Varina Book Review

Varina (Genre: Historical Fiction)
by Charles Frazier

Of course I wanted to read another book by Charles Frazier. He was the author of Cold Mountain that wonderful tale of a wounded rebel soldier during the Civil War trying to make it back home to the woman he loved.  But Varina is not Cold Mountain. Though both books take place during the Civil War era, and Frazier continues to demonstrate in Varina how well he’s able to recreate a historical period through his masterful use of archaic language and detail, Varina simply is not as compelling a read as Cold Mountain.

Varina Davis was the much younger wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of the short-lived Confederate States of America, (those states that seceded from the union during the Civil War). Though Varina is a little-known colorful figure in American history (in Frazier’s story she’s quite an opium eater), our interest in her lies primarily in how she survived and changed after the South lost the war.

However, Frazier’s exploration of Varina’s transition from southern belle and Washington hostess to an independent woman living on her own in London and New York, is never fully realized.  More words are given to the men surrounding Varina: James Blake, Ryland, and Burton Harrison, to name a few.  From their mouths we see how bewildered southerners felt, losing the war, and being forced to give up the institution of slavery, a necessary evil which they believed, built their economy.

Thus, the books great failing is that though it’s about a woman, it reads more like a book about the southern men the war left behind. This fatal flaw and the meandering story line made me lose interest several times. The most gripping part of the story really was Varina’s attempt to escape Richmond for Cuba, slaves and children in tow. Only in these chapters did I feel the kind of engagement I had reading Frazier’s Cold Mountain years ago.

Eating for Comfort During WWII

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 5)

Eating food that brings you comfort is not the same thing as overeating. One is a reward and the other is a punishment. Believe me I, like many women, have dieted enough to know. A craving for rich, fatty food though, is natural. We’ve evolved with a taste for it; the calories were needed in our distant past to prevent starvation. I personally think every famine survival kit should include chocolate butter creams.

My dear mother has always had a sweet tooth. She told me during World War II when three of her four older brothers were stationed in war zones, her mother, Grandma Verna, made a treat with rationed sugar called “sweet cakes.”  Mom described sweet cakes as somewhere between a cookie and a cake.  Often Grandma and mom sat around the wood stove in the evening eating sweet cakes while they read books like Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, or Jean Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost.

Sometimes Grandma would set her book down and walk over to the front window, staring worriedly out at the dark valley below. Then one awful evening in 1943, she saw car headlights moving jerkily down the rough road leading to their house perched on a West Virginia hilltop. A telegraph had arrived. Her son, my Uncle Ray, had been grievously wounded on a little-known island in the central Pacific: Tarawa.

Funeral Potatoes

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 4)

Life would be so much easier if we could eat all we want—of whatever we wanted. I think cows live like that. It’s in their bovine nature. One time a friend treated me to something I didn’t want, a healthy salad luncheon. I remember chomping through the lettuce like a buck-toothed mule. Evidently, my friend was worried I might get as fat as a pig. Of course, I’d rather look graceful and swan-like. But swans, unlike cows, are bad tempered. Maybe swans never eat what they want.

I have a recipe I got from the mother of one of my daughter’s old boyfriends. The dish is called Funeral Potatoes, which I assumed meant it was a standard potluck dish to share with grieving families. Funeral Potatoes are the very definition of comfort food, the basic ingredients being hash browns, soaked and baked with a half cup of butter, two cups of sour cream, and two cups of grated cheese.

I found it sadly ironic when my daughter told me she’d heard her old boyfriend had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and wasn’t expected to live very long.

“He wasn’t even a smoker!” my daughter cried, trying to understand how a brain tumor could happen to someone still relatively young and healthy.

“He may not have been a smoker, but he’s a human being,” I told her. “We’re all prone to mortality.”

The Soul of America Book Review

The Soul of America (Genre: Political History)
by Jon Meacham

In case you’re worried that America has lost its way, historian Jon Meacham presents ample evidence that we’ve lived through demagoguery and racism before. He begins his book by reminding us that Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina ran for president in 1948. Thurmond garnered nearly a fourth of the popular vote appealing to people who opposed Civil Rights and were unconcerned about the number of innocent Black men being lynched throughout the south.

Then Meacham writes about Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s, who falsely accused dozens of prominent Americans of being atheists and communist sympathizers, ruining their lives and reputation. Why would McCarthy do this? “He exploited the privileges of (political) power . . . to him politics was not about the (truth) . . . but the sensational.”  Meacham asserts, “McCarthy was an opportunist, uncommitted to much beyond his own fame and influence.” Yet, in the early 1950’s people loved McCarthy. Only near the end of his political career did polling reveal his popularity had fallen to a mere 34%.

The Soul of America is not entertainment. It is however, interesting, particularly if you’ve forgotten or don’t know much about the history of our country and its presidents. Near the end of the book, Meacham challenges his readers to become better informed and more politically involved. He encourages us to not be lead by political party loyalties, but rather to search for unbiased information, facts, and reasoning, and let these be our guide.

My Father, the Foodie

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 3)

I attribute my lifelong love of rich food, and the comfort I derive from eating it, to my late father. Dad must have been one of those people with extra taste buds layered on his tongue. Other cooks might add the seasonings a recipe called for, but dad felt compelled to sniff and sample the dried chili peppers, or ground thyme, or garlic powder, before he shook any into his soup pot.

