The Other Wes Moore

The Other Wes Moore

When I was in college, there was another woman with my name (Julie Ward (click to read the story of her murder, the mystery of it, and the obstruction of justice at the hands of the British police)), who was murdered in Africa. I remember seeing an article in the paper about it, and clipping it out and hanging it on my bathroom wall, with a certain degree of gallows humor. I wrote on the clipping, “One Down…”, because it reminded me of The Terminator, when Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to the front door, says “Sarah Conner”, and then kills the poor woman. I know, it’s sick. I was young. But while I joked about it, there’s always been that part of me that has paid attention to it, and remembers her and her family, and how even though we had almost nothing in common, we had the same name, and so I felt somehow connected.

So it was interesting to hear a somewhat similar tale on NPR a few weeks ago. They’ve been running a series on Talk of the Nation where they discuss Freshmen Reads. The idea is that at some universities, the incoming Freshman class is assigned a book to read, and then they talk about it, I assume in their English class. On this segment, they were talking about The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. Wes Moore is a young man who grew up on the mean streets of Baltimore, Maryland. A young working class black man, raised by his single mother, who had dreams of something better for her son. He skips school, isn’t interested in his classes, starts down the wrong path. In a neighborhood where crack is king, and the best way to make money is selling drugs, it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole quite quickly, perhaps never to return. Somehow, his mother and family are able to pull him back onto the right path. His grandparents mortgage their home (and their retirement) in order to pay for his first year at Valley Forge Military Academy & College. There, he meets people he can admire, and learns how to find something to admire within himself, which turns him around. When he graduates, he goes to college, first at a community college, then at Johns Hopkins, and then becomes a paratrooper in the Marines. He goes to Afghanistan, and is a decorated veteran of the war. He is a Rhodes Scholar. He travels to South Africa on an exchange program, and learns about apartheid and politics. He goes to Oxford. He works as an assistant to Condoleezza Rice. He speaks at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. He is happily married and successful.

Wes Moore is also another young man, growing up on the mean streets of Baltimore. About the same age as the first Wes Moore, and growing up just a few blocks away. Another young working class black man, raised by his single mother, who has dreams of something better for her son. He skips school, isn’t interested in his classes, and starts down the wrong path. The difference is that this Wes Moore falls down the rabbit hole, and isn’t able to extricate himself. At one point, young, with four children to support, born to two women he is also trying to do right by, he tries to steer the straight path, to get out of dealing drugs and dangerous living. But the money to be made as a young black man with an 8th grade education and a criminal record is minimum wage or just slightly more, and he is in despair of how to support his family. So he does exactly the wrong thing. The very very wrong thing. He gets involved in a jewelry store robbery, where a security guard is shot and killed, leaving behind his own wife and children to try to cope without him in their life. This Wes Moore is convicted and sent to prison for life, with no possibility of parole.

The first Wes Moore was traveling to South Africa on his Rhodes Scholarship when his mother told him about the newspaper reports about the second Wes Moore. The similarities to his own story stuck in his head, and he began to wonder what might be different between their stories, how his life turned out so well, while the other Wes Moore’s story turned out so tragically. He wrote to Wes Moore in prison, and to his surprise, he was open to the idea of being interviewed. They talked many times, and Wes Moore’s family opened up and told Wes Moore (I know, confusing, right?) about their life during that time, the dangers and failures that pulled their family down. The resulting story is a compelling, tragic read. Tragic for Wes and his family, and even more tragic for the security guard who is shot down in cold blood. Plenty of tragedy to go around, and a big question about what makes a person’s fate. Is it society, is it their own strengths and weaknesses, is it the support and love of their family?

The most chilling part of the story, to me, was how Wes Moore, the convict, even 10 years later, still refused to admit that he was present at the scene of the crime. Even though there were 20 witnesses, and DNA evidence, that showed he was there. Then there was the issue of responsibility and cause.

I asked a question: “Do you think we’re all just products of our environments?” His smile dissolved into a smirk, with the left side of his face resting at ease.
“I think so, or maybe the products of our expectations.”
“Others’ expectations of us or our expectations for ourselves?”
“I mean others’ expectations that you take on as your own.”
I realized then how difficult it is to separate the two. The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.
“We will do what others expect of us,” Wes said. “If they expect us to graduate, we will graduate. If they expect us to get a job, we will get a job. If they expect us to go to jail, then that’s where we will end up too. At some point you lose control.”
I sympathized with him, but I recoiled from his ability to shed responsibility seamlessly and drape it at the feet of others.
“True, but it’s easy to lose control when you were never looking for it in the first place.”

The message perhaps is that we should not discount nor ignore the role of the many variables in a person’s destiny (family, poverty, education, etc.), while at the same time, we should not underestimate the roles of self-determination and character.

Every Last One

Every Last OneI came across this book in the silliest way. A few months ago, Ted and I had some time to kill at the bookstore downtown while Maya did some cheer thing or another. I had a pile of library books at home to read, so I wasn’t really looking for something to buy. I got a little bored and started playing a dumb game with myself. The game was, looking at the bookcases at the bookstore, and seeing if there were any shelves without at least one book I had read before. I was feeling pretty smug and proud of myself, seeing books that I had read on so many shelves. Then I came across the Q & R shelf, and there was nothing. So the next game, of course, was, what on this shelf would I read if I had to pick one out. There was a whole shelve of Ayn Rand, and there’s no way I can stomach that. Then I saw a section devoted to Anna Quindlen. That name sounded familiar to me, so I thought, hmmm….maybe. Then I forgot about it.

Several months later, Ted and I were again browsing a (different) bookstore. This time I didn’t have any library books waiting at home, so I looked a bit more seriously. I decided on Every Last One, which seems to be her most recent novel.

I love reading, and novels are my favorite genre. I’ve been surprised by books before, by the level of the writing, or the turn of a phrase. Once in awhile a storyline even surprises me, but usually when that happens, I feel cheated or betrayed, as though the author has been pointing me in one direction, and then pulled the rug out from under me. It feels like they were withholding information on purpose.

