Amanda Gates
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A Musings - January 2009

I just finished one of the most amazing memoirs I've read. I read it in three days. While the writing is simple, the book is powerful. Jessica Queller, a Hollywood TV writer (Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl), lost her mother to ovarian cancer. Her mother was pretty young, too, around 60. The first few chapters of the book talk about her mother's illness (she had breast cancer several years earlier, too) and how Jessica and her sister nursed her, put their lives on hold during her worst times, and how they eventually lost her.

After she lost her mother, Jessica got some genetic testing done to see if she carried the breast cancer gene. Turns out she did. With this gene, she had an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer in her lifetime and a 44 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer. This mutated gene is in very few women, but it is passed down from parents to their children.

Knowing she's at high risk for cancer, and that it can happen at any age, Jessica, who was in her early 30s when she tested positive, needs to figure out what she's going to do with the information. Does she just wait and see? Does she do a preemptive strike and have her at-risk organs removed?

Jessica struggles with the information for a few years and we get to go along for the ride. She does massive research, talks to numerous doctors and meets many women who found themselves in her same position. The question of removing one's female organs is not just one of health, but of sexuality, self-esteem and the desire to have a family.

This book made me laugh and cry at several points. Her mother was afraid to die. She held on for probably a lot longer than she should've been able to. Jessica has a whole bunch of fun-loving (and very supportive) friends, including some very famous ones. It was fun to read about all of them. She went on some nightmare dates, but kept her humor through them all. Her mother and grandmother were also very unique, but lovable, characters in the book.

I don't want to tell you her ultimate decision. The book flap doesn't give it away, so I won't either. But the book is wonderful. She discusses how far we've come with genetic testing (couples can create embryos and test them for genetic mutations before deciding to keep them - this is becoming common; is this right, and who's to say?), and brings up so many ethical/moral questions.

What if it were you? Would you want to know if you had the cancer gene? Would you do what it took to prevent it, however extreme? As I'm not in the situation, I can't answer for sure. But more often than not when I weigh it in my mind: Yes & yes.

If you've ever been touched by cancer, whether you, a friend or a family member - and perhaps if because of your parent(s) you've sat and wondered if that makes you that much more susceptible and almost destined for cancer in your future - I think this book is honest, thoughtful and well worth your time. It may be hard to read at some points, but I think it's important. Pretty may change, but the beauty inside never fades.

Posted: Tue, 01/27/2009 - 13:07 | Comments: 1

I finished In the Woods over the weekend. I really enjoyed it. Throughout the book there were two different mysteries happening at the same time. I did figure out the present-day mystery before it was revealed in the end, but this didn't take away from the story. The other mystery remains open-ended, which I have to admit is a bit frustrating, but I respect the author's decision to leave it that way. Maybe she's leaving it to wrap up in another book, or maybe it's meant for the reader to think about how they feel it should be resolved. While I like books to be wrapped up, whether with a happy or sad ending, I think it takes a form of courage to leave things up in the air.

The book wasn't scary as one may expect a murder story to be, but it was suspenseful. And certain parts had me reading really fast to get to the resolution or the end of the scene. I loved the characters, I loved their thoughts. I also loved how In the Woods kind of overlapped with The Likeness. Having already read The Likeness, I knew what Cassie Maddox was doing at certain times of In the Woods. It reminded me of how the ending of Bourne Supremacy, the movie, was actually found again near the end of Bourne Ultimatum.

(R.I.P. John Updike.)

Posted: Tue, 01/27/2009 - 12:53 |

I’m reading In the Woods by Tana French. I read French’s most recent novel, The Likeness (see reviews I & II), over the summer and really enjoyed it. The Likeness is actually a sort-of-sequel to In the Woods, as it focuses on one of the characters from this book, but you don’t have to read one or the other in any certain order.

In the Woods is about the murder of a 12-year-old girl in the outskirts of Dublin. Detective Rob Ryan has an interesting connection to this case, as when he was 12, two of his friends disappeared in the same woods and he was left alone, covered in blood with no memory of what happened. Whether the two cases, 20 years apart, are connected has yet to be discovered, but I’m guessing they probably are. With his partner, Cassie Maddox (the main subject of The Likeness), Ryan looks to solve this country-side murder mystery.

I really enjoy French’s writing. While to some her books may seem a little long and over detailed – she spends a lot of time inside the head of her main characters – the descriptions and thoughts she illustrates are very elaborate and interesting. She sets the scene well and her characters are very funny and quirky and real. You want to be friends with them (the good guys at least). And the mystery so far is hard to solve, as was the mystery in The Likeness. Throughout both books, I had some ideas, but she was good at changing my mind.

The book is rather long (more than 400 pages), and some reviewers didn’t like that so much. But, I love longer books, especially if they can hold my attention like hers seem to do. I’m sure this weekend I’ll have a hard time putting it down.

Posted: Thu, 01/22/2009 - 04:01 | Comments: 1

I just finished The Writing Class, by Jincy Willett. I started this book last week and was enjoying it so much that I read more than half of it, and finished it, over the weekend. The story revolves around a continuing education writing class and its students. If you’ve ever taken a writing class – or any class for that matter, i.e. cooking, exercise, crafts – that’s offered up to anyone, you understand how many different personalities come together. You have the old man who thinks he’s the next Updike, you have the young woman who “has a memoir in her,” you have the creepy guy who’s just looking for women, etc.

I found this book instantly interesting because I’ve been in classes or situations like this, and I discovered myself nodding along at the different people. Their instructor is a washed-up novelist who hasn’t written anything is years. She asks them who their favorite authors are and can justly tell something about her students by their answers. (Some lie and say Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Some pick the likes of Stephen King or Dean Koontz. Some she can tell just don't read.) The goal of the class is to bring in your own pieces of fiction and then get critiqued in front of the class. You have to be pretty special in my mind to set yourself up for criticism from strangers. The teacher, sure, but these classmates of yours who you have no idea whether they even understand the basic fundamentals of the English language let alone what you’re trying to write about.

