Friday, April 30, 2010

Happy Endings

A couple of weeks ago I had 15 women attend my book discussion of Little Bee and before we broke up, I asked them for ideas, input, suggestions, for what they would like to see us talk about next year. Sad to say, we are not encouraged to hold book discussions year round at our library even though I'm sure we would have a small but loyal group in attendance. (that's another story - I may stage a little rebellion)

At any rate, the first thing almost everyone mentioned was, "can't we read a book with a happy ending?" Well, of course not! What would we have to discuss? Naturally, that isn't really true and it did get me thinking about my tendency to the dark side. I asked them if it wasn't time to tackle a classic and they agreed. We also talked about biography. Andrea and I have been scrambling to get our list together sooner rather than later as we send it out to Northern addresses in late June or July. I have at least 8 potentials already, among them, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Blame, The Lotus Eaters, and the classic political novel and Pulitzer winner, All the King's Men. If any of you readers have suggestions we'd love to hear them.

Meanwhile, I'm about half way through my May discussion book and it's truly my favorite this year. Cutting for Stone is one of those big, juicy, novels that you can just dive into and lose yourself in. Perhaps it even has a happy ending, I don't know yet, but it has memorable characters, gorgeous prose and, most pleasing to amateur physicians like me (said with tongue in cheek), phenomenal descriptions of the wonders of the human body in all its strength and frailty. Dr. Abraham Verghese loves the body as much as he loves words.

Sister Mary Joseph Praise, newly minted nun and nurse, meets Dr. Thomas Stone on a ship where he falls seriously ill. Through Sister's ministrations, Dr. Stone lives and realizes that he must have her working with him for as long as she will. Together they are a perfect team and spend 8 idyllic years at Mission Hospital in Ethiopia reading each other's minds in operating theater #3. Reading hearts, though, is apparently another matter altogether.

When Sister Praise is absent around the hospital for a few days and Dr. Stone is furiously unable to work without her, the entire cadre of nuns, staff and servants is appalled to find sister in her room, close to death and ready to deliver twin boys into the world. How can this be? The mystery will take 550 more pages to slowly reveal itself. In the meantime lucky readers will be in the presence of the tough-minded obstetrician Hema and her devoted husband Ghosh who save the conjoined twins Shiva and Marion, raising them with all the love and care humanly possible. You'll also be privy to the history of Ethiopia in the '70's during a military coup against Emperor Haile Sallasie and you'll move to New York City where the narrator, Marion, will eventually go to follow in his father's footsteps. The question is, which father?

I have to get back to reading but I just want to mention one more neat thing. Don and I finally decided on the play we want to see while we have a couple of days in NYC next month. I called for tickets to August Wilson's Fences, which was still in rehearsal, and was able to get great seats at a completely unreasonable price. The show opened Tuesday with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starring and the glowing review was in the Times this week. Just for a lark I went online to check on ticket availability knowing that ours are safely tucked away in our vacation folder. You got it! $100 more than we paid just 2 weeks ago. Whew. I love it when that happens. Link to the review below:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hooray for Wednesdays!

It's the only day that I can guarantee I will make time to do a little writing and, like an addict, I admit that I miss writing so much. I realize that I must do this in the morning when my brain is sharp and I'm full on. By the time I get home from work at night I am at a ground zero energy level.  If I manage to get my walk in I feel completely full of myself!

I probably read 15 to 20 book blogs a day just to remain in the loop and I'm amazed at how many of them generate comments and how few I get. Am I not controversial enough? I wouldn't have thought that was a problem! No opinions out there regarding the books I write about? Can't believe it! So today, since I'm smack dab in the middle of four books, maybe I'll write about the strange week I've had and the mixed bag of feelings that are percolating inside me, which are, I suspect, going to stir up some debate.

A week ago I had the honor of attending the annual luncheon at Grandezza Country Club where the Susan Komen Foundation awards their annual grants. I admit to often feeling out of place at events like this where the majority of participants are high-rolling, diamond draped, grand dames of society who do important charity work and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research and care, but who would likely walk by one of their charity recipients on the street and not give them a moment's notice. Harsh? Probably. But true? More than likely.

