Monthly Archives: December 2010

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

There are so many memoirs being published these days that the ones I read sometimes blend into one gigantic life story in my head, but there’s no way I’m going to confuse Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life with any other memoir any time soon.  I had forgotten, until I reread it recently, what a delight it was to spend time with this self-described “ordinary” person, learning her quirks and hang-ups, her likes and dislikes, her everyday (and not) adventures (including the inspired way she attempted to get out of paying a parking ticket—you’ll love it, trust me), all arranged, encyclopedia-style, from A (“Amy” ;“Anxious, Things That Make Me”; “Ayn Rand”) to Y (“You”), with appropriate cross-references and clever drawings to supplement the text.  To get a sense of Rosenthal’s writing style (and humor), here’s how the Foreword to the book begins:

I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead. We did not live in poverty, or in misery, or in an exotic country.  I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. If I indeed had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was.

I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.

This is my story.


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by Kate Moses

I am not a foodie, although some of my best friends are.  Thus, there’s no way I would have picked up Kate Moses’s Cakewalk to read but for the photograph on the cover, which made me smile.  (See, you can judge a book by its cover!) I continued reading it because Moses is a writer of salutary talents.  And if I hadn’t read it, I would have missed not only an affecting memoir, but also some recipes that I feel sure—if I were a baker— I would immediately try out. If my oven works. Luckily, those friends of mine who do bake have—in return for lending them the book—let me try  samples of the ever-so-tasty results of several of Moses’s recipes.  Mainly focused on her life during the 1960s and 70s, her memoir is marked by parental discord and differences (her mother and father were spectacularly unsuited to one another), frequent moves, and a thorny family history.  Cooking (and reading) were her lifelines out of the unhappy situations she found herself in.  Each chapter includes a recipe, and each—from cheese cake to linzer tort, from spiced pecan cake to chocolate truffles—sounds more scrumptious than the one before.  One bit of advice I feel compelled to give:  brownies, page 209.  Thanks to my friend Jeanette, I know the first version (with walnuts) is amazing.

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Memoirs of Eugenia Ginzburg

by Eugenia Ginzburg

Anyone with the least interest in 20th century history shouldn’t miss Eugenia Ginzburg’s two memoirs, Journey Into the Whirlwind and its sequel, Within the Whirlwind. I first read them about a quarter of a century ago.  I still remember how reading them knocked the breath out of me, as though I’d been run over by an out-of-control truck. I first learned, from reading them, of the true horrors of Stalin’s reign of terror.  As I turned the pages, I was forced to consider how one can never predict how a friend or a foe, or oneself, for that matter, will behave under the most extreme circumstances. In Ginzburg’s accounts, she presents both the highs and lows of human behavior, and by extension, humanity itself.  Ginzburg spent 18 years caught up in the nightmare that gripped the Soviet Union during the height of Stalin’s powers, when he turned on loyal Communist Party members, religious minorities, and anyone else who displeased him.  The picture I have in my mind is that of a paranoid Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, screaming almost randomly, “off with his head,” in a world in which nothing makes sense.  Only Stalin’s era was no fantasy, and the consequences of his paranoia were terribly real.  The great, staying power of these accounts arises partly from the stark facts of history, but mostly from Ginzburg’s unadorned and unaffected writing about her situation. From her arrest (for not speaking up against a colleague who was later accused of being a Trotskyist) to her incarceration in prisons and jails and huts (unheated) in Siberia’s Gulag, we are with Ginzburg every step of the way.  And I was struck by how often she finds consolation in the poetry she remembers.

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Time on My Hands

Dana Kaplan, who emailed me recently, describes herself as “a recently retired marketing and business development professional living in Watertown, Massachusetts, who enjoys reading, writing, gardening and cooking—and now has lots more time for all of these interests.” She’s the official record-keeper for a book discussion group that has been meeting monthly for over 30 years.  She goes on to write, “My book group reads fiction and non-fiction, but I’m the only one with a passion for books (and movies) about time travel. Here’s one I wanted to share with your readers.”

 As a big fan of time travel books myself, I was thrilled to meet another fan.  And once you read Dana’s suggestion, try Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, which remains one of my all time favorites, though it was written over 30 years ago.

Here’s her review:

Guest Blog by Dana Kaplan

If you could go back in time and change things, where—and when—would you go? Would you try to eliminate a historical monster like Hitler or an assassin or serial killer? Would you try to prevent a personal tragedy or save a loved one? Or would you give in to greed and set yourself up financially, say by taking advantage of the stock market? Peter Delacorte’s Time on My Hands is about going back in time to rewrite political history, specifically 20th century American political history. The history to be rewritten is Ronald Reagan’s presidency, thus eliminating, in the novel’s words, “all the vulgarity, hypocrisy, all that banality, that occurred between 1980 and 1988.” The hero, an itinerant travel writer, is challenged to go back in time, not to kill Reagan, but to “take care of things so he doesn’t become president.” Set in 1994, the book reflects its time and the politics of its author, who isn’t shy about voicing his opinions.  Reagan, to Delacorte, is “a shell, a charming automaton with lots of rich, nasty people. . . plutocratic sociopaths. . . standing over him, pulling the strings.”

The book takes its time setting out the premise, describing the device (a cross between a speedboat and a bicycle), and dealing with the nuts and bolts of surfing the time dimension. But once our hero, Gabriel Prince, arrives in 1938 Hollywood and hooks up with a luscious (but apparently doomed) starlet and a B-list supporting actor fresh from Illinois, things happen quickly. This is a view of the 40th president few of us know. He’s “Dutch,” not Ronnie; Ree-gun, not Ray-gun; and he’s distinctly to the left of center on the political spectrum.

For classic film buffs, Delacorte captures the period detail well and the pictures are a hoot. The author has fun setting up Gabriel as a screenwriter pitching a new concept in westerns. It’s about a sheriff, on his wedding day, facing a gang of bad guys out for revenge, due to arrive on the afternoon train. The movie moguls love the concept, the script, all but the incessant shots of the clock. “The audience may be stupid,” says the studio head, “but they can tell time!”  

The book takes a surprising direction midway through when Dutch accidentally drowns. Going back to the future, Gabriel ends up in 1984, not 1994—a  1984 without Ronald Reagan. Remorseful about his role in the death of his friend, Gabriel heads back to 1938. Unfortunately, it seems there are many parallel threads of history, not just one. To make matters worse, the time machine has become unreliable; its space/time GPS system is in serious need of a tune-up. Furthermore, two French punks from the early 22nd century show up and claim ownership of the time machine.  Worst of all, the time machine may only be good for so many trips—or so many years—but how many?  You can see why Gabriel ends up with “time on his hands.”


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