My Beautiful Mother

My Beautiful Mother and I

My Beautiful Mother and I

My beautiful mother is very, very ill.

I held her for a while this evening.  The drugs are not working.  She is shaking and terrified.  A staff member told me to hold her hand and tell her it’s all right for her to go if she has to.

I cannot do that.  That is the job for her primary caregiver. I just cannot.

She is being given “End of Life” treatment.

The first words out of her mouth when she saw me,  “You look so good.”  (Mom, thank you! )

She mumbles and mumbles.   Then:  “I might die,” she said clearly.  Mostly she mutters,  “Help me.”

I couldn’t understand what she was saying at first.

It seems to calm her if I put my hand on her shoulder or my arm around her.  She dropped off to sleep for a while.

Undoubtedly she is the best mother ever, the strongest, and smartest (when she is not drugged).  I love her dearly.  What other mother could  have given the gift of indestructible confidence to such an ordinary daughter?  Not only was I as good as anybody else, but much better!  (Well, yes, I am much better.)

See, that’s what she did for us.  I have been called a bitch (a compliment, no?) and a sweetie (an even greater compliment).  It’s all compliments–see?  That’s my mom!

But she isn’t sleeping. She wakes up after 10 minutes.   “Couldn’t you give her Ambien?”  I asked.  I am an expert on Ambien.  It is the only drug you will ever need if you can get it.  Throw out your Prozac and whatever else.  Just go to sleep.

Here is what I know about my beautiful mother.  (Surprisingly little.)  She is a good mother.  When I was in the hospital for a tonsillectomy and almost bled to death, she did not leave my side.  She set up Barbie patio furniture on my bed.

She is  good at everything.  Bridge?  The best.  Want to see the prizes?

Badminton?  Pretty good.  I remember a day of playing badminton after t my father didn’t come home one day. It was an occasion.  She rarely played with us.  She was fun, but somehow frail.

She never stooped to playing Bingo.

She has many, many, so many  friends.  I can count mine on one finger, to quote John Mellencamp.

Sometimes life is too ridiculous to live
You count your friends all on one finger
I know it sounds crazy just the way that we live”–John Mellencamp, “Between a Laugh and a Tear”

She saw EVERY movie, and I do mean EVERY movie.  She fell asleep when we went to Pollock.  We laughed over the last movie we saw in a theater together,  Bridesmaids.

She knows politics. She is sharp.  She was a political science major. She waited for hours on the Old Capitol lawn to see Hillary and Bill Clinton.  “I hoped to see a woman president in my lifetime.”

She saved Holy Cards (a really nice one of St. Patrick), the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church Dedication Liturgy (a new church was dedicated in 2009 after the destruction of the original church by a tornado), and a surprisingly good Special 25th  Anniversary issue of People magazine. (I have been reading about Madonna, John Travolta, and Karen Silkwood’s children tonight.)

I would like a pack of Holy Cards.

Note how beautifully dressed she is in the picture above.  That is a cashmere sweater she later gave to me.

She introduced me to reading.

Baby Animals:  that is the name of the book we’re reading in the picture.  I am one year old.  I already have a huge pile of Golden Books.  Little Red Riding Hood, Three Little Kittens, The Poky Little Puppy, The Little Red Hen.  Every time we go to the grocery store I get another Golden Book.  (My panda has been abandoned for a good book.)

I meant to post a much more glamorous picture of her, but I couldn’t scan it.   It simply wouldn’t work.

I think the whole family should have met before an End of Life decision was made.  Families often fight about this, my doctor told me.  He knows of a case where a brother and sister came to blows.

If they’d tell me her weight and the dosage I could figure out the dosage of Ambien on my calculator.  Just call me Doctor World Wide Web.

I want her to be comfortable.  I do not want her to suffer.

I do not want to say goodbye to her.  I want her to survive.

I’m red-eyed from crying, but will not be red-eyed tomorrow.  I will be strong.  It is what I can do for her.