Every Last One does not rely on either the expected, or on such a betraying surprise that you feel like you had no chance of knowing what was coming. Instead, you know something’s coming, that the story is leading toward a pivotal event. But when it comes, it’s not anything that I had expected. I don’t want to go too far in describing the story, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. I’ll give you a very brief synopses, to whet your appetite.

Every Last One centers on the Latham family, specifically Mary Beth, the mother of the family. She is happily married, with three teen-aged children. She has a job as a landscape architect that she really enjoys. Her children are Ruby, Max, and Alex. Ruby suffered last year from a dangerous bout with anorexia, but seems to have come through the worst of it, and Mary Beth and Glen, her husband, are shifting their parental concern toward Max. Max and Alex are twin brothers, finishing up 8th grade, and getting ready for High School. Max has gone from a happy child into a moody one, leaning towards depression. Mary Beth and Glen are trying to figure out how to help him through this troubling time. Alex seems to be healthy and well adjusted so far, as the athletic and popular child in the family. Rounding out the family is Kiernan, a boy of Ruby’s age, who went from boy-next-door to Ruby’s boyfriend, and seeks solace in the Latham household from his own uninvolved, uncaring household.

“Ruby goes to the door and bends forward to peer out of its panes. She meshes her fingers together behind her back and rocks back and forth. I can tell she wants to put everything right before she flies away, Ruby does. She wants to feel at peace with Kiernan again, to make certain Rachel will not follow her worst impulses, to heal the rift between her brothers. She has given each of the boys a poem for Christmas, and the one for Max begins, “I miss you, mousie. Come back home.” Mousie and Bear – that’s what she called her brothers when she was very young. When I’d asked why, years ago, she made that exasperated click of the tongue, the one most girls don’t learn until adolescence, and said, “Mommy, you know.”

I didn’t. I don’t. She does.”

I found this to be a really good read. A page turner, definitely. I think I’ll look for more by Anna Quindlen in the future. Maybe even at my local library.

Pictures of You

Pictures of You

April Nash is leaving her marriage.  Leaving her husband and young son behind, traveling on a foggy road towards another life.  Unbeknownst to her, her son, Sam, is asleep under a blanket in the back seat.

The car was moving.  Sam heard the rivery sound of the road under him, and he sat up, rubbing his eyes, pulling the blanket from him.  Cars were zipping past in a blur of color.  And there was his mother in front, singing along to some song on the radio.  “You are my spec-i-al someone,” she sang, and because Sam thought she meant him, he grinned.  Her voice sounded bright, like it was full of bells.  The air seemed full of happiness.  With one hand, she picked up the cell phone and dialed, listened, and then she put the phone away.

His neck hurt, his legs hurt, and he was now deeply thirsty, so sluggish with sleep that he didn’t feel like saying boo anymore or playing any game. “Mom?” he said, and he saw her start, felt her slamming on the brakes, pulling over to the side of the road.  She jumped out of the car, tugged open his door, and made him get out, too.  Her face was white.

She grabbed him by his shoulders, hard.  “What are you doing here?” she demanded.  “How did you get in the car?  Do you know how dangerous this is?  How stupid?”

Soon, Sam and April are overcome by a thick, soupy fog, and Sam, who suffers from severe asthma, has an attack. April pulls over again, gets her car somehow turned the wrong way in the middle of the freeway, and waits for help. You can see where this is going, right?

Isabelle Stein is also leaving her marriage, driving along that same stretch of highway, running from the husband who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant. Isabelle feels this betrayal deeply, not only for the infidelity, which would certainly be enough, but because she cannot have children of her own, a loss that haunts and hurts her deeply. That her husband would prefer to have a child with another woman rather than adopt one with her is far more than she can bear. So she is on that same stretch of highway, souped in by fog, slightly distracted by a hornet in her car, when she slams into April and April’s car, killing April and wounding herself and Sam.

What follows is the story of Isabelle, Sam, and Charlie, Sam’s father. Isabelle is haunted by grief and guilt, though the accident was in no way her fault. She finds herself drawn to Sam and Charlie, wanting to know if Sam is OK, wanting to know a bit more about them. Secretly wishing he were hers. Sam is equally drawn to Isabelle. In the moments following the accident, he saw Isabelle, shrouded in fog, and confuses her with an angel. Thinking that she can somehow connect him again with his dead mother, he seeks her out. Then there’s Charlie, who wants nothing more than to protect his son. But almost as much as he wants this, he wants to know why April was leaving him. He believed, deeply and truly, that they were happily married. He is hurt, lonely, and confused.

Pictures of You could easily have fallen into a predictable storyline. Indeed, I saw her compared to Jodi Picoult and I worried, as my experience with My Sister’s Keeper was harrowing enough. But Caroline Leavitt didn’t go for the easy answer, and her characters seemed real, flawed, and understandable, especially in the very real confusion brought about by their grief. Yes, I sometimes wanted to shake them. But that’s real life sometimes.

Finding Nouf / City of Veils

Jeddah
Jeddah, gateway to Mecca, on the Red Sea. Photo found here

“Despite the independence, or perhaps because he had too much of it, his childhood had provoked an intense longing for a family, a longing that lasted well into adulthood and that he was certain would never be satisfied.  His deepest fear was that he’d never marry.  Parents arranged marriages.  Parents had brothers and sisters who had children who needed to be married.  They organized the complicated social visits in which a man got to meet a prospective bride – veiled of course, but the groom could at least study her fingers and feet (unless she was socked and gloved as well) and learn what he could from those extraneous parts.  (The best insight, of course, was a thorough study of her brother’s face.)  Samir could provide him with none of these things – there were no cousins to marry, not in Soudi at least – and even if he could have arranged a marriage for Nayir, Samir felt strongly that a man should “do some living” before settling down.  Samir himself, now sixty-five, was still doing some living.” ~ Finding Nouf

Nayir is the conservative protagonist of Zoe Ferraris’s mystery novels, Finding Nouf, and its sequel, City of Veils. Ferraris is an American woman who married a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin and moved to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the first Gulf War. Amongst the myriad ways that life in Saudi Arabia is different than it is in America, Ferraris was struck by how many men who wanted to be married and have families were unable to do so. If your family could not somehow arrange a marriage for you, how would a traditional and conservative man meet a decent girl? In a culture where women wear burqas to cover their faces, have a separate living room from the men in their own homes, cannot drive, and cannot walk down the street without a male relative, where indeed can a nice boy meet a nice girl, if their parents cannot get them together? Ferraris took this idea, and made it an underlying theme, though by no means the main one, of her novels.