Nevertheless, the organization that I recently became affiliated with as secretary, Lymphedema Resources, Inc. received a large grant from the Komen foundation. This organization provides exercise, education and garments for low income, under or uninsured patients who suffer from the pain and discomfort of lymphedema, a common occurance after surgery that removes some or all of the lymph nodes. They and the other nine organizations that received grants last week are filling a need that shouldn't even be there in the twenty first century in the much touted richest country in the world.

Saturday I participated in a very different event, the 84th anniversary of the development of the Charleston Park neighborhood on the far border of Lee County, an area that has been ignored and disrespected by the powers that be for far too long. Once a haven for black on black crime and misdemeanor drug offenses, this neighborhood, under that outstanding leadership of one of its long time residents and preachers, Mrs. Alice Washington, Charleston Park has renewed its sense of pride and purpose and is activating to be included in basic county services like, most important, public transportation. How I wish that I could find folks like the ones I met at Grandezza, with the money, time and energy to take on this project.

How it can even be allowed that these tax paying citizens, mostly elderly and unwell, can be denied access to Lee Tran to get to doctor's appointments, go grocery shopping, and maybe get to a library, is beyond my comprehension. Thankfully, Don and I had the opportunity to chat with members of the Dunbar community, Mr.'s Willie Green and Battle and learned that a feasibility or needs study is in the works. But these things take too much time. Another organization is pushing to speed things up and we will do what we can to help. To his credit, Commissioner Frank Mann was there as was Pete Burkert who is running for the state senate.

Years ago when I worked on the Bookmobile, we regularly drove out to Charleston Park bringing books to the few kids who live out there. Sure, it was probably a big expenditure in gas and time but hey, isn't that our mission? They have no access to the Riverdale library which is more than 10 miles away and cannot participate in after school activities as they have no way to get home. Don has been volunteering his time at the Charleston Park Community Center creating a computer lab so that, with the help of other volunteers, people there can apply for jobs, unemployment and food stamps. Now I'll be agitating to get the Bookmobile back out there one evening every couple of weeks or at least to set up a deposit collection so that these bright, articulate kids can get a step up.

The bottom line? How does one go from feeling inferior and insecure in a country club setting on one day to feeling ashamed of one's wealth of riches in a different setting just two days later? These uncomfortable, schizophrenic emotions plague me sometimes as I try to bridge the gap between being a have and a have not and living in both worlds. Perhaps I should return to playing the lottery on the outside chance of winning enough to put my money where my mouth is. In the meantime, I write.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Have We Forgotten Haiti?

I often feel such a sense of sadness and shame at how quickly our lives return to normal after an unspeakable tragedy happens, so I was pleased and surprised to see that our first lady made an unannounced visit to Haiti last week. I have deliberately kept Haiti on my mind by choosing to read (or I should say, listen to) Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, the story of Dr. Paul Farmer and the incredible work he's been doing in Haiti for the past 25 years.

It isn't easy to be in the company of a saint, nor could it be easy to be married to one, and that fact comes through loud and clear as Kidder follows Dr. Farmer around the world on his missions of caring for the least of our brothers in the worst of circumstances while trying to wrest money, supplies and inexpensive drugs from investors and organizations with the assets to help. Farmer comes across as an idealist of the best kind but also as a man of such intensity that some may quake in his presence. That is, until it comes to his patients who worship him as a kind of god and whom Dr. Farmer also respects and loves intensely. There isn't a false note in his care for these people who rely on him for their future and that of their children.

Dr. Farmer eschews all the comforts that would come with being a world renowned infectious disease specialist working out of the prestigious Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Every dime he earns goes into his work and time in Haiti in the hills above the capital in a little village called Cange where he built and staffs a clinic known as Zanmi Lasante. Here he brings Kidder to witness the extreme poverty and its effect on the health of the local people suffering from drug resistent tuberculosis. He works pretty much 24/7 flying between Miami and Haiti and Boston for years and then branching out to Peru, Cuba and even the infected prison population in Russia, dragging the author along with him. Tracy Kidder does an outstanding job of bringing us inside the world of infectious disease,  poverty and the politics that run rampant behind the scene when it comes to keeping a non-profit afloat.

