Tuesday, January 29, 2019

I also read a fair amount of nonfiction last year.

Again, my Goodreads reviews of a set of a few of the non-fiction books I read in 2018:

Do You Believe in Magic?
On the breastcancer site I'm on, I have been struck by how many people are duped into alternative medicine approaches to cure their breast cancer. Coffee enemas, hydrogen peroxide infusions, megadoses of vitamins, a list of supplements as long as my arm. Sure, chemo sucks. I’m not enjoying it one bit. Wasn’t a big fan of the surgeries I had either. BUT those approaches are put to rigorous testing and offer my best chance of living. I hope a generation down the line we’ve come up with better methods. But for now, this is the best we have.

I wish I could insist that everyone posting about what they believe will provide a miracle cure would read this book. We all need to be critical thinkers when it comes to health care. The end notes (which I wish had been more clearly pointed to) provide a means to get to the studies mentioned and you don’t have to have a science or medical background to read the abstracts and conclusions. 

As for the personal “attacks” other reviewers have criticized Offit for, you know what? People like Jenny McCarthy, Suzanne Somers, Mehmet Oz, Oprah, and so on NEED to be called out for their ridiculous claims. They are actively using their celebrity to steer people away from life-saving treatment, and often funneling huge profits into their own pockets in the process.

Declutter Your Mind
(Note: This is a clear example of a free book that isn't even worth being free.)

I can think of three explanations for this bizarre and often incomprehensible book:

1) it was written by someone who is not a native (or fluent) English speaker,
2) it was written in another language and then run through google translate,
3) it was written by someone with a thought disorder.

The Beauty Suit
I think this is a really important topic but it could have been handled much better. It was a bit scattered and didn’t actually deal all that much with her “year” (actually 3/4 of a year) of experimenting with religiously modest dress. There are just a few brief reports on how the experiment went for her. I also had a few other gripes about the book:

For one, Shields interjected her own religious beliefs unnecessarily. She states that she is glad she’d moved past her “spiritual but not religious phase” and that she would not have made it through her brother’s death without religion. That’s fine for her, but not the only or superior way to be. I made it through my brother’s untimely death without theism and didn’t descend into nihilism (which she suggests is the route for the nonreligious).

Secondly, she talks at length about the damage done by toxic masculinity and women as sexual objects, but seems unwilling to take a firm stand against institutions like pornography which by their very nature oppress women.

Additionally, if you really want to experiment with not caving to societal pressure to don the “beauty suit,” why veil? If the goal is to be able to live with the same freedoms as men, it is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive in some ways. Why not, instead, go about your life the way men (at least in this culture) do -not shaving legs, not dying or straightening or curling hair, not wearing excessively revealing clothes, not using makeup, and most of all, not funneling lots of money and time and effort into male-oriented standards of beauty?

Overall, the book felt a little self-indulgent. Particularly since she wasn’t even able to give a talk during that time without putting concealer (a loaded beauty product if there ever was one) on her face. It was telling, I thought, that she was quick to get extensions in her hair and wear a revealing dress the minute the experiment was up. What did she learn, really?

But I gave the book three stars because I think it is such an important topic. Particularly since we seem to be in this wave of young women claiming empowerment by being even more overtly sexualized. “Slut walks” meant as demonstrations of female power in a rape culture serve to reinforce the stereotypes that women are there for men’s viewing pleasure. Ditto women going with men to strip clubs or working at restaurants that use women as eye candy. It’s time - past time - for us to start seriously challenging the idea that we need to dress provocatively as a means of gaining men’s attention or garnering power. Rejecting that notion is the way we assert our strength, not wearing a veil for nine months. 

This was an interesting, fact-filled book about the history of vitamin-deficiency diseases, the circuitous routes to discovering how to treat them, and the evolution of vitamins into an unregulated industry. Vitamins and supplements, that is, which are generally lumped together. If you’ve read Paul Offit, Timothy Caulfield, or Joseph Schwarcz, you won’t be surprised to hear what a scam the whole nutritional supplement industry is. And if you are looking for advice about vitamins it boils down to the same suggestion given by those other authors and Michael Pollan - keep your diet as whole food, plant-based as possible. All the vitamins you need are there, and distilling them out doesn’t take into account the myriad of other nutrients that coexist within food to keep you healthy. I’d say we don’t need yet another book telling us that but clearly, judging by how many people eat the unhealthy Standard American Diet, we absolutely do. And in my opinion, the more voices raised in opposition to supplement-pushing quacks like Andrew Weil and Christiane Northrup, the better.

