May 4, 2016 – Notes

 In attendance: Vivian Krone, Janice Loschiavo, Meta Pitrelli, Sharon Rome, Barbara Santillo, Tina Segali, Joan Swensen

Absent: Liz Clarke, Lois Pagnozzi, Cathy Quinn, Marilyn Sinisi.

Emeritus: Donna Sabetta, Jeri Stangl.

Book & Author: When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi.

We were happy to initiate another season sitting around Joan’s table, eating pizza and catching up. Oh, and also discussing books! Though reduced in number, the group had a lively, enriching conversation about this moving memoir.

Questions and notes regarding When Breath Becomes Air:

  • Barbara opened the discussion by asking if this book was a good choice for our group, given the sensitive nature of what it dealt with.
  • Joan responded that she liked the book, and felt that it spoke to how people accept adversity.
  • Sharon said she had thought about Glen, about how people handle difficult situations.   Some are determined to make the best of it, or else everyone is miserable.
  • Meta shared that she had had to face her own mortality three times in her life and found it difficult to understand what was happening to her. She added that she thought it was a beautiful book but could understand that some might have found it difficult to read.
  • Vivian offered that she had lost two of her best friends to cancer and each had handled the situation differently.
  • In general the group felt that if we eliminated every book in which something bad happened, we wouldn’t have much to read. However, all felt that they wouldn’t want anyone in the group to feel hurt by a selection. If there is an objection to a book, it must be communicated. The group would willingly change the selection.
  • Janice quoted from page 98, “Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end.” Indeed, a central question of the book is “what makes life worth living?”
  • When his oncologist told him this was just the beginning, he went back to surgery – she had given him the impetus. When he did go back, he had to ask for backup, which was humbling. But he did it because he didn’t want to do anything to risk his patient’s wellbeing.
  • How do you live your life differently if you know you are terminally ill? For Paul, not knowing how long he had drove him crazy. He would live differently if he had 2 months, 2 years or 2 decades.
  • Paul talked about “the crucible of identity.” “…the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.” (page 71.)
  • He spoke about words being the surgeon’s tools, how he had to guide a patient’s family to an understanding of death and illness.
  • Particularly moving is a quote from page 199: “There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant (his daughter, Cady), who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past. That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”
  • It was noted that the prologue was by Abraham Verghese, the author of Cutting for Stone. The epilogue was by Paul’s wife.

After a brief discussion, the group gave the book a 4.00 rating. Though the ratings seem at times arbitrary, they may have more meaning if compared to each other. The feeling was that this is the type of book that will stay will you.

Regarding the 100th book, Tina mentioned a suggestion that Jeri Stangl had offered: at the next meeting have each member name a book that she thinks would be a good choice for the honor of being the 100th. The group thought that was a great idea, so please come prepared to name your choice in June.

A very fattening-looking ice-cream cake was brought to Sharon with candles ablaze. May is also birthday month for Lois (we will celebrate with her in June). The group tried unsuccessfully to resist a tangy lemon pound cake made by Sharon. In discussing the recipe, Sharon mentioned that it had required buttermilk, which she didn’t have. Her husband Glen had found substitution equivalents and shared them with us. (See at the end of the minutes for these – thank you, Glen!) Vivian also offered a sure-fire solution for cleaning just about anything: a squirt of Dawn, vinegar, and water.

Next Meeting: Wednesday, June 1, beginning at 5:30 p.m., at Joan’s house in Mahwah. Meta offered to bring a salad; Sharon, dessert. Additional assignments will be sent out with the meeting reminder.

Next Book: Miller’s Villey, by Anna Quindlen, chosen by Lois. The book for the July 6 meeting, selected by Meta, is Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. The July 6 book will be chosen by Cathy.

Submitted by Tina Segali

May 7, 2016

Buttermilk Substitutes


Add one tablespoon lemon juice or white vinegar to a liquid measuring cup, and add enough milk until it measures 1 cup. Stir, and let sit for five minutes before using. This also works with non-dairy milks.


Whisk a bit of milk or water into plain, unsweetened yogurt until you get a buttermilk-like consistency. The proportion will depend on the thickness of your yogurt, but generally it’ll be around 1/4 liquid with 3/4 cup yogurt.


Whisk together equal parts sour cream and water.


No tinkering needed for this one: substitute equal parts kefir for buttermilk in any recipe—just make sure it’s unsweetened, unflavored kefir.


