The End of Plagues by John Rhodes

One of my pet peeves is people who don’t vaccinate their kids. Yeah, I said it! Not only is this misguided and misinformed, but actively dangerous to the rest of us. There are people who are immune-compromised, so it’s even more imperative that those of us who can vaccinate do, to protect those very few. If you live in a city, in proximity to other people, it is important to be responsible to your community. If you want to be selfish and irrational, and do exactly what you want when you want to do it, then you should go live in the woods like the Unabomber. It seems that there are definitely people who cherish their notions and will act on them with total disregard for others – until it happens to them. I’ve reblogged a couple of columns by a very good blogger; one is about the dangers inherent in not vaccinating. In one case, a church in Texas promulgated anti-vaccination rhetoric….until their congregation was hit by measles. Then they changed their tune. For some people, that’s always the way. It has to happen to them, then they get it. Tragic.

I think that part of the problem is that there is hardly any living memory of these terrible diseases that we worked so hard to eradicate and immunize against. Anybody remember what a diphtheria epidemic was like? Polio? Smallpox? No. Things of the past, right? Well, they were horrifying enough that people devoted their lives to discovering ways to protect populations from them. Diptheria can kill (these diseases can all kill but diptheria’s mortality rate is 1 in 10 according to the Mayo Clinic website) but if you survive, you’re likely to be crippled, or have heart damage or nerve damage, as in you can’t breathe or swallow. I’d say that’s a pretty serious complication. Ditto polio. Other diseases like measles and scarlet fever can leave you blind and brain-damaged. Still think it’s ok to not vaccinate? Even chicken pox can lead to pneumonia. That’s something that people who think that these diseases aren’t so bad don’t consider. For some reason, the one in a million chance that their child could have an adverse reaction to a vaccine totally outweighs the much higher probability of death resulting from the diseases that these vaccines are meant to prevent. Before vaccinations, these diseases used to sweep through communities, leaving death and disorder in their wake. Winter brought diptheria. Summer brought polio. Look at 10 of the kids at your kid’s school. Picture losing one to diptheria. Picture losing another to whooping cough, and let’s say another two to polio. That’s just out of 10 kids, and that’s just one year. That’s why we developed vaccines, to prevent this kind of tragedy. Still not vivid enough? Here’s a quote about the 1955 polio epidemic in the United States:

“In September, a family living near Milwaukee was devastated by the disease. Four of their eight children were struck down by bulbar polio. In this, the most serious form of polio, the virus invades the cranial nerves that control breathing, swallowing, and speech…The eldest, Paul, was affected first; an athlete of sixteen, he woke up with headache, pain, and weakness in one shoulder. By evening, he could not cough or swallow. In hospital he was placed on a respirator at 6:30 pm; despite all the ministrations of intensive care, he died at 6:50. The next morning his four-year-old sister, Lorraine, woke with a headache and stiff neck and was rushed to hospital. Unlike her big brother, she ate well at suppertime, despite her sore throat, and fell soundly asleep, only to die without waking a few hours later. The day after this, her eight-year-old sister, Mary Ann, complaining of a sore throat and stiff neck, was rushed to hospital. When she began to vomit and had difficulty swallowing, doctors gave oxygen, penicillin, and plasma, and placed her in an iron lung. She continued to answer their questions until 6:15, when she died.

By now the Milwaukee family had lost three of their children, and they were praying hard for the remaining five. But two days later thirteen-year-old Barbara went down with a fever. Her headache was severe, she felt dizzy and nauseous, and in hospital she was fearfully aware of what her symptoms meant. Barbara went through the same intensive treatments as her sisters, but she died at 8 pm.” p. 117

Tragic enough for you? John Rhodes’ nonfiction book, The End of Plagues, is FULL of these stories. It’s a very well-written and concise account of the history of vaccination and immunology. It’s also full of interesting facts which I love, such as that Edward Jenner, who not only came up with the cowpox vaccine, also discovered a plesiosaur fossil. The guy had an interesting life, no? Thomas Jefferson became so passionate about vaccinations that he had his entire family and “staff” immunized, and when the doctor was busy he administered them himself. “By the end of 1801 he had introduced vaccination across Virginia as well as in Philadelphia and Washington, DC…These achievements would be admirable for any scientific investigator, but for a president of the United States they were, and surely must remain, unique.” p. 53

Of course, doctors and scientists such as Jenner and Salk, not to mention health boards, had to deal with people who were frightened of the unknown, and were skeptical of vaccinations. But in those days – Jenner’s first experiment with vaccination was May 14, 1796 – people did sometimes die from complications of the vaccinations. Also, people were not as broadly educated as they are today (you’d think) and of course feared and mistrusted innovation. But people! Hundreds of years have passed. We have education, we have safe vaccines, and even though smallpox has been eradicated, and most of these other diseases are rare in the First World, people still travel and bring back more than postcards with them.

Here’s a good place to insert this fact: VACCINES DON’T CAUSE AUTISM. That crazy theory has been totally disproved. Not to mention: VACCINES DON’T CONTAIN THIOMERSAL (MERCURY DERIVATIVE) AND HAVEN’T SINCE 2003.

Anyway, this book has lots of good information and fascinating history.  I have to finish this off now because it has to go back to the library. I’m going to leave you with a great quote:

“Every friend of humanity must look with pleasure on this discovery, by which one evil more is withdrawn from the condition of man; and must contemplate the possibility, that future improvements and discoveries may still more and more lessen the catalogue of evils. ” Thomas Jefferson, 1800.