My Lobotomy
This should have been a much more interesting book. Certainly the subject matter is compelling. But it is so poorly written that I quickly found myself wondering why they hadn’t gotten a co-author involved. Then flipped back to the cover and realized with some horror that they had! How does a Newsweek writer sign off on something this badly written? The narrative reads as if a child has written it. The author finds so many things “lame” - from classes to corduroy. And the memories are often unbelievable. I don’t believe, for instance, that he has memories from infant-hood. I don’t believe 30 of 32 girls at his school were found to pregnant. And in one case, he notes that no one other than his father is smiling in a family photo - and then shows the photo with the stepmother clearly smiling.

On the one hand, I feel deeply, deeply sorry for the kid who grew up with such cruel parents. His stepmother was vicious and abusive and his father little better. And sorry, too, that he was subjected to such an outdated and harmful surgery and sent to an adult asylum because they had no place willing to take him. All of that was dreadfully wrong. I can’t imagine.

On the other, he sounds like like he was a bit of a shit. He writes without remorse about the many times he broke rules, messed things up, stole, vandalized things, bullied other kids. He even got a teacher into a headlock and punched him in the face because he didn’t want to make his bed. I can see where he might have been viewed as a problem. In his adulthood he escalated to outright criminal activity, cheating on his wife, physically abusing women, and substance abuse. In his view his dislike of rules just made him a “nonconformist.” He even states that he fought for custody of his son to hurt his wife and that he wasn’t actually interested in his son’s welfare. He has ample reason for developing sociopathic traits but it’s still distressing.

It does sound like his research brought him peace and that he is happy in his life now. I’m glad for that. But unfortunately, that doesn’t make this a book worth reading. Maybe in another writer’s hands it would have been.

Being Mortal
I didn't review this book, even though I gave it 5 stars. Ironically, I read this book a month before my diagnosis. First, I always loved Atul Gawande's articles in the New Yorker. This book is an examination of end of life medical treatment. Atul Gawande and both his parents are all physicians and yet they are as emotionally flummoxed by the elder Dr. Gawande's terminal diagnosis as any nonmedical family would be.  He talks at length about how his family made decisions regarding his father's care and also walks through several case histories - most of them people with metastatic cancers. It really made me think about how far I'd be willing to go if faced with such a diagnosis. A month later, I was glad I'd read it so that I could have some limits in my mind as I approached my own treatment decisions. Honestly, I think this is a book everyone should read.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Sineading around town.

When I'd finally finished chemo, I looked like this. I mean, I was seriously bald with just pale fluffy wisps remaining. My first oncologist, the kindly Dr. Dick, brushed away my concerns about being bald. He was balding himself and didn't feel it was even worth discussing. But let me tell you, it's a whole different ballgame for women. It's a blow to your sense of self as a woman to lose your hair. Especially when you have just forfeited your breasts. It was just a little surreal. I felt like a hatchling bird that had fallen from its nest, with only the wispiest of feathers.
But I have grown weary of covering my head in caps and scarves. And I had no interest in wearing a wig. I decided I am okay with looking like someone who was in chemo. So as my hair has started to reappear, I've started venturing out uncovered. For long walks at the park on sunny days and to some indoor events where it's warm.
Mostly people don't seem to notice. Or if they do, they aren't obvious about it. We did walk by one older woman today who ignored my "hello" and just stared at me, slack-jawed. It was such a weird reaction that I laughed aloud. Because you know what? My hair has morphed from nearly invisibly blond to dark, and I'm feeling kind of badass.
So I don't wear a hat when I can avoid it, including any time I'm inside. Like today, when we stopped downtown for a drink at the brewery. I am embracing my new look, courtesy of Taxotere. I've begun to feel that maybe chemo patients covering their baldness has more to do with making other people feel comfortable. And I don't feel the need to do that anymore.
I'm thinking if Sinead O'Connor and Emma González could get away with it, so can I.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Last year gave me the reading bug.