Finding NoufIn Finding Nouf, we meet Nayir, a desert guide in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  His very wealthy friend Othman’s sister, 16 year old Nouf, has turned up missing, and all indications are that she ran away into the desert to escape her upcoming marriage.  Othman asks Nayir for help in finding her, a desperate search where time is of the essence if there is any hope of finding her alive.   When her body turns up 10 days later, the family seems uninterested in solving the mystery of her death, a change of heart that confuses and confounds Nayir.  He resolves to discover how she ended up drowning in the heart of the desert.  In his search, he is assisted by the other protagonist of the story, Katya, a woman modern enough to be working as a lab assistant at the coroners office, who resents having to cover her face, and finds Nayir’s pious ways frustrating and tiring. Katya is also Othman’s fiancee’.  As Nayir and Katya struggle to find a way to work together without upsetting either of their sensibilities too much, Nayir gets his first peek into the heretofore completely foreign world of women, and Katya begins to learn that there is kindness and respect behind Nayir’s beliefs, not just the power struggle that she so resents in the overbearing rules and rituals of the land in which she lives.

City of VeilsCity of Veils again pairs Nayir and Katya in solving the death of a young woman, this time a brutal murder that has left the face and hands of the victim unrecognizable. Confounding the story is the apparent relationship between the victim and an American expatriate, Eric, who goes to the airport to pick up his wife, Miriam, brings her home, and promptly disappears. Miriam’s fears and struggles in trying to find her missing husband highlight the many differences between Saudi culture and our own. She is used to working, driving, riding in the front seat of a car, being free to do as she pleases. She is left alone in a country she does not like (but with which her husband has fallen in love), forced to try to find him working with people who do not acknowledge her presence half of the time, and when they do, refuse to look her in the eye.

I’m not generally a fan of the mystery genre, with the exception of Dick Francis novels, which attract me more for the horses than the murders. In the case of Finding Nouf and City of Veils, I was transfixed by an insider’s view and understanding of a culture which is so foreign to those of us in the west. The murder mystery aspect was interesting and well done, but to me, they were secondary to the sensitivity and longings of the characters, and the peek into another world. I hope that Ms. Ferraris writes more stories about the sleuthing team of Nayir and Katya.

Cutting for Stone

Cutting For Stone

I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest;
I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.
~ From the Hippocratic Oath

Cutting for Stone begins with the pregnancy and birth of slightly conjoined and separated twins, Marion and Shiva Stone, orphaned at birth with the death of their mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and the disappearance of their father, Dr. Thomas Stone. Marion and Shiva are raised at the Ethiopian hospital where they are born, by two Indian doctors, who love them as their own.  They grow up amid political upheaval, though they are mostly insulated from the drama going on around them.

The story is told from Marion’s point of view, even before his birth finally occurs 130 pages in.  Marion and Shiva are raised along with a girl named Genet, the daughter of their family maid.  Marion falls in love with Genet, and hopes to grow up and marry her someday.  Events, of course, spiral out of control, and the paths followed by Marion, Shiva, and Genet veer into very different directions.

I think what I liked best about the book was how clearly and delicately Verghese tied the events of the story together, though I did wish they had been a bit more linear at times. By the time you finish, there aren’t too many unanswered questions, and you can easily see how the events that transpired came to be. The greatest strengths of the book is the story, the vibrancy of the characters, and the lovely writing, as expressed in this passage.

We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot. I grew up and I found my purpose and it was to become a physician. My intent wasn’t to save the world as much as to heal myself.
Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but subconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound.

I chose the specialty of surgery because of Matron, that steady presence during my boyhood and adolescence. “What is the hardest thing you can possibly do?” she said when I went to her for advice on the darkest day of the first half of my life. I squirmed. How easily Matron probed the gap between ambition and expediency. “Why must I do what is hardest?”

“Because, Marion, you are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument sitting in its case, my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for ‘Three Blind Mice’ when you can play the ‘Gloria’?”

How unfair of Matron to evoke that soaring chorale which always made me feel that I stood with every mortal creature looking up to the heavens in dumb wonder. She understood my unformed character.

“But, Matron, I can’t dream of playing Bach, the ‘Gloria’… ,” I said under my breath. I’d never played a string or wind instrument. I couldn’t read music.

“No, Marion,” she said, her gaze soft, reaching for me, her gnarled hands rough on my cheeks. “No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria.’ Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”

The weakness, for me, comes when Verghese starts describing a surgery. I’m squeamish about such things already, so it kind of turned my stomach to read the details of a tube being sent down through the heart into the veins or whatever. But worse than that, to those of us with little to no interest or knowledge of surgical medicine, they stopped the narrative of the story in its tracks. It went from a flowing, sometimes lyrical, character driven plot, to a plodding lesson in anatomy that I had to steel myself to power through. Our neighbor is a surgical nurse, and she LOVED these parts of the book. She loved the entire book, actually, and has a friend who works with Dr. Verghese at Stanford and says he’s a wonderful, charming, brilliant man. I’m sure he is. I hope that if he continues his writing career, he is able to leave a bit of the surgical detail on the cutting room floor, as it were.

Freedom

Freedom

In Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom is something devoutly to be wished, and yet turns out to be a trap in and of itself.  It turns out, over and over again, that the trappings and constraints of life are preferable from freedom from these trappings.

