Reader's Exchange

February 2011 - Posts

Remedial cooking lessons

People who think laughter is the best medicine apparently have never had morphine.

The pile of get-well cards my husband received offers more nuggets of humor, but that's my favorite. Its brevity also typifies the extent of my concentration lately. We've moved furniture to make way for orthopedic gadgets; the nurse, physical therapist, and others visit at different times each day.  Normal routines and lengthy intervals for reading have become infrequent.  Besides, witnessing the success of medical technology is pretty distracting.

When my reading dwindled down to hastily scanned emails and the newspaper, I combed the premises for volumes to peruse in small doses. Discovering two ideal choices, I found my joy tempered by the sheepish admission that I'd set aside Christmas gift books in exactly the same way my grandmother (and probably yours, too) quarantined her new treasures.  The sweater or robe or whatever would be admired, then relegated to a top shelf or bottom drawer because it was "too nice to use right away". By the time the gift was rescued from its solitary confinement, it would have gone out of style.

LemonsPerhaps back in December I foresaw that David Sedaris' Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk would solve my "what to read when I have fifteen minutes" quandary in February.  The second volume--Clara's Kitchen--was a present from my mother-in-law and is even more perfect because it's authored by a grandmother: Clara Cannucciari of online Great Depression Cooking fame. 

Clara's gift to the world (besides her wonderful family, including filmmaking grandson Chris Cannucciari) is her generous perspective on life and luck.  Recounting her clan's efforts to eke out a subsistence during the Depression, Clara draws the reader in with the depth of her appreciation for all the clever strategies her parents devised.  The 90+-year-old matriarch also manages to avoid implying that anyone too young to have experienced that era is thus lacking in moral fiber. 

If I hadn't already warmed to Clara's fondly detailed memories, I'd certainly have been won over by her account of working in a Hostess Twinkie factory.  Though not divulging any secrets of industrial dessert production, Clara does share mouth-watering recipes that are nutritious, inexpensive, and appealing.  Even without glossy color photos, these dishes (Eggplant Burgers, Fried Burdock, Quick Pickles, Bay Leaf Tea) sound so simple and natural that readers will be compelled to try at least a few.

Thanks to Clara, I now understand why one's kitchen should never be without lemons, that Pecorino Romano is better than Parmesan, and that resourcefulness and good humor are the ultimate survival tactics.  Laughter is powerful stuff, after all.  

Light but not lite

Technically, it isn’t eavesdropping if you’ve attempted to tune it out, right? The hospital waiting room was quiet, though, and one point of the conversation behind me definitely registered.

 While I’d brought a novel to occupy the hours I’d be sitting there; the ladies stationed behind me had opted for conversational distraction. Talk eventually turned to their book groups. One admitted that she wasn’t in the mood for this month’s selection, a well-regarded but hefty tome of issue-laden contemporary fiction. “Too much for me right now” was the verdict. “I wish they’d chosen something I could fit into my purse!”

 And there I was, less than two feet away, with exactly what she needed. Awkward!  Unwilling then­ to swivel around, intrude into the speaker's space, and prescribe what she ought to have brought, I’m now telling you instead. My handbag is fashionably huge, but these three wonderful but petite volumes would have fit into just about anyone's carryall with loads of space left over: 

  •  Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis ReyThis 131-page Pulitzer winner was my husband's choice, but he wasn't using it right then, what with the surgery and anesthesia, etc.
  •  Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell:  It inspired the Oscar-nominated film by the same name and creates a memorable story in only 193 pages.
  • Published in the UK in 2009 but just out here, Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing kept me so immersed that I had to check the page count--248--to verify that so much occurred in so few pages.Egypt travel poster

This period drama (English ladies--one with a capital "L"- taking up residence in 1860s Egypt) works equally well as travelogue, historical fiction, and romance.  ­­­­­­Lady Duff Gordon and her maid Sally (both actual historical figures)  embark upoin their sojourn just as antiquities preservation and tourism are beginning to alter the Egyptian landscape, both literally and figuratively. Imagine stumbling across an ancient scarab on your walk into town, or noting that fragments of a casually assembled garden wall still retain their hieroglyphic writing!

It’s fair to say that the geographic context is timely (tyrannical political leadership) and timeless.  What I appreciated, even more, however, was the interplay between Lady Duff Gordon, celebrated as a woman ahead of her time, and Sally, rendered socially powerless by her station and circumstances—or is she? Both individual readers and discussion groups will form opinions about Sally’s choices and the implications they suggest about custom and class distinction.

What great examples of "light" reading--space-saving and illuminating! 

Read 'em and weep

Call them "tearjerkers" or "weepers", but you know what I mean--books that make you cry.  Even if you don't admit to enjoying a good three-hankie read, you'll find one of your favorites on someone's shortlist.  Anything from A Child Called It to Gone with the Wind to All Quiet on the Western Front might be mentioned. 

Clearly, we don't agree on THE list.  Personal experiences vary, and those are the hooks on which literary anguish snags our attention.  Here's where we can all concur:  being able to choose the time and place to indulge in vicarious heartache is empowering.  Real-life milestones rarely feature this option. 

Right now, for example, library supporters are contemplating some tragic print.  Proposed cuts in the 2012-13 state budget eliminate funding for, among other projects, the statewide summer reading program for children, along with the K-12 databases at public libraries.  Grants from the Lone Star Libraries program would disappear;  Lone Star was the major funding source for the recently introduced Overdrive digital content at our library. Sad Oxford gargoyle

Just as public libraries serve increasing numbers of out-of-work patrons seeking to improve their employability and locate new positions, funding for most databases would also be cut.  As a colleague put it today, "In other words, the end of those offerings is just one budget away".

Saddest of all may be the ripple effects.  Loss of library services would hamper our ability to compete with other states as a residence of choice.  Should library standards be diminished, we risk reduction of federal library support if Texas institutions are no longer able to meet national funding criteria.