Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Julie Schumacher Reminds Us of the Importance of the Humanities

I doubt that there's a career on earth that couldn't be enhanced by the ability to express oneself clearly, verbally and on the page - twitter-in-chief, are you listening? Research has proven that students of the humanities develop empathy and a more global view of the world. So I was pleased to hear the discussion yesterday morning on NPR's "the1A" with award-winning author and literature teacher Julie Schumacher about her novel "The Shakespeare Requirement." https://the1a.org/shows/2018-08-13/the-hilarious-shakespeare-requirement

It is not as laugh-out-loud funny as "Dear Committee Members" only because the subject matter is so important. Emphasis on STEM curricula for high school and college students has placed funding for the humanities on the back burner at a time when professors and their departments are jumping through hoops for paltry pockets of money. Political discourse throws shade at those of us who prefer literature, sociology, or philosophy to math and science, labeling us "elitist."

The Shakespeare Requirement: A NovelInto the fray walks Schumacher's Jason Fitger, novelist and head of the decaying English department at Payne University. Over the summer break a huge influx of cash allowed the Economics Dept. to double in size, appropriating office space from the English Dept. downstairs, occupying the offices of the campus newspaper, acquiring glossy new bathrooms, computers, furniture, and respect.

For English to hold on to the little that remains, Fitger must bring his faculty members in line to agree on a Statement of Vision. Having worked on a few of these vision statements myself, I had to chuckle at the load of bunk they can be.

Though Fitger is a throwback to another generation, he adamantly refuses to learn the new university-wide communication system, preferring face-to-face interaction, he is not above taking advice from his much more politically savvy former wife who happens to be sleeping with the dean. As he  gamely pursues consensus among his beleaguered staff members he becomes a kinder, gentler Fitger, forging a relationship with his quirky office assistant, Fran, adopting one of her animal protégées, and taking in a fellow professor who's recovering from surgery.

But the most difficult aspect of his academic career involves the Shakespeare requirement for Humanities majors and the battle for the soul of its lone champion, Professor Dennis Cassovan. As Fitger attempts to bribe the elderly Cassovan into retirement, students across the campus and around the country take up the heroic cause with a Save Our Shakespeare movement worthy of the Occupy Wall Streeters.

As all you English majors out there know, Shakespeare was probably the world's  foremost psychologist before the term psychology had even been coined. His expert knowledge of the human condition is evident in every single play. If I had my way, Shakespeare would be required for college graduation in every field so I don't come to this book as an unbiased reviewer.

Julie Schumacher has given us a novel billed as hilarious, though it actually calls upon irony, empathy, and gentle humor to take readers inside the halls of academe, exposing the great challenges that come with being an educator in today's environment. Like Shakespeare, it should be a requirement.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Miraculous Read from Jonathan Miles

My sister keyed me in to "Anatomy of a Miracle" by Jonathan Miles and thank goodness she did because I haven't read one word about it on any of the many newsletters and blogs I follow. I often wonder how it is that so much junk, including the book I'm suffering through right now, "The Woman in the Window," manages to stay on the New York Times bestseller list for ages when superb pieces of literature like Miles' latest novel don't make the cut.

Anatomy of a Miracle: A Novel*Miles' previous novel, "Dear American Airlines," (which I'm placing a hold on right now) garnered kudos from all the usual suspects. It seems that Miles has a penchant for witty humor and subtle sarcasm. I found him to be a kind writer, taking care with each of the flawed characters in this totally surprising, beautifully written book.

Set in Biloxi, Mississippi, during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the story revolves around Cameron Harris, an Afghan war veteran confined to a wheelchair after an IED explosion tore through his spinal cord, and his devoted sister and caregiver Tanya. Every day Tanya pushes Cam up the road to the Biz-E-Bee, a rag tag convenience store barely holding on, where they stock up on beer and butts.

An aimless, initially unsympathetic figure, Cam waits in his chair in the parking lot thinking no further ahead than his first beer of the day, when a powerful bout of nausea overwhelms him. As it subsides, he finds that his body feels different. He gingerly rises from four years in a wheelchair and takes a few steps, then a few more. Fear, confusion, and disbelief stumble around in Cam's head as the townspeople declare a miracle straight from the redeemer and his VA physician, Janice Lorimar-Cuevas, works round the clock to find a medical reason that will explain the unexplainable.