The story is told in the third person, telling the stories of Patty, Walter, Joey, and Richard, as well as their families around them.  Patty is the damaged basketball star daughter of a WASPy NY family, who travels to college in Minnesota on a sports scholarship.   Walter is the good son who helps his parents to tend to their motel on weekends and summers, which his brother spends his life drinking and avoiding anything that might resemble work.  Richard is a musician who is mostly interested in having sex with, and then discarding, as many women as possible, and has no real respect for anyone, especially himself, with the exceptions of Walter and, sometimes, Patty.   They come together in collage, with Walter and Richard living as roommates who love each other (in a purely heterosexual way), though the respect is one sided.  Richard respects Walter for his goodness and his kind heart.  Walter likes Richard a lot, enjoys being his friend, but is dismayed by his treatment of women, most of whom he dislikes, which he expresses to them by seducing them, sleeping with them, and then ignoring them.  Patty desires Richard and his cool aloofness, but she loves Walter.   She runs away with Richard, but has second thoughts and comes home to Walter.  They marry, have children, and set up a quiet life in the suburbs.  Joey is Patty and Walter’s son, a boy so adored by his mother that he is suffocating under her attention.  He escapes into the house of his right-wing-trashy next door neighbors, finding his very young self happy in the the bed of their daughter, who is older, but only by a couple of years.

The story spans the time from just before Patty, Walter, and Richard meet in the late 70s or early 80s, until present day, and travels back and forth, with foreshadowing and details revealed slowly and with purpose.  Patty and Walter were the first of the neighborhood to be into recycling, carbon footprints, and modern parenting.  And yet, 15 years later, they’ve moved to Washington DC, where Walter (the environmental lawyer) is suddenly in bed with big coal, and Patty has become depressive, drinking her life away.  Richard is enjoying a new success, which is freaking him the hell out.  Joey, rather than moving to DC with his family, has decided to stay with the neighbors and their daughter.  And Richard is still in the picture, still wanting Patty, Patty still wanting him, and the marriage slowing crumbling under the stress of who-knows-what.  Boredom at first glance, but more than that, it’s a desire for freedom, freedom from the very decisions that they’ve each made all along.

The story moves along, explaining their sins and virtues, transgressions and loyalties.  Franzen can turn a phrase quite nicely, such as this one, where Richard (Katz) is ruminating about Patty and why she is different from the other women:

For a moment, in what passed for his soul, a door opened wide enough for him to glimpse his pride in its pathetic woundedness, but he slammed the door shut and considered how stupid he’d been to let himself want her. Yes, he liked the way she talked, yes, he had a fatal weakness for a certain smart depressive kind of chick, but the only way he knew to interact with a chick like that was to fuck her, walk away, come back and fuck her again, walk away again, hate her again, fuck her again, and so forth. He wished he could go back in time now and congratulate the self he’d been at twenty-four, in that foul squat on the South Side of Chicago, for having recognized that a woman like Patty was meant for a man like Walter, who, whatever his other silliness might be, had the patience and imagination to handle her. The mistake that Katz had made since then had been to keep returning to the scene in which he was bound to feel defeated.

I’ve read a couple of reviews describing Freedom as the great American novel. Eh. I would say that I was engrossed by the story, and that Franzen has a definite talent for turning a phrase and forcing you to look at some uncomfortable truths about yourself, your friends, your family, and the world in which you live. But his characters are difficult to understand, their motivations not clear enough, often enough, to allow you to really care for them. In a book of this length (562 pages), I wanted to be swept into the story, but also to really care for and understand the characters. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by the book, so much as that I’m not sure what all of the fuss is about.

Life After Yes

Life After Yes

There is something about mothers. Whether your own or someone else’s, whether Northern or Southern, liberal or conservative, they spill bits of wisdom as they walk. They just know better. Depending on the day, this can be infuriating or enlightening.

Quinn is a 26 year old Manhattan lawyer who has just become engaged to Sage, a banker from down south. They’re living in Manhattan, and the time has come to plan their wedding. Which seems like it should be a happy time, but this is early 2002, in New York, and Quinn’s father was killed in the attack on September 11. Sage is a caring man, and gives Quinn a lot of slack as she tries to figure out how to live her life in a world without her father, tries to come to terms with the magnitude of her loss, and that of so many around her. Quinn is brittle, defensive, and seems to want to push Sage away 3/4 of the time. She’s not sure that she wants to be a lawyer anymore, which seems like a huge change of direction at such a young age. To her and to those around her, even. She is surrounded by good friends, old boyfriends, family, an overwhelming job, and her loving fiance’. She drinks too much, and questions her own motives brutally. She is hard on herself, and on everyone around her. I found myself wondering how much of this hard edge came in on the heels of her father’s death, and how much was there to begin with.

Life After Yes is a story about finding your way after tragedies, both great and small, and about learning to let your guard down and let those you love comfort you, and let yourself comfort them as well. My only real problem with the book was that it seemed unsure as to whether it wanted to be clever or deep and introspective. There were moments of both, and while they worked on their own, together they were a bit jarring.

I bought the book accidentally while in Portland this summer, because the cover reminded me of another book I had been looking for, and I convinced myself that this was it. It wasn’t. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, because I liked the book a lot. It wasn’t great literature, but it was a good read. I would put it in the same genre as Jennifer Weiner’s books. If you like them, you might like this a great deal as well. And look, Aidan Donnely Rowley is a mommy blogger. Awesome!

The Last Bridge

The Last Bridge

Two days after my father had a massive stroke my mother shot herself in the head.  Her suicide was a shock – not the fact that she killed herself but the way in which she did it. It was odd that my mother chose such a violent end to her own violent life. For someone who had endured years of torture at my father’s hand, I thought she would choose a more quiet way of leaving. Perhaps she would take pills and put herself to bed in a silk nightgown, or she’d walk naked into the ocean at sunset. Instead, she cleaned the house, changed the linens, stuffed the freezer full of food, and blew her head off with my father’s shotgun.

