Monday, January 27, 2014

Always Looking Up, Adventures of an Incurable Optimist: a book club review

Despite my bias against short men I have had a long and pleasant mini-crush on Michael J. Fox - Alex P. Keaton; Marty McFly ... what warm-blooded teenage girl of the 80's didn't love the little guy? So, I was pretty thrilled when his 2008 book Always Looking Up: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist came up on our book club list for this month. I had my doubts, to be sure. A cutesie-pie high school drop-out celebrity writing an intelligent book? 

I was wrong to doubt. Michael J. Fox is beyond intelligent. He's thoughtful, articulate, wise, compassionate and, most of all, optimistic. He's also laugh out loud funny and clever on many levels. Just look at the title - it includes a short joke and a reference to the incurable disease that is slowly claiming his body, yet it gives a clear and accurate sense of what the book is about - optimism, faith, and hope. 

This is not Fox's first biography, if biography is the right term for it. Apparently his first book, Lucky Man, is more of a traditional biography that outlines Fox's life chronologically up to 2001. In Always Looking Up Fox focuses not on chronology but on four main themes that he says have supported his positive outlook on life: work, politics, faith and family. It makes for engaging and inspiring reading. 

I did get a little hung up now and then on Fox's frequent mentions of other celebrities. It would be easy to see some of the references as name-dropping, until you remember that this is just the water he swims in. Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong, Ryan Reynolds, Usher, Meg Ryan - they are mentioned not for their star power but for their relevance: help with establishing & active support of the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Genuine and long-standing friendships. Family relationships. Neighbours in their tony Manhattan neighbourhood. I realised somewhere in the reading that it wouldn't make sense if these other celebrities didn't populate their lives.

What is obvious throughout the book is how essential that fourth pillar of Fox's life, his family, really is. They are last because they are the most important. His Canadian family of origin is still clearly connected, grounding and cherished. His wife of 25 years Tracey Pollan, though so much of their marriage has been shadowed first by Fox's alcoholism and quickly thereafter by his Parkinson's diagnosis, yet clearly is the kind of partnership we could all wish for. There is no doubting that Fox was blessed in his choice of a partner, and that he knows that. Their four beloved children, while well spaced out, seem to be consciously planned, very much wanted, and as normal as offspring raised in those circumstances could be.

I expected to read this and feel somehow less - like I should be more optimistic and more grateful that I haven't faced his challenges. I expected to be challenged as well as inspired. In the end, there was none of the former and less of the latter than I expected. I am inspired, but not in a revival camp sort of way. More like sitting by the sea and remembering and dreaming. It should be required reading for human being.

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Our first book club meeting of 2014 felt like it was a long time in coming, perhaps because our December meeting was earlier in the month than usual. It was so great to see the ladies again, to be welcomed into a new home, served a fabulous dinner, and be surrounded by great conversation. I was feeling distracted and somewhat quiet (for me) tonight, and it was so nice to be allowed to just be wherever I was. 

For some reason, this book was more divisive than any previous option. I loved it so much that I was shocked when the room was evenly split on liked/didn't like. What I really love about book club though is that in all that conversation - which ranged from Lance Armstrong good or evil to Jewish heritage/culture/religion - no one took anything personally. 

I will admit that what I really wanted tonight was to be secreted away somewhere with a bosom friend having a heart to heart and a good cry and drinking until I stopped aching. This was better.

By the way, I brought dessert tonight (while everyone tries to cook gluten free, I figure if I bring dessert I know that for sure I can eat that. Miss out on salad, no problem. Miss out on dessert? I don't think so!). We also happen to have a member who avoids dairy and egg, so there was an added challenge for dessert. I was a bit stumped, and then I remembered Wacky Cake. 

This cake was comfort food for me when I was growing up, and one of the first things I ever learned to bake. I love it warm and spread with butter, but iced is good to. To class it up a little for tonight I made almond brittle, then crushed it and added it to the buttercream. Wacky Cake just happens to be dairy and egg free, and I made it gluten free using Robin Hood gluten free flour and xanthan gum. The ladies liked the cake so well they asked for the recipe, and I figured if I post the recipe here then I'll get at least 5 clicks on this post. ;-) 

Wacky Cake

1 1/2 C. flour                                 1 C. sugar
4 T. cocoa                                     1 T. vinegar
1 tsp. baking powder                     1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda                          5 T. vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. salt                                    1 C. warm water

Preheat oven to 325 F.
Lightly grease 8 x 8 pan.
Sift dry ingredients together into pan.
Make 3 evenly spaced holes in the dry mix.
Pour oil in one hole, vanilla in the second, and vinegar in the third.
Pour water over top and stir well (be sure to scrape the sides and corners to get all dry ingredients mixed in).
Bake 45-50 minutes. 

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