And here’s the Mayo Clinic on vaccinations.

Also from scienceblogs.com, an interesting article about the antivaccine movement.

And please do check out this blog, Science-Based Pharmacy. I almost didn’t write this post because he’s got it covered, and he gets credit for finding the scienceblogs post, but I read this book and thought well, why not? There is an excellent chapter on the post World War I flu epidemic that I found interesting as I’m looking at the history of that conflict. (No, I probably won’t blog about that, I’ll spare you.) Overall, it’s a good reminder of what people went through to save us all from the horrific diseases that were the scourge of their time. They succeeded; in fact, they were so successful in controlling and eradicating these diseases that some of us now disregard and actually sometimes vilify the results of their efforts. Isn’t that incredible?

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Japan post coming up soon…..

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Trust, Television Doctors, and 15 Superfoods

This was a subject I was planning to write about, but it’s been done, and more concisely than I probably would have done, right here. Everybody needs to be following this blogger!

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Use of Homeopathy Kills Child

This is so true, and parents should be aware that reliance on homeopathic and naturopathic products can be dangerous. I think this issue is important enough to reblog, so here it is.

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Back to Back Borgias: Blood and Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant, and The Borgias (The Hidden History) by G.J. Meyer

One of my favorite things is to read a historical novel and then follow up with non-fiction  on the same topic. The novel pulls me in, and the nonfiction fills in the gaps. If I were a history teacher, this is how I would engage my students. So here we have a novel on the Borgias by Sarah Dunant, and then a nonfiction treatment of the family by G.J. Meyer, whose book The Tudors I absolutely loved. See blog post here.

Blood and Beauty opens with the election of Rodrigo Borgia to the papacy. Instead of a modest acceptance of the election results, he exults in his new office, sort of like an over-the-top Oscar winner. He immediately begins planning and plotting, insisting his son Cesare become a cardinal even though he will have to do a lot of plotting to pull that off, and building family alliances through his daughter Lucrezia and sons Juan and Jofré. There is lots of political finagling and positioning, interspersed with sessions in bed with his mistress, Giulia Farnese, who is the beautiful blond wife of his nephew! There is much about the political situation of Europe at the time, and the careful balancing of power between France, Spain, and the various principalities that made up 16th-century Italy. Great stuff. If you have the vague notion of the Borgias as this evil, conniving family, with Lucrezia as an incestuous poisoner and Cesare as equally evil (he was the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince, after all), you will be pleasantly surprised by this more sensitive treatment of a very human family, especially the portrayal of Lucrezia. Interested in learning about the Renaissance? This novel is a good way to start.

(spoiler alert)

Until you read G.J. Meyer’s The Borgias. And realize that all that Borgia hype is just anti-Catholic propaganda! I was very surprised by this. Apparently a few scholars have dug deeper and discovered that 1) Rodrigo Borgia did not father Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Jofré, they were his sister’s kids 2) nepotism was normal in those days and if they weren’t his kids it’s not exactly nepotism, 3) they didn’t poison anybody, 4) they didn’t commit incest, 5) Cesare did not kill Juan….and so on. Most importantly, the rise of anti-Catholicism which led to Martin Luther and the Reformation meant that there were writers who had an agenda: blackening the Catholic church in order to justify the Reformation. Why the Borgias, specifically? For one, the pope who succeeded Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) was one Giuliano Della Rovere (Pope Julius II) , who was beaten out for the papacy twice, once by a man to whom Borgia was close, then Borgia himself. He hated Rodrigo Borgia. So when he finally got on the hot seat, he was intent on discrediting his predecessor. In fact, he tortured known Borgia associates hoping to extract “damaging material.” Nothing came up but no matter; rumours were good enough and Julius would reward those who provided such fictions. There’s a lot of this in history (i.e. Tudor propaganda vigorously disseminated in order to make Henry VII feel secure, which is why Shakespeare portrayed Richard III as a villainous hunchback; it was the kind of thing that pleased a Tudor monarch), you’d think we’d have learned by now. When writers seeking to advance the cause of the Reformation needed colourful stories to illustrate the corruption of the Catholic church, they easily found all this Julius-promoted scandal and didn’t really question their sources. G.J. Meyer, on the other hand, is very clear about his sources, so I’m inclined to believe this version. He points out that most of the scurrilous stories about the Borgias were written by people who weren’t even alive during the Borgias’ lifetimes. The stories began once the Borgias were dead and the next Pope, a real hater, wanted dirt. When it comes to supposedly-incriminating Vatican documents, he points out that Vatican documents were often forged, and the Borgia-scandal Vatican documents are not even good forgeries. He maps out where Rodrigo Borgia was when the children attributed to him were born, and it’s clear that it was geographically impossible for him to impregnate Vannozza when he was in Spain and she was in Italy. Lots more of that, and it becomes very clear that the Borgias were an interesting Renaissance family, but that’s about it. Although when you look at his achievements, Rodrigo Borgia was a very good Pope! Rather boring, actually! So if you’re enjoying the HBO series The Borgias, just remember to take it with a grain of salt. It’s about as truthful as The Tudors series was.

As a history of the Renaissance, The Borgias is a great book and improves vastly one’s understanding of the political landscape of Italy and Europe. There are many explanatory chapters interspersed with the narrative that deal with the rise of ambassadorships in Europe (started in Italy!), the emergence of global exploration as a powerful mechanism by which a country might rise to prominence (Portugal), and similar Renaissance-related topics which enhance one’s understanding of the narrative.