This year I set my Goodreads challenge at 60 instead of my usual 52. I won't have the time to read as many books as I did last year, but at 8 books in, I shouldn't have trouble meeting this year's goal. One benefit of chemo brain - I request books from the library and a few days later when I go pick up the stack, I can never quite remember what I asked for. It's like Christmas!
In addition to the public library, I get notices from BookBub everyday with free and discounted books. When I first started getting them, I picked a free book about a disgraced student who returns to college and his relationship with a fellow student in the dorm. I knew going in that the couple was gay and that was irrelevant to me. What I didn't not realize was that it was actually pornography rather than a regular novel. I abandoned it a couple of chapters in but BookBub never forgets. Among the books each day there is inevitably a gay porn offering.

I often write reviews on Goodreads, and have noticed that I tend to be a little more long-winded about books I don't like. From the novels I read last year, my Goodreads reviews of a few of the good, the mixed, and the bad:

Sentence of Marriage
What the hell?! I feel duped. I never in a million years would have read this book if I had any clue about the abrupt, pointless, hopeless ending. Christ on a cracker, I can’t even believe what I just read. “And then a nuclear bomb exploded and they all died” would have been no less awful than the ending. Not a hint of redemption, not a hint of any consequence for the abysmal behavior of some of the main characters. The book itself was pretty engaging until the end, when apparently the author gave up and went home rather than write a decent conclusion. I will make sure I never read another book by this author. My one consolation is that it was a free book and I did not waste my money on it. However, my precious time I can’t get back.

This was an odd book, but I loved it. The protagonist was a funny mix of clever and hapless. You just wanted her to be okay in the end. The takeaway for me was about being tuned into and open to the mysteries in life.

Some Lucky Woman
I’m starting to see that there is a reason why certain books are offered for free on BookBub. But I’m in the middle of chemo, and light reading is all I can handle on some days. Even so, I’d like better than this. This book started out okay with a potentially interesting character rebuilding her life after her husband cheated on her.

But then it became choppy - the plot bounced ahead in time without warning or explanation of how the changes happened. There was an odd development with another library patron the protagonist liked enough to name a vibrator after, who inexplicably disappeared from the book. And then there was the small matter of going from a very amateur blogging book reviewer to a bestselling author with a movie option with no sense of how that was humanly possible.

But what bothered me most was the over-the-top characters. The protagonist (the author?) made sure we understood she was effortlessly gorgeous, extremely athletic, a fearless thrill seeker, and desired by virtually every man she encountered. And the men were all physical gods, by her account. Every last one of them. By the end, I had a hard time wishing for a happy outcome for anyone in the book.

Every Note Played
I'm not sure why, but I didn't write a review of this one. But I gave it five stars. It was by the author of another book I loved, Still Alice (about a psychologist who develops Alzheimer's). This one is about a concert pianist who develops ALS. After it has progressed to a point where he cannot care for himself, his ex-wife returns to take care of him as he declines. It's brutal but enthralling.

A Time To Mend
Although I am not a Christian, I don’t mind books from a Christian perspective. But I almost stopped reading when the author was talking about obeying God’s purity laws against premarital sex. Good grief. Still, I pressed on because I was interested in the breast cancer plot line having been recently diagnosed myself. And yet, the hardened oncology nurse putting on a brave face theme never really felt genuine to me. Even less believable was the oncologist running from a secret past that turned out to be something a two minute explanation could have solved. Just silly.

One other thing - the oncologist mentions that he used to believe rabbits laid eggs until he learned that except for dodo birds, no mammals lay eggs. What? Dodo birds were BIRDS. Regular birds. Like pigeons. Flightless, yes, but still your standard egg-laying bird. I’m guessing the author was confused about monotremes - the duck-billed platypus and the echidna are in the small class of egg-laying mammals. This is an example of the kind of shoddy fact-checking that drives me nuts and utterly ruins a book for me. Or would have ruined it if I’d actually liked it to begin with.

I really liked reading this book, but for the life of me could not figure out how the three separate sections were related. The first and last had the same male character (who became even less likable later in life) but both those stories seemed utterly unrelated to the middle story, which was actually my favorite. I think if the book jacket is going to pose the question of how these separate stories impact each other, the book needs to deliver on that promise. What I would have really liked is the middle portion expanded to novel length.

