Monday, February 23, 2015

Florence Gordon is this Decade's Olive Kitteridge

Brian Morton is not a household name among readers. What a shame. The man teaches at NYU and directs the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. Based upon my reading of his latest novel, "Florence Gordon," he must be very talented at what he does. It can't be easy to write a difficult woman but Florence is perfect. She's a combination of my favorite crank from Louise Penny's Three Pines, the poet Ruth, and the very difficult and misunderstood Olive K.

Florence Gordon
When I get together with some of my more honest friends over a few glasses of wine, (you know who you are), I find that we will admit to each other that we don't really like people as much as we used to. Or, perhaps it's more that we no longer feel we have to suffer fools gladly. Life's just too short and we've been around long enough to speak the truth. And so it is that, if you trust me, you'll find that 75-year-old Florence, a feminist product of the fifties, spurred on by the Friedan/Steinem movement, is a woman you'll recognize as a kindred spirit and enjoy spending time with.
Florence Gordon, though renowned in women's studies programs, is also not a household name, until, that is, her memoir is reviewed on the front page of the "New York Time Book Review." Will celebrity change Florence her son and daughter-in-law ask? Suddenly a household name, she finds that she needs an assistant to help her schedule the book tour and the speaking engagements while guarding her much needed privacy. Is her seemingly aimless, college drop-out of a granddaughter, up to the task?
Morton deftly paints the difficult relationship but growing understanding between the curmudgeonly luddite Florence and her 21st century, tweeting, blogging, granddaughter Emily. Florence, much like myself, worries that the younger generation of women have no sense of the rights they stand to lose if they don't learn from the battles of those who have come before.
But Emily is more perspicacious than Florence gives her credit for and, in a great scene, Emily recognizes her grandmother's chutzpah as she storms into the center of a Manhattan street with a crowd of like-minded protesters.
There are many laugh out loud chapters in Morton's novel even though the themes are deeply serious. I happily watched Florence put rude people in their places, hanging up on her doctor's secretary who kept her on hold just a second too long, or counseling an overwhelmed young mother who moonlights as an author escort in order to flog a memoir written before she's even begun to live.
This is a novel about a fiercely independent woman, one who loves her family but finds that she has little in common with them. She is a woman who has made a satisfying, fulfilling life on her own terms. She is a woman who has used her intellect to write passionately about injustice over the span of a fifty year career without compromise. To some, an opinionated woman like Florence Gordon is a threat. To me, she is an icon.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Thoughts on War and Death in Redeployment

I've recently returned from the frozen tundra of mid-winter Ohio where the love of family and friends helped to keep me warm as we sat with my brother Alan during his final days. He was only sixty-three years old and I'll admit that I did plenty of interior raging at what I perceived as the outrageous unfairness of his devastating cancer diagnosis.

 Yet, simultaneously, I happened to be reading Phil Klay's National Book Award winning collection of short stories, "Redeployment," about the Iraq war and its aftermath. It helped to put my thoughts into perspective. My brother has a glorious legacy, a wife who will always love him, four wonderfully unique children, and six amazing grandchildren.

What if, I wondered, his life had veered down a very different path back in the late '60's, early '70's when the draft lottery was implemented. How well I remember the night my college buddies and I hung breathless in front of the TV watching our futures be determined by a rolling metal basket full of numbers. The Vietnam War was raging. Some would go halfway across the world to fight a battle they didn't even believe in based upon the fluke of a glass capsule in a cage. My brother was spared.


Not so fortunate are the boys Klay introduces us to. One could say that the difference is that these kids signed up. Full of the jingoistic passion that permeated the country after the Sept. 11th attacks of 2001, 18-year-olds were falling over themselves to join the Marines. Or were they? As Michael Moore pointed out so eloquently in his film, Fahrenheit 9/11, those who go to war today can often be lottery losers as well. Today's lottery is a matter of economics. Those with advantages stay home and get more advantages. Those without, go to war.

The strongest story in the collection is undoubtedly the first, the title story, "Redeployment." It's a heartbreaking rendering of a soldier returning to the states after a nine month tour in Iraq and the stream of consciousness thought process he goes through as he contemplates the reunion with his wife and their dog. The awkwardness as husband and wife try to avoid any serious conversation, plying each other with platitudes, is palpable. When he takes her to their bed he sees, just for a split second, fear in her eyes.

Phil Klay served in Iraq after graduating from college. He admits in interviews that he never actually was in a dangerous position. Yet he manages to capture the chaos of war and the bitter irony of the manner in which our government conducts war. Another story, "Money as a Weapons System," reads like "Catch-22," when a new foreign service officer is charged with rebuilding a water treatment facility (that we had destroyed, of course) with money earmarked for a women's health facility that was hugely successful.