I’m loving G.J. Meyer’s work and can’t wait to get into another of his books, A World Undone, which is about the First World War.

(please excuse some clunky prose; I’m WAAAAY behind on blog posts and am trying to get it all done before the Christmas rush starts so I’m not editing very carefully)

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What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

If you’re not an Austen fan, this post probably isn’t for you. Fortunately, I am a big Austen fan and I LOVED this book. I wish I’d had it when I was studying the 19th-century novel in university. There are so many significant details to notice in Austen and of course while we noticed some, this book is crammed with many we totally missed.

John Mullan is a professor of English at University College London who also appears on the BBC, and writes a book column for the Guardian, and judges the Booker Prize, so while he is a credited academic he also has a flair for writing for Everyone, which includes me. If you have read at least a few of Austen’s books, you will find this book very entertaining and fun to read. For me, it was revelation after revelation and feeling simultaneously exhilarated by Mullan’s insights and also very foolish for not having noticed these details before, myself. After all, I have read and re-read Austen’s novels for well over 20 years. But I was reading for enjoyment and not necessarily for literary criticism, so that’s my excuse.

What does Mullan investigate? Well, age, for one. He points out that the film adaptations of Austen’s books often miscast actors by age. For instance, Mrs. Bennett is usually portrayed by an actress in her 60s, but as her eldest daughter is only 21, and she was likely married by 18, she is closer to 40. Mr. Collins was played by Tom Hollander, 38, in the most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but he is introduced by the author as being 25. Similarly, Emma Thompson in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is 36, but the character, Elinor Dashwood, is 19. And on and on.

The notion of the seaside being a place of instability is actually something we touched on in English class, along with the idea of indoors being somehow more safer and regulated than the outdoors. Brighton is where Lydia Bennett meets up with and elopes with Wickham. In Lyme, Julia Musgrove acts like an idiot and becomes injured. However, Lyme is also the place where Anne Elliot, her complexion revived by the sea air, attracts the admiration of Mr. Elliot (the younger and heir of her father) and also regains the attentions of Captain Wentworth, so there is an element of liberation and freedom along with the danger.

Other issues such as names – what do characters call each other? – are also exposed and examined in great details. How much Money is Enough? and Why is the Weather Important? are chapter titles. I also loved Chapter 16: Are Ill People Really to Blame for Their Illnesses?

Mullan also looks at sex in Jane Austen. Before I read this chapter, I would have said, essentially, that there isn’t any. Well, ok, off the top of my head: Lydia Bennett and Wickham, Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford and Julia Bertram and John Yates. That’s it, along with the awareness of illegitimacy here and there. However, guided by Mullan’s keen take on Jane Austen and the 19th-century novel, I realized that her books are actually seething with sex or at least the understanding of it, and the impact of sex on the lives of her characters. One of Austen’s themes is that of the marriage made on the basis of sexual attraction which then dissipates, leaving a mismatched and unhappy couple. Mr. Bennett is saddled with the foolish Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Palmer (S & S) with his equally silly wife.  Sir Thomas Bertram and the indolent Lady Bertram and Mr. John Knightley and his wife are more examples. Lucy Steele too, is credited with “considerable beauty” and we must assume that she must be pretty sexy because there is no other reason to marry her, yet she manages to ensnare both Edward Ferrars and his brother Robert. The very famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice gives away a man’s “need” for a wife. Not because he wants to enter into domesticity per se, but because of a need for a sexual relationship – gasp! I never even considered that before, and I was blown away by this chapter. Armed with a new understanding of Austen code, I now find the novels almost embarrassingly racy: the “great happiness” of Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars’ honeymoon, the month of sex enjoyed by Lydia Bennett with Wickham before marriage – yikes! Not only that, but Austen indicates which couples enjoy an active sex life via evidence of fertility. Catherine Morland has something like 13 siblings! Yow. Mr. Palmer, though he clearly has contempt for his wife, still also clearly sleeps with her, because she is pregnant in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. and Mrs. Weston, who are married at the beginning of Emma, are pregnant within a month. Hot stuff.

I was also very taken by the chapter on blushing: What Makes Characters Blush? Again Mullan refers to film adaptations: though actors can usually weep on demand, it is impossible to fake a blush, yet blushes are very key to understanding Austen’s characters. Blushing can indicate a social awareness, embarrassment for someone else’s insensitivity. Elizabeth Bennett blushes for her mother’s silly remarks, because her mother lacks the awareness to blush for herself. Elinor Dashwood blushes for the dishonesty of Lucy Steele. Charlotte Lucas blushes when her husband, Mr. Collins, blathers on pompously. Blushing is also connected to innocence, virtue and simplicity. Fanny Price is a champion blusher, always colouring in angry response to others’ indiscreet or disparaging talk, blushing when teased about the unwanted affection of Henry Crawford. Because Fanny is one of Austen’s most silent heroines, her blushes serve as statements of opinion and feeling in lieu of dialogue. She blushes when she’s treated rudely, she blushes when she’s complimented, but she rarely is bold enough to make open remarks. Harriet Smith and Catherine Morland are also blushing left and right, mostly because of their innocence. Blushing also indicates truth and awareness, as Anne Elliot blushes when Mrs. Smith guesses her secret desire for Captain Wentworth. Elizabeth Bennett and Marianne Dashwood also blush with self-consciousness of their secrets, Elizabeth because although she knows that she and Darcy are falling in love, other people are still acting on the assumption that she dislikes him. Marianne blushes because people begin to assume, wrongly, that she and Willoughby are engaged. She knows darn well they aren’t and that they have been behaving in a way that leads to that assumption. Mutual blushing is also given as evidence of mutual love, such as Elizabeth and Darcy’s blushing together. Awwwww.