I often read the reviews that are opposite of mine just to see why someone hates a book I loved or loves a book I hated. It is odd to me to read the reviews saying this was a boring and painful book to read. I found it really engaging. The protagonist was a bit clueless, but that was part of her charm. She just did not seem to have the tools she needed to make good decisions for her life. Or rather, to make decisions that were in opposition to what her family wanted for her. Still, I can’t help but hope that she figures it all out and enjoys her life.

A Man Called Ove
I absolutely loved this book. I wasn’t sure I would at first. Ove was such an incredible curmudgeon but it became increasingly clear how he became the man he was and how he was doing his best to deal with sorrow. It was wonderful to watch his growth through the book.

(I know I'm behind the curve on this one, but that's okay. If you've not read it yet yourself, I encourage you to. It's truly wonderful. Now I've got another book of Backman's - My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry - in my stack.)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Cruciferous Art.

As you know from my post about the history of chemotherapeutic agents and how my particular chemo regimen worked, I have done a LOT of research into how best to approach my cancer.  It might not surprise you to hear that now that I'm out of active treatment (other than endocrine therapy), I have been reading everything I can about lifestyle factors in cancer. In addition to exercise, nutrition seems to be critical. In fact, of the American Institute of Cancer Research's list of the top eight ways to lower cancer risk, six of the recommendations involve diet and the other two are about weight and exercise. Consistently, what I'm reading points to shifting toward a plant-based diet. And over and over, the message is to especially eat cruciferous vegetables. So guess what I'm doing? If I need a side dish, it's likely to be a quick sauté of cabbage and baby kale. In this one, I threw in red bell peppers and almonds.
Or the stir fry I made the other night which was a vegetable wonderland, with tofu, edemame, red cabbage, broccoli, peppers, celery, carrots, spinach, and cashews over brown rice. I made up a sauce of tamari, lemon juice, chili sauce, and sesame oil. I have to tell you, it's probably the best stir fry I've ever had.
I'm actually surprising myself with how much I'm enjoying the shift in how I'm eating. One day at work, I was having some leftover broccoli and caramelized Brussels sprouts and was struck by how delicious they were. I've always thought of Brussels sprouts as unhappy mini cabbages. And years ago, my older son told me that lettuce was invented so people wouldn't have to eat cabbage. I honestly didn't even know what cruciferous vegetables were beyond cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. So for the first time ever, I made a stew that included parsnips and turnips. I'd always passed up parsnips at the grocery store, writing them off as anemic carrots. Turns out I was wrong. And in addition to the great taste, the amazing colors just make me happy. My theory is the more colors I can use, the better.

The vegetables above all went into a crockpot stew that I made a few days ago, from a recipe that I added to extensively to fit in as many of the cancer-fighting ingredients as I could. I added in flax,  lentils and split peas to give it a little body both because it ups the nutrition and because I like thicker stews. This one is remarkably easy to throw together and just quietly cooks itself. I call my version "Super Ragout."

Super Ragout

Olive oil
1 medium sweet onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 large carrots, sliced into half moons
1 large turnip peeled and diced
2 parsnips, peeled and diced
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
1 potato, diced
1 beet, peeled and diced
1 wedge purple cabbage, chopped
1 tomato, diced
2 T ground flax seed
15.5 oz can navy, cannellini or other white beans, rinsed
¼ C dried lentils
1.4 C dried split peas
3 C vegetable stock
1 C white wine
1 t minced fresh thyme or ½ t dried thyme
½ t  black pepper
2 C greens (beet, spinach, kale), chopped

- Heat oil in skillet over medium heat.
- Sauté onion and garlic until onion starts to caramelize.
- Add carrots, cover and take off heat.
- Add cooked vegetable to remaining ingredients EXCEPT GREENS in crockpot. Cook LOW for 6-8 hours. Stir in greens and cook until they wilt. (About 10 minutes).

Also, the stir fry recipe:

Tofu Stir Fry

Block of extra firm tofu
Purple cabbage, sliced thin (about 1 C)
Carrot, cut into matchsticks
Celery stalk, sliced
Broccoli, cut into florets (about 1 C)
Spinach or kale, cut up (about 1 C)
Frozen shelled edamame (about ½ C)
Red and/or yellow bell peppers, cut up (about ½ C)
Cashews (about ½ C)
2/3 C brown rice
Sesame oil
Canola oil
Tamari/soy sauce
Vegetable broth
Sauce: 1 T Tamari
             1 T Lemon juice
             2 t Chili sauce
             1 t Sesame oil
             1 T cornstarch

Wrap block of tofu in paper towel, then cloth (or kitchen towel). Set it on a cutting board and place something heavy like an iron skillet on top of it. Let it compress for about an hour, flipping it over once, to get the excess liquid out.
Slice tofu into rectangles, and marinate for 10 minutes or so in some sesame oil and tamari. Then sauté in canola oil in large skillet until lightly browned. Set aside.