I called my dad, but he was cold.  “Let me know if anything changes.”  They have been divorced 40 years.

That is when I knew that it was hopeless.  Nobody is going to step up to the plate.  If anyone steps up, it has to be me.  I saved her life twice. But I have been ill, and this time it has gone on too long without intervention.

And I will leave you with a Bob Marley song that isn’t very practical here.

Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!

It should be:  Get up, stand up:  stand up for your Mom!

Diary of a Mad Baker: Blue-Chip Brownies

Yes, this is I:  how did you guess?!

Yes, this is indeed the perfect baker.

I spend a lot of time chopping vegetables. There I am at the end of the day, listening to public radio, chopping zucchini into toothpicks.  (What should I do with the zucchini in the garden? I’ve thrown a lot of it into a wok.)

I love vegetarian dishes, and that’s mostly what we eat.   Recently I posted a recipe for the most delicious dish I have ever eaten, Mollie Katzen’s Green Beans and Tofu with Crunchy Peanut Sauce.  At the end of the post, I added an “improv” shortcut.  It worked once; the second time it did not.

And that’s what makes me an indifferent cook.  The shortcuts.

I sympathize with Claudette Colbert in "The Egg and I"

I sympathize with Claudette Colbert in “The Egg and I”

If I am an indifferent cook, I am a mad baker.

No one cooked or baked when I was growing up.  My mother didn’t see the point.  Her mother had done all the cooking.  Her mother made delicious roast chicken, homemade noodles, delicately-cooked fresh vegetables, and Boston creme pie.  My mother proudly lived at home while she went to college and worked at her first job.  She never cooked or baked.

When she became a housewife, she liked one-step meals, possibly two-.  Tuna casserole, fish sticks, roast beef in an electric cooker.  I never saw a vegetable till I grew up and did my own shopping.  Well, that’s not quite true.  We had sweet corn.

She really hated baking.  “Cake mixes are better,” she told me.

When I bake them, they certainly are.

Once I made madeleines.  I could not understand the point of adding one ingredient at a time.  Why not add all the eggs  at once?  I ended up throwing everything in, butter, sugar, eggs, etc., and mashing it together.  The madeleines were probably not what the author of The Joy of Cooking had in mind.

Today I decided to bake brownies.  We had cocoa and the essential ingredients.  So I looked up cocoa brownies online, and found a delicious recipe at Bon Appetit.

I took no shortcuts today.  These are blue-chip brownies.   Forget baking chocolate or Hersey’s syrup! These are the best brownies I’ve ever had.

I would have liked vanilla ice cream with them, but you can’t have everything.

Here is the recipe:

nonstick vegetable oil spray
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup Scharffen Berger natural unsweetened cocoa powder (I used regular cocoa powder)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/3 cup all-purpose flour


Preheat oven to 325°. Line an 8x8x2 inches glass baking dish with foil, pressing firmly into pan and leaving a 2 inches overhang. Coat foil with nonstick spray; set baking dish aside.

Melt butter in a small sauce-pan over medium heat. Let cool slightly. Whisk sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium bowl to combine. Pour butter in a steady stream into dry ingredients, whisking constantly to blend. Whisk in vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating vigorously to blend after each addition. Add flour and stir until just combined (do not overmix). Scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth top.

Bake until top begins to crack and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, 25-30 minutes.

Transfer pan to a wire rack; let cool completely in pan. Using foil overhang, lift brownie out of pan; transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 16 squares.

P.S.  I had no aluminum foil, so I simply greased the pan.  That’s not really a shortcut, is it?

Mary Hocking’s Good Daughters & A Particular Place

Good Daughters by Mary HockingMary Hocking’s irresistible novels have been compared to Barbara Pym’s.