That’s more detail than I usually give in a book review, and it’s only brief snippets. But it’s pretty interesting, no?

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Summer Books! Spies and Monsters and Teenagers, oh my

There are intelligent books, and there are summer reads. In the summer I’m not looking for challenging literature, because I keep getting interrupted by kids, house guests and meal times. However, this year I’ve had the good fortune to read intelligent books that were also loads of fun, and it’s been wonderful.

Last summer I read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy. I’d been impressed by this youth lit fantasy so I thought I’d try a few more I’d had recommended to me. Veronica Roth’s Divergent was one such. Once again, dystopian future, disaffected rebellious youth. I liked it enough to download Insurgent, the second book in the series. Book Three is due out some time this fall, so I’ll watch for that.

Cassandra Clare’s ‘City of -‘ books have been made into a movie so I figure they’re really hitting the mainstream and I’d better catch up. I read the first three about a year ago, downloaded the rest, then forgot about it and got her mixed up with Cassandra Clark (more on her work later). I have to keep a list of the books in order so that I don’t get lost. This is important with e-books because you don’t have the benefit of a quick glance at an endplate to see what this one’s all about and where it fits in the series. In this story, there are special descendants of angels called the Nephilim. They are sort of UN peacekeepers of the supernatural world; when vampires, werewolves, or similar get out of line, the Nephilim sort everyone out. Plus they’re gorgeous and really well dressed. The main character finds out late that she is a Nephilim, she falls in love with a Nephilim, there’s a confused bit where they think they’re brother and sister for a while, but then it’s all good, except that her personal style never catches up and she feels really insecure. Her best friend becomes a vampire, her mother’s boyfriend turns out to be a werewolf leader, but they all get along. It’s fun, there’s lots of drama, a certain amount of silliness, but it’s a good read nevertheless. How good? I’ve downloaded her next series, Clockwork this and that. Angel, Prince, Princess, I believe.

I had Cassandra Clark’s books downloaded because initially I mixed her up with Cassandra Clare. I identified my mistake but then looked into the matter and found that Cassandra Clark writes intelligent medieval murder mysteries! Jackpot! I think I actually cheered when I discovered this. Her protagonist is a nun named Hildegard and the stories are set during the reign of Richard II, the boy king, son of the Black Prince, nephew of John of Gaunt. This is a period I’m not very familiar with so I’m happy to have some fun fiction to bring this era to life. Prepare for nerdiness: I find it’s easy to follow the monarchy from William the Conqueror through to Edward I (Longshanks) but then it gets a bit confused (because Sharon Kay Penman’s books stop around there and I have to depend on non-fiction to fill in gaps). Edward II’s wife essentially pulled off a coup with Roger Mortimer and they did away with Edward II, but her son, Edward III (not the offspring of William Wallace, I’m sad to say because that would be awesome) took the throne when he achieved his majority (and executed Mortimer). His son Edward was the Black Prince who died before his father. Richard II was overthrown by his cousin and son of John of Gaunt, Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV. Then Henry V (Agincourt). His son, Henry VI, was a weak king. Because of this and because he had such a strong French wife whom everybody hated (Margaret of Anjou), his cousin Richard of York started going after the throne, thus beginning the Wars of the Roses (Philippa Gregory’s books start here and go right through the Tudors; Sharon Kay Penman has a book about the Wars of the Roses also). That little exposition is not necessary in a quick review of Clark’s books but I just wanted to see if I could do it. One of those bursts of nerdiness that are hard to control. I’m interested in seeing how Clark deals with the downfall of Richard II, so I’m hoping for more Hildegard stories. I’ve read Hangman Blind, The Red Velvet Turnshoe, The Law of Angels, and Parliament of Spies. Enjoyed them all, especially Parliament of Spies and if you read it you’ll know why. Yow! But read them in order first!

In the spring I’d picked up a prominently displayed book by Daniel Silva in the library (thank you library people!) and it was GRIPPING. Whenever a good espionage writer comes along he’s compared to John LeCarré; in my opinion Daniel Silva is even better. I’ve downloaded his Gabriel Allon series (The Kill Artist, The English Assassin, The Confessor, A Death in Vienna, and it goes on) and am galloping through it. Gabriel Allon is an Israeli assassin who daylights as an art restorer. He’s also good-looking, speaks a zillion languages, totally cool. Yet he’s not cheesy. He’s an assassin with a conscience; he was part of the team who avenged the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes. (I’m interested in comparing the characters in the movie Munich to Daniel Silva’s books to see if they correspond.) So far, he’s been part of teams that have blown open Swiss banking collaboration during the war and the major art thefts that happened under the Third Reich and also a team that investigated a threat to a Pope who wants to open the Vatican’s Secret Archives to expose the Church’s role in the Holocaust. Whoa. Interesting and well-researched, and intensely gripping. Just enough description so you can get a good picture in your mind, and enough character development that you have emotional connection to the various players. If you like Ken Follett, John LeCarré and similar you’ll love Silva.