Soon the instructor and several classmates receive threatening notes/phone calls/pranks from someone within the class. Then, a class member is murdered. The class doesn’t cease to meet, yet meets to try to solve who among them is “The Sniper.” For once, I didn’t figure out the ending before I got to it. Willett did a good job making me question who the bad guy was from the beginning. I had one thought throughout the whole book, but I turned out to be wrong. So, that alone made the book fun to read. But I enjoyed all the characters for various reasons, and I liked how Willett gave us information about each of them sporadically throughout the book, not just in one shot like some authors do.

If you’re looking for a quick fiction read, this one is a lot of fun.

Posted: Mon, 01/19/2009 - 03:37 | Comments: 3

My girlfriend, who is very environmentally friendly (she puts most of us to shame) passed this book, by Karen Logan, on to me, so I could learn more about eco-friendly cleaning products. This book is filled with recipes on how to make your own, using things you find in your house such as vinegar, club soda, water, liquid dishsoap, etc. Not only are the products natural, hence better for the planet, but ultimately cheaper as well.

For example, for windows use club soda in a spray bottle. That's it. Club soda - go figure.

For an all-purpose cleaner:
2 Tbsp distilled vinegar
1 tsp borax
Hot water
1/4 c. liquid soap (which you add at the very end after the previous ingredients are mixed thoroughly)

I read through the book, and I think the all-purpose cleaner is what I would use the most. I already use a Green cleaner from the store, but I'll give this a shot as well. My only reluctance is effectiveness. When I'm cutting up raw chicken, I want to know that the cleaner I'm using is killing those nasty germs. Your all-natural products don't always have that germ-fighting in them. But for everyday dust, floors, baseboards and sinks, this is definitely a good way to go.

Logan lists recipes for everything from the carpet to the car. It made me realize either a) I'm not that good of a cleaner, or b) all these different cleaners might not be necessary? Because seriously, I use the same spray bottle cleaner from Target for everything from tables to floors to windows to...My only other cleaner is laundry detergent, and with my sensitivity to all things perfume and dyes, there are very few detergents out there that work for me.

So, I think this book is definitely worth a breeze through, to find the recipes that work for the way you clean. But if you're not a person who cleans all the time - I give the house a good once-over every other weekend - then you may only find a few that are right for you.

What do you use to clean? Would this book be helpful to you?

Posted: Thu, 01/15/2009 - 03:28 | Comments: 5

I’m currently reading This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation by Barbara Ehrenreich. I first came across Ehrenreich when in college I read Nickel and Dimed, an immersion journalistic experiment of Ehrenreich’s when she took several minimum wage jobs over the course of a year to see if it was even possible to live on our country’s minimum wage. (From her perspective, you may be able to get by, but just barely.) I enjoyed Nickel and Dimed. It may have been a touch one-sided, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t bring up very valuable lessons and points of interest. Plus, she had her real-life experiences to back it up.

This Land is Their Land, Ehrenreich’s attempt at studying the first decade of the 21st century, is comprised of about 60 essays she wrote for other publications, such as The New York Times and The Progressive. Most often they’re personal rants with very few stats or actual research thrown in. She takes to the mat all the super-rich out there who she believes are the main reason we’re in the mess we’re in right now.

When it comes to the ways of the world, I tend to lean toward Ehrenreich’s side. As she’s chastising Walmart, big-box electronic store CEOs, etc., it’s very easy to cheer her along. It really does seem that these big wigs couldn’t care less about their employees, or the fact that the middle class is failing while they’re only getting richer.

So, I’m on the fence about this book. If you lean blue and like books that preach to the choir, this is definitely it. She’s humorous, sarcastic and can make you laugh out loud. But, if you prefer your emotional rants to come with a little beef in the statistics and proof department, it may be frustrating for you. As a journalist, I take her words with a grain of salt; as a middle-class citizen, her words put some fight in me.

Posted: Fri, 01/09/2009 - 03:51 |

Ah, vacation is over. I've enjoyed a blissful 12 days off in a row and must go back to work tomorrow - which promises complete and utter busy-ness. I want to post today about the book I finished last week, as the coming days may not allow. How wonderful is vacation, how sad it is to see it end.

Last week I finished Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Set in 19th-century China, this book is about two young girls who become "old sames," basically, through a matchmaking process that requires many life events to be in order, they become BFFs for life. The story takes us through the lives of Snow Flower and Lily, the narrator, as they get their feet bound (oh my, the horror, I can't even imagine), get promised to different men, marry, have children, live through an uprising, and suffer a misunderstanding.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a quick read, with beautiful imagery. And like with any historical fiction, I like learning about a different culture. I remember learning about this era in Chinese history in college, but most of the facts escape me now. As The Last Chinese Chef brought me bits of 20th-century China, this book brought bits of the previous 100 years.

Like with many paperbacks these days, this book came with "study questions" in the back. Even though I'm not part of a book club - outside this blog - I do like to look at the questions and see how I would answer them. One of the questions talked of Lily being ungrateful, mean, evil, etc., and I was just shocked. Sure, there were misunderstandings between the old sames, but there are misunderstandings between best friends all the time. It's the strength of your friendship that gets you through, that helps you forgive or beg for forgiveness, and just because you both suffer a situation like the one described in the book, that doesn't make one or the other of you bad. So, no, I don't think Lily was wrong or unkind in any way. I think this was a lovely story about friendship - female friendship. How it's different than your relationship with your husband, boyfriend or significant other. How important and how necessary it is. No matter what time in history.
Posted: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 09:23 | Comments: 2