Book Review: Fauci, Expect the Unexpected, Ten Lessons on Truth, Service, and the Way Forward

After seeing Dr. Fauci on televised news conferences for months on end and hearing his name bantered about by both supporters and detractors, when I saw this book on the new release shelf at my library I picked it up to hear from Dr. Fauci himself.

First of all, this book is not exactly written by Dr. Fauci per se, nor was it edited by him. It is a book of excerpts from interviews and speeches that were developed (their word) by National Geographic Books in connection with a documentary also being produced by National Geographic. This is a short read,  only 96 pages, and it reads like one of those books quickly put together after a particularly good celebrity commencement speech, such as Maria Shriver’s Ten Things I Wish I’d Known … Before I Went Out into the Real World.

Each of the short chapters is titled with a life lesson and is laid out with examples from Fauci’s long historied life as a doctor, NIH scientist, and advisor to six different presidents over eleven terms of office. The title of Chapter 4 supplies the title for the collection, Expect the Unexpected. We get to learn a bit about Fauci’s childhood, education, and career choices while the book focuses primarily on his work during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Surprisingly, the very issue that made Fauci a household name, the Covid-19 pandemic, is not even mentioned in the bio on the book jacket.

I found this book interesting but not compelling. Perhaps its abbreviated format and indirect narration made it so. Fauci recently announced that he will retire at the end of this year, and perhaps he will devote some time to an autobiography that will give us a more complete picture of this interesting man.

Book Review: Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout changed my life as a reader, and more importantly, as a writer. If you read my review of Strout’s Oh William, you know that I was introduced to Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge by my local librarian. While reading Strout’s masterpiece of thirteen interwoven short stories, I finally (FINALLY) came up with a plan for my own novel, an idea I came up with a long time ago but couldn’t figure out the structure I wanted to deploy. Now, I carry Strout’s stories and words around with me, a kind of mental inspiration board designed by my own personal muse, as I work on my novel.

Since reading Olive Kitteridge and its sequel Olive, Again, I have been reading my way through Strout’s back list, including I Am Lucy Barton, the first in Strout’s Amgash series, which includes Anything is Possible (Amgash #2), Oh William mentioned above (Amgash #3) and now, Lucy by the Sea (Amgash #4), Strout’s latest novel, to be released on September 20, 2022.

Strout’s latest novel, which is set during the coronavirus pandemic, will NOT be for everyone. Some of us are still too raw and wounded by the isolation, death, and economic fallout of COVID to cozy up on the couch with a cup of tea, a warm blanket, and a 300-page novel about the stress and anxiety we have all been through since March of 2020. Add to that the election of November, 2020, the BLM protests, and the subsequent political upheaval of January 6, 2021, and honestly, this book should have a few trigger warnings on the cover: miscarriage, divorce, adultery, isolation, riots, loneliness, aging, and yes, death.

Yet, I loved this book. At times, I felt like Elizabeth Strout had rented space in my head for her pandemic writing room. If you read books 1-4 of the Amgash series you know that Lucy had a terrible childhood, and that is an understatement. She is STILL carrying that baggage around, even when she packs her small purple rolling suitcase to leave NYC as the pandemic cranks up and her scientist ex-husband William insists she go to Maine with him to ride out the attack of the coronavirus. He occasionally has to remind her that he is trying to save her life. 

Once in Maine, she is a duck out of water, seemingly calm above the water but paddling furiously below it. She longs for the hustle and bustle of the city, even as she takes her daily walks along the rocky coastline of Crosby, Maine, even as she admires the beauty and majesty of the ocean. She doesn’t talk about whether she is reading much, or even writing much, unlike Strout, who managed to write this book during the same international pandemic her main character was living through. Instead of using her writing to help move her through her anxiety over the pandemic, her relationship with her ex-husband William, her grown daughters and their own marriage issues, she suffers sleepless nights, her only consolation to her angst is her near constant conversations with “the nice mother I had made up,” as opposed to her dark thoughts of her “real mother, not the nice one I made.” How sad is that?

I had what I think most would call a “normal childhood,” and I loved my mother dearly. She struggled with showing her emotions but I am sure she loved me dearly, too, but I too have my baggage, and some nights I am restless, unpacking and repacking the effects of Hurricane Katrina on my family, as well as a few personal demons that periodically visit me. Lucy at one point says, “Everyone needs to feel important.” This is yet another example of where Strout creates a character with elements that really resonate with me. As a veteran teacher with retirement on the horizon, I fear that once I am not a teacher, in my middle school language arts classroom, shaping readers and guiding young writers, will I still feel important? 

As the world went on lock down, many felt listless, wandering from room to room in sweats, watching CNN on repeat, learning how to Zoom, trying to work from home. If Lucy by the Sea wanders around a bit, like all of us during lock down, I’m okay with that. If Lucy rehashes all the pains and pangs of her life, and Strout rehashes bits and bobs of other story lines, I’m okay with that. As a relatively new–but avid–fan of Strout’s, I’m okay with it all, as long as she keeps writing.  

(Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for the advanced e-book.)

Smell the Soup, Cool the Soup

I used to sleep like a log every night. I could drink a cup of tea or a cup of coffee and turn out my lamp and fall asleep before I was finished with my prayers. I would wake up whenever forced to, many hours later, often in the exact same position I was in when I fell asleep. No more. Those days are long gone, and not just gone, but a distant memory that I can hardly believe is true.