Before we went to the Island I was downloading books for my Sony Reader, and I often visit best-seller lists to see what’s new. Here I found Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Joe Hill’s NOS4A2. I downloaded them, took them with me on the ferry and started reading. The Neil Gaiman book was hard to read at first because the download had something wrong with it; every apostrophe was misrepresented by a weird tangle of characters. This went on for chapters but eventually the text improved. Nevertheless, I found I was obsessively reading late into the night to see What Happens. It’s one of those charmingly rooted fantasies in which the world of magic is separated from ours by the thinnest of veils. Someone stumbles through, and chaos ensues. It’s lovely and humorous (reminds me a bit of Christopher Moore) and I immediately went back to the Sony site to find other Gaiman books, and found that he is the writer of Stardust, one of our favourite movies.

I read through Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 thinking to myself, “This guy’s read a lot of Stephen King,” because it’s a very Kinglike novel and I honestly think that any writer of horror nowadays has to be familiar with King’s incredible oeuvre, as King himself references H.P. Lovecraft. Vampire writers hearken to Bram Stoker, ghost story writers to Wilkie Collins, etc. So as I read, I thought, Scary, monsters, children, etc. = King influence! Great fun. So then I read the Acknowledgements at the end and he thanks Tabitha King – his mother, which means he’s the son of Stephen King! It’s genetic, folks. Immediate download of previous works followed.

I am a big fan of Barbara Vine – who is actually Ruth Rendell, famous British mystery novelist. I actually prefer the Vine novels however, as they are dark and psychological. The Child’s Child is her newest and once you start reading you are totally sucked in. Rendell is a genius. I’d started to read the new Dan Brown novel and, sorry Dan, it was hard labor. I was doing that thing where you say to yourself, I’ll read 30 pages and then if I’m still not intrigued then I’ll quit. But then I figured, a Canadian summer’s too short for this, and started the Vine book. And she whisked me away into her world. Effortless. I cannot recommend her books highly enough.

Postscript: Before summer began I read two very good nonfiction books which I’ll just name here: Paleofantasy, by Marlene Zuk. There’s a good review in the Guardian on this book. Basically, when someone tells you you need to eat a lot of meat/don’t eat carbs or dairy/run barefoot, because when we were cavemen that’s what we did, they’re full of nonsense. And anyway, cavemen didn’t live so long so why should we copy their habits? They ate meat, or fish, or whatever, because that’s what was available; they didn’t have a Cupcakes store two blocks from their house the way we do. Anyway, archaeologists have proven that they did eat carbs because they analyzed plaque in Neanderthal teeth, so there. Read the book, and you’ll be armed with knowledge against this kind of bizarre notion. I’ve heard a lot of this twaddle lately so I was glad to read a book by an actual evolutionary biologist who is also rolling her eyes. The other is With Charity for All, by Ken Stern. This is about the charity business in the United States and I figure Canada isn’t much different. Good review in the Wall Street Journal online. It was hard to read.I’ve read other books about charities being big frauds but it’s really depressing to seriously contemplate. Nevertheless, it’s well written, well researched and we need to know this stuff!

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Summer Update!

My limited spare time has been taken up by practicing piano, as I had a piano lesson in July! My first in over 25 years. I was so nervous my hands were shaking and I made way more mistakes than I usually do. But it was extremely beneficial so I’m glad I did it. Many hours on Beethoven’s Sonata 17, the one Glenn Gould plays like his hair’s on fire and he can’t douse it until he’s through. Obviously I don’t play it that fast, but I’m working on memorization now and I think that will help with a lot of issues. I’ve now been working on this for 6 months! On and off, obviously, but still. My husband’s starting to feel he could probably play it himself by now, he’s heard it so much.

So that’s one reason I’m a bit behind on the blogging. We spent three weeks on Vancouver Island, which we call The Island, and it was gorgeous:IMG_8133

And we made cinnamon buns:

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But we had SO MANY guests. Too many. And when you have guests, you wind up making major breakfast, major lunch, and then a major dinner. For 15! So I had very little down time and that’s exhausting. It’s hard though; I love everyone who came, I’m happy to have seen them, but it was too much. Not sure how we’ll organize things next year but something has to give. I don’t think it’s cool to suffer through stuff that you can totally control and then complain about it later, but that’s essentially what I’ve just done. Sorry! Learn from my mistakes.

Next year’s resolutions:

  • Limit stays to 3 nights MAX.
  • Try to have only one family at a time.
  • Have Leftover Night and if people don’t like it then maybe they won’t come next year. Yes, we’re restaurateurs and we eat leftovers.
  • Let people fend for themselves for breakfast! Everyone gets up at a different time. Brunch once a week only.
  • Ask people to take responsibility for one meal. It’s nice that people bring food, but sometimes it’s extremely difficult to make a coherent meal plan with a lot of rapidly spoiling, diverse ingredients.

Pet peeves:

People who wander through and say vaguely, “Anything I can do?” before wandering out again. It’s annoying to have to be the general all the time. I have to think of tasks for people to do. That’s work in itself.

When people do something helpful but make more work for me in the end. Someone did dishes but didn’t rinse anything first, just got the sponge all clagged up with black grease so I had to throw it away. And you can’t complain! That’s the thing. Because people are Helping. But sometimes no help is better than some help. Like when people put my expensive Japanese knives in the dishwasher! OH YES THEY DID. And I can’t be mad when people are trying to be helpful. But I’m mad anyway, I just feel really guilty about it. You should see me smile with gritted teeth. But. At the end of the day, it’s all good, and I’m grateful to have wonderful friends and family who want to spend time with us! You take the good, you take the bad. I took the good, and now I’m kvetching here.

