What If Your Mountain Was Just A Mountain of Crumbs?

 A Mountain Of Crumbs

I found much to enjoy here and much to relate to: my grandparent’s extreme frugality and my mother’s granite belief in the duty of hard work. My family’s sloughing off of the old ways. Gorokhova tells the interesting history of a young girl growing up in the Soviet Union but I wish she would have parsed her story more thoroughly. Why was her mother such a staunch supporter of the state? How did the author decide so easily to leave country, family, and friends? I would have loved for her to juxtapose the poverty and security of the Soviet welfare state versus freedom loving Americans who, awash with money and religion, allow people to ‘sleep under bridges’ and suffer without health care.

It seemed so easy for the author to leave her homeland and family. Leading up to the point, she never expresses longing for freedom or for the West. Mostly she is perturbed with silly state protocol – the same things I feel when I renew my driver’s license. In fact, her decision to leave isn’t really even a decision: she simply jumps aboard a wind that blows from an American student: he proposes to her as a means to help her leave the USSR with the caveat that he will continue to see other women while they are married. This apparently presents a better future than the author is expecting in Moscow but she doesn’t explain why.

However much I wished for something deeper, I was absorbed by the book and story. The prose is wonderful, especially for a non-native speaker. The characters can be thin and, typical for memoirs, there are dry spots but the story will carry anyone with an interest in family or history. This isn’t quite Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn but a very good read in its own right. I’m not sure of the book’s appeal to those without a connection to Russia or the Eastern Bloc. Well worth the cost.

A Mountain of Crumbs
The mountain hamlet of my Slovak Grandparents

Three-and-a-half stars. Well worth the price of admission.

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Good Gawd – read this book!

Book Review, The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

Good gawd. What a glorious book.

The story begins bleak and droning with bright cold punctuated by the briefest of flashes of pure joy. Mabel and Jack live lives of dark loss after Mabel births a stillborn child. They move from home in Pennsylvania to a homestead in Alaska as far away from memories as possible. Jack is a farmer of sorts but older and nothing in Pennsylvania has prepared him for the hardship of wooing a living from the Alaskan wild. And Mabel? She’s the soft child of a university lit professor who is only sure that nothing can be more difficult than living in the place where her soul is buried under a tree in the orchard. Jack works hard on the land all day and at night wonders if Mabel’s spirit will ever awaken. Mabel spends the day cooking, sweeping, and wondering if the new ice on the Wolverine River will break under her weight and finally relieve her of an unbearable burden. But it’s the first snow of the season and in a rare giddy moment they both go outside and build a snow man. A short smooth snowman that Jack shapes into a snow girl. The next morning they wake with the world is still frozen but the snow girl is gone along with her hat and mittens.

Jack sees it first. A flash of red through the woods. A red fox on its heels. Then Mabel sees too. After a time and after days of hints both see the girl – a fairy wisp of a thing on which snowflakes land but never melt. From here the story brings the girl closer into the couple’s lives and then into the lives of friends. But questions are never resolved. Really never even asked. Might asking be too presumptuous? Is the child real? How does she survive? Where does she go each summer? Can she summon the weather? We never know. At the story’s end, all that is left are clothes in the snow, empty but still buttoned closed. Unlike Aesop, there is no moral to the story. There is no resolution, no crescendo.

It amazes me but the book doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some have said that it’s only a retelling of a favorite Russian fairy tale. I suppose it is. So is Stravinsky’s wonderful Rite of Spring but that doesn’t diminish the work. I’ve read that some find it boring and admit that there is a kind of droning and unrelenting undertone of barrenness that permeates the story but the magic of the child overwhelms the bleak landscape. Others forget that the story is a fairy tale where normal rules of physics don’t always apply. Yes, there are technical inconsistencies but I’ve never figured out how Aladdin flew his carpet either. This is no manual for homesteading the Alaskan wilderness.

Several themes run throughout the book. There are good questions about family and community. Ownership weaves a thread through the book. Who owns the land? Who owns the girl? Death looms large and is always present. It’s wild Alaska, after all, in the early part of the last century, where a living wasn’t so much made as extracted from the life around you. Ivey avoids blood simply for blood’s sake but doesn’t shy from it either. Animals are trapped, shot, and skinned. Even the Snow Child captures and dispatches her meals with nonchalant ease. And there is the death and birth of magic and wonder. Mabel, through the loss of a child, has lost even more deeply. She is presented as an old and sad woman without hope or glint in her eye. Everything is dark. Is her inner death worse than any that the thin river ice would offer? But whatever embers she harbors inside flame instantly to life with the Snow Child. And even if we can’t hold magic –isn’t an intangible hope exactly what magic is? –  just being able to imagine that it could be true can be uplifting.

Ivey has stacked her mantle with enough trophies and awards to overwhelm any writer and rightly so.  The writing is perfect. Words are perfectly chosen and sentences crafted just so to lead the reader to the next. Read it first for the story and then for the prose. And then read it again.

