Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Making Toast: A Family Story by Roger Rosenblatt

Making Toast: A Family Story by Roger Rosenblatt
Published February 2010 by Harper Collins Publishers
Source: bought for my Nook

Publisher's Summary:
When Roger's daughter, Amy—a gifted doctor, mother, and wife—collapses and dies from an asymptomatic heart condition at age thirty-eight, Roger and his wife, Ginny, leave their home on the South Shore of Long Island to move in with their son-in-law, Harris, and their three young grandchildren: six-year-old Jessica, four-year-old Sammy, and one-year-old James, known as Bubbies.

Long past the years of diapers, homework, and recitals, Roger and Ginny—Boppo and Mimi to the kids—quickly reaccustom themselves to the world of small children: bedtime stories, talking toys, play-dates, nonstop questions, and nonsequential thought. Though reeling from Amy's death, they carry on, reconstructing a family, sustaining one another, and guiding three lively, alert, and tenderhearted children through the pains and confusions of grief. As he marvels at the strength of his son-in-law and the tenacity and skill of his wife, Roger attends each day to "the one household duty I have mastered"—preparing the morning toast perfectly to each child's liking.

My Thoughts:
One of my favorite books of 2013 was Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. It was not just wonderfully written, it also showed me what real grief was like, not just what the so-called experts teach us about it. I'd heard about Rosenblatt's Making Toast on NPR shortly after it was released and was intrigued. Still, just how many books about grief does one need to read. The answer is at least two.

Long past the days of diapers, car pools, and dance lessons, Roger and Ginny had to master their grandchildrens' schedules and reaccustom themselves to things about small children they'd forgotten when they moved into their daughter's home after her death. "There were playdates to arrange, birthday party invitations to respond to, school forms to fill out." The two of them had to find ways to be helpful, not step on their son-in-law's toes, and help their grandchildren deal with their loss all while trying to process their own grief.
"We begin to fit in to Amy's and Harris's house. We knew the house only as visiting family, having stayed for a few days at a time, perhaps a week. Now it is ours without belonging to us, familiar and strange."
Along the way, they were helped by an enormous group of people - their friends and family, co-workers, the parents of the children's friends, and Ligaya, Bubbies' nanny who said to them "You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most." Which is true. A group organized enough dinners for the family to last for six months, a scholarship was set up in Amy's name with donations from friends and colleagues, a bench was dedicated in Amy's honor at the children's school.

Even so, each member of the family had to deal with their loss and grief in their own way. Ginny wanted an answer as to why Amy died; Roger felt that knowing more would only deepen his anger. Ginny did not view the open casket before the funeral; in retrospect Roger felt she may have been right. Harris kept his emotions in check, Roger remained angry for months, Ginny felt guilt about taking over her daughter's role. Along the way, Rosenblatt remains honest about his feelings and shares what he has learned from the professional their family did turn to. In teaching the family about grief, she also gave them permission to have their feelings and hope. She spoke of "three elements of death difficult to come to terms with: its universality, its inevitability, and the fact that the dead are unable to function."

Catherine Andrews, the children's psychotherapist, told Rosenblatt that "one of the delusions of people in grief is that once a year passes, things will start to look up. She reminds us of what she told Harris at the outset, that grief is a lifelong process for everyone of us...As for the demarcation of a year, "Things actually get now realizing the hard truth that this is how life will be from now on. One year is no time at all." Something to bear in mind in our own lives as we deal with our own grief and that of others.
"This is our life. Without Harris and the children to fill in, we would be sitting in Quogue, manufacturing conversations between dark silences. I know we are creating a diversion for the children as well as a differently constructed life for them. Yet we are doing the same thing for ourselves. When Amy died, Ginny and I never had to confer as to where we wanted to be. We had to ask Harris, but not each other. Now, out we to ask him again? We decide that he will tell us when he wants us to go. And until then, my original answer of "forever" [when granddaughter Jessie asked him on the first day how long they were staying, he replied "forever"] stands."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Life: It Goes On - November 23

Good thing I don't call this the Sunday Salon any more - seems I'm getting worse and worse about getting it posted on Sunday! Or even Monday.