Now I’ve just come back from being a house guest at someone else’s beach cottage. Ahhh. That was fun! We stayed 3 nights – because that’s enough – and I taught my hosts how to make cinnamon buns.

Next post: book reviews!

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Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

Wonderful books are coming at me from every direction, it seems. Once again I have the amazing librarians at the VPL to thank for putting Seating Arrangements where I would be sure to spy it and add it to my heap of books. I’m actually going to download this as well, the writing is that good. And I have it on hand so I can provide a few quotes to prove just how fun this book is.

When I wrote about Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, I noted a trend in literature coming from the UK. There is a similar yet distinct vein in American writing as well, of which I am equally fond. The best examples are, in my opinion, Richard Russo, Jonathan Franzen, John Irving and Curtis Sittenfeld.  Again, it’s the relatively common-sense expository style that I like. These writers however, are more explicit in their examinations of social mores than are the English.  (Both include details of food and clothing which I love.)

Seating Arrangements deals largely with social striving, the futility of endlessly climbing a ladder which has no end:

“These people, this pervasive clique, this Establishment to which Winn had attached himself and his family, seemed intent on dividing their community into smaller and smaller fractions, halves of halves, always approaching but never reaching some axis of perfect exclusivity.” p. 75

“Years had to pass before Dominique could see the strain they placed on themselves or, rather, what their grand goal was. They wanted to be aristocrats in a country that was not supposed to have an aristocracy, that was, in fact, founded partly as a protest against hereditary power. That was what Dominique could not understand: why devote so much energy to imitating a system that was supposed to be defunct? Any hereditary aristocracy was stupid, and Americans didn’t even have rules for theirs, not really. Lots of the kids Dominique knew at Deerfield came from families dedicated to perpetuating some moldy, half-understood code of conduct passed along by generations of impostors. But, she supposed, people who believe themselves to be well bred wouldn’t want to give up their invented castes because then they might be left with nothing, no one to appreciate their special clubs, their family trees, their tricky manners, their threadbare wealth.” p. 78

Dominique is a Coptic Christian Egyptian who attended private school and later Princeton with the protagonist’s daughters. She provides the outside voice who makes cool observations of the others. The protagonist, Winn, seems at first like a classic East Coast patrician. But as the novel progresses the fragile construct that Winn lives by is slowly eroded as the reader – and Winn himself – discovers just how tenuous his grip on his social status really is. You have to feel pity for Winn as he seems obsessed with a golf club which refuses to admit him. He keeps casting about for reasons and he descends into pitiable gestures, flailings at those he imagines are responsible. His shallow yearnings inspire contempt and pity, and his weak attraction to his daughter’s friend makes it even worse. Meanwhile one of his daughters is hugely pregnant and about to be married, and the other is suffering from rejection and an abortion. The first daughter has completely bought into the faux-aristocratic lifestyle; his second makes bitter observations about the uselessness of all the striving:

“The club, she thought, was an institution that existed for little purpose other than to select its members. Once you were in, then what?” p. 70

“People shuffled the order of love, marriage, and baby carriage all the time, but not people who had grown up under the contiguous roofs of Winn Van Meter, Deerfield, and Princeton.” p. 260

Livia also makes some amusing observations: while being prepped for her abortion, she notices, “an apparatus the size and shape of a small water cooler covered with a quilted, strawberry-printed sort of tea cozy. Was there some booth at a craft fair that sold cheerful, handmade accessories for abortionists?” p. 263

Winn’s concern for his status far outweighs his concern for his daughters and his wife and he seems completely oblivious to the undercurrents and tensions that surround him as guests and family gather for his daughter’s wedding, whilst he simultaneously becomes more and more hysterical about the perceived snub of the golf club. He gives a disastrous toast in which he compares marriage to death: “What else is there to do? You can’t date forever. We don’t want to be alone. We marry, and we live out our lives. Then…well, marriage, even a happy marriage like my own and like I’m sure yours will be, Daphne, is a precursor to death. If you never leave your partner and you’re faithful, marriage has the same kind of finality. there is nothing else.” Awesome. Immediately afterward his new son-in-law explains to the gathering that Winn was knocked off his bicycle earlier and is under the influence of painkillers. And Winn, in the grip of despair at being barred from the holiest of holies, is just getting started. I’m going to stop here before I give it all away.

I find it interesting, the desire – and I don’t think it’s exclusive to Americans – for a kind of caste system in which one is at the peak or at least in sight of the peak. I think it’s significant that the two biggest commercial vendors of this fictional aristocratic image are both immigrants or children of immigrants – Ralph Lauren, formerly Lifshitz, and Martha Stewart, formerly Kostyra. There have been enough wealthy Americans aping British aristocracy for them to be able to re-create, visually, a lifestyle that never really existed. (Jonathan Raban writes about the Ralph Lifshitz/Lauren phenomenon in his book Hunting Mr. Heartbreak.)