Miles does a fantastic job of showing how the life of this community is irrevocably changed as pilgrims from around the country flock to the Biz-E-Bee hoping to touch the spot where Cameron walked, or better yet, touch him. The more the media tugs at Cameron the more he recedes from view. A lapsed Catholic who doubted the existence of God, he wrestles with the why me questions, until a Hollywood mogul arrives on his doorstep with a sales pitch that sounds too good to be true.

Jonathan Miles' brilliance is in his ability to create characters of true depth. There isn't one "secondary" person in this story full of people. Each is important to the whole. Especially poignant are the Vietnamese owners of the convenience store who struggle with a mix of guilt and opportunism at their sudden good fortune, and the formidable Mrs. Eulalie Dooley, who's watched Tanya and Cam grow from baby to adulthood and now believes that Cam's direct line to God will protect her grandson from the fate of so many young African American men.

But most impressive and key to the story is Demarkus Lockwood, Cam's friend and platoon leader back in Afghanistan, whose legs were blown off in the same IED incident, and Euclide Abbascia, the Vatican lawyer investigating the so-called miracle, whose patience and kindness have stayed with me days after finishing this remarkable book.

The compatibility of science and faith, the horror and futility of war, the long term effects of grief and loneliness, the sustaining strength of family, and the redeeming power of love are all front and center here. If you're a reader who enjoys a novel that poses the big questions and refuses to answer them then this one is for you.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Vox by Christina Dalcher, A Terrifying Debut

VoxSomething happened when the world of Hulu discovered Margaret Atwood and disseminated her terrifying, futuristic "The Handmaid's Tale" to the universe. When I first read that novel it was considered science fiction. Now? Well, not so much.
Then Louise Erdrich jumped on the bandwagon with "The Future Home of the Living God," a frightening diversion from her usual work. Today I finished "Vox," a debut novel that I feared would be a copycat. But as I listened to myself go on and on about it in a phone conversation with my sister, I realized that Christina Dalcher had me hooked.

The word vox is from the Latin for voice. The premise of Dalcher's novel is that under a newly elected American president with a penchant for dictatorial behavior - ahem - women and girls will no longer be heard from. No more pussy hat marches, no more "opinionated" women in the halls of government, in fact all women and girls are now limited to one hundred words a day. They are no longer allowed to read, write, go to school, or work.

How, you might ask, could such a deprivation be perpetrated on half the country's population? Not without the complicity of the men in our lives! Women and girls are fitted with bracelets that resemble the ubiquitous fitbits. And, in fact, the bracelet is a counter. But rather than count steps and calories burned, it keeps track of words spoken. Over one hundred words and the initial electrical shock is tolerable, until it isn't.

Dr. Jean McClellan's husband Patrick actually works for the new administration and, though he seems empathetic to the plight of his wife and daughter Sonia, it just doesn't feel like he's doing enough. Then suddenly Jean receives a call from the president's office. Her special skills as a scientist who once researched a cure for aphasia, a brain injury that results in an inability to communicate, are desperately needed. It seems that the president's brother has sustained such an injury in a skiing mishap.

Reunited with her core research team which includes Lorenzo, an Italian mathematician with whom she once had a torrid affair, she barters with the administration, unlimited words for herself and her daughter in exchange for her work. But, of course, the time frame is tight and once the work is completed what will happen? Sinister observers are everywhere, listening, watching. Phones and computers are confiscated at the end of the day and uncomfortably full body searches are de rigueur.

Will the president be so grateful that he'll let Jean and Sonia slide? What about all the other women and girls out there, the female babies still to be born? What about her neighbors and friends, women who are committing suicide in huge numbers, women who are sent to work farms in the west for transgressions that range from self-induced abortion to adultery to having the "wrong" sexual orientation?

Christina Dalcher has a remarkable CV. This may be her first novel but she's been writing for years. http://christinadalcher.com/ What's so terrifying about the world she has created is that it takes place in the here and now, not some future time. It sounds oh, so plausible in light of the current political climate. I imagine that she will be getting plenty of press coverage when this book is released at the end of August (I was fortunate to have received an advanced copy) so you may want to get yourselves on the wait list now. You'll probably read it in one sitting and never look at your fitbit in the same way!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Anna Quindlan's Alternate Side

Alternate Side: A NovelAt first I didn't think that I would share my feelings about Ms. Quindlan's latest novel, "Alternate Sides," because I felt the same way as one of the characters in the story who opined that their problems were "first world" troubles. The lyrics to a song kept running through my mind. "Is that all there is?" But it's been a week since I finished this book and its still weighing heavy on my mind.

