What I’m Watching and Reading

I am a bit late getting a post out with the start of a new clinical trial, the holidays and some lovely company–plus, I confess, a bit of inertia.   Now that I am essentially “retired, “ I have more time to read as well as catch shows on my tablet on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I have always been an eclectic reader/watcher and I have a short attention span, so I have a hard time doing anything serially—I usually have three to four books going at once along with a couple of shows. Staying mentally active in this way keeps my health from becoming the 24/7 resident of my brain.   (I also  do the daily New York Times crossword puzzle and spend time on my dissertation, but to be honest this latter one has been harder).

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In the evening, I confess that after the news, I fail to join Marty in his favorite pursuit, watching Judge Judy–my theory being that if you’ve seen one of her shows, you’ve seen them all.   I might be accused of the same, but I’ve been working my way  on Amazon Prime through the original 1960s series Mission Impossible, which aired while I was in high school and takes me right back to my parents’  living room.   I’m on Season 2 now, but when I was about halfway through Season 1, Steven Hill, the actor who played Daniel Briggs, the original leader of the IM Force, died at the age of 94.    I didn’t recall knowing the story of why he left after only one season (he was replaced by Peter Graves), but it had mainly to do with the fact that Hill had become an Orthodox Jew, and walked off the set on Friday afternoon even if the filming was not complete, in order not to violate the Sabbath. He had disclosed this stipulation, along with some others, to the producers when he signed on, but over time—especially if production ran over which it often did—it became a major issue, and Hill was not asked back. He later went on to star on Law and Order in the 1990s, and played smaller parts in several movies in between. Perhaps the most moving, and a true testament to his talent, was his role as Christine Lahti’s father in the 1989 film Running on Empty (also starring Judd Hirsch and River Phoenix), about a couple that is perpetually on the run for bombing a research lab during the Vietnam War, and the dilemma they face with their highly talented musician son (Phoenix). In addition to these, I try to keep up my Japanese by watching Japanese movies, the most recent one (on Netflix) called Sweet Bean (An in Japanese), about the owner of a dora-yaki (Japanese sweet) shop who hires a woman in her 80s who teaches him how to make her secret recipe for sweet bean paste for his pastries—as well as several other life lessons.

During the day, I try to spend at least a few hours reading. It’s something I can do even when I don’t have a lot of energy, which is more often these days. On the fiction side, our son Harry gave me a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain for my birthday. I recall starting this book many years ago—and I did read Death in Venice on which the book is based—but I’m sure I never finished it. This is the hardest thing I’m reading and it’s slow going—the maturation and evolution of Hans Castorp appears to progress at a glacial pace– but fortunately the sections are short and I can read it in bite- sized chunks. I have also read The Girl on a Train-a quick and easy read—and The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a beautiful book about a young woman who searches in Burma for her father, who has mysteriously disappeared to his homeland without a trace, and all she learns about his growing up before he moved to New York.  Next up: Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, both gifts. I enjoy a good mystery or spy novel, but I need to find a new series.

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On the non-fiction side, I tend to prefer biographies and memoirs. A few weeks ago, on my birthday, Harry, my sister-in-law Roberta, and Marty and I visited Hildene, the Vermont summer estate of Robert Lincoln, the only son of Abraham Lincoln to survive to adulthood. The younger Lincoln served in the war cabinets of two presidents and became the head of the Pullman Coach Company, where he made the bulk of his fortune. Hildene is a sprawling, beautiful campus with a large estate house and gardens, a Pullman coach car, and a goat farm where, in addition to raising goats, there is a cheese-making operation. In front of the main house is a brick outline of the log cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born and spent his early years—a constant reminder to his wealthy son of his humble origins. The estate had a book shop, and I picked up a copy of David Herbert Donald’s biography of Lincoln, which I hadn’t read.  It’s well done and easy reading.

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I also have a lot of books on my tablet, which is great when I travel to Boston, though frankly I find the tactile sensation of a real book to be more satisfying. Without getting into a lot of politics here, I am also reading Carl Bernstein’s biography of Hillary Clinton, A Woman in Charge, which goes up to the time just before she became a senator. I’m at the point in the book where the Clintons have just moved into the White House, and one of Hillary’s first acts—strenuously opposed by then press secretary George Stephanopoulous but acquiesced to by her husband—was to kick the White House Press corps from the West Wing and relegate them to the Executive office building across the street. It’s an interesting tidbit given that Hillary’s role model was Eleanor Roosevelt. Though the 30s were of course different times, and the White House press corps certainly a smaller and more malleable group, one of Eleanor’s first acts was quite the opposite–to invite the women reporters in for daily briefings. And speaking of Eleanor, I can’t wait for the long overdue third volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of her, which is due out in November. In the meantime, when I’m done with Hillary, I’ll move on to the new profile of Missy LeHand, FDR’s long time right hand woman, which was just published (The Gatekeeper, by Kathryn Smith).

I also read books on death and dying, though I try to intersperse these. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, both New York Times best sellers, were fantastic. I also enjoy the work of Stephen Levine, with whom I share a birthday, and who died earlier this year.

Music is another source of comfort, but I’ll save that for another day. In the meantime, I have truly come to understand the mantra, “So many books, so little time.” Literally.