Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book Review: The Virtues of Oxygen

One of the best, most fascinating nonfiction books I've ever read is Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky. The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2005, does such a good job of explaining to a lay person (or a historian, whichever) the history of Polio, the drama around the race for a vaccine, and how the disease impacted the lives of so many Americans before the Salk vaccine was developed. Fun fact number one: David Oshinsky used to teach at my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, and I dropped by his office hours one day in 2006 to meet him and have him sign my copy of the book, because I am a huge nerd. He was a really nice guy. Fun fact number two: the Salk vaccine was developed at the University of Pittsburgh. I've walked by the plaque detailing this achievement many many times.

All this is to say that when I read the description of The Virtues of Oxygen, a book in which one of the main characters contracted Polio when she was a child and has spent the last 57 years living inside an iron lung, I knew I had to read it. Fun fact number three: a few years ago when I lived in Chicago I visited the International Museum of Surgical Science, which displays an iron lung, and wow I cannot imagine spending your life inside one of those behemoths. Anyway, here's the description of the book:

From the award-winning author of A Watershed Year comes a heartrending story of unlikely bonds made under dire straits. Holly is a young widow with two kids living in a ramshackle house in the same small town where she grew up wealthy. Now barely able to make ends meet editing the town’s struggling newspaper, she manages to stay afloat with help from her family. Then her mother suffers a stroke, and Holly’s world begins to completely fall apart.

Vivian has lived an extraordinary life, despite the fact that she has been confined to an iron lung since contracting polio as a child. Her condition means she requires constant monitoring, and the close-knit community joins together to give her care and help keep her alive. As their town buckles under the weight of the Great Recession, Holly and Vivian, two very different women both touched by pain, forge an unlikely alliance that may just offer each an unexpected salvation.

The book is told from Holly's perspective, but the main chapters are interspersed with transcribed "podcasts" recorded by Vivian expressly for Holly, that tell the story of her childhood, how she contracted Polio, and all the amazing things she has done with her life from within her iron lung. I found Vivian's story, threaded through the main narrative, to be the best part. I mean, she lives in an iron lung for 57 years. How can you not be intrigued?!

Holly, who has had a rough go of it for the past ten years or so, is slightly less interesting, but only slightly. Widowed young and with two teenage sons, she's the editor at a small town newspaper that is on the brink of closing. She's having a hard time keeping up with payments on her house, and then her mother, her only living parent and the provider of some essential funds when money is especially tight, has a stroke. Most of the book is written from Holly's perspective, and that perspective is bleak. It's almost hard to remember how bad things were when the financial crisis hit. I experienced it while living in a big city, not a small town, and this book drives home how hard things were for businesses and people who did not have big margins to begin with.

Things eventually turn around for Holly, as we know they will because she is a good person working to keep her head above water and this is a book, not real life, and they turn out for her in an unexpected way. Her savior is not a man, which I was very pleased to see. I hate it when an otherwise good story ends with a man swooping in and making everything okay. My one main criticism of the book is that Holly does not spend much time thinking about or mourning what is essentially the loss of her mother, and this relationship doesn't get much airtime in the book, which seemed slightly unrealistic. On the other hand, it seems that almost every woman (real or fictional) has a fraught relationship with their mother, so who am I to judge. Anyway, if you're looking for an interesting book with some historical tidbits and a closer look at how the financial crisis affected real people in small towns across America, pick up The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger.

If you'd like to enter for a chance to win a copy of the book, leave me a comment telling me the best nonfiction book you've ever read. My reading list is getting short as I blaze through amazing book after amazing book this summer and I need suggestions!
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Marathon Training Update: Halfway There!

I’ve mentioned it a few times here and there, but one big thing going on in my life right now is training for the Chicago Marathon in October. I say “big thing” because as some of you out there know, training for a marathon takes up a LOT of time. Fitting in a 2.5+ hour run on a Saturday morning kind of puts a crimp in Friday night plans, and makes you greedy with your time for the rest of your weekend as well. 

As a first time marathoner, here are some of the things I’ve noticed that set marathoning apart from any other running I’ve previously done (up until this point it was just 10Ks and half marathons for this girl):

1. I am hungry all the time. Seriously, so much hunger. It’s insane. I eat breakfast and then am hungry an hour later. After lunch it’s time for second lunch. My dinners are getting bigger and bigger. I’m trying to eat healthfully and get lots of fruits and veggies, but the main thing I crave is salty carbs. All of the carbs. I’m also having to experiment a lot more with fueling during my runs since I have the metabolism of a hummingbird and there’s no way I can eat enough before my runs to sustain my energy through 2+ hours on my feet.

