Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Tale of Two Memoirs, On Death and Grieving

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Writing and reading memoirs about death and dying is a tricky business. Readers' experiences run the gamut depending upon their personal circumstances, some facing sudden death caused by violence or an accident, others gently witnessing the slow extinguishing of an elderly relative who had lived a long and happy life. I remember being shocked at how controversial my book club members' found Joan Didion's heartbreaking work, "The Year of Magical Thinking."

As a long-time listener to public radio's Diane Rehm show I was familiar with the fact that her husband of over fifty years, John Rehm, had been slowly dying from advanced Parkinson's disease, that he had been in a nursing home for a while, and that he had made it clear that he was ready to move on to the next adventure.

As an involved Episcopalian, John did not fear death but he did not want to suffer. Because the Rehms live in Maryland, assistance in dying is not an option, so John chose to refuse food or water, not I can say from experience, a bad death. I had hoped that Ms. Rehm's "On My Own," would speak to the right to die movement and the work she's planning to do with Compassion and Choices( https://www.compassionandchoices.org )
after her retirement at the end of the year.

But no, I'm sorry to say, that Rehm's book came across to me as uncomfortably self-centered and surprisingly thoughtless. Her editor should have advised that she remove the word "I," substituting "he" or "they" or "we," at least half the time. This book will not provide solace or food for thought to recent widows. Most people will have trouble feeling empathy for a woman of Diane's stature and wealth when they read "what will I do? Who will take care of me?" a theme that runs exhaustingly throughout.

At eighty years old, Rehm has forged a glamorous career, has no health issues, has successful, loving children, and financial stability. Was I wrong to expect a lot more grace and a bit less whining?
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"When Breath Becomes Air" is the complete antithesis. This exquisite, generous, thoughtful, and thought-provoking memoir was written by a thirty-six year old neurosurgeon during the final year of his life, as a gift to Cady, his newborn daughter. This is who I was, how I saw the world. This is your father. You will know him through his words. Oh, how proud she will be!

Paul Kalanithi's father and brother were physicians, yet he was drawn to philosophy and literature, even thinking that he might one day become a writer. He became both. Obsessed with the meaning of life, he studied the brain and how its inner workings translated thought into language. Then he used that language to tell his story, simply yet elegantly.

He relates for Cady, how he came to be a doctor, how he met her mother, Lucy, at medical school, how they struggled, working together toward their secure future, one that all came to a screeching halt the day he reviewed his own CT scans. Ordered after a long bout of back pain and a frightening weight loss, the pictures showed an unbelievable number of tumors in the lung, a deformed spine, and a liver in deep shadow.

But rather than asking the "why me" question, Lucy and Paul, dug deep, finding faith, acceptance, and the awesome grace to embrace each day that they had left together. Working at Stanford, Paul had access to some of the best doctors and treatments in the country, yet he rarely indulged in wishful thinking, choosing instead to live the best life possible in the moment. Their decision to have a child was made in love. Paul's decision to write a book? Inspired.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner - A Fabulous Mother's Day Gift

Bridge Ladies
 
 
For several years I followed Betsy Lerner's blog about writing. Then, somehow, I thought she had gone away and I was devastated. She enthralled me. Her humor was wry, her profanity infectious, her self-deprecation remained mercifully far from self-flagellation. And, I always sensed that we had  something in common. I'm happy to say that she's back and we do! https://betsylerner.com/
 
Let me say, unequivocally, that I loved "The Bridge Ladies," Ms. Lerner's memoir that examines her often fraught relationship with her mother and the efforts that she's taken, not to make amends, but to see through a different lens. Like so many of us who grew up in the '60's and '70's, getting out from under the yoke of parents and rules was paramount. There was none of this helicopter parenting that's choking today's kids, delaying their maturation by decades. We couldn't wait to be on our own and coming back home after college felt like the ultimate failure.
 
Betsy Lerner is refreshingly honest about her own rebellion which began at puberty and is maybe, just now, beginning to settle down. She and her mom, Roz, were at loggerheads constantly. If one said the sky was blue, the other saw it black. Criticism was the name of the game. It was not a time when parents were touchy-feely, and to say "I love you?" Well, it just wasn't done. Did we spend so much time chafing against everything our folks stood for in an effort to test their love?
 