Five Stars

Eowyn Ivey’s blog Letter From Alaska here.

The Snow Child page here with reader questions.

LitLovers Community page for The Snow Child here.

The Snow Child on Amazon here.


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She hired a track coach at 77. You think you are old?

What Makes Olga Run?

My Grandfather and then my Father died at 67. A hop and a skip from where I sit. Both from cancer. Best guess on my Grandfather’s was granite dust. He was a stone cutter as a young man and turned stone pillars for government buildings all over Washington State. He didn’t smoke and had no history of cancer so granite is the only guess the doctors had. No one is sure about Dad. He smoked but never had problems with his lungs. His mom died at 92 and lived the life of Annie Oakley until the Saturday morning she died. Twice a week she drove her golden boat – a 1967 Ford Galaxy four-door – from Milton to Tacoma for organ lessons. Wise drivers pulled over as she went by. Only the top of her head peaked from above the steering wheel and she took up two of the four lanes along the road. Trouble was no one could be sure which two she would take. And she didn’t much care. There were organs to be played!

Living Well is the Goal

We are far from figuring out aging though we are learning much. Exercise is essential. A good diet necessary. Good friends and healthy relationships help. The right genetics are necessary but not as much as we once thought. But living long is only half the calculation. I want to live well. I want to be engaged in life. I want to learn. I want to race my Grand Daughter in he first 5k. And beat her. I want to watch my girl’s guitar recital. I want to hug my wife when the twins move to Paris to live out their dreams – Reagan to be a great artist and Madison to design clothes for pets.

Living well is the goal. One person who lived long and well was Olga Kotelko. She began competing in track and field at 77, about thirty years after most people have died inside. By the time of her death at 95 she won hundreds of gold medals and held almost every master’s record for her events and age groups. How? What was unique about Olga? In many ways, the author of What Makes Olga Run?, finds, nothing. Most of her medical metrics were normal or close to it. She ate a healthy but not exotic or rigorous diet. She exercised daily. She maintained a positive outlook. But certainly she was unique. Somehow all those normal parts added up to an extraordinary whole. The book offers no magic. No crazy diets. Only good advice that is easy to follow for healthy and happy living. Following is my review of the book. It’s an interesting and provoking read.

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See the book at Amazon


Book Review – What Makes Olga Run?

Olga Kotelko was an elite masters track star who, upon her death in 2014, at age 95, heldolga hundreds of gold medals in track and field, none of which she earned prior to her 77th birthday.

In What Makes Olga Run? Bruce Grierson jumps head first into the life of Olga to try to understand what makes her tick. What he finds is that this extraordinary woman is, by most metrics, not very extraordinary. There is no magic here. Readers looking for super foods, esoteric yoga mantras, or exotic training regimens won’t find them here. Olga’s story is remarkable in how unremarkable it is. Grierson follows Olga through just about every test one can think of: stress tests, DNA analyses, diets, psychological examinations – in every case she comes out normal or close to it. But somehow, in Olga, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Olga is extraordinary. At 77, when most people are dead or dying, she hires a Hungarian track coach and begins a daily training regimen. She eats a nutritious but not remarkable diet. She loves competition. She loves to win. She was upbeat and refused to dwell on the dark side of things. Somehow all of that added up to an uncommon life of steady and satisfying accomplishment.

The book is not meant to be a text book. There are passages, especially concerning biology, that – in my humble opinion – could have been written more precisely. But precision in a book like this usually translates into boring. And the book is not boring. It is well written, reads easily, and is adequately documented.

There are three main take-aways:

  1. What you already know about good health is true. Eat well. Exercise. Sweat a little every day. Enjoy friends a family.
  2. Maintain a good attitude. Embrace optimism. Eschew pessimism. Keep a good perspective.
  3. Your bad habits can be reversed. You can improve your heart health. You can enjoy time with your family again. Every decision, every step, every bite represents a fork in the road that leads to an end that you chose.

The author ends with Nine Rules for Living that summarize simplicity and health. But for him, ‘Olga’s biggest gift’ is a change in perspective. He records her advice:

Look around. These are your kids. This is your wife. This is your life. Its awesomeness is eluding you. Pay attention. Yes, there will come a time when you have genuine, life-threatening ailments. But, for now, stop your kvetching. And stop dreading birthdays that end in zeros. Those zeros can pull you under, like stones in your pocket. At your age, your story is not ending: you know that.

An uplifting read.


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You Want To Be a Runner? Start Here.

Book Review, Build Your Best Running Body

It’s January and spring is around the corner, I’ve done one race, and I know that everyone wants to get outside and get moving. Toward that end, I review what I believe to be the best general running book I’ve ever read for beginning or intermediate runners.

Enjoy!