Mini-me and his girl decided to spend the afternoon with us on Sunday and, while we love having them over, it did put the rest of my day behind schedule. And by schedule, I mean the very long list of things I'm still trying to work through.

Also, Christmas cards took five or ten times longer than I planned. They always do. You'd think I'd learn. But I did get them ordered - now to get them picked up, addressed and mailed!

This Week I'm:

Listening To: Cry, The Beloved Country - beautifully read. I'm enjoying it a great deal.

Watching: The new Mad Max movie, "Fargo," "The Family Stone," "The Voice," and football, of course.

Reading: Still enjoying Kafka On The Shore, which I'm reading with Ti of Book Chatter but I did take a break to read Roger Rosenblatt's memoir, Making Toast: A Family Story, about life after the death of his daughter.

Making: Spaghetti pie, corned bread, chili - it's fall, time to bring out the heavier fare.

Planning: Thanksgiving with both sides of our family. The kids will all have to make a quick trip of it, with having to work on Friday. As for me, I'll be spending a good deal of Thursday scanning the ads for the annual plunge into Black Friday shopping with my sisters and nieces.

Grateful for: A snowfall Friday that was pretty but left no snow on the roads. Because I had a hair appointment first thing Saturday morning and my roots could not have gone another week! I feel ten years younger.

Enjoying: Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel in my office and Miss H's "new" room finally looking like her room.

Feeling: Tired. There is too much to do and not enough hours in the day.

Looking forward to: Family fun, cranberries, whipped cream with pumpkin pie, the biggest bowl of mashed potatoes you've ever seen, and our special Thanksgiving traditions. I only hope the sleet doesn't arrive before the annual field goal kicking contest can take place!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nonfiction November: Nontraditional Nonfiction

This week's prompt is hosted by Rebecca of I'm Lost In Books. Rebecca challenged us to focus on the nontraditional side of nonfiction.

The vast majority of the nonfiction I read is traditional publication - your basic hardcover and paperback print books. But I have tried a number of other formats:

Graphic: I've read a couple of graphic memoirs. In fact, my first ever graphic book (other than the comics I read as a child) was a graphic memoir. It was Marjane Satrapi's Perselopis, though, that helped me really connect with this nontraditional medium.

Audiobook: Ditto with a couple of nonfiction audiobooks, including Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes. Since I do all of my audiobook listening in the car, this is my least favorite way to "read" a work of nonfiction. It's too hard to focus, you can't stop and look up more information as you come across something you'd like to learn more about, and you miss out on any added pieces of the book, such as addendum. If I listened at home, I might enjoy nonfiction audiobooks more.

Ebooks: This might now be my favorite way to read nonfiction books since it's so easy to hit up the internet for more information as you go, including easy access to pictures. Another of Vowell's books, The Wordy Shipmates was my first Nook nonfiction. In fact, 20% of the books I have downloaded to my Nook are nonfiction reads. I'd love to get to a couple of those yet this month but with the holiday around the corner, I'm likely to get less reading down for the next couple of weeks rather than more.

Nonfiction Collections: For me, this means essays. Essays are something I've never read until the past couple of years. I've pretty much stuck to writers, so far, that had a good record for me before I even picked up their collections, Ann Patchett, Nora Ephron, and Anna Quindlen. Still, it's a type of nonfiction I'm definitely eager to read more of.

Clearly, I don't read enough nonfiction, and absolutely not enough nontraditional nonfiction, to be anything approaching an expert. But I'm dabbling and learning what I like. And while I'm not opposed to pushing myself to try new things, I think a lot of the enjoyment of reading comes from finding books that fall into your sweet spot.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip - Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Steve Dublanica
Published  July 2008 by HarperCollins
Source: purchased my Nook copy

Publisher's Summary:
According to The Waiter, eighty percent of customers are nice people just looking for something to eat. The remaining twenty percent, however, are socially maladjusted psychopaths. Waiter Rant offers the server's unique point of view, replete with tales of customer stupidity, arrogant misbehavior, and unseen bits of human grace transpiring in the most unlikely places. Through outrageous stories, The Waiter reveals the secrets to getting good service, proper tipping etiquette, and how to keep him from spitting in your food. The Waiter also shares his ongoing struggle, at age thirty-eight, to figure out if he can finally leave the first job at which he's truly thrived.