Readers of this book, at least folks like me, may succomb to feeling bad about themselves because there's nothing we could possibly do to achieve this kind of selflessness for others. We must resign ourselves to acknowledging the work of these saints like Farmer or Mother Theresa by learning about them, spreading the word through writing or discussion, and giving when we can to organizations like Dr. Farmer's Partners in Health, that continue to work for the betterment of all of us through the poorest of us.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Time for a Laugh

And yes, I found it. I headed out for my walk this morning with a new book on my mp3 and laughed snarkily all around the block! Cathleen Schine's The Three Weissmanns of Westport  is promising to be the scathing, witty, ferociously sarcastic and laugh out loud funny book I've been waiting for and a perfect antidote to the book I started in my car this week, the one that will likely take me the rest of the summer to finish.

Pulitzer winner The Hemingses of Monticello weighs in at 25 cd's and requires a concentration that I probably shouldn't be giving to a book while I'm driving. Nevertheless, I think it's a book everyone who claims to have even a vague understanding of the devastation wrought upon an entire people by the scourge of slavery needs to read. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed's book has been called the definitive history of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sarah (Sally) Hemings and the effect that this relationship has had on the children of that relationship down through the generations.

More than that though, it appears to be a look at the way the Jamestown colonists managed to manipulate and rewrite the laws of British society in order to acquire, hold on to, and expand their vast wealth and land holdings and how Africans, kidnapped and exported from their own country, were used as a form of money or bargaining chip to aid and abet this land grab.
If you've ever found yourself against reparations in the past, this book will change your mind.

I've got so much more to say - so many books to talk about - but work calls. I have a new book from Barbara at Library Journal that I just finished last night. More about that after the review is published. I've also started my next book discussion book Cutting for Stone, which I'm reading on my Sony. Abraham Verghese's use of language makes me swoon and always has. I like to think that "I knew him when," as not too many readers are familiar with his first beautiful book The Tennis Partner.

I'm also trying to put together a ferociously ambitious summer trip for me and Don which involves a wedding in Ohio, a B and B in Gt. Barrington, a few days in NYC - just got tickets for the King Tut exhibit - and then, I hope, a tour of the White House and a couple of days to swing and read on the deck in Chesapeake Beach. Whew!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Novels

I guess it all started with Kathryn Stockett. Who'd have imagined that a debut novel about a wannabe writer and a group of servants in the '60's south would be on the "most wanted" list of every book group and the New York Times for, what, two years now? The popularity of The Help seems to have kicked off an entire genre of literature about slavery and its long-term repercussions.

Two novels that appear to be an offshoot of this phase, that I've been reading simultaneously, are the inappropriately named Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. James' novel is extraordinary by any literary standards and the reading (I'm listening in my car) by Robin Miles is lyrical.
On a Jamaican sugar plantation in the 1800's the horrific treatment of slaves is so disturbing that I often had to pull the car to the side of the road to digest it. We think we know all this history and have somehow put it behind us but reading about or listening to the forms of brutality that were routinely visited upon the slaves by their overseers and enslavers is still incomprehensible.

A small group of women, headed up by one of the house slaves, Homer, who has learned to read and write, have heard rumors of the uprising in Haiti and the establishment of a free country for Africans. Homer identifies the strongest women on the Montpelier plantation, where she is considered a leader in the hierarchy of slaves, in whom she can place her trust, envisioning a similar uprising there. But when she lobbies to bring Lilith into the group, dissension, jealousy and mistrust threaten their plans.

Lilith is an amazing, complicated, deeply realized character and, as I was reading, I found myself wondering again and again if this writer, with whom I was unfamiliar, was a man or a woman. I guess I had assumed a woman because of the way the women's anguish and determination were handled. In fact, only yesterday did I decide to go online and find out and, to  my surprise and delight, Marlon James is a man and a gorgeous writer at that. His website is fantastic!

This book would make a fabulous book discussion but might be too difficult for some of our readers to take. Questions arise in this book and in Wench about the often close, but one can't dignify it by calling it love, relationships between many of the enslaved women and their masters or overseers. I liken them to victims of the Stockholm Syndrome wherein even small creature comforts and special treatment can become addictive when one is normally used to torture and degradation. For Lilith, loyalty to her own people and loyalty to the Irish overseer, Robert, with whom she lives, becomes a debilitating dilemma.