Lerner sets out to better understand her mother through the bridge ladies, the four women who have met with her mom every Monday for over fifty years to nosh and play cards. By listening and observing, culling as much from what's not said as from what is, Lerner discovers that these women, now in their eighties, for whom she had had not a shred of admiration or respect, are actually deeply deserving of both. Her awakening to their attributes comes gradually, as she meets individually with each, asking probing questions about their youth, their marriages, their hopes and dreams. And they in turn, teach her how to play bridge.
 
I can't say enough about this beautiful book. Lerner, a writer, literary agent and former editor, has a wonderful way with words. There are so many little gems of self-awareness that I wanted to go back, re-read, and immediately pull quotes. She takes us through her bouts with depression, therapy, marriage, and motherhood, recognizing the parallels between her and her mother's life. She softens, as we all do with age, and it's gratifying to watch. How I wish my own mother had lived long enough to become my friend.
 
Whether you and your mom were best buds or - be honest now - were at each other's throats, this memoir would make a lovely gift for mother's day or for any important woman in your life. Thank you to the publisher, Harper, for allowing me to be an early reader. Look for it next month or place a hold at your public library now.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Blue Hour by Douglas Kennedy

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Yes, I did choose this novel because of the cover! The colors are my favorites and it stood out on the new book shelf. I was browsing for something light and quick that I could read in between the two fabulous books I'm reviewing for "Library Journal" and "The Blue Hour" had it all: exotic setting in Morocco, an aging artist who disappears, a younger wife who's been kept in the dark about her husband's true nature.

The faults in Douglas Kennedy's book, though glaring to a reader with a logical mind, somehow don't remotely take away from the page-turning pleasure of this thriller. We all know that opposites attract, so perhaps it isn't all that hard to understand how Robin, a forty-year-old, successful, attractive accountant could fall under the spell of her client, the aging, dissolute, irresponsible artist Paul. He's everything she isn't, spur of the moment, by the seat of the pants, man about town, and her job as his CPA is to get his finances back on track. But readers, she married him!

Now, three years in, Robin is having second thoughts and Paul, sensing her frustration with his spendthrift ways, suggests that they take a month off, traveling to Morocco, a country where Paul lived and loved back in his college days. He will paint, she will relax and read, and they will "work" on fulfilling Robin's dream of having a child.

I missed my one chance to visit Casablanca and Tangier while cruising the Mediterranean. Those ports of call were what drove Don and me to choose that particular ship, but at the final moment, the powers that be caved in to the fearful tourists who felt that they were treated badly on previous stops to North Africa. We were terribly disappointed.

So I'm happy to report that the strongest part of Kennedy's book is the sense of place that he creates in the small towns of Morocco, the people, the buildings, the markets, coffee stalls, and shops, all come to vivid life. I felt that I was actually there in the souk and the dark, mysterious alley ways. And Robin and Paul are good guests, appreciative and adaptive, not the ugly Americans that we so often see when traveling abroad.

Their idyllic respite is shattered though when Robin receives some astounding news from her right hand man who's been taking care of the business in her absence. Undeniable proof that Paul has broken Robin's trust in what, for her, would be the worst possible way, sends her on a furious rampage and Paul into hiding until he can figure out how to make amends. But when their room is trashed, Paul's beautiful art work destroyed, and a bloody mess left on the bed and walls, the police conclude that Robin's anger caused her to murder her husband.

From this point on, you will not put the book down until its very satisfying conclusion. Robin dips into the well of strength that made her a successful business woman, traversing the country in search of the real Paul, discovering along the way many people from his past, and also learning even more about herself.

More about Douglas Kennedy, his thoughts on his work, and links to other novels and discussion questions can be found at his publisher's website: http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Douglas-Kennedy/1292019

Monday, April 4, 2016

Lucy Barton is no Olive Kitteridge


 

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Let me say right up front that I just love Elizabeth Strout. I've had the privilege of meeting her in person right over at the Sanibel Public Library. Her talk is thoughtful, funny, and honest. I suppose it just isn't fair to expect every novel she writes to live up to the Pulitzer Prize winning "Olive Kitteridge," but hope springs eternal. "Burgess Boys" came close.