Is she like Barbara Pym?  Well, no. I find her sharp, gracefully-written fiction more like the tart novels of Penelope Lively crossed with the family sagas of Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Last week I jotted notes about Hocking’s An Irrelevant Woman, a poignant novel about a middle-aged woman’s mental breakdown.  I have since read two other novels by Hocking: Good Daughters (1984), a family saga about three sisters growing up in London in the 1930s; and A Particular Place (1989), a novel about a new Anglican vicar’s effect on the inhabitants of a small market town.

In the plot-driven family saga, Good Daughters, which is the first novel of a trilogy, much of the narrative is related through the consciousness of Alice, age 12.  Alice’s ingenuous voice reflects the impossibility of her understanding  the world beyond the domestic realm.

It begins:

In later years, Alice heard people talk as if those who grew up during the period between the two wars had lived their youth beneath the shadow of the swastika.  But it had not seemed like that at the time.

Although in her childhood older people talked of the war that was just finished, and then, some ten years later, began to talk of the war which was to come, no shadow seemed to touch her until she was sixteen.

Absorbed by school and friendships, the three Fairley sisters, Louise, Alice, and Claire, ignore their father Stanley’s preoccupation with world events.  Stanley, a dramatically devout Methodist who has moved his family from Sussex to be a headmaster at a boys’ school in Acton (he wants to work with the disadvantaged), is obsessed with newspapers:  finding the Daily Herald on his doorstep instead of the News Chronicle can ruin his day. His level-headed wife, Judith, frequently expresses annoyance at his pomposity and theatricality.  It is her practicality that holds the family together:  the girls go to her for support, not to pious Stanley.

Alice, the middle child, is a mediocre student but an excellent writer; she is torn between devotion to her parents and loyalty to her rebellious friends.  She is proud of her “burgeoning” maturity  (she likes the word “burgeoning”) and has learned to keep secrets, unlike her eight-year-old sister, Claire, who blurts out everything.  Still, it makes Alice’s “tummy hurt” when she must censor reports of her activities.  She feels guilty about her misadventures with her careless, confident best friend, Daphne: when Alice sneaks out in the middle of the night to search for secret passages at Daphne’s house, the two giggling girls open a trap door in the kitchen that turns out not to hide a secret chamber: soot pours out all over the floor.  In the morning, Daphne’s parents call the police, thinking someone broke in.

Alice is also utterly loyal to her 17-year-old sister, Louise, who feels no compulsion to tell her parents everything:  when Louise tries out for a play at the coed St. Bartholomew’s Dramatic Society, she tells her parents she auditioned for the school play (they attend a girls’ school).  She orders her sisters not to tell.

There’s no need to say anything to Mummy and Daddy about it until I know if I’ve got the part.”  It was all too much, and Alice had one of her tummy upsets that night.

Of course, Claire tells.

In her year of acting in the theater and capturing the attention of three boys, Louise pursues the most handsome of them, Guy, an aspiring actor with blatant sexuality.  She finally compels her parents to realize she does not want to go to the university.

Gradually the coming of the second world war affects the Fairleys:  a tragedy occurs in the Russian Jewish family next door.

This is a perspicuous, moving, immensely entertaining  book, not great, but good.  I cannot wait to read the second book, which spans 1939 to the late forties.

aparticular-place Mary HockingHocking’s A Particular Place is a sharp, almost perfect novel, with an ecclesiastical core.  It centers on a new Anglican vicar’s effect on the inhabitants of a small market town.  His impact is partly religious, but also, quite surprisingly, romantic. When  most of the characters meet at a candlelit Holy Saturday Vigil at St. HIlary’s, they are certainly not looking for love.

Charles, an agnostic, brittle, lonely teacher, is curious about the new vicar; sharp-tongued Hester, a children’s book writer who is  sympathetic to her imperfect neighbors though she prefers to be alone, attends because Michael is her nephew; Valentine, Michael’s wife, an ironic, whimsical beauty whose avocation is amateur theatricals, can think of places she’d rather be than St. Hilary’s; and Norah Kendall, an outspoken feminist nurse, is sincerely interested in the church, but perhaps attends also because her husband visits only on weekends and their marriage isn’t working out.