Alexandra “Cat” Rucker is the hard drinking, deeply disturbed protagonist in this story of pain, redemption, forgiveness, and more pain. Cat left home ten years ago, leaving behind a violent house of misery and anguish. She doesn’t intend to ever come back. But with her father in the hospital, and her mother dead, she is drawn back by her mother’s suicide note…”Cat, He isn’t who you think he is. Mom xxxooo”

That the note is specifically written to her, not to her brother or her sister, brings Cat home. She is physically incapable of going 6 hours without getting drop-down drunk, unless she’s completely passed out. Her brother and sister seem to have their lives relatively together. Both married, both trying to figure out what a healthy, normal family might possibly look like, they seem to be the ones who are comparative successes. And yet, her mother wrote to her. What Cat cannot figure out is, who is the ‘he’ in the note. Her father, who beat and molested and terrorized the family for years? Her mother’s ex-boyfriend, whose son came and lived with them and who was the one she truly loved and wanted to be with? Or the ex-boyfriend’s son, who has come to live with Cat’s family, with his charming ways of winning over the entire family, father, mother, sister, brother, all but Cat, who trusts no-one. Or maybe, someone else instead?

These are the mysteries that Cat has been left to figure out. And perhaps she can, if she can stay sober and face her ghosts for more than 5 minutes at a time.

I found this book at Powell’s books in Portland this summer, and though it took me awhile to pick it up, when I finally did, I couldn’t put it down. Cat is such a tortured soul, and her story is so vividly told, that while you may disagree with some of her decisions, your heart goes out to her almost immediately. I liked this book enough that I gave it to a good friend as a Christmas gift. She was a bad girl and opened it before Christmas, and admitted to me that she finished it before Christmas as well. She couldn’t put it down. Really, really good stuff. I’m looking forward to more from Teri Coyne.

Room

RoomA 19 year old college student is approached on her way to the library one day, a man asking for help with his seriously ill dog. She goes with him, and ends up spending the next seven years of her life as his captive in an 11×11 shed in his back yard, a shed that has been fortified and soundproofed, fitted with heat and running water. She fights and is badly beaten. Tries to escape and is mocked. Struggles and screams and sends signals into the night sky that no one sees. She sleeps 16 hours a day, spends her waking hours trying to escape, watching TV, and dreading his visits. Her only hope is that she might die and be free from his brutal treatment.

Her salvation comes from an unlikely source, the baby boy, Jack, she is forced to bear to her captor. In her love for Jack, she finds a reason to live, a reason to focus her energies and strengths on how to make life somehow bearable in their tiny world entire. For it is a world entire…for Jack, 5 years old at the time we meet him, Room (a pronoun, for everything has a name…Room, Duvet, Plant, Wardrobe, and are his friends) is his only reality. The figures he sees on TV are fiction. So much so that when he sees a commercial on the TV for the same pain reliever that his mother uses to ease the pain of her rotten teeth (for her captor will of course not take her for any medical or dental care…the stain from Jack’s birth is still on Rug), he is confused, because it makes no earthly sense to him that the bottle on the TV could look the same as the one in Room, and yet, not be the same bottle.

Room is told entirely from Jack’s point of view, a boy who is far ahead of his outer-space peers in vocabulary and math skills, and yet, of course does not understand about slides or sand or stores or fresh air or any of the other millions of other things that other 5-year-olds would understand. It is a dangerous conceit, because telling a story from the point of view of a 5-year-old could be too cute or confusing for many an author. But in Emma Donoghue’s hands, we are safer in Jack’s story than we ever could be if we were hearing the story from his Ma’s point of view. Her story is far too painful.

The amazing things about this story to me, the parts that twist your heart and make it stronger, are Ma’s love for her son, her knowledge that he has saved her from a painful, meaningless life, even while she of course would never have had him if she were free; and Jack’s sweet attachment to Room, his fear at the idea of escape, the comfort and safety his loving mother has managed to create for him in a tiny world that is in no way at all comfortable, nor safe.

I would highly recommend this book, and I told Ted that I expect it will be made into a movie sometime soon. The author was spurred to the idea by the horrific stories of Elisabeth Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard, their years long captivities, and the fierce love both women have for their children. Be warned, though. I read the first section before bed, and dreamed that I was trapped in Room by Bruce Dern’s character from Big Love. Ugh. Creepy.

Nemesis

Nemesis ~ Philip RothIn this day and age when parents can look in the face of disease and laugh, can feel safe deciding not to vaccinate their children against the many diseases that are now considered completely preventable, can decide that in all actuality, many vaccines are suspect and may indeed be deadly or at least dangerous, it seems interesting to look back at a time before there were vaccines for many of childhood’s diseases.

Personally, I distrust the idea that a disease that can do the damage to whole communities such as diphtheria, measles, rubella, small pox, and polio is anything to be taken lightly. But I also understand the concerns with vaccination, that the chemicals that are being used may not, in fact, be safe. And that with any vaccine, no matter how safe, every person’s physiology is different, and some small percentage of the population is almost guaranteed to react badly, perhaps fatally, to a vaccine. We weigh the risks, not only upon our child, but also upon the community, of vaccination vs. non-vaccination, and we decide where to go from there. Mostly complacent in the knowledge that these diseases are close to being eradicated in the United States. Your healthy child might easily survive the measles or mumps, but your neighbor with Lupus hasn’t a chance.

Iron Lung in polio outbreak

I found the idea of going back to 1944, before the polio vaccine was developed, an interesting one. That the author, Philip Roth, remembers those days, remembers being kept inside and not allowed to play during the summer, for fear of a disease that could paralyze you, put you into an iron lung (imagine living 40 or 50 years trapped in that thing!), cripple you. I remember working with a woman who had a severe limp, and asking her about it. “Polio,” she said. “I had polio as a child. We didn’t have the vaccine in my country.” Chilling, especially as she was on her feet all day for work, and the stress that was put upon her body can not have been fun. My back aches if I sit too long at my computer. Imagine standing all day at an angle that is not natural for your spine. So I heard an interview on NPR with Philip Roth, the author of Nemesis, talking about his childhood memories of that fear, and I was intrigued.