And in "War Stories," a horrifically burned, deformed young man named Jenks meets with his best friend in a bar where they have a surreal conversation about how to get Jenks laid without having the woman pity him. Later, a girl joins them who is doing research for a veterans' film project. She asks pointed, seemingly heartless questions of Jenks about his injuries, how it happened and what he felt afterwards, yet Jenks handles these with aplomb. It is his friend, angry and defensive, who loses it.

I have read some provocative, excruciating, powerful novels about war. Karl Marlantes' "Matterhorn," will always stand out as the finest depiction of the Vietnam War for me. And though I don't think that Phil Klay's short stories have the cohesion I'd like to see in a series, I suspect that they will be remembered, along with other Iraq war classics like "Billy Lynn's Long Half-time Walk," or "The Yellow Birds," as a fine example of the deeply personal and profound literature coming from our veterans. We owe them a reading to bear witness to their bravery, confusion, and pain, and to accept partial responsibility for sending them off to war in the first place.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Being Mortal

Dr. Atul Gawande is as renowned for his writing as he is for his practice of medicine, but oh, how fortunate we would be if we had a doctor such as he when faced with serious illness and decisions. The subtitle of his newest book, "Being Mortal," is "Medicine and What Matters in the End."

Many of my readers are aware that my family is in the throes of a relentless illness and the seemingly impossible decisions that come with debilitating disease. Family discussions often bring unresolved issues to the surface and honesty can suffer at the hands of nuance. Watching a loved one come to terms with his own mortality causes one to become hyper-vigilant about his own beliefs and wishes. My living will is undergoing another iteration as I type.

But Dr. Gawande, with his Oxford and Harvard training, still finds himself hard-pressed to follow his own best advice when the patient is his father, a man of enormous vitality, a surgeon and humanitarian, struck down by an invasive tumor. Facing the prospect of quadriplegia, Dr. Gawande's dad and his mom, (also a doctor), begin investigating options. Reading about their quest for the best possible outcome is an eye-opening look at the medical profession and at the various "types" of doctors that Gawande identifies.

There are the information givers, you know, just the facts ma'am. There are the paternalistic who think they are doing you a favor by keeping you in the dark. But every now and then you might be fortunate enough to meet the partner. The one who sees you as a unique human being with goals, and a history, and an understanding and acceptance of the limitations of the medical profession.

Gawande's special gift is that he writes in a simple, uncomplicated way. We immediately feel relaxed and respected in his company. When he recalls families he's worked with over the years, he does so with compassion even when he explores decisions he may have questioned. He makes no judgments except when it comes to his own fellow physicians who fail the empathy test, doctors who operate no matter the risks, who ply the latest and greatest chemo even when the expected outcome may be a devastating extra few weeks of life.

He writes of palliative and hospice care and the phenomenal work these professional givers of life do. He wonders why their services aren't offered more  and shares vital studies from around the country proving that patients who have more of a say in how they want to be treated during their final months and years are happier, more peaceful, and have greater satisfaction than those hooked up to IV drips, ventilators, and feeding tubes.

This book should be required reading for the greatest generation and their children. Judging by its place on the New York Times bestseller list, perhaps it is making its way through my baby boomer generation.  We need to understand our options as we age, be better prepared to make our desires known to our families, and then, most difficult of all, have the moral courage to stand by what we believe when our time comes.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Aliens, Outcasts, and Border Crossers

Have I gotten your attention? Some of you may know that I am auditing a class in the Literature Dept. at the local university. I felt that I needed to brush up on reading critically for more comprehension. The name of the course is "Topics in Cultural Critique." I just love it, and I find that I really enjoy being challenged to read more deeply and not simply to tote up numbers on my annual score board.

We have already discussed and analyzed J. M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians," and have now moved on to our professor's favorite writer, Cormac McCarthy. Thank you Dr. Mendible! I would never have picked up "All the Pretty Horses," on my own. Even though it won the National Book Award, I'm sure that I saw it as just another unnecessarily dark story about people I wouldn't relate to, and a Western to boot. I was so wrong.

This novel was simply stunning. I read that it has an "elegiac rhythm," and I couldn't have described it better. McCarthy sweeps you up in that rhythm, almost as if you are moseying along on horseback with the two young men who live at the heart of the story, John Grady Cole and his friend Rawlins. The buddies complement each other. Quiet and easy going, they head out of San Angelo, Texas, on a quest to learn about themselves and to cross the boundaries that hold them back. Physically, that would be the Rio Grande. Psychologically, it will be so much more.