My Thoughts:
So, you know, all three have my kids have spent time in the food industry and they all have tales to tell about entitled customers, coworkers who don't pull their own weight, and management that has no idea how to manage. I've been listening to their stories for more than a decade so I knew this was a book I'd be able to relate it fits right into Nonfiction November and Fall Feasting. Perfect.

Dublanica is one of those people who, against his better judgement, fell into waiting when it was the only thing available to him. Turns out, he was good at it. Which is exactly why he found himself still waiting a decade after he started. Despite the long hours, the missed holidays, the demanding customers and petty complaints, the chance to make a lot of money in one evening was to great to give up.

Dublanica dishes on the ways in which restaurants wring money out of their customers, the unrealistic demands of customers, the power waiters have over customers that customers never see coming, and the power struggle that can happen among coworkers. During his years at The Bistro, Dublanica saw both the worst and the best of humanity. One night a young girl, eating with her parents, sees a homeless man peering into the restaurant's window. Dublanica's responses to her questions about the man, result in her father buying the man a meal.
"Maybe that dad felt guilty; maybe he was shielding his daughter from the coldness of the world; maybe he wanted to be nice. I stand there and try to figure out what that something was. After a while I give up. I don't need to know. I content myself with something I read on a bishop's coast of arms long ago - Love is ingenious. No matter how convoluted the motivations, loves impulses often triumph over our more selfish instincts. Maybe that's the very thing that makes life fit for living."
Thanks to his blog "Waiter Rant," Dublanica had the opportunity to write this book. His coworkers, many of whom must have felt trapped, were less than happy for him. Dublanica found himself less and less willing to play the game when faced with that kind of support. One particularly bad day, he just walked away from the job and into a writing career.

The book sometimes got bogged down in Dublanica's own story. It seems weird to say that, given that this is his story, but I was more interested in his experiences as a waiter than the work he put into getting this book published. Still, you're bound to learn some things about how to be a better restaurant customer. Or a better waiter, if that's where you find yourself. To that end, Dublanica even included three appendices in the back of the book including 40 tips on how to be a good customer. My favorite? "Do not snap your fingers to get the waiter's attention. Remember, we have shears that cut through bone in the kitchen."

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Published June 2010 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: both my print and audiobook copies were purchased
Narrator: Roxana Ortega

Publisher's Summary:
Interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.

We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist’s couch in New York City, confronting her long-standing compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then as a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life—divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban house—and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco’s punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang—who thrived and who faltered—and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie’s catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou’s far-flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall.

My Thoughts:
First, on listening to this one - while Roxane Ortega does an admirable job at the narration of A Visit From The Goon Squad, there are just too many different voices for one person to capture. This is an audiobook that would have greatly benefited by having multiple narrators. Egan has written a complex novel, which employs some very unique techniques, more a series of interconnected short stories than a novel. It's probably best read rather than listened to and I was glad to have a print copy.

A Visit From The Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, the 2010 National Book Award, and was on most of the major 2010 "best of" lists. You'll get no argument from me that this is a well-written book. But I'm almost certain that its unique style played a big part in its winning the awards. It's daring and complicated and the award people love to reward daring and complicated. Rightly so in this case. Egan has managed to use multiple points of view, moving the story back and forth in time, all while carrying her story forward more than forty years. In fact, because I was listening to it, instead of reading it, I often found myself lost trying to keep track of how characters were related. I was happy to stumble upon this graphic, which I referred to often once I found it.

created by Tessie Girl:Arts + Charts + Life

As with any collection of short stories, there were narratives I thought were weaker than others, or at least narratives that didn't draw me in as much and didn't feel like they added as much to the book. But when they were good, they were exceptional with characters I cared deeply and storylines that looked deeply into the abyss. Egan has a lot to say about our society - our priorities, the impact of technology and marketing on our lives, elitism, music, the passage of time - and none of it ends happily-ever-after. But in the final chapter, a dystopian future where babies have purchasing power and the world is just recovering from fifteen years of war, Egan poses the question (through a text), "If thr childrn, thr mst b a Futr, rt?"