What people did know was that the disease was highly contagious and might be passed to the healthy by mere physical proximity to those already infected. For this reason, as the number of cases steadily mounted in the city — and communal fear with it — many children in our neighborhood found themselves prohibited by their parents from using the big public pool at Olympic Park in nearby Irvington, forbidden to go to the local “air-cooled” movie theaters, and forbidden to take the bus downtown or to travel Down Neck to Wilson Avenue to see our minor league team, the Newark Bears, play baseball at Ruppert Stadium. We were warned not to use public toilets or public drinking fountains or to swig a drink out of someone else’s soda-pop bottle or to get a chill or to play with strangers or to borrow books from the public library or to talk on a public pay phone or to buy food from a street vendor or to eat until we had cleaned our hands thoroughly with soap and water. We were to wash all fruit and vegetables before we ate them, and we were to keep our distance from anyone who looked sick or complained of any of polio’s telltale symptoms.

Escaping the city’s heat entirely and being sent off to a summer camp in the mountains or the countryside was considered a child’s best protection against catching polio. So too was spending the summer some sixty miles away at the Jersey Shore. A family who could afford it rented a bedroom with kitchen privileges in a rooming house in Bradley Beach, a strip of sand, boardwalk, and cottages a mile long that had already been popular for several decades among North Jersey Jews. There the mother and the children would go to the beach to breathe in the fresh, fortifying ocean air all week long and be joined on weekends and vacations by the father. Of course, cases of polio were known to crop up in summer camps as they did in the shore’s seaside towns, but because they were nothing like as numerous as those reported back in Newark, it was widely believed that, whereas city surroundings, with their unclean pavements and stagnant air, facilitated contagion, settling within sight or sound of the sea or off in the country or up in the mountains afforded as good a guarantee as there was of evading the disease.

So the privileged lucky ones disappeared from the city for the summer while the rest of us remained behind to do exactly what we shouldn’t, given that “overexertion” was suspected of being yet another possible cause of polio: we played inning after inning and game after game of softball on the baking asphalt of the school playground, running around all day in the extreme heat, drinking thirstily from the forbidden water fountain, between innings seated on a bench crushed up against one another, clutching in our laps the well-worn, grimy mitts we used out in the field to mop the sweat off our foreheads and to keep it from running into our eyes — clowning and carrying on in our soaking polo shirts and our smelly sneakers, unmindful of how our imprudence might be dooming any one of us to lifelong incarceration in an iron lung and the realization of the body’s most dreadful fears

The fear in Nemesis is palpable. The hysteria that surrounds an outbreak in the Italian and Jewish neighborhoods of Newark is not difficult to imagine, unless you are such an amnesiac that you cannot remember the Avian Flu of a few years ago, or the H1N1 from last year. Trying to determine who to blame, what precautions one can take to protect one’s self and one’s children, trying to find a way to feel safe against such a virulent and invisible killer, we’ve seen this first hand.

Enter Bucky Cantor, the 23-year-old protagonist, the director of a community playground in Newark in 1944. Bucky aspires to be the head of the physical education department at the local school, and bitterly resents the humiliation of not being able to go overseas to fight the Germans and Japanese with his friends, due to his poor eyesight. Bucky is a deeply moral young man, who shakes his fist at the immorality of a God that would pick his young charges off, one by one, killing some and immobilizing others. The children look up to him, he is their hero, kind and fair and disciplined, wanting nothing more than to teach them how to be strong of body and character, to encourage the strengths of determination and discipline amongst them. When the epidemic starts keeping more and more children home, killing some and crippling others, Bucky’s girlfriend, Marcia, calls and begs him to desert his post, and come to the relative safety of the summer camp in the Poconos where she is a counselor.

Bucky’s failings come in his lack of imagination, and in his strict moral code that causes him to blame himself for all of the troubles that afflict the children. He feels that he deserves punishment, and the furthest his imagination can travel is to protect those that he loves, not stopping to consider whether his actions are actually protecting them or not. This self-flagellation turns out to be his own undoing.

Roth’s failing is in writing a book that feels too much on the surface, with a character that I never felt I truly knew, and language that only occasionally felt real. The book feels somehow redundant, but only with itself, and sometimes too simple to be truly engaging. There are, however, some gorgeous passages, hinting obliquely of greatness. That they are few and far between is too bad. I’d recommend the book, but with reservations. If you decide to read it, get it from the library.

Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story

The first week back at Post-Human Services is over and nothing terrible happened.  Howard Shu hasn’t asked me to do any Intakes yet, but I’ve spent the week hanging out at the Eternity Lounge, fiddling with my pebbly new äppärät 7.5 with RateMe Plus technology, which I now proudly wear pendant-style around my neck, getting endless updates on our country’s battle with solvency from CrisisNet while downloading all my fears and hopes in front of my young nemeses in the Eternity Lounge, talking about how my parents’ love for me ran too hot and too cold, and how I want and need Eunice Park even though she’s so much prettier than I deserve – basically, trying to show these open-source younguns just how much data and old “intro” geezer like me is willing to share.  So far I’m getting shouts of “gross” and “sick” and “TIMATOV,” which I’ve learned means Think I’m About to Openly Vomit, but I also found out that Darryl, the guy with the SUK DIK bodysuit and the red bandana, has been posting nice things about me on his GlobalTeens stream called “101 People We Need to Feel Sorry For.”  At the same time, I heard the ticka-ticka-ticka of The Boards as Darryl’s mood indicator fell from “positive/playful/ready to contribute” to “annoying the heck out of Joshie all week.”  His cortisol levels are a mess too.  Just a little more stress on his part and I’ll get my desk back.  Anyway, all this passes for progress, and soon I’ll be hitting the Intakes, proving my worth, trying to corner the market in Joshie’s affection and reclaim my big-man-on-campus status in time for the Labor Day tempeh stir-fry.  Also, I’ve spent an entire week without reading any books or talking about them too loudly.  I’m learning to worship my new äppärät’s screen, the colorful pulating mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.