But as they ride into Mexico they find that another young man has been following them. To Rawlins, a little more skittish and superstitious than Cole, this third party feels like trouble. Blevins is immature and rash like the thirteen-year-old that he is. He appears to be riding a stolen horse. He is neither equipped nor prepared for the long journey ahead and when Cole agrees to let him tag along, the dynamic changes instantly. The atmosphere becomes foreboding.

Keeping in mind the subject of my class I saw immediately that McCarthy was writing so much more than a western. His love of the land and his descriptions of the people and the plains evoke a time long gone by and when he writes of the relationship between a man and his horse, the intuition and beauty of the animal, it is breathtaking to read. This is also a story of rash young love between people from different classes and cultural backgrounds. It is about breaking societal rules and paying a heavy price.

Yes, it is violent, but it is not gratuitously so. Prison is a grim, inhumane place where men are reduced to animal-like behavior. After all, we are animals in the end, the author seems to say. Cole and Rawlins may be unfairly incarcerated but, once in jail, they know what they have to do to stay alive. Cole will cross the boundary of his moral code, and though he has no choice, he will never be the same.

Upon finishing this book I just sat and stared into space wondering how did he do it? The only book by McCarthy that I had read in the past was "The Road." Now I have to go back and add the next two novels in this, his Border Trilogy, to my list of "must reads." Ten more days before we discuss this in class. I can hardly wait!

Monday, January 19, 2015

All My Puny Sorrows

<b>Miriam Toews</b> – The Flying Troutmans and Dede Crane – The Cult of ...
This is the face of an amazingly compassionate, clear-eyed woman. A Canadian writer who has garnered many literary awards, Miriam Toews had me at hello. I'm not even sure where I read about her new novel, "All My Puny Sorrows," but you can bet I'll be going back and taking a look at her earlier work. After all, how many writers can take the subject of suicide, have a serious discussion about it, yet keep you chuckling, even laughing as you read?
You might think that this wasn't a very wise choice for me right now but in fact, I loved the honesty of this book. I'm sorry to say that, after reading a bit more about Ms. Toews, I discovered that there's much in her novel that is autobiographical. I imagine that it was a cathartic exercise for her.
This is the story of an extended family and the love and acceptance that sees it through some very hard times indeed. Two sisters, Elfriedie and Yolandi, so different yet so close, grow up in a small Mennonite town in Canada with a painful stigma hanging over their heads. Their dad just up and walked away one day, ending it all by stepping in front of a train.
Elfriedie was the golden child, a prodigy whose mom fought the Mennonite elders so that she could bring a piano into their home. Yolandi always seemed to be in trouble, the wrong crowd, some drugs, unreliable men. Elf is now a world renowned concert pianist, traveling the world, bringing audiences to their knees with her symphonic music. Yoli barely makes ends meet trying to raise two kids by two different guys and write a novel in her spare time.
But there's a sense, throughout this book, that Elf is ethereal to the point that she almost seems invisible. She has a husband, Nic, who worships her yet we feel no bond between them. Yoli is a real flesh and blood woman, one we might know and like, a dear friend, a conflicted soul. You see, Elfriedie, after several failed suicide attempts, wants Yoli to help her die.
What? Why? you might ask. But of course, that's the nature of mental illness, isn't it? There is no rhyme or reason in a wish to end one's own life. If it could be explained, it could be stopped. Elf tries to formulate words that might illustrate how she feels. She tells her sister that she has a glass piano inside her that might shatter at any time. As Toews tells it it's a devastating admission.
Toews does a superlative job of evoking the psychiatric ward where her sister remains for much of the novel. The complexity of managing medication for a volatile patient, the yen to aid the family by breaking a few of the more ridiculous rules, and the willingness to believe a patient who insists they are well enough to go home, are all very realistic.
Even more evocative, though, is the painful struggle that Yoli goes through as she first tries to pump her sister up with empty words of encouragement, comes to accept that a genetic flaw runs through the family, and considers the consequences and repercussions if she actually accedes to Elf's final choice. It's complicated and thought provoking yet handled in a deeply humane way. Selfish or selfless? It's not for us to say.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Natural Life - The Sure Cure for the Doldrums