The genetic link to my foodiness extends even past my father to his mother, Grandma Nancy. She was such an enthusiastic eater, she was chubby in the 1920’s when hardly anyone was overweight. Food was still slow then and “fast” had nothing to do with time, and everything to do with abstinence.
Food may have been the only crutch Grandma Nancy had to lean on. She was a single mother of two, working long days for a coal mining company in Eastern Kentucky. Evidently life became too bleak, and Nancy felt she had to give up one of her children in order to survive. My dad was the one she gave away to a barren aunt and uncle. Such soul sick, “Sophie’s Choice” situations could easily lay the groundwork for emotional eating.
The last time my father came to see me I remember laboring in the kitchen to make a nice roast beef and gravy dinner, knowing his penchant for meat and potatoes. I even stirred up some yeast rolls which he, coming from the South, referred to as biscuits.
But he wanted to treat the hostess. He insisted we go out to the Desert Inn for dinner. We could store the food I’d made in the fridge, he said. A few years after this visit I got a call from a hospital spokesman telling me my father had not survived his heart surgery. It was midsummer, and I remember looking out the kitchen window to the field beyond. A wind had come up bending the tall grasses low.

Educated Book Review

Educated (Genre: Memoir)
by Tara Westover

I’ve known people in rural Idaho like Westover describes in her book. I knew a man who didn’t want his children going to school because they’d get brainwashed by the government. I knew another man who hoarded food and supplies for the End Times. I’ve heard of a least one midwife who distrusted doctors and hospitals.

So much of what Westover writes about her family rings true. Her sad story of mental illness and abuse fostered in an authoritarian family made for a compelling read. I couldn’t put the book down waiting for Westover to break free and no longer be susceptible to her disturbed father or violent brother.

Toward the end of the book though, I felt like I’d stepped into a particularly acrimonious divorce, a split in a family. This made me slightly distrustful of the author’s perspective. My daughter tells me she’s more comfortable dating divorced men who’ve accepted and forgiven their ex-spouse.  I’m not sure Westover has forgiven her family yet, despite her claims to the contrary.  In the last chapters it seemed like she was seeking converts to her viewpoint.  She even names the family members that support her story and those that don’t.

Ultimately, Westover’s memoir tells a larger truth though: education is a powerful tool to dispel the ignorance that allows tyranny, whether it be tyranny in a government, or tyranny in your own family.

Cancer and Brownies

southern-potato-salad-10Comfort Food (Essay, Part 2)

It seems like everyone I know is on some kind of special diet: gluten-free, vegan, lo-carb, non-processed, paleo.  We’re all caught between a rock and a hard place: needing to maintain a healthy weight and driven by the pleasure only good food can provide.  I’m not saying that eating healthy can’t be tasty too.  But I’ve been to those pot luck dinner parties and buffets where the offerings are raw kale and brown rice.  Usually my bowl of home-made, mayonnaise-laden potato salad is the only plate that gets licked clean.  Everyone goes away with a full belly and a big smile on their face.

I have a dear friend, who I’ve known all my adult life.  She’s in her 80’s and battling a colon cancer diagnosis.  We’ve spent years talking and laughing over tea or coffee or wine.  I can’t imagine my life without her in it, but maybe I should.  When she first told me her diagnosis and that her oncologist recommended chemotherapy, I promised I’d help her through this trial.  I’d buy some marijuana and even if I’m not a toker, I’d find a recipe for marijuana brownies and bake a batch we could both enjoy with our coffee.  It would be a way to double-down on the nausea chemotherapy causes with two highs: dope and chocolate.  What a great idea.  But she just smiled sadly, looking at me like I was from another planet, another generation—which I was.  My friend would find her own way through this hardship.

Authors Stephen King and C. J. Box Latest Books

Vicious Circle (Genre: Western mystery)
by C. J. Box



The Outsider (Genre: horror mystery)
by Stephen King



Both of these books are mysteries and both are written in a particular genre style (western and horror), but there the comparison ends.  Next to Stephen King’s masterful storytelling, C. J. Box seems almost an apprentice.

On the plus side of Vicious Circle, I found the life of Montana Fish and Game officer Joe Pickett, the main character, different and fun to read about.  I also thought the Montana setting for the story, appealing.  Box’s tale begins with some intrigue:  Joe Pickett flying in a plane over a wilderness area using a FLIR (forward looking infrared) looking for a lost hunter in the deep woods. Then suddenly the FLIR image shows a white blast on the screen, and Pickett realizes the missing hunter has just been murdered.  From there, the story moves to the central mystery:  someone is out to kill Pickett and hurt his family.  Through most of the book the answers to those questions are all too obvious.  Ultimately, Vicious Circle is a tale of family vengeance in the wild west.

If the mystery disappoints in Vicious Circle, the mystery in Stephen King’s latest thriller, The Outsider, is potent.  At one point in The Outsider, Stephen King references another contemporary author and mystery writer, Harlan Coben, praising Coben for his ability to create a sharply turned plot.  After reading The Outsider, I’d say King learned something from Coben, except of course, King, in his storied career, has more than amply demonstrated his plot expertise through dozens of best-selling horror novels.

Yes, the plots the thing in The Outsider and you couldn’t ask for a better supernatural mystery.  The set-up is the horrific rape and murder of a young boy.  But the sting is that the man accused by several eye-witnesses is Terry Maitland, a mild-mannered husband and father, a baseball coach even.  That’s interesting, but what pulls the reader in is the revelation that Terry Maitland was no where near the scene of the crime at the time of the murders, and was actually several miles away staying in a hotel room with friends at a convention.  In this latest offering by Stephen King, he makes a contribution to the noble tradition of  dobbleganger-themed stories, i.e., Poe’s William Wilson, Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, Nabokov’s Despair.

King’s book is 500 pages or more but it felt like 30 because I read so rapidly, excited to find out what was going on with this two-people-in-one-place idea, and curious about what kind of creature the murderer was.  If you enjoy an entertaining read, you’ll like The Outsider.  King has written some great characters over his career, but this is a solid plot that, as they say, keeps you turning pages.