As the parishioners move from the graveyard up the stairs of the church, Norah falls.  The fall foreshadows a love affair and a tragedy.

Close by, with no warning, someone fell.  Charles Venables, stepping from his shelter, found himself a member of a concerned group.  The vicar hurried up.  ‘Oh dear, what have we, a casualty already?’  Irritation only just concealed at this disaster striking before the performance had got under way.

What happens when one falls in love?  Married love, new love, deliriously happy love, lost love, grief over being too old to love. Hocking explores all love.   As many of the characters come to terms with love, choosing to act or not to act on their feelings, their lives are characterized by happiness or grief.    At the center, Hocking’s novel is deeply moral.  None of these characters is truly malevolent; none sets out casually to destroy relationships.  It is a witty, sensitive, never mawkish, novel, the best I’ve read by Hocking.

Practical Glamour

It didn't quite work out for me like this!

It didn’t quite work out for me like this!

First, it was one of those days when nobody rode a bicycle.

Practical glamour on my birthday.  That is the rule.

My cousin and I hung out and beautified ourselves.

Although I have high self-esteem, I lost my looks years ago and don’t care much.  Shattered by a divorce in my late thirties, I faded. I had to go back into the workforce after years of freelancing.   I didn’t tell anyone at my new job that I was getting a divorce, because I was one of three women who worked there.  I was hired because I ran into somebody at a fiction reading.

I did good work, but was very, very tired.

Sadness, ruined skin from the sun:  so what?  The looks of the women in my family do not last.  I have a picture of my vain mother after her divorce.  She tried to keep everything going:  the hair, the smile, the confidence.  It is the saddest picture I have ever seen in my life.

I was grateful for Doris Lessing’s novel, The Summer Before the Dark, during my divorce. The heroine, Kate, has a breakdown after she is left by her family for a summer.  Her husband has an affair.  After working at a high-powered summer job, she gets sick and moves into an apartment with a young “hippie” woman, Maureen.  Kate has let her beautifully-dyed hair go and stopped eating.

Kate’s relationship with Maureen is not unlike mine with my cousin.

Maureen was looking frankly and critically at Kate.  She examined the mass of crinkling hair, with its wide grey band down the middle.  She looked at Kate’s dress, walking, or stepping, carefully around Kate to do so.  Then she said, ‘Wait’ and went off for a minute.  She came back with some dresses, and held them up one by one, frowning, in front of Kate.  The two women began to laugh:  the laugh built up so that the guitar player glanced up to see what was so funny.  As a skinny frilled dress stretched against Kate’s bones, she smiled briefly, and retired back into her music.

Kate doesn’t get a divorce:  she goes back home.  I remarried.

My cousin the librarian is very different from me.  She has never married, and she is not a feminist.  She cannot understand why I don’t wear makeup.  Her mother likes it; mine used to say it was “stupid.”  A dermatologist told me years ago not to wear makeup.

But my cousin was determined to smarten me up.  “We’ll make our own,” she said.

I was leery, but I said Okay. A mask of yogurt and oatmeal:  mix a cup of yogurt and a half cup of oatmeal and smear it on your face.   Keep it on for 15 minutes.  My skin DID feel refreshed.

We hung around with cucumber cream under our eyes and drank peppermint tea.

I told her about the novel I was reading,  Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, about a new Parisian department store in the 19th century that drives the small neighboring shops out of business. I could see myself going mad at the lace counter, rushing home to sew “blonde lace” onto dresses. Nobody buys lace anymore. When was the last sale on lace?

“Let’s go to a department store,” my cousin said.

“Where’s the lace?”  I asked her.

She bought me a nightgown.

I can’t wait to wear it while I stay up late and watch TV.

Then the makeup counter.  She loves the practical glamour of cosmetics and decided to check out moisturizers and eye creams. Most of them cost more than her clothing.