Anna Quindlan is an author who's always had her finger on the pulse, a chronicler of the zeitgeist. She won a Pulitzer for her musings on daily life in a New York Times column many years ago. But her milieu now may be unfamiliar to many readers, me included, and I almost allowed that to cloud my judgment.

The novel takes place in a small neighborhood of gloriously refinished brownstones in Manhattan. The owners are insular in that they've all known each other, superficially at any rate, for years. They meet annually for a holiday party. They nod and make small talk over their dogs' morning and nightly excursions, and they collude to hire the same nannies and handymen so that there won't be too many unknowns in the their homes or on their street. And, because this is Manhattan, scoring a permanent parking space in the too small empty lot is a sign that one has arrived.

Nora and Charlie are a long-married couple whose kids are away at college, who each have challenging work, and who have become ships passing in the night. Nora is a New Yorker born and bred and thrives on the city. Charlie, not so much. In fact, we gather that he's facing downsizing at the office, and is rattled and unhappy. The city is suddenly his enemy, until he lands a parking spot in the lot down the street.

Now he's part of the club, and the club is agitated by the Hispanic handyman who always seems to squeeze his van in with only an inch to spare, making it difficult for the Volvos and Mercedes to squeak out in the morning. Quindlan  subtly creates the tensions that will eventually explode in a horrific act of violence, exposing the cracks that have been slowly developing in the relationships between husband and wife, neighbor and neighbor.

This book, a love song to New York City, would lend itself well to discussion groups as it examines issues of white privilege, ick-inducing expressions of liberal guilt, the fault lines in feminism, and an adeptly handled "me too" moment. As more and more Americans take positions on alternate sides of the status quo, Anna Quindlan uniquely shows us the unintended consequences.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Great Believers

The Great BelieversIf you believe that forgiveness is the ultimate act of love then Rebecca Makkai's remarkable new book, "The Great Believers," will feel deeply satisfying. This gorgeous novel takes readers back to the height of the AIDS epidemic in the '80's when paranoia was rampant and the so-called gay scourge tore families apart. It may be difficult for younger people to even remember what a horrible time that was. Some of us who are older probably read "And the Band Played On" by Randy Shilts and thought we knew everything there was to know. Makkai makes it personal.

The story begins in 1985 Chicago at a memorial service, the first of oh so many that will be held in the coming years, for Nico, a gay man who was the beating heart of his large group of friends, the first to fall ill. The only woman in attendance is Nico's beloved sister Fiona whose fate will be to bear witness to the suffering and death of too many young men.

Makkai fills her book with great characters, infuriating, caring, selfish, and ambitious, but the man we come to know intimately is Yale Tishman, naïve and trusting, yearning for a long-term relationship that includes a home with a picket fence, a pet, meals together at night in front of the TV. Instead, he has Charlie, a vain, life of the party, newspaper editor who preaches safe sex but doesn't practice it.

We toggle back and forth between late '80's Chicago as Yale pursues his career in art acquisition - a fascinating story in itself - and 2015 Paris. Fiona is the bridge. Fiona, a woman suffering from the trauma of losing everyone she's known and cared for. Is it possible that she's used up all the love she had to give? Unable to sustain her marriage, now estranged from her adult daughter, Fiona is on a mission to bridge the divide with her child and maybe even find a reservoir of compassion left for herself.

Throughout this poignant, heart breaking novel, Makkai reminds us of the history of the Act Up movement, the politics of the Reagan era, the slow move toward AIDS research before Hollywood got involved, and the fleeting hopes engendered when rumors surfaced of new drugs coming on the market. We witness the cruel reactions to the gay community of people who don't understand how the AIDS virus is spread, and we meet the unsung heroes, the nurses at the Cook County hospital, who cared so compassionately for these men in their final days.

Yes, the world has advanced considerably for the rights of the LGBTQ community over the past four decades but we cannot forget, Makkai reminds us. As with so many other civil rights issues we must remain constantly vigilant lest the ugly past resurface. "The Great Believers" is now number two on my 2018 favorites list.