From Amazon

I run for enjoyment and fitness. Occasionally, to measure improvement and to keep up my interest, I run a 5k race. I have not read a better book for my level of running than Building Your Running Body.  I know there are better books for specific kinds of training or racing but for a beginning to intermediate runner this is the best. You will need to advance pretty far in the sport to run out of useful information here.

The topics run the gamut from shoes and clothing through specialized training plans. Included are lots of well lit and clear photos showing forms for stretches and lifts (I hate books with photos that look like they were shot in the kitchen after dark).  There is a surprising amount of detail intermixed with the stuff you expect to read. All of these kinds of books give nutrition advice but I’ve never once read about ATP and mitochondria in one. Several chapters use a checklist style presentation making highlights easy to grasp.

For my money it’s the best if the bunch.

Four stars.


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Diet Cults. Are You A Member?

Book Review, Diet Cults, Matt Fitzgerald

What Passes For Diet Cult Research

I received an email recently from someone who tried a diet for thirty days, lost a bunch of weight, and thought I might like to write it up on my blog. In all seriousness,  I responded and said that when he:

  • Had 100 volunteers for a test set who agreed to act, behave, perform, and eat the exact same things for twenty years
  • Had 100 volunteers for a control set who agreed to do act, behave, and perform exactly like the test set for twenty years while eating other foods
  • Had twenty years of data cataloging everything both sets did, visited, ate, and experienced…

well, then we would be on to something. But anyone can do anything for thirty days and all projects involving human subject are fraught with questionable data. Any ramifications for people in general from this person’s short experience are completely and absolutely non-existent. But that has never once held back a diet huckster from trying a make a quick buck on the diet du jour.

This is exactly the problem of human nutritional research. Good researchers recognize this. Michael Pollan has famously summed up his work with the adage to “Eat food. Less of it. Mostly plants.” David Katz (Disease Proof) argues that all foods in healthy amounts are permissible. I once worked on a research project with a researcher who told me that the best thing she could figure out is to eat lots of different kinds of foods in smallish amounts in as close to a natural state as possible. Nothing astounding there. In fact, it’s mostly what our grandparents told us about food.

But there are lots of bad and zany hucksters in the world of food and diets. My guess is that my local Borders Books has sixty feet or more of shelf space devoted to dieting. There is the Blood Type diet. Suzanne Somers takes up a shelf. Wheat Belly and Gluten Free take up a foot or two. Paleo argues for space. For some people, these are effective ways to eat. But that is not how they are sold. These books are sold as nutritional saviors. EAT THIS WAY AND YOU WILL DIE! they say. (Here’s a hint – you are going to die whatever you eat.) EAT THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE! (But you need to buy the book to find out how.)

Avoid these books. Whatever science they contain is just there to draw you into laying down your money. Real nutrition is boring and no one needs to buy a book to read about it. Eat mostly real food. Cook it yourself. Go heavy on the plants and light on the meat. Dessert is fine. Enjoy clean water. Exercise a little. Hug your kids.

Book Review: Diet Cults

Matt Fitzgerald has written a book along these same lines called Diet Cults. Following is my Amazon review:

If you want to piss off a whole lot of people then start poking holes in their religious beliefs. This is exactly what Matt Fitzgerald has done in Diet Cults. And if you don’t think some dieters are religious then consider that they put belief in their experience ahead of any verifiable science. And just like religions, what many of these diets share is a belief that only one way of eating leads to the path of true health. If you think theological battles between Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics can get rough then you’ve never seen a vegan college coed take on an Atkins adherent over a nice steak, cooked rare.

Fitzgerald argues that almost everyone can stick to basic nutritional guidelines and be healthy. Pollan’s “Real Food. Less of it. Mostly plants.” fits well here. There are no super foods. There are no forbidden foods. Protein will not set you free. Paleo will not give you a new lease on life.  He steps through each of these diets and others skewering them as mostly modern fads.

He weaves research in throughout the text and provides references in the appendix.  He also argues from personal experience that elite athletes – people who have the discipline and will to follow any diet for performance – mostly shy away from specialty diets. Boring but effective and easy. All foods are permissible and none impart superpowers or super health.

Fitzgerald takes care to recognize that there are individual proclivities toward certain diets. “Diets choose people”, he says. There are people who genuinely feel better eating foods without gluten. Some people are genuinely bothered by lactose. But selling a gluten-free or raw foods diet as a cure-all for everyone is what rankles him. These diets typically lack scientific validity and are almost impossible to maintain. There is ample evidence that people lose weight on these diets in the short term – often because they are difficult or boring – and then gain weight back when they drop it.

The book is generally well written though I wonder how many disciple’s minds he will change. It’s not overly rigorous and in many areas, he simply weighs his experience against someone else’s and that’s a tough way to win an argument. But I think his approach to eating is likely the best way for most people. Think Michael Pollan with an occasional slice of apple pie.

Three stars.


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