Dominique: “As a member of an unpopular minority in her home country, secular though she and her parents were, she thought she should be outraged by WASPy illusions of grandeur and birthright, their smugness, the nepotistic power they wielded. But the worst she could summon was a bleak, mild pity, and more often, she felt a bleak, mild amusement. Her sense was that the Van Meters had to throw more elbows than some to keep their status, and at times she caught herself feeling sorry for them.” p. 79

I suppose there are lots of people who need to feel better than other people, albeit for equally silly qualities or achievements. When I lived in England I kept meeting people who behaved in a very superior manner towards others, but when you talked to them to try to find out exactly how excellent they were and why, it would essentially boil down to the fact that they were born to a family that had pretensions to some kind of social loftiness. They would often have no great skills, or interesting work, or even a university degree. I would have settled for “idle philosopher” but most of them didn’t seem to think, even. They didn’t read, they didn’t engage in the world, yet they considered themselves a cut above everyone else. It all came down to being born. Talk about confusing luck with virtue. I always thought that was very sad – there must be immense depths of insecurity for someone to clutch onto this ephemeral idea of superiority. If you know anything at all about English history, or even if you’ve read Edward Rutherfurd’s London or similar books, you know that titles and aristocracy could be happened upon accidentally, or even bought. Charles II was an impoverished king who sold titles left and right to anybody who had the ready cash. Even in Downtown Abbey, Lord Grantham has married an American woman whose fortune has enabled him to remain Lord Grantham. The rest of the family condescends to Cora, but without her money – her American money – they wouldn’t have a silver pot to P in. In Australia, we discovered that if you want to make an Australian bristle, bring up convict ships. I guess the First Fleet, though it has a cachet of its own, is not exactly the same as the Mayflower. Even the Mayflower – in Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent he describes the passengers of the Mayflower as being woefully unequipped and too incompetent to survive life in the New World. There must be something to be proud of in there but I’m not sure what it is.

In my own family, people periodically mention the fact that my great-grandfather entertained the Prince of Wales when HRH came to Canada in the 1920s. I always think, So what? HRH’s train happened to stop in Lethbridge, Alberta, a community that consisted of maybe 20 Doukhobors and then Pete and Margaret Smith, who had come north to Canada leaving behind their Mormon roots in Utah so that they could have a drink in peace. The train had to stop somewhere and Lethbridge was convenient. I picture the royal equerry choosing activities for HRH and pondering: a tour of a Doukhobor farm, or a night with the area’s bon vivant? Tough choice! I don’t drink but even I would choose to hang out with Granddad Pete over touring a pig farm. Of course, I have actually toured a Doukhobor farm on a family visit so I know of which I speak – being a city kid, I found that the farm produced aromas that I found, um, strong, so I was holding my hand to my face. One of our Doukhobor hostesses, a lady in a starched apron and wire-rimmed glasses, frowned at me and flicked my hand away from my face, like I was going to offend the pigs. I retaliated by lifting my t-shirt over my nose and glaring at her over the collar.

So, “entertaining royalty”, though it sounds good, just means that Granddad could party and there was nobody else available who spoke English and not Russian. Dubious distinction at best! Why do we have such a weakness for our little pedigrees? What does it all actually mean? In the New World, not a whole lot, and that should really apply to the Old World as well. Remember the French Revolution? How long did it take for Napoleon to resurrect all that noble fawning? In Communist countries, party officials become puffed-up elites clad in Louis Vuitton bought with kickback money. Drug dealers use their ill-gotten loot to gain admittance for their children to private schools in attempts to achieve respectability, like the Corleones. Climbing, climbing, always climbing, trying to forget from whence we really came.

Anyway, enough about me. Seating Arrangements pokes fun at this phenomenon more eloquently than I can, it’s hilarious, and the writing is wonderful. And Ms. Shipstead was born in 1983! She’s so young but has such a grip on the language. Kudos to her. There were no mistakes in grammar or usage which was a a relief, although this is often the failing of editors and copyeditors. (In this week’s edition of Maclean’s magazine (Canadian news magazine) someone wrote, “a lower-wrung staffer” – italics mine. I winced when I read it.)

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Seven Annoying Things People Say to Pianists

Emily says it so well…..I have a sad memory about being asked to play something at the last minute: when my great-grandmother died, my father asked me – 1 hour before we were to leave for the memorial service – if I would play her favorite song, “Beautiful Dreamer.” I had some music for it, but I just couldn’t prepare it quickly enough so I refused, and my dad was really mad at me that whole day. I’ve always wondered if I should have just blundered through it, but it felt really wrong.

The Bookshelf of Emily J.

I was talking to one of my friends recently about the problems with being a pianist.  She plays the piano like I do, and we are often asked to accompany people at our church when they sing or play another instrument.  We came to the conclusion that it really is a thankless job, even though we enjoy doing it.

This conversation prompted me to think of seven of the annoying things people commonly say to pianists.

1. “I wish I could play as well as you do.”

Well, you can.  You just need to start practicing.  Begin taking lessons, and then practice for an hour or more a day for at least ten years.  Then you’ll be as “good” as me.

2. “I’m just not blessed with that talent.”

Neither am I.  See my response to comment number 1.

3.  “Can you accompany me tomorrow?  The music has four sharps…

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Fleetwood Mac

My parents were children of the ’50s and ’60s – mostly the ’60s, and their musical tastes reflected this fact. My dad had the Stones’ White Album, and I grew up listening to Elton John and Iron Butterfly. In the ’70s, my mom bought Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and Dad bought Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album. I still know all the words to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Just the Piano Player – the albums, not just the songs, and I can identify a Fleetwood Mac song within the first bar. My dad’s taste was particularly eclectic. I never could figure out the parameters of his taste, and he had odd limits. For instance, he had all the Elton John albums as long as Bernie Taupin was John’s lyricist. After Taupin left, no more Elton John. I guess Bernie Taupin was The Man. He had all the classic rock, but as we moved into the ’80s, his taste started to range far and wide. I remember eating Sunday brunch on the patio to the strains of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville album. He had Steve Winwood’s album, the one that was hard to get hold of, before anybody else. He also had Dolly Parton and Billy Ocean. “Caribbean Queen” is one of those songs that will stick in your head and drive you to insanity. Dad used to wake me up in the mornings on the weekends by blasting Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. (My mother favoured Van Cliburn and Itzhak Perlman.) Saturday mornings were about housework, in our house, and although Dad did the brunt of it, he hated to work whilst others lazed around. And we had to get up early on the weekends, too, as though we were farmers and had cows that needed milking.