Lenny is a 39 year-old first generation American, the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Abramov, who fled the Soviet Union and its demise, only to arrive in time for the demise of the United States. America has become credit obsessed in the extreme, and has fallen to the status of second-world country, behind the super economies of China and Korea. The dollar is pegged to the Yuan, smart people are learning Mandarin and Norwegian, and the obsession with health and living forever has become ridiculous in the extreme. Streets are adorned with credit poles, which display a passing person’s credit rating to the world around them, determining their value and whether they are worth going after to make a sale. People are adorned with äppäräti, the iPhone/Blackberry of the future, which displays your credit, cholesterol, emotional state, and desirability to any and all around you, and gives you the same information about them. The culture is obsessed with consumerism to the extreme, and the puppet government tries to convince people that it is their patriotic duty to shop and spend. Young women especially are hyper-sexualized, seeking out the thrill that they see in using their sex for power, but without any depth or meaning. Much like the desire to acquire endlessly, without an understanding of the importance of people, of friends, of family.

Lenny meets and falls instantly for Eunice Park, the much younger first-generation American daughter of an abusive Korean podiatrist father, who beats his wife and daughters. In her, Lenny sees not only someone he can love, but also someone who he can repair and protect. He is attracted to her beauty, health, and youth, but also to her as a first-generation American, like himself, one who at least attempts to understand the importance of family in his identity and his life. He may not want to spend a lot of time with his parents, but he loves them deeply and wants them to be OK.

Super Sad True Love Story follows their relationship in the midst of the violent overthrow of the United States, their attempts to love each other despite their many differences, their attempts to protect each other and those they love, and to understand their place in the world around them.  I liked this book quite a bit, though there were times when Gary Shteyngart’s descriptions of the corrupt corporate culture and the functionally illiterate people populating America rang both too clever and sharp, and too close to a very possible future.  The message seems to be, hug your books close to you, put down your Facebook once in awhile, because in this world halfway between Blade Runner and Sleeper, there’s no room for real thought, real discourse, or real connection between fellow human beings.  It is Lenny and Eunice’s stumbling attempts to attain these very things that save the book from pure painful satire, and give it a very real, very tender heart.

If you’re a fan of Fresh Air with Terry Gross, you can read and/or hear her interview with Shteyngart here.

Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry
image found here

Robert took off his round wire-rimmed glasses and his shoes. He climbed into the bed, careful not to disturb Elspeth, and folded himself around her. For weeks she had burned with fever, but now her temperature was almost normal. He felt his skin warm slightly where it touched hers. She had passed into the realm of inanimate objects and was losing her own heat. Robert pressed his face into the back of Elspeth’s neck and breathed deeply.

Elspeth watched him from the ceiling. How familiar he was to her, and how strange he seemed. She saw, but could not feel, his long hands pressed into her waist — everything about him was elongated, his face all jaw and large upper lip; he had a slightly beakish nose and deep-set eyes; his brown hair spilled over her pillow. His skin was pallorous from being too long in the hospital light. He looked so desolate, thin and enormous, spooned around her tiny slack body; Elspeth thought of a photograph she had seen long ago in National Geographic, a mother clutching a child dead from starvation. Robert’s white shirt was creased; there were holes in the big toes of his socks. All the regrets and guilts and longings of her life came over her. No, she thought. I won’t go. But she was already gone, and in a moment she was elsewhere, scattered nothingness.

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger, is the story of a strange cast of characters, brought together by the death of Elspeth, a 44-year-old twin living on the edge of Highgate Cemetery in London. Elspeth lived in a large, expensive flat, above Robert, her younger lover, and below Martin and Marijike. Martin is OCD to the extreme, and in a way is the symbol for all of the characters, for their various obsessions and hang-ups.

Elspeth has left her flat and its contents to her young nieces, twins Julia and Valentina, under the condition that they come and live in her flat together for one year, and that their parents not be allowed to enter. Elspeth has a secret that she does not want the parents, her twin sister Edie especially, unearthing. Julia and Velentina come to London from Chicago, eager to live on their own, yet together, away from their parents, and from the pressures of college, which Valentina very much wants to complete, but will not do without Julia, who has no interest in anything that might someday lead to her and Valentina living separate lives.

Robert, Elspeth’s lover, is a graduate student working on his thesis, which he is writing about the cemetery. He studies there, volunteers and gives tours, and has come to know the other employees like family. His thesis has become unwieldy, as he has lost the ability to filter out extraneous information. He misses Elspeth desperately, and finds himself avoiding the twins, as they remind him so much of his lost love.

Marijike cannot bear to live with Martin’s illness anymore, and leaves him for a home in her native Amsterdam. He misses her, but he cannot leave his apartment, due to his OCD and severe agoraphobia.

As Julia and Valentina come to know their neighbors, they begin to question their own desires and hopes for their future, helped along the way by their Aunt Elspeth, who isn’t quite as dead as anyone had thought.

I found myself really sucked into the story, into finding out what would happen next and how this book was going to end.  I liked some of the characters, especially Martin and Marijike, but the overall story took too many turns that bothered me towards the end.  I can’t say that the twists weren’t consistent with the characters, but I can’t say that they were either.  I didn’t feel like Niffengegger really got me into their heads and thoughts enough to determine that for myself.  And considering some of the decisions that were made in the last 1/3 of the book, I think I’m just as glad to not be in their heads.  Overall I liked it, I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t love it.  I’m glad it was a library book, because I doubt that I would read it again.

My Hollywood

My HollywoodMona Simpson’s newest novel, My Hollywood, explores the relationship between upper-middle class and wealthy women in Santa Monica, and the women they hire to care for their children.