In same skillet, sauté brown rice briefly in a little bit of oil.  Then put in pan with 2/3 C broth and 1 C water and cook rice.

Meanwhile, in skillet, sauté in canola oil cabbage and celery, until softened. Add remaining veggies and continue to cook. Add in tofu and cashews toward the end. (If making > one meal’s worth, add cashews to each plate instead.)

Whisk together sauce ingredients and stir into skillet.

Serve stir fried veggies over brown rice.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Anniversaries and getting back to normal.

Four years ago we met for the first time for brunch and then, reluctant to end the date, walked over to the coffee and chocolate place. At the time, I posted a photo very like this one. Now each year, on a Sunday as close to the date as possible, we recreate that first date. Today we had big mugs of good black coffee, French toast with maple bourbon syrup and veggie eggs Benedict with sweet potato fries at a restaurant that was still an old department store when I moved here. And then, in spite of the gray misty day, made our way over to pick out a chocolate.
Coffeed-out by then, we sat in the warm, cozy shop in the very same seats as our first date, and had hot chocolates and a couple of truffles - I picked the dark chocolate ganache with almond praline and he took the one filled with Jack Daniels-infused chocolate. We talked about how much had been packed into the last four years and started thinking ahead to traveling again next year.
In the meantime, we have been taking advantage of every reasonably warm dry day to go for long walks. I'm slowly regaining my strength and feeling in my foot and we managed a 2 1/2 mile walk along the river last weekend.
I'm determined to rehab myself and have decided that one way or another, by God, I will walk every day. At the park or around the neighborhood.
Or, on a chilly, wet day like today - inside. Mid-chemo, we found a used treadmill (only $130!) and roped my son into picking it up for us in his truck. Now it awkwardly takes up space in the front bedroom. But I'm really glad we got it. I can't go far or fast for very long, but I'm moving. On a treadmill, it's easier for me to focus on my gait and make the effort to roll through from my heel to the ball of my foot, unlearning the peg-legged pirate stump I was forced to have when my foot wasn't working at all. So far, my best is a mile with brief intervals of running, but I improve with each walk. Soon enough, spring will roll around again and by then I will ready to go to the mountains and hike.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

New Year's Intentions.

Last Christmas, I was mourning the loss of my Dad. This year, a different loss. The sort of grief that accompanies coming face to face with your own mortality. I mentioned before that we pared back on Christmas decorating and will probably continue to do so. But candles warm my soul, and those I will set out every year.
As I did last year, I undecorated the tree right after Christmas and packed away all the dark greens and reds, but left the silver and white for New Year's, including leaving only the lights and the star on the tree. Where Christmas was filled with family and friends, New Year's was just the two of us. We felt like it was important to put 2018 officially to bed. Much of that evening was spent talking about the year and our gratitude for getting through some very tough times together. We broke out a bottle of the Prosecco we got on our honeymoon in Tuscany and toasted the many people who rallied around us or who cancer has brought into our lives. And then happily said goodbye to the old year and hello to 2019.
I've decided - I'm not making a single specific resolution or goal this year. Instead, I'm setting an intention to focus on healing and well-being, in all its many aspects. I plan to blog on those throughout the year - food, exercise, friendship, adventure, and so on. Last year, when we started our no-spend challenge in January, I put on the front of my work appointment book, "I am enough. I have enough." It was a reminder I saw every day and it helped keep me focused. I'm continuing the tradition with my new appointment book:
I ran into an old out-of-town friend a week ago who hugged me and said, "I hadn't heard about your cancer - but it looks like you're beating it." I just smiled and said, "I'm trying." But what I was thinking was, "Well, I'm not dead." And really, isn't that all that means when someone tells me I'm a survivor? Because what matters right now is that I haven't died yet. I'm here, I'm living, I have today.