It's strict but very simple. I also like that her daily routine includes meditation. Judy's life was changed years ago when she read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. The older I get the more fascinated I too become by meditation, Buddhism, past lives.
Who should read Cravings? I think anyone with an eating disorder or any form of addiction would benefit from Judy Collins' hard earned wisdom. But I would expand that and say if you are stuck in your life, looking for a new path, you can also benefit from this book. I know I am going to try to incorporate what I learned from Cravings in my life but ultimately the teacher can provide the way but it's up to the students to follow through.
Sunday, January 31, 2021
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
I don't regret focusing on the classics these past few years. It's been a rewarding experience. But if there is one drawback it's that I don't get to read as much contemporary fiction as I would like and so I am not sure who is out there right now worth reading. Fortunately my good friend Iris has been keeping tabs on the new and talented authors and she has wonderful judgement. Some time back for example Iris suggested The Secrets Between Us published 2018 by the Indian-American award winning novelist Thrity Umrigar. Iris found the book excellent and I completely agree. This is not a book you want to miss.
The Secrets Between Us is set in present day Mumbai, India and tells the story of two elderly women, Bhima and Parvati who form a suprising friendship. I say suprising because Bhima and Parvatti are very poor and rhey have been hurt badly by life and are not open to trusting others. Bhima lives in a one room shack with her granddaughter Maya who she is trying to put through college. She had a secure job for twenty years working as a house keeper for the wealthy Dubash family. But when the family's son-in-law took advantage of Maya, Bhima could not continue working there and at age 60 Bhima worries where her next job is coming from.
Parvati is a few years older than Bhima. When Parvatti was twelve her father sold her to a house of prostitution where she stayed for many years until a disfiguring lump on her neck forced her to leave. She married an abusive husband who when he died left her penniless. When the novel begins Parvati earns her living selling vegetables on the street. She barely has enough to feed herself.
The lives of Bhima and Parvati and the betrayals they have faced can be hard to read. Your heart breaks for them and what they've gone through but these two women are also strong, smart and feisty. Parvati in particular can be quite funny in a bitter way. After a rocky first meeting the two women decide to go into business together selling fruits and vegetables and a real bond develops.
Two other characters in the book are Sunitra and Chitra a lesbian couple that Bhima works part time for and at first Bhima doesn't know what to think. But she begins to realize that Sunitra and Chitra are kind and good women who love each other and who treat Bhima not as a housekeeper and cook but as a friend. They are eager to help Maya succeed in college by offering their apartment so she can study. All of the women in this novel are keeping secrets that separate them from others and a happier life. As Bhima says to Parvati at one point:
"Parvati. Do all human beings keep secrets from one another? Today you tell me about your life. And then ten minutes later I run into Serabai. And she -- she is being killed by the secrets she is keeping. And Chitra baby says her own father and mother don't know that she moved to Mumbai for Sunitra. Why do we all walk around like this, hiding from one another"? Parvati's thumb circles the lump in a fast motion as she ponders the question. "It isn't the words we speak that makes us who we are. Or even the deeds we do. It is the secrets buried in our hearts". She looks sharply at Bhima "People think that the ocean is made up of waves and things that float on top. But they forget -- the ocean is also what lies at the bottom, all the broken things stuck in the sand. That, too, is the ocean".
Goodreads has called The Secrets Between Us "a dazzling story about gender, strength, friendship and second chances". And though the poverty depicted is intense and there are scenes, particularly surrounding Parvatti's life, that are heartbreaking, The Secrets Between Us is an inspiring tale. It's a novel that shows us the power of friendship to transform people's lives and that friendship is only possible when we reach out to others and not judge. The Secrets Between Us is a sequel to Thrity Umrigar's bestselling 2006 novel The Space Between Us but both are stand alone books and I enjoyed The Secrets Between Us so much that I would advise you read it first. Thank you Iris for a great reading experience.