2.  I am tired most of the time. I have never been someone who can get by on only a few hours of sleep, but training for a marathon takes my need for sleep to a whole new level. I’ve had to be diligent about making sure I get to bed on time as I have a pretty strict morning schedule. Good thing I really love sleep.

3. I am sore. I have found that most of the time, some part of my body is sore. It takes me almost all week to recover from the soreness that arrives after my long run...just in time for another long weekend run. I’ve tried to be really good about stretching and hydrating, but putting serious miles on my legs for the first time ever means that I’m always feeling a twinge in some weird place or other, like the outside of my right foot or in my left hamstring. 

4. Running takes up a lot of time. This is kind of a no-brainer, but it’s hard to explain to people who aren’t runners. My midweek runs, for example, are now 5 or 8 miles long. An 8 mile run will take me an hour and a half, and then I have to stretch, shower, etc. The whole ordeal can take two hours, and then it’s time to make dinner, relax, clean up, and get to sleep (see also: tired all the time). The long weekend runs seem to somehow take up most of the day, or I have to go to bed at 8pm the night before so I can get a full night’s rest in before a 5:30am (yes really) wake up call. 

5. You kind of stop talking about it with people who don’t run marathons because they just start looking at you funny and saying things like “But...why...are you running 15 miles on Sunday?” It’s hard to explain that not only do you really want to train for and run 26.2 miles, you actually paid a lot of money for that privilege. Plus, I fear turning into the kind of person who can only talk about one thing. 

6. Injuries suck. Right now I’m dealing with patellar tendonitis (also called Runner’s Knee or Jumper’s Knee), which is a swelling of the patellar tendon that runs under the kneecap. A few weeks ago I woke up the day after a long run and could barely move my knee because it was so irritated and swollen. I got a doctor’s diagnosis as quickly as possible, but the main course of treatment is resting the knee, icing, and then doing exercises to strengthen the surrounding muscles. I’ve been “resting” as much as possible while still maintaining a modified training schedule, but it’s hard to miss or shorten a training run when you know what the schedule actually calls for. Long story short: I know it’s very common in first time marathoners, but injuries still suck.

Tell me, have any of you ever had Runner’s Knee? What are the things you've noticed when training for a marathon or other big event?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Summer Bucket List Update

Even though it's been strangely cool in Pittsburgh the last few days, I'd like to remind everyone (myself included) that summer is not offically over until September 22. We still have over a month of summer left and I plan to embrace it fully while I still can. With that in mind, I figured it was time for a summer manifesto check-in.

First on my list was eat a lot of watermelon, and of course all the other summer-only fruits and veggies. I have eaten an unbelieveable amount of watermelon and cherries this summer, and have been making my favorite summer recipe, Southwestern Black Bean Salad (which calls for fresh corn), as often as D will tolerate. I'd call this a success.

Next up was spend as much time outside as possible, and this has also been a resounding success. I'm outside every chance I get, and have the tan to prove it (although I've been as diligent with the sunscreen as I can manage). I LOVE being outside, and a nice day spent indoors has come to feel wasted. If there's a park, festival, or tailgate, I'm there. I know the sunny days won't last.

Go swimming often hasn't been as much of a success, but I have had reason to put on my swimsuit twice already this summer, which is better than I did last year. D and I also have tickets to Sandcastle Water Park again and are plotting to get there before the last day of the season like we did last year.

The "use my camera more" goal has been a total failure. Other than taking pictures on our NYC Memorial Day trip and our Toronto Fourth of July trip, I have not pulled out my camera at all. However, I did sign up for a camera class next Sunday morning in hopes that some formal instruction will get me to pull the DSLR out a bit more.

Go camping has also been less than successful. We did go camping a few weekends ago, and I had high hopes for a fun long weekend in Chautauqua, New York. And then it rained so hard our first night there (with no promise to let up any time soon), and our campsite neighbors were so awful and loud, that we decided we'd had enough misery and headed back to Pittsburgh a day early. It was absolutely the right decision (being warm and dry is pretty awesome) but I was bummed that each of the four times we've been camping since we've lived in Pennsylvania it has rained on us. What can I say? Apparely we're the rainmakers. 

Train for a marathon was my last official goal, and while it's been hard, we've been sticking to our training schedule with pretty good results, especially given all my other goals and commitments for the summer. The training will continue into the fall, of course, but for now I'm really enjoying doing all my runs outside. I know that come November, I'm going to be inside on a treadmill and really missing my riverside trails.

What about you guys? How are you coming on your summer goals? And can we please all agree to stop saying summer is almost over? Here's to five more weeks of sunshine!