So what's my problem with "My Name is Lucy Barton?" Reviews have been unanimously positive and we all know that size doesn't matter. After all, look what Kent Haruf did in under 200 pages with "Our Souls at Night." Still, Lucy seemed slight to me. The back story, which should have explained why Lucy is estranged from her family, is so subtle and nuanced that you just might miss it. And certainly the reader is entitled to more information as to how Lucy, an aspiring writer by the way, ended up married to a man so thoughtless and uncaring that he doesn't even come to see her in the hospital when an infection threatens her life.

Instead, he calls Lucy's mother, a woman with whom she hasn't spoken in many, many years. Lucy wakes up from a drug induced sleep to find her mother sitting in a chair in the hospital room. Lucy is both shocked and thrilled. Does this mean that her mother truly does love her after all this time and distance? How can mother and daughter hope to make up for those lost years? Desultory conversation about people from Lucy's past keeps them from alluding to anything of significance in the present.

We learn of Lucy's childhood, years of deprivation both physical and emotional, through flashbacks, and we witness her desperate need for love and approval through the close, but likely one-sided, relationship she develops with her doctor. Lucy is a woman in need of having her memories, her truths, validated by someone, but the only woman who could give her that gift is withholding and dismissive. It's a terribly poignant, difficult book to read and I couldn't help but wonder how much of Strout's own life is being examined here, especially after listening to Strout's interview with Terry Gross a few months ago on Fresh Air. http://n.pr/1Pu4Egb

Sara Nelson, one of my favorite reviewers, now with Amazon, said this about Lucy Barton: "Rarely has a book been louder in its silences." I love that. It seems so right. And just because I felt a little let down after finishing it, doesn't mean that you will. Let me know what your impressions were. I'd love to hear from you - pros and cons.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A God in Ruins

 
A God in Ruins


There is a knock out scene in Kate Atkinson's latest novel, "A God in Ruins," where RAF pilot Teddy, and his sister Ursula, are attending a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. While Beethoven is being performed in the background, Teddy is ruminating on the fact that he didn't want to come to the concert but is, in fact, glad that he did, for the welcome respite from the death and destruction his bombers are raining down on Germany. Ursula interrupts his train of thought with a question, softly ventured at first and then more insistent. How does it feel to be responsible for the deaths of so many innocent people? Wow!
 
At first I couldn't believe she had the nerve to ask. We are, Teddy reminds her, at war. But nevertheless, it was a question I always wanted to ask my dad about his time as a bomber pilot. I didn't have the courage. The question is not meant as a critique but as a conversation starter about the horrible new term, collateral damage, and the efficacy of war in general. Is even one death too much of a price to pay?
 
Like Teddy in the novel, my father flew thirty missions over Germany and France. He, too, had to ditch his plane into the North Sea. Reading Atkinson's amazingly realistic descriptions of what it was like for these youngsters (average age, twenty-two) to answer this call from queen and country, is very powerful. Atkinson does not romanticize the horror of war as so many do when describing World War II. I would actually call this book an anti-war novel, among many other things. It is a novel about history and our place in it, about family and the hard work that goes into making it work.
 
It has been called a "companion piece" to "Life After Life," the first book that introduced readers to the Todd family. By no means do the novels need to be read in sequence. The action does move around in time but, at least in the audio version, readers are always reminded of where they are. Teddy is a youngster one moment, a precocious, sensitive boy in tune with nature and the beauty of the world. Suddenly he is a man who earns the respect and admiration of everyone he meets, especially those who fly under him. Turn the page and he's an elderly grandfather trying also to be a father to Sunny, his abandoned, confused grandson.
 
It's as a husband to Nancy, his childhood neighbor and sweetheart, that Teddy seems least adept. Nancy is one of those women who worked with Turing in the code breaking area of the war, a brilliant mathematician. She and Teddy fall into marriage almost as an afterthought.Two less likely people to be together, let alone to parent a child, there never could be. But their daughter Viola also has a role to play in this stunning novel of truly flawed humans.
 
When the end came, not with a whimper but with a bang, it was so startling that I backed up the ipod and began listening all over again. This book is truly a remarkable achievement, a work of fiction within a work of fiction, and a beautifully written meditation on the power of storytelling.