As I've been painting and gardening over the past few weeks I have been in thrall to the narrative voice, still imbued with an easy country lilt, of the inimitable Barbara Kingsolver. I first became acquainted with her writing with publication of "The Poisonwood Bible," a novel that affected me profoundly and likely contributed to my early interest in the countries and people of Africa. I also had the pleasure of reviewing "The Lacuna" and "Flight Behavior" for Library Journal. So how, I wonder, had I missed "Prodigal Summer?"
What a shame that the word "prodigal" still bears the negative connotation conjured up by the biblical tale of the prodigal son. Merriam-Webster's first definition is "abundant," followed by "luxuriant." Now that's more like it! Because the summer that Ms. Kingsolver writes of in this glorious novel is ripe with fruition.
As she does in many of her books, Kingsolver tells several seemingly unrelated stories, allowing the reader to slowly, intuitively find the correlations among them. First we meet Deanna Wolfe, a forty-something doctoral student in biology (much like Ms. Kingsolver herself), living in a single room cabin in the Appalachian mountains. She is there to study the wildlife and to protect the coyotes that are returning to their natural habitat.
When a predator arrives in the form of a young hunter named Eddie Bondo, he and Deanna circle each other warily like any other animals in the forest. Each has wisdom to share with the other as they form an immediate sexual bond and a cautious emotional one.
In a small farming town nestled at the base of the mountains the Widener family has been surviving on tobacco for generations. But since Cole went off to the University of Kentucky to bolster his knowledge of new techniques and had the gall to bring home a bride who happened to be his teacher, nothing's been the same. Lusa's a Lexington girl and the Widener women believe that all the book learning in the world won't make her a farmer. What was Cole thinking?
And then there's the long-quarreling old neighbors, the god-fearing Garnett Walker and that godless Unitarian Nannie Rawley. Since he's been widowed Garnett has devoted his life to reviving the American chestnut tree, but he relies on an abundance of pesticides which tend to drift over to Nannie's organically grown apple trees. This bone of contention has kept them at each other 's throats for more years than either would care to admit.
Kingsolver's abundant knowledge of the biological world informs every sentence of this remarkably informative science lesson hidden in the stories of the day to day lives of these residents of Zebulon county. Her love for every plant, animal, insect and human and her firm belief in the importance of each, makes for a joyful read and a dawning recognition that to every thing there truly is a season and a purpose. Nothing heals like the natural world.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Bits and Pieces from a New Year

Nine days into the new year and I've been unable to shake the funk that has kept me from writing. It's not that I haven't been reading, but everything I pick up seems to be just background noise to the thoughts that are forefront on my mind.

Two years ago my brother was diagnosed with cancer. Initially it looked like he would be the remarkable patient who'd be written up in the medical journals. He handled the treatments so beautifully, he was so vibrant, so amenable to every health food supplement and juicing program that came his way. But slowly, inexorably, cancer has had its way with us.

I say "us," because the whole family suffers the illness. It becomes all you think about. The phone is a double-edged sword, a lifeline and a dreaded thing. I often wonder what's worse, to be the patient or to be the helpless person waiting in the wings to do something, anything to make it better.

I have a modus operandi that has served me well during low points in my past. I get physical. I spend hours mowing, trimming, weeding, and planting. This month I decided that my bathrooms were outdated. Can one get tennis elbow while scraping off wallpaper? How about throwing out your back while hauling the paint bucket up and down the ladder? Yes, yes you can.

So now, here I am with little to actually rave about but bear with me. I'm almost finished listening to a phenomenal Barbara Kingsolver narrate her novel "Prodigal Summer." The following are a few of the books I finished in my run up to the end of the year list. And oh, will someone who's read it please explain to me why "Station Eleven" is so hot. I couldn't even get half way through!

I'll admit I slogged to the end of Marlon James's half fiction/half fact book about Jamaican singer Bob Marley and the scarcely clandestine interest of our now notorious CIA in the political affairs of Jamaica. "A Brief History of Seven Killings" has been on all the "best" lists of 2014 but for me it was just too clever by half. I much preferred Mr. James's debut, "The Book of Night Women."

Colm Toibin's "Nora Webster" was a quiet, thoughtful look at a woman fighting to come into her own after the death of her young husband. Her small town in Ireland could be any place, anywhere, that neighbors know more about your business than you do. Family, some meaning well, some perhaps not, have too much to say about each little step Nora takes toward independence, but thankfully, she forges ahead and it's a pleasure to take that step with her.

Jean Hanff Korelitz once again turns her gimlet eye and measured sarcasm (see my review of "Admission") on an echelon of New York society that must seem far afield for most readers. "You Should Have Known" introduces a self-satisfied psychologist who specializes in rocky marriages and bad choices. Her precocious son attends a posh private school and her husband, a pediatric oncologist, is a saint. Grace Reinhart Sachs has just published a book and is prepping for the publisher's tour. Perhaps that's why she completely misses the cues in her own perfectly constructed life that keep hinting at something terribly awry? This is a piercing study of how one woman examines her life and opens herself to new possibilities after a devastating fall from grace.