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I’m not sure what it is and then, again, I’m absolutely certain what it is. First, age. Martha Stewart loves to brag about how she only sleeps four or five hours a night and wakes up totally fresh, energized, and ready to make millions. I’m beginning to think I’m channeling Martha Stewart’s sleep habits; alas, I’m not channeling her energy or millions.

Second, the ugly cousin of aging (for women at least), menopause. It changes you. It changes a lot of things that doctors and books don’t tell you about: your hair, your skin, your metabolism, your energy levels. I think part of my current sleep pattern is the after-effects of menopause. I may be finished with it, but it doesn’t seem to be finished with me.

Third, stress. Let’s see, now, just what does Michelle have to be stressed about? I’m so lucky, truly blessed in so many ways. I’m happily married to my best friend for 31 years and counting, I have two beautiful, talented, intelligent daughters, I am (relatively) healthy, and I have food, clothing, and shelter when so many are much less fortunate. I have, most importantly of all, my faith, which has kept me steady and strong through life’s challenges, disappointments, and losses.

But, right now, stress has the better of me, mostly over this pandemic, which has kept me out of my classroom this year, doing something I truly loved. I toss and turn all night, awake more than asleep, but during the brief periods of sleep I find myself dreaming of school, and finally, at 2:30, I am wide awake and unable to settle back to sleep until around 5:30 or so, when very uncharacteristically, I wake up again.

Last night, rather than fight it, I decided to read for a bit. I opened my Kindle and picked up where I had left off in my current novel, Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, who also wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Now, there are times when books are put into your hands for a reason. This book was not recommended to me, however. I chose this Maria Semple book simply because it was immediately available for loan on Libby. I enjoyed my first Maria Semple book about Bernadette, and I enjoyed the movie adaptation starring Cate Blanchett. I expected to enjoy this second book of hers as well. What I didn’t expect was advice–just what I needed exactly when I needed it–via one of the characters, an eight-year-old boy no less, coming less than a quarter of my way into the book.

The main character, Eleanor Flood, is about to have a meltdown when her eight-year-old son Timby gives her advice:

“Smell the soup, cool the soup,” Timby said. “Huh?” “It’s what they teach us in school when we’re upset. Smell the soup.” He took a deep breath in. “Cool the soup.” He blew out.”

As I read it, of course, I had to try it. And, it worked. I smelled the soup and cooled the soup about three times and I felt myself relax a little. I read for a while and then slept for a while, alas, waking at 5:30 as my new normal. Yes, I smelled the soup and cooled the soup once, had a sip of water, and drifted off to sleep once again.

hot soup

It’s too early in Semple’s book to know if I’ll enjoy it as much as Bernadette, but if the only thing I gained was this delightful metaphor for taking a deep breath and letting it out, then, it was time well spent. It’s not the first time I’ve learned a life lesson from a book!

The “Pan”-Demic Experiments

“Sometimes you feel like a nut / Sometimes you don’t / Almond Joy’s got nuts / Mounds don’t” was the jingle used during the 1970s to advertise two of my favorite candy bars. 

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By Evan-Amos – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11364190

And, likewise, sometimes, I feel like doing culinary research for several hours, shopping at multiple grocery stores and markets, gathering stand mixer, blender, bread machine, and an array of measuring cups and measuring spoons on my countertop, to create a dessert worthy of the final round of Food Network’s Chopped. However, sometimes, I just want to whip up something quickly with what I have on hand, get it in the oven, and have it on a saucer thirty minutes later. 

Yes, these sorts of desserts rely heavily on packaged, processed elements, but while this pandemic has bestowed upon us all ample time for big projects, it hasn’t always given us the energy or enthusiasm for them. I do enough cooking and baking from scratch that it doesn’t bother me one bit to give my family something made from a box once in a while. 

One recent COVID-19 night my older daughter, who lives and works from home, was itching for a brownie. We had no packaged brownie mix, and we had not found a source for all-purpose flour yet, which was nowhere to be seen on the shelves of our local grocery store. We did have a chocolate cake mix, though. So, off to the internet we went where we quickly found a food blog about cake mix brownies. I’ve been making cake mix cookies for years–one cake mix, two eggs, and a half-cup of vegetable oil mixed together by hand with a wooden spoon, portioned out with an ice cream scoop onto a baking sheet, and voila, a batch of cookies before you can bat an eye. But, brownies? 

Our first experiment produced something that totally satisfied her craving for a brownie, moist and slightly gooey, definitely chocolate and cakey. The best part was that it only required four ingredients and one bowl, a wooden spoon, and one pan: chocolate cake mix, two eggs, half-cup of vegetable oil, and a cup of chocolate chips, mixed by hand and spread into a greased 8×8 square cake pan. Baked for 20 minutes at 350°, the results were amazing, and better yet, FAST.

Yesterday, I decided to experiment again, this time with a yellow cake mix, which I mixed with the requisite two eggs and half-cup of vegetable oil, but I also added one teaspoon of cinnamon, one teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, and a cup of cinnamon chips I had stashed away in the freezer. After I spread it out into the greased 8×8 square cake pan, I sprinkled the top with cinnamon sugar and baked it for 20 minutes at 350°. Cinnamon Chip BrownieMy daughter said it tasted like the cinnamon swirl coffee cake at Starbucks, which I haven’t tried but I’ll take her word for it. Suffice it to say, we were all happy to sit on the back patio with a cup of coffee and a quick treat that didn’t leave the kitchen looking like a White House State Dinner had just been prepared. 

Next on the list for experimentation: strawberry brownies! Stay tuned!