I tried on some cream that did amazingly smooth out my skin. But they didn’t want to rip us off, so they sold us another cheaper cream and some other makeup.

“If only I had a job at the department store…” my cousin fumed.

“You couldn’t live,” I said sensibly.

But of course she would love it.

I went home and put the makeup away and made dinner.  I’m sure I’ll forget about it, but it was nice of her to give me what every woman wants.

My birthday only comes once a year.

Gorp and Iced Tea Breakdown

Sorry, I had to save myself!

I had to save myself, needless to say.

My plan:  four miles. I walk four miles often.  It is nothing. Sometimes I take 30-mile bike rides.  I took a 40-mile ride last weekend.  Sometimes I crash in the middle of a ride and lie down on a picnic table.

But I don’t crash on walks.

After a couple of miles I felt dizzy, thirsty.  I did not have a bottle of water with me.

I walked.  I kept walking.  What on earth…?  It wasn’t that hot.   This had never happened to me.

Put your back into it, lass.

I really had to sit down.

I walked very, very slowly toward the church on the corner.  I sat on the steps.  I thought I might faint.  I put my head down.  I pep-talked myself.  If you just wait a few more minutes…then you’ll get up….  Then you’ll take a shortcut home.

Woman in a  gorp breakdown.

Woman in a gorp breakdown.

The shortest route home was a busy street. Go!  Do it!  It would take me past the health food store, where I would eat and drink and feel well again.

I walked very, very, very slowly. I passed a bar.  BEST NACHOS IN THE CITY, the sign said.  I considered buying a bag of chips, but that was not quite what I needed.

Okay, one block, two blocks, a long block…  At the health food store I bought gorp and a bottle of iced tea.  It was very expensive.   This is why I don’t buy health food.

Outside I sat down on the sidewalk. My hair was plastered down with sweat. My shirt was damp with sweat.  I pulled the iced tea bottle out of the bag and realized I LOOK LIKE A HOMELESS PERSON. I drank the tea.  I ate gorp like a starving person.  I began to feel myself renewing.

After 10 minutes I felt fine and walked home.  My glucose was back!  Or something.

I should have water and gorp with me at all times.

How Seriously Should We Take Book Reviews?

In Exley's fictional memoir,  he criticizes book reviews (p. 16).

In Chapter One, the narrator criticizes book reviews.

Professional critics often write articles protesting that the internet has shattered literary criticism.  Then they explain why we should read literary criticism.

There I am, reading these articles and wondering if they were written with someone else in mind.   Perhaps these articles should be published in another section.

But the internet has destroyed the newspaper business, and I am anxious about the future of book reviews.  For many years I didn’t bother with the news at all.  I turned straight to the book reviews.

In The Guardian on July 19, Nicholas Lezard defended the role of the professional critic and explained why he despises Amazon reviews.  He quoted Amazon reviews which are characterized by misspellings and unwitting ellipses, and wrote sic next to the errors.

Then he writes,

When I look on Tripadvisor to see whether I am going to be staying at Fawlty Towers or not, I consider most people are capable of spotting rats in the serving dishes. But I do not feel the same way about reactions to artistic endeavour.

He modestly says he likes to read reviews by people who are brighter than he is, but he lets us know that his are smart, too.

Not that mine are necessarily the shiniest and sharpest in the box; but they’re good enough to keep me in work, touch wood, for all that critics these days feel they’re the canaries in the cultural coal-mine.

Lezard’s essay is well-written, if a bit supercilious.  But I enjoy Amazon reviews:  they are refreshingly forthright.

Still, I love professional reviews:  I even subscribe to book review publications that are clever enough not to publish all their articles on the internet.