So my musical taste, too, is whimsical and hard to pinpoint. I love classical music, but nothing too obscure, and nothing too popular. I like a tune I can whistle, but not one everyone can whistle. When my sister got married I recommended the Adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – forestalling the inevitable selection of Pachelbel’s Canon. I’m glad she went with my recommendation. Sweet, wistful, with Mozart’s inevitability, and familiar enough to most of the congregation, the Adagio went perfectly with my sister’s entrance and walk down the aisle. My favorite classical playlist includes the Adagio, Bach’s Air on the G String, and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. I have a lot of piano music as well, Mozart piano sonatas, Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, Chopin Nocturnes and Impromptus. Also some opera arias – I’m not an opera buff but I like some of the more famous arias. I find that iTunes is great for finding obscure classical music, but “shuffle” is not meant for your classical playlist.

When you look at my pop playlists, there are definitely some odd selections, I’ll admit. I have a weak spot for one-hit wonders, like Jermaine Stewart’s We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off (To Have a Good time) or Ace of Base. I have a little bit of country in there too: Dixie Chicks, Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift and John Denver. Amy Grant and Peter Cetera’s duet “Next Time I Fall”. The B-52’s “Roam.” I have a ’50s playlist, and an ’80s playlist that runs to hundreds of songs. Yes, it’s far out. It takes me a while to catch on to new music nowadays, as I don’t listen to the radio the way I used to when I was young. So, lots of old stuff, and LOTS of Fleetwood Mac.

So, we went to see Fleetwood Mac last week! They played Rogers Arena and it was sold out. This surprised me as I asked some friends if they liked Fleetwood Mac and they responded diplomatically, “Um….not really.” It was like I’d asked if they liked liver. It was not easy finding people to come with us to this concert – and we had access to box seats! We ended up going with one other couple, and our kids.

I don’t go to rock concerts in general. They’re always too loud and it’s not comfortable. People get excited and jump on your toes. I think I can count the concerts I’ve been to on one hand. Let’s see: Lionel Richie, Rolling Stones, George Michael, Lady Gaga, Fleetwood Mac. Yep! I may have missed a few but I don’t think so. The last 3 were in box seats else I wouldn’t have gone to those either. I don’t like crowds.

But Fleetwood Mac is special to me. It reminds me of my father. It reminds me of being young. I used to do border runs for my boss when I worked at a classical CD store, and I would play Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits because it was a CD that I could play straight through without wanting to skip songs. So there I was, 21 years old, driving down the highway on a sunny Friday afternoon….listening to Fleetwood Mac. I was geriatric even then! But how can you not love Christine McVie’s cool alto, Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar licks, Mick Fleetwood’s demented drumming, Stevie Nicks’ raw honeyed voice…..John McVie’s….bass playing? Unfortunately, Christine McVie did not join this tour, which was a major drawback as she sings my favourite FM songs. You can tell what she’s saying, unlike when Stevie sings. I love her but her enunciation is worse than Alanis Morrissette’s. It makes them difficult to sing along with, no?

I don’t know what the median age of the concert-goers was, although I suspect my parents would have fit right in. My children being there must have lowered it a bit. We gave them earplugs and one sat on my lap, and we hugged and listened to Stevie Nicks sing “Sara.” And I was overcome with emotion, remembering my father, and thinking about how much he would have loved to have been there, and how much he would have loved to be my girls’ grandfather. I miss him so much sometimes, and at this Fleetwood Mac concert I was hit by such a wave of grief that I was thankful for the darkness and the din. I pressed my face into my daughter’s head and her soft hair soaked up my tears. You never get over losing someone, though you carry on, and live, and function. It’s been 14 years and sometimes the pain is as sharp as it was the day he died. Most of the time, I keep myself buttoned up, because the show must go on, stiff upper lip, no use dwelling, etc. Also because I’m frightened by the abyss that grief opens up inside you. I’m afraid that if I give in to it, I’ll never return. And this is after I’ve had therapy! Anyway, this one time I let myself feel the pain and loss. I felt a sense of safety in the darkness, with the music playing and my daughter in my arms.

So, it was a good concert, even without Christine McVie. Stevie Nicks has cornered the market on black velvet dresses, methinks, and her voice is still the same and I won’t hear anything rude about it. Mick Fleetwood played with such vigor that we just hoped he remembered to take his medication, because, damn. My kids mistook him for Santa. Lindsay Buckingham’s voice and guitar playing – eternal. The energy and talent of these people is truly astounding, and they don’t give off waves of dissipation the way the Stones do. The children sat patiently through it all and didn’t complain once. I cheered up and our friends sang along with me to the easy-to-sing-along-with songs like “Don’t Stop” which brought the entire stadium to its feet. (It’s hard to sing along to “Tusk.”) If Elton John comes to Vancouver I’ll remember to bring a box of tissues. (Although not if he’s going to play a bunch of post-Taupin stuff.)

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