Similarly in Wench, certain female slaves on a plantation in Tennessee during this same 1800's time frame, are identified as "special," usually because they have been raped or forced into sex with the "master" and now have children with him. These women travel each summer to a resort in Ohio, an actual place which later became the famed Wilberforce Academy, where they live with their enslavers as couples, still performing the household duties but also dressing up in the evening, sitting at table or dancing with their "masters" and being served by free blacks.

Naturally, complicated and complex feelings would have to come of this dichotomous life, knowing that these women are living part of their lives in a state where Negroes are free, where some can read and write and speak surreptitiously of the underground railroad and escape. Yet these women are bound to their enslavers because they have hopes and dreams for their half white children, that someday they will be freed and be able to own land and raise free families.

Perkins-Valdez's book doesn't compare in literary craft to Marlon James's but it did turn out to be a good companion piece for comparison. These novels have left me bereft and drained and, readers, you may feel the same. Tomorrow is my book discussion on the equally dismal Little Bee, but after that, I'm going to try to find some light-hearted reading to write about for a bit. I promise. Bear with me.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Believe Nothing you Hear and Half of What you See

That old saying has been running through my mind lately as I've been reading Shoshana Johnson's new autobiography I'm Still Standing; From Captive U.S. Soldier to Free Citizen - My Journey Home. If you don't know her name it's not surprising. You see, she was the OTHER female soldier, the first African American female POW, wounded and held in various homes and prisons over a 22 day period at the very beginning of the ill-conceived Iraq War.

This book was a gift from my friend Don who is on what must often feel like a one man mission to improve and showcase strong images of African Americans in the arts and literature. This all began when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in their dubious wisdom, announced that the best song of the year was It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp from the outstanding movie Crash. Then they completely overlooked the wonderful Denzel Washington project, The Great Debaters.

Each year things seem to have gone downhill with the culmination of this year's best picture nominee Precious which Don refused to watch. For the record, I did watch this movie the other night and found much to be positive about, especially the delightful Paula Patton who played the teacher, Ms. Rain, who ran the alternative school where Precious's talent as a writer were encouraged and where she found her first semblance of a family among the other students.

So back to Ms. Johnson who, with Army veteran and writer M.L. Doyle, has penned an honest, fast paced book about life in the military, (her dad was a career Army veteran as is her sister) life as a single mother with a fantastic supportive family, and the strong friendships forged in combat. Trained as a cook, Ms. Johnson had absolutely no expectation that she would ever have to use her military training to protect and defend herself or others. Neither did her female cohorts, Jessica Lynch or Lori Piestewa.

The story of their tragic miscalculations, getting lost on a routine convoy mission to Baghdad, trying to turn around in the city of Nasiryah, being attacked and at a loss to defend themselves with faulty weapons that stuck and misfired, was all over the news when it happened. The media, aided and abetted by the Pentagon as they tried to drum up hatred for the Iraqis and support of the unpopular war, chose petite, blond, country girl Jessica Lynch to be their pawn. To her huge credit, she eventually realized how she had been used, the lies told about her supposed heroics and has since testified before congress in the Pat Tillman case. Speaking of which, John Krakauer's book about Tillman, Where Men Win Glory, is on my mp3 player.

Meanwhile, Shoshana Johnson, shot in both legs and suffering excruciating pain during her captivity, wondered constantly about the safety of her friends Jessica and Lori. At one point during the ordeal a kind-hearted (and there were lots of them and isn't that a story?) Iraqi guard whispered to her that he had heard that a young, blond woman from her group was alive and in the hospital. Lori, they later found out, had died of her injuries when the Humvee in which she and Jessica were riding was hit by a roadside bomb and overturned. Iraqi doctors performed surgery on Shoshana and seemed to really take an interest in her outcome. Cynics may say that they were fearful of losing a prisoner of war but Shoshana doesn't believe that and neither do I.

A disturbing outcome of all this is the way the media tried to portray an imaginary rift between the two women, Shoshana and Jessica. In fact, they make appearances together even as they hope to put this period of their lives behind them and remain friends as only people with the shared horror of a war experience can do. The fact that the military originally awarded a much higher percentage of disability benefits to Jessica and less to Shoshana got the rumor mill going. Shoshana, with the help of Jessie Jackson and his wife, fought for her benefits and won and is now an articulate, educated spokesperson for PTSD from which she still suffers.

Thanks to Don for an eye-opening, excellent read. I highly recommend it.