But I don’t think reviews and criticism are interchangeable, and the nomenclature in these articles confuses me. Is there a difference between reviews and criticism, or do I imagine it? You will find lively pop reviews in Entertainment Weekly, The Chicago Tribune and The Miami Herald; but long, serious, critical essays in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

How seriously should we take reviews?  The novelist Frederick Exley and brilliant novelist and essayist George Orwell didn’t take them quite as seriously as some critics do.  They were critical of the critics, or at least of book reviewers.

In Frederick Exley’s brilliant novel, A Fan’s Notes:  A Fictional Memoir, the narrator, an alcoholic writer who has taken a job as a high school English teacher, spends the weekends in his hometown, Watertown, New York,  getting drunk and watching the Giants games.  But on Sundays he reads the book review sections.

I read them with nostalgia and remorse.  There was a period when I had lived on book reviews, when I had basked and drawn sustenance from what I deemed the light of their intelligence, the beneficence of their charm.  But something had gone sour.  Over the years I had read too much, in dim-lighted railway stations, lying on the davenports of strangers’ houses, in the bleak and dismal wards of insane asylums.  The reading had forced the charm to relinquish itself.  Now I found that reviews were not only bland but scarcely, if ever, relevant; and that all books, whether works of imagination or the blatant frauds of literary whores, were approached by the reviewer with the same crushing sobriety.  I wanted the reviewer to be fair, kind, and funny.  I wanted to be made to laugh.  I had no better luck that Sunday than on any other.

George Orwell in his essay  “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” humorously describes a reviewer who must write on demand about subjects he knows nothing about.

Half hidden among the pile of papers is a bulky parcel containing five volumes which his editor has sent with a note suggesting that they ‘ought to go well together’. They arrived four days ago, but for forty-eight hours the reviewer was prevented by moral paralysis from opening the parcel. Yesterday in a resolute moment he ripped the string off it and found the five volumes to be Palestine at the Cross Roads, Scientific Dairy Farming, A Short History of European Democracy (this one 680 pages and weighs four pounds), Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa, and a novel, It’s Nicer Lying Down, probably included by mistake. His review — 800 words, say — has got to be ‘in’ by midday tomorrow.

Orwell says that no review should be shorter than 1,000 words.  Do reviewers get even that much nowadays?

I love literary criticism, but I recently looked at a 2000 The New Yorker, and noticed reviews were longer then.

And just a note to show you all that I do take reviews seriously.

I don’t read many new books, but I’ve read nine this year because of book reviews:  Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce; The Silent Land by Graham Joyce; Aeneid, Book XII, ed. by Richard Tarrant (Cambridge); Dante’s The Divine Comedy translated by Clive James; My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; The Mussels Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke; House Mother Normal by B. S. Johnson; Big Brother by Lionel Shriver; and Harvard Square by Andre Aciman.

Two Giveaways: Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra & Rhian Ellis’s After Life

Alexandria peter stothardTwo great giveaways!

First, I have an extra copy of Peter Stothard’s new book, Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra, his brilliant literary memoir centered on his lifelong fascination with Cleopatra.  He had made seven attempts to write a biography of Cleopatra, and on the eve of the Egyptian Spring went to Alexandria to finish the book.  It is part diary, part history, part travel, and part autobiography.  Stothard, who editor of the London Times for 10 years and is the editor of the TLS, has written a fascinating book that is far from a biography:  it is something much better.

You can read what I said about it here and here.

A friend rushed out with Barnes and Noble coupons today and gave me this as an early b-day present because of my interest in classics.  It is my favorite of the year so far.  You are very lucky if you win it.

After Life by Rhian EllisI am also giving away Rhian Ellis’s After Life, a beautifully-written literary novel narrated by a medium who has murdered her boyfriend:  there is much about spiritualism, fakery, and messages from the dead.  This novel has been reissued in the Nancy Pearl “Book Lust Rediscoveries” series published by Amazon.  You can read what I said about it here.

The books are free, but if you “win” I would appreciate if you could reimburse me for postage in the form of stamps.  (Postage is usually $2-$3.)

Leave a comment if you would like either book or both.