Claire is a composer from New York, who moves to Santa Monica with her husband and baby so that her husband, Paul, can pursue his dream of writing TV sit-coms.  She is successful enough, in that she is offered commissions, and receives a Guggenheim fellowship, and travels to New York to see a piece she has written performed.  However, they are not wealthy by Santa Monica standards, they rent their home, and she doesn’t quite understand the money of the people around her.   Claire is overwhelmed by parenthood, as so many new parents are.  She cannot stop her son William from crying, she cannot focus on her work because with an infant around, who can?  She is trying to find her way in her marriage, in which she used to be an equal partner, but now that Paul makes more money than her, the power seems to have shifted, and she’s not sure how to push for what she wants anymore, or how to even talk to him.  Add to this the guilt so often included in motherhood…while she desperately wants to escape to her in-home office and write music, her love and passion, she is still pulled by her love for her son, she wants so badly to be with him, and wonders what she may be missing when she’s away from him.  Paul works 13 – 15 hours a day, and never seems to miss either her or William, never feels any guilt.  He is focused on trying to be a success, to fulfill his dreams, to provide for the family and make them proud.  That is his pressure.

Lola is the middle aged nanny that they hire to care for William so that Claire can write music.  She is the mother of 5 adult children, from the Philippines, and is working to earn enough money to put her youngest daughter through medical school.  She was an upper-middle class woman in the Philippines, a woman who lunched with the others of her class, who had servants of her own.  But in order to make enough money for medical school, she must come to America and help raise other peoples children, she must be apart from her own kids, her own husband.  She misses all of the important days in their lives.  She is here, not there.

Through the alternating voices of Claire and Lola, we see the pressures and deep affections that come at these women from all sides.  Claire admires Lola and knows she has it good with her, and yet, she is easily swayed by the opinions of the alpha-women around her.  Claire respects Claire, tolerates Paul, and adores William.  She feels deep pride in her abilities, and that the other women in Santa Monica are trying to lure her away from Claire, away from William.

My Hollywood took me awhile to get into.  The writing was sometimes awkward, and there were moments when I wasn’t sure what the narrator was describing.  This happened with both Claire and Lola, so it wasn’t a matter of not understanding the Filipino voice.   But once I really got into the story, once I got past the exhausting tedium of early parenting, I really liked the book a lot.  I was touched by Claire’s fears and understanding, and especially her lack of understanding.  I was more touched by Lola’s descriptions of life for herself and the other nannies and maids, of life for those who are brought in as hired help, and thought of as not quite people.  Really, really interesting and touching.

Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable CreaturesPerhaps it was because of what had just happened to me, of the lightning that comes from inside, which made me open up to larger, stranger thoughts.  Looking up at the stars so far away, I begun to feel there was a thread running between the earth and them.  Another thread was strung out too, connecting the past to the future, with the ichie at one end, dying all that long time ago and waiting for me to find it.  I didn’t know what was at the other end of the thread.   These two threads were so long I couldn’t even begin to measure them, and where one met the other, there was me.  My life led up to that moment, then led away again, like the tide making its highest mark on the beach and then retreating.

“Everything is so big and old and far away,” I said, sitting up with the force of it.  “God help me, for it does scare me.”

Remarkable Creatures is a novel based on the real-life story of two early 19th century women in England.  Mary Anning is a young girl from a poor family, living in the coastal town of Lyme.  She survived being struck by lightning as a child, which marks her as special to the townspeople.  She has a gift for finding fossils uncovered by storms, which she learns to clean and sell from her father, a cabinet maker.  When her father dies suddenly, the family is left deeply in debt, and become more dependent than ever on money raised by selling Mary’s fossils to tourists.

Elizabeth Philpot is a quiet lady of the gentry, not beautiful nor rich enough to find a husband.  When her parents die, she and her unmarried sisters are sent to live in Lyme in order to save money.  He and his wife stay in London in the family home, him working as a lawyer, and supporting his sisters with an allowance.

Elizabeth finds herself drawn to the ocean, and like Mary, to the fossils that she finds.  Away from the strict social mores of London, she becomes more confident and secure in her own beliefs and knowledge.

Mary and her brother find a fossil that looks something like a crocodile, but different enough that it is a curiosity, and they are able to sell it for quite a bit of money, encouraging her passion for the search.  The ‘monsters’ that she finds shake up the town with their strangeness.  If the fossil is not a crocodile, and looks like no other living creature, then what could it be?  The discussion of extinction brings the question of God’s plan into question.

Tracy Chevalier is the author of the best-selling Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was a wonderfully told story of class, gender, and power issues surrounding the paining of the famous work by VermeerRemarkable Creatures tackles these same issues, surrounding the early days of geology and paleontology, and the two women who had an important influence on the world around them.

Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman

Without ReservationsPulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alice Steinbach took a year off from her job writing for the Baltimore Sun to travel around Europe in search of the self she remembers, not defined by a husband, her kids, or her career.  She is hoping that by taking an entire year to travel, she can learn to slow down, to take one day at a time, without schedules or defined goals.

There is something about taking your time in each city, perhaps focusing on your neighborhood and its rhythms, that is completely different than the type of rush in, see it all, rush out type of travel that most of us can afford.  I’ve always wanted to go somewhere beautiful and interesting for a month or more, and really settle in, put work and home worries behind, and discover the cultures and the people of that place.  Maybe someday.

Steinbach starts in Paris, where she begins a romance with a Japanese businessman, then moves on to London, Oxford, and Italy.  Along the way, she reminisces about the life she has led thus far, and her roles in it.  It’s partly about her searching for spontaneity, but mostly about her wanting to learn to define herself as herself, not as a writer, a mother, a wife.   When I was halfway through the book, we went to see Eat, Pray, Love, and I came home thinking that the book and the movie were two of the same.  Both are women traveling through Europe alone, looking to get away from the preconceived notions of others.  Both women find love, and meet good friends along the way.

Which made me wonder if traveling alone naturally makes you more open to meeting others, and entering into friendships you might not even know about if you were busy in a conversation with a companion.  Because you’re in a cafe alone, or at a museum alone, or walking alone, you are perhaps more open to starting conversations, and because you don’t have to compromise with a husband/wife/friend/child on plans, you are free to change plans on a whim.

I didn’t love this book as much as the person who recommended it, but I did enjoy the time I spent with Ms. Steinbach.  I enjoyed reading about her adventures and the connections she finds with each city she visits.