Whisk 1 3/4 teaspoons cream of tartar into one cup of milk

The New York Times Review of September 14, 2014, by Michiko Kakutani:

 In many Ian McEwan novels, there is a moment of crisis or extremity that shatters his characters’ lives, reveals the innermost workings of their hearts or triggers a reassessment of everything they’ve believed.

In “The Child in Time” (1987), a man’s 3-year-old daughter suddenly disappears during a trip to the supermarket. In “Enduring Love” (1998), a hot-air balloon takes off with a boy trapped in its basket and a would-be rescuer falls to his death. And in“Black Dogs” (1992), a woman, taking a walking tour in southern France, has a frightening encounter with two menacing dogs that “emanated meaning.”

The pivotal moment in Mr. McEwan’s suspenseful but very spindly new novel, “The Children Act,” concerns a ruling that Fiona Maye, a British High Court judge, must make on the case of a 17-year-old boy named Adam Henry, who has refused a lifesaving blood transfusion on religious grounds. (He and his parents are strict Jehovah’s Witnesses.) If the judge grants a hospital permission to overrule Adam’s wishes and go ahead with the transfusion, his chances for recovery are decent; if she refuses, and Adam is not transfused quickly, his prognosis is grim: He could die or suffer brain and kidney damage. Fiona’s involvement in the case will not only have a momentous impact on Adam and his family, but will also mark a turning point in her life, changing forever the way she thinks about herself.

Many of Mr. McEwan’s earlier works, like “Black Dogs,” “Enduring Love” and “Saturday” (2005), have been concerned with rationalism and science, and the limits of reason when it comes to grappling with a frightening, chaotic world and the mysteries of the human spirit. Fiona is very much an avatar of that reasoned, logical approach to life. As a judge, she thinks, “she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ”; she believes in rules and reasonableness and exactitude.

Like one of those Hawthorne characters who is guilty of the sin of intellectual pride, Fiona prizes the mind over the heart. Jack, her husband of 35 years, has accused her of being cold and “no fun”: He abruptly announces that he intends to have an extramarital affair, because Fiona hasn’t had sex with him for “seven weeks and a day,” and he says he needs some passion back in his life. Fiona herself worries that she is “selfish, crabbed, dryly ambitious.”

Immediately after Jack’s alarming announcement and departure from their apartment, Fiona must start dealing with the Adam Henry transfusion case, a case she finds she cannot grapple with tidily through the careful weighing of evidence and precedent. In fact, the combination of her marital woes and her growing emotional involvement with Adam — who reminds her of her own childlessness — will derail the gleaming smooth trajectory of her life, which she has been on since girlhood.

This setup is all extremely schematic, and Mr. McEwan’s stilted description of the showdown between Fiona and Jack is almost as implausible and mannered as the ridiculous exchanges between the newlyweds in his artless 2007 novel, “On Chesil Beach.”

It’s hard to believe that Jack would suddenly blow up their marriage of more than three decades by abruptly declaring his determination to have an affair, or that Fiona would have so little knowledge of his discontent over the years. The confluence of her sudden domestic crisis with the upsetting Adam Henry case feels equally contrived, as though the author were perfunctorily plugging his characters into a freeze-dried story without bothering to try to make any of it feel real.

The narrative picks up when Mr. McEwan turns his attention to the developing relationship between Fiona and Adam. Mr. McEwan did an inspired job of depicting Briony, the teenage girl in “Atonement” whose impulsive lie results in the shattering of her family, and here he delineates Adam with acuity, capturing the boy’s intelligence, naïveté and instinct for self-dramatization.

Adam is, at once, eager to become a martyr — to fulfill what he thinks are his parents’ expectations, and in doing so, become a doomed Romantic hero — and also longing to be allowed to live and investigate the world beyond his parents’ circumscribed existence. Fiona sees him as the son she never had, while at the same time pouring much of her emotional upset about her collapsing marriage into Adam’s case.

Matters do not end with her court decision. Adam will try to insinuate himself into Fiona’s life, eliciting a reaction from her that will have fateful consequences for them both. The suspense in the last half of the book (unlike that in the novel’s opening chapters) is genuine, because it stems not from artificially concocted plot points, but because it goes to the question of who Fiona really is, and whether she has learned anything from earlier